Practical Reasoning

I. What is practical reason?

0. Lecture Plan

            1. What is practical reason?
            2. Internal and external reasons for action
            3. Practical reason and morality
            4. Reasons, epiphany and aspiration

1. Two ways in which reason can be practical

Human beings have the capacity to think (deliberate) about what they are to do.

Call this capacity ‘practical reason’ and the characteristic kind of thinking ‘practical reasoning’.

Practical in two senses:

(1) Subject matter (the thought is about action)
(2) Consequences (practical reasoning culminates in action)

It is generally compared/contrasted to theoretical (or more rarely, speculative) reason. This is the capacity to think (deliberate) about how things are, what is the case, how the world is, etc.

History: Aristotle; Kant; Hume

2. Practical reason as a source of philosophical questions

What must be true of agents and their reasoning in order that their reasoning can give rise to action?

In what sense, if any, is deliberation a form of reasoning?

Is there deliberation about ends or only about means?

What is it to act for a reason?

Do our reasons for action depend on our desires?

Might there be reasons for doing things we have, and could have, no desire to do?

Practical reason as a distinctive point of view: When we (human beings, agents) deliberate about action, there is a distinctive attitude we take towards ourselves and our situation, a distinctive standpoint we adopt. What is distinctive of this attitude/standpoint? (How is this connected to questions of free will and responsibility?)

Relation with ethics: Ethics is about what we should (= have reason to?) do. That makes ethics a part of the philosophy practical reason. Alternatively: sometimes, morality seems to make irrational demands (e.g. extreme self-sacrifice) of us. If there’s a conflict between what ethics demands and what we seem to have most overall reason to do, what should give?

3. Contrast with theoretical reason

We can think, reason, deliberate about things other than action (e.g. natural science)

Theoretical reason as essentially impersonal? Subject matter to be treated terms in principle accessible to any rational agent. Concerned with things like description, explanation and prediction.

Description – e.g. ‘what is happening?’ – involves an answer to the question of how things stand with the world independently of my will. 

Explanation – Why did this happen? Why did they/you/I do this? Typically retrospective, concerned with things that have already taken place. 

Prediction – What will happen? What will they/you/I do? Typically prospective, forward-looking.

Compare: distinctively normative question: what am I to do and why? what ought I do and why? what would be best for me to do and why?

The ‘why’ here is not the why of explanation but of reasons and therefore, implicitly, involves values.

In practical reasoning, we assess, weigh our reasons for action – considerations that count for or against some course of action.

Further, practical reasoning is (or seems) essentially first-personal (what am I, or what are we, to do?)

Consider the question ‘What will/shall I do today?’

‘Will’ suggests an attitude of theoretical reason and the question asks for a prediction (which sounds a little weird in its first-personal form: ask yourself, why?)

‘Shall’ suggests the distinctively practical stance; the answer will express not a prediction (‘I suppose this is what I’m going to find myself doing’) but rather an intention (‘I shall X’ = ‘I intend to X’).

4. Analogy with theoretical reason

Distinction between descriptive and normative can be overdrawn. All theoretical reasoning is in one sense practical: ‘how are things with the world’ = ‘what ought I to believe?’

Theoretical reason forming beliefs in response to (epistemic) reasons – evidence, inference, argument, interpretation, etc. This is in a sense first-personal (‘what ought I to believe?’)

Maybe: theoretical / practical distinction best understood as a distinction between two sets of evaluative norms: one for assessing action, one for assessing belief.

Norms that govern the exercise of practical reason centrally concerned with truth: one believes some proposition about the world iff, and because, it is true.

Thus: other rational norms/principles become relevant: e.g. ‘Believe that p because the evidence supports p’; ‘Don’t believe both p and not-p’; ‘If you believe that p, and that p entails q, then believe that q’. In each of these cases, to violate these norms is to be (theoretically) irrational.

Norms that govern the exercise of practical reason concerned not (or not directly) with truth but with the goodness, desirability or value of actions. Still, there can be norms of practical rationality?

Further (quasi-)distinction: theoretical reasoning produces (or changes) our beliefs; practical reasoning produces our actions. But note that practical reasoning itself produces action via mental states (e.g. pre-eminently, our intentions…)

Modifications fallible and (sometimes) unpredictable: there are cases of both practical and epistemic akrasia.

5. Direction of fit

To have an intention = to have settled on plan which one then seeks to realise through one’s actions.

Contrast beliefs. Beliefs are representational propositional attitudes. They aim, as it were, to ‘fit the world’. If one discovers that the world is not how one previously believed it to be, one will feel (and usually acknowledge) a certain rational pressure to modify one’s beliefs accordingly. Crudely: when our beliefs and the world don’t match, our beliefs need to change.

Desires and intentions are generally thought to have the opposite ‘direction of fit’. With intentions, we aim to ‘make the world fit our desires’. If the world is not the way one intends for it to be, we (as it were) change the world. (Consider: Anscombe’s analogy of the shopping list…)

Recommended reading for next week’s lecture:

Bernard Williams, ‘Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame’, in Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 35–45.

II. Internal and External Reasons

0. Recap

Theoretical vs. practical (uses of) reason; direction of fit.

  1. Reasons in general

– Reasons for belief (epistemic reasons) vs reasons for action (practical reasons)

– The role of reasons in assessing rationality of beliefs, actions and related things (e.g. deliberation, principles, policies, methods, etc)

– ‘Has a reason to’ as a synonym for ‘should’? E.g. ‘You should eat more greens’ = ‘You have reason to eat more greens’

2. Canonical formulations

‘Someone has a reason to do something.’ ‘There is reason for someone to do something.’

Schematically: ‘A has reason to φ’ or ‘There is reason for A to φ’ (A = agent, φ = action)

Metaphysical question: What, if anything, are reasons?

Semantic question: What do claims about reasons mean? What are their truth conditions?

Bernard Williams, ‘Internal and External Reasons’: Two ways of interpreting sentences of the form ‘A has a reason to φ’ or ‘There is a reason for A to φ’ can be interpreted.

On the first, the truth of the sentence implies, very roughly, that A has some motive which will be served or furthered by his φ-ing, and if this turns out not to be so the sentence is false: there is a condition relating to the agent’s aims, and if this is not satisfied it is not true to say, on this interpretation, that he has a reason to φ. On the second interpretation, there is no such condition, and the reason-sentence will not be falsified by the absence of an appropriate motive.

Interpretation 1: ‘internal reasons statement’

Interpretation 2: ‘external reasons statement’

3. Formulating internalism

‘Sub-Humean’ interpretation of internal reasons statement

A has reason to φ iff A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing.

Williams rejects the sub-Humean interpretation:

(1) Counterexample: A wants a gin and tonic; A believes this bottle contains gin (it actually contains petrol); therefore, A wants to mix what’s in this bottle with tonic and drink it.

According to the sub-Humean model, A has reason to mix petrol with tonic and drink it. But intuitively, he doesn’t. So the sub-Humean model must be wrong, and must be supplemented with some kind of epistemic requirement.

(2) Simplistic: Not only our desires that we deliberate from – also our life goals, commitments, loyalties, patterns of emotional valuation, projects…

Call these the elements of our subjective motivational set (S).

In light of these complexities, Williams proposes this (sensible) revision:

A has reason to φ iff A would be motivated to φ, if he deliberated rationally from his S and was fully informed.

Condensing this further (and slightly weakening it), Williams concludes:

IR. A has reason to φ only if there is a sound deliberative route from A’s S to a motivation to φ.


– Note: The final formulation replaces ‘iff’ with ‘only if’. W only talking about a necessary condition for a reasons statement to be true. (W probably also endorses the stronger claim re: sufficient condition, but the weaker claim is already controversial. See below.)

Sound deliberative route (SDR): Paradigm case is valid inferences from true starting premises

– Sound deliberation could (sometimes must) involve more than logical reasoning, e.g. exercise of imagination.

– Some deliberation could uncover pre-existing but previously undetected elements in one’s S

– The activity of deliberation itself may create or construct new motivations

– No predictable or law-governed way in which deliberation must always be carried out

– The notion of an SDR is vague, but (W claims) that’s because the phenomenon is vague. It could still demarcate the phenomena correctly, if roughly.

– IR meant as a semantic account; it’s telling us what our discourse about reasons means.

4. Upshot

Reasons internalism: The only true reasons statements are internal reasons statements (IR above). All external reasons statements are false.

Reasons externalism: At least some reasons for action can exist despite there being no sound deliberative route to a motivation to perform that action from an agent’s subjective motivations.

(Externalists deny even the weaker claim re: necessary conditions.)

5. Ontology of reasons:

If there are such things as reasons, Williams thinks, it must be because agents (sometimes) act for reasons. In this sense, reasons are, in some sense, explanatory.

But: distinguish ‘explanatory’ reasons and ‘justifying’ reasons

Consider: A, mistaking petrol for gin, mixed it with gin and drank it. What was his reason for doing this? Or, why did he do this?

Explanation: A wrongly believed the petrol to be gin; A wanted a gin and tonic.

Clearly, this doesn’t justify A’s drinking the petrol.

Williams tries to define justification as explanation + idealisation. The former keeps it metaphysically respectable; the latter explains the normativity of the concept of reasons.

What it is for some fact to be an internal reason for action just is for it to be able to motivate under certain idealised conditions.

III. Morality and Practical Reason

0. Recap

Reason can be practical as well as theoretical (‘what shall I do?’ vs ‘what shall I think?’).

Actions, like beliefs, can be or fail to be rational. For an action to be rational, there must be reason to do it; more precisely, an agent must have reason to do it.

The notion of a reason here is not (just) explanatory but justificatory or normative.

What are the truth conditions of statements about an agent’s (normative) reasons for action?

Internalists about reasons believe that there must be some connection between what an agent has reason to do and what that agent could be motivated to do under suitably idealised conditions.

Externalists deny this.

1. Williams’s Internalism: The Balance Sheet

Internalism about reasons. A has reason to φ only if there is a sound deliberative route from A’s S to a motivation to φ.


Consistent with naturalism (no ‘queer’ non-natural properties or entities called ‘reasons’); reasons are psychologised, and therefore, naturalised

Fits at least some of the phenomenology of reasons: When I think ‘I have reason to φ’, I basically mean ‘If I were thinking straight, I’d be motivated to φ’ (Do you agree?)


Makes reasons subjective by connecting them to a particular agent’s motivations

Denies there could be objective reasons, and (therefore?) moral reasons

(Q:  Would Williams count these cons as cons? Or as more pros? And would he say the same about epistemic reasons?)

2. Could there be external reasons?

Consider the case of Owen Wingrave, a character in a short story by Henry James:

Owen’s family urge on him the necessity and importance of his joining the army, since all his male ancestors were soldiers, and family pride requires him to do the same. Owen Wingrave has no motivation to join the army at all, and all his desires lead in another direction: he hates everything about military life and what it means. His family might have expressed themselves by saying that there was a reason for Owen to join the army. Knowing that there was nothing in Owen’s S which would lead, through deliberative reasoning, to his doing this would not make them withdraw the claim or admit that they made it under a misapprehension. They mean it in an external sense. What is that sense? [‘Internal and External Reasons’, 106]

– Remarks of Owen’s relatives example of a plausible real-life use of an external reasons statement. We understand them, even if we disagree.

Open Question Argument: If our reasons talk just means what W say, then it should be a closed question whether Owen has reason to join the army. But (intuitively?) it’s an open question. Therefore, internalism is wrong about the semantics of reasons statements.

But: W not denying that external reasons statements are meaningful. Simply claims they’re all false. Their truth conditions are never satisfied.

New problem: How do users of external reasons statements not see then?

3. Williams’s argument against external reasons


  1. A has a reason to φ only if that reason can, by itself, explain A’s behaviour (under idealised conditions).
  2. A reason can explain A’s behaviour only if it motivates A.
  3. All A’s motivations involve A’s desires.
  4. External reasons do not involve A’s desires.
  5. Hence, there are no external reasons.

NB. Very rough reconstruction; (3) and (4) need to be stated a lot more precisely, and the connection to (5) made clearer.

Challenge to the externalist: Give an account of what external reason statements mean that still allows them to be explanatory

Externalist reply: Justifying reasons don’t have to be explanatory. They could be primitive, irreducible, non-natural entities.

Internalist: This means giving up on naturalism.

Externalist: Yes, and what of it?

3. The moral argument for externalism

A possible route to externalism:

Some of our reasons are moral reasons (e.g. our reason not to kill or steal or lie).

Moral reasons are categorical: they apply to us whether we like it or not, i.e. our having reason not to kill or steal or lie doesn’t depend on our wanting not to do these things. (Cf etiquette, club rules)

Morality is not irrational. So, it is rational to be moral.

Morality applies to everyone. So, everyone has reason to be moral.

Psychological thesis: However, not everyone has motivations friendly to morality (cf ‘amoralist’)

So, our moral reasons don’t depend on the presence of the relevant motivations.

In short: if moral reasons exist, and a quite plausible psychological thesis is true, then internalism is false, externalism true.

Or: Internalism undergenerates reasons, i.e. it fails to acknowledge that we have several of the reasons we (intuitively, pre-theoretically believe that we) have. Moral reasons are a particularly significant instance of this.

4. Some internalist strategies

(1) Reinterpretation: Deny that moral reasons are categorical?

But: How then to distinguish moral from non-moral?

(2) Optimism: Deny that anyone lacks the relevant psychological states?

But: Obvious counterexamples, e.g. psychopaths.

(3) Kant: Deny that everyone has internal reason to be moral, but everyone has reason to be moral insofar as they are rational?

But:  Formal principles of rationality too ‘thin’ to carry so much substantive content.

5. Better internalist strategies: Mitigation

Variation on (1) above. Yes, internalism can’t account for the universal, categorical force of moral reasons, but so what. In fact, that was the point. (Externalists’ modus tollens = internalists’ modus ponens.)

Why assume a priori that our theory of practical reason must vindicate everything about the intuitive (naïve?) picture of morality?

New explanatory burden: Internalists must explain away the intuitive absurdity or counterintuitiveness of their position. Can they?

6. External reasons claims as false but useful?

Semantics v/s pragmatics: Yes, many intuitions point towards externalism. But they are better explained as part of not the semantics but the pragmatics of reasons claims.

Internalism gives the correct account of the meaning and truth conditions of our reasons discourse. But our reasons discourse also involves a ‘pragmatics’, i.e. achieves effects in the world beyond that of stating truths.

Fictionalism about external reasons statements:

Cf fictionalism about fiction. We can talk about fictional characters as if they’re real, but don’t actually need to believe it.


(1) We don’t really believe our own external reasons claims (and this is good, because they’re false) – call it ‘descriptive fictionalism’.

(2) Or, we do believe our own external reasons claims. And:

            Either: (2a) This is bad because they’re false and we should stop literally believing them (revisionary fictionalism); or

            (2b) This is fine, because they wouldn’t be so effective if we weren’t so sincere (self-deceiving fictionalism)).

7. Pragmatics of external reasons statements

Bluff: Sometimes, we have to overstate our case to be rhetorically effective, and it can be rhetorically effective to say (falsely) that someone has reason to do something. This doesn’t mean the claims are true.

Prolepsis: Sometimes, our reasons claims can be self-fulfilling. When I tell someone that he has reason to do something even though he lacks the relevant motivations, he may well acquire a reason to do that thing because he does have a desire to avoid my disapproval or blame or sanction. My reason-claim was false when I made it, but it made itself true.

One can be more or less hopeful about whether this is realistic, and about how often this sort of ‘conversion’ can be effected. But is this enough?

8. Arguments from reactive attitudes

The idea of a reason is implicit in a number of our everyday practices, e.g. our practices of holding other people responsible.

These practices involve a familiar set of reactive attitudes: resentment, indignation, gratitude. These are the attitudes we take to agents, rather than to objects.

When I resent or blame someone, I am generally making a judgement about them, e.g. ‘he wronged me, and he had reason not to’.

Consider the following argument:

  1. If someone does something morally wrong to me, then I can legitimately blame him. (Moral wrong-doing is sufficient for blameworthiness.)
  2. I can legitimately blame someone for doing something only if he had reason to do otherwise. (Having reason to do otherwise is a necessary condition of blameworthiness.)
  3. If someone does something morally wrong to me, he has reason to do otherwise. (There is always reason not to do what is morally wrong – from (1) and (2).)
  4. Internalism implies that (3) is false.
  5. Therefore, either internalism is false or (3) is false (and therefore, (1) and/or (2) must be false).

In other words, internalists have to say that not all wrong-doers are blameworthy (i.e. they affirm (2) but reject (1) – leading them to reject (3)). Is this a reductio of their position or simply a plausible implication?

W’s example of the man who is nasty to his wife and fails to respond to any attempt to persuade him to behave any better. By stipulation, he lacks the requisite motivational states. No matter how much we argue, he cannot acknowledge having reason to treat her better.

W: We should accept this grim truth.

Kate Manne: This correctly accounts for the sense of exhaustion and futility we sometimes feel when arguing with certain sorts of people.

But: Does this man genuinely have no reason to behave any better. Does this mean we can’t blame him? And isn’t that an implausible, even alarming conclusion?

 (1) Proleptic blame: We can blame him; but only in the proleptic sense. We hope that by blaming him, we will give him a new reason he lacked before.

(2) Rhetoric: There is no shortage of other things we can say and feel about him: that he’s malicious, brutal, callous, a sexist… But what we cannot (rightly) say is that he has reason to be otherwise. The whole trouble with him is precisely that he lacks reason to be otherwise.

(3) Non-alignment: If his poor treatment turns into abuse, for instance, we needn’t have a moment’s hesitation to enforce the law or worse. The fact that he doesn’t have reason to behave differently doesn’t mean we – and his wife – don’t have reason to stop him.

(4) Contingency: On the internalist view, everyone’s reasons needn’t nicely align. It would be nice if our reasons ‘stuck’ to all agents. But, as Williams puts it, the only kind of ‘glue’ we have that could effect this is social, political and legal.

(5) Agonism: The internalist’s vision of the world is agonistic: there is conflict all the way down, and nothing in the nature of reason(s) means that there can’t be.

(6) Disanalogy: If the internalist is right on this point, this may be an important respect in which practical reason is unlike theoretical reason; there is not the same pressure to interpersonal alignment and consistency.

IV. Practical Reason, Conversion and Aspiration

0. Recap

Williams’s internalism about normative reasons. Agent A has reason to perform action φ only if there is a sound deliberative route from A’s subjective motivational set (S) to a motivation to φ.

Crudely: When I think ‘I have reason to do something’, what I mean is this: ‘if I were thinking straight – not making factual mistakes or errors in inference – this is what I’d want to do.’

Upshot: Some people may have no reason to be moral (= altruistic, care for the interests of others) because there’s no way of reasoning from their S to the motivation to act morally

Undermines the universality, categorical authority of morality. (Bug or feature?)

1. Primitivist externalism

Parfit, Scanlon: There are external normative reasons. Only same-level analysis of them possible, i.e. reason = ‘consideration that counts in favour’.

Non-naturalistic account of reasons: Reasons are primitive, irreducible to anything non-normative or naturalistic

Objection: Queerness; obscurity

Replies: Companions in guilt (e.g. temporal, modal, mental concepts)

Argument for externalism:

(i) Induction from first-order reasons discourse: externalism more consistent with discourse

(ii) Negative argument: internalism either overgenerates or undergenerates reasons

2. Replies

(i) Conservative: Why aim simply to preserve commitments of first-order discourse? Philosophy should be critical of that discourse.

(ii) Debunking: First-order discourse partly in error; intuitions can be debunked (e.g. genealogically)

(iii) Alternative explanation: Apparently true externalist can be explained away as part of pragmatics of reasons statements, not semantics (prolepsis, bluff, ‘moralising’)

2. McDowell’s argument from conversion

McDowell: ‘Might there be external reasons? Yes, there might’

Internalists claim that a connection with actual motivations a necessary condition for having a reason. Discovery of new reasons must involve deliberation from existing motivational set.

But: consider cases of epiphany or conversion. E.g. losing or gaining religious faith. E.g. Saul of Tarsus:

3And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. (Acts 9)

Saul becomes Paul; stops persecuting Christians. Post-conversion, how might Paul put it?

            ‘I have acquired reasons not to persecute Christians that I didn’t have before?’

Or: ‘After my conversion, I have now discovered reasons not to persecute Christians that I always had, but failed, in ignorance, to act on.’


‘The idea of conversion would function here as the idea of an intelligible shift in motivational orientation that is exactly not effected by inducing a person to discover, by practical reasoning controlled by existing motivations, some internal reasons that he did not previously realize he had. But if its upshot is a case of considering matters aright, why should such a process not count as someone’s being made aware of some external reasons, reasons that he had all along for acting in the relevant ways?’


(1) If internalism is true, A has reason to φ only if there is a sound deliberative route from A’s S to a motivation to φ [i.e. all reasons are internal; there are no external reasons].

(2) In cases of conversion, A has (always had) a reason to φ even though there is no sound deliberative route from his S to a motivation to φ. [Intuitive; true to phenomenology; counterintuitive to think A is irrational for accepting on what he now thinks are his reasons]

(3) Internalism is false.

(4) If internalism is false, A might have reason to φ even when there is no sound deliberative route from his S to a motivation to φ.

(5) A might have reason to φ even when there is no sound deliberative route from his S to a motivation to φ [i.e. there might be external reasons]

4. Internalist replies

Need we accept (2)?

(1) Not always true that convert must think he always had the reasons he had now. He might think of himself as having acquired new reasons, because his conversion transformed his motivations.

(2) Not true that the convert must think of his former self as being in error, of himself as now ‘seeing things aright’.

(3) No need to deny that one might come to believe one has a reason through a non-deliberative route; internalists only committed to saying that for the new belief to be rational, there must be a sound deliberative route, even if that wasn’t the route the person took.

(4) Why think of conversion as a rational process anyway?

5. New directions in the debate

Agnes Callard on proleptic or aspirational reasons: ‘reason to acquire a reason’

‘I don’t currently like opera but I might come to do so if I immersed myself in it. If I were to become an opera aficionado, it would be odd to think that I had acted irrationally in taking steps that transformed me in this way. So, I must have acted rationally after all. So, I must have had a reason to act that way. Could it have been an internal reason? No: because there was no deliberative route from my previous S to a motivation to go to the opera. How then could I have had such a reason?’

Reply: (1) Maybe there was a (convoluted) route from my S after all?

(2) Maybe self-prolepsis is a kind of (virtuous, useful) self-deception, a kind of irrationality it is rational (though false) to regard as rational?