the work of requirements (as against reasons)

It is popular, in some perhaps many circles of analytic philosophy, to analyze various normative and evaluative properties in terms of normative reasons.  There are, I think, two essential elements to this strategy. First, it seeks to explain the candidate normative or evaluative property (this thing being valuable or good for or valuable to one or that thing being what one ought to do) in terms of this putatively more basic normative valence of relevant actions or responses (reasons, an agent X having reason to A).  Second, this valence is pro tanto in that it does not, in itself, render a verdict on whether the action or response that it attaches to is to be done (in this way, it is partial, non-determinative, non-verdictive, non-ought-making).  Thus the explanatory work of reasons (X having reason to A) is done via reasons “weighing” (or having “weight”) for and against the action or response in question, one side ultimately having more “weight” (except when the two sides are equally-balanced).

(The normative valence of an action A of agent X maps onto X having reason to perform or exhibit A.  There is an essential relationship here to reasons themselves and we can think of these as propositions that, in virtue of either being believed or true or perhaps rational, do essential work in explaining why the pro tanto normative valence attaches to A for X.  I am, then, abstracting from any essential explanatory role for reasons in an agent having reason to perform or exhibit A.  I’m also abstracting from any other elements in the explanation of the pro tanto action or response valence — e.g., desired or valued outcomes as on subjective or psychological or Humean approaches to reasons, outcomes considered very broadly as the “consequentializing move” in normative description or explanation would have it.)

This second thing worries me.  It is plausible that some normative valences that have this sort of role in explaining what we ought to do (or how we ought to respond) are such that, in a broad range of contexts, they are not merely pro tanto (but rather determinative or verdictive or regulative or ought-making on their own).  In other words, it might be that X being required to A is sometimes as basic as X having reason to A.  

To be sure, it is possible to stipulate that talk of X having reason to A is to cover X being required to A as well (e.g., ‘X has decisive reason to A’).  And this is all good and well insofar as it allows us to pick apart the contexts in which normative requirements fail to produce oughts as they normally do (as well as the standard cases in which, after all of the various relevant pro tanto valences bearing on X’s A-ing have been weighed up pro and con, the agent ought to A as against not-A-ing).  There might also be special mixed cases in which requirements and reasons work together to determine what the agent ought to do.  So this expansive framing of reasons-talk has some potentially good chops for getting at important elements of explanatory detail. However, the downside, it seems to me, is potentially obscuring the difference between what we might call “deontological” as against “weighting” accounts of ought-making.  For example, if the more-abstract framing of X having reason to A is in mind, there is nothing obviously wrong with the common proposal that what one ought to do is identical to (and explained by) what one has most reason to do. But there is a tendency, in thinking of things this way, to assume that none of the reasons are requirements — so that the ought-property gets explained by various reasons weighing for and against the response or action and the resultant overall weight coming down on one side or the other.

My conclusion:  since it is plausible that (non-pro-tanto or normally verdictive or ought-making) requirements play a basic normative-explanatory role similar to that of (merely pro tanto) reasons, we should be suspicious of — or at least very careful with — the program of explaining the (other) normative and evaluative things in terms of reasons (even on the broad construal of ‘reasons’ and perhaps ‘weighing’ or ‘weighting’ indicated).

(TLDR – One way of avoiding the potential confusion or bias here is distinguishing two kinds of reasons or ways of X having reason to A, one of the “weighting” or “weighing for or against” sort and the other of the “requiring” sort.  Gert does this, as does Dancy. I don’t see anything wrong with this kind of approach, as long as one is making the distinction in terms of regulative function — not just two different, mysterious “flavors” of reason — and as long as, in light of these functions, one has a way of accounting for how these two different elements do their ought-making in both pure cases and in cases in which the two sorts of reason compete in the ought-making.)  

(TLDR – These thoughts are prompted by reading Justin Snedegar’s “Reasons, Oughts, and Requirements.”  Just starting the second, close reading of this paper now.  The broader context is that considering the moral requirement to A as a function of either or both of (i) reasons, perhaps requirement-type reasons (Joshua Gert), for one to A and (ii) reasons for everyone to require that one A (Matthew Bedke via a thread in J.S. Mill).  What I say above should be read as tentatively rejecting Bedke’s approach in favor of a “mixed” analysis of at least moral requirement in terms of both reasons of the agent for/against the action and reasons of those putatively wronged and observers to be resentful, have outrage, fight back, punish, etc.  The even broader context/interest is that of how consent or related (or unrelated) processes might make otherwise adverse actions, such as coercion and including the coercive imposition of law by the state, normatively permissible.  In order to answer this question well, I think I need to get a bit more settled on what I think normative, moral permissions — and requirements — are.)


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