a puzzle and a solution regarding the rational ‘ought’

One might think that it being the case that X rationally ought to A (exhibit some action or attitude in response to relevant items) is a straight-forward function of the reasons that X has for/against A-ing. And one might think that the sort of normative reason that is relevant here is of the subjective or psychological sort (specifically a broadly cognitive mental state — e.g., a belief or a perceptual experience). One supporting thought for this last thought is that normativity is, at its core, the direct guidance of responses via rational causal tendencies in the mind of the agent (we might call this the “direct rational guidance” view of normativity).

However, quite plausibly, the rational ‘ought’ is, in some respects, a function of appropriate response to facts, not just mental states.

One way to put this is that the ‘ought’ of rationality is a function not only of subjective normative reasons, but also of objective normative reasons. I’m concerned here with the particular type of fact-responsiveness in rational evaluation exhibited in cases like this: Michael is irrationally thinking that his phone is lost and is irrationally frantically searching for it in the utility room, refrigerator, etc., his phone planted firmly in his hand. What makes me irrational in such a case is that I’m culpably ignorant of the fact that the phone is in my hand (because I’m failing to notice this fact, obviously relevant to the rational responses I am exhibiting). What I ought to do is not believe that my phone is lost and not run around frantically looking for it, yet, relative to my present mental states and the inferences that I can and should draw from them, this is not what I ought to do. So it looks like any ‘ought’ of rationality that is purely relative to the present mental states of the agent is a specialized, philosophers’ sense of ‘ought’ — not the one we use in coming to a verdict that I’m being irrational in the “lost” phone case. (Though we might include the absence of the belief that my phone is in my hand among the relevant mental states in attempting to preserve the purely mental-state-relative view of the rational ‘ought’, this will not do as this belief-absence does not hook up with the rules of and psychological tendencies for good inference in the right way.)

If, in these cases, the rational ‘ought’ is a function of both factual (objective) and psychological (subjective) items that do or would function as something like premises in inference broadly construed, we should want to know what that mix of different sorts of reasons is and why. There is an explanatory question to answer. (Extant theorists might also face the following puzzle: though, in some contexts, it seems that the distinction between mental-state-relative and fact-relative normativity or reasons is fundamental, if rational evaluation is a function of both of these things yet is also equally or more fundamental, then we need to rethink how the priority of explanation goes in this respect, perhaps “demoting” the subjective/objective normativity distinction. Relatedly, there might also be some theory-relative worries about whether there is something funny about “adding” or “weighing together” subjective and objective reasons for/against A-ing to get some single, unified evaluation of whether one ought to A.)

Here is my answer to the explanatory question (ignoring the more theory-relative worries mentioned). Start with this slogan: the ‘ought’ of rationality is most fundamentally a concept of appropriate responsibility or accountability, not a concept of immediate rational guidance from present mental states. More specifically, the fact that I have my phone in my hand is something that I, and you and anyone else, would have warrant (and hence, in this specific way, reason) to hold me accountable for knowing (and for drawing appropriate practical and cognitive inferences from this knowledge). This is what renders the fact that my phone is in my hand relevant to the weighing of reasons that constitutes my overall rational evaluation here. Notice that, formally, the “rendering relevant” or “selection” function here allows reasons to hold X to account to A to be relevant to the weighing of reasons for/against A-ing without themselves being part of that weighing/calculation (which would be silly as my reasons for/against doing something other than A-ing clearly are not what directly determines whether I ought to A or not). 

That’s it.

(I think a similar sort of accountability-based proposal and “rendering relevant” or “selection” function could help in the debate about whether moral requirements to A are (i) a function of the agent’s reasons for/against A-ing or (ii) a function of reasons (of the agent or of anyone else in the relevant norm-enforcement group) to require of the agent that she A. In particular, it might be that the latter, accountability-related reasons select among potentially relevant reasons that the agent has for/against her A-ing, in this way helping determine whether X is required or obligated to A — where ‘required’ and ‘obligated’ are most directly a function of the agent’s reasons for/against A-ing and hence a type of ‘ought’ or ‘has most reason’. In this way, we would not have to choose between reasons for/against holding accountable to A and the agent’s reasons for/against A-ing in determining which reasons are broadly — directly or indirectly — relevant to determining whether we are morally required to A (and that constitute our being required to A).)

(Years ago, John Gibbons got me interested in these issues and cases in epistemic and practical rationality. Then he wrote a book about them (and some other things). The thoughts above are prompted by Errol Lord’s review of John’s book. Regarding reasons and requirements, see Matt Bedke’s relevant paper and especially Justin Snedegar recent synoptic paper.)

8 thoughts on “a puzzle and a solution regarding the rational ‘ought’

  1. Just a question of clarification: are you suggesting that anyone running around looking for their phone when it’s in their hands is culpably ignorant, or you stipulating ex hypothesi that “Michael” is culpably ignorant simply for the purposes of the example? The sheer fact that someone was running around looking for their phone while it was in their hand wouldn’t, by my lights, by itself entail that they were culpably ignorant.


    • OK. In that case, I guess I agree with you, though as usual with any discussion of “reasons,” I never really know what I’m signing on to.

      I need a bit of clarification here:

      the distinction between mental-state-relative and fact-relative normativity or reasons is fundamental, if rational evaluation is a function of both of these things yet is also equally or more fundamental, then we need to rethink how the priority of explanation goes in this respect, perhaps “demoting” the subjective/objective normativity distinction

      Are you demoting the “subjective/objective normativity distinction” or are you demoting subjective normativity in relation to objective normativity? If you’re demoting the whole distinction, I don’t see what the contrast term is.


      • Regarding the distinction: either, via subjective normative reasons, it does the work of fully explaining rational evaluation in the (actual or potential) premise-relative respect — or not. Regarding subjective normative reasons (or subjective normativity): either they do this work or not. I guess one effect of the “mixed” view that I am arguing for is an “upgrading” of objective normative reasons in the explanation of rational evaluation. Is that helpful? Maybe it would have been better to frame this point in terms of substantial changes in overall explanatory picture for some theorists rather than in terms of critical tensions or puzzles for them. In any case, I’m not super-interested in this for my purposes here.


  2. Some clarifications, additional points, changes of mind (clarifying to me, hopefully to others as well)…

    It occurs to me that, in the right sort of “lost phone” case like this, I (i) exhibit some sufficient lack of conscientiousness or thoroughness in canvassing the evidence relevant to what I am doing (say, trying to make a phone call). This is a rational deficit of sorts (and something I ought not to be doing, in the rational sense of ‘ought’) — and it might be in virtue of this fact about me and my being rational or not (in a strictly personal sense that seemingly has nothing to do with accountability) that explains why (ii) I’m irrational in failing to believe that my phone is in my hand and ought to know that it is (and therefore also irrational in frantically looking around for my phone).

    But now it sort of looks like the rational work is done by features of my psychology, not folks having warrant to hold me to account for failing to know that my phone is in my hand. This might be right (and would be a challenge to my explanation of what is going on in these cases), but it is too quick. For we have to account for why my lacking conscientiousness in relevant evidence-gathering to this degree rather than that is a serious rational flaw (that affects my evaluation as a rational agent in the ways indicated). And this is plausibly explained by folks having warrant to hold me to account for this as against that degree or type of lack of conscientiousness in evidence gathering (in particular, noticing of relevant facts). So accountability, and warrant to hold to account, might still have the broad sort of explanatory role in rational evaluation that I indicated.

    However, contrary to what I said in my post, it seems that (a) the right role for warrant to hold to account (for not being conscientious enough in gathering or paying attention to relevant evidence) is that of selecting or picking out features of the psychology of the agent as relevant to rational evaluation (not selecting or picking out relevant reasons from some field of potentially relevant reasons). This comes to selecting adequately remiss evidence-gathering or relevant-fact-noticing practices or mindsets — and thereby selecting certain facts as ones that one is remiss for not knowing. And, again against what I said in my post, we probably (b) should not think of the selection here as a selection from objective normative reasons (singling some out as somehow relevant to rational evaluation). Accordingly, again against what I initially said or indicated, (c) objective normativity might yet be distinct from rational normativity (as against respects of the former sometimes being “selected” as relevant to and an ingredient of overall rational evaluation).

    Culpable ignorance cases might well indicate that rationality (rational evaluation, the rational ‘ought’) is partly a function of what the facts are, *but not thereby a function of the agent having objective normative reason to respond to the relevant facts* (in the phone case, the fact that the phone is in my hand). And this makes sense. After all, in the case of objective normative reasons, it is supposed to be the bare fact (that realizes or promotes some relevant desired or desirable outcome) that is relevant to the evaluation. In the phone case, the fact that my phone is in my hand is made relevant to my rational evaluation only through the rational evaluation of elements of my psychology (my degree of conscientiousness in noticing things relevant to what I am doing) — these, on my favored story, being selected for via what folks have warrant to hold to account for in this respect.

    Of interest is the pattern of normative explanation (of one normative feature working to explain another). It goes like this: (1) folks generally having warrant to hold each other, and themselves, to account to exhibit response A impacts (2) the rationality of X (or anyone) exhibiting A — and how much reason X has, in the rationality-related sense, to exhibit A as against the competing options. At first glance, these two normative features — differing in respect of response and relevant alternatives and as well in respect of which agents have them — would seem to be logically and metaphysically independent because the responses (and agents) are. What I am suggesting is that these two normative facts are not independent (at least not in the metaphysical sense) because how things are with the first thing partially determines how things are with the second thing. (As indicated in a somewhat confused or unclear way in the original post, this kind of explanatory structure is of relevance to the proposal that X being required to A is a function of both (I) everyone having warrant to require X to A and (II) it being the case that X ought (or has most reason) to A. If these two normative features are independent, it is hard to see how they combine in the right way to explain deontic normative features like X being required to A, X being permitted to A, X’s A-ing being supererogatory, etc.)


    • I guess I’m still a little stuck on your lost phone example. It seems to me that you can do one of two things with this example, and I’m still not sure which of the two you’re doing.

      (1) You could bake lack of conscientiousness into the example by stipulation.

      (2) You could take the example at face value without baking any particular explanation into it, then infer that lack of conscientiousness is the obvious explanation.

      I make a big deal of this because I can accept (1) only by stipulation, and I think (2) involves a misinference. So I’m sort of stuck between those two options in trying to interpret the example.

      Lack of conscientiousness strikes me as a very implausible explanation for why, in general, people fail to find the thing they’re looking for when it’s right in front of them. The more natural explanation is anxiety (which is built into your example via your being “frantic”). But failing to find something due to anxiety or haste is very different than failing to find it due to lack of conscientiousness. Lack of conscientiousness is carelessness. But anxiety is caring too much. So it seems to me that there’s a misfit between the example and the work you want it to do.

      Granted, anxiety can be irrational, so maybe the anxiety-explanation serves your purposes just as well as lack of conscientiousness.


      • Actually, the second I wrote that, it occurred to me that there’s a kind of carelessness that comes from being cavalier, and a kind that comes from sheer haste. So maybe you were referring to the latter and referring to that as lack of conscientiousness?


        • Yes, that would do. I think (unjustified) haste is closest to what I had in mind (though, again, fill in as you like to get culpable ignorance — something different could work fine). The key element is that one needed to take more seriously the task of searching for, noticing, being primed to notice, facts relevant to the task at hand (say, making a phone call). One should have known (this fact) because one was in a position to know (it).


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