what normative-explanatory work can fittingness-in-attitude do?

According to McHugh and Way (“Fittingness First,” ETHICS), both reasons and value are to be constitutively (and normatively) explained by attitude-types having certain objects or contents that are “fitting” (appropriate, correct, etc.). For example, my belief that P is fitting (and correct) if and only if it is true. So they reject the “buck-passing” analysis of value, according to which value is analyzed in terms of fitting valuation — but fitting valuation is analyzed in terms of what we have most reason to value. They instead simply stop the analysis with certain objects being fit to be valued (or not).

In treating fittingness as a normative primitive, they reject the broad “reasons first” program of constitutive explanation within the normative and evaluative realm. Moreover, they take reasons (and presumably agents having reason) to be a function of fitting attitudes: to be a reason is to be a premise in good reasoning and good reasoning is simply reasoning that preserves attitude-fittingness across inference.

There is a big problem with this approach that McHugh and Way fail to address in their paper (and that is, I think, often ignored in the simple fitting-attitude and more-complicated buck-passing accounts of value). This is that fittingness for an attitude-type is a functional-aim property and such properties are not genuinely normative or action-guiding. To see this, consider that our hearts, like our beliefs (and our desires and our intentions and our other attitude-types) have constitutive aims (and constitutive means of achieving those aims — manners of proper functioning). As beliefs inherently “aim at” truth so the heart inherently “aims at” moving blood to and from the lungs. Often this is described using normative language: beliefs are “supposed to be” true, the heart is “supposed to” move blood to and from the lungs. But the standard here does not appear to be genuinely action-guiding or normative. If one were to gain the power to voluntarily start and stop one’s heart, there would be a point to keeping it going only if something meaningful to or worthwhile for the agent were at stake (and so the standard would be otiose to the agency of any deeply suicidal person). Similarly, it would seem that there is a point to our believing that P only if P is true only to the extent that something meaningful to or worthwhile is at stake.

If this is right, then the fitting-attitudes approach to value, and the McHugh/Way reduction of value and reasons to fittingness in attitude, are not really programs in normative explanation/reduction at all! Rather, what is on offer in these programs are constitutive explanations of value, good reasoning and reasons in terms of the functional aims of attitude-types. And functional aims have perfectly respectable descriptive reductions in naturalistic, scientific terms.


But here: plausibly, adhering to the functional-aim standards for each type of attitude is the only thing that allows beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. to play their roles in systematically allowing us to promote or achieve outcomes that are meaningful to us or worthwhile for us. For example, beliefs play a positive role in practical reasoning exclusively through being true. In this way, it might be that one ought to believe that P only if P is true (at least almost always, apart from odd contexts) — but because there is always something meaningful or worthwhile at stake, not simply because one believes that P in a correct or fitting way only if P is true. And similarly for the other attitude-types.

So we might want to ask: do these two things together — functional-aim standards of fitting attitude and our non-contingently having most reason to govern forming and maintaining attitudes by reference to such standards — provide promising material for explaining value? I don’t see why not. But such a fitting-attitudes-involving pattern of explanation would fit neither (a) the overall McHugh/Way pattern (since pro tanto normative elements or reasons would be part of the basic normative material that does the explaining) nor (b) the standard buck-passing or reasons-first pattern (since having most reason to use the functional-aim fittingness standard to determine whether to value X or not — that one ought to value X resulting — does not come to one merely having most reason to value X).

Okay, but is the suggested pattern for explaining value nevertheless a kind of reasons-first pattern? I don’t think so. It being the case that we have most reason, and myriad reasons, to measure how to value things by reference to the fittingness standard for valuing, gives rise to a decisive ordering of a binary set of options (valuing X, not valuing X) by reference only to whether the fittingness condition is met. In this way, we get a certain kind of “simple” ought-feature, one directly explained by just one condition being met (and, when this is the case, it seems that the relevant option-set is always binary, meeting the condition versus not).  Such normative valences are neither pro tanto normative elements nor all-in features that are a function of distinct pro tanto elements. We get at this special sort of ought-feature with certain of our normative uses of terms like:  ‘correct’, ‘appropriate’, ‘fitting’, ‘required’. If an essential part of the reasons-first program is explaining ought-features by “adding up” pro tanto normative factors (reasons, different respects of having reason), then the suggested pattern of explanation here is not compatible with the reasons-first program. (A lot rides on my speaking of normative reasons to use fitting-attitudes standards. Though this seems pretty intuitive to me, it probably raises at least as many questions as it answers. It might prove to be problematic or wrong — or sneaky in just the right way to make my intuitions here coherent!)

(Ought-features, including simple ought-features, can be described well enough in quantity-of-valence or having-reason terms: X has most reason to A. But the appropriateness of this language does not imply that all ought-features — or other all-in normative features such as having sufficient reason — are a function of adding together different pro tanto normative features. Sometimes an option meeting one condition is sufficient to generate the ought-feature. We can even, without too much linguistic violence, refer to the one directly ought-making condition, such as fittingness or the fittingness condition being met, as the solitary normative reason that explains why it is normatively correct, appropriate, etc. for X to A. But, again, that reasons-language can be appropriate here does not speak to whether an ought-feature is due to one factor or the “adding up” of many. I suspect that the general applicability of reasons-language is confused with the correctness of the reasons-first explanatory story.)

If there are any simple or one-direct-explanatory-factor ought-features that that do not depend on pro tanto normative elements (in the suggested way or some other), this is incompatible with the reasons-first program in an even more central way. For reasons-first means *only* reasons in the explanatory foundation. We might bring that idea into question, at least somewhat, with this case: the normative incorrectness of both believing that P and believing that not P might seem to be an ought-feature that is both simple and basic. So it seems at least somewhat plausible that both simple ought-features and reasons are among the basic normative/evaluative features that explain all the other normative/evaluative features.


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