At my urging, MTSP (the PoT-associated discussion group) is tackling Thomas Scanlon’s book, What We Owe to Each Other. In the second chapter, Scanlon endorses the so-called “buck-passing” view of value (BP).

On this view of value, instead of value being something basic in the broadly normative realm, is a derivative property that is a function of normative reasons (or normative pressure to respond to various things in relevant ways). The ultimate normative explanatory “buck” gets passed to reasons (having reason to exhibit some response to something, there being some degree of normative pressure to do so), hence the spiffy (or annoying) name. Roughly, BP says: if X is valuable (say, impersonally valuable) then X is such that it is appropriate to respond to it in various ways (and so one faces normative pressure, of some relevant sort, to respond to X in these various ways – e.g., by caring about it, respecting it, admiring it, being in awe of it, taking steps to promote it, etc.).

More specifically and precisely: X being valuable comes to X having non-normative, non-evaluative features such that, in virtue of X having those features, one has reason to respond to X in specific ways (by having specific attitudes, by taking specific sorts of actions). Because the formula here mentions and predicates non-normative properties of X in a straight-forward way, it lines up with our predicating value of objects.

The BP formula, we are often reminded by the proponents of BP, is precisely the way in which the evaluative property of X being admirable or scary is not identical to, but is a function of, X having properties such that, in virtue of X having them, it is appropriate to admire X or be afraid of X (e.g., because the thing is large and coming at me quickly, fear is an appropriate response). My impression is that most philosophers today hold a version of the buck-passing view (specifically, a fitting-attitudes view) of evaluative features like admirability, being scary, being honorable, etc. (pick any type of attitude and add ‘-able’ or ‘-worthy’ to it and you’ll get a word, perhaps one from English, that refers to these sorts of evaluative features, more or less to normative standards that govern what to have the attitude in response to). The buck-passing view of value can be viewed as simply extending this formula or model, treating being valuable (“valuing-worthy”) as precisely analogous to being admirable (“admiration-worthy”). There is obvious appeal here to any interest – or fetish – one might have for explanatory unity or simplicity or reduction.

In contrast, on the traditional value-based theory of value and value-associated reasons (TV), if X is valuable, then one has reason to realize or promote X, the normative pressure here amounting to one’s action being – just as mere circumstances might be – instrumentally valuable relative to achieving valuable X. (We might imagine a variation on the more traditional view of value, TV*, according to which value is associated with having reason to do things other than realize or promote X. On such a view, value-based normative pressure in a called-for response would not come to instrumental value in the response, but rather some other value-relational feature in the response – though I’m not sure just what such a feature would be.)

I want to examine two specific, fundamental cases of value and see how the BP explanatory approach to them fares (officially independently of whether BP itself, as a general view of value, is true). The first case is this: the disvalue to an agent of that agent undergoing an event (or engaging in an activity) that causes her to be in pain. (Disvalue to an agent, or agent-relative disvalue, does in this case, but need not, concern benefit or harm to the agent or the agent’s overall well-being. It is thus a rather abstract, stipulated concept and property that might not correspond neatly to anything in English. Perhaps the closest thing in English is ‘good for’ an agent, though this usually denotes benefit or well-being. It is close to what Scanlon calls being choiceworthy for an agent.)

Say I’m stung by a bee. This event is disvaluable to me. According the BP approach, this comes to the bee-stinging event having the feature of causing me pain and, in virtue of this, it being appropriate for me to respond in various ways. Let’s focus on one central, relevant response: the behavioral response of avoidance (e.g., doing things to make the pain go away). There is an important sense in which the normativity here is explained by the value on the BP approach (the BP approach can accommodate our intuitions here): the value specifies the features in virtue of which the thing that calls for the avoidance response, calls for the avoidance response. It is instructive to contrast this explanatory schemata with the TV-type explanatory schemata, which says: insofar as avoidance behavior secures the valuable state (the pain going away), the agent has reason to engage in that behavior in virtue of that behavior, as mere circumstances might be as well, being instrumentally valuable (via promoting the pain going away or being avoided). It would be instructive, in a more-detailed treatment to examine these two (and perhaps some kind of TV* type) competing explanatory schemas in light of our relevant intuitions and other relevant context. But, without getting into these weeds, so far, so plausible for the BP approach to bee-sting type cases (cases of value in painful events that might befall the agent or activities that the agent might engage in).

But now consider the painful experience itself and its inherent value to the agent (read ‘inherent’ as not instrumental and also not valuable in any other derivative way that might be possible). In this case, the official BP formula articulated above does not work. For we cannot (or cannot plausibly) predicate some feature of being in pain in virtue of which there is normative pressure to respond with avoidant behavior. For being in pain is at once the item that is valuable (and appropriately responded to with avoidant behavior) and the feature in virtue of which the avoidant behavior is appropriate (as a response to being in pain, not to being in pleasure, not to the sun coming up in the morning). But this, in turn, robs the BP approach, in this case, of being able to explain the normative pressure (something important about the normative pressure) in terms of the value. For there is nothing informative that it can say about why the avoidant response is to a response to pain (not pleasure, not the sun coming up in the morning, etc.). In other words, instead of being able to say (i) ‘the avoidant approach to X is appropriate due to X, in virtue of being an instance of the agent being in pain, being disvaluable to the agent’ (the explanatory pattern for the bee-sting case), the BP approach here can only say (ii) ‘the avoidant response to being in pain is appropriate in virtue of the pain being pain’. So the fundamental case of pain itself being disvaluable to the agent who has it requires a revision of any general BP formula (or admitting a special formula for this case, keeping the standard formula for the others).

This goes against at least the general-level intuition that citing the value of a thing can explain (or explain something about) the normative pressure attaching to relevant responses to the thing. But I’m not sure this is a big cost, or even, ultimately, any cost at all for the BP approach (to this fundamental case). For, on the BP approach, a case such as this (where the valuable and responded-to item and the feature in virtue of which this item as against some other calls for the response are the same thing) will have to be handled in this way. More importantly, I don’t think we have a strong intuition that the disvalue to me of my being in pain explains why (all else being equal) I should take steps to stop the pain (or to avoid being in pain prospectively). Rather, at least to me, the idea that the disvalue-to-me and the to-be-avoided-ness are identical seems intuitive. And this cuts against any expectation that the value should explain the normative pressure. I’m inclined, then, to view this consideration as an interesting wrinkle in a general BP approach (and for the present case in particular). How this case needs to go does not seem to be a super-strong objection to the general BP approach (or to the BP approach to this special, fundamental case).

(This post is meant to both partially answer David Riesbeck’s challenge to defend the BP approach to value, or Scanlon’s case for it, and, more importantly, to deal with some cases that I remember, last time I thought much about the BP approach to value, being among the most challenging for it to handle. Though I have lingering doubts, I’m inclined to accept BP as a general account of value.)


  1. Hi Michael,

    I don’t think we have a strong intuition that the disvalue to me of my being in pain explains why (all else being equal) I should take steps to stop the pain (or to avoid being in pain prospectively).

    So, if I touch my finger to a pot of boiling water, then withdraw it quickly saying “that hurts!”, you would have no “strong intuition” that the pain explains why I withdrew my finger? I think I myself would suppose that the pain fully explains my withdrawing my finger!

    The reason you give for your view, if I’m understanding you, is that you think the pain and the to-be-avoided-ness are identical. But surely they are not identical. Not only is pain, psychologically, not always to-be-avoided. They are entirely different concepts with different ranges of application.

    What I would say is that pain, when it is a bad thing, gives you a reason to avoid it, because part of what it is to be bad is to be something to be avoided. This is why we say things like, “We shouldn’t do that. That would be bad.” The latter provides a reason for the former.

    I will make bold to say that I think all reasons are like that (including epistemic reasons). Being good and bad are the ultimate source of all reasons. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but if so, then perhaps some discussion will show it.

    Or in other words, Scanlon’s buck-passing reasons are all bogus, qua “buck-passing.” For example:

    [T]he fact that a resort is pleasant is a reason to visit it or to recommend it to a friend, and the fact that a discovery casts light on the causes of cancer is a reason to applaud it and to support further research of that kind. These natural properties [being pleasant, casting light on the causes of cancer] provide a complete explanation of the reasons we have for reacting in these ways to things that are good or valuable. (p.97)

    He is saying that pleasure gives us a reason to pursue something, and only because it provides such a reason is it “good,” and being a cause of cancer provides a reason to avoid something, and only because it provides such a reason is it “bad.” Reasons exist first, in virtue “natural” (i.e., non-value) properties of things, and only in virtue of such reasons do the things become good or bad. This is bass ackwards. It is intelligible to ask why something’s being pleasurable is good or why something’s causing cancer is bad, and it is not clear that these “natural properties” really provide reasons for pursuit or avoidance until these questions are answered. But, once you say, “X is good/bad,” then the matter of reasons is settled. It is internal to being good that a thing is to be pursued (or in some other way valued), other things equal. And likewise it is internal to being bad that it is to be avoided (or in other ways disvalued), other things equal.

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    • On further thought, I think my first two paragraphs here are something of a botch. To match Michael’s argument, “the pain” in those paragraphs should be replaced by “the disvalue of my pain.”

      Now, on the one hand, if we make the substitution, then the reason why (disvalue-of-)pain and reason-to-withdraw are not identical is different from what I state in my second paragraph and becomes the sort of thing I say in my third and final paragraphs.

      On the other hand, this is supposed to be a case “where the valuable and responded-to item and the feature in virtue of which this item as against some other calls for the response are the same thing”; i.e., where disvalue and natural property are the same thing, namely pain. And of course the Scanlonian contrast would be to regard pain-as-natural-property as alone providing the reason to withdraw, without pain-as-disvalue entering into it. In that case, we shouldn’t make the substitution after all, and the arguments of the first two paragraphs remain applicable.

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      • Chew, chew, chew. Okay! Much thanks, David P. You’ve misunderstood some of what I said, but at least some of this is due to my error or lack of clarity. And you are certainly pressing me to explain some things better and that is extremely welcome. Several responses here, roughly following the order of some of your main points.

        (1) I (and I think all of us) have the intuition – that both BP and TV can vindicate in their own ways! – (a) that one being in pain (in some sense) explains why one has reason to avoid (or put a stop to) being in pain. But I take the pre-theoretical status of the following somewhat similar but distinct intuition to be more questionable: the intuition (b) that specifically the disvalue-to-one (or being-inherently-bad-for-one-ness) of one being in pain explains why one has reason to avoid (or put a stop to) being in pain. My intuitive system reacts to [b] with some mixture of ‘huh?’ and ‘beats me’. For TV, though, [b] is crucial not only because it is true (the best or mandatory way of filling in the generic explanatory relationship) but because, for TV, [a] holds only because [b] holds. The fundamental mode of explanation here is value-based and instrumental (what Scanlon calls “teleological”).

        (2) The relevant identity claim is (c) the inherent disvalue-to-one of one being in pain is identical to there being normative pressure toward each of a small constellation of relevant responses to the actuality or prospect of being in pain. For simplicity, my focus was on the avoidant behavioral response. Unfortunately, this led to my sloppily stating the second term of the identity solely in those terms, ignoring the normative appropriateness of things like wanting the pain to stop, wanting to avoid it in the future, forming relevant intentions to take steps to stop or avoid it, etc. (Plausibly, these responses are more important, at least for describing the broadly practical rationalizing process – and perhaps also because perhaps there is normative pressure toward avoidant behavior only because there is normative pressure toward relevant wanting and intending.) One of my main points here is that this specific value identity claim differs from others (and does not follow the official BP formula) because the value-property here is not identical to having some first-order property in virtue of which the appropriate responses are appropriate. As I’m sympathetic to the BP approach to analyzing value, I’m inclined to accept this as a special-case-applicable revision of the official BP line (Scanlon accepts this standard formulation — actually, maybe he can up with it!).

        (3) Both TV and BP can affirm that part of what it is for something to be bad (for or relative to some agent or impersonally) is that it is to be avoided. So that formula is no good as an affirmation of TV (or something like it), if that is what you meant. TV says something more specific, viz., that the normative pressure toward, say, the avoidant behavior (and other salient responses) associated with being in pain comes to the avoidant behavior (and other salient responses) being broadly instrumental to realizing or promoting the absence of pain and the pain being valuable (and this, I think, makes normative pressure into a form of instrumental value). But just stating TV is no objection to BP (unless perhaps TV is genuinely, pre-theoretically or brutely and glaringly obvious).

        (4) Both BP and TV vindicate the common intuition that one has reason to avoid being in pain because being in pain is inherently bad-for-one (or inherently disvaluable-to-one). They do so in different ways. Maybe the way that BP fills in the explanatory relationship is inadequate. Again, it does so like this (and again cannot, whether or not this is a problem, in the case of the disvalue-to-one of one being in pain): these and those are appropriate responses to that-P because that-P has feature F (or features F1, F2, etc.) — and this explains why these responses are appropriate as responses to that-P but not that-Q. TV fills the generic explanatory content of the pre-theoretical intuition in, in a very, very different way, by positing (various forms of) basic, inherent value and treating all associated normative pressure to respond as instances of instrumental value relative to realizing or promoting the item that is valuable. The important question, I think, is which explanatory schemata is all-in or holistically best. It is because I think the cases of basic value are the most important (and perhaps hardest for the BP approach) that I chose to discuss them.

        (5) Let’s look at the cancer case. I think this shows how the BP theorist can make pretty free use of something very much like the instrumental (“teleological”) model that the TV theorist takes to explain the relationship between basic value and basic reasons. I take it that the BP approach could say something like this in the cancer case: because there is basic normative pressure to avoid being in pain and because having cancer increases the likelihood of one being in pain, one has reason to take these and those steps to eliminate one’s cancer (I’m relating the cancer to one being in pain because it is clearest that pain is a basic case of value and reasons; at least plausibly, the disvalue-to-one in dying is not basic in this way). But, importantly, the BP approach can also use the language of value to express much of the explanatory information here. Like this: because it is valuable (in an at least partially a to-be-promoted kind of way) to not be in pain, and because having cancer increases the likelihood of one being in pain, one has reason to take steps to eliminate one’s cancer. This indicates how the BP approach might legitimately pretty freely explain non-basic instances of normative pressure in terms of the value of things promoted, on something very much like the TV-type explanatory model (one difference between the models here, other than whether they are applicable to cases of basic value and associated reasons to promote, is that, on the TV approach, there is at least considerable pressure to treat the explained normative pressure as a species of instrumental value, while I think the advocate of BP would resist any such claim in her “translation” of the instrumental-value explanation into purely reasons-explaining-further-reasons terms). This is pretty wonderful for BP! It also explains why Scanlon freely makes use of this sort of model to explain ordinary cases of resorts being good resorts, etc. (and why this is more or less okay, if a bit sloppy). It would have been nice for Scanlon to show his work here – i.e., say what the “value-based reasons” looks like, in the particular cases, when “translated” into BP-type reasons-explaining-further-reasons more-fundamental explanatory terms. If this is right, then, I think, it is easy to generate something of an error theory for at least many cases in which it seems “just so obvious” that the full TV-type explanatory picture has to be right. It turns out that the pretty-obviously-right explanatory model here is one that BP can and should accept. That would leave our intuitions in the basic cases of value (and reasons) and more far-flung or theory-embedded explanatory virtues as the more-salient basis for litigating between BP and TV.

        That’s all I’ve got time for! I’m not sure I’ve succeeded in addressing all of your concerns as squarely as you might have liked, David P. But hopefully I’ve addressed some of our concerns squarely enough – or at least otherwise had some interesting and on-point things to say. Though I am quite sympathetic to BP, I meant the tone of the post to indicate mainly that the BP approach needs to handle the case of the disvalue-to-the-agent of the agent being in pain differently from the way it handles other cases of value and that this way of handling this case is potentially problematic (but this special case might not, after all, end up being too problematic).

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        • Hi Michael,

          I will try to summarize the issue schematically, and then I will address your points.

          The BP view takes reasons as primitive and takes values to be derivative from reasons. Things are good because and only because we have reasons to pursue them (and likewise for things being bad, mutatis mutandis). By contrast, TV takes values as basic with respect to reasons; that is, reasons are derivative from values. This means that TV takes actions and reasons to be goal directed. For BP, on the other hand, reasons license actions directly. An action is proper because you have reason to do it, and this reason comes down to some natural, descriptive fact about the case that has nothing to do with its being good or valuable. (“Being valuable is not a property that provides us with reasons” p. 96.)

          Here is the BP model. In this schema, A can be pretty much anything, and ϕ is a natural (i.e., non-normative) property of A.

          1. A’s having ϕ is a reason for me to promote/applaud/honor/etc. A.
          2. Thus, A is good, and its being good consists in its having such a property as ϕ.
          3. The “is good” buck is passed to ϕ-type properties: the reason to value A is not that it is good, but that it has ϕ.

          Now, on to your points.

          (1) There’s a miscommunication here, which is probably my fault. I do not think that being in pain, where that is construed as a purely natural property, gives me all by itself a reason to withdraw from the source of the pain. This was the point of my saying, in my second paragraph, that the concepts of pain and of the to-be-avoided aren’t the same and that psychologically we don’t always regard pain as something to be avoided. Unfortunately, my saying that in the second paragraph was totally negated by my careless statement in the first paragraph that “the pain fully explains my withdrawing…” Sorry! And honestly, at this point I don’t know how many attempts it’s going to take for me to finally get this right. I think of my view on this point as the diametric opposite of Scanlon’s: reasons always derive from values. It is only because this pain is bad that I should withdraw from it. If it weren’t bad, I would have no particular reason to withdraw.

          Of course, it can seem weird to say that something’s being painful does not give me a reason to withdraw from it. But I think that this is because we ordinarily take for granted that pain is bad—and rightly so. But in this context, where we are talking about BP, we have to remember that we are taking the pain to be a natural property, something not bad. This is hard to do, since the aversiveness of pain, like the attraction of pleasure, is pretty well baked into our psychology. I suppose one could imagine being masochist. We should also remember one point on which I agree with Scanlon: desires are not reasons. The experience of pain induces a strong desire to withdraw. But this does not mean that one has a reason to withdraw. So, if the pain is not bad—and we really believe that—and our desire to withdraw isn’t a reason to withdraw, what reason does the pain give us to withdraw? That we don’t like it? How is that different from saying we disvalue it; i.e., that we find it bad?

          (2) On this point, you seem willing to concede that the pain “is an inherent disvalue,” meaning that it is not a natural property after all, but you want to say that the inherent disvalue is identical with “normative pressure” (i.e., a reason) to withdraw. So, we don’t have the “instrumentalism” you seem to wish to avoid, but we also don’t have a purely natural property in pain. I don’t have much to say about this. If you allow pain to be inherently bad, then I have no objection to the claim that it gives you a reason to withdraw.

          As to “instrumentalism,” this seems to be for you the main mark of TV, and it also seems to be something you find objectionable. But I’m not sure why. I myself find it unnatural to think of my withdrawing my finger from the pot of boiling water as “instrumental to promoting the absence of pain.” I would prefer to say simply that the pain (because it is bad) is a reason to withdraw my finger. The action directly accomplishes the goal. I start wanting to speak of instrumental reasons when I think of examples like going to school to get a certificate to get a job to get more money to have a better life. The certificate, say, is an instrumental goal. However, it is true that I regard all reasons as goal directed, and if that’s the only point of speaking of instrumental reasons, then I don’t object. Also, there seems to be a genuine and important difference between such goal-directed reasons and the reasons of BP, which do not accomplish any goals or ends.

          (3) I have no objection here. I was only stating my own view, not presenting an argument against BP.

          (4) I think anything I would have to say about this point has been covered already.

          (5) Here you take Scanlon’s example—of a discovery casting light on the cause of cancer being a reason to applaud it and encourage more such research—as one that can be cast in TV terms, thus showing that BP can help itself in a TV-like manner to the cases where TV seems to shine, and also showing also that those very cases boil down to BP in the end. In reply, I would just note that Scanlon himself doesn’t put it this way. He presents the case as though casting light on the cause of cancer is a natural, non-normative feature of the discovery that gives us a reason to applaud it. In the above schema, casting light on the cause of cancer is ϕ. This is just what makes the example so implausible (or as I said, bogus). Discovering the cause of cancer is good, because it helps us to cure cancer, which is good because cancer is bad. These are teleological, not buck-passing reasons. To help motivate his account, it would be nice if Scanlon would provide at least one semi-plausible example of a “primitive reason.” Next, is the fact that BP can accommodate itself to TV-style reasons really a point in its favor? If reasons work the way BP says, why is our practical reasoning centered on goals, ends, values, costs, benefits, and so forth? Why don’t we think purely in terms of “reasons”? The fact that we don’t strikes me as evidence against BP.

          I’ll conclude with an additional point. I doubt that Scanlon is advocating his “reasons as primitive” idea merely to be saying something new. I presume he is advocating this because he wants a license to claim that people have reasons that can’t be justified teleologically and that, if they had to be so justified, would seem to be very poor reasons. I mean, at some point, we’re going to be confronted with claims on behalf of some supposed primitive, non-teleological reasons, right? And I just wonder what those are going to turn out to be.

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          • Thanks, David. Again, quite helpful. I have some quibbles about your summary, but I think they are mainly just quibbles so I’ll just go through your responses to my points, keeping the 1-5 numbering.

            (1) I messed up my formulation of the first intuition, [a]. This intuition is the intuition that both BP and TV can vindicate: that PHI-ing is painful for me explains why there is normative pressure for me to avoid PHI-ing. The ‘explains’ of the intuition is generic; BP says that the PHI-ing being painful for me directly generates the normative pressure for me to avoid PHI-ing (through its role of being what would be responded to, I would add, to distinguish from the role that any background conditions might play); TV says that the PHI-ing being painful for me indirectly generates the normative pressure for me to avoid PHI-ing (due to this making the PHI-ing inherently valuable and avoiding PHI-ing, in relation to PHI-ing, being instrumentally valuable). This goes against your most recent response on this point, suggesting that there is no particular problem, if we are clear in our meanings, to treat pain as a natural property (i.e., not smuggle in any evaluative or normative properties as part of it).


            {A} No, I’m supposing that pain is a natural or broadly non-normative property. I’m arguing for the conclusion that, if you hold BP (or something very much in the spirit of BP), you should identify the value of pain itself with there being normative pressure (most naturally expressed using terms like ‘appropriate’) to exhibit the requisite constellation of response in attitude and action. That goes against Scanlon’s (and the standard) BP formulation that identifies basic or non-instrumental value with an item having the second-order property of having some first-order property in virtue of which there is reason (normative pressure) to respond in the requisite ways. The question is whether altering the official BP view in this way is a large (or any) cost for the broadly BP-type approach. (My main point in the post, then, is sort of “inside baseball” for those who advocate or are interested in evaluating BP.)

            {B} Perhaps I should have made it clearer that I’m using ‘instrumental’ in a very broad, stipulative sense. Of course, withdrawing your finger from the hot stove due to the pain achieves or realizes the (quite appropriately) desired end-state of stopping the event that caused and is causing the pain. Colloquially, the withdrawl of the finger here is not instrumental to something distinct that is good (say, the machine popping out a prize for you). Maybe this is one reason why Scanlon uses ‘teleological’ not ‘instrumental’. Whatever the terminology, it is worrying for TV, if it is committed – as it seems to be – to the idea that all normative pressure is teleological or instrumental in this sense (for precisely the Scanlonian reasons that not all appropriate responses to value consist in taking action to promote it). There are some somewhat-promising responses on the part of TV-type approaches that Irfan and David R. explored a bit in correspondence. I’m not convinced that they work and, if they don’t, Scanlon’s basic point here seems quite strong.

            (3) Saul Goodman.

            (4) Saul Goodman.

            (5) My reference here was to (what I took to be) your cancer case (or a variant of it): someone taking measures to combat cancer that they have. My point was that BP can explain cases of there being normative pressure to PHI because PHI-ing promotes some inherently-valuable state that-P. What ends up doing the work is (a) that-P being valuable in a way that is constitutively explained, in part, by normative pressure to promote that-P and (b) PHI-ing being a way of promoting that-P. In this way, saying things like “I have reason to PHI because PHI-ing promotes inherently-valuable item X” is licensed on a BP-type approach. It would be very bad for BP (and for many of Scanlon’s examples) if this were not so. One interesting question is whether the competing TV-type story here is better or worse, both in terms of our pre-theoretical intuitions and in terms of broader explanatory power. Scanlon, in his cancer case, stresses the value in discovery and understanding the natural world. Part of his point is that what is at stake here is not simply instrumentality to saving people from the ravages of cancer. I think the value of discovery and understanding is an easier case for BP and that I’ve shown that the promoting-inherent-value cases, where TV might plausibly claim an advantage, is handled pretty nicely by BP.

            (With regard to your final point, I’ll just assert this: Scanlon’s points regarding normative pressure to honor, admire, respect, etc. seem to be cases of normative pressure not well-explained on the TV model. The question is whether there is a good TV response. Obviously, you think that there is – that it is hard to think of any reasons (normative pressure) that is not explained on a TV-type model (is not “teleological”). That’s more like denying that Scanlon’s cases of putatively non-teleological reasons (normative pressure) appear to be non-teleological at all. This is a longer discussion, though. Relevant, of course, is Irfan’s comment at the end of the last discussion and as well my brief correspondence with David R. on this topic. I’ve boiled this down to Scanlon-style cases of putatively non-teleological reasons (normative pressure) being good prima facie counterexamples to TV, David R. having a pretty good response in terms of inherently valuable activities that include the requisite patterns of response and the BP-theorist (played by me) replying that this still misconstrues non-instrumental reasons as instrumental (or use ‘teleological’ if you like). So I think your final point is part of this broader discussion that I’m sure we’ll broach when we meet next.)
            (Have to post-and-run. Sorry for any ridiculous, but hopefully not substantive, errors.)


            • Hi Michael,

              I have four points to make in reply to your latest.

              First, I don’t think you can say that, for BP, being in pain explains why one has a reason to withdraw. Really, this is one of my main complaints. BP seems to blithely assert that a normative reason (e.g., to withdraw one’s finger) can just pop out of a non-normative property (e.g., pain), with nothing further being said about how this happens or how we know it. This seems to be the critical difference between BP and TV. For BP, values are explained: e.g., something is good in virtue of there being reasons to pursue it. However, reasons are not explained. They are primitive. By contrast, for TV, reasons are explained: there is a reason to do something in virtue of some value it would achieve (or maintain or curate or respect etc.). However, values (or at least our knowledge of them) are usually not explained or anyway they are acknowledged to be difficult to explain. This leads to another important difference: TV acknowledges where it has a theoretical difficulty. Tremendous effort over the whole history of philosophy has been expended trying to produce a theory of the good and of our knowledge of the good, without much success, and this is a source of embarrassment for TV. By contrast, BP apparently shows no interest in explaining primitive reasons or any acknowledgement of a need to do so. This is nice. Facing some difficulties with your normative theory? No problem! Just declare there to be some primitive “reasons,” and Bob’s your uncle.

              Second, you repeat a couple of times that you think it’s a point against TV that it can’t easily explain reasons that aren’t “promoting.” That is, TV can easily say why, if something is good, we have reason to bring more of it about, but not why we have reason to honor it or admire it or to take other pro-attitudes toward it. But I have to agree with David R. that this is completely unpersuasive. This would mean, for example, that I can see that something is good but not why I should admire it. I would hope that just to state this is to reveal its implausibility. I suppose that if one had a crude Benthamite theory of the good as consisting exclusively of pleasure and absence of pain—the kind of reductive utility maximizing view that Deirdre McCloskey ridicules as “Max U”—then there might be some difficulty here (though even that is not really clear). But that is hardly a strike against teleological accounts of reasons per se. How it is appropriate to respond to a good depends on what sort of good it is and in what manner it is good. This is not a difficulty for any plausible version of TV.

              Third, you speak of “putatively nonteleological reasons,” as though there were some examples on the table. Thinking about it more, I’m not sure whether you mean by this non-promoting reasons (as discussed in the previous paragraph) or reasons that seem not to be derived from values. If the latter, then I would repeat my complaint that I am so far unaware of any putatively nonteleological reasons. But I would like to be. Nothing would help Scanlon’s case more, I think, than if he would present some reasons that seem compelling as reasons but that don’t seem to be teleological (i.e., derived from values).

              Fourth, to zoom out and take a broader view of these questions, I think we can see a familiar philosophical game being played here. It’s the game where somebody sets the natural or normal order of explanation on its head, by saying, for example, that a statement isn’t epistemically defensible because it’s true, but true because it’s epistemically defensible; that a counterfactual conditional isn’t true in virtue of being supported by certain laws of nature, but that certain laws of nature hold just in virtue of some set of counterfactual conditionals being true; that it’s not that certain conclusions are inferable from certain statements in virtue of the content of those statements, but rather that those statements have the content they do in virtue of the conclusions that can be inferred from them; and so on. And a resourceful philosopher can often marshal surprisingly impressive arguments in favor of the reversed order of explanation, and it gives philosophers good fodder for the kind of discussions we like to have—although the ultimate result is that people do not abandon the normal view. And now Scanlon arrives to inform us that we don’t have reasons to do things in virtue of their objects having value, but rather objects have value in virtue of there being reasons to respond to them in certain ways. (There is this difference, though: I have so far been unimpressed with his arguments.)

              We have wondered how in principle we might adjudicate this. I would prefer to say that we should do so ontologically. That is, by showing that primitive reasons do not exist, but the good does. But I have no idea how to show this. A second best might be to look at the typical structure of practical reasoning. And on this score, it seems to me that TV is superior (which would be why it is the normal view, after all). Ever since Aristotle, it has been common to observe that human action is goal directed. We act in pursuit of our ends, intentions, needs, and so forth. Likewise, we investigate and inquire to find the truth. By and large, our actions are organized in a means-to-ends structure. We formulate plans to accomplish goals. And our ends are chosen in the service of our values. By contrast, we do not normally figure out what to do by directing our actions toward compliance with what we take to be ultimate primitive reasons that are not derived from our values. If so, then prima facie, primitive reasons do not play the role that Scanlon supposes they do. I doubt this argument will seem persuasive to a proponent of BP, but it’s the best I can do for now.

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              • Again, David, these responses are super-helpful. Helpful, in this case in particular, in helping me clarify a specific, important part of my brief against TV. Much thanks. I’ll respond to just two of your points: (i) the idea that the sorts of putatively non-teleological reasons that Scanlon cites actually do not appear to be non-teleological and (ii) the idea that TV is not in a good position to explain such reasons (however it is that they initially appear to us).

                Normative pressure (and reasons) to chase things that have the non-normative features that make them chase-able. Similarly for fearing the scary, respecting (in attitude, in action that expresses that attitude) other rational agents, honoring (in attitude, in action that expresses that attitude) the honorable (or honor-worthy). All of these (and many similar cases from Scanlon) are cases of normative pressure to do something where that something is not promoting (or partially or fully realizing) anything. However, TV need not deny precisely this! What TV denies is that, in these cases, the normative pressure itself owes to anything other than the response promoting some valuable item. By failing to make this distinction and see its significance, Scanlon overplays his hand by a country mile. (I had forgotten this step in this part of my brief, but it is important and needs to be made explicit for sure.)

                That is why I focus on the nature of the normative pressure to chase the chase-able or fear the scary. Though I have not stressed it, perhaps the most convincing point to make here is to rely, not on our ontological intuitions about normative pressure, but on evident facts about the content and shape of relevant bits of practical reasoning: if the way TV has it were true, then relevant bits of practical reasoning would look quite a bit different than they actually do (viz., we would think about what chasing and fearing realize or promote, and the value of what they promote, not just about the relevant non-normative features and responding to them in requisite ways). The case for TV being in an initially bad position to claim that all normative pressure (or each “reason”) is teleological (and value-based), then, relies on the intuition that the normative pressure in these cases is not due to the responses promoting or realizing valuable states of affairs (and on the parallel point, perhaps clearer or more convincing on its own, regarding the content and shape of relevant bits of practical rationality).

                (The TV partisan might say that we can “consequentialize” (or construe as teleological) the normative pressure in these sorts of cases in a local manner, like this: the state of affairs of one chasing the chase-able (the things that have these and those non-normative properties) is inherently valuable, making the chasing instrumentally valuable because it realizes the valuable state of affairs that is just the pattern of response. Or you might say that we can “consequentialize” (or construe as teleological) these same cases of normative pressure in a global or holistic manner, like this: the state of affairs of this sort of creature functioning properly (or some other complex whole that might contain the pattern of response) is inherently valuable and responding to fearful items (items that have these and those non-normative properties) by be being afraid is part of this whole, making the fearing (the realizing of this pattern of response) instrumentally valuable relative to the value of this whole. These replies on behalf of TV, I think, fail to get TV out of her pickle here because the same intuitions about the ontology of the normative pressure in these cases and evident facts about the content and shape of relevant bits of practical rationality gainsay TV even on these specific scenarios about where the value is and how the target response realizes or promote it.)

                (I do have an Uncle Bob. He is an asshole. However, I doubt you have any reliable intuitions on these matters!)

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                • Hi Michael,

                  Yes, I’m finding the exchange valuable also. I’ve thought, ever since Internet discussion forums of various kinds became popular in the 1990s, that it’s a terrific way to do philosophy. The written form encourages thoughtfulness and care in formulating arguments at the same time that the casual context speeds up the back-and-forth. It’s more careful and deliberative than spoken conversation and much quicker than journals.

                  I think I finally see what you mean in speaking of nonteleological reasons being based on non-normative properties of things. For example, certain non-normative features of a cat make it chasable to a dog, and certain non-normative features of a large, snarling, barking dog make it scary to a person. My first thought was that one is scared of the dog because one doesn’t want to be harmed (a bad)—so how is that not teleological? But now I think the idea is supposed to be that the size and behavior are supposed to be immediately scary—being scared is practically a physiological reaction—not needing to be mediated by the thought that being harmed would be bad. Some properties of a thing directly inspire fear or an urge to chase, etc. Is this right?

                  I will assume that it is. Then I agree that this is not implausible. But the question is whether such fears and urges count as reasons. Or are they merely impulses; i.e., causes? A reason, it seems to me, is by definition an element in practical reasoning, which is a rational, inferential process of drawing from premises conclusions about appropriate actions. At a minimum, reasons are considerations in light of which actions are rationally recommendable. By contrast, impulses are urges to act which are not necessarily recommended by reason. There is a world of difference here (and one which Scanlon can hardly fail to acknowledge. I mean, he is basically a Kantian, right?). And to the extent that the scariness of the dog consists in its triggering a non-rational impulse in us, it is not providing a reason. In this regard, we are not treating it as a reason. It is an urge, not a reason. To become a reason, we must come to regard it as a consideration in light of which some action is rationally recommendable. And that is going to happen, if it does, through teleological reasoning.

                  By the way, this makes me think of two instances where people have advocated that we can learn of functional or teleological features of the world through sense-perception. One is James Gibson’s famous (notorious?) theory of affordances. Thus, a chair affords sitting. It is “sittable,” and we can just see this. Of course, this doesn’t mean either that sitting is good or that one has a reason to sit. (The same goes for chase-ability, by the way.) It only means that the environment affords the functional possibility. The second is Mark Johnston’s paper “The Authority of Affect.” Some things are beautiful, sublime, disgusting, etc., and again we can detect this through sense-perception. This is the direct perception of values in the world. Not reasons, however. Anyway, maybe these could be grist for your mill.

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  2. Without weighing in directly on the disagreement between Michael and DP (and maybe DR as well), it seems to me that the overarching methodological problem is that this is a disagreement about what is the function as normatively primitive–reasons or value/goodness. But we seem to lack clear principles for deciding disagreements over whether X or Y ought to be regarded as primitive. My intuitions are closer to DPs than to MY’s, but I wonder if we can do better than trade intuitions here.

    Maybe one way to start is to note, against MY’s view, that we can, after all, fully explain the behavior of non-human animals by appealing directly to value rather than to reasons. It’s obviously absurd to say that lions have a reason to pursue their prey (prior to and independently of what’s good for them), and because they have this reason, it’s good that they engage in predation. Whereas it makes legitimate sense to say that given what they are, lions have a need to pursue prey; need-satisfaction being good for them, predation is likewise good for them, and therefore supplies (not literally reasons but) something like reasons to engage in it.

    Granted, the human case is different. But is it so different as to require the total abandonment of the explanatory scheme we use when it comes to other animals?

    Separate point. In order for Scanlon’s reduction of value to reasons to work, we have to know that it succeeds as a genuine reduction of X to Y. Take any reduction of X to Y. For the reduction to work, it has to be the case that Y is doing the explanatory work, and X is not. In other words, for the reduction to go through, what has to be shown is not just that Y can do the work, but that to the extent that Y is doing it, X is not doing it.

    More specifically, Scanlon needs a way of guarding against the possibility that his “reduction” is no reduction at all, but an appeal to reasons that ends up smuggling value/goodness in through the back door. Absent this, I don’t see how Scanlon’s view can succeed, except in the sense of appealing to the intuitions of people who already agree with him.

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    • Chew, chew… Done. Thanks, Irfan. I like the idea of shifting the focus somewhat to the methodology for deciding between BP and TV. And the idea of examining value and normative pressure or reasons in animal cases.

      Quite plausibly, lions, like house cats, have reason to chase things in virtue of those things moving in certain ways (and also, perhaps more fundamentally, reason to have chase-it type attitudes toward things, in virtue of those things having the same movement properties). So, chase-ability for lions is, in this respect, like things being scary for us. We might also note that lions (and house cats) might, with a kind of prospective orientation that is high-developed in humans, look forward to or seek out opportunities to chase the chase-ables. On the BP approach, chase-ability is a broadly evaluative, action-guiding property.

      But chase-ability is not a form of benefit. It is more like what Scanlon would call a property of choiceworthiness. Your case, then, is different. You are concerned with the benefit of chasing or pursuing items – and prey specifically. This suggests that the form of benefit concerns proper-functionality (for lions) and as well the success in the specific functional aim of chasing or pursuing. But, while it is agreed that there is biological or functional benefit in this sense here, such a benefit need not be action-guiding – and I think what we are concerned with here is action-guiding benefit or value. I think you would agree with that, and have some kind of motivation-involving or rationalization-involving add-on to proper functionality (or success in proper-functional aims) to make the otherwise not-action-guiding (or not action-guiding in the same way) benefit into an action-guiding benefit. So I guess I’d have to see what this story is. However, I’m inclined to deny that biological, proper-functional type benefit forms the core of action-guiding benefit. My story here is more like the chase-ability story. (One might also use ‘benefit’ here to refer to instrumental action-guiding value. Roughly: it is beneficial to the lion to pursue its prey because this makes it more likely that the lion will eat and this, in turn, facilitates the lion being able to do all of the things that it experiences inherently pleasant or otherwise inherently beneficial in the action-guiding way.)

      Lions, like house cats, do experience the activity of chasing the chase-ables as pleasant. In this sense, it is intuitive to say that chasing chase-ables is of inherent (action-guiding) benefit to the lion (and that chasing the chase-ables is inherently valuable-to-the-lion). (It occurs to me that it is quite plausible, for lions and for us, that all inherent or basic agent-relative value is inherent benefit by way of certain states and activities being pleasant.) The root BP story here, then, would be that of the value-to-the-lion of having pleasant experiences (the special story of my original post) and, through this, the value-to-the-lion of this pleasant activity (the chasing of the chase-ables). So: (i) the lion’s pleasant experiences is valuable-to-her in that she has reason to do a bunch of things with respect to pleasure itself (seek it, want it, want it to continue, etc.) and (ii) the lion’s chasing of the chase-ables would be valuable-to-her in that chasing the chase-ables has the non-normative feature of being pleasant for her. I’m not sure how the chase-ability of items relates to the inherent value-to-the-lion (and inherent benefit-to-the-lion) of chasing the chase-ables. This kind of close juncture between reasons of choiceworthiness (or generic reasons) and reasons of benefit might shed light the prospects for providing sharp boundaries for reasons of benefit or well-being – something that Scanlon expresses skepticism about the possibility and usefulness of in Chapter 3.

      (Gotta post this and run. Sorry for any errors.)


  3. “The BP formula, we are often reminded by the proponents of BP, is precisely the way in which the evaluative property of X being admirable or scary is not identical to, but is a function of, X having properties such that, in virtue of X having them, it is appropriate to admire X or be afraid of X (e.g., because the thing is large and coming at me quickly, fear is an appropriate response). ”

    It seems to me that “it is appropriate to respond to X in these ways, and not others” is, in itself, an evaluation – not necessarily of X, but certainly of the possible responses to X. So, rather than eliminating value or reducing it to “reasons”, Scanlon’s position just relocates primitive value from external things to the attitudes we hold, and the actions we take, regarding them. It’s thus very similar to the attempt to reduce color to the frequencies of light absorbed by the retina, or sound to vibrations of the eardrum; it desiccates the external world to make it conform to a non-teleological metaphysics, by shifting the inconvenient evidence of goal-direction into the observer’s mind.

    Edward Feser has compared this type of “reduction” to trying to clean a house by sweeping all the dirt in it under a single rug. It works quite well everywhere else in the house, but it leaves that rug much dirtier than it was when you began. And you can’t clean the dirt under the rug by sweeping it under the rug again.

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    • BP does “relocate” the center of the (broadly) normative world in this way. However, part of what I’ve argued, in my exchange with David P. is that BP claims to do justice to the clearly teleological cases, the cases in which a central appropriate response to a valuable actual or potential condition is precisely promoting (realizing, preserving, etc.) the condition. Though the nuts and bolts of the explanatory relationship go a bit differently on BP (than on TV), BP can affirm that, in some cases, we have reason to desire and promote conditions because they are valuable.


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