Rationality and Reasons
Parfit (Derek)
Source: Dan Egonsson, Jonas Josefsson, Björn Petterson & Toni Rønnow-Rasmussen (eds.) Exploring practical philosophy: from action to values, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001, pp. 17-39
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. When Ingmar1 and I discuss metaphysics or morality, our views are seldom far apart. But on the subjects of this paper, rationality and reasons, we deeply disagree. I had intended this paper to include some discussion of Ingmar's views about these subjects. But, when I reread some of the relevant parts of Ingmar's published and unpublished work, it soon became clear that his arguments are much too subtle and wide-ranging for a brief discussion. So I shall say only that I don't yet have what seem to me good answers to some of lngmar's arguments. He is one of the people whom I would most like to convince. But perhaps, when I try to answer his arguments, he will convince me.
  2. I shall discuss two questions:
    1. 'What do we have most reason to want, and do?
    2. What is it most rational for us to want, and do?
  3. These questions differ in only one way. While reasons are provided by the facts, the rationality of our desires and acts depends instead on our beliefs. When we know the relevant facts, these questions have the same answers. But if we are ignorant, or have false beliefs, it can be rational to want, or do, what we have no reason to want, or do. Thus, if I believe falsely that my hotel is on fire, it may be rational for me to jump into the canal. But I have no reason to jump. I merely think I do. And, if some dangerous treatment would save your life, but you don't know that fact, it would be irrational for you to take this treatment, but that is what you have most reason to do.
  4. These claims are about normative reasons. When we have such a reason, and we act for that reason, it becomes our motivating or explanatory reason. But we can have either kind of reason without having the other. Thus, if I jump into the canal, my motivating reason was provided by my false belief; but I had no normative reason to jump. And, if I failed to notice that the canal was frozen, I had a normative reason not to jump which because it was unknown to me, could not motivate me.
  5. There are many kinds of normative reason, such as reasons for believing, for caring, and for acting. Reasons are provided by facts, such as the fact that some one's finger-prints are on some gun, or that calling an ambulance might save someone's life. If we are asked what reasons are, it is hard to give a helpful answer. Facts give us reasons, we might say, when they count in favour of our having some belief or desire, or acting in some way. But 'counts in favour of' means 'is a reason for'. Like some other fundamental concepts, such as those of reality, necessity, and time, the concept of a reason cannot be explained in other terms.


For the full text, see Parfit - Rationality and Reasons.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Presumably Ingmar Persson.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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