Random Notes On Moral Reasons (Parfit)

Ok, it’s term paper season.  This means my posts will become infrequent and the posts that I do make will be mostly me trying to figure stuff out for papers.  Without further ado, lets get into my ramblings on Parfit’s notion of normative reasons.

Background on Parfit’s Normative Reasons

In contemporary meta-ethics people talk about “reasons for action” as normative concepts.  Don’t be scurd by the fancy words.  Normative just means “to do with values” or “what is correct or incorrect”.  Examples of normative words are things like: good, bad, beautiful, virtuous, wrong, etc… So, for a lot of moral philosophers reasons for action can be normative.  It may sound like common sense that there can be “good” or “bad” reasons for action but that’s philosophy for you.

Now, here comes the tricky part (who needs the Quickee Mart?).  Some philosophers say that normative reasons by definition motivate action.  This is the idea that if (a sane person) become aware of a good (in the moral sense) reason for action then just the mere fact that the person recognizes this as a good reason is sufficient to motivate them to act that way.  Otherwise stated, knowing that something is good should move us to act in accordance with it.

For example, I see an old lady about to cross the street and it comes to my mind that me helping her would be the right thing to do because it would make her day better.  The mere fact that I recognize that making her day better is a right reason to act, I will also feel some sort of motivation to act.

Parfit disagrees.  He says that it is possible to recognize something as being a good reason for action and still not be motivated to do it.  It is true, he says, that certain facts (e.g. old ladies are better off when they are helped across the street) can give us reasons for acting and if we are rational they will motivate us to act for these reasons.  However, this does not imply that something being a good reason necessarily “consists in actual or possible motivating force”.

This to me sounds strange.  It’s like he wants to have his cake and eat it too.  Let me break it down this way:  First he says that reason are a subspecies of facts.  Well not really, but that’s how I’m going to read it.  He says “if we are aware of facts that give us certain reasons for action…” What is the difference between a fact and a reason for action?  How do we distinguish the two?  Is the distinction that a reason is a type of fact (i.e. one that we are aware of) that if we are rational it motivates us to act?  But the very next line he tells us that something being a good reason does not necessarily consist in actual or possible motivating force.

Or does he?  He actually says that just because reasons can motivate rational people to act doesn’t imply  that normativity in part consists in actual or possible motivation.  Does this mean that reasons motivate but their normative status (if they’re good or bad) has no bearing on our motivation?  That doesn’t seem right.  And how do I distinguish a good reason from a bad reason?  It seems Parfit wants to say that it’s got something to do with rationality.  But suppose what would be a rational reason for me isn’t a rational reason for you.  For real world examples of people differing on what a rational reason is all you have to do is observe political debates.  Er’body thinks their reasons for policies are the rational reasons.  What the crap?

Anyway, I hope I can sort some of this shit out.  If you have any suggestion, I’ll all ears…

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