Reasons ascriptions

(Note: this post is in large part a reprint of a couple posts I wrote on the subject a few weeks back on my own blog.)

1. The case

I take it that most people are familiar with what Williams’ petrol case (“petrol” cuz he was British lol), so my exposition will be cursory. Wilfrid wants a gin and tonic and has good epistemic reason to believe that the glass of clear liquid on the counter is a gin and tonic. Actually, though, it’s a glass of petrol. Consider the following two sentences:

(1) Wilfrid has reason to drink what’s in the glass.

(2) Wilfrid has reason to drink the petrol.

My intuition in the case is that (1) is true while (2) is false. In the comments to my first post on this topic, Pitt grad student Shawn Standefer offered the following diagnosis:

I asked someone knowledgable and he said that the problem lies more with the opacity of descriptions of intentional actions than with the opacity of reason ascriptions (there is a roughly non-existent literature on reason ascriptions apart from general propositional attitude ascriptions). The opacity of descriptions of actions goes back to Anscombe, through Davidson, and on. He said to look at Carl Ginet’s “On Actoin” [sic] for an introductory discussion.

My familiarity with the opacity of description of intentional action is cursory. I take it that Shawn’s point is supposed to be something like this. Generally speaking, A intentionally φ’s only if (i) A φ’s and (ii) either φ’ing is the description under which A φ’s, or ψ’ing is the description under which A φ’s and A is in some sense aware that by ψ’ing she will φ. (I’m sure this needs to be corrected. Suggestions?)

2. A proposal

I’m happy to grant that the reason we can’t move from (1) to (2) is that reasons-ascriptions inherit their opacity from the description of intentional action. It would be extremely interesting to see a worked-out account of what exactly the connection is. As a rough first pass, we might say that A has reason to φ only if it is possible (in some to-be-specified sense) for A to intentionally φ. The hesitation in moving from (1) to (2) makes me think that the relevant sense of possibility will be rational and relativized to (what’s presupposed to be) the content of A’s doxastic state. That is to say: it is possible in the relevant sense for A to intentionally φ iff it would be rational, given what A believes, for A to intentionally φ. (I realize this isn’t exactly an argument, though it seems like a plausible starting point.) So the revised account of the connection would be something like what’s given in (O):

(O) A has reason to φ only if it would be rational, given what A believes, for A to intentionally φ.

(O) has the virtue of explaining (in what’s to my mind an intuitively satisfying way) the divergent intuitions about (1) and (2). In Williams’ case, it would be rational, given what Wilfrid believes, for Wilfrid to intentionally drink what’s in the glass. It would not be rational, given what Wilfrid believes, for Wilfrid to intentionally drink the petrol. I think this is an interesting result, and I haven’t really seen it discussed anywhere in the literature on normative reasons.

3. A word on intuitions and the folk

Ethicists seem to be put off by my intuitions about (1) and (2), as they seem to universally converge on the intuition that each sentence is false in this context of use. (This was, of course, Williams’ reaction as well.) Interestingly, though, my intuitions about (1) and (2) seem to be fairly standard among the folk. Steve Campbell, bless his heart, sent out a survey to some of his non-philosopher acquaintances, describing Williams’ petrol case and asking them about their intuitions about (1) and (2). There seems to be some kind of consensus that, in Williams’ case, (1) is true and (2) is false. (Caveats: the sample was very small and the consensus wasn’t perfect. Still, having done a bit of my own informal intution pumping, my impression is that this response will tend to be the standard one.)

I take this to be prima facie evidence that, despite the ordinary co-referentiality of ‘what’s in the glass’ and ‘the petrol’, these two expressions are, in fact, not co-referential in this context of use.[*] (You can resist this, but you’ll need some kind of error-theory to go with your resistance. This doesn’t, to me, seem like a promising direction, given that only those corrupted by the ethics literature seem to converge on the intuition that (1) and (2) are both false.) Here, then, are some lessons.

First, you can’t argue — as I suspect many ethicists will be tempted to do — for the falsity of (1) by citing supposed entailment relations between (2) and (1). If ‘what’s in the glass’ and ‘the petrol’ are not co-referential in this context of use, then (2) does not entail (1) and (1) does not entail (2).

Second, we need some kind of explanation for the non-co-referentiality of ‘what’s in the glass’ and ‘the petrol’ in this context of use. It seems to me that the best explanation will be that we have a specific sort of intensional context on our hands, one where referring expressions behave a lot like they do in the clausal complements of belief-ascriptions. A more complete explanation might be wanted, in which case the (O) criterion proposed in the prior section seems to be adequate.


[*] I should make clear that I’m bringing along a lot of my own belief-ascriptions baggage here. For independent reasons, I think it’s best to assimilate intensional contexts to a special kind of extensional context where the semantic values of the constituents are determined by a kind of pragmatic accommodation. Even if you don’t go this route, if you think there are entailment relations between (1) and (2) (as most ethicists do), you’ll need to give an error theory that explains why most people are willing to affirm (1) and reject (2).


13 Responses to Reasons ascriptions

  1. Brad C says:

    Good stuff.

    I think whether (1) or (2) is true depends on how you fill out the story, specifically, how that filling bears on the epistemic status of Wilfrid’s belief.

    Think about it this way: whether he has reason to take a swig depends on whether he could reasonably be expected to notice that it is petrol in the jar. Here are contrast examples I use to motivate my view: if it is a clever-evil-poisoner scenario, he has reason, but if he is at a party in a chemistry lab and people are drinking out of beakers for the novelty of it, he has no reason. Roughly: Wilfrid has reason iff his belief is held in an epistemically responsible manner (not sure about that specific way of cashing the point). More generally: Wilfrid has reason to phi in context C iff, in C, he could have respnsbly believed everything in set B and it would be good for him to phi if everything in B were true.

    I think some such account is better than the rational-relative-to-the-false-belief story, because the later fails to capture the difference between the two cases mentioned above.

    Also: I bet if you do the folk experiment on them, people will say no reason in the lab party case and yes reason in the clever evil poisoner case.

  2. Brad C says:

    A bit more:

    On the account sketched, we can explain why most people are willing to affirm (1) and reject (2) by appeal to that fact that it is unlikely that people are thinking of a case in which Wilfrid can responsibly believe petrol will not harm him and it is likely they are thinking of a case in which he can responsibly believe drinking from the glass will be good for him (i.e. the evil poisoner scenario). But there might be cases where Wilfrid could responsibly believe that drinking petrol is good for him and, in those cases, (1) and (2) would both be true. Again this responsibility version seems better: we would not want to say he has reason to drink petrol if due to wishful thinking alone he believes it will be good for him to drink the petrol (and would hence be “rational” relative to his false blf).

  3. natecharlow says:

    Brad, I think I like your revision, and I’m prepared, with some minor adjustments (e.g. I’m trying to avoid controversy as much as possible, so I’d only take the left-to-right half of your equivalence, since it’s all we need to explain the case), to adopt it. If I wanted to throw a tantrum, though, here’s how I’d do it.

    I’d say that it is always irrational to irresponsibly believe / fail to believe, and that actions motivated in part by irrational beliefs are themselves irrational. For example (I stole this case from John Gibbons), my girlfriend leaves a note on the fridge saying that we need more Silk. The note’s sitting in front of my nose, but I miss it because I’m being inattentive. It seems like the note is a reason to believe that we need more Silk, and that I’m (in some sense) irrational for ignoring it — if I’m rational, I pay attention to my epistemic surroundings, so to speak. My epistemic irrationality infects my action; while it’s in one sense (the given-what-I-believe sense) rational for me not to get Silk at the store, my not getting Silk is grounded on an irrational belief and is therefore itself irrational. If it is always irrational to irresponsibly believe / fail to believe, and actions motivated in part by irrational beliefs are themselves irrational, (O), I think, subsumes your revision.

    Anyway, I don’t think that point is worth having that tantrum. I like your revision and I think I need to accommodate it in some way.

  4. Erica Lucast says:


    It strikes me that the March 7th post on PEA Soup is relevant here; I wouldn’t have gone about tackling this problem in terms of opacity of intentionality, but rather in terms of a distinction between what is reasonable in a context vs. what there is actually most reason to do. I didn’t actually get through all the comments on the post, but Ralph Wedgwood calls on philosophers to make careful distinctions in this arena. Or am I missing something important?

  5. Steve C. says:

    1. While you’re in no position to understand this yet, there’s a good reason for you to drop this view.

    2. While you’re in no position to understand this yet, you have good reason to drop this view.

    Are 1 and 2 the same? It sounds as if your view commits you to thinking that 2 is confused. It’s not obvious to me that it is, but…it wouldn’t surprise me if I do indeed have corrupt linguistic intuitions. (Damn you, ethics.) But even if 2 is problematic, I feel more confident that 1 is not. Do you think that’s right? (Or do you hold that 1 involves an intensional context as well?) And if that’s right, it seems like the ethicist can help herself to the subjective/objective reason distinction, recognizing that the former fits more with “having reason” talk while the latter fits more with “being a reason” talk. So, perhaps ethicists shouldn’t be put off by your findings. If 1 is unproblematic, the ethicist can feel secure in calling objective reasons “reasons.” What do you think?

    That being said, I wonder if “rationality” and “rational” relate predominantly, if not exclusively, to subjective reasons in our ordinary talk. I have trouble imagining that I would ever fault someone on rational grounds for something he didn’t and couldn’t have known. Perhaps ethicists do revise (or distort?) ordinary language when/if they take objective reasons to be a factor in rationality. Thoughts on that, anyone?

    On a side note: As a way of testing out your theory, maybe you could write up a paragraph-story, including a sentence like 2 somewhere in the text. Give it to some folk out there and ask them to identify any problems that they find in the passage–that is, ask them to proofread it for you. See if people tend to identify 2 as being confused in the way you say it is.

    (Hey, you could go to writing centers across the country, posing as an undergraduate with a crappy short story that needs proofreading!!)

  6. nate charlow says:


    A couple points:

    1. The linguistic evidence seems clear — there definitely is some kind of intensional context at play in reasons-ascriptions. This phenomenon demands explanation.

    2. I think the right explanation can help some light on what might have looked to be a fairly intractable problem. I took this — the apparent futility of the use of reasons ascriptions in ethics, given the two kinds of uses the notion of a reason can have — to be the main lesson of the Wedgwood post on PEA Soup. I think I’ve adduced some evidence that our central notion of a normative reason is one that we can attribute to an agent only when my (O) criterion is satisfied. That seems like a significant result; an intractable problem now looks a bit less so.

  7. nate charlow says:


    (2) isn’t confused. I grant that there are (at least) two notions of a normative reason, one that obeys (O), one that does not. My notion however seems to be the central one, because of the default role it seems to play in ordinary discourse about reasons. Our informants had a choice about which concept of a normative reason to deploy in assessing the truth of my (1) and (2), and they chose to deploy the (O) concept. (Admittedly I need more linguistic data to make this claim with any great confidence, but as things stand it doesn’t seem too outlandish.)

    It seems crazy to say that the notion of an objective reason, as I understand it, has any connection with rationality beyond the following (definitely needs revision, but this is an adequate first pass):

    (R) S has objective reason to phi iff it would be rational for S to phi, if S knew all the facts.

    In sum, I come neither to bury “objective” reasons, nor to praise them.

  8. Clayton says:

    Here’s a call for a second pass in stating (R).

    If S doesn’t know whether p but knows that it is (a) easy to find out whether p and (b) of crucial importance to do so before acting, S has a reason to investigate as to whether p.

    If S knew all the facts, S wouldn’t have a reason to investigate. S does, however, have a reason to investigate.

    I still don’t know what’s wrong with this bit of reasoning:

    Although W doesn’t know it, his glass is filled with petrol. Because of this and because he has no reason to drink petrol, he has no reason to drink what’s in the glass.

    This reasoning seems fine, but it seems like fine reasoning only if we say that (2) logically follows from (1) and the assumption that what is in the glass is petrol. If you think there is some sense of ‘reason’ such that the reasoning is bad, let me know.

  9. Steve C. says:

    Well, I think I do go along with you in thinking that people tend to say T/F for your original 1/2, in line with the (O) concept.

    My point was mainly to suggest that the “having reason” form of those statements may partly explain the data and that your concept may not be the central one in sentences of the “being a reason” form. At some point, you might also run the following by people:

    (3) There’s good reason for Wilfrid to drink what’s in the glass.
    (4) There’s good reason for Wilfrid to drink the petrol.

    It seems to me that 3/4 are also part of our ordinary discourse about reasons. And unless people also answer T/F about these, I’m not sure I see the warrant for thinking your (O) concept the central one.

    …unless, perhaps, you can also show that rational/rationality talk lines up with (O). [And I suspect that you can. Perhaps you could rework 1/2 into something like “Wilfred is rational to drink…” (??)]

  10. nate charlow says:

    Sorry for the delay in responding.


    You’re right about the reformulation of (R).

    Picking up on your blog post… In certain cases (e.g. certain instances of presupposition failure — judging “the king of france is in this chair here” false), it’s plausible to suggest that people’s ordinary intuitive assessments of truth-values are wrong and that there’s a systematic explanation for why they’re wrong. There might be an analogous story to tell here, but it’s your burden to tell it.

    I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that inference, but in my view, using this to argue against the opacity of (1) is sort of like using an inference from one de re belief-ascription to another against the ordinary opacity of the belief-verb.


    The “there is/exists a reason” construction is assuredly a strained one (so, I think, not part of our ordinary discourse about reasons at all; look what ethics has done to your mind!), and it’s not surprising that the linguistic data would differ on these sentences. (“There’s no reason…” is pretty common, but I think it’s usually elliptical for “you don’t have any reason.”) I prefer to stick with thinking about my own construction and see what comes of it.

    We can’t understand (1) and (2) as equivalent to “Wilfrid is rational to drink (…)”, since the “A is rational to (…)” construction doesn’t exhibit any kind of opacity, as far as I can tell.

  11. edu says:

    What about this option? (I didn’t take the time to read ALL the comments, so I hope I’m not repeating someone else’s).

    They are both true.

    BUT, what is up for grabs is which one is properly asserted, which will depend, obviously, on the context. This is VERY similar to the Fregean cases: did Hammurabi believed that Phosphorus was Hesperus? Likewise, correferentiality, opacity, intetionality, and what not, are not going to help (I think). We are looking in the wrong direction. The problem, I think, is not about language, but about our theories of mind. So, depending on what we want to predict about Wilfrid, it will be proper to assert either (1) or (2).

    If, for instance, we want to predict Wilfrid’s behavior for the next couple minutes, it is proper to say (1). But, if we want to avoid Wilfrid from haming himself, it will be correct to assert (2) so that someone in the viccinity will stop him.

    Or not.

  12. Jon S. says:

    Hey Nate,

    I’m curious about something. Would it upset you badly if I thought (1) and (2) were both true, and thought that the reason I think (2) is true has something to do with the “the” stuck in there before “petrol”? It seems to me that, according to my weaselly but non-ethicist intuitions, (1) is true iff (2) is.

    Maybe this is also what Edu thinks?

    Set us straight, Semantics Man!


    P.S. Upon further, intensive review, I am most definitely not balding, you punk.

  13. Steve says:

    “(O) A has reason to φ only if it would be rational, given what A believes, for A to intentionally φ.”

    Nate, what do you take “rational” to mean in (O)? Can you rewrite (O) without using that term on the righthand side?

    (O’) A has reason to φ only if, given A’s belief set, A’s intentionally φ-ing would be in line with (or responsive to) the reasons that A has.


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