Brains, Persons, and Society *** ABSTRACTS
Cervelli, Persone e Società ***ABSTRACTS
Some people believe that we must favour an indirect approach to cancel the impasse. They believe that solving central problems in meta-ethics would be afforded by turning our attention to processes of reasoning or to capacities labelled under the general term of rationality. The strategy presented in this paper defends that if we do not know how certain processes or capacities – motivation by moral claims, for example – are behaving in certain contexts, then maybe we should analyze how certain related capacities – motivation by claims of reasons or rationality – are behaving in another, quite more familiar, contexts. In sum, the central claim made here is that we must do some meta-rationality first in order to be able to resolve certain meta-ethical problems. In what follows, I will summarize an argument by Michael Smith to support the importance of meta-rationality as philosophical program.
The first argument, “Smith’s general argument”, goes as follows:
(1) Meta-ethics deals with a basic question: What kind of mental state do we express when we make a moral claim or when we engage in the practice of moral appraisal?
(2) Moral judgments share some central features with judgments about reasons and rationality: for example, both kinds of judgments must be capable to guide our actions and they both share a normative character built inside.
(3) Meta-rationality deals with a two-level task: (i) meta-rationality tries to define what kinds of concepts are more basic in the realm of reason and rationality; (ii) meta-rationality inquires, at the second level, about the kind of mental states being expressed when we make a reason or rationality’s judgment
(4) If (2) is a plausible ground in order to reduce (1) to (3) – and if we find a basic normative concept - then we could give an answer to (1) in the indirect way pointed by (3.ii)
This argument is subject, surely, to many objections. I am going to focus here, however, on what I understand as the most important step in “Smith’s general argument” in order to argue for meta-rationality. To defend meta-rationality is to find a plausible argument for premise (3.ii).
Smith gives such argument. We need only to assume that we have reached a basic normative concept – In Smith’s case: a psychology that meets all requirements and ideals of reason and rationality. I will refer to this basic normative concept as “B”. Besides, we need to accept that we can grasp, when we apply the concept “B” to a system, a set of general features extracted from the central situations where we apply “B”. I will refer to these features as “[C,U,I]” meaning something close to coherence, unity and informedness.
I take “Smith’s argument for meta-rationality” as claiming:
(2) A priori we can establish that B = [C,U,I]
(3) To argue for whatever member of the set [C,U,I] is “to argue for the a posteriori significance of some non-normative features over others”
(4) A priori, if a psychological system is fitting to the non-normative features in the set [C,U,I], then the psychological system is one that is B (by 2 and 3)
(5) When we ascribe a basic normative predicate to a system on the basis of these features we are expressing a minimal belief: the belief that certain system instantiates the non-normative features of the set (by 3).
(6) It follows that when we make a basic judgment of reason or rationality we are expressing a belief (by 4 and 5).
Premise (2) claims that when we apply “B” to a central range of cases we can find a set of features that are centrally connected with our more informed descriptions of such uses. Premise (2) does not imply, however, that the basic normative concept - “B” - must be identical in meaning to the features isolated using the very process of conceptual analysis.
Premise (3) claims that the set of features are supervening over purely non-normative features. It would be possible to use the functional structure implicit in the set “[C,U,I]” to offer a global reduction in purely descriptive terms.
Premise (4) claims that if a psychological system fits the set of non-normative features, then our use of such basic normative predicate, as referring to a system, is entailed by a conjunction of non-normative facts.
Premise (5) is the central point in the argument. Premise (5) claims that when we ascribe a judgment of reasons and rationality we are, at least, grounding our judgment on certain descriptive facts, as premises (3) and (4) defend. If we say, for example, that “A is being coherent in believing that p” then A is filling some non-normative features – in the “maybe this-maybe that form”- that makes his belief coherent. If the important thing from the meta-rationality’s stance is to know what we are doing when we ascribe normative or evaluative properties to agents, then premise (5) gives us an answer: we are expressing a belief.
Premise (6) claims that when we ascribe a basic normative concept to a system we are – by (4) and (5) – expressing, at least, a minimal belief related to the way in which this system fits the descriptive characterization.
Such argument is endorsed by cognitivism in theory of normativity. I am not concerned here with the whole argument. Probably, Smith’s argument falls into several critics (rejecting the concept of analysis being used, or the relation of identity implicit in it). In what follows, I will focus only in some problems for premise (5).
3. The intuition on which premise (5) is resting takes the realm of facts as necessary to ground our judgments of rationality. The implicit assumption seems to be that only certain psychological states could fit into the conceptual space suggested by the argument above. So, when we make a judgement of rationality we are expressing beliefs, because beliefs, it is argued, constitutively fit the descriptive conditions conceptually required by any right judgment of rationality. I will argue, however, that when we apply a normative predicate we are not merely pointing to facts. We are expressing some complex psychological capacity.
Take an argument around the concept of belief coming from Frank Jackson Jackson argues:
(i) Constitutively, to be in a belief state is to satisfy a set of normative constraints.
(ii) To satisfy a constraint is to have the relevant descriptive property.
(iii) If non-cognitivism is true, there are no descriptive properties corresponding to normative constraints.
(iv) In consequence – and granted that (i) is very plausible – if non-cognitivism is true, there is no such thing as to satisfy a constraint and there is no such thing as to be in a belief state.
But there is an
obvious and old problem
lurking here. The problem emerges when we consider an intuitive
agent can be under a normative constraint but still not
satisfy the normative constraint. There is an important
difference, in this sense, between to satisfy
a constraint, by having the normative property because the
property is entailed by certain descriptive features in the right way,
and being under the scope of a normative
constraint, by having only the relevant descriptive properties. To
a constraint is, according to
In order to
accept premise (ii) in
The mistaken assumption is that in order to fulfil a basic normative requirement we need not only to believe that q; we need to believe that q because we believe that (we believe that p and believe that if p then q). I will refer to this assumption as (JA)
(ii) Ab (p then q)
Imagine a situation where an agent has a belief about his own beliefs. He is complying with a normative basic requirement, but the right belief is caused by a deviant process outside the high-level state or second-order belief. To have a belief about our own beliefs is clearly not sufficient to comply with a normative requirement “in the right way”. (Suppose that a philosopher, who is embracing something close to (JA), purports to solve this problem by adding a third-order belief. Clearly, the regress of attitudes at different levels is lurking here).
Consider another possible argument. Imagine that we are under the scope of the instrumental principle. We have a belief about our intention, and we have a belief about our instrumental belief. Many people agree that there are two possible ways to comply with such kind of requirement on attitudes. It is said that we can form the intention or, if we don’t form the intention, it is claimed that we could revise the ground of our end. If something like (JA) is right, then we could comply with the wide-scope instrumental requirement by revising our beliefs about our own states. But it is clear that this process is missing something essential to any rational procedure of revision of attitudes: the process should be directed to the very content of the propositional attitude, to the ground or evidence supporting our intention, and not to be directed to the belief toward the very content. Rational processes of belief revision are essentially content-oriented processes and cannot be understood as resting on our own beliefs about the states - insofar we want to revise our intention in a rational way.
Both kinds of
problems are pressing us to
look for another interpretation of “what it is to fulfil a
(b) AB (p then q)
accept that, although we do not
need any higher-order beliefs, we need - if we want again to rule out
pure deviance - to postulate a non-accidentality’s
proviso and to understand this condition in some way.
This could be
a serious problem for cognitivism - at least if their advocates cannot
how to understand, in a descriptive spirit, this strange fact. The queer fact is expressing,
in the end,
that the descriptive realm is not sufficient when we are explaining how
fulfil a normative requirement in the
5. I will end this paper making some claims about the concept of rational capacity in Smith’s overall position. Take a familiar picture as granted in what follows: some doings by the agent can be explained by certain mental states - beliefs and desires. Both kinds of mental states could be used, at the same time, as an evaluative ground to appraise his moral responsibility.
Smith argues that when we morally evaluate an action we are supposing the truth of certain modal claims - and not only the fact that some pairs of psychological states are present in the agent. In some cases, we can say that the agent was weak-willed because he could have acted in accordance with his normative beliefs – although, in fact, he doesn’t act in this way. In another cases, we suppose that the agent was in the grip of compulsion because he could not have acted in accordance with such beliefs. All these claims are modal claims - claims about what could be open for agents to do in certain situationsothers than the current one . Although in making a modal claim we are referring to the psychological states of the agent, modal claims are not claims about mental states.
“My suggestion will be that the ‘could’ claims that we assume to be true (or false) when we describe someone as reckless, or weak, or compelled, all means much the same thing. Specifically, they all signify the presence (or absence) of a rational capacity, which we take to explain certain behaviour. The difficult task is to say what, precisely, makes it the case that someone has (or lacks) such a rational capacity” Smith, M. 2003/2004. p. 115
Smith is going to argue for this point in the wider context of action explanation. The ascription of the classic pair of mental states is not securing that some events occurring trough the agent fall into the category of action. Agents – no matter at what level, personal or sub-personal - must be capable to put together in the right way beliefs and desires in order to act in a minimal autonomous way. The rational capacity by means of which they can put together a belief and a desire is not supposed to be – and I take this as Smith’s standard position by now – at the same level than any cognitive or non-cognitive states.
Taking for granted this point, there is no descriptive counterpart for the rational capacity required to connect both mental states in the right way. In this sense, the sort of arguments stressed by Smith and Jackson, arguments trying to argue for certain conceptual constraints that could be used to elucidate the nature of the state expressed in normative claims, are not well secured. The reason is that while certain psychological states – the state of “to be under a normative requirement” - could be descriptively reduced to some extent, the prospect to reduce the capacity underlying the utterance of certain normative judgments is far from successful.
6 My general thesis rests on the conviction that cognitivism offers, when it is understood in a descriptive style, the wrong image of what is to be in a normative-oriented state. I have argued that we can be under certain descriptive conditions - conditions required to apply a normative concept - and not to be, in fact, complying with a requirement. The rational capacity underlying the utterance of normative claims by competent speakers may include an array of complex disposition modally articulated, as I argued in section 3 and 4. The complex state underlying all these situations is not the best candidate, in any case, to be the object of a descriptive reduction.
that in these contexts we cannot use a descriptive ground to understand
in which a normative term is working is to reject the strong claim
that the descriptive core is essential in every domains.
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 Smith, M. (2005)
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 Dancy, J. (2006)
 Compare Jackson, F. Pettit, P. (1995/2004). p. 202
 See Kolodni, N. (2005) and Moran, R. (2003)