Reasons, value, and particular agents: Normative relevance without motivational internalism

Mind 113 (450):285-318 (2004)
Abstract
While differing widely in other respects, both neo-Humean and neo-Kantian approaches to normativity embrace an internalist thesis linking reasons for acting to potential motivation. This thesis pushes in different directions depending on the underlying view of the powers of practical reason, but either way it sets the stage for an attack on realist attempts to ground reasons directly in facts about value. How can reasons that are not somehow grounded in motivational features of the agent nonetheless count as reasons for that particular agent, having genuine normative force for her? Won't any realist, externalist view threaten to alienate the individual from the reasons that obtain for her, particularly if she fails (even after rational deliberation) to care about the values that are supposed to ground them? I argue that such objections can successfully be answered, and that externalist views of reasons need not be plagued with normative alienation. Focusing largely on a recent debate between Williams and McDowell over the nature of normative reasons, I show that a value-based externalist theory, when properly conceived, can account for the normative relevance of reasons to the particular agents for whom they obtain. Moreover, Williams's own sophisticated neo-Humeanism turns out to be vulnerable to parallel charges of normative alienation, which it cannot escape without compromising the very psychologistic orientation that has been its chief attraction. Realist externalism about reasons turns out to be a more viable and attractive alternative to both neo-Humeanism and neo-Kantianism than many currently take it to be.
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