A short note on reasons

Reasons have recently occupied the centre of the theory of value. Some writers, such as Tim Scanlonthink that they are not only central, but exhaust the topic, since everything important that we want to say about the good or the valuable, or the obligatory and the required, can be phrased in terms of reason. An action is good to perform if the reasons in favour of performing it are stronger than those in favour of doing anything else or doing nothing. An action is the right thing to do, or ought to be performed, if the reasons for doing it are so strong that it would be unreasonable to do anything else. In this kind of way, reasons can occupy the whole territory of ethics. Furthermore, if people who choose badly are choosing against reason, then this might seem to be a special and grave defect. It would locate the kind of fault they are indulging. It would give us, the people of reason, a special lever with which to dislodge their vices. For reason seems to have a peculiar compulsion about it. It is sometimes tempting to be bad, but surely not tempting to be irrational or unreasonable. Being able to corral knaves and villains in a compound reserved for those who trespass against reason and rationality may therefore represent definite progress. Reasons have another feature that attracts many contemporary theorists. They are just there, anyway. They exist whether or not agents take any notice of them. They do not only exist in the light of mere desires or mere inclinations. They are ‘external’ not ‘internal’. They bear on us, even when through ignorance or wickedness we take no notice of them. They thus very conspicuously shine the lights of objectivity, and independence, and even necessity. By basking in this light, ethics is rescued from the slough of sentiment and preference, and regains the dignity denied to it by theorists such as Hobbes or Hume, Gibbard or myself. Whole books have therefore been written stressing the external nature of reasons. These lines of thought contain less than meets the eye, however, if talk of reason just turns out to be another idiom for talking about the good and the right..
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