Evolution and the Nature of Reasons

Dissertation, Harvard University (2003)

Sharon Street
New York University
The driving question behind the dissertation is how we are to understand the nature of normativity, and in particular how we are to understand it in a way that is consistent with all of the various causal explanations---Darwinian and otherwise---of why we make the normative judgments we do. I explore this larger question by way of the pursuit of two more limited aims. ;The first aim is negative: it is to raise some questions, from a philosophical perspective informed by evolutionary biology, about the tenability of realism about reasons. According to this view, there are truths about reasons that hold independently of all of our judgments about reasons. Contemporary versions of this view claim to be compatible with natural science. I challenge this claim by arguing that realism about reasons is incompatible with the best evolutionary explanations of why human beings tend to make some normative judgments rather than others. Targets of my argument include normative realism , as well as ethical naturalism . ;The dissertation's second aim is positive: it is to begin developing a theory of what it is for someone to have a reason. I outline a version of constructivism about reasons, proposing that the fact that X is a reason to Y for some agent A is constituted by the fact that the judgment that X is a reason to Y withstands scrutiny from the standpoint of A's other judgments about reasons. This view is a species of anti-realism, since it construes truths about reasons as ultimately depending upon our judgments about reasons. Throughout the thesis, my concern is with the nature of normative reasons---that is to say, reasons in the sense of considerations that count in favor of or justify actions, beliefs, feelings, and so on
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