Monday, June 01, 2015

Factoring Views about Having Reasons

I have been thinking about Mark Schroeder’s very interesting paper, “Having Reasons”. He argues against a ‘factoring account’ of having a reason for action, and he also argues that epistemologists have been misled by assuming a parallel factoring account of evidence.

I have three reactions.

  1. Schroeder is unclear about what exactly the commitments of the factoring account are; I think he may slide between a stronger and a weaker reading of it. This isn’t disastrous for his own project, because he wants to reject both readings, but I think it’s important to keep them separate (in part because of (2) below).
  2. The stronger reading is pretty plausibly false (though maybe not just for the reasons Shroeder says) but the weaker reading is pretty plausibly true (despite his arguments).
  3. Epistemologists have not been misled by assuming (a strong form of) the factoring account.
I’ll try to defend (1) in this post.

What is the factoring account? Schroeder first introduces it via an analogy:
When someone has a ticket to the opera, that is because there is a ticket to the opera, and it is in her possession—she has it. Similarly, if one has a golf partner, this can only be because there is someone who is a golf partner, and one has him. But here, it is not like there are people out there who have the property of being golf partners, and one is in your possession. Rather, being a golf partner is simply a relational property, and the golf partner you have—your golf partner—is simply the one who stands in the golf partner of relation to you. 
A factoring account of having opera tickets is true. There is an opera ticket, and moreover, one has it. A factoring account of having golf partners, however, is to be rejected. What exactly is wrong with this view? Schroeder says it’s a commitment to the implausible claim that “there are people out there who have the property of being golf partners, and one is in your possession.” But of course, strictly speaking, there are people out there who are golf partners, and one of them is mine. I agree with Schroeder that there’s an important contrast between these cases, but I don’t think he’s quite articulated what it is. I think it has to do with grounding. What makes it the case that I have an opera ticket is the existence of this thing the opera ticket, combined with me standing in a suitable relationship to it. But the existence of the golf partner, combined with my relationship to her, doesn’t make it the case that I have a golf partner. On the contrary, it is my having her as a golf partner that makes it the case that she is a golf partner. The relationship, not the object, is relatively fundamental here; the existence of the golf partner—though genuine—is derivative.

So distinguish these claims:

  • Weak Factoring: Any time S has R as a reason, there exists a reason R, and S stands in a suitable having relation to R.
  • Strong Factoring: What it is for S to have R as a reason is for there to exist a reason R, and for S to stand in a suitable having relation to R.
As the names imply, Strong Factoring implies Weak Factoring, but not vice versa. If what I said about golf partners is correct, Weak Factoring does not get at the intuitive contrast between opera tickets and golf partners. The analogue of Weak Factoring is true of golf partners. (Contra the letter of Schroeder's text, any time one has a golf partner, there really is someone who is a a golf partner that one has.) I don’t think Schroeder is at all clear about this; he writes at times as if ‘the Factoring Account’ is just Weak Factoring. (i.e., “[T]he Factoring Account has two major commitments. In any case in which it seems that there is a reasons someone has to do something, whatever is the reason that she has must be just that: (1) a reason for her to do it, and (2) one that she has.” p. 58)

The distinction makes an important difference when it comes to thinking about the views one might have about reasons. For example, here is a possible view one might have about reasons: R=K. (A proposition is among a subject’s reasons if and only if the subject knows that proposition.) This view counts as a Weak Factoring view—any time you have knowledge, there is some knowledge, and moreover, you have it. But it is not a Strong Factoring view; the extinct of the knowledge ontologically depends on your having the knowledge. It is more like golf partners than opera tickets.

“Weak Factoring” is probably a misnomer, really—the view in question isn’t a kind of factoring at all. It’s a mere entailment claim. So when Schroeder’s argument against what he calls ‘The Factoring View’ takes the form of counterexamples to Weak Factoring, he’s really making a much more radical claim than anything we should call the rejection of a factoring treatment of having reasons. He's rejecting the mere entailment from having a reason to there being a reason.

(His counterexamples are cases where a subject acts on a reasonable but mistaken belief—like Bernard Williams’s subject who takes a sip of the liquid in his glass because he falsely believes it’s a martini. I don’t think these are counterexamples, for reasons I won’t go into right now.)


  1. Hey JJI,

    Another uninformed question lobbed up to ya:

    Is there some difference between knowing something and knowing somebody? Is the word "knowing" as different in the two cases as the word stick in its two meanings: "stick it to my monitor" and "hit me with a stick"?

    I feel like the statement "If you knew Bobby, you wouldn't offer him a cigarette because he's trying to quit" reflects a really good kind of knowledge. But even basic physical laws fall apart in astronomical or quantum contexts... I don't really know that F=ma unless we're in the middle of the range of the law's usefulness.


    1. Sorry for the very slow response, Elliot! Yes, there's definitely a difference. The kind of 'knowledge by acquaintance' you're describing, as when I know my grandmother, does seem to be in at least some important ways different from the sort of 'propositional knowledge' that epistemologists like me tend to focus on. One way to see that they're different concerns the object of knowledge: in one case, you can know *objects* or *people*; in another case, you can only know *facts*.

      The relationship between these two kinds of knowledge seems to me a good question. It seems like at least part of what it is to know a person might be to know some facts about that person, but there must be more to the story. (I know many facts about Donald Trump, but I don't know Donald Trump.)