Reasons, Reason, and Context

In Errol Lord & Barry Maguire (eds.), Weighing Reasons. Oxford University Press (2016)
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Abstract
This paper explores various subtleties in our ordinary thought and talk about normative reasons—subtleties which, if taken seriously, have various upshots, both substantive and methodological. I focus on two subtleties in particular. The first concerns the use of reason (in its normative sense) as both a count noun and as a mass noun, and the second concerns the context-sensitivity of normative reasons-claims. The more carefully we look at the language of reasons, I argue, the clearer its limitations and liabilities become. The cumulative upshot is that although talk of reasons is intelligible and useful for the purposes of communication, we should be wary of placing much weight on it when engaging in substantive normative inquiry. By way of illustration, I consider some potential pitfalls of taking our talk of reasons too seriously, explaining how careful attention to the language of reasons undermines the main argument for moral particularism, Mark Schroeder’s recent defense of Humeanism about practical reasons, and the “reasons-first” program in metanormativity.
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