94th Joint Session of the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society

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Do We Have Normative Powers?

Ruth Chang (Oxford)


‘Normative powers’ are capacities to create normative reasons by our willing or ‘say so’. They are significant because, if we have them and exercise them, then sometimes the reasons we have are ‘up to us’. But such powers seem mysterious. How can we, by willing, create reasons?

In this paper, I examine whether normative powers can be adequately explained normatively, by appeal to norms of a practice, normative principles, human interests, or values. Can normative explanations of normative powers explain how an exercise of the will can afford us special freedom in determining our reasons? I argue that normative approaches to answering this question prove to be inadequate. To vindicate the thought that normative powers can make our reasons ‘up to us’, we need an altogether different approach to understanding them, one that is located not in the normative but in the metaphysical. I end the paper by sketching, a metaphysical explanation of normative powers. This metaphysical defense of normative powers provides a window into a different, more agential way of thinking about rational agency.


Ruth Chang is Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University and Professorial Fellow at University College, Oxford, coming to Oxford after working as a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University for nearly twenty years. She took her BA at Dartmouth College, JD at Harvard Law School, and DPhil at Balliol, Oxford. She has held visiting positions at the UCLA philosophy department and the University of Chicago Law School. She is author of Making Comparisons Count and Come Prendere Decisioni Difficili?, editor of Incommensurability, Incomparability, and Practical Reason, and co-editor with Kurt Sylvan of The Philosophy of Practical Reason (forthcoming). She is currently working with Amia Srinivasan on an edited volume, New Conversations in Philosophy, Politics, and Law, which will be published by OUP.

Her research concerns the nature of normativity, value, agency, rationality and their connections. Some of her work has reached the public sphere through a TED talk she gave in 2016. She has given philosophically-minded talks to many general audiences globally, and her work has been the subject of interviews by various media outlets in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, Taiwan, Australia, Italy, Israel, Brazil, New Zealand, and Austria. She has been a consultant or lecturer for institutions ranging from video gaming to pharmaceuticals to the CIA and World Bank.

Appropriate Normative Powers

Victor Tadros (Warwick) 


A normative power is a power to alter rights and duties directly. This paper explores what it means to alter rights and duties directly. In the light of that, it examines the kind of argument that might support the existence of normative powers. Both simple and complex instrumentalist accounts of such powers are rejected, as is an approach to normative powers that is based on the existence of normative interests. An alternative is sketched, where normative powers arise based on the appropriateness of a person responding to a decision by limiting their freedom.


Victor Tadros is Professor of Criminal Law and Legal Theory at the University of Warwick. He was educated at Oxford University (BA Hons) and at King’s College, London (PhD). Prior to joining Warwick in 2006, he held lectureships at the University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh, and in the fall of 2015 he was Carter Visiting Professor of General Jurisprudence at Harvard Law School. From 2010-13 he held an AHRC Research Grant, with Antony Duff, Lindsay Farmer, Sandra Marshall and Massimo Renzo, to work on criminalization. He held a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship from 2014-2018, and was elected as Fellow of the British Academy in 2018.

Victor has written extensively on the philosophy of criminal law, just war theory, and on a range of issues in moral, legal and political philosophy. He is the author of Criminal Responsibility (Oxford University Press, 2005), The Ends of Harm: The Moral Foundations of Criminal Law (Oxford University Press, 2011), and Wrongs and Crimes (Oxford University Press, 2016), and his book on just war theory – To Do, To Die, To Reason Why – is forthcoming, also with Oxford University Press.

The supplementary volume for the conference will be available from 3-13 July.


  • Simon Kirchin

    10th July 2020 at 5:25 pm

    Hello everyone. I’m Simon Kirchin (Kent) and I’m chairing / moderating this session. First, I’d like to thank everyone for logging on. I’m really sorry we can’t be holding the JS in Kent this year, but even if the conference is different from what we are used to, I hope it will be just as good. Second, I’d like to thank Ruth and Victor for two really interesting papers. I’m looking forward to reading people’s comments. I’ll check in every so often across the weekend to see how the discussion is going, and I know that Ruth and Victor are hoping to do the same. If there are any problems, please email me at my University of Kent address. Best wishes, Simon

  • Jaakko Reinikainen

    11th July 2020 at 11:15 am

    I have three comments to Ruth Chang: a critical question, a constructive suggestion, and a notion that’s something in between. I shall present them in the reverse order.

    First of all, I agree with the sentiment that rationality should not be viewed only as a passive capacity to recognize and respond to reasons but also as an active power to create them. Another author who has advanced this combined view of rationality is Robert Brandom, both in his Making It Explicit and the new book A Spirit of Trust. In his adapted slogan, we both make and find our reasons. The major contrast between his work and yours is, I think, that Brandom takes the creation of reasons to be essentially a social process, whereas the concept of willing seems to be essentially an individual feat. I think that from Brandom’s perspective, the community can create its reasons by creating, not only its “mere norms”, but also the normative principles that ultimately justify actions. So in sum, I think that your criticism of the normative approaches to normative powers does not take this possibility into account, at least in this paper.

    Second, a constructive suggestion. You argue that robust normative powers can only be exercised when there is “room” for them, namely in well-formed choice situations where “normative significance of the reasons at stake cannot be represented by a cardinal scale of what matters in the choice”. However, perhaps there is similar room for robust normative powers not only when the choices are incommensurable, but also when they are perfectly commensurable, i.e. where the numerical values of the cardinal scales are equal. In other words, a hypothetical Buridan’s donkey situation might potentially give rise to room for robust normative powers, although such situations are virtually never exactly realized in the actual world. In the face of qualitatively equally good alternatives, the subject’s willing for one of them grounds her reason for choosing it.

    Third, I had difficulties understanding the concept of willing as distinct from ordinary mental pro-attitudes like desires in terms of creating reasons. I must confess though that I have not read your other works on the topic, so this is mostly a question out of ignorance. If the willing grounds the status of a fact as a reason, I take it that the fact will retain the reason-status also if the subject stops willing it, or performs a contrary act of willing. For if the reason-status is completely dependent on the active willing of the subject, it is hard to see how it could be the fact itself and not the willing itself that ultimately carries the force of reason. However, if the willing has the power to make a fact a reason, how could it not also have the converse power to unmake the fact as a reason? The dilemma then is: how can the willing institute a reason-status for a fact that is independent of the willing in that the same will cannot revoke the status. If the willing indeed has also the power to revoke, then it seems to me essentially similar to how desires create reasons. The boulder on the road is a reason for me to swerve because I have a desire to avoid collision. Should I lose that desire, I lose the reason to swerve.

    1. Ruth Chang

      11th July 2020 at 8:42 pm

      Hi Jaakko,
      Thanks very much for your three excellent comments. Here are some thoughts on your probing points in the order in which you present them. (Sorry for the time lag – I’m 5 hours behind)….

      1. Here is how I understand Brandom’s views in relation to mine. (Huge caveat: I’m no Brandom expert so please correct me if I’m wrong). I think of Brandom as building importantly on the Hegelian idea that normativity is essentially social. I disagree vehemently with this approach to normativity and say in a too-fast manner in the paper that those who think that the normativity of reasons derives from our social practices are mistaken; it derives from the objective normative principles or reasons that justify those practices. Now there are two ways to go from here; Brandom could agree by arguing further that it’s practices all the way down; that the normative principles that justify our social practices are themselves created by our social practices, but I have trouble understanding such a view, or rather, I think that such a view forces us to a too-revisionary concept of normativity that isn’t our concept of normativity. But you’re right that I don’t consider such a view in the paper. In the alternative, Brandom could say, well, yes, the normative principles that justify our social practices depend upon our social practices but are not created by them. Some normative principles that may justify social practices may have to do with social goods, and those clearly will depend upon social practices. But in this case, the view slots right into the view I do consider in the paper, namely one according to which the reasons we supposedly ‘create’ are grounded in regular ole normative principles or values that are given to us and not created by us. My claim is that it is a mistake to think that we genuinely create such reasons since we have those reasons in just the same way we have reasons to swerve in front of falling boulders. We must understand the way we create reasons in different terms – in terms of an activity of the will and in particular the activity of willing something to be a reason as itself grounding reasons. You make me think I should study Brandom some more. But does that sound right to you?

      2. On the case of equality. First, an aside. Equality is, in my view, a degenerate case of commensurability because if two items are equally good, you can always jimmy up a fake cardinal measure of the covering consideration with respect to which they are equally good, and put them on the same point on the (sometimes very limited) scale. This is a controversial view, and in essence, I’m saying that all cases of ordinal equality are also cases of cardinal equality. Because I understand equality in this way, being equally good is as fully determinate normative reality there could be – and thus the normative facts leave no ‘room’ for us in the determination of our reasons. I don’t think equality occurs very often. All you have to do is take a case of items you think are equally good, then run what I have called the Small Improvement Argument: improve one of the items a bit, and see if that forces you to conclude that the improved item is better. (There’s a bunch of arguments about this argument, yada, yada, but I think it is essentially sound). So on the principle that we only have the capacity to exercise our normative powers only when the normative reality we’re dealing with isn’t as standard decision theory supposes, equality is ruled out.

      That’s pretty unsatisfactory an answer. I’ve given elsewhere a second reason which may be slightly more persuasive. Here goes. The rough idea is that it would be unfitting, inappropriate, bizarre if the normative power we have to quite literally create reasons by being their ground could be properly exercised in cases in which, as an intrinsic matter, it is ALSO always rational to flip a coin b/t alternatives. Taking only into account the merits of the bales of hay with respect to what matters in the choice between them (that’s what I mean by ‘intrinsic’ here), Buridan’s Ass (or Al Ghazali’s date eater) may always rationally flip a coin b/t the bales. How could such a weighty, god-like ability to create reasons be properly exercised in cases in which it is ALSO perfectly rational to flip a coin? The idea behind this argument is the same; the way normative reality is constrains the conditions under which we can exercise our normative powers. It’s as if a god created normative reality first, and if what she created was as if completely measurable as quantities, then the whole idea that we could have robust normative powers would be bunkum. But my bet is that normative reality is not as if it is measurable as quantities. This leaves open room for us to have a role in determining normative reality, and in particular some of the reasons we have.

      3. How is willing as a ground for reasons any different from desires being a ground of reasons? The main consideration is this: desires aren’t under our direct volitional control, while willing just is an exercise of our volition and thereby under our volitional control. To take the famous case from Anscombe: I promise to give you a million bucks if you want to eat a saucer of mud for its own sake. You can’t do it as a matter of will (but only with pills or hypnosis. Moreover, desires are mental states while willing, as I understand it, is an activity, a doing but not a mental state. So the kind of thing that is doing the grounding in ‘internalist’ vs. ‘voluntarist’ views about the grounds of normativity is very different.

      You rightly ponder – if willing can be the ground of a reason, what happens if you stop willing? I talk about this at some length in the case of romantic relationships, which I believe are the clearest case in which the idea that we can create reasons for ourselves. You are committed to Elba; she’s the one. You will her needs and interests to be reasons for you to move in, have kids together, grow old together. After a year of quarrelling and resentments, you eventually find yourself unable to will those things to be reasons for yourself. Your will-based reasons disappear because their grounds have disappeared. This is not to say, however, that you have no reasons to stay together, raise the infant, etc. because your will-based reasons to, say, stand up in front of your friends and say ‘I do’, to set up house together, etc., almost invariably entrain non-will-based reasons – regular ole ‘given’ reasons – to do these things. And if you don’t follow those downstream given reasons, there are exit costs. Lawyers call it alimony.

      1. Jaakko Reinikainen

        12th July 2020 at 9:29 am


        thank you for the clear answers. Here’s a couple further thoughts.

        On the reading of Brandom. I think that your claim that normative practices do not create reasons insofar as they rely on normative principles that are not themselves created by the practices is correct. I also think that Brandom would rather opt for the strategy you mention first, that the normative principles themselves (he uses the term “normative statuses”) are created by our practices (more specifically, our normative attitudes). His argument is of course controversial.

        One issue that appears to me central above all here is whether Brandom’s theory of the practice-dependency of discursive (or semantic) normativity is applicable to others forms of normativity (such as morality) as well. Explicitly Brandom does not argue that it is, I don’t think, and in that sense his theory is compatible with yours by only applying to a specific domain of normativity (unless of course your theory purports to cover also discursive normativity). However, I do think that there is at the very least potential in the scorekeeping account to cover all forms of normativity, and in that sense it can be considered a rivalling account for normative powers in general. Personally I’m more familiar and sympathetic to Brandom’s social view of discursive normativity, though I don’t know if the account should be developed as a general theory of normativity.

        Your second reply gave me a lot to think about since I had not really considered the issue of ordinal vs. cardinal equality of goods in this context. It’s certainly something I need to read and think more about, so thank you for that.

        If I understood your third reply correctly, then willings differ from desires first of all ontologically (a doing vs. a state) and second of all in their relation to control by the subject. In terms of functioning as reasons they are similar however, since both willing and desire function as reasons only insofar as they remain active in the subject. When the willing/desiring stops, the regular given reasons usually pick up from where they had left. So I see the metaphysical distinction between willing and desire, but I still don’t see how they differ as explanations of what reasons are, namely how willing but not desire can institute a genuine reason-status for a fact. So perhaps I could reformulate my original question: can you give an example of how explanation of how reasons function differs in case of willings as opposed to desires? Is it only a question of which kind of entity we posit on the subjective side as grounding the reason, which then function in the same fashion in relation to the status of the objective fact as a reason?

        1. Ruth

          12th July 2020 at 4:17 pm

          Thanks, Jaakko for the followup. I do think social practices all the way down is much more plausible for the normativity of meaning than the normativity of normative practical reasons. You might think that the normativity of language is a socially constructed, but it’s harder to think that the normativity of, say, morality is socially constructed. On your question about whether the mechanism in the case of will-based and desire-based — or for that matter value-based — reasons is the same. The mechanism I’m interested in is the explanatory mechanism of metaphysical grounding. So the mechanism is the same whether your reason is a reason in virtue of your desire (or more precisely some relation between your desire and the action) or your reason is a reason in virtue of an activity of your will — commitment: the mechanism is metaphysical grounding. In all cases of metaphysical grounding, if the ground disappears, then the thing it grounds also disappears. We can do things to make our desires and willings disappear (we can hypnotize ourselves, e.g.) but we can’t make values or normative facts disappear. So ‘externalist’ reasons grounded in values or normative facts are different from both desire and will based reasons in this way, but the ‘mechanism’ or explanatory relation b/t our reasons and willings, on the one hand, and desires, on the other, is the same. Hope that’s clear.

          1. Jaakko Reinikainen

            12th July 2020 at 7:47 pm

            Yes, that cleared my question well. Thank you again for the interesting paper and thorough answers.

  • Daniel Whiting

    11th July 2020 at 1:58 pm

    Many thanks for the wonderful talks.
    I have a clarificatory (simple-minded!) question for Ruth Chang.
    One of the central claims is that normative powers involve the capacity to reflexively will a *normative change*. But in both the talk and the written version I take you to commit to a stronger version of this claim: that normative powers involve the capacity to reflexively will that something be a *reason*. Does this need to be read de dicto? That is, does the concept of a reason need to figure in the content of the willing? A person sympathetic to your proposal might think that a person can make it the case that they have some reason by willing that they be *criticisable* in some way if they don’t act in certain ways, or by willing that there be some *justification* for acting in a certain way, or by willing that they be *obliged* to someone to act in certain ways, etc. Would the capacity to will in one of these ways count as a robust normative power of a sort that might ground corresponding reasons? Alternatively: Can some other normative notion(s) figure in the content of the willing? I suspect the answer is yes, but wanted to check.

    1. Ruth Chang

      11th July 2020 at 8:45 pm

      Hi Daniel,
      Thanks for your great question. Willing something to be a reason is like (roughly) stipulating the meaning of a word or even naming something. When, alone on a desert island, you name an orange ball that washes ashore ‘Winston’, you dub it ‘Winston’ and confer a name on it. If you haven’t withdrawn your stipulation and then call it in the evening ‘Blinston’, you will have in some sense made a mistake.

      When you confer the name, you don’t need to do so de dicto; you don’t have to have the concept of a name or indeed of a reason to call him that going forward. Similarly, willing something to be a reason need not be de dicto, but importantly, it is shorthand for a number of more specific things you could be actively willing. In a paper I’m in the throes of now, it includes orienting yourself normatively into some choice situations rather than another and shining a light on certain considerations as more normatively important or salient than others. (So, e.g., I think most of us exercise our robust normative powers when we orient ourselves so that the choice situation we are in now involves a choice between continuing to read this comment section or going out for (masked) walk rather than being in a choice situation involving a choice between sending a large check to Oxfam or volunteering at the local Food Bank.) When you commit or stand behind something, what you do is highly unintellectual and does not require fancy concepts. Nevertheless, I think this power is a key part of rational agency. We can’t do the normal recognizing and responding to reasons without it. But if we have robust normative powers, the rejiggering of rational agency required is more violent – normative powers aren’t simply an add on. Willing something to be a reason – commitment – is an activity that orients normative elements in a certain way differently from how they were oriented with your commitment. The key idea is that through an activity of willing something normative, you can endow normativity on things and change the normative landscape. That’s a key part of what we do as rational agents, so I think, even for rational agency on the recognize-and-respond model.

      In short, you’re right that there’s a bunch of ways in which we can exercise our normative powers. I collect them under the title of ‘willing something to be a reason’ but that will need relativization to different covering considerations to capture the stuff both you and I list.

      1. Ruth

        11th July 2020 at 9:53 pm

        Oh crap – typo: “with*out* your commitment”. Sorry

        1. Daniel Whiting

          12th July 2020 at 9:53 am

          Thanks for such a detailed response – very helpful and very interesting!

      2. Victor Tadros

        12th July 2020 at 12:18 pm

        I found one aspect of your discussion with N.D hard to understand Ruth. You seemed to suggest that what is distinctive about the reasons generated by the exercise of strong normative powers is that they are not grounded in independent normative or evaluative considerations. But it is not clear that this makes these reasons distinctive. Reasons just are normative, and there must be some that are either grounded in non-normative facts, or are not grounded at all. That must be true of reasons that have nothing to do with normative powers. My reason not to harm non-human animals, for example, is normative. And it isn’t grounded in some prior normative consideration. Perhaps it’s grounded in some evaluative fact, such as the badness of the animal being harmed. I’m sympathetic to that view in this case. But there are some cases where this is not so. My reason not to walk over a grave, for example, is not I think grounded in some further normative consideration, nor is it grounded in some evaluative fact, such as the badness of my walking over the grave. But it is also not the result of the exercise of a normative power. That was why at the end of my paper, I suggest that the reasons generated by normative powers have something in common with other ‘appropriateness-based’ reasons – they are reasons that arise without an independent normative or evaluative base. But they are not the only kinds of reason that arise thus, I think.

        1. Ruth

          12th July 2020 at 4:26 pm

          Hi Victor,
          What makes the reasons created by robust normative powers distinctive is not the fact that they are not grounded in some evaluative or normative fact — it is the fact that they are grounded in an activity of willing. It’s this ground that makes them ‘up to us’ in a distinctive way. I think of your appeal to appropriateness as fitting the model of how ordinary reasons — those not generated by normative powers — can sometimes be generated. You’ve got a reason not to walk over the grave — it’s inappropriate to do so — and that has nothing to do with your normative powers, weak or robust. If we think normative powers make our reasons ‘up to us’ in a distinctive way, and we understand them by appeal to appropriateness, they can’t be up to us in a distinctive way via their grounds. Can they be up to us in some other way that is distinctive? I go through 4 other possibilities and argue not. That’s why I think your appropriate normative powers are an instance of the ‘weak’ powers — weak just b/c they don’t generate reasons that are distinctively ‘up to us’ not because they aren’t important in their own right — that I think are not where we should be looking when we try to understand the phenomenon — which may not be real — according to which through an act of will we can change our reasons.

          1. Victor Tadros

            12th July 2020 at 5:22 pm

            I’m not sure that there is a disagreement between us on the idea that when a person exercises a normative power, the act of willing a normative property into existence makes that normative property come into existence without further ado (where for you the normative property is a reason, where for me it is a duty or permission). I think that the act of willing involves executing an intention that the normative property come into existence directly, and I don’t spell out in this paper what executing the intention involves (in the case of consent, elsewhere, I argue that it involves an attempt to communicate). There is then a question whether anything more explains this phenomenon. There I suggest that the alteration in our rights and duties is an appropriate response to our executing the intention (or willing, in your terms). So we agree that rights and duties are ‘up to us’ in that they come into existence simply by an act of willing them into existence (where some mechanism, such as executing an intention through communication, instantiates that willing). The only remaining question is whether anything further can be said to explain this phenomenon. There, I suggest that this is an instance of a more general class of moral phenomena where appropriateness of a normative response is all there is, and no further basic value explains the normative response. So perhaps the disagreement between us, on the point under consideration, is just about whether there is anything more to say to explain the way in which normative powers make normative phenomena come into existence.

            One final point – I don’t think that it’s true that offering some further explanation necessarily fails to explain the distinctive qualities of normative powers that we roughly agree on. There might be a deeper explanation of just this particular fact – that normative powers give rise to normative facts simply through an act of willing (or whatever). A deeper explanation might explain the distinctive property that reasons, duties, rights etc can simply be ‘up to us’ in the sense of being willed.

  • N. D. Cannon

    11th July 2020 at 4:39 pm

    Thank you for your talks. I have not had the time to read the full papers, so my question may in fact be answered there. My question is primarily for Ruth Change, though I think Victor Tadros could helpfully respond to it as well. You state in your paper that there needs to be a distinctive explanation of the reasons generated by normative powers, and this in part drives you to the metaphysical explanation you offer at the end of your paper. But why think the reasons generated by normative powers in fact are special?

    To give some flesh to my question, here is a general view of reasons (as well as of value and of the right-making relation) (owed to Jon Dancy) that would provide an explanation, but not one that required us to think of reasons generated by normative powers as special: Reasons are resultant properties had in virtue of a resultance base, where the resultance base can be said to be the ground of the reason, where the ground might contain features which are themselves normative or evaluative. It seems like this sort of view can explain the presence of reasons in the case of promising quite easily, and can explain as well why some acts of promising are not reasons generating (and in fact generate reasons against fulfilling the promise) as well as why we might sometimes have reason to break our promises even though the promise in fact generated a reason. This sort of view does not give a special explanation of reasons generated by normative powers, but I am not sure why that would be a problem.

    1. N. D. Cannon

      11th July 2020 at 4:42 pm

      Apologies for the added ‘e’ in Ruth Chang’s name.

      1. Ruth Chang

        11th July 2020 at 9:00 pm

        HI N.D,
        Thanks for this question! Here’s the key claim of the paper. If you care about normative powers because their exercise gives us reasons that are in some distinctive way ‘up to us’ then you can’t understand them along the lines that people have suggested we understand them, viz., by explaining them in terms of normative stuff, like values, principles, deontic rules, fittingness and the like. This is because the reasons the exercises of such putative powers generate will not be ‘up to us’ in any distinctive way.

        For example, if we think that by uttering the words ‘I promise’ in certain circumstances, I generate a reason to do what I promised to do and we explain how I did that by saying that the reasons I have to do what I promised to do are grounded in a normative or evaluative ‘resultance base’ then that’s just the same explanation of how we ‘generate’ reasons when I punch someone in the nose — my reason to apologize is grounded in a normative or evaluative ‘resultance base’. You might think, well, saying ‘I promise’ involves more freedom or choice in the reasons I generate than punchings-in-the-nose do. But if you look closely as the possible extra ways the reasons we generate can be ‘up to us’ in the case of saying ‘I promise’ vs. nose-punchings, you will see that we actually don’t have any extra freedom. So if we understand promising and the like as exercising of normative powers, where normative powers are, by hypothesis of interest b/c they make our reasons distinctively ‘up to us’, they cannot be understood by appeal to normative considerations. None of this is to say that promising and the like should NOT be understood by appeal to normative considerations — indeed, it seems quite natural that they be so understood. It is to say instead that if promising is a big deal, then it’s a big deal not because what people often think, viz., that promising gives us some special autonomy or control over the reasons we have but because of something else. I suggest that the interest of these ‘so-called’ or ‘ersatz’ or ‘weak’ normative powers (viz., putative normative powers explained by the normative) is in the development of a split, two-tiered structure of normative theorizing, but not in any normative ‘magic’ promising seems to involve. The ‘magic’ of normative powers has to be explained metaphysically and attributed to ‘robust’ rather than these rather lame normative powers. Hope that makes sense!

        1. N. D. Cannon

          12th July 2020 at 3:05 am

          Hi Ruth,

          Thank you for the reply. As I am reading it, it seems like the view I want to take up (the resultance base view) is compatible with the view you are advocating according to which the promise-based reason is metaphysically grounded in exercise of the will (which, actually, I think is probably an evaluative – or at least evaluatively-relevant – fact because of how certain features of circumstances interact with our actions so as to make them exercises of the will as opposed to mere forced choices or whatever). The parenthetical seems ancillary, though. I just think it is better to end up with a fairly unified theory of what a reason (count noun) is rather than doing something else, which is what I took you to be doing upon watching your talk.

          1. Victor Tadros

            12th July 2020 at 12:21 pm

            Sorry, I put my reply to the wrong comment. See above.

          2. Ruth

            12th July 2020 at 4:47 pm

            Hi ND,
            Thanks for this. What I’m suggesting is, alas, not compatible with your Dancy-Raz-Scanlon-Parfit-Skorupski etc type view. Start with a case that we may all agree on. I promise to wash your car. Here’s how your resultance base view would understand the case. By promising to wash your car, I will that I be obligated to wash your car. I am thereby obligated to wash your car. (Fill in the needed bells and whistles). What explains how I now have a reason to wash your car? Answer: Something normative. Scanlon – it’s a principle of fidelity. Raz: it’s the all-things-considered value of our having this ability to generate such reasons. Dancy, Parfit, and Skorupski: there’s some value or normative principle or normative reason that explains why I now have the reason given that I’ve promised. Tadros: it’s deontically appropriate for me to have the reason. Shiffrin, Watson, Westlund: I bear the value of autonomy which includes having this ability to generate such reasons.

            Now I don’t take a stand on how to understand promises. I think they are probably in the main properly understood in one of these ways. My point is rather that IF our interest in normative powers is in them as phenomena that make our reasons ‘up to us’ in some distinctive way, then all of these explanations of the normative power of promising fail to make our reasons ‘up to us’ in some distinctive way. Why is that? And what is it to be ‘up to us’ in some distinctive way? I leave open what it is to be ‘up to us’ in some distinctive way EXCEPT to say that what definitely doesn’t count as being up to us in a distinctive way is if the reason is generated in the same way that ordinary reasons — reasons having nothing to do with normative powers — are generated. Since all the normative explanations of how we have reasons as a result of exercising our normative powers explain how those powers generate reasons in just the same way that we explain how various of our doings, sayings, etc generate reasons, they fail to explain how normative powers, so understood, make our reasons distinctively ‘up to us’.

            So I explore the idea that we have robust normative powers. Those are different from the weak ones b/c they aren’t grounded in the usual stuff that grounds ordinary reasons but are grounded in the activity of willing. And since willing is very much ‘up to us’, when we exercise robust normative powers, we generate reasons that are distinctively ‘up to us’. The grounds of reasons generated by the exercise of robust normative powers are not explained by an evaluative resultance base. You are quite right that there may well be an evaluative fact in the offing: it’s a good thing that I commit to Dirk as my beloved and have these new will-based reasons to give him my kidney and pick up his dirty socks off the floor that I wouldn’t have but for my commitment. But that evaluative fact is not what grounds those reasons — the goodness of my having them is not that in virtue of which I have them. That’s why if there are robust normative powers, we can’t understand the reasons they generate in a normative resultance base way.

            I doubt that promising typically involves the exercise of robust normative powers. I think some promises do, but we might easily understand them as involving weak normative powers overlaid by something else — a commitment (which involves the exercise of a robust normative power).

            Does that make sense?

  • Simon Kirchin

    11th July 2020 at 8:34 pm

    Dear both, thanks agian for the papers and talks. I have a very general question that comes a little from left-field. The focus is on the creation of reasons, rights and duties. What about the creation of value? So, I make a promise. The simple-minded thought goes that there are now two possible (broad) courses of action ahead: to keep the promise and to break the promise. Ceteris paribus, we would think of the former as being good and the latter as being bad. So, from these acts, am I aslo creating value? (Or, more specifically, in the case where I perform the action in accord with the promise, because it is keeping of a promise which I made, the action takes on a positive moral dimension. Have i brought about the good because of the action which conforms to my prior act of promising. Hope that was clear.) We hear so much about reasons, but do the same general thoughts apply with the creation of value? Or is something else going on? (Ruth – I hope it’s clear that this is different from the Raz-like position, which is concerned with explaining how normative powers come to be. I’m interested in whether, through these special acts, we also create value.) And if we do create value, do all the same theoretical thoughts that you both articukate go through, or is there something in what you say that applies to reasons, rights and duties that doesn’t apply to values?

    1. Ruth

      11th July 2020 at 11:52 pm

      Hi Simon,
      Thanks for this interesting question. There’s the question of how Victor’s and my views relate. I think you quite literally create reasons by your willing being the ground of ‘will-based’ reasons, Victor defends what I call ‘so-called’ or ‘weak’ normative powers, normative powers explained in terms of something normative. The ground of weak normative powers – normative things like values, normative principles, and in Victor’s interesting case, deontic considerations like ‘appropriateness’ – are also grounds of ordinary, hum drum reasons we have by doing things other than exercising weak normative powers, and so the way in which such reasons are generated is not distinctive from the way ordinary reasons, like reasons to make amends when punching someone in the nose, are generated. I conclude that weak normative powers are the wrong phenomenon on which to focus if we’re interested in discovering whether we have powers that generate reasons that are distinctively ‘up to us’.

      This is not to say that weak normative powers aren’t important and interesting – they certainly are (more on that below) — but they are not, I claim, important for the reason they are often thought to be, namely, that it looks like when you exercise a weak normative power, you get to directly create a reason, and that seems weird and mysterious and worth inquiry. I don’t think you directly create reasons when you exercise weak normative powers; insofar as you ‘create’ reasons, you ‘create’ reasons just in the ordinary case as when you create a reason to make amends by punching someone in the nose. So insofar as we are interested in the idea of our doing this mysterious thing worth exploring, we can’t – I argue – appeal to weak normative powers. We need to appeal to ‘robust’ normative powers, which must be explained metaphysically, not normatively.

      Now if you’re like me, you will think that all talk of reasons can be translated into talk of values. (I think that values are explanatorily prior to reasons b/c they have more meat and interconnections than reasons do). So I think we have the robust normative power to confer value on things just as we have the robust normative power to create reasons for ourselves. By willing something to be valuable, you can confer value on it and thereby make it have extra (will-based) value it didn’t have before.

      Now onto your actual question. I think you have put your finger on what I think is most interesting about weak normative powers. By fulfilling a promise, do we thereby create moral value since it is, after all, the fulfillment of a promise? I suspect, like Victor, that most cases of promising are exercises of only weak normative powers. Suppose we think that weak normative powers are to be explained in terms of appropriateness a la Victor’s interesting suggestion. We might think that it’s appropriate for us to have a general power to promise whatever (even to be your slave). Or we might think that it’s appropriate for us to have restricted powers to promise only ‘good’ or ‘neutral’ things. In any case, we might think that having such weak normative powers to promise generates an opportunity to generate extra value — by fulfilling promises, following consents, reacting appropriately to forgivings, etc. And then we can ask: How do we evaluate a token exercise of a weak normative power? Suppose that I promise to be your slave. By promising to be your slave, I generate a condition in the world such that if I then act by becoming your slave, I will have fulfilled a promise. I generate a condition – promising – that allows me to generate extra value in the world that wouldn’t otherwise be there – the value of fulfilling a promise. But notice that the way I generate the promise is the same way I generate value by punching you in the nose and then apologizing. When I punch you in the nose, I generate a condition that, if I then act in a certain way ( apologize), generates extra value in the world that wouldn’t otherwise be there. If I hadn’t punched you in the nose, I would have lost that opportunity to create value by apologizing. (There are details here about the analogy but it’s the structure that I care about and the structure is the same).

      So here’s what I think is neat about weak normative powers. By having them, we can have a two -tier or split structure of normativity. We have a bunch of weak normative powers, and they provide an intermediary in our evaluation of the goodness (or rightness) of an action. I intentionally give up all my worldly possessions and follow you around, supporting your aims and interests. Doing so fulfills my promise to be your wife, er slave. Now we ask about the justification for my action. We can justify it by appeal to the goodness of having the weak normative power to promise anything. So it’s justified! And it’s justified b/c the thing that justifies it – the weak normative power – is also justified. So our normative theory is ‘split’. If we go with a split normative theory, substantive conclusions about what’s right and wrong may be turned on their heads.

      1. Victor Tadros

        12th July 2020 at 5:27 am

        First let me see if I can clarify the relationship between Ruth’s views and mine. I’m not sure whether my view is best understood as a version of what Ruth calls weak normative powers. There are two ways in which we might understand the phrase ‘up to us’ in one of Ruth’s replies on this post. Whether there is a reason, permission or duty for you to v may be up to me in the sense that it depends on whether I have exercised the relevant normative power, where doing so involves communicating to you (or perhaps trying to do so) that you have the relevant reason, permission or duty. I think that this is the core case of a normative power. Alternatively, it might be up to me whether to exercise that power, in the sense that there is no decisive reason, or duty, for me to exercise the power. That might be true, for example, where nothing decisive tells in favour of my exercising the power or not. And there, my exercising the power (at least in the case of promising, but not in the case of other powers I think) gives me decisive reason to act where I had none before.

        In many cases where a normative power is exercised, my exercise of it is not up to me in the second sense; I might have a decisive reason or a duty to exercise the power. For example, suppose that I need an operation to save my life. The surgeon is permitted to perform the operation only if I consent. I might have decisive reasons to consent, and I might even have a duty to consent (perhaps I owe it to my children to stay alive so that I can care for them). So my consenting is not up to me in the second sense – it is both irrational and wrong for me not to consent. But my exercising the power of consent releases the surgeon from a duty, and so whether the surgeon ought to perform the operation is up to me in the first sense. It is also worth being a bit careful about the idea that I have created a reason. The surgeon has a reason to perform the operation, even against my will – that it will save my life. But she has no permission to do so, and if all things considered duties not to do something imply decisive reasons not to do so (as I think), then by consenting I have altered the surgeon’s reasons – I have removed a decisive reason against performing the operation. But my consent is not a reason to perform the operation – the only reason to perform the operation is to save my life (that should be clear from the case where I consent to an operation that turns out to be useless – in that case, my consent is no reason at all to perform the operation). Finally, it is worth noting that whether to perform the operation is never ‘up to’ the surgeon in either of the senses I distinguished above. She is required not to perform the operation if I don’t consent, and required to perform it if I do consent.

        Given that this is a clear and central case of normative power exercise, the phenomenon that we need to explain in the case of normative powers is not, I think, how we can generate new reasons for action where we could have gone either way (so the decision is up to me in the second sense, and my exercising the power militates decisively in favour of one course of action over another). I’m not sure I need a normative power, such as consent, promise, etc, to create a reason – just deciding might do (suppose that I have two options of equal value and decide on one; perhaps I now have decisive reason to pick that one, though of course that’s disputed). Furthermore, I don’t think that normative powers involve a distinctive kind of freedom (as Ruth suggests in reply to N.D. – I might have no freedom, in the sense that I can be morally required to exercise a normative power. It is how we can alter rights and duties directly simply by communication, and not by creating the values (such as saving my life) that are reason, permission, or duty conferring in ordinary cases. And I think that this is a kind of phenomenon that is importantly distinct from the creation of reasons by altering other things of value (such as the reason for action that I create by throwing a child into a pond). So I guess I just think of the strong sense of a normative power differently from Ruth.

        Now I finally come to Simon’s interesting question about value. I take it that it is valuable to comply with one’s all things considered duties, and disvaluable to breach them independently of value that is generated by the content of those duties. So, it is disvaluable for the surgeon to perform the operation if I haven’t consented, and valuable for her to perform it if I have, even if everything other than the alteration in duties is the same in either case (my life is saved, etc). But the value that I generate through the exercise of a normative power is distinctively deontic – the disvalue of the surgeon performing the operation is just the disvalue of breaching the duty not to operate on me without my consent. If that is right, I doubt that thinking of normative powers as a way of creating value is really distinct from thinking of them as creating rights and duties, given that the value that they distinctively give rise to is just deontic.

        1. Simon Kirchin

          12th July 2020 at 11:24 am

          Thanks both. (Apologies for the typos in the original post. I’m going goggled-eyed looking at so much online in the past couple of days.) Quick thought back from me. On the whole I think I share your intuitions / framework, Ruth, about value, although I tend to think that reasons and values (broadly the deontic and the non-deontic), as being ‘as fundamental’ (whatever *that* means) as each other, at least when we are trying to capture all this normative and evaluative stuff in our ontology and ways of living. So, a small follow-up to Victor. When I was writing originally I had in mind the creation of non-deontic value/values/value properties/etc. Does that change anything in what you said, Victor?

          1. Victor Tadros

            12th July 2020 at 12:05 pm

            Hi Simon, you’d have to spell out what you had in mind a bit more I think. Suppose that I promise to take you to the airport, and my promising gives rise to a duty to take you to the airport. Now it is also a good thing that I take you to the airport, because doing so involves my fulfilling a duty. My taking you to the airport then has both deontic significance – it appropriately features in my practical reasoning as a requirement. But it also has axiological significance – it is a good thing that I take you to the airport in virtue of the fact that this would involve my doing what I have a duty to do (to see this, compare worlds where everyone does their duty with identical worlds where no one does, and the former worlds are better). But the axiological significance of my taking you to the airport is entirely derivative of its deontic significance – my taking you to the airport is axiological significant just because I have the duty. So when I promise, my act gives rise to some new value – value that I can bring about by doing what I promised to do. But this is entirely dependent on the deontic properties of my act that my promising gives rise to. Does that help?

          2. Simon

            12th July 2020 at 12:33 pm

            Thanks Victor. Yes, that helps a lot. That was just the sort of case I had in mind and what I had expected you to say. (In this case I see easily that the goodness comes about because of the promise. I just think that, in general and aside from any, say, ‘temporal-causal‘ ordering or creation, reasons and values are on an ontological par. That’s for another time, though.)

        2. Ruth

          12th July 2020 at 5:19 pm

          Let me try to get clear on the relation b/t my paper and Victor’s. My interest is in putative phenomena called ‘normative powers’ whose exercise makes the reasons they generate ‘up to us’ in some distinctive way. My assumption that at least some of the interest behind the topic of ‘normative powers’ is in the thought that they are such phenomena. The literature bears this out.

          Now a lot of people are interested in normative powers as mere bits of normative theorizing, without much care about whether the exercise of normative powers makes the reasons generated ‘up to us’ in some distinctive way. Victor may be one of them. Victor distinguishes two ways in which a reason or duty can be ‘up to us’. The way he is interested in is the first way, viz., that the reason or duty is the result of the exercise of what I call a ‘so-called’ or ‘weak’ normative power, that is some bit of normative theory structure according to which: ‘If I promise/consent/communicate a change in the normative situation to another, then I have a reason….’ I try to understand what’s interesting or distinctive about that phenomenon by asking, Well, okay, but WHY do I have that reason b/c I promised, consented, communicated? And here there are plenty of normative explanations, including Victors as to why we have such reasons. But then I note that the explanations of why we have those reasons are the same explanations we give as to why we have ordinary reasons, reasons that have nothing to do with normative powers. So how do such ‘weak’ normative powers make our reasons ‘up to us’ in a *distinctive* way? They don’t do it by the way they answer the ‘why’ or grounding or explanatory question. So can they do it in some other way? I look at 4 possibilities in the paper.

          Victor’s second way our reasons can be ‘up to us’ is if the reasons don’t favour our exercising our normative powers or not. But that is not a distinctive way the reasons generated by normative powers can be up to us, either. This is because there are lots of ordinary reasons we have to do things that have nothing to do with normative powers which are up to us in this second Tadrosian way. The reasons don’t favour watching ‘Anne with an ‘E” over ‘Search Party’ tonight. But I may, with perfectly good reason, watch Search Party. So if exercises of our normative powers make our reasons ‘up to us’ in this second way, again, the reasons they generate are not distinctive.

          I start my paper with the assumption that at least some of the interest of normative powers is in how they can make our reasons distinctively ‘up to us’. I try to see whether common normative explanations of our normative powers can meet this aim. I claim they can’t, which is not to say that they aren’t independently interesting, but I am suggesting that we need to divorce the mainstream talk about normative powers explained in terms of normative stuff, from the alleged motivation for interest in them, which is how we get to — somehow distinctively through normative powers — have distinctive control over what reasons we have. The surface phenomenon of paradigmatic normative powers feeds into this motivation since it seems like I get to control whether to consent to the operation and thus control whether the surgeon has reasons to cut me open. But my claim is that if we look more closely, we will see that ‘normative powers’ explained as they usually are — by something normative — do not meet this motivation. Robust normative powers, however, do.

  • Bill Wringe

    12th July 2020 at 1:30 pm

    Hi – thanks for your talks

    I’ve got a question about the generality of the accounts being put forward here as accounts of normative powers. (It’s similar, but distinct from Simon’s question, I think.) Start from the idea that when we exercise a moral power we change the moral landscape via an act of will. One way in which we can do do is via renouncing a right. This doesn’t (standardly) create reasons, but it might destroy them. (One case I think is interesting here is Chris Bennett’s account of forgiveness as the exercise of a moral power, namely renouncing a right to punitive resentment). So I wonder what the accounts each of you want to give here would say about this kind of exercise of moral powers – or alternatively, why, if they don’t need to say anything about this kind of case, why that would be.)

    1. Victor Tadros

      12th July 2020 at 2:00 pm

      HI Bill,

      Ruth’s paper has a more ‘reasons’ focus than mine.

      I am tempted to think that all normative powers are concerned with altering rights, duties, permissions, and so on, and they are concerned with reasons only insofar as having rights, duties permissions and so on have implications for our reasons. But at least the core cases are concerned with rights, duties, etc. So my paper doesn’t talk about reasons much. In some cases, exercising a normative power has no implications for our reasons for action, as you suggest. Suppose that I consent to your pouring custard on my head, but there is no reason for you to pour custard on my head. You now don’t wrong me by pouring custard on my head. But I haven’t altered your reasons for action. I do, though, extinguish a reason against acting. So this is another case where I destroy a reason for action without creating one.

      I’m finding it hard to think of a case where I exercise a normative power where I create a reason for action where that reason for action is not an implication of my having altered rights, duties etc.

    2. Ruth

      12th July 2020 at 5:36 pm

      I use ‘reasons’ as the umbrella concept for normative stuff. Simon thinks that ontologically speaking reasons and values are distinct. I agree, but I think that values are explanatorily prior to reasons. Most folks who write on normative powers talk in terms of duties, permissions, waivers or rights, etc. But the phenomenon of normative powers is much more general than that and so we need a term that covers all the elements of a normative landscape. (As for an example of a reason generated by a normative power that does not necessarily implicate a right, duty, permission, etc is the robust normative power you exercise when you commit to being a philosopher instead of an architect – you create a new will-based reason for yourself to become a philosopher).

      Having said that, I think we really should be doing all the work we’re doing now in terms of values, but many people claim not to understand what a value is and have less trouble with reasons (see Elijah Millgram: “When I hear the word ‘values’, I reach for my Sears catalogue”) and the truth is, lots of values don’t have names so it’s easier to talk in terms of reasons if we’re looking for an absolutely general term).

      Now if we stipulate that ‘reasons’ is the general term, we have to be able to explain all the subtle elements of a normative landscape in terms of them. We won’t always be creating reasons (but that is the weirdest and hardest case so that’s the one I focus on), and as you rightly say, sometimes we will be destroying, cancelling, bracketting them. I am glad you mentioned forgiving. I think forgiving can be the exercise of a robust normative power — you don’t have to communicate anything but can forgive, alone in your plastic-sealed Covid hospital bed, and thereby change the normative landscape regarding reasons you have to regard your infector in one way or another. You engage in the activity of willing that his youthful carelessness is a reason not to morally blame him and thereby change the normative landscape of moral reasons for regarding him in one light rather than another. (This is another example of the exercise of a normative power that does not necessarily involve duties, permissions, rights).

  • Edward Kanterian

    12th July 2020 at 4:35 pm

    Hello, thank you very much for both papers. I have just a few remarks on one point of detail in Victor Tadros’s intriguing paper:

    Victor (if I may), you say: All exercises of normative powers necessarily involve intentions to alter duties (C).

    First, how do we know and justify this this? We probably can’t say ‘Because each time we investigate the exercise of a normative power, we discover that it involves the appropriate intention’. Not only would that sound like a mere inductive generalisation, being in tension with the claimed necessity of (C), but such an answer would presuppose that we can identify, in the first step, an act as the exercise of a normative power independently of whether it involves an intention (the discovery of which would follow in the second step). It is also clear that, following your account, we can’t identify an act as the exercise of a normative power by checking the normative consequences of that act. For you say that duties can be altered without the exercise of normative powers. And alteration of duties is (or can be) the consequence of the exercise of normative powers. Another option is to argue that your claim (C) is expressing a conceptual truth, a truth about the concept of normative powers. Is this an acceptable outcome for you, or do you see some alternative?

    Second, to prove claim (C) you consider and reject certain counterexamples. Commercial contracts seem to be such a counterexample. Some claim that ‘the conventions for the formation of such contracts is sufficient to make them binding, without the relevant intentions’ (p. 310 of your article “Appropriate Normative Powers”). You disagree and argue that those who sign commercial contracts without the relevant intentions don’t consent to these contracts, and hence don’t exercise their normative powers. All they do is forfeit their rights against the enforcement of these contracts. For, as you elucidate, ‘Rights forfeiture does not depend on the exercise of a normative power’ (ibid.). I wonder whether you can indicate some more reasons to substantiate this last claim. It does not seem obvious that necessarily all rights forfeitures are not normative consequences of the exercise of a normative powers. One can easily think of examples in which somebody intentionally, expressly and solemnly forfeits a certain right (or corresponding duty of the other side), and that will be the exercise of a normative power. (Some authors do classify rights forfeitures as belonging into the same category with promises and acts of consent, e.g. Stephen Kershnar in his “The Structure of Rights Forfeiture in the Context of Culpable Wrongdoing”, if I have understood him correctly). It is not clear to me why I cannot exercise my normative powers to forfeit certain rights. Furthermore, you describe a case in which Xavier misleads Yolanda into thinking that he consents that she can use his bike. Is Yolanda wronging him by then using the bike? You seem to think so. You write: ‘by creating the impression that he consents, Xavier forfeits his right that Yolanda not use his bike’. However one interprets this case, we cannot make the parallel move for commercial contracts. When I sign a contract without the ‘relevant intention’, my signature does not create the impression that I consent to it; it *creates* my consent, taken in the legal sense. It is my signature, the result of a voluntary act to put my name down on a certain paper whose legal nature I am aware of (or can be expected to be aware of), that seals the contract. And that act is surely the exercise of a normative power. What else goes on in my mind is legally irrelevant (if I am in sound mind); the reason is precisely because there is an overriding social-legal convention about what rights and duties signatures can alter directly. It seems to me that the existence of social conventions is a necessary element for the exercise of normative powers. As to intentions, this depends on what we take to be ‘the relevant intentions’. If these include the intention to put my name down on a certain legal paper, then that intention is required. When ‘people follow the conventions needed for the exercise of normative powers’ (to use your phrase, ibid.), they don’t do this blindly, but typically through appropriate intentional or voluntary acts. What does not appear to be required, by contrast, is some separate intention to consent, even though you to take this to be the necessary one, if I have understood you correctly.

    1. Victor Tadros

      12th July 2020 at 5:35 pm

      Hello Edward,

      Great comment. There’s a lot going on here, and I’m not sure that I have good answers! On the first point, I am tempted by the idea that it is a conceptual truth about a normative power that its exercise involves the intention to alter rights and duties, and that is what makes normative powers distinct from other normative phenomena. But I’d have to think about it some more.

      Can forfeiture involve the exercise of a normative power? I don’t think so; I think that the distinction between losing a right indirectly and losing it through the exercise of a normative power is the difference between forfeiting and waiving a right. Your example of the person who says ‘I hereby forfeit my rights’ just misuses the word forfeiture to mean waiving.

      I’m not sure that I need to disagree that some normative powers can occur as a result of social conventions, as long as the conventions involve the exercise of intentions, as they seem to in the case of commercial contracts. If you are right that the state of mind involved in consenting is not required, it just shows that commercial contracts are distinct from other kinds of normative powers; not that normative powers can be exercised without intention. But what I deny is that if commercial contracts involve the exercise of normative powers, then they don’t simply involve the intention to put one’s name down on a piece of paper. Either a further intention is required, such as the intention to contract; or commercial contracts are not examples of exercises of normative powers in the absence of the relevant intentions; they are cases where enough is done to create a right or duty without the exercise of such powers.

  • Brad Hooker

    12th July 2020 at 7:46 pm

    For both: GREAT PAPERS! I, for one, learned a great deal.

    For Ruth: “Hoariest example”? Touché
    In your view, where opposed reasons are not measurable on a cardinal scale but are ranked on an ordinal scale, a rational agent is to exercise her “robust normative power” in choosing which reason to follow? Your footnote 11 mentions the example where the agent can save one or five but not both. And you comment “it highly implausible that there is some cardinal scale that measures the moral significance of reasons to save five as opposed to one”. Okay, now the point about cardinality would presumably hold even if the alternatives were to save one or to save a million. But to contend that, in a choice between one and a million, the agent has robust normative power to save a million seems hard to swallow. It is one thing to say that sometimes we have ordinality without cardinality (which is clearly true); it is another thing to say that admitting cardinal measures are unavailable simultaneously sacrifices all conceptions of relative sizes, such that we cannot say that the moral goodness in saving a million rather than one is very much larger than the moral goodness in saving five rather than one. And if we do think that the moral goodness in saving a million rather than one is very much larger than the moral goodness in saving five rather than one, we might hold that in the 5 vs 1 case, the agent has robust normative power to choose either way, but not in the 1,000,000 vs 1 case.

    1. Ruth

      12th July 2020 at 10:33 pm

      Okay – we’re closing down but I’m so excited to see Brad! Greetings! Okay, quickly: Yes, in choice b/t 1 and 5 or 1 and a million, what matters is not simply something with a cardinal measure, like ‘number of lives saved’ but a bunch of other stuff that isn’t plausibly cardinally measurable. I say yes we can exercise our normative powers to create reasons, but your incredulity has to do with the the normative upshot of doing so, I think. You can will til the cows come home but you can’t change the ‘valence’ of your given reasons – looking only at the reasons provided by the world, you have most reason to save the million. You can create a will-based reason to save the one (it’s your child, say), but you can’t change the valence of the given reasons by your will-based ones. More credible? That’s the view, at any rate. There are other details I won’t bore you with….

  • Simon Kirchin

    12th July 2020 at 8:34 pm

    Hi all, there may be a few more comments to come, but as it is Sunday evening in the UK I’d just like to thank everyone who has contributed to this session and especially thank Ruth and Victor for their great papers and discussion. Here’s hoping we can see each other next year, if not before. Best wishes, S

    1. Victor Tadros

      12th July 2020 at 9:05 pm

      I’m signing off now, but thanks to Simon for chairing, to Ruth for writing a great paper, and to everyone who wrote in with terrific questions. Sorry not to be able to meet in person this year, but I’ve really enjoyed engaging with you all.

      All the best


      1. Ruth

        12th July 2020 at 10:35 pm

        Thanks to everyone and esp Victor for being part of Team Normative Powers and to Simon for chairing. It’s now teatime on the East Coast of the US so I’m signing off too. Thanks for very helpful remarks by everyone – Anon and wash your hands, Ruth

  • Jay Jian

    15th July 2020 at 4:26 pm

    Sorry I wasn’t able to join you this weekend. But thanks a lot for uploading this – I hope there’s still opportunities to contribute. I just have a question for Ruth, about how you understand the ground of will-based reasons. On your picture, we exercise normative power only if we create a reason by our reflexive willing under situations where we have incommensurable reasons for choice. So we have a will-based reason not just in virtue of your willing something to be a reason, but also in virtue of the obtaining of a specific normative situation, i.e. having incommensurable reasons. If all the given-reasons leave no room, then simply willing won’t do.

    Now if we understand the ground of reason to be “the thing in virtue of which a consideration is a reason”, or, “the thing that provides the metaphysical necessary explanation as to why a consideration is a reason” then wouldn’t the obtaining of an incommensurable normative situation also be a part of the ground of reason (unless you have a more fine-grained view about grounding)?

    My worry is that on both the normative explanations you criticized and your metaphysical explanation, we have normative power to create reason both in virtue of (1) something normative and (2) our willing. It’s just that normative explanations invoke a certain “normative enabling condition” (i.e. having a normative principle that takes our will as the triggering condition for reason, or having certain values that confer reason-giving power to us), while your explantation invokes a “normative non-constraining condition” (i.e. lacking commensurable normative reasons, or, reason’s leaving room for us).

    I personally think there is still an important difference between normative explanations and yours. Presumably, on normative explanations, the relevant normative principles or values are part of the “sources” of normativity, whereas on your view, the incommensurable normative situation figures more as a background condition. But do you have a more fine-grained notion of grounding that would explain this difference?

    A related question is whether the metaphysical explanation really allows the agent to be more active with respect to reason. This picture allows the creation of will-based reason only when we have incommensurable reasons, or when given-reasons leave room for us. But on the competing pictures you considered, an agent is able to create their own reasons regardless of choice situation: If there is a normative principle that autonomous willing can ground reasons (or if the value of autonomy requires normative power), then I’ll just be able to create autonomy-based reasons (of course, whether such autonomy-based reasons are able to outweigh given-reasons is another matter). So in one respect, normative explanations at least allow us to resist given-reasons and to potentially change our choice situation by creating competing reasons (even though the ground of these reasons ultimately lies in normative principles or values, not in our will), whereas we are somewhat constrained by given-reasons on the metaphysical explanation – only when they leave room for us can we create our own reasons. So can’t the proponents of normative explanation argue that their views in fact capture one aspect in which we agents play an active role with respect to reasons?