Why Reasons Skepticism is Not Self-Defeating

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  • DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0378.2011.00454.x

    Why Reasons Skepticism is Not Self-Defeating

    Stan Husi

    Abstract: Radical meta-normative skepticism is the view that nostandard, norm, or principle has objective authority or normativeforce. It does not deny that there are norms, standards ofcorrectness, and principles of various kinds that render it possiblethat we succeed or fail in measuring up to their prerogatives.Rather, it denies that any norm has the status of commanding withobjective authority, of giving rise to normative reasons to takeseriously and follow its demands. Two powerful transcendentalarguments challenge this view. First, skepticism is said to be self-defeating: Settling what to accept, and in particular whether toaccept skepticism, appears to be a reason-guided enterprise. Howcan skeptics coherently support their view by citing reasons in theirfavor after they just rejected them throughout? Second, there is thepractical-deliberative version, most recently developed by DavidEnoch: We are essentially deliberative creatures. Yet deliberationappears to require that there are correct answers in the form ofnormative reasons to our practical questions. Thus confidence inthe sensible nature of deliberation should inspire confidence inreasons. The essay undermines both transcendental arguments bydemonstrating, first, how to support skepticism without desertingits tenets, and, second, how to deliberate in skeptical fashion.

    Radical meta-normative skepticism is the view that no standard, norm, orprinciple has objective authority or normative force. It does not deny either thatthere are norms, standards of correctness, and principles of various kinds or thatit is possible both to succeed or fail in measuring up to their prerogatives. What itdoes deny is that any norm has the status of commanding with objectiveauthority, the status of giving rise to objective normative reasons to take seriouslyand follow its demands. Standards may have other features that make themattractive to us and explain why we choose to live by them. They may provideuseful tools for facilitating our goals, for coordinating our joint endeavors, forensuring that the bridges we literally and figuratively build will stand.Ultimately, though, no standard ever provides normative reasons for anything,according to radical meta-normative skepticism (skepticism henceforth). This viewstands opposed to all forms of meta-normative realism (realism henceforth),1

    which holds that certain norms are authoritative, true, and correct, period, notjust reflectively endorsed as correct or correct according-to-yet-another-norm.

    European Journal of Philosophy ]]]:]] ISSN 0966-8373 pp. 126 r 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road,Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

  • Skepticism denies the existence of norms that are not just socially accepted andfollowed, but are rightly followednorms that specify what we ought to dosimplicitersans phrase (Darwall 1992: 156).

    There are two powerful transcendental arguments that take issue with thiscomprehensive denial of normative authority. Radical meta-normative skepti-cism challenges the authority not only of particular norm-domains, such asmorality, but finds queer the very idea that anythingrationality, instrumentalreason, or epistemologycould ever issue authoritative demands. As aconsequence, skepticism is said to be self-defeating. After all, settling what toaccept, and in particular whether to accept skepticism, appears to be a reason-guided enterprise. And yet skeptics cannot coherently support their view byciting authoritative reasons in their favor after they just rejected themthroughout. What, then, are they doing when recommending their view? Willthey not have to become silent, ushering themselves off the philosophical scene?As Thomas Nagel (1997: 19) puts the point skepticism that is the product of anargument cannot be total.

    In addition to this epistemological version of the argument there is the practical-deliberative version, as most recently developed by David Enoch. We areessentially deliberative creatures who ponder what to do. This characteristic ofours is not one we are prepared to abandon. How even could we? Yet a sine qua nonto the very point and purpose of deliberation appears to be that there are correctanswers to our deliberative questions, answers we seek to discover rather thancreate or construct. Deliberation requires reasons, and thus our confidence in thesensible nature of the former should translate into our confidence in the latter.

    I will attempt to undermine the effectiveness of both transcendentalarguments by demonstrating, first, how to support skepticism without desertingits tenets, and, second, how to deliberate in skeptical fashion. I start outdescribing the nature of the meta-normative problematic in Section I, present thefirst transcendental argument in Section II, respond to it in Section III, andintroduce and discuss the second transcendental argument in Section IV.


    The source of the meta-normative problematic concerns the status of norms andnot their mere existence or employment. The crucial distinction we must keep inmind is between the formal feature of being directive in character and thesubstantive feature of directing with authority. The first distinguishes norms asnorms, including their implicit standards of correctness, but it is the second thatprompts the entire meta-normative problematic in the first place. There is acommon tendency to under-appreciate the meta-normative problematic, and it ispartly to blame on our lack of an established vocabulary to express it. The termnormative itself is ambiguously used, at times denoting the directive element innorms, setting them apart from historical treatises and medical records, at othertimes denoting their authoritative standing, setting them apart from illegitimatenorms (Copp 2007, Rosati 2003).

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  • Presumably we are all realists about norms. The public arena in which wedebate how to manage our individual and joint affairs is evidently characterizedby a great plurality and diversity of norms and standards directing us what to do.Undoubtedly there are plenty of oughts and shoulds according-to-norm-such-and-such, plenty of opportunities to commit mistakes according-to-norm-such-and-such,and so forth. Language, the law, and etiquette exemplify that indisputable fact best.Whenever we open our mouths to form a sentence we engage in a norm-guidedactivity. And grammaticality is but one witness for our thoroughgoing involve-ment with norms. Another is the law. It is unlawful in the United States to hoistany flag higher than the Stars and Stripes. Yet whether authoritative reasons, notjust officials, decree that I must comply in my own enclosed yard is unclear andrepresents a matter wholly distinct from the recognition that I would act contraryto the law if I do not. Legal theorists debating the authority of the law do notcontest the presence of legal norms, but their authority. An attempt to explain thisnormative, reason-giving aspect of law, writes Andrei Marmor, is one of the mainchallenges of general jurisprudence (Marmor, 2008; Enoch, forthcoming b). Thischallenge presupposes the very distinction mentioned above. The same goes foretiquette, the preeminent example ever since Foots Hypothetical Imperatives (1972:308). The rule that one must answer in the third person to third person invitationsclearly states a demand, but what is its normative force? Rather than finding ananswer in the prevalence of norms, therefore, the normative question actually takesits point of departure in that very fact itself. We live under the pressure of vastassortments of laws, duties, obligations, expectations, demands, and rules, alltelling us what to do, Christine Korsgaard observes, and continues: Some of thesedemands are no doubt illicit . . . just social pressure, as we say. . . . I call thenormativity of a law or a demand . . . the grounds of its authority . . . the way itbinds you (2009: 2). Norms are not the solution, but the problem.2

    Often the notion of a normative reason is employed to articulate the crucialpoint about authority. All normative phenomena, Joseph Raz opens a recentaddress (Raz, forthcoming), are normative in as much as, and because, theyprovide reasons or are partly constituted by reasons. Yet the allusion to reasonsdoes not immediately solve our predicament. If reasons are understood asrelevant considerations that favor according-to-some-norm-or-other, all norms shallautomatically entail their particular sets of reasons, and we are thrown back towhere we started. Legal reasons and reasons of etiquette come on the cheap. Thequestion is whether they should hold any sway. The point generalizes. Shouldreasons themselves emerge as inherently norm-based phenomenabecausenorms are needed to explicate the crucial notion of favoringwe obviously couldnot employ reasons to characterize the fundamental idea of the authority ofnorms. David Velleman provides a clear-eyed diagnosis of the difficulty: There isa temptation to think that the norm of correctness for actions is that they shouldbe supported by the strongest reasons. But this thought leads into a vicious circle.What counts as a reason for acting depends on what justifies action; whichdepends on what counts as correctness for action; which cannot depend, in turn,on what counts as a reason (2000: 1516).

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  • As a consequence, the notion of a normative reason can serve to state the pointabout authority only when itself understood as a norm-independent (primitive?)phenomenon, which does not merely restate some norms formal imperativesapplied to a particular case. Many philosophers are confident there is such anotion (Shafer-Landau 2003, Scanlon 1998, Parfit forthcoming). In this essay Ishall go along with contemporary custom and consider normative reason to be theconcept best suited to express the idea about a norms authority; under theproviso, of course, that there is an intelligible norm-unconditional sense ofnormative reason. Thomas Nagel is keenly aware of the conceptual task: In orderto have the authority it claims, reason must be a form or category of thought fromwhich there is no appeal beyond itselfwhose validity is unconditional (1997:7). Skeptics deny that precisely this sense of unconditionality, characteristic of thenotion of objective authority, can ever be fully discharged. All oughts and shouldsand reasons are norm-internal and norm-relative, they maintain, and there simplyare no further truths about which of those norm-internal oughts, shoulds, andreasons we really ought, should, or have reasons to take seriously, when therelevant normative concepts are construed norm-unconditionally. This completesmy characterization of the notion of authority, emphasizing only that whateverelse may be true of authority, it certainly cannot be a function of what norms wehappen to accept if it is to retain its essential normative capacity of providingreasons for and against acceptance of norms in the first place.

    With the meta-normative problematic in clearer view, we can also understandwhy the move from local skepticism towards global skepticism is virtuallyirresistible. The issue of authority applies to norms of all kinds. Once demandsare being stated their authoritative standing inevitably becomes subject fordebate. The normative question has most prominently been raised with regardsto morality. Several authors have sought to expose myths that supposedlysurround moralitys capacity to issue categorical normative reasons (Mackie1977, Joyce 2001). Yet the obsession with morality appears somewhat parochial.The authoritative pretensions of morality, after all, are not fundamentallydifferent, or any queerer, than those of e.g., epistemology, practical rationality,and moral egoism, to name just a few. If moral authority presents deepmetaphysical, epistemological and practical issues, they will be inherited byother normative domains as well.

    Compare egoism and morality, for instance. Morality demands that we heedthe interests of others, whereas egoism demands that we never heed the interestsof others unless theres something in it for ourselves. These two sets of normsdiffer in content but share the same authoritative, even categorical, pretension.And that pretension represents no less of a puzzle in the first case than in thesecond. Similarly, the hypothesis that the authority of rationality presents minordifficulties while the authority of morality presents huge ones is common yetusually unexplained (Gert 2004, Kolodny 2005). Darwall expresses it nicely:

    Whether there are reasons to act is a normative and thus, in the broadsense, an ethical matter. It concerns what the agent rationally ought to do.

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  • Moreover, the rational ought is almost never treated by philosophers assimply one ought among others, on all fours with oughts internal to,e.g., etiquette, baseball, or bridge. It is regarded, if only implicitly, asunqualifiedly normativenot just an ought-according-to-the-norms-of-rationality, as there might be oughts-according-to-the-norms-of-eti-quette, or -baseball, or -bridge. What a person rationally ought to do iswhatever he ought to do simplicitersans phrase, as it were. (Darwall1992: 156)

    Yet the inherent structure of these respective norms certainly does not explainwhy the instructions of norms not pertaining to rationality supposedly applyonly relative-to-those-other-norms whereas those of rationality apply simpliciterinstead of again just relative-to-norms-of-rationality. As a substantive matter, ofcourse, norms of rationality could be authoritative while others are not. Since Ishall be silent on what norms are more probable candidates for entailing objectiveauthoritative reasons I am in no position to dismiss this possibility. Notice,however, that it would require an equally substantive explanation of why theproblem of authority has a solution vis-a`-vis rationality that it does not have vis-a`-vis other norms. It is not simply something we can take for granted. Theinfluential philosophical program of explaining the authority of morality on thebasis of the authority of rationality has thus two, not only one, success conditions.First, the relevant normative transfer needs to work. Second, and this often goesunnoticed, the authority of rationality needs to be accounted for as well. Nothingcomes from nothing.

    As a matter of psychology, of course, certain norms do exert greatermotivational powers than others, or are more firmly engrained in our emotionalrepertoire (Nichols 2004). Most would find it easier to keep in order their ownaffairs than those of others. And norms of practical rationality may enjoy greaterstatistical observance than moral norms. Yet motivational force is not normativeforce. Wheth...


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