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A Millian Objection to Reasons as Evidence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 July 2013

University of Edinburgh,


Stephen Kearns and Daniel Star have recently proposed the following theory of reasons:

Reasons as Evidence: Necessarily, a fact F is a reason for an agent A to Φ iff F is evidence that A ought to Φ (where Φ is either a belief or an action).

In this article I present an objection, inspired by Mill's proof of the principle of utility, to the right-to-left reading of the biconditional. My claim is that the fact that you can perform some action can be evidence that you ought to do it without, itself, being a reason to do it. If this is true then Reasons as Evidence is false.

Research Article
Utilitas , Volume 25 , Issue 3 , September 2013 , pp. 417 - 420
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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1 Kearns, S. and Star, D., ‘Reasons: Explanations or Evidence?’, Ethics 119 (2008), pp. 3156CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Brunero, J., ‘Reasons and Evidence One Ought’, Ethics 119 (2009), pp. 538–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar, also argues against the right-to-left reading of Reasons as Evidence, using examples such as the fact that there is no reason not to Φ.

3 J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism (1861).

4 Hereafter I sometimes omit the ‘in C’ clause, for brevity.

5 Putative counterexamples to this are nearly always cases that look to be handled by a pragmatic alternative explanation.

6 Note that the relevant claim is: it is not the case that they ought to perform the action. It is not that: they ought not to perform the action.

7 The kinds of ought claims plausibly constrained by ought-implies-can are what are sometimes called ‘deliberative’, ‘agential’ or ‘practical’ ought claims. These are the only ought claims I discuss herein. For discussion of the different varieties of ‘ought’ see Chrisman, M., ‘“Ought” and Control’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 90 (2012), pp. 433–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schroeder, M., ‘Ought, Agents, and Actions’, Philosophical Review 120 (2011), pp. 141CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Wedgwood, R., ‘The Meaning of “Ought”’, Oxford Studies in Metaethics 1 (2006), pp. 127–60Google Scholar.

8 This type of argument is one used by Streumer, B., ‘Reasons and Impossibility’, Philosophical Studies 136 (2007), pp. 351–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Of course it will not often, if ever, be decisive evidence that one ought to Φ, but it can still be some evidence that one ought to Φ.

10 It might even be evidence that one ought not to perform the action.

11 On discussion of this see Brunero, ‘Reasons and Evidence One Ought’, and K. Setiya, ‘What is a Reason to Act?’, Philosophical Studies (forthcoming). For discussion of the reasons/enablers distinction, and its denial (the ‘No Background View’, in Schroeder's terms), see Dancy, J., Ethics Without Principles (Oxford, 2004), ch. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Schroeder, M., Slaves of the Passions (Oxford, 2007), ch. 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Many thanks to Debbie Roberts, Alex Gregory, Daniel Star, Jonathan Way, and anonymous referees for comments and discussion.