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The Wrong Kind of Solution to the Wrong Kind of Reason Problem

  • JONAS OLSON (a1)

The so-called Wrong Kind of Reason (WKR) problem for Scanlon's ‘buck-passing’ account of value has been much discussed recently. In a recent issue of Utilitas Gerald Lang provides a highly useful critique of extant proposed solutions to the WKR problem and suggests a novel solution of his own. In this note I offer a critique of Lang's solution and respond to some criticisms Lang directs at a Brentano-style approach suggested by Sven Danielsson and me.

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1 Scanlon T. M., What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), pp. 95100.

2 The term was coined by Rabinowicz Wlodek and Rønnow-Rasmussen Toni, ‘The Strike of the Demon: On Fitting Pro-Attitudes and Value’, Ethics 114 (2004), pp. 391423.

3 Lang Gerald, ‘The Right Kind of Solution to the Wrong Kind of Reason Problem’, Utilitas 20.4 (2008), pp. 472–89.

4 See Danielsson Sven and Olson Jonas, ‘Brentano and the Buck-Passers’, Mind 116 (2007), pp. 511–22.

5 Lang, pp. 473–4.

6 In discussions a number of people have pointed out that an initial worry about BPV6 is that it is not clear that the notion of benefits is non-evaluative. If it is evaluative, the analysis becomes circular and BPV6 is a non-starter. It is not clear to me exactly what Lang means by ‘benefits’ but I shall grant him the charitable assumption that the notion can be explicated non-evaluatively. But as we shall see, it might well be far from easy for Lang to avoid including evaluative notions in the analysans, thereby making the analysis circular. See the discussion of BPV9 and BPV10 below.

7 Krister Bykvist suggested that the evaluative notion might be that of value-for rather than final value; what makes our lives richer has value for us but need not be valuable for its own sake. Such a manoeuvre would analyse final value partly in terms of value-for so BPV9 would not be an analysis that reduces values to reasons. One could of course attempt an analysis of value-for in terms of reasons but that would only postpone the problem for variants of the WKR challenge would arise for such analyses too. It is obvious that on pain of circularity such analyses cannot appeal to value-for or final value in order to circumvent WKR problems.

8 Danielsson and Olson, p. 515. Lang fails to note that the implication here is normative and not conceptual. This might partially explain his misunderstanding of the Brentano-style approach to be discussed below.

9 Danielsson and Olson, p. 518.

10 Lang, pp. 482–4.

11 See Skorupski John, ‘Buck-Passing about Goodness’, in Rønnow-Rasmussen T., Peterson B., Josefsson J. and Egonsson D. (eds.) [online resource]: Hommage á Wlodek: Philosophical Papers Dedicated to Wlodek Rabinowicz (Lund, 2007). Available at

12 This may sound circular, but it isn't as long as ‘there is evaluative reason to favour X’ is taken to mean simply that there is reason to have a favourable attitude towards X and as long as the favourable attitude is specified without appeal to evaluative concepts.

13 Lang, p. 483.

14 Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen press similar criticism against views similar to Skorupski's.

15 Danielsson and Olson, p. 515.

16 Lang recognizes this difference but claims that ‘[it] is simply too slim to permit [the Brentano-style approach] to maintain a respectable distance from Skorupski's’ (p. 484). Given what has just been said above I do not see that the difference is ‘too slim’.

17 See Danielsson and Olson, p. 516. See also Brentano Franz, The Foundation and Construction of Ethics (London, 1973), pp. 127–32. Cf. Brentano, The Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong (London, 1969), §§23, 27.

18 Lang, p. 483.

19 Brentano is obviously a philosopher who claimed at least implicitly to have a secure intuitive grasp of correctness. C. D. Broad and A. C. Ewing made claims about the fittingness of conative attitudes that resemble Brentano's claims about correctness. See e.g. Broad C. D., ‘Some of the Main Problems of Ethics’, Philosophy 21 (1946), pp. 99117; Ewing A. C., The Definition of Good (London, 1947).

20 Lang, p. 488.

21 I suspect that Lang is sceptical on this score and that this is what prompts him to say that whenever there is holding-reason to favour the demon there will also be content-reason to favour him. See above and Lang, p. 483.

22 Danielsson and Olson, p. 520.

23 Lang points out that it is a virtue of BPV6 and of the buck-passing account more generally that it establishes a link between values and attitudes (p. 25).

24 I thank Krister Bykvist, Sven Danielsson, Wlodek Rabinowicz, Toni Rønnow-Rasmussen, and especially Gerald Lang for helpful comments and discussions.

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
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