The thesis that the concept of a reason is the fundamental normative concept is in the air. In this paper, I examine what it amounts to, how to formulate it, and how ambitious it should be. I distinguish a semantic version, according to which any normative predicate is definitionally reducible to a reason predicate, and a conceptual version, according to which the sole normative ingredient in any normative concept is the concept of a reason. Although I reject the semantic version, I examine its potential in some detail. And I claim that the conceptual version is plausible. 1. Normativity and reasons The concept of a reason is the fundamental normative concept: this thesis is in the air. 1 One of its attractions, for me, is that it supplies illuminating terms for an old distinction: the distinction between the descriptive and the normative. It has been the fashion to deprecate any such distinction, but in my view its foundations in the critical epistemological tradition, whether empiricist or Kantian, remain as strong as ever. Putting the contrast in terms of propositions about the world and propositions about reasons, as against ‘is ’ and ‘ought’, or ‘fact ’ and ‘value’, is a helpful way of stating two ideas I would want to defend. The first is that normative propositions are not themselves descriptive or factual — they do not present more facts, they do a different job. The second, contrary to the non-cognitive (emotivist, prescriptivist, voluntarist etc.) strains in the critical tradition, is that 1 I am using the word ‘normative ’ broadly to contrast with ‘descriptive ’ — not narrowly, as some writers use it, to contrast with ‘evaluative. ’ As to the thesis, although it is in the air it is difficult to attribute definite versions of it to particular people. I have been helped in thinking about it by Gibbard (1990) and Scanlon (1998). Gibbard works with the basic notion of what is ‘rational, ’ or ‘what makes sense, ’ while for Scanlon the basic notion is explicitly that of a reason. (Substantively this may not be a big difference, though other substantive differences between them are indeed big)
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