Reasons as Socially Constructed Facts


According to a picture that can be found in both analytic philosophy and cognitive science, reasons are facts to which mind responds in the process of rational deliberation. Reasons are facts that we can see as speaking in favour of particular actions and that we can point out for justificatory or explanatory purposes. This paper develops the idea that such facts have a social ontology.

The cognitive scientists Mercier and Sperber (2017) have recently proposed that a) reasoning is intuitive inference from reasons, rather than following logical requirements and that b) reasons are items that evolved as currency in a social justification practice.

With a), the empirically oriented work of Mercier and Sperber can be related to a debate in analytic philosophy, which discusses whether rationality should be described as “responding to reasons” (defended by e.g. Kiesewetter 2017) or as following structural requirements (defended by e.g. Broome 2007). The picture promoted by Mercier and Sperber is more in line with the former position, according to which reasons are facts to which we respond.

With b), the work of Mercier and Sperber analyses the facts to which we respond in more detail. By arguing that our reference to those facts reflects a communicative social practice, the two authors suggest a social ontology of reasons, but do not develop such a view themselves. This paper develops a view about the ontology of reasons based on Mercier’s and Sperber’s claims. The view depicts reasons as socially (discursively) constructed facts. Thereby, this view can be contrasted to other views about the ontology of reasons in analytic philosophy, such as Scanlon’s realism (2014) or Skorupski’s irrealism (2010).

The paper draws from Haslanger’s work (2012) and argues that there is both an element of constitutive social construction in normative practice and an element of causal social construction in the origin of our reasons. The realm of reasons forms a mind-independent realm which individual mind must take as given. As opposed to the mind-independence claims raised by, for example, Scanlon or Skorupski, the literature in social metaphysics, especially Haslanger’s “critical realism”, offers a way to defend mind-independence without defending normative reality as independent of human practice. This opens up the possibility of genuine normative change, but also shows the limits of an individual to bring about such change.


2 thoughts on “Reasons as Socially Constructed Facts

  1. Zachos, Dimitrios says:

    Hi Gloria,

    thank you very much for your presentation- I’m really sorry I wasn’t able to attend the Q and A…my internet connection was so bad that I couldn’t join the session even with the camera off…
    I just wanted to say that I found the analysis-approach of treating reasons as fundamental social entities, and reasoning as ‘responsiveness to reasons’, compelling, and wanted to point out how well this approach mirrors a(n) (older, but in the last decade re-envigorated) similar approach that treats (legal) norms as motivating reasons. Looked at through the vocabulary you utilize, we could perhaps say that cases of weakness of the will/mental incapacity (Zurechenbarkeit usw..) can be seen as instances where the mind does not have the capacity to respond the the motivating reasons provided for by the law, thus, we are in these instances not morally justified to punish that individual… In short, maybe the debates and the literature on mental incapacitation/Irrtum, etc, from the legal realm, can provide you with interesting examples to test your approach on. Look at paragraphs 16-20 of the German Criminal Code, for instance…”not being able to discern the wrongfulness of the act” can be looked at through the analysis you propose, as well, as ‘non-responsiveness to reasons’….Just an idea!
    Thanks again!

    1. Mähringer, Gloria says:

      Hi Dimitrios!

      Thank you for your comment. Your examples from legal practice are very interesting. I would make a distinction between “not being able to discern the wrongfulness of an act” because of individual limitations (limited knowledge, limited understanding, limited training or sensitivity) and “not being able to discern the wrongfulness of an act” because of the way of reasoning being substantially different from ours who agree on this act being wrong. I have no thought-through position on how law should relate to people reasoning in a way that differs substantially from the foundations on which a particular legal system or society is build… it is a very hard question that I cannot answer within my account. What my account can positively do is contributing to an understanding of such fundamental disagreements – and point out what makes them difficult to resolve and what is at stake when taking a stance here.

      Thank you for your input! I really appreciate it!

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