What is it to be a rational agent? The orthodox answer to this question can be summarized by a slogan: Rationality is a matter of recognizing and responding to reasons. But is the orthodoxy correct? In this paper, I explore an alternative way of thinking about what it is to be a rational agent according to which a central activity of rational agency is the creation of reasons. I explain how the idea of metaphysical grounding can help make sense of the idea that as rational agents we can, quite literally, create reasons. I end by suggesting a reason to take this alternative view of rational agency seriously. The orthodoxy faces a challenge: how do rational agents make choices within ‘well-formed choice situations’? By allowing that we have the power to create reasons, we have a satisfying and attractive solution to this question.
When a hard choice is substantively hard, the right thing to say, I think, is that the alternatives are comparable, but related by some relation beyond ‘better than’, ‘worse than’, and ‘equally good’ — I dub this relation ‘on a par’.
‘On a par’ and ‘equally good’ are different relations because they have different formal properties. ‘Equally good’ is reﬂexive — a is as equally good as a — and transitive — if a is as equally as good as b which is as equally good as c, then a is as equally as good as c. ‘On a par’ is irreﬂexive — a isn’t on a par with itself — a is as equally as good as itself — and nontransitive — if a is on a par with b which is on a par with c, it doesn’t follow that a is on a par with c. But they are both ways in which items can be compared.
If someone asked me to say what it is for things to be better or equally good, I’d try to describe what those relations involve by describing features of the evaluative differences they denote. If A is better than B, then the evaluative difference between them favors A. If A and B are equally good, then there is a zero evaluative difference between them. If A and B are on a par, there is a non-zero evaluative difference between them, but that difference doesn’t favor one over the other. One reason it’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea of parity — or non-zero, non-favoring evaluative differences — is that we’re so used to understanding value on the model of the reals. Once you assume that value behaves like mass or length, you’re stuck with the view that one value has got to be more, less or equal to another since mass and length can be measured by real numbers, and real numbers must stand in one of those three relations. One of the upshots of entertaining the possibility of parity is that we begin to question at a really fundamental level understanding value in the same way we understand most nonevaluative properties in the world.
Besides its inviting us to give up our deeply held, implicit conception of value as akin to mass or length with respect to measurability, the most important difference between ‘on a par’ and ‘equally good’ shows up in what we should do, practically speaking, when faced with such alternatives. If alternatives are equally good with respect to what matters in the choice between them, it’s always permissible to ﬂip a coin between them. Not so when things are on a par.
[Parity] opens up a new way of understanding rational agency that is a substitute for the usual Enlightenment conception according to which we are essentially creatures who discover and respond to reasons. On that view, our agency is essentially passive — our reasons are ones given to us and not made by us. Our freedom as rational agents consists in the discovery of and appropriate response to reasons given to us and not created by us. Parity allows us to see that our agency may have a role in determining what reasons we have in the ﬁrst place.
The idea instead is that when our reasons are on a par, we have the normative power to create new, ‘will-based’ reasons in favor of one alternative as opposed to another. Take a toy example. You can have the banana split or the chocolate mousse for dessert. They are on a par with respect to deliciousness, which is what matters in the choice between them. You have the normative power to put your agency behind — to ‘will’ — the chocolateyness of the chocolate mousse to be a reason for you to have it, thereby, perhaps, giving yourself most all-things-considered reasons to choose the chocolate mousse. Your act of agency is what makes it the case that you now have most reason to choose the mousse. This is an active view of rational agency because instead of sitting back and discovering what reasons we have, we can create reasons — when our non-will-based reasons — what I call our ‘given’ reasons — are on a par. It’s in this way, I suggest, that we forge our own identities as, say, chocoholics or people who love extreme sports or care about the environment or work to alleviate poverty or any number of things that help deﬁne each of us as distinctive rational agents with particular concerns and projects. This is, I think the most interesting way in which we are– as philosophers like to say — the ‘authors of our lives’.
One way to get an intuitive handle on this alternative view of agency is by considering the way you spend your Saturday afternoons. Say you spend yours interviewing philosophers. Could it be true that you have most reason to spend your Saturdays this way, rather than, say, going for walks, learning the piano, or working in a soup kitchen? Probably not. Could it be true that you have sufﬁcient reason to interview philosophers as well as many other things, and you just arbitrarily plump for interviewing philosophers, where this plumping isn’t an exercise of rational agency but the agential equivalent of ﬂipping a coin? Our choices of how to spend our free time don’t always feel that deeply random. What we do instead, on the view I believe parity makes possible, is put ourselves behind one activity rather than another — we identify with it, we commit to it — for the time being perhaps — we take it on as something we’ll do. When we put our agency behind something, it feels like we have most reason to do what we’re doing. And that’s because we have conferred normativity on that activity. Putting your agency behind spending your Saturdays interviewing philosophers is how you make yourself into the distinctive rational agent that you are — someone curious about things philosophical.
[Kant and Sartre] were each partly right. Some reasons — the will-based ones — have their source in the will but others — the ones that are on a par when will-based reasons can kick in — are ‘given’ to us just as the Enlightenment view says. And only some choices are a matter of agential ﬁat — for example, ones where our ‘given’ reasons are on a par. Crucially, the existentialists eschewed any possibility of normativity before the act of agential ﬁat. When we make ourselves into chocoholics or do-gooders or philosophical explorers, we do so in an already-existing normative landscape. Or so I think. So that’s another way my view differs from existentialism.
Rational agents have the normative power to create will-based reasons to be in one choice situation rather than another. By creating a reason to be in one among many eligible choice situations, you create the justification for being in that choice situation rather than the others. And as a rational agent who responds to reasons, you can thereby get yourself into that choice situation since you have most reason to be in it. And as we’ve suggested, when you create a reason for yourself to be in one choice situation among others, you put yourself behind that reason. By putting yourself behind that reason, you make yourself into the kind of person who now has most reason to be in that choice situation rather than any others. In this way, the activity of your will allows you to become one kind of agent rather than another, namely, an agent who faces these choice situations and not those. You are the driver of which choice situations — and consequently which reasons — make up the story of your life. 20 By creating reasons for yourself, you form what I have elsewhere called your ‘rational identity’ (Chang 2009, 2013a).
Return to you lounging on your living room couch. There are a range of eligible choice situations you could be in right now. This range is determined by agential values like autonomy, well-being, and meaning in life. In choice situation A, what matters is getting your homework done well, and your choice is between continuing to read or getting yourself a coffee. In choice situation B, what matters is the suffering of others, and your choice is between writing a check to Oxfam or hopping a plane to volunteer your aid. In choice situation C, what matters is having fun, and your choice is between going to a movie or calling up some friends for a party. All three choice situations are eligible to you right now.
Which choice situation should you be in? The Passivist orthodoxy has only this to say: you have sufficient reasons to be in any of the three, so just choose. By hypothesis, there is no reason to be in one over the others. But the reasons that render the choice situations eligible on the Passivist View are given reasons. As far as your given reasons are concerned, there is no further justification to be had for being in one choice situation over any others. The Activist View, by contrast, allows that you might create a will-based reason to be in situation A, which then justifies your being in that choice situation. By creating a will-based reason to be in situation A, you thereby make yourself into the sort of person for whom it is true that he has most reason to be in situation A. Your friend, similarly situated, might create a will-based reason for herself to be in situation C. She thereby makes it true of herself that she has most reason to be in situation C. Iterated across a lifetime, you may create a rational identity for yourself as a nerd, and your friend, a party animal. The Activist View gives rational agents the power to craft their own identities as individuals who justifiably face certain sets of choice situations rather than others.
The path we cut through life, among the myriad choice situations rationally open to us, is justified by the will-based reasons we create. Those who champion effective altruism have cut one such path. Those who spend their hours on Wall Street, making as much money as they can in order to live the high life, have cut another. It is only by allowing that there is more to rational agency than recognizing and responding to reasons that we can make sense of how we can be justified in crafting ourselves into the distinctive rational agents we are. Central to being a rational agent is creating reasons for ourselves to be in one choice situation rather than another. By doing so, we can determine for ourselves the reasons we have.