Against Raz' Notion of Second Order Reasons

Essay, 2009
9 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

1. The Objective

2. Raz' Account of Second Order Reasons
2.1. Formalizing Reasons and the Whistleblowing Example
2.2. Where Raz Faces Problems

3. Second Order Reasons as First Order Reasons
3.1. The Counterproposal
3.2. Investing or not Investing, that is the Question: Ann's Example
3.3. The Example of the Complying Soldier and the Noncompliant Subordinate

4. Summary and Conclusion

List of abbreviations

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1. The Objective

In the following essay I shall try to show that Joseph Raz' descriptions of second order reasons and exclusionary reasons are not the most plausible way to describe deliberation and decision, because it involves some strange consequences. Though it may be true that accepting his account of second order reasons gives a comfortable order to some seemingly complicated cases, it is not true that they provide the most consistent solution with our intuitions. My suggestion will be to reduce Raz' sec- ond order reasons to first order reasons, which suits our belief on how decisions are made better. Since Raz' intention merely seems to be to show that people act on second order reasons, and this claim is mainly supported by employing some examples, I also shall try to investigate these exam- ples in a different light. After that, it should be clear that his second order reasons are not necessary to explain human behaviour as he claims. In order to narrow down the examination, I will only focus on his descriptions in the first chapter. All references to Raz are meant for:

Raz, Joseph (1975): Practical Reason and Norms, Oxford University Press, 1999.

2. Raz' Account of Second Order Reasons

2.1. Formalizing Reasons and the Whistleblowing Example

This chapter serves to repeat and formalize Raz' descriptions. The example is based on Raz' story of Colin (cp. p. 39). Assume the company that hired you produces toxic food and you have the option to make this public in order to protect the consumers (W = whistleblow, act). On the other hand, this leads to an umcomfortable life for your family for the next years, due to press invasion, no employer will hire you again etc. Also, you once made a promise never to even consider options that are contrary to your family's interests. Following Raz, you have an exclusionary reason that sets aside a decision based on the merits of the case, because your family's well-being is at stake. For this to be an exclusionary reason, it must look like that (note that the SOR does not directly take side for a certain option, but rejects you should make a decision on the merits at all):

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In this representation, if you were to ignore the SOR, then your choice would be to do W, since the protection of lives is a conclusive (i.e. deciding) reason.

Let us introduce a measure of the strength of reasons,[1] which is a cardinal measure,[2] and call it 'force'. The higher the force, the stronger the associated reason − it is rational to decide on the option which has the highest accumulated force. In order to dodge objections that such a measure does not exist or is too narrow, let us further assume it is merely a heuristical device to illustrate the strength of bundles of reasons. With example-values, it looks as follows:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Now let us consider the SOR. Even though it requires us not to decide on the merits of the case, by choosing to comply with the SOR, we inevitably also choose an outcome to the decision on the problem at hand, namely, we choose not do to W. This is not because the SOR overrides the FOR on the merits, but because by choosing SOR we are forfeiting the option to do W, and all of that is done (according to Raz) not considering the merits of the case. If we accept to comply with SOR, we are nonetheless making a choice.

The structure of the ordering of the reasons is what John Rawls calls a 'lexical order', which means that − applied to this case − the order with higher priority (here: the higher order reason) decides alone on the issue at hand, ignoring the lower order reason. Only if there is an indifference on the higher order level, i.e. in SOR, then the lower order has influence on the decision. This is, in my view, a fair characterization of what Raz understands as SORs and how they behave. In his words, there is a "general principle of practical reasoning which determines that exclusionary rea- sons [=SORs] always prevail, when in conflict with first order reasons" (cp. p. 40). Basically, a lexical order means no however huge increase in force for FORs can compensate for a loss in force for SORs. Now we can also assign force-values to SORs, since they still may override each other. The representation, then, looks like this:

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2.2. Where Raz Faces Problems

Now I shall argue that this sort of exclusionary reason is in fact, or can be reduce to, a first order reason. Using the term of exclusionary reason as understood by Raz and as illustrated here, it seems to follow that no change in the force[3] of FORs affect people's accepting exclusionary reasons and thereby accepting a certain outcome, which is like here tied to the SOR. To stick to the example, if we were to accept this account of exclusionary reasons, it would not make a difference to us whether only the inhabitants of a city, of a country or even of a whole continent are poisoned. The more people are at stake, the stronger is the FOR to prevent it in relation, but since we care only about our family, we do not change our behaviour.[4]

illustration not visible in this excerpt

But such an ignorant acting, be it a state of affairs or a normative concept, would probably be re- jected by anyone. Certainly, this kind of blind obedience towards second order reasons violates common sense, for we assume − especially in the case of promises − that these are not rules forced on us, but are self-given rules and can be revised anytime.

Raz actually grants that there is sometimes a certain scale on which second order reasons are valid and − upon exceeding these limits − cease to be valid.[5] Thus, and Raz does not go so far, somehow FORs do influence SORs after all, just not in overriding directly, but in determining the validity of SORs itself. That means if the accumulated force of SORs is lower and contrary to the force of FORs, then we might reject the SOR altogether, because otherwise the decision outcome would be too inappropriate.

Everyone should find it hard to believe that we actually act on second order reasons that lead to choosing an option with weak reasons when there are contrary and very strong first order reasons. This is because we do not blindly follow second order reasons, but actually need reason to uphold them, i.e. need reason to accept or reject their validity. In the last table, this reason was not given any more. And the reason to accept the validity must be some first order reason, because only they represent the merits or what reason there really is to do or refrain from doing something.


[1] Cp. p. 25-7. He defines strength only in relative terms, whereas we need an absolute measure to compare bundles of reasons with other bundles, hence the introduction of the measure.

[2] That means differences have meaning, can be compared (such as 5−3=8−6) and thus single values can be added.

[3] A change of force for FORs is equal to a change in the merits of a case, whereas exclusionary reasons deny to even recognize the merits or parts of them. Therefore, a change in force of FORs should − according to Raz − not alter our outcome resulting from accepting exclusionary reasons.

[4] Of course, we assume the poisoning does not influence the well-being of the family.

[5] For example in the Jeremy example: "He admits that if he were ordered to commit an atrocity he should refuse" (p. 38), i.e. he should abandon the second order reason if the first order reason contrary to it becomes too strong.

Excerpt out of 9 pages


Against Raz' Notion of Second Order Reasons
University of Helsinki  (Department of Social and Moral Philosophy)
Seminar on Normativity
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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430 KB
The essay requires knowledge of the source being criticized.
Joseph Raz, Second Order Reasons, Exclusionary Reasons, Critique
Quote paper
Christoph Siemroth (Author), 2009, Against Raz' Notion of Second Order Reasons, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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