Practical Reasons

Author: Shane Gronholz
Category: Ethics
Word Count: 1000

We make choices about what to do all the time. When we deliberate about what to do, we consider reasons for various actions. Imagine you are deciding whether to attend your grandmother’s 90th birthday party or stay home and work on a big term paper, which is due in a few days. Reasons to stay home and work on the paper might include the following:

1. You would improve your chances of getting the grade you want on the paper.

2. You would acquire some peace of mind by making progress on the paper.

3. You would save gas money by staying home.

On the other hand, reasons to attend the party might include the following:

4. You would enjoy the party.

5. Your grandmother would be honored by your presence.

6. You made a promise to attend the party.

Since these are all reasons to do something, philosophers call these practical reasons. But what are practical reasons? And what explains the fact that these considerations (or facts) count as reasons?

1. Two Views about Practical Reasons

The first question is pretty straightforward. A practical reason is a fact1 that counts in favor of performing some action or having some desire (and perhaps certain other attitudes as well). So, for example, that you would enjoy the party seems to count in favor of attending, so we can call that a reason to attend.

The second question is much trickier: What explains the fact that the above considerations count as reasons? And, related, what sorts of facts can count as a practical reason?

Broadly, there are two views about this. Reasons internalists2 hold that practical reasons must bear some important relationship to features that are, so to speak, internal to the agent to whom the reasons apply, e.g., desires, goals, projects, interests, etc. Bernard Williams calls this set of motivating features a subjective motivational set. There are a variety of opinions about just what sort of relationship this relationship is, but many internalists hold that an agent can only have a reason to perform an action if that agent is motivated to perform the action, or would be motivated to perform it under certain conditions. But for most, if not all, internalists, that you are currently not motivated to attend the party does not automatically mean you have no reason to attend, for you might be motivated if, for example, you were to appreciate how much your presence would mean to your grandmother. That you would desire to attend the party under some relevant (perhaps ideal) conditions can be a reason to attend, even if you presently lack a desire to attend. These views are therefore known as “counterfactual” theories of practical reasons. The details of this counterfactual aspect of an internalist theory are, to a large degree, what distinguishes the various internalist theories.

Reasons externalists,3 by contrast, hold that practical reasons need not connect in any way to internal features of the agent (e.g., desires, motivations). Instead, reasons have another source—usually value or goodness (hence, some refer to these practical theories as value-based theories). According to reasons externalism, I could have a reason to exercise even if I don’t want to exercise, I don’t care about my health, and I couldn’t be made to care about my health. Why? Because exercise is good for me. It doesn’t matter that I don’t care about my health, because I should care about my health.

2. An Argument for Each View

What does each of these views have going for them? We’ll start with internalism, but first, a quick detour: Some actions are rational, some are irrational, and some are somewhere in between. In general, the rational status of an action is determined by what reasons there are for performing that action in favor of some alternative. In other words, what is most rational for us to do is determined by what we have most reason to do.4 If you discover that you have most reason to attend the party, then it would be most rational for you to attend the party, and, plausibly, you therefore should attend the party. Your failure to attend the party when you have most reason to do so would be irrational, or less than fully rational.

Now, one reason internalists find their view appealing is that it seems like a reason to do something just has to connect in some way to our motivations or desires. If there could be reasons that have no connection to internal features of the agent, and reasons in large part determine the rational status of an action, the denial of internalism would seem to entail, for example, that an agent could be irrational for failing to do something that in no way connects to her desires or motivations, and wouldn’t even under ideal conditions. This strikes some as unintuitive. We don’t normally call a person who is very good at achieving everything they want irrational, even if their aims differ from ours. Indeed, people who are good at getting what they want are often held up as paradigms of rationality.

One reason some find externalism appealing is this: While it is pretty obvious that some actions are irrational, it is (nearly) just as obvious that some desires are irrational. For example, it seems irrational for me to want to eat my car. But if whether we have a practical reason depends on our desires, then desires themselves are not subject to rational assessment. On this view, there are no reasons to have desires.5 But this strikes some as unintuitive. Of course I have reason, say, to care about whether I am tortured, or to hope that a genocide ends, even if I, in fact, do not care about these things. That I don’t care, the thought goes, is precisely what makes me irrational.

3. Conclusion

The debate over whether reasons are internal or external has important implications for moral philosophy since moral philosophy is, in large part, about what we should do and want, and what we should do and want is, in large part, determined by practical reasons.


1Some say a reason is or constitutes a fact. Others prefer to say a reason is provided by a fact. Nothing said here hangs on this distinction.

2See Philippa Foot, Christine Korsgaard, Michael Smith, Bernard Williams

3See Derek Parfit, T.M. Scanlon, Russ Shafer-Landau

4This is so provided that our relevant beliefs are true. Bernard Williams illustrates this point with the following example: I have most reason to drink a gin and tonic, and I believe that the glass before me contains gin and tonic, but it in fact contains gasoline, it may be that although it would be rational for me to drink the contents of the glass, I in fact have no reason to drink the contents of the glass (1982).

5To be more precise, we should say that on this view, there are no reasons to have basic desires, that is, desires that are not derived from other desires. If I want pleasure, in a basic way, for its own sake, an internalist can coherently maintain that I have reason to desire the means to get pleasure. But she cannot say whether I have reason to want pleasure itself. It would be just as rational to desire to pain.


Foot, Philippa, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” The Philosophical Review 81.3. (1972): 305-316.

Korsgaard, Christine, M, “Skepticism About Practical Reason.” Journal of Philosophy. 83.1 (1986): 5-25.

Parfit, Derek, “Normativity,” In Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Volume 1, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau, 325-380. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

———. On What Matters. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

———. “Rationality and Reasons,” In Exploring Practical Philosophy: From Action to Values, edited by Egonsson, Dan et al., 17-39. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2001.

Scanlon, T.M. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.

Shafer-Landau, Russ.  Moral Realism: A Defense. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Smith, Michael. The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

———. “Internal Reasons.” International Phenomenological Society. 55.1 (1995): 109-131.

Williams, Bernard, “Internal and External Reasons.” In Moral Luck, 101-113. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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About the Author

Shane Gronholz has a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He holds a B.A. from Whitworth University where he double majored in philosophy and religion. Shane is interested in metaethics, ethical theory, practical rationality, and philosophy of religion. He lives in Washington with his wife (Stephanie), son (Maxwell), and dog (Benny).

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