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One of the most fundamental things a philosopher does is to ask why. When someone says “you should do x” or “y is good,” it seems to me, the true lover of wisdom needs to ask why this is the case. If someone tells me I should do something and can’t provide a reason, I see this as grounds for questioning whether it really is something I should do at all. Nietzsche, if he does nothing else, shows us that the things we take as obvious may well not be so.

So what happens when we try to take our reasons all the way down? When we continue asking why we should do anything? We begin to get to a complex meta-ethical question: what constitutes a reason for action? What is it to have a reason to do something? (Warning: this will be an abstract and theoretical post, but it is important to fundamental questions like why we should do anything at all.)

There are at least three things that this last question could mean, three things we could be saying when we speak of having reasons. I like to distinguish the different kinds of reasons in terms of grammar: it’s so far the most precise way I’ve found of spelling them out. There is on one hand a difference of case, between ablative and dative reasons; and on the other a difference of person, between third-person and first-person reasons. English has the second of these distinctions but not the first.

I know the distinction between ablative and dative from my study of Sanskrit and Pali (and to a lesser extent Latin) grammar; the same distinction, I believe, is there in Greek. (It’s not there in German, which has only a dative and no ablative.) In Sanskrit, ablative and dative case endings can both be used to express what we would normally call reasons; but they are very different kinds of reasons. The ablative case describes a cause; it describes the reason why we did something (or why we’re doing it or will do it). The dative case describes a purpose; it describes our reason to do something. The ablative in this sense is translated with “because”; the dative, with “in order to.”

So when we speak of reasons, it can be helpful to specify whether we’re speaking of reasons in the sense expressed by the dative, or only by the ablative. Ablative reasons are the reasons that natural scientists are best at expressing; they’re the only kinds of reasons discovered by chemistry or physics. Everything in the universe acts according to ablative reasons: the rock fell because it had been dropped (and because of gravity). Essentially, they are causes; the “why” in an ablative reason can be replaced with a “how.” In Aristotle’s scheme of four explanations, they are efficient explanations.

Dative reasons, by contrast, are final explanations; they have to do with purpose, aims, teleology. On Aristotle’s understanding, everything had a dative reason; for a modern scientific understanding, this is not the case. There is no purpose to rocks falling or the sun shining. There is, however, some sort of purpose in the biological action of lifeforms, even on a purely scientific explanation. We cannot explain the movements of, say, blood clotting in a wound entirely on the basis of chemical and physical movement; we explain the blood clotting much more effectively if we can talk about what it’s for, namely to protect the wound and stop bleeding. Purpose is such a central part of biological explanation that, until Darwin, it was the most obvious and preferred proof for the existence of God. Everything biological, from the cell to the ecosystem, acts with some purpose to the preservation and reproduction of life; how could this have happened without the action of a God? Nobody had a good answer to that question until Darwin; ever since then, evolution replaced God in explanations, and people have made attempts to base ethics on evolution (usually failing miserably).

It’s dative and not ablative reasons that are of interest to me here. Ablative reasons help us explain the action of the universe; but they tell us less of interest for ethics. To ask “why should we do something?” we need to ask about purpose.

Some – especially Kant – would step in and require a further distinction among dative reasons. The best way I’ve found of putting this distinction is also grammatical: third-person versus first-person reasons. (My grad-school colleague Drew Schroeder used this distinction to help explain Kant to me, though I don’t think Kant himself puts it in those terms.) When a biologist explains blood clotting in terms of its purpose, Kant would say, that explanation too has nothing to do with what actions we should actually take. The purpose of our action has to come from within us.

Sociologists and psychologists can easily explain actions in dative terms. This is clearest in the case of functionalists like Talcott Parsons, for whom basically every social phenomenon can be explained in terms of its purpose for society at large, but pretty much every social scientist will explain actions in terms of some sort of purpose, including individual self-interest or evolutionary fitness. But they’re still explaining action causally, looking at the social or biological variables that cause one course of action to be taken rather than not taken. In the end these third-person dative reasons still turn out to be efficient explanations: we ask what something is for only in order to explain what caused it. First-person reasons are different: they’re the reasons that we use for choice and deliberation in an action.

On the internalist view, I think, these distinctions look a bit less important. If our reasons for action come down to our existing desires or other motivations, then it may well be sufficient to say that we want X because it gives us pleasure, and it gives us pleasure because our upbringing predisposes us that way. But I think it’s that very way of phrasing the question that looks suspicious to the externalist. Should we really take a view that’s that conservative – that just leaves the preferences formed by genes and upbringing as they are? Don’t we want to have better reasons than just being slaves of our pasts? It’s the sorts of judgements implied in those questions – the idea that it is better to make a free and rational choice – that Kant appeals to, and I don’t think it’s too hard to see the appeal in his view.