Discussion Note: Selim Berker’s Combinatorial Argument against Practical Reasons for Belief


In a recent paper, Selim Berker (Analytic Philosophy, 59, 427-470, 2018) develops an abductive argument against practical reasons for belief that exploits an alleged difference between epistemic and practical reasons. According to Berker, epistemic reasons for belief balance to suspension. If I have equally strong epistemic reasons to believe and disbelieve some proposition, I lack sufficient reason either to believe or disbelieve it. Rather, I have decisive reason to suspend judgment. In contrast, practical reasons balance to permission. If I have equally strong practical reasons to φ or ψ (and there are no other reasons on the scene), I have sufficient reason to do either. Given this difference, Berker argues that defenders of practical reasons for belief cannot offer a plausible explanation of how practical and epistemic reasons interact in order to yield all-things-considered normative verdicts. In this essay, I defend a non-interactionist “pure” form of pragmatism against Berker’s objection. I outline a pure pragmatist theory, recapitulate why Berker thinks it also falls prey to his objection, and explain why the objection fails to undermine pure pragmatism. Finally, I consider an additional reason Berker’s argument might seem persuasive and show that it depends on conflating Berker’s objection and a separate challenge to pure pragmatism. Once these distinct challenges are disambiguated, it is easier to see why Berker’s objection is not a significant concern for pure pragmatists.

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  1. 1.

    Throughout, I adopt Berker’s reasons-based framework according to which “X’s φ-ing has a normative status such as the following: X has decisive reason to φ (i.e., φ-ing is required by the overall balance of X’s reasons); X has sufficient reason to φ (i.e., φ-ing is permitted by the overall balance of X’s reasons); X lacks sufficient reason to φ (i.e., φ-ing is forbidden by the overall balance of X’s reasons)” (427).

  2. 2.

    For discussions of how similar examples of self-fulfilling beliefs pose challenges to the view that epistemic reasons for belief necessarily balance to suspension, see Reisner (2007, 2013, 2018), Drake (2017), and Raleigh (2017). Thanks to an anonymous referee for clarifying this point.

  3. 3.

    See, e.g., Feldman (2000).

  4. 4.

    Pure pragmatism is endorsed by Stich (1990), and a similar view to Stich’s can be found in Rinard (2015, 2017). McCormick (2015), Papineau (2013), and Maguire and Woods (in press) all develop novel versions of pure pragmatism. See Reisner (2008 and 2009) for helpful discussion. Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting some of the relevant literature.

  5. 5.

    For versions of this analogy, see Schroeder (2010), Howard (2016), Leary (2017), Côté-Bouchard (2016), and Maguire and Woods (in press).

  6. 6.

    As McCormick aptly puts a similar point, “having true beliefs and knowledge help us achieve our goals, flourish, and be excellent human beings. In general, forming and maintaining beliefs in accordance with evidential norms that produce knowledge is the best way to achieve these goals.” (2015: 48).

  7. 7.

    In his 2008 paper, Reisner notes that a similar proposal to the one I outline below is compatible both with pure and interactionist forms of pragmatism, though he doesn’t endorse either. See pg. 27. For the reasons I give below, I think this approach is more plausible given a commitment to pure pragmatism than it would be if one accepted the existence of epistemic reasons and an independent source of normativity for belief.

  8. 8.

    See Dancy (2004). He calls these considerations “disablers.” See also Schroeder (2007 and 2011) for discussion. According to Schroeder, undercutting defeat is a limiting case of attenuation, which occurs when one consideration makes another a much weaker reason than it otherwise would be. Nothing in my argument here turns on whether the practical reason to avoid believing p completely undercuts the practical reason to respect the evidence concerning p, or merely attenuates it below some threshold beneath which it is no longer relevant.

  9. 9.

    See pg. 444. Since Berker presents this objection in the context of discussing Reisner’s proposal, his imagined scenario involves equally balanced “epistemic reasons.” In applying the criticism to pure pragmatism, I describe the scenario as involving equally balanced “evidence.”

  10. 10.

    Again, in order to make the criticism applicable to pure pragmatism, assume that “no other reasons that bear on the matter” means “no other reasons that bear on the matter other than a standing practical reason to respect the evidence.”

  11. 11.

    The claim that practical considerations cannot be reasons for belief because we are incapable of reasoning from non-evidential considerations to belief is a prominent objection to pragmatism, but it is importantly different from Berker’s objection. Versions of this argument can be found in Shah (2006), Kelly (2002), Kolodny (2005), Raz (2011), and Persson (2007). Similar views may be inferred from Parfit (2011) and Gibbard (1990).

  12. 12.

    For some attempts to respond to this sort of objection, see: Rinard (2015, 2017, 2018) McCormick (2015), Reisner (2009), Crawford (2019), Leary (2017), Howard (2016), and Maguire and Woods (in press).


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Special thanks to Daniel Star and two anonymous referees at Philosophia for written comments that greatly improved the paper. I would also like to thank David DiDomenico, Becca Fink, Walter Hopp, Berislav Marušić, Miriam McCormick, Susanna Rinard, Sebastian Schmidt, Jack Woods, and especiallySelim Berker for helpful conversations.

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Shmidt, A. Discussion Note: Selim Berker’s Combinatorial Argument against Practical Reasons for Belief. Philosophia 48, 763–776 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-019-00103-6

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  • Ethics of belief
  • Pragmatism
  • Evidentialism
  • Weighing
  • Reasons for belief
  • Epistemic normativity
  • Selim Berker