Imagine that you have reasons to study (A) and reasons to watch a movie (B), but cannot do both. (A) and (B) are each sets of reasons in favor of studying or watching a movie (A might contain the facts that you will improve your grade, improve your reputation among professors, and feel good about yourself). You want to know whether the set of all reasons to study (A) is greater than the set of all reasons to watch a movie (B).
Schroeder believes that (A) is greater than (B) iff, in proper deliberation, it is correct to place more weight in set (A) than (B). The correct amount of weight to place in (A) and (B) is determined by further sets of reasons, (A)* and (B)*, which are the sets of the right reasons to place weight in the reason sets (A) and (B) respectively. (This description is slightly different than Schroeder’s, which I’ll explain later on).
I imagine this language is confusing, so consider how it applies to the study/movie case. (A) contains reasons to study, such as the fact that my grade will improve. I can then ask what reasons I have to put weight (or importance) into the fact that my grade will improve. Perhaps the reason to place weight into the fact that my grade will improve is the fact that improved grades will better advance my career. So the fact that improved grades will better advance my career is a reason in set (A)* to place weight in one of the reasons of set (A).
Once this deliberation is completed, we have two sets (A)* and (B)* which give us competing reasons to put weight into (A) and (B). Whether we should do (A) or (B) thus depends on whether (A)* or (B)* has greater weight; to figure out whether (A)* or (B)* has greater weight, we then need further sets of reasons (A)** and (B)** which determine how much weight to put into the reasons of (A)* and (B)*. As is, the account creates a deeply problematic regress where we need set (A)*** to place weight into (A)**, set (A)**** to place weight into (A)***, and so forth.
To solve the regress, Schroeder proposes a base case where one set of reasons outweighs another without need for any further sets of reasons. If successful, the base case stops the regress from happening, and the results of the base case can be applied at each level before it until we eventually figure out whether (A) or (B) is greater. (If (A)** is the base case, then (A)** being greater than (B)** would tell us that (A)* is greater than (B)*, which tells us that (A) is greater than (B).)
Schroeder’s proposed base case is simple: a set (X) outweighs a set (Y) if (X) contains reasons and (Y) does not. So a set of reasons always beats an empty set. Note that this minimal claim is substantive (it does not follow trivially from any definitions), but it seems rather intuitive.
Schroeder believes that the regress for any decision will eventually end up at this base case, so no infinite regress. His view depends on two principles:
1. (X) is greater than (Y) if (X) contains reasons and (Y) does not. (Base Case)
2. (X) is greater than (Y) if the set of reasons to prioritize (X) over (Y) is greater than than the set of reasons to prioritize (Y) over (X). (Regress-starter)
The clever part of Schroeder’s account that I want to focus on is that the further set of reasons in principle 2 is defined in terms of a comparison between (X) and (Y), rather than on the merits of (X) or (Y) independently. I first want to show why this move is crucial for Schroeder’s account to work, and then I will discuss my objections.
Note that my first description of Schroeder’s account is slightly inaccurate (I intentionally put it that way both for simplicity and to better draw out my following point). If (A)* provides the right reasons to place weight in (A) independently of (A)’s relationship to (B), then the regress will never reach the base case unless we discover that we really have no reasons to do (B). (A) has weight because (A)* has weight, (A)* has weight because (A)** has weight, etc; similarly, (B) has weight because (B)* has weight, (B)* has weight because (B)** has weight, etc. (A) and (B) each have weight (they are both sets of genuine reasons) only if each subsequent set also has weight; if some set down the line has no weight, each set in the chain leading up to it will not have weight either. So long as (A) and (B) are genuine sets of reasons, we know that every set in the chain will also have weight.
This is problematic because we cannot gain information about the relative weight of any two sets simply from knowing the fact that all reason sets are greater than 0 (knowing the Base Case). Imagine that you have twenty six variables A-Z, which are all positive integers. Since you know that they are all positive integers, you know that they are all greater than 0 – however, this tells you nothing about how individual variables like B and D compare to each other. Likewise, we cannot derive the relative weights of any sets (A), (B), (A)***, etc. from the Base Case.
Schroeder’s account avoids this problem by making further sets only include reasons to prioritize (A) over (B) or prioritize (B) over (A), rather than put weight in either independently. This is crucial because (B) can have weight even if there are no reasons to prioritize (B) over (A); conversely, it is not possible for (B) to have weight if some subsequent set (B)* places no independent weight in (B).
Applied to the original case, we can ask: what reasons do I have to prioritize good grades+professor relationships over movie enjoyment+leisure, or vice versa. Say I have some reasons to prioritize good grades because doing so will advance my career better, and I have some reasons to prioritize enjoyment because I will enjoy it more in the short term. In this case, we have further sets (A)* and (B)* which provide reasons to prioritize (A) over (B) or prioritize (B) over (A).
We can then push the chain back further – what reasons do I have to prioritize my long-term career over short-term enjoyment, or to prioritize short-term enjoyment over my long-term career? Say I have good reasons to prioritize my career, but no reasons to prioritize my short-term enjoyment. We now have the base case with (A)** and (B)** – since I have no reasons to prioritize my short-term enjoyment over my career, (B)** is empty. Since (B)** is empty and (A)** is not, (A)** is greater; thus (A)* is greater than (B)*, and (A) is greater than (B).
Hopefully it’s clear how comparative sets of reasons avoid the problems of independent reasons. If (A) and (B) are continually judged independently, each subsequent set of reasons to place weight in those sets will be non-empty, and the base case will never be reached. If subsequent sets of reasons are determined comparatively, we can consistently say that there are no reasons to prioritize the reasons in (B) over (A) (or further down the line, no reasons to prioritize (B)* over (A)*) even though both (A) and (B) have weight.
A simple case to illustrate this point: Imagine that the reason to do (A) is that (A) will produce 10 units of happiness, and the reason to do (B) is that (B) will produce 5 units of happiness. While I both have reasons to produce 10 units of happiness and 5 units, I only have reasons to prioritize 10 units over 5 units (I have no reason to prioritize 5 units over 10 units). In this case, (B)* is empty even though (B) is not, so we can use the Base case to generate an answer to the choice of (A) or (B).
My objection to Schroeder is that the regress will end up in the Base case only if we can compare all reasons on a single scale. Consider a choice between saving my wife (C) and three innocent people (D). I have reasons to prioritize my wife (her special relationship to me) and reasons to prioritize the three innocents (promote the general good). So both (C)* and (D)* are non-empty. I have reasons to prioritize special relationships over the general good, and reasons to prioritize the general good over special relationships, making (C)** and (D)** non-empty.
This case is unsolvable in Schroeder’s account because I am using values that cannot be completely outweighed by other values. There is no point during deliberation where I lack reasons to prioritize my relationships or the general good, because neither can be fully compensated for by some component of the other. The Base Case needs a choice to eventually have no reasons in favor of it, which is possible only if we can compare different values on a single scale (like the utilitarian principle) to guarantee that one eventually has no reason in favor of it.