Joseph Raz is an Israeli philosopher who was born in the Mandate for Palestine (British Palestime) in1939. He earned a Magister Juris degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1963), and a doctoral (DPhil) degree at Oxford University (1967). He taught at the Hebrew University as a member of the Law Faculty and Department of Philosophy from 1967-1972, and was a Fellow and Tutor in Law at Balliol College, Oxford from 1972-1985, becoming Professor of the Philosophy of Law at Oxford and Fellow of Balliol College from 1985-2006, and then research professor at Oxford from 2006-2009. He has also been a professor at the Law School at Columbia University since 2002, and has served as research professor at King’s College London since 2011. His books include The Concept of a Legal System (1970), Practical Reason and Norms (1975), The Authority of Law (1979), The Morality of Freedom (1986), Ethics in the Public Domain (1994), Engaging Reason (1999), Value, Respect, and Attachment (2001), The Practice of Value (2003), Between Authority and Interpretation (2009), and From Normativity to Responsibility (2011).
In Practical Reason and Norms, Raz describes the kinds of reasons we may have for performing various actions. Such reasons may be operative or non-operative, complete or partial, strong or weak. They may also be first-order or second-order, relative or absolute, exclusionary or non-exclusionary.
According to Raz, we may have, in addition to reasons for action, reasons for belief, as well as reasons for other moral and social phenomena, such as desires, emotions, attitudes, norms, and institutions. Beliefs may constitute reasons for action, but beliefs may sometimes be mistaken, and thus we should be guided by the actual facts of a given situation, rather than merely by what we believe are the facts of that situation.
Reasons may be called operative if belief in their existence entails a “practical critical attitude” (such that conclusions about what we ought to do result from valid inferences about the nature of our duty, and we are in fact motivated by those conclusions), while they may be called non-operative (or auxiliary) if they do not entail such an attitude.
Reasons may be called complete if no other reasons serve as motives for our actions. They may also be called complete if they would cease to be complete, were any of their constituents to be omitted.
Reasons may also be called relatively strong or relatively weak if they override or are overridden by other reasons. In cases of conflict between reasons, relatively stronger ones override relatively weaker ones.1
While a conclusive reason may be a reason for which there is no cancelling condition and no other reason that overrides it, an absolute reason may be a reason for which there couldn’t possibly be some other reason that would override it, and a prima facie reason may be a reason that is neither conclusive nor absolute.2
While a first-order reason may be a reason for action, a second-order reason may be a reason to act for some other reason or to refrain from acting for some other reason.3 While conflicts between first-order reasons may be resolved by considering the relative strength of the conflicting reasons, this isn’t the case with conflicts between first- and second-order reasons.4
An exclusionary reason, according to Raz, is a (second-order) reason to refrain from acting for some reason, while a non-exclusionary reason is not a (second-order) reason to refrain from acting for some reason.5 In conflicts between first- and second-order reasons, exclusionary reasons always prevail, since they exclude acting for those first-order reasons, but the scope of exclusionary reasons depends on the class of first-order reasons that they exclude.6 Exclusionary reasons may in some cases be overridden by other second-order reasons.
Decisions may be both first-order and second-order reasons, insofar as they may be both reasons to act and reasons to refrain from acting for other reasons. Once they have been made, decisions may be exclusionary insofar as they exclude further consideration of alternatives, but they may sometimes be revised or reversed if alternatives are indeed further considered.
Mandatory norms (such as rules and principles) are also first- and second-order reasons, insofar as they are complied with only if they are regarded as valid reasons for action, and as valid reasons for disregarding conflicting reasons for action. Thus, “The first-order strength of a norm depends on…the strength of the reasons for the norm, which are reasons for doing what is required by the norm.”7 The second-order (exclusionary) strength of a norm depends on the strength of the reasons for excluding further consideration of other norms or other reasons for action.
Non-mandatory norms (such as permissions and power-conferring norms) are also first- and second-order reasons, says Raz. Exclusionary permissions (permissions to disregard reasons for refraining from particular actions) are different from exclusionary reasons (reasons to refrain from considering other reasons for performing those actions) insofar as they do not necessarily entail disregard of the excluded reasons; they merely permit it.8 On the other hand, exclusionary permissions are like exclusionary reasons insofar as they may vary in scope (the class of reasons they exclude).9
1Joseph Raz, Practical Reason and Norms (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1975), p. 25.
6Ibid., pp. 40-46.