Reinforcement learning (RL) is frequently employed in fine-tuning large language models (LMs), such as GPT-3, to penalize them for undesirable features of generated sequences, such as offensiveness, social bias, harmfulness or falsehood. The RL formulation involves treating the LM as a policy and updating it to maximise the expected value of a reward function which captures human preferences, such as non-offensiveness. In this paper, we analyze challenges associated with treating a language model as an RL policy and show how avoiding those challenges requires moving beyond the RL paradigm. We start by observing that the standard RL approach is flawed as an objective for fine-tuning LMs because it leads to distribution collapse. In other words, turning the LM into a degenerate distribution. Then, we analyze KL-regularised RL, a widely used recipe for fine-tuning LMs, which additionally constrains the fine-tuned LM to stay close to its original distribution in terms of Kullback-Leibler (KL) divergence. We show that KL-regularised RL is equivalent to variational inference, that is, approximating a Bayesian posterior which specifies how to update a prior LM to conform with evidence provided by the reward function. We argue that this Bayesian inference view of KL-regularised RL is more insightful than the typically employed RL perspective. The Bayesian inference view explains how KL-regularised RL avoids the distribution collapse problem and offers a first-principles derivation for its objective. While this objective happens to be equivalent to RL (with a particular choice of parametric reward), there exist other objectives for fine-tuning LMs which are no longer equivalent to RL. That observation leads to a more general point, RL is not an adequate formal framework for problems such as fine-tuning language models. These problems are best viewed as Bayesian inference approximating a pre-defined target distribution.