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Forms of Rational Agency

  • Douglas Lavin (a1)

Abstract

A measure of good and bad is internal to something falling under it when that thing falls under the measure in virtue of what it is. The concept of an internal standard has broad application. Compare the external breed standards arbitrarily imposed at a dog show with the internal standards of health at work in the veterinarian's office. This paper is about practical standards, measures of acting well and badly, and so measures deployed in deliberation and choice. More specifically, it is about the attempt to explain the unconditional validity of certain norms (say, of justice and prudence) by showing them to be internal to our agency and the causality it involves. This is constitutivism. Its most prominent incarnations share a set of assumptions about the nature of agency and our knowledge of it: conceptualism, formalism and absolutism. This essay investigates the merits and viability of rejecting all of them while still seeking the ground of practical normativity in what we are, in our fundamental activity.

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Footnotes

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Thanks especially to Matthew Boyle. I am indebted as well to Matthias Hasse, Christine Korsgaard, Sergio Tenenbaum and Michael Thompson. I have benefited from discussion at the Institute of Philosophy, Leeds, Leipzig, LMU, and the DFG-Netzwerk on Praktisches Denken und gutes Handeln. I am grateful to the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung for generous financial support.

Footnotes

References

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1 Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Norton, D. F. and Norton, M. J. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), II.3.iii.

2 Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. and trans. Gregor, Mary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 4:396 .

3 Thus in an article summarising the current discussion, Elijah Millgram writes ‘[c]onstitutivist arguments move from the premises that anything you do will inevitably be an action, and that an action is such-and-such, to the conclusions that whatever you do will be a such-and-such’ Millgram, Elijah, ‘Pluralism About Action’, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Action, ed. O'Connor, Timothy and Sandis, Constantine (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 90 .

4 Dreier, James, ‘Humean Doubts About the Practical Justification of Morality’, in Ethics and Practical Reason, ed. Cullity, Garrett and Berys, Gaut (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 81100 ; Street, Sharon, ‘What Is Constructivism in Ethics and Metaethics?Philosophy Compass 5(5) (2010): 363–84; Street, Sharon, ‘Coming to Terms with Contingency: Humean Constructivism About Practical Reason’, in Constructivism in Practical Philosophy, ed. Lenman, Jimmy and Shemmer, Yonatan (Oxford University Press, 2012); Vogler, Candace A., Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002).

5 Korsgaard, Christine M., Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (Oxford University Press, 2009); Korsgaard, Christine M., The Constitution of Agency: Essays on Practical Reason and Moral Psychology (Oxford University Press, 2008); Rödl, Sebastian, Self-Consciousness (Harvard University Press, 2007). Smith, Michael, ‘The Magic of Constitutivism’, American Philosophical Quarterly 52(2) (2015); Smith, Michael, ‘A Constitutivist Theory of Reasons: Its Promise and Parts’, Law, Ethics and Philosophy 1(0) (2013): 930 ; Velleman, David J., The Possibility of Practical Reason (Oxford University Press, 2000), and How We Get Along (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

6 Enoch, David, ‘Agency, Shmagency: Why Normativity Won't Come from What Is Constitutive of Action’, The Philosophical Review 115(2) (2006): 169–98; Millgram, Elijah, ‘Practical Reason and the Structure of Actions’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008 ; Peter Railton, ‘On the Hypothetical and Non-Hypothetical in Reasoning About Belief and Action’, in Ethics and Practical Reason, 53–79; T. M. Scanlon, ‘The Appeal and Limits of Constructivism’, in Constructivism in Practical Philosophy; R. Jay Wallace, ‘Constructivism About Normativity: Some Pitfalls’, in Constructivism in Practical Philosophy.

7 I do not mean to say Aristotle goes entirely unmentioned. See, for example, Engstrom, Stephen, ‘The Complete Object of Practical Knowledge’, in The Highest Good in Aristotle and Kant, ed. Aufderheide, Joachim and Bader, Ralf M. (Oxford University Press, 2015), 129–57; Christine M. Korsgaard, ‘Aristotle's Function Argument’, in The Constitution of Agency and ‘How to be an Aristotelian Kantian Constitutivist’ (unpublished).

8 Kosman, Aryeh, The Activity of Being: An Essay on Aristotle's Ontology (Harvard, 2013).

9 Korsgaard, Self-Constitution, 1.

10 Christine M. Korsgaard, ‘The Normativity of Instrumental Reason’, in Ethics and Practical Reason, 251.

11 Ibid., 233.

12 Thus Korsgaard takes it to be uncontentious that ‘what the will chooses is, strictly speaking, actions’, where an ‘action’ is a doing of A for E. That this assumption is contentious has been discussed by Millgram in ‘Pluralism about Action’, though he interprets its significance very differently than I do.

13 The scope contrast I am drawing here should not be confused with the more familiar contrast between a wide scope reading of practical norms on which they are of the form:

(WS) It ought to be the case that, if p, then the agent does A.

and a narrow scope reading on which their form is:

(NS) If p, then it ought to be the case that the agent does A.

Korsgaard holds that fundamental norms of practical rationality cannot be formulated in the manner of (WS), on pain of their not being genuinely practical norms (The Activity of Reason’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 83(2) (2009): 2729 .) It is less clear whether she would accept formulations along the lines of (NS) or hold out for something else altogether. But whatever the outcome of this dispute, there remains the question whether the scope of the instrumental principle is wide or narrow in the sense I have distinguished: whether it says that we are rationally required to take the means to our ends, or only that, given certain ends, we are rationally required to take certain means. My claim is that, with respect to this latter contrast, Korsgaard's argument presupposes the wide reading.

14 Compare Kant's famous remark on how our very recognition of the moral law implies a recognition of our own practical capacities: ‘Ask [someone] whether, if his prince demanded, on the threat of the… prompt penalty of death, that he give false testimony against an honest man whom the prince would like to ruin under specious pretenses, he might consider it possible to overcome his love of life, however great it may be. He will perhaps not venture to assure us whether or not he would overcome that love, be he must concede without hesitation that doing so would be possible for him. He judges, therefore, that he can do something because he is conscious that he ought to do it’. Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Gregor, Mary J., (Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5:30 .

15 Kant, Immanuel, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings, trans. Di Giovanni, George (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 6:26 .

16 Op. cit. note 145:31. This is commonly supposed to reflect a change in Kant's position. For doubts see Engstrom, Stephen, The Form of Practical Knowledge (Harvard University Press, 2009). Tenenbaum, Sergio, ‘Speculative Mistakes and Ordinary Temptations: Kant on Instrumentalist Conceptions of Practical Reason’, History of Philosophy Quarterly 20(2) (2003), 203–23 and The Idea of Freedom and Moral Cognition in Groundwork III’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 84(3) (2012), 555–89.

17 Dreier, ‘Humean Doubts About the Practical Justification of Morality’.

18 See, for example, Smith, ‘The Magic of Constitutivism’, Street, ‘Coming to Terms with Contingency’, Vogler, Reasonably Vicious.

19 ‘Pluralism About Action’, 12.

20 Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics: Translation, Introduction, Commentary, ed. Broadie, Sarah, trans. Rowe, Christopher (Oxford University Press, 2002) I.7.

21 Ibid., I.5.

22 Ibid., I.3.

23 Ibid., II.9.

24 Ibid., II.6, 1107a1-2, VI.12, 1144a34.

25 Ibid., VI.7 1141a32-3.

26 Michael Thompson brought the passage to my attention. Here and throughout I have been influenced by Thompson's work. See his ‘Forms of Nature: ‘First', ‘Second', ‘Living', ‘Rational' and ‘Phronetic'' (unpublished). Also see the following: Haase, Matthias, ‘Life and Mind’, in The Freedom of Life: Hegelian Perspectives, ed. Khurana, Thomas (Berlin: August Verlag, 2013), 69109 ; Jennifer Whiting, 'Hylomorphic Virtue: Cosmology, Embryology, and Moral Development in Aristotle' (unpublished).

Thanks especially to Matthew Boyle. I am indebted as well to Matthias Hasse, Christine Korsgaard, Sergio Tenenbaum and Michael Thompson. I have benefited from discussion at the Institute of Philosophy, Leeds, Leipzig, LMU, and the DFG-Netzwerk on Praktisches Denken und gutes Handeln. I am grateful to the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung for generous financial support.

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