The Constitution of Agency: Abstracts of Essays
1. The Normativity of Instrumental Reason
Most philosophers think it uncontroversial that practical reason requires us to take the means to our ends.
But most philosophers have been silent about the normative foundation of this requirement. The interesting question,
almost everyone agrees, is whether practical reason requires anything more, such as a principle of morality or prudence.
In this paper I examine the question what makes instrumental reason normative. I articulate the answers implicit in the
rationalist/realist and empiricist/naturalist traditions, criticizing the former for its inability to explain how we can
be motivated by the instrumental principle, and the latter for its inability to explain how we can be guided by it. I argue,
first, that the normativity of instrumental reason, like that of moral reason, must be grounded in the agent's autonomy, and
second, that there can be no requirement to take the means to our ends unless there are also required ends. The view that
practical reason is only instrumental is incoherent.
2. The Myth of Egoism
Many philosophers believe there is a principle of practical reason directing the individual to maximize the satisfaction of
his own interests. This belief is supposedly compatible with the views that all practical reasons are instrumental and all
motivation is grounded in desire. Against these claims, I argue that the only possible normative foundation for the egoistic
principle would be a rational intuition that maximum satisfaction is the Good; that motivation to conform to the egoistic
principle would have to rest in pure practical reason; and that the only coherent formulation of the egoistic principle depends on
controversial psychological assumptions characteristic of eighteenth-century British empiricism.
3. Self-Constitution in the Ethics of Plato and Kant
Plato and Kant advance a "Constitutional Model” of the soul, in which reason and appetite or passion have different structural
and functional roles in the generation of motivation, as opposed to the familiar "Combat Model" in which they are portrayed as
independent sources of motivation struggling for control. In terms of the Constitutional Model we may explain what makes an action
different from an event. What makes an action attributable to a person and, therefore, what makes it an action, is that it issues
from the person’s constitution and, therefore, from the person as a whole, rather than from some force working on or in the person.
This in turn implies an account of what makes an action good: what makes an action good is that it is deliberated upon and chosen
in a way that unifies the person into a constitutional system. Through deliberative action we constitute ourselves as unified agents.
Platonic justice and Kant’s categorical imperative are shown to be normative standards for action because they are principles of self-constitution.
4. Aristotle's Function Argument
In Nicomachean Ethics 1.7, Aristotle claims that we might discover the human good if we can first identify the function
of a human being. He then argues that the human function is rational activity, selecting that from a list of three kinds
of life, the life of nutrition and reproduction, shared by all living things; the life of perception, shared by all animals,
and the life of rational activity, distinctive of human beings. Our function is therefore rational activity performed well,
which Aristotle takes to mean in accordance with virtue. This argument has been criticized at almost every point: philosophers
have argued that human beings do not have a function, that if we do have one our good need not rest in its performance, that
it need not be one of the three forms of life, and that any distinctive human attributes can be used either for good or evil.
In this paper I defend Aristotle’s argument from these objections. Drawing on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, I argue that “function”
(ergon) does not mean purpose but rather a way of functioning – how a thing does what it does. The way human beings do things
is by making rational choices. This may make it seem as if our good is the result of performing our function well, rather
than resting in performing our function well. I argue that this objection arises from an incorrect view of the relation
between reason and action. A rational action or activity is one whose logos or principle expresses the agent’s conception
of what is worth doing for the sake of what. This idea is supported by Aristotle’s thesis that the incontinent person
does not act from choice: the incontinent person’s activities do not express his conception of what is worth doing for
the sake of what. And choice in this sense is not a power that can be used either for good or evil.
5. Aristotle's Function Argument
According to Plato and Aristotle, a virtue is a quality that makes you good at performing your function. Aristotle thinks that
the human function is rational activity, so I ask how the moral virtues could contribute to rational activity. I distinguish
five different answers suggested by the text, and examine their merits and demerits. Combing the most promising of them, I argue
that in Aristotle’s theory, rationality is a potential that is actualized by the acquisition of the virtues. By providing correct
evaluative perceptions, the moral virtues bring the soul into a transformed condition in which appetites and passions are caused by
6. From Duty and for the Sake of the Noble: Kant and Aristotle on Morally Good Action
Most philosophers suppose that Aristotle and Kant have radically different views of morally good action. Aristotle tells us that
an agent lacks virtue unless she enjoys the performance of virtuous actions, while Kant claims that the person who does her duty
in the teeth of contrary inclinations exhibits a moral worth that the person who does a dutiful action from inclination lacks.
Aristotle emphasizes the difficulty of formulating general principles governing moral action, while Kant provides us with a method of
determining whether our actions conform to universal law. Despite these apparent differences, I argue that Aristotle and Kant share
a distinctive view of the object of human choice and locus of moral value: both think that what we choose, and what has moral value,
are what I call actions, that is acts-for-the-sake-of-ends. Morally good actions embody a special kind of intrinsic value that
inspires us to do them from duty (in Kant) or for the sake of the noble (in Aristotle). I establish this through an analysis
of the argument of section one of the Groundwork and an analysis of Aristotle’s conception of choice, providing a reading of
his view that deliberation concerns “what is towards the end” and his view that the incontinent person does not act from choice.
I then trace the difference in their attitudes about the importance of doing one’s duty with pleasure to a difference in their
attitudes towards pleasure itself: Aristotle sees pleasure as a perception of the good, while Kant thinks of it as mere feeling
that reveals nothing about the object of enjoyment except its relation to the person who experiences it. The difference between
them does not reflect a moral disagreement at all.
7. Acting for a Reason
Starting from the debate over whether practical reasons are mental states or the facts to which those mental states are a response,
I argue that being motivated by a practical reason must be a reflexive form of motivation, that is, a response to a certain content
that at the same time involves consciousness of the appropriateness of responding to that content in just that way. This complex feature of
practical reasons is captured by Kant and Aristotle's accounts of action. For both, the object of choice and the bearer of moral value
is an act-done-for-the-sake-of-an-end, expressed by a maxim or logos. The adoption of a maxim or logos is a form of motivation that
expresses the agent's endorsement of doing a certain act for a certain end, and so expresses her endorsement of the appropriateness of
her own motivation. Only a Kantian maxim or an Aristotelian logos can therefore be expressive of a reason.
8. Taking the Law into Our Own Hands: Kant on the Right to Revolution
Kant’s attitudes towards revolution are paradoxical: he condemns revolution under any circumstances as a violation of a duty of justice,
yet he himself was a notorious supporter of the French Revolution, and wrote that the enthusiasm of the spectators of the French Revolution
was a sign of moral progress in the human race. I defend Kant’s view that revolution is always a violation of a duty of justice by appeal
to the fact that in order to be just, revolution would have to accord with the general will, and the fact that the government speaks for
the general will – or if it does not, no one does. I then explain Kant’s attitude towards by appeal to the distinction between duties of
justice and duties of virtue. The duties of justice require us to live in political society, because only in political society can human
rights be realized. It therefore requires us to obey the powers that be. This means if we do not, we may be punished, and also that we also
bear responsibility for any bad consequences of the violation. The virtue of justice requires us to make human rights our end. When a political
society itself violates human rights, the virtue of justice is therefore turned against itself, and under extreme circumstances, the person
who makes human rights his end may be driven to take the law into his own hands. The case demonstrates a general problem of non-ideal theory:
in sufficiently bad circumstances, we may make decisions that cannot be justified to others.
9. The General Point of View: Love and Moral Approval in Hume's Ethics
Hume thinks moral judgments are based on sentiments of approval and disapproval we feel when we contemplate someone from a “general point of view.”
We view her through the eyes of her “narrow circle” and judge her in accordance with general rules. But why do we take up the general point of
view? Since in Hume’s theory the concept of virtue arises from moral sentiments rather than preceding them, we cannot say that we take up the
general point of view in order to “see” the virtues. Hume himself argues that we take up the general point of view in order to avoid
contradictions in our moral judgments, but this argument does not work because we do not make moral judgments until we take up the general
point of view. I propose a different account of why we take up the general point of view. Hume also argues that approval is a calm form of
love, love of character, which sets a normative standard for other forms of love. I argue that character, as a form of causality, is constructed
from the point of view of one's narrow circle. We take up the general view to view people as agents with characters, that is, as possible objects of love.
10. Realism and Constructivism in Twentieth-Century Moral Philosophy
In this paper I trace the development of one of the central debates of late twentieth-century moral philosophy –
the debate between realism and what Rawls called "constructivism." Realism, I argue, is a reactive position that arises in response to
almost every attempt to give a substantive explanation of morality. It results from the realist’s belief that such explanations inevitably
reduce moral phenomena to natural phenomena. I trace this belief, and the essence of realism, to a view about the nature of concepts – that
it is the function of all concepts to describe reality. Constructivism may be understood as the alternative view that the function of a normative
concept is to refer schematically to the solution to a practical problem. A constructivist account of a concept, unlike a traditional analysis, is
an attempt to work out the solution to that problem. I explain how the philosophies of Kant and Rawls can be understood on this model.