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Summary

To be instrumentally rational is, roughly, to take necessary and effective means to one’s end. For instance, if you decide to give up smoking, it would be instrumentally rational to stop buying cigarettes, and to limit the time you spend around other smokers. It would be irrational not to take any means to this end. Instrumental rationality raises several sets of questions, including: (i) what are the principles of instrumental rationality? (ii) what is the normative status of the principles of instrumental rationality? (iii) might instrumental rationality be all of practical rationality?

Key works

Much recent discussion of this topic takes off from Bratman 1987, Broome 1999, and Korsgaard 1997. Kolodny 2005, Raz 2005, and Schroeder 2009 are central contributions to the subsequent debate. A different stream in the literature focuses on decision theory as a theory of instrumental rationality.Gauthier 1986 includes a classic and fairly accessible statement of this idea.

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  1. Chrisoula Andreou (2008). The Newxin Puzzle. Philosophical Studies 139 (3):415 - 422.
    A variety of thought experiments suggest that, if the standard picture of practical rationality is correct, then practical rationality is sometimes an obstacle to practical success. For some, this in turn suggests that there is something wrong with the standard picture. In particular, it has been argued that we should revise the standard picture so that practical rationality and practical success emerge as more closely connected than the current picture allows. In this paper, I construct a choice situation—which I refer (...)
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  2. Chrisoula Andreou (2005). The Voices of Reason. American Philosophical Quarterly 42 (1):33 - 45.
    It is widely held that instrumental reasoning to a practical conclusion is parasitic on non-instrumental practical reasoning. This conclusion is based on the claim that when there is no reason to adopt a certain end, there is no reason to take the means (qua means) to that end. But, as will be argued, while there is a sense of reason according to which the previous statement is true, there is another sense according to which it is false. Furthermore, in both (...)
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  3. Robert Bass, Sunk Costs.
    Decision theorists generally object to “honoring sunk costs” – that is, treating the fact that some cost has been incurred in the past as a reason for action, apart from the consideration of expected consequences. This paper critiques the doctrine that sunk costs should never be honored on three levels. As background, the rationale for the doctrine is explained. Then it is shown that if it is always irrational to honor sunk costs, then other common and uncontroversial practices are also (...)
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  4. Stephanie Beardman (2007). The Special Status of Instrumental Reasons. Philosophical Studies 134 (2):255 - 287.
    The rationality of means-end reasoning is the bedrock of the Humean account of practical reasons. But the normativity of such reasoning can not be taken for granted. I consider and reject the idea that the normativity of instrumental reasoning can be explained – either in terms of its being constitutive of the very notion of having an end, or solely in terms of instrumental considerations. I argue that the instrumental principle is itself a brute norm, and that this is consistent (...)
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  5. Simon Blackburn (1995). Practical Tortoise Raising. Mind 104 (416):695-711.
    In this paper I am not so much concerned with movements of the mind, as movements of the will. But my question bears a similarity to that of the tortoise. I want to ask whether the will is under the control of fact and reason, combined. I shall try to show that there is always something else, something that is not under the control of fact and reason, which has to be given as a brute extra, if deliberation is ever (...)
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  6. Michael Bratman (2009). Intention, Belief, and Instrumental Rationality. In David Sobel & Steven Wall (eds.), Reasons for Action. Cambridge University Press. 13--36.
    Two approaches to instrumental rationality Suppose I intend end E, believe that a necessary means to E is M, and believe that M requires that I intend M. My attitudes concerning E and M engage a basic requirement of practical rationality, a requirement that, barring a change in my cited beliefs, I either intend M or give up intending E.2 Call this the Instrumental Rationality requirement – for short, the IR requirement.
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  7. Michael Bratman (1987/1999). Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Center for the Study of Language and Information.
    What happens to our conception of mind and rational agency when we take seriously future-directed intentions and plans and their roles as inputs into further practical reasoning? The author's initial efforts in responding to this question resulted in a series of papers that he wrote during the early 1980s. In this book, Bratman develops further some of the main themes of these essays and also explores a variety of related ideas and issues. He develops a planning theory of intention. Intentions (...)
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  8. Michael Bratman (1981). Intention and Means-End Reasoning. Philosophical Review 90 (2):252-265.
  9. Donald Bruckner (2011). Second-Order Preferences and Instrumental Rationality. Acta Analytica 26 (4):367-385.
    A second-order preference is a preference over preferences. This paper addresses the role that second-order preferences play in a theory of instrumental rationality. I argue that second-order preferences have no role to play in the prescription or evaluation of actions aimed at ordinary ends. Instead, second-order preferences are relevant to prescribing or evaluating actions only insofar as those actions have a role in changing or maintaining first-order preferences. I establish these claims by examining and rejecting the view that second-order preferences (...)
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  10. John Brunero (2012). Instrumental Rationality, Symmetry and Scope. Philosophical Studies 157 (1):125-140.
    Instrumental rationality prohibits one from being in the following state: intending to pass a test, not intending to study, and believing one must intend to study if one is to pass. One could escape from this incoherent state in three ways: by intending to study, by not intending to pass, or by giving up one’s instrumental belief. However, not all of these ways of proceeding seem equally rational: giving up one’s instrumental belief seems less rational than giving up an end, (...)
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  11. John Brunero (2005). Instrumental Rationality and Carroll's Tortoise. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 8 (5):557 - 569.
    Some philosophers have tried to establish a connection between the normativity of instrumental rationality and the paradox presented by Lewis Carroll in his 1895 paper “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.” I here examine and argue against accounts of this connection presented by Peter Railton and James Dreier before presenting my own account and discussing its implications for instrumentalism (the view that all there is to practical rationality is instrumental rationality). In my view, the potential for a Carroll-style regress just (...)
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  12. John Brunero (2004). Korsgaard on Motivational Skepticism. Journal of Value Inquiry 38 (2):253–264.
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  13. John Brunero & Niko Kolodny, Instrumental Rationality. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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  14. Garrett Cullity (2008). Decisions, Reasons, and Rationality. Ethics 119 (1):57-95.
  15. Garrett Cullity & Berys Nigel Gaut (eds.) (1997). Ethics and Practical Reason. Oxford University Press.
    These thirteen new, specially written essays by a distinguished international line-up of contributors, including some leading contemporary moral philosophers, give a rich and varied view of current work on ethics and practical reason. The three main perspectives on the topic, Kantian, Humean, and Aristotelian, are all well represented. Issues covered include: the connection between reason and motivation; the source of moral reasons and their relation to reasons of self-interest; the relation of practical reason to value, to freedom, to responsibility, and (...)
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  16. Julian Fink (2013). What is (Correct) Practical Reasoning? Acta Analytica 28 (4):471-482.
    This paper argues that practical reasoning is a mental process which leads a person from a set of existent mental states to an intention. In Section 1, I defend this view against two other proposals according to which practical reasoning either concludes in an action itself or in a normative belief. Section 2 discusses the correctness of practical reasoning and explains how the correctness of instrumental reasoning can be explained by the logical relations that hold between the contents of the (...)
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  17. Stephen Finlay (2010). Against All Reason? : Scepticism About the Instrumental Norm. In Charles R. Pigden (ed.), Hume on Motivation and Virtue. Palgrave Macmillan.
    A naturalistic project descended from Hume seeks to explain „ought‟ and normativity as a product of motivational states such as desires and aversions.2 Following Kant, rationalists reject this thesis, holding that „ought‟ rather expresses a command of reason or intellect independent of desires. On Hume‟s view the only genuine form of practical reason is theoretical reason operating in the service of desire, as in calculation of means to ends. Reason at most discovers normative requirements, which exist through the interrelation of (...)
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  18. Stephen Finlay (2010). What Ought Probably Means, and Why You Can't Detach It. Synthese 177 (1):67 - 89.
    Some intuitive normative principles raise vexing 'detaching problems' by their failure to license modus ponens. I examine three such principles (a self-reliance principle and two different instrumental principles) and recent stategies employed to resolve their detaching problems. I show that solving these problems necessitates postulating an indefinitely large number of senses for 'ought'. The semantics for 'ought' that is standard in linguistics offers a unifying strategy for solving these problems, but I argue that an alternative approach combining an end-relational theory (...)
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  19. Stephen Finlay (2009). Against All Reason? Skepticism About the Instrumental Norm. In Charles Pigden (ed.), Hume on Motivation and Virtue. Palgrave MacMillan.
    A naturalistic project descended from Hume seeks to explain „ought‟ and normativity as a product of motivational states such as desires and aversions.2 Following Kant, rationalists reject this thesis, holding that „ought‟ rather expresses a command of reason or intellect independent of desires. On Hume‟s view the only genuine form of practical reason is theoretical reason operating in the service of desire, as in calculation of means to ends. Reason at most discovers normative requirements, which exist through the interrelation of (...)
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  20. Danny Frederick (2013). Popper, Rationality and the Possibility of Social Science. THEORIA 28 (1):61-75.
    Social science employs teleological explanations which depend upon the rationality principle, according to which people exhibit instrumental rationality. Popper points out that people also exhibit critical rationality, the tendency to stand back from, and to question or criticise, their views. I explain how our critical rationality impugns the explanatory value of the rationality principle and thereby threatens the very possibility of social science. I discuss the relationship between instrumental and critical rationality and show how we can reconcile our critical rationality (...)
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  21. Barbara H. Fried (2005). Moral Heuristics and the Means/End Distinction. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 (4):549-550.
    A mental heuristic is a shortcut (means) to a desired end. In the moral (as opposed to factual) realm, the means/end distinction is not self-evident: How do we decide whether a given moral intuition is a mere heuristic to achieve some freestanding moral principle, or instead a freestanding moral principle in its own right? I discuss Sunstein's solution to that threshold difficulty in translating “heuristics” to the moral realm.
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  22. Jean Hampton (1998). The Authority of Reason. Cambridge University Press.
    This challenging and provocative book argues against much contemporary orthodoxy in philosophy and the social sciences by showing why objectivity in the domain of ethics is really no different from the objectivity of scientific knowledge. Many philosophers and social scientists have challenged the idea that we act for objectively authoritative reasons. Jean Hampton takes up the challenge by undermining two central assumptions of this contemporary orthodoxy: that one can understand instrumental reasons without appeal to objective authority, and that the adoption (...)
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  23. Edward Harcourt (2004). Instrumental Desires, Instrumental Rationality. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 78 (1):111–129.
    [Michael Smith] The requirements of instrumental rationality are often thought to be normative conditions on choice or intention, but this is a mistake. Instrumental rationality is best understood as a requirement of coherence on an agent's non-instrumental desires and means-end beliefs. Since only a subset of an agent's means-end beliefs concern possible actions, the connection with intention is thus more oblique. This requirement of coherence can be satisfied either locally or more globally, it may be only one among a number (...)
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  24. Donald C. Hubin (2001). The Groundless Normativity of Instrumental Rationality. Journal of Philosophy 98 (9):445-468.
    Neo-Humean instrumentalist theories of reasons for acting have been presented with a dilemma: either they are normatively trivial and, hence, inadequate as a normative theory or they covertly commit themselves to a noninstrumentalist normative principle. The claimed result is that no purely instrumentalist theory of reasons for acting can be normatively adequate. This dilemma dissolves when we understand what question neo-Humean instrumentalists are addressing. The dilemma presupposes that neo-Humeans are attempting to address the question of how to act, 'simpliciter'. Instead, (...)
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  25. Donald C. Hubin (1999). Converging on Values. Analysis 59 (264):355–361.
    In 'The Moral Problem', Michael Smith defends a conception of normative reasons that is nonrelative. Given his understanding of normative reasons, nonrelativity commits him to the convergence hypothesis: that, as a result of the process or correction of beliefs and rational deliberation, 'all' agents would converge on having the same set of desires. I develop several reasons for being pessimistic about the truth of this hypothesis. As a result, if normative reasons exist, we have a reason to be skeptical of (...)
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  26. Donald C. Hubin (1999). What's Special About Humeanism. Noûs 33 (1):30-45.
    One of the attractions of the Humean instrumentalist theory of practical rationality is that it appears to offer a special connection between an agent's reasons and her motivation. The assumption that Humeanism is able to assert a strong connection between reason and motivation has been challenged, most notably by Christine Korsgaard. She argues that Humeanism is not special in the connection it allows to motivation. On the contrary, Humean theories of practical rationality do connect reasons and motivation in a unique (...)
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  27. Donald C. Hubin (1991). Irrational Desires. Philosophical Studies 62 (1):23 - 44.
    Many believe that the rational evaluation of actions depends on the rational evaluation of even basic desires. Hume, though, viewed desires as "original existences" which cannot be contrary to either truth or reason. Contemporary critics of Hume, including Norman, Brandt and Parfit, have sought a basis for the rational evaluation of desires that would deny some basic desires reason-giving force. I side with Hume against these modern critics. Hume's concept of rational evaluation is admittedly too narrow; even basic desires are, (...)
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  28. Jeppe Berggreen Høj (2009). Problems for Broome's Cognitivist Account of Instrumental Reasoning. Acta Analytica 25 (3):299-316.
    In this paper, I examine an account of instrumental reasoning recently put forth by John Broome. His key suggestion is that anyone who engages in reasoning about his intentions also believes that he will do what he intends to do and that combined with a belief about necessary means this creates rational pressure towards believing that one will take the necessary means. I argue that Broome’s model has three significant problems; his key premise is false—the sincere expression of an intention (...)
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  29. Christine M. Korsgaard (1997). The Normativity of Instrumental Reason. In Garrett Cullity & Berys Gaut (eds.), Ethics and Practical Reason. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    This paper criticizes two accounts of the normativity of practical principles: the empiricist account and the rationalist or realist account. It argues against the empiricist view, focusing on the Humean texts that are usually taken to be its locus classicus. It then argues both against the dogmatic rationalist view, and for the Kantian view, through a discussion of Kant's own remarks about instrumental rationality in the second section of the Groundwork. It further argues that the instrumental principle cannot stand alone. (...)
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  30. Barry Lam, A New Argument Against the Instrumental Conception of Epistemic Rationality.
    According to the Instrumental Conception of Epistemic Rationality believing rationally is believing in such a way so as to best satisfy one’s cognitive goals. I provide a novel argument against the Instrumental Conception on the basis of an unnoticed phenomenon I call “rational preemption.” You can now revise your plans and actions rationally in order to preempt or prevent foreseeable future irrationality. However, you cannot now revise your beliefs rationally in order to preempt or prevent foreseeable future irrationality. The ability (...)
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  31. Douglas Lavin (2004). Practical Reason and the Possibility of Error. Ethics 114 (3):424-457.
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  32. Duncan MacIntosh (2010). Intransitive Preferences, Vagueness, and the Structure of Procrastination. In Chrisoula Andreou & Mark D. White (eds.), The Thief of Time. Oxford University Press.
    Chrisoula Andreou says procrastination qua imprudent delay is modeled by Warren Quinn’s self-torturer, who supposedly has intransitive preferences that rank each indulgence in something that delays his global goals over working toward those goals and who finds it vague where best to stop indulging. His pair-wise choices to indulge result in his failing the goals, which he then regrets. This chapter argues, contra the money-pump argument, that it is not irrational to have or choose from intransitive preferences; so the agent’s (...)
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  33. Duncan MacIntosh (2003). Prudence and the Temporal Structure of Practical Reasons. In Sarah Stroud & Christine Tappolet (eds.), Weakness of Will and Practical Irrationality. Oxford. 230--250.
    I reject three theories of practical reason according to which a rational agent's ultimate reasons for acting must be unchanging: that one is rationally obliged in each choice (1) to be prudent--to advance all the desires one foresees ever having (the self-interest theory), rather than just those one has at the time of choice, or (2) to cause states of affairs that are good by some timeless, impersonal measure (Thomas Nagel), or (3) to obey permanent, universalizable deontic principles (Kant). Whether (...)
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  34. Duncan MacIntosh (1992). Preference-Revision and the Paradoxes of Instrumental Rationality. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 22 (4):503-529.
    To the normal reasons that we think can justify one in preferring something, x (namely, that x has objectively preferable properties, or has properties that one prefers things to have, or that x's obtaining would advance one's preferences), I argue that it can be a justifying reason to prefer x that one's very preferring of x would advance one's preferences. Here, one prefers x not because of the properties of x, but because of the properties of one's having the preference (...)
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  35. Duncan MacIntosh (1991). Preference's Progress: Rational Self-Alteration and the Rationality of Morality. Dialogue 30 (1991):3-32.
    I argue that Gauthier's constrained-maximizer rationality is problematic. But standard Maximizing Rationality means one's preferences are only rational if it would not maximize on them to adopt new ones. In the Prisoner's Dilemma, it maximizes to adopt conditionally cooperative preferences. (These are detailed, with a view to avoiding problems of circularity of definition.) Morality then maximizes. I distinguish the roles played in rational choices and their bases by preferences, dispositions, moral and rational principles, the aim of rational action, and rational (...)
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  36. Duncan MacIntosh (1991). Retaliation Rationalized: Gauthier's Solution to the Deterrence Dilemma. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 72 (1):9-32.
    Gauthier claims: (1) a non-maximizing action is rational if it maximized to intend it. If one intended to retaliate in order to deter an attack, (2) retaliation is rational, for it maximized to intend it. I argue that even on sympathetic theories of intentions, actions and choices, (1) is incoherent. But I defend (2) by arguing that an action is rational if it maximizes on preferences it maximized to adopt given one's antecedent preferences. (2) is true because it maximized to (...)
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  37. Duncan MacIntosh (1991). McClennen's Early Co-Operative Solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma. Southern Journal of Philosophy 29 (3):341-358.
  38. Duncan MacIntosh (1988). Libertarian Agency and Rational Morality: Action-Theoretic Objections to Gauthier's Dispositional Soution of the Compliance Problem. Southern Journal of Philosophy 26 (4):499-525.
    David Gauthier thinks agents facing a prisoner's dilemma ('pd') should find it rational to dispose themselves to co-operate with those inclined to reciprocate (i.e., to acquire a constrained maximizer--'cm'--disposition), and to co-operate with other 'cmers'. Richmond Campbell argues that since dominance reasoning shows it remains to the agent's advantage to defect, his co-operation is only rational if cm "determines" him to co-operate, forcing him not to cheat. I argue that if cm "forces" the agent to co-operate, he is not acting (...)
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  39. Christian Miller (2007). The Structure of Instrumental Practical Reasoning. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 75 (1):1-40.
    The view to be defended in this paper is intended to be a novel and compelling model of instrumental practical reasoning, reasoning aimed at determining how to act in order to achieve a given end in a certain set of circumstances. On standard views of instrumental reasoning, the end in question is the object of a particular desire that the agent has, a desire which, when combined with the agent’s beliefs about what means are available to him or her in (...)
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  40. Elijah Millgram (ed.) (2001). Varieties of Practical Reasoning. MIT Press.
    This book covers a broad spectrum of positions on practical reasoning—from the nihilist view that there are no legitimate forms of practical inference, and ...
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  41. J. Mintoff (1998). Hume and Instrumental Reason. Journal of Value Inquiry 32 (4):519-538.
    Philosophical folklore has it that David Hume endorsed an instrumental conception of practical reason. He seems explicitly to support the key tenets of this view of reason, and also to share its key motivations. Yet Hume himself provides arguments which rule out the possibility of any sort of practical reason, instrumental or non-instrumental. A first look at his arguments reveals that they depend on assumptions about the nature of reason that a modern instrumentalist may want to reject. A closer look, (...)
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  42. Joe Mintoff (2007). Minimally Constrained Maximisation. In Bruno Verbeek (ed.), Reasons and Intentions. Ashgate Pub. Ltd..
    This chapter argues that, under certain conditions, forming an intention makes an action rational which would otherwise not have been rational, since intentions (together with beliefs) in and of themselves provide deductive reasons for further intentions and actions, an argument which builds on previous work by R M Hare, Michael Bratman and others, It also provides an articulation and defense of the concept of "minimally constrained maximization" as a unified general solution to the well-known paradoxes of rationality, including the paradox (...)
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  43. Joe Mintoff (1998). Defending Instrumental Reason. Southern Journal of Philosophy 36 (3):393-415.
    In a series of recent articles, Jean Hampton has argued that the widely accepted instrumental conception of reason is no more metaphysically benign than non-instrumental, typically moral, theories of reason. The purpose of this article is to provide the beginnings of a defence of instrumental conception of reason against Hampton's charges. In the first part, I take up her claim that instrumental norms rest on the same notion of normative authority as that employed by non-instrumental, or moral, theories. I argue (...)
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  44. Michael Moehler (2014). The Scope of Instrumental Morality. Philosophical Studies 167 (2):431-451.
    In The Order of Public Reason (2011a), Gerald Gaus rejects the instrumental approach to morality as a viable account of social morality. Gaus' rejection of the instrumental approach to morality, and his own moral theory, raise important foundational questions concerning the adequate scope of instrumental morality. In this article, I address some of these questions and I argue that Gaus' rejection of the instrumental approach to morality stems primarily from a common but inadequate application of this approach. The scope of (...)
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  45. Charles R. Pigden (ed.) (2010). Hume on Motivation and Virtue. Palgrave Macmillan.
  46. Joseph Raz (2005). The Myth of Instrumental Rationality. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 1 (1):28.
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  47. Simon Rippon (2011). In Defense of the Wide-Scope Instrumental Principle. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 5 (2):1-21.
    I make the observation that English sentences such as “You have reason to take the bus or to take the train” do not have the logical form that they superficially appear to have. I find in these sentences a conjunctive use of “or,” as found in sentences like “You can have milk or lemon in your tea,” which gives you a permission to have milk, and a permission to have lemon, though no permission to have both. I argue that a (...)
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  48. Jacob Ross (2009). How to Be a Cognitivist About Practical Reason. Oxford Studies in Metaethics 4:243-281.
  49. Mark Schroeder (2009). Means-End Coherence, Stringency, and Subjective Reasons. Philosophical Studies 143 (2):223 - 248.
    Intentions matter. They have some kind of normative impact on our agency. Something goes wrong when an agent intends some end and fails to carry out the means she believes to be necessary for it, and something goes right when, intending the end, she adopts the means she thinks are required. This has even been claimed to be one of the only uncontroversial truths in ethical theory. But not only is there widespread disagreement about why this is so, there is (...)
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  50. Mark Schroeder (2005). The Hypothetical Imperative? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 83 (3):357 – 372.
    According to the standard view, Kant held that hypothetical imperatives are universally binding edicts with disjunctive objects: take-the-means-or-don't-have-the-end. But Kant thought otherwise. He held that they are edicts binding only on some - those who have an end.
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