Just as our scientific inquiries are framed by our prior conception of what can be observed ? that is, of observables ? so our practical deliberations are framed by our prior conception of what can be done, that is, of doables. And doables are socially constructed, with the result that they vary between societies. I explore how doables are constructed and conclude with some remarks about the implications for moral relativism.
In Foundations for Moral Relativism, J. David Velleman shows that different communities can indeed be subject to incompatible moralities, because their local mores are rationally binding. At the same time, he explains why the mores of different communities, even when incompatible, are still variations on the same moral themes. The book thus maps out a universe of many moral worlds without, as Velleman puts it, "moral black holes”. The five self-standing chapters discuss such diverse topics as online avatars and virtual (...) worlds, lying in Russian and truth-telling in Quechua, the pleasure of solitude and the fear of absurdity. Accessibly written, Foundations for Moral Relativism presupposes no prior training in philosophy. (shrink)
The terms ‘endurance’ and ‘perdurance’ are commonly thought to denote distinct ways for an object to persist, but it is surprisingly hard to say what these are. The common approach, defining them in terms of temporal parts, is mistaken, because it does not lead to two coherent philosophical alternatives: endurance so understood becomes conceptually incoherent, while perdurance becomes not just true but a conceptual truth. Instead, we propose a different way to articulate the distinction, in terms of identity rather than (...) temporal parts: an object endures if its identity is determined at every moment at which it exists. We make precise what it means for the identity of an object to be determined at a moment. We also discuss what role the endurance/perdurance distinction, so understood, should play in the debates about time, material objects and personal identity. (shrink)
We discuss some implications of the Holocaust for moral philosophy. Our thesis is that morality became distorted in the Third Reich at the level of its social articulation. We explore this thesis in application to several front-line perpetrators who maintained false moral self-conceptions. We conclude that more than a priori moral reasoning is required to correct such distortions.
The terms `endurance' and `perdurance' are commonly thought to denote distinct ways for an object to persist, but it is surprisingly hard to say what these are. The common approach, defining them in terms of temporal parts, is mistaken, because it does not lead to two coherent philosophical alternatives: endurance so understood becomes conceptually incoherent, while perdurance becomes not just true but a conceptual truth. Instead, we propose a different way to articulate the distinction, in terms of identity rather than (...) temporal parts: an object endures if its identity is determined at every moment at which it exists. We make precise what it means for the identity of an object to be determined at a moment. We also discuss what role the endurance / perdurance distinction, so understood, should play in the debates about time, material objects and personal identity. (shrink)
This is the manuscript of a book on meta-ethics. From the Introduction: Maybe the grounding of morality lies closer to the social surface than philosophers like to think, neither in the structure of practical reason nor in a telos of human nature but rather in our mundane ways of muddling through together — that is, in how we get along. Our ways of getting along must themselves rest on the bedrock of practical reason and human nature, but they may form, (...) as it were, a layer of topsoil without which morality could never take root. If so, then asking how moral norms can sprout straight out of our rationality or humanity may be futile. (shrink)
In her excellent critique of my book Self to Self (2006), Catriona Mackenzie highlights three gaps in my view of the self. First, my effort to distinguish among different applications of the concept 'self' is not matched by any attempt to explain the interactions among the selves so distinguished. Second, in analyzing practical reasoning as aimed at self-understanding, I speak sometimes of causal-psychological understanding (e.g. in the paper titled 'The Centered Self') and sometimes of narrative self-understanding (e.g. in 'The Self (...) as Narrator'), but I never explain how these two modes of self-understanding are related. Third, I never explain how my account of autonomous agency can be reconciled with my interpretation of Kant's (e.g., in 'A Brief Introduction to Kantian Ethics'). In this reply to Mackenzie, I agree with her about all three of these gaps, and I offer some (admittedly incomplete) ideas about how they might be filled. (shrink)
As a philosopher of action, I might be expected to believe that the will is a good thing. Actually, I believe that the will is a great thing - awesome, in fact. But I'm not thereby committed to its being something good. When I say that the will is awesome, I mean literally that it is a proper object of awe, a response that restrains us from abusing the will and moves us rather to use it respectfully, in a way (...) that does it justice. To say that the will is a good thing, however, would imply that having a will is better than not having one, or that using it is better than not using it - neither of which I am prepared to assert as a general rule. Speaking metaphorically, I would say that the will is like a magic wand. In fairy tales, the character who looks upon a magic wand as an unalloyed good is destined to be sadder but wiser in the end. Being a magician isn't better than being an ordinary human, just different; and a magician must value his powers by respecting them and therefore using them appropriately, even sparingly, not by using them as much as possible. (shrink)
Abstract I argue that meaning in life is importantly influenced by bioloical ties. More specifically, I maintain that knowing one's relatives and especially one's parents provides a kind of self-knowledge that is of irreplaceable value in the life-task of identity formation. These claims lead me to the conclusion that it is immoral to create children with the intention that they be alienated from their bioloical relatives?for example, by donor conception.
This paper explores the sense in which belief "aims at the truth". In this course of this exploration, it discusses the difference between belief and make-believe, the nature of psychoanalytic explanation, the supposed "normativity of meaning", and related topics.
Suppose that we want to frame a conception of reasons that isn't relativized to the inclinations of particular agents. That is, we want to identify particular things that count as reasons for acting simpliciter and not merely as reasons for some agents rather than others, depending on their inclinations. One way to frame such a conception is to name some features that an action can have and to say that they count as reasons for someone whether or not he is (...) inclined to care about them. The problem with the resulting conception, as we have seen, is that it entails the normative judgment that one ought to be inclined to care about the specified features, on pain of irrationality, and this normative judgment requires justification. The advantage of internalism is that it avoids these normative commitments. It says that things count as reasons for someone only if he is inclined to care about them, and so it leaves the normative question of whether to care about them entirely open. Yet if we try to leave this question open, by defining things as reasons only for those inclined to care about them, we'll end up with a definition that's relativized to the inclinations of particular agents—won't we? Not necessarily. For suppose that all reasons for acting are features of a single kind, whose influence depends on a single inclination. And suppose that the inclination on which the influence of reasons depends is, not an inclination that distinguishes some agents from others, but rather an inclination that distinguishes agents from nonagents. In that case, to say that these features count as reasons only for those who are inclined to care about them will be to say that they count as reasons only for agents—which will be to say no less than that they are reasons for acting, period, since applying only to agents is already part of the concept of reasons for acting. The restriction on the application of reasons will drop away from our definition, since it restricts their application, not to some proper subset of agents, but rather to the set of all agents, which is simply the universe of application for reasons to act. (shrink)
I have therefore decided to venture out of the philosophical armchair in order to examine the empirical evidence, as gathered by psychologists aiming to prove or disprove motivational conjectures like mine. By and large, this evidence is indirect in relation to my account of agency, since it is drawn from cases in which the relevant motive has been forced into the open by the manipulations of an experimenter. The resulting evidence doesn’t tend to show the mechanism of agency humming along (...) in accordance with my specifications; it tends to show the knocks and shudders that such a mechanism emits when put under stress. But we often learn about the normal workings of things by subjecting them to abnormal conditions; and viewed in this light, various programs of psychological research offer indirect support to my account of agency. I’ll begin by reviewing the relevant research, leaving its relevance to my account of agency for the final section of the paper. (shrink)
I reconstruct Kant's derivation of the Categorical Imperative (CI) as an argument that deduces what the voice of conscience must say from how it must sound - that is, from the authority that is metaphorically attributed to conscience in the form of a resounding voice. The idea of imagining the CI as the voice of conscience comes from Freud; and the present reconstruction is part of a larger project that aims to reconcile Kant's moral psychology with Freud's theory of moral (...) development. As I reconstruct it, Kant's argument yields an imperative commanding us to act for reasons whose validity we can consistently will to be common knowledge among all agents. Universalizing a maxim thus turns out to consist in willing, not that there be some universally quantified rule of conduct, but rather that a principle of practical reasoning be common knowledge - as a principle of reasoning ought to be. (shrink)
Existing accounts of shared intention (by Bratman, Searle, and others) do not claim that a single token of intention can be jointly framed and executed by multiple agents; rather, they claim that multiple agents can frame distinct, individual intentions in such a way as to qualify as jointly intending something. In this respect, the existing accounts do not show that intentions can be shared in any literal sense. This article argues that, in failing to show how intentions can be literally (...) shared, these accounts fail to resolve what seems problematic in the notion of shared intention. It then offers an account in which the problem of shared intention is resolved, because intention can indeed be literally shared. This account is derived from Margaret Gilbert's notion of a "pool of wills," to which it applies Searle's definition of intention. (shrink)
Decision theory comprises, first, a mathematical formalization of the relations among value, belief, and preference; and second, a set of prescriptions for rational preference. Both aspects of the theory are embodied in a single mathematical proof. The problem in the foundations of decision theory is to explain how elements of one and the same proof can serve both functions. I hope to solve this problem in a way that anchors the decision-theoretic norms of rational preference in fundamental intuitions about rationality (...) in general. I will thus depart from the tradition of anchoring those norms in intui-tions about gambling strategies or preference structures of the sort that are the special concern of the theory itself. Although my interpretation is meant to capture what is right about the decision-theoretic conception of rational preference, it will lead me to argue that there is also something fundamentally wrong about that conception. In my view, decision theory tells us how to be rational in our preferences because it tells us how to have preferences that make sense; but there are ways of making sense that outrun, and may in fact conflict with, the prescriptions of decision theory. (shrink)
The agent portrayed in much philosophy of action is, let's face it, a square. He does nothing intentionally unless he regards it or its consequences as desirable. The reason is that he acts intentionally only when he acts out of a desire for some anticipated outcome; and in desiring that outcome, he must regard it as having some value. All of his intentional actions are therefore directed at outcomes regarded sub specie boni: under the guise of the good. This agent (...) is conceived as being capable of intentional action—and hence as being an agent—only by virtue of being a pursuer of value. I want to question whether this conception of agency can be correct. Surely, so general a capacity as agency cannot entail so narrow a cast of mind. Our moral psychology has characterized, not the generic agent, but a particular species of agent, and a particularly bland species of agent, at that. It has characterized the earnest agent while ignoring those agents who are disaffected, refractory, silly, satanic, or punk. I hope for a moral psychology that has room for the whole motley crew. I shall begin by examining why some philosophers have thought that the attitudes motivating intentional actions involve judgments of value. I shall then argue that their conception of these attitudes is incorrect. Finally, I shall argue that practical reason should not be conceived as a faculty for pursuing value. (shrink)
What happens when someone acts? A familiar answer goes like this. There is something that the agent wants, and there is an action that he believes conducive to its attainment. His desire for the end, and his belief in the action as a means, justify taking the action, and they jointly cause an intention to take it, which in turn causes the corresponding movements of the agent's body. I think that the standard story is flawed in several respects. The flaw (...) that will concern me in this paper is that the story fails to include an agent-or, more precisely, fails to cast the agent in his proper role. (shrink)
“What do you see when you look at your face in the mirror?” asks J. David Velleman in introducing his philosophical theory of action. He takes this simple act of self-scrutiny as a model for the reflective reasoning of rational agents: our efforts to understand our existence and conduct are aided by our efforts to make it intelligible. Reflective reasoning, Velleman argues, constitutes practical reasoning. By applying this conception, Practical Reflection develops philosophical accounts of intention, free will, and the foundation (...) of morals. This new edition of Practical Reflection contains the original 1989 text along with a new introduction and is the latest entry in The David Hume Series of Philosophy and Cognitive Science Reissues, which keeps in print previously published indispensable works in the area of cognitive science. (shrink)
Epistemic freedom is the freedom to affirm anyone of several incompatible propositions without risk of being wrong. We sometimes have this freedom, strange as it seems, and our having it sheds some light on the topic of free will and determinism. This paper sketches a potential explanation for our feeling of freedom. The freedom that I postulate is not causal but epistemic (in a sense that I shall define), and the result is that it is quite compatible with determinism. I (...) therefore claim that insofar as we feel metaphysically free-free in a sense that would be incompatible with determinism-we are mistaking the epistemic freedom that we have for a kind of freedom that we may lack. This claim will lead me, at the end of the paper, to a projectivist account of moral responsibility. Ascriptions of moral responsibility, I shall suggest, should be treated in the same way as ascriptions of color or other secondary qualities. (shrink)
Epistemic freedom is the freedom to affirm any one of several incompatible propositions without risk of being wrong. We sometimes have this freedom, strange as it seems, and our having it sheds some light on the topic of free will and determinism.
By “deciding how to decide,” I mean using practical reasoning to regulate one's principles of practical reasoning. David Gauthier has suggested that deciding how to decide is something that every rational agent does. According to Gauthier, we assess rival principles of practical reasoning, which tell us how to choose among actions; and assessing how to choose among actions certainly sounds like deciding how to decide. One of my goals in this essay is to argue, in opposition to Gauthier, that assessing (...) rival principles of practical reasoning is a job for theoretical rather than practical reasoning. How to decide is something that we discover rather than decide. The idea that our principles of practical reasoning can be regulated by practical reasoning is essential to Gauthier's defence of his own, somewhat unorthodox conception of those principles. And although I do not endorse the specifics of Gauthier's conception, I do endorse its spirit. There is a flaw in the orthodox conception of practical reasoning, and Gauthier has put his finger on it. Unfortunately, Gauthier's account of why it is a flaw, and how it should be fixed, ultimately rests on practical considerations, whose relevance is open to question if, as I believe, practical reasoning cannot regulate itself. This essay therefore has a second goal, which complicates matters considerably. Although I want to reject Gauthier's notion that we decide how to decide, I also want to preserve what rests upon that notion, in Gauthier's view: I want to resettle Gauthier's critique of the orthodoxy on a new foundation. (shrink)