Making room for options: Moral reasons, imperfect duties, and choice

Social Philosophy and Policy 27 (2):181-205 (2010)
The notion of an imperfect obligation or duty, which contemporary moral philosophy takes from Kantian ethics, affords a way of mitigating morality’s demands while recognizing moral obligation as “binding” or inescapable, in Kant’s terms: something an agent cannot get out of just by appealing to ends or priorities of her own. A perfect duty, as Kant puts it, allows no exception in the interest of inclination.1 It tells us precisely what we must do, with no option of putting it off until some other occasion. By contrast, an imperfect duty leaves open crucial features of the required act. Understood in this way, as duties of indeterminate content, imperfect duties such as the charitable duty to aid those in need leave leeway for personal choice. We get to choose whom to aid and when and how much. We may be obligated to meet a certain threshold, but we will be exceeding what is required of us if we go beyond that. Imperfect duties therefore allow us authority to shape our own lives, balancing concern for others with our own particular projects and concerns. But imperfect duties interest me, in the first instance, in connection with practical reasons. The term “practical” here just means “having to do with action.” Reasons are understood as facts, not as mental states, and practical reasons are facts that count for or against action, in contrast to theoretical reasons, which concern belief. Similarly, “practical rationality” entails action in accordance with one’s overall structure of practical reasons, as distinct from believing what one has reason to believe. The term “practical rationality” can be used for a property of agents, in which case it implies awareness of the relevant reasons, but it also sometimes refers to a system of norms for assessing action in light of reasons, analogous to morality but also including logical and instrumental considerations. On this latter..
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DOI 10.1017/S0265052509990203
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Thomas Scanlon (1998). What We Owe to Each Other. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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