The Shape of Practical Reasons: A Defense of Agent-Neutralism

Dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1999)

Michael Ridge
University of Edinburgh
Theories of practical reason can be divided in terms of a distinction between agent-relative and agent-neutral reasons for action. A reason is agent-relative just in case a full explanation of why it counts as a reason necessarily makes an ineliminable, non-trivial, pronominal back-reference to the agent who has the reason. By contrast, a reason is agent-neutral if the practical principle underwriting it needs make no such back-reference. Theories which hold that all reasons for acting are agent-relative I call agent-relativist, while theories which hold that all reasons for acting are agent-neutral I call agent-neutralist, and theories that allow for both kinds of reasons I call hybrid theories. In the present work, I explain why it is useful and legitimate to distinguish theories of practical reasons in this way, argue that none of the existing arguments for agent-relativism or for agent-neutralism is sound, and then provide my own positive argument for agent-neutralism with respect to "insistent reasons." On my account, a reason is insistent just in case recognizing the balance of such reasons favors an action and deliberately not performing it entails that one has acted irrationally. If there are also non-insistent reasons, which one might recognize on balance favor an action and deliberately not perform the action without thereby counting as irrational, my argument does not necessarily show that such reasons must also be agent-neutral.
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