Practical Reasons and Rationality

Garrett Cullity and Berys Gaut (eds), Ethics and Practical Reason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), “Introduction”, pp.1-27.

This introductory essay surveys three dominant approaches — neo-Humean, Kantian and Aristotelian — to theorizing about practical reason and its relationship to ethics.

“Decisions, Reasons and Rationality”, Ethics 119 (2008), pp.57-95.

What difference do our decisions make to our reasons for action and the rationality of our actions? With certain important exceptions, decisions cannot “bootstrap” themselves into reasons. Despite this, they can make a difference to what it is rational for you to do. How can we explain this? This article first offers a description of the bearing of decisions on rationality, and then proposes an explanation of it. It sets out a “standard-fixing” account of the relationship between reasons and rationality, according to which the standards of rationality are the standards our disposition to conform to which is important because of its exercise in thinking (or not thinking) about our reasons.

“The Context-Undermining of Practical Reasons”, Ethics 124 (2013), pp.1-27.

Can one fact deprive another of the status of a reason for action – a status the second fact would have had, but for the presence of the first? Claims of this kind are often made, but they face substantial obstacles. This article sets out those obstacles, but then argues that there are at least three different ways in which this does happen.

“Weighing Reasons”, in Daniel Star (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Reasons and Normativity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 423-42.

What is involved in weighing normative reasons against each other? One attractive answer offers us the following Simple Picture: a fact is a reason for action when it bears to an action the normative relation of counting in its favour; this relation comes in different strengths or weights; the weights of the reasons for and against an action can be summed; the reasons for performing the action are sufficient when no other action is more strongly supported, overall; the reasons are decisive when it is most strongly supported; one ought to perform the action there is most reason to perform; rational deliberation is weighing reasons correctly; and acting rationally is doing what one has sufficient reasons to do. This chapter investigates various ways in which, on examination, this Simple Picture appears to require modification and refinement. It examines some of the ways in which talk of the weight of a reason may need improvement, looks more closely at the relationship between reasons and rationality, and asks whether there are ways in which a reason can be defeated which are not kinds of outweighing. The conclusion is that while in some respects the Simple Picture does need to be corrected, in others the jury is out.

“Practical Theory”, in Garrett Cullity and Berys Gaut (eds), Ethics and Practical Reason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 101-124.

This essay examines and replies to a powerful neo-Humean argument, developed in particular by Bernard Williams, that all normative ethical theory ought to be rejected.

“Describing Rationality”, Philosophical Studies 173 (2016), pp. 3399-3411.

This is a critical study of John Broome’s Rationality Through Reasoning (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2013). It (i) raises some questions about the various requirements of rationality Broome formulates, pointing out some apparent gaps and counterexamples; (ii) proposes a general description of rationality that is broadly consistent with Broome’s requirements while providing them with a unifying justification, filling the gaps, and removing the counterexamples; and (iii) presents two objections to the book’s broader argument concerning the nature and importance of reasoning.

“Demandingness, ‘Ought’, and Self-Shaping”, in Marcel van Ackeren and Michael Kühler (eds), The Limits of Moral Obligation: Moral Demandingness and Ought Implies Can (London: Routledge, 2016), pp.147-62.

Morality, it is sometimes argued, cannot be extreme in the demands it makes of us, because “ought” implies “can”, and normal human psychology places limits on the extent to which most of us are capable of devoting our lives to the service of others. I begin by examining the structure of this argument. The most compelling case for accepting the principle that “ought” implies “can” is a normative case. It is unfair to expose a person to sanctions in relation to her failure to meet a standard that she cannot meet. However, when it is grounded in this way, an argument from the “ought” implies “can” principle to the rejection of demanding moral outlooks faces two objections. The first is an objection from Psychological Shaping. If you could have developed a psychological capacity that would have enabled you to meet a given standard, and it is your fault that you have not developed that capacity, then applying sanctions to you for failing to meet that standard need not be unfair. The second is an objection from Begging the Question. An argument that appeals to premises about fairness to support conclusions about the content of morality begs the question, because it relies on having fixed the content of morality when it asserts its premises. I argue that the first objection, from Psychological Shaping, is decisive. A fairness-based argument, via the “ought” implies “can” principle, to the rejection of demanding moral outlooks must therefore be rejected. However, I then go on to examine a different normatively-based argument against demanding moral outlooks: one that appeals not to fairness but to other important values. This avoids the first objection, but it still faces the second – the objection from Begging the Question. In the latter part of the paper, I show how that objection can be overcome.

“In Search of the Foundations of Rationality”, Philosophical Books 44 (2003), pp. 7-11.

A review essay discussing Robert Audi, The Architecture of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Book Reviews

“Elijah Milgram, Ethics Done Right: Practical Reasoning as a Foundation for Moral Theory”, Ethics 119 (2009), pp. 581-5.