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Modern philosophy has been vexed by the question "Why should I be moral?" and by doubts about the rational authority of moral virtue. In Reasons without Rationalism, Kieran Setiya shows that these doubts rest on a mistake. The "should" of practical reason cannot be understood apart from the virtues of character, including such moral virtues as justice and benevolence, and the considerations to which the virtues make one sensitive thereby count as reasons to act.
Proposing a new framework for debates about practical reason, Setiya argues that the only alternative to this "virtue theory" is a form of ethical rationalism in which reasons derive from the nature of intentional action. Despite its recent popularity, however, ethical rationalism is false. It wrongly assumes that we act "under the guise of the good," or it relies on dubious views about intention and motivation. It follows from the failure of rationalism that the virtue theory is true: we cannot be fully good without the perfection of practical reason, or have that perfection without being good.
Addressing such topics as the psychology of virtue and the explanation of action, Reasons without Rationalism is essential reading for philosophers interested in ethics, rationality, or the philosophy of mind.
"This is an excellent book: original, intricately argued, yet admirably compact. It makes important contributions to both the philosophy of action and ethics."—Matthew Hanser, The Review of Metaphysics
"Kieran Setiya's Reasons without Rationalism is a fascinating, closely-argued, and rewarding book. It is clearly, concisely, and attractively written, and it contains a wealth of perceptive and original insights. The overall vision that emerges from its pages is an important alternative to the more familiar pictures of the relevant issues."—Ralph Wedgwood, Mind
"The book is very well-written, and is full of provocative arguments. . . . This is a book that will reward reflection by those interested in the topics of ethical theory, virtues, practical reason, and action theory."—Brad Majors, Metapsychology Online Reviews
There are complications here. What am I to do when I have managed to end up in a ditch in which no virtuous person could be found? What about the fact that there are many different ways of being good? For the moment, let us set these issues aside. I will argue that we cannot say what it is to have a reason to act, or understand the nature of practical reason, except in terms of ethical virtue. It follows, as I will try to show, that Aristotle was right: we cannot be fully good without the perfection of practical reason, or have that perfection without being good. When I describe my view to non-philosophers, it is sometimes met with blank incomprehension-not, I think, because its terms are specially obscure, but because it is hard to see why one would bother to defend it. It can seem too obvious a truth to count as a philosophical insight. Of course one should act as a virtuous person would. "[There] is no one who needs to be told that he ought tobe just and brave and temperate. This is self-evident, and calls for no deliberation" (Pieper 1966: 33). But while I am sympathetic to the spirit of this remark, the claim I am defending is not self-evident. What I am arguing is not just that there is a sense of "should" connected with ethical virtue, but that this is the "should" of practical reason, of what there is most reason for anyone to do. It is a commonplace of modern moral philosophy that there is at least a nominal distinction here-even for those who hope that practical reason and ethical virtue will converge. My claim is that this distinction, the idea that there are standards of practical reason apart from or independent of good character, is a philosophical mirage.
In saying this, I reject the tradition that descends from Hobbes and Hume to economics and decision theory, on which practical reason is conceived as purely instrumental: it is a matter of means-end efficiency, not of ethical virtue. And I reject the Kantian conception of practical reason, on which its standards derive from the nature of agency, as such. On this view, too, the condition of being properly responsive to reasons can be distinguished from the good condition of one's habituated character.
We can see more clearly what is distinctive of my view, and how it conflicts with these traditions, by examining the question "Why should I be moral?" If ethics is concerned with how one should live, or what one should do, all things considered, and ethical virtues are virtues of character, morality can be thought of as part of ethics, and the moral virtues as a subset of the ethical virtues. It is not, in the end, very easy to say what is distinctive about morality and the moral virtues, if anything. A first thought is that they are essentially other-regarding. Thus justice and benevolence are paradigms of moral virtue-by contrast with non-moral virtues like prudence, moderation, and means-end efficiency. Since nothing turns on the significance of grouping the moral virtues together, we need not look for a definition. Instead we can rely directly on our examples. To ask, "Why should I be moral?" is, in effect, to ask, "Why should I be benevolent, or just?"
This question can be heard in two ways. It might express doubts about the standing of justice and benevolence as virtues of character-as, for instance, in Nietzsche, on Foot's (2001, ch. 7) account of him, or Callicles in Plato's Gorgias. Or it might express doubts about the practical justification of morality that concede common assumptions about moral virtue. "Why should I be moral?" is meant to be a question of the second kind: it is asked by someone who is willing to agree that a virtuous person would be benevolent and just, in the ordinary sense, but who wants to know what reason he has to follow suit. He accepts that the so-called moral virtues are virtues of character, but wonders why he should not cast them aside.
On the view that I defend in this book, his question rests on a mistake. When I say that one should act as a good person acts, I am thinking of good character in general, not the moral virtues in particular. But I treat these virtues-ones like justice and benevolence-in the same way as any others. They are not subordinate to the non-moral virtues of prudence or efficiency, or of "consistency in action." If a virtuous person would be moved by certain considerations, it follows that they count as reasons to act. So if justice and benevolence are really virtues, they correspond to reasons in their own right: it belongs to good practical thought to give weight to the kinds of considerations to which the just and benevolent person is sensitive. The answer to the question "Why should I be moral?" is not, on this account, supplied by further reasons to be moral, which are certified as reasons by a standard other than ethical virtue. It is supplied by the fact that having the moral virtues is a matter of being responsive to considerations that therefore count as reasons to act.
This view contrasts with most of those that figure in recent debate, where it is assumed that the standards of practical reason can be understood apart from ethical virtue, and that the question "Why should I be moral?" is about how the life of ethical virtue, and moral virtue in particular-the life of justice and benevolence-is to be justified by these standards. This is true most obviously of the instrumentalist approach, on which good practical thought is finding and taking the means to one's ends, where the ends are set by brute desire. No doubt a virtuous person is good at doing these things. But, on the face of it, the converse implication does not hold. One need not have the virtues of character in order to be good at getting what one wants. And if one is selfish but efficient, the virtues of justice and benevolence may seem to get in the way.
As this suggests, the question of reasons to be moral will be pressing also for those who tie self-interest to practical reason, insisting that an agent should do only what will benefit her. Why should she keep a promise, or restrain her appetites, unless she stands to gain by doing so? Some have argued-in the spirit of Hobbes' Leviathan-that the moral virtues can be justified in terms of self-interest or desire. These arguments are controversial, either because they seem to justify too little, or because they only show the benefits of being just or benevolent in general, not in every particular case. But these issues are beside the point. The argument of this book is directed not only against those for whom the contrast between reason and virtue amounts to actual divergence, but also to many of those who hope to see them coincide. The question is whether the standards of practical reason can be so much as understood apart from ethical virtue, so that it is the task of a more or less elaborate argument to bring them back into line. In my view, the project of Leviathan, and projects like it, are misconceived right from the start. They wrongly assume that we can explain what practical reason is in terms of self-interest or the satisfaction of desire-and in isolation from the virtues of character.
A distinction of the same kind is implicit even in Kantian conceptions of practical reason, which aspire to demonstrate the rational authority of the moral law. In doing so, they begin with the nature of agency or practical thought, from which they hope to derive "internal" or "constitutive" standards of success. It follows that, even if the Kantian argument shows that we should be benevolent and just, the most it can be is a vindication of the virtues of character in terms of practical reason, independently conceived. It is the assumption of independence that I oppose.
It is already clear, in this sketch of my conclusion, that I am engaged in a kind of "virtue ethics." I am happy to accept that description; but it could be misleading. Virtue ethics is many things to many people, and only some of them are at issue here. It will be helpful, then, to locate my project briefly within the space of ethical theories that appeal to the virtues of character.
I have three things, primarily, in mind: virtue ethics as concerned with moral perception, and hostile to moral principles; virtue ethics as competing with consequentialism and deontology; and virtue ethics as Aristotelian naturalism. This book does not fit squarely in any of these conceptions; its topic is virtue ethics as a theory of practical reason.
There is, nevertheless, some overlap, particularly with the first conception: virtue ethics as (what has come to be called) "particularism." There are in fact two questions here, not always clearly distinguished. On the one hand, there is the question whether the content of morality, or of practical reason more generally, can be codified in non-ethical terms-for instance, whether we can express, with a finite non-moral description, the conditions of application of every moral concept. One kind of generalist says that we can. One kind of particularist denies it: he claims that the class of things that fall under a moral concept may be "shapeless" at the level of non-moral description. On the other hand, there is a question about the role of ethical principles in the practical thought of the ethically virtuous person: does she decide what to do by applying a set of principles to the situation at hand? These questions are obviously connected: if the content of morality or practical reason cannot be codified in non-ethical terms, there is a kind of principle on which the virtuous person cannot rely, simply because there is no such thing. But the questions are nonetheless distinct. It might be possible to capture the content of ethics in finite terms, without its being true that knowledge of this description figures in the psychology of ethical virtue. Nothing I say in this book will bear in a direct way on the first question, about the existence of finite principles. But I will argue for a sceptical position about the need for ethical principles, of almost any kind, in the practical thought involved in the virtues of character. I will have less to say about the other conceptions of virtue ethics. According to one of them, virtue ethics is to be conceived as an alternative to consequentialism and deontology. Consequentialists want to define right action in terms of "the good"-the idea of a good outcome or state of affairs. The right action is that which generates the most good, or a sufficient amount of good. Deontologists define the good in terms of right action, or at least reject the consequentialist definition of the latter. In contrast with both views, virtue theorists (of the relevant kind) hope to explain right action, and the good, in terms of ethical virtue. Each of these theories is characterized by a claim of "explanatory primacy" (Watson 1990: 451).
I want to distance myself from this, in two ways. First, to repeat a point I have already made, my topic is not morality in a narrow sense, but ethics in general. I am not interested in what makes an action morally right or wrong, in particular, but in what one should do, all things considered. And I leave room for non-moral virtues. Second, although I am arguing for a metaphysical connection between ethical virtue and practical reason, I do not claim that the connection is asymmetric in any interesting way. We can say what it is to be a reason for action in terms of ethical virtue, or so I will claim. But that is not to say that the virtues of character have explanatory primacy. The connection between reason and virtue runs in both directions: it is a matter of reciprocity, not priority.
This fact is worth stressing, and I return to it below, and in the conclusion of the book. For now, two further points. The first depends on being careful about the distinction between metaphysics and epistemology. Even if it were true, in some sense, that ethical virtue is more basic than practical reason in the metaphysical order of explanation, it would not follow-and I do not believe-that it is epistemically prior. It would not follow that claims about what there is reason to do must always be derived from claims about ethical virtue that are antecedently justified, or that the order of justification cannot go the other way. If reason and virtue are connected in the way that I propose, assumptions about practical reason might be used to prove conclusions about the virtues of character-though the converse holds as well.
The second point is also connected with issues of metaphysical explanation. On the third conception mentioned above, virtue ethics is identified with Aristotelian naturalism, according to which we can explain what a human virtue is in terms of human nature, human flourishing, or the human function. It is often taken for granted that an account of this kind is necessary. But that assumption is mistaken, in at least two ways. First, we should not forget that the Aristotelian tradition is only one possibility here; there is also the "sentimentalist" virtue ethics of Hutcheson and Hume, with its radically different view of the metaphysics and epistemology of virtue. Second, even those who appeal to Aristotle do not always agree that his naturalism has explanatory ambitions. In "The Role of Eudaimonia in Aristotle's Ethics," John McDowell argues that "disputes [about what one should do] could evidently be conducted as disputes about what it is the business of a human being to do" (1980: 13). But there is no suggestion that the justification for claims about "the business of a human being is to be found in an independent, 'value-free' investigation of human nature." On the contrary, the reference to "human nature" here is "a sort of rhetorical flourish, added to a conclusion already complete without it" (1980: 19). In effect, McDowell reads Aristotle as a quietist or anti-foundationalist about human virtue.
It does not matter for my purposes whether McDowell is right about this, or exactly what his doctrine amounts to-though, like him, I want to resist the bad idea that the reasons for being virtuous turn on an appeal to self-interest or human nature. What matters is that our investigation of virtue and practical reason does not depend on any particular view about the metaphysics of virtue. It is, I think, compatible with the sentimentalism of Hume's Treatise and with the naturalism or quietism-whichever it is-of the Nicomachean Ethics. On these metaphysical questions, my argument is basically silent.
In the rest of this introduction, I attempt to do two things. In section 1, I clarify and make precise the claim about reason and virtue that the rest of the book defends. In doing so, I solve a problem for virtue ethics that has seemed decisive to some: an argument by Bernard Williams that it makes no sense for the less-than-virtuous to imitate the fully virtuous person. If this is right, it is not clear how the virtue theorist can state the connection between ethical virtue and reasons for us to act. Responding to Williams, I explain how this connection can be made. In section 2, I sketch the argument of the book as a whole. It begins with a theory of action developed in Part One, which figures as a premise in the argument about reason and virtue that occupies Part Two.
1. "SQUEEZING THE GOOD INTO THE RIGHT THROUGH THE TUBES OF IMPERFECTION"
According to Aristotle, we engage in deliberation "where the outcome is unclear and the right way to act is undefined" (NE 1112b9-11). Here "deliberation" seems to mean something active or intentional, the kind of deliberative thought in which we deliberately engage, surveying our circumstance and what we can do to change or affect it. As Aristotle says, we engage in active deliberation mostly when our decision is difficult-though it need not be important. Much of our time is spent acting intentionally but without deliberating, in this sense: we get out of bed, make breakfast, and go to work, often without so much as wondering why.
Excerpted from Reasons without Rationalism by Kieran Setiya Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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1. "Squeezing the Good into the Right through the Tubes of Imperfection" 7
2. The Relevance of Action Theory 14
PART ONE: Explaining Action 21
1. A Puzzle about Intention 23
2. The Belief-Desire Model 28
3. Acting for Reasons 39
4. Solving the Puzzle 48
5. A Causal Theory of Action? 56
6. Against the Guise of the Good 59
PART TWO: Why Virtue Matters to the Study of Practical Reason 68
1. Character and Practical Thought 70
2. An Argument for the Virtue Theory 79
3. Practical Reason and the Guise of the Good 86
4. Motivation and Desire 99
5. Self-Knowledge as the Aim of Action 107