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METAPHILOSOPHY
Vol. 33, No. 4, July 2002
00261068

THEORIES OF PRACTICAL REASON

ERIC WILAND

ABSTRACT: Leading theories of practical reason can be grouped into one of


four families: psychologism, realism, compatibilism, and Aristotelianism.
Although there are many differences among the theories within each family, I
ignore these in order to ask which family is most likely to deliver a satisfactory
philosophical account of reasons for action. I articulate three requirements we
should expect any adequate theory of practical reason to meet: it should account
for (1) how reasons explain action, (2) how reasons justify action, and (3) how an
agent can act for the reason that justifies her action. Only the Aristotelian theory,
however, can meet all three requirements. It avoids the problems that plague the
other theories by grounding reasons neither in psychological states nor in facts
totally independent of the agent in question, but in the nature of the kind of crea-
ture the agent is. Our explanations of action need descend to the biographical only
when explaining why a human being does not act in ways characteristic of her
kind. The Aristotelian view of practical reason, then, appears to be the most
promising program for future work.

Keywords: practical reason, action, desire, psychologism.

I
The philosophical study of practical reason is alive and well. Long
neglected or viewed as a branch of ethics, the topic of practical reason now
commands the attention of more and more philosophers in its own right.
New developments and new distinctions are made with increasing rapid-
ity, and it would now require something on the order of a full-length book
to provide a satisfactory review of the current literature.
Nevertheless, I think that it would be useful to step back from the
increasingly complicated taxonomy of theories of practical reason in order
to evaluate what we might call the families of going theories. There are
now roughly four families of theories of practical reason: psychologism,
realism, compatibilism, and Aristotelianism. To be sure, there are differ-
ences and disagreements within each family; what family isnt vulnerable
to internal spats? But I want to overlook these internal quarrels in order to
assess which family is most likely to deliver a particular theory of practi-
cal reason that is adequate to the task. Which family is likely to win the
family feud?

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THEORIES OF PRACTICAL REASON 451

Unfortunately, we immediately face a methodological problem: there is


probably no completely independent criterion we can use to determine
which theory is best. It seems likely that each of the theories lacks some
desirable feature another theory has. Perhaps the best we can do is to articu-
late our pretheoretical intuitions about what reasons for action are, and see
whether any of the theories captures these intuitions better than the others.
Indeed, I shall argue that the Aristotelian theory is the only one that can
do justice to the things most of us believe to be true about reasons for
action. Now the fact that the other theories have trouble accounting for the
intuitions I shall cite is not breaking news. The flaws in these theories have
already been pointed out, often in much more detail than I am able to offer
here (Williams 1981, Smith 1994, McDowell 1995, Dancy 1995,
Blackburn 1995, and especially Dancy 2001). Nor is the theory I defend
here completely original; various strands of it can be found in the work of
many prominent philosophers (Anscombe 1982, Foot 1994, Foot 2001,
and especially Thompson 1995). But no one has yet shown explicitly that
the Aristotelian theory avoids the problems the other theories are widely
thought to face, not even the Aristotelians themselves. Bringing this to
light is a worthwhile task.
So let us begin by stating what these intuitions are. First, one sometimes
does things for reasons. A reason is something one can act for, and citing
that reason often explains why one acted as one did. Thus there is an
explanatory dimension to practical reason, and any theory that fails to
show why this is so fails at one of the fundamental tasks any adequate
theory of practical reason faces.
Second, when we do not do what there is reason for us to do, we act irra-
tionally or unreasonably, or are otherwise vulnerable to criticism. Reasons
justify the actions that they are reasons for, and so our activity lacks justi-
fication if our actions are not responsive to our reasons. Thus there is a
normative dimension to practical reason, and any theory that fails to show
why this is so fails at one of the fundamental tasks any adequate theory of
practical reason faces.
Third, we have what is called the explanatory/normative constraint
(see Dancy 2000, 1013; Williams 1981, 1026). This is the requirement
that a theory of reasons should show that and how any reason justifying an
action is also the sort of thing capable of contributing to the explanation of
an action that is done for that reason, and, likewise, that any reason that
explains an action is also the sort of thing capable of justifying an action.
The explanatory/normative constraint is plausible, because it seems that
whenever there is good reason for me to do something, I should be able to
act for that reason, and so that reason should be able to explain what I do.
Further, any reason that explains my action should at least be the kind of
thing that could justify what I do. If, on some theory of reasons, it is impos-
sible for me to act for the reasons that justify an action, then there is some-
thing wrong with the theory.

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452 ERIC WILAND

Thus, we have three criteria for a theory of practical reason:


(C1) The theory should display how reasons explain the actions that they
are reasons for.
(C2) The theory should display how reasons justify the actions that they
are reasons for.
(C3) The theory should display how reasons that justify action are also the
sort of thing to explain action, and vice versa.
These are rather modest ambitions for a theory of practical reason, so a
theory that fails to meet them is in pretty poor shape.

II
Now perhaps the most common view of practical reason is psychologism.
On this view, if there is reason for Agnes to f, then this reason is some
psychological state of hers. These psychological states need not have any
particular phenomenology, but they must be psychologically real. That is,
they must exist antecedent to the reasons; our reason ascriptions are justi-
fied because Agnes has the appropriate psychological states, not the other
way around.
There are very many varieties of psychologism: Humeans, for instance,
identify a practical reason with a desire or pro-attitude, while those of a
more rationalist bent identify it with a belief, and there are other possibil-
ities still.1 But what is common to all forms of psychologism is the view
that, at bottom, a practical reason is some state of mind of the agent.
Disputes about which state of mind occupy the bulk of the literature on the
topic, but for present purposes we may regard such debates as family
squabbles best left ignored.
Psychologism is initially plausible, because it seems to meet C1, the
requirement that a theory should display how reasons explain action. For
what reason did Agnes f? Psychologism explains why Agnes f-ed by
citing Agness psychological states. And these psychological states consti-
tute Agness reason for f-ing.
Defenders of psychologism (I shall call them psychologists) famously
run into trouble, however, when it comes to accounting for the justificatory
aspect of reasons (C2). For it seems that there can be a reason for Agnes to
f even if she has no psychological state intimately related to f-ing. For
instance, if Agnes fails to look after her own interests, she is vulnerable to
charges of unreasonableness, even if we do not know or suppose anything
in particular about what she wants or believes. Agness reason for action

1
Even some Kantians flirt with psychologism, for they think that action is rationally
explained and justified by ones practical identity (Korsgaard 1996) or by some other
psychological state everyone has in virtue of being an agent (Gewirth 1978). As we shall
see, however, not all Kantians are psychologists.

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THEORIES OF PRACTICAL REASON 453

justifies her in performing that action, and many intuitively think that there
are ways Agnes can fail to act with rational justification other than by fail-
ing to do what she wants to do or believes she should do.
But perhaps psychologists can somehow show that all the substantive
things we ordinarily think there is reason to do connect with our psycho-
logical states after all. Hobbesian projects seem to have this aim in mind.
Or perhaps we are wrong to think that there are reasons to do all the
substantive things we ordinarily think there are. That is, the psychologist
might be a revisionist about the content of our reasons for action. Williams
(1995) seems open to this solution. Nevertheless, until such a project is
successful, psychologism will seem to most to be an inadequate theory of
practical reason, for it fails to meet C2.2
Realists, by contrast, avoid the problem that plagues psychologism. By
identifying an agents reason for action with a mind-independent fact, the
realist seems to be able to account just fine for the normative aspect of
reasons for action. For if Agnes fails to do something (or be motivated to
do something) there is reason for her to do, the realist can account for this
by noting that Agnes simply failed to respond to a fact about what she
should do. We shall fail to do what there is reason for us to do at least inso-
far as we fail to act as these facts require us to act. Thus, criticisms of an
agents rationality need not depend on our supposition that she has certain
psychological states, for reasons get their grip upon agents in virtue of
these normative facts.
The realist stumbles, however, when it comes to accounting for the
explanatory dimension of practical reason (C1). How can a fact totally
independent of Agness agency, rather than a psychological state, explain
why she does what she does? For instance, we might explain Agness
flossing by noting that Agnes believes that this is how one prevents gum
disease and that Agnes wants to avoid contracting gum disease. That is,
we refer to Agness psychological states. We cannot explain Agness
flossing simply by noting some fact in the world. For if there is some fact
in the world constituting Agness reason to floss, then there is presum-
ably some fact in the world constituting Burls reason to floss. But
suppose Burl does not floss. So the thing that putatively explains why
Agnes flosses is present in Burls case as well. But if its presence in
Burls case is compatible with Burls not flossing, it is hard to see how
its presence in Agness case explains Agness flossing. Thus, nonpsy-
chological facts seem to be the wrong sort of thing to explain why some-
one does what she does, and so realism appears to have trouble
accounting for C1.
Dissatisfied with the vices of psychologism and realism, one might be

2
Gewirths view, on the other hand, has failed to attract followers not because it fails C2
but because most people have found it implausible that all agents really have the psycho-
logical states Gewirth argues they have, thereby failing C1.

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454 ERIC WILAND

tempted to combine the attractive aspects of each. This kind of philosopher


I shall call him the compatibilist distinguishes explanatory (or moti-
vating) reasons from justifying (or normative) reasons (see Smith 1994,
Parfit 1997). Explanatory reasons are thus states of mind, while justifying
reasons are states of affairs. An agents psychological states are the reasons
for which she acts, while nonpsychological facts constitute the reasons
favoring action. Such a distinction enables the compatibilist to hang on to
the thought that reasons both explain and justify action.
But by making this move, the compatibilist exchanges his original
problem for at least two new ones. First, it seems ad hoc to solve the
psychologists problem and the realists problem by announcing that
there are really two kinds of reasons, each of which has been identified
by one camp but not the other. Without a cogent account of what these
two kinds of reasons have to do with one another, it is not clear that both
really merit being called reasons. 3 I shall call this the reconciliation
problem.
Of course, many compatibilists do attempt to solve the reconciliation
problem by showing that it makes sense to regard both explanatory reasons
and justificatory reasons as two different kinds of the same thing. The trou-
ble is that no such attempt has succeeded.
Let me give a few examples to illustrate the compatibilists general fail-
ure to solve the reconciliation problem. Some Kantians, like Stephen
Darwall (1981), argue that justificatory reasons are ordinary facts, the
rational consideration of which explains rational action. Facts like I am
stepping on your toes are justificatory reasons, and my belief that I am
stepping on your toes can explain what I do remove my foot, apologize,
and so on if I have adopted the impartial point of view. So facts justify
and psychological states explain, but the two are connected because the
particular psychological state that explains is one whose content is the fact
that justifies.
Unfortunately, this particular account of the connection between
explanatory and justificatory reasons will not work, for it is clear that there
can be reason for me to do something even though rational consideration
of the fact supposedly constituting that reason will not motivate me. This
is most obviously so in cases where it would be good for me to do some-
thing that compensates for the fact that I am unable to take the impartial
point of view. If I am very angry at you, then I have reason to avoid situa-
tions in which I might strike you, even though rational consideration of all
the facts would not motivate me to avoid those situations, for if I could
rationally consider all the facts I would then not be so angry. But given that
I am angry, I have reason to avoid you (see Smith 1995). Thus, reasons are
3
See Michael Smith (1994, chap. 4.2), who attempts to justify the application of the
term reason to both things, and Jonathan Dancys (1995) persuasive argument that Smiths
attempt fails. The next several paragraphs owe much to Dancys essay. The solution I
propose, however, differs sharply from his.

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THEORIES OF PRACTICAL REASON 455

not facts the rational consideration of which would motivate an agent to act
in certain ways.4
Michael Smith has offered a different compatibilist account of the rela-
tion between explanatory reasons and justificatory reasons designed to
deal with the sort of problem Darwall faces, one based on the notion of
good advice. On Smiths view, I have a justificatory reason to do what an
ideally rational version of myself would advise me to do. And explanatory
reasons are the desires generated from my beliefs about what an ideally
rational version of myself would do. Again, facts justify, and psychologi-
cal states explain, but the two are connected because the particular psycho-
logical state that explains is produced by another psychological state,
whose content is the fact that justifies.
Unfortunately, Smiths attempt to reconcile explanatory and justifica-
tory reasons does not work either. As Ive argued in my 2000, connecting
my ideal advisers advice with that which explains my action makes sense
only if I have some way of reliably identifying the content of that advice.
But if I am need of advice, I shall not be able to arrive at this content by
thinking about what an ideally rational version of myself would advise me
to do, for ex hypothesi I am not ideally rational we need advice precisely
when we cannot figure out what we should do. So it follows from Smiths
view that there is no relation between my justificatory reasons and my
explanatory reasons, for the former cannot determine the latter. His
attempt to solve the reconciliation problem fails as well.
There are, of course, other compatibilist accounts designed to solve the
reconciliation problem, ones I do not have space to consider here.5 Perhaps
some such account will actually reconcile these two sorts of reasons.
Even so, there is a second objection to compatibilism. By bifurcating
explanatory reasons and justificatory reasons, compatibilism will seem
suspect to many, for it fails to account for C3. On the compatibilist view,
it turns out that we never act for the reasons that justify our actions. The
reasons that justify our actions are normative facts, while the reasons that
explain our actions are psychological states. Suppose that one and the
same reason could not both explain and justify Agness f-ing. This means

4
Darwalls view seems to many to be flawed also because it is implausible that impar-
tial consideration of facts really would motivate. Thus his view, and others like it, may also
run afoul of C1.
5
Parfit 1997 is a particularly difficult case. He seems to be a compatibilist, for at one
point he claims that normative and motivating reasons are not identical (113), and that
[n]ormativity, I believe, is very different from motivating force (127). But he also says
that motivating reasons can be regarded both as normative reasons and as motivating
(psychological) states, even though normative reasons are not themselves motivating states
(114, n. 28). Here is seems that instead of bifurcating reasons into the normative kind and
the motivating kind, Parfit bifurcates motivating reasons into the nonpsychological kind and
the psychological kind, with the two (by the grace of God?) always going together. Because
of this fundamental unclarity, I set Parfits views aside here. Perhaps his long-awaited book
Practical Realism will clear things up.

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456 ERIC WILAND

that the thing that explains why she f-ed is necessarily different from the
thing that makes her f-ing the appropriate thing to do. Try as she might,
Agnes cannot f for the reason that makes f-ing appropriate. On this view,
a person never acts for the reason that makes that action reasonable. But it
seems as though we sometimes act for the reason that justifies our action
(C3). On the compatibilist view, however, this is impossible.
Better to think that at least sometimes Agnes fs for the reasons that
favor f-ing. That is, sometimes she does things for the reasons that justify
her actions. A theory of reasons should show how this is possible. This is
not to say that it will always be possible for the thing that justifies some
course of action also to explain what she does. In some cases these two
dimensions of reasons may come apart. But insofar as the explanatory and
the normative dimensions of reasons fail to track one another, a good
theory of reasons for action will display why this is so, will display what
about the agent or the circumstances made it the case that Agness reasons
were explanatorily inefficacious. Otherwise, we shall wonder what justi-
fies the compatibilist in calling both of these things reasons.6
So we see that the realist seems to fail to account for C1, the psycholo-
gist for C2, and the compatibilist for C3. All three kinds of theories appear
to fail to make sense of a fairly basic feature of practical reason. To be sure,
it is quite possible that defenders of one of the theories may find some way
to show that their theory is not defective on this score, either by showing
that their theory can account for our intuitions after all, or by showing that
our intuitions are misguided. But until this task has been discharged, it
appears that each of the above theories suffers from a serious flaw.

III
Next I want to consider a fourth theory of practical reason, a theory I shall
call, for reasons that will soon become obvious, the Aristotelian theory.
First, I shall provide a brief sketch of the Aristotelian theory and argue that
the Aristotelian theory can handle C1, C2, and C3, thus doing a better job
accounting for the features of practical reason we should expect any
adequate theory to capture. Then, I shall consider and reply to what I take
to be the most forceful objections to the Aristotelian view. Doing so will
provide me with an opportunity to state the view in more detail, giving
some shape to the brief sketch.
The Aristotelian begins with the thought that rational action is in some
sense good action, and that to act rationally is in some sense to act well.7
6
For more on this, see Dancy 2000, 98120.
7
Of course, this formula does not necessarily run the other way: not all good action is
rational action. In particular, the evaluation of actions as rational or irrational will have to
be restricted to the actions of agents who can act for reasons. I shall ignore this complica-
tion here, but a full presentation of the theory would need to handle it. Rather, the thesis
under discussion here is that actions are good insofar as they are rational.

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THEORIES OF PRACTICAL REASON 457

That is, he takes the justificatory dimension of reasons to be primary. The


problem for the Aristotelian, then, is to display how reasons so conceived
can nevertheless explain the actions that they are reasons for, the same
problem the realist stumbles over.
The first part of the Aristotelians argument takes up the familiar idea that
the word good in the phrase good action functions as an attributive adjective
(Geach 1956, Foot 1994). Suppose Agnes gets up in the middle of the night
in order to comfort her colicky daughter. To say that this is a good action is
not to say that it happens to be both an action and good. Rather, it is to say
that as an action it is good. Compare this with the standard examples of
attributive adjectives: Angel Cordero may be a large jockey, but not a large
man. A genuine van Meegeren is not a genuine Vermeer. Similarly, this thing
on my wrist may be a good watch but not a good doorstop. Thus, we cannot
infer from the fact that X is a good K the conclusion that X is good. Instead,
things are evaluated with respect to the kinds of things they are.
Thus, to determine whether Agness f-ing is a good action, we need to
know something about what criteria are specifically important in deter-
mining the goodness of actions. That is, we probably should not worry too
much about whether Agness f-ing has good consequences, or stems from
some special motive. Specifically, we should not confuse the claim that f-
ing is a good action with the claim that f-ing coheres with Agness psycho-
logical states. These are different claims, or if they come to the same thing,
we need an argument for that.
But how then are we supposed to determine whether Agnes is acting
well? Suppose we instead were inquiring whether a particular calculator
was producing good answers (or bad answers). Or whether a particular
Pacific salmon was traveling in the right direction (or the wrong direc-
tion)? Or whether a particular public health agency was acting effectively
(or ineffectively)?
In each of these cases, we look at the kind of thing that is doing the
action in order to answer the question. This machine might be producing
good answers for a calculator, but not for a random-number generator. This
animal might be traveling in the right direction for a Pacific salmon, but
not for a Canada goose. This agency might be acting effectively for a
public-health agency, but not for a biological warfare agency. Sometimes
it is not enough to know the noun to which the attributive adjective
attaches (or the verb to which the attributive adverb attaches); we also
must know the kind of thing that is doing the deed.8
Similarly, if we want to explain why this machine returns 12 after one
hits the 7, +, 5, and = keys in that order, it is generally sufficient to
8
Anscombe 1982 instead includes the kind of agent in the description of the kind of
action it is: she speaks of whether human actions are good and bad, rather than of whether
humans perform good actions and bad actions. Nothing substantive turns on which of these
two ways we speak, but I think the notion of a characteristic activity of a kind of thing, a
notion I shall introduce shortly, is slightly clearer if we speak the way I do.

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458 ERIC WILAND

note that this machine is a calculator. But if we want to explain why this
particular calculator does not come up with 12 after hitting those keys, we
need to refer to some particular peculiar quality or aspect of the calculator
that explains its error, such as that it has no battery, or that it has a loose
wire, or that club soda was spilled on the keys, or that it is in a hot oven,
and so on. The same goes for the other examples. This animal is traveling
upstream because it is a Pacific salmon; but this other Pacific salmon is not
traveling upstream because its olfactory nerves are not firing. This organi-
zation is injecting small children with the measles vaccine because it is a
public-health agency; but this other public-health agency is injecting small
children with anthrax because it has been infiltrated by enemy spies. Thus,
noting that some particular thing belongs to a kind is generally sufficient if
we want to explain why that thing is acting in ways characteristic of that
kind. But if we want to explain why a particular thing is acting in ways
atypical of its kind, we need to note something peculiar about that thing.
So if we want to know whether Agness actions are good actions, the
above seems to suggest we need to look more closely at the kind of being
Agnes is. Now the best answer seems to be that she is a human being, but
there are other possible answers: maybe the relevant category is woman,
American, or mammal. But what I want to say here does not depend upon
which of these we embrace, so I shall assume that human is the right cate-
gory, even though my sketch would be just as good or bad if I were to illus-
trate my point with some other category.9
Let us assume for present purposes that Agness actions are to be eval-
uated on the basis of the fact that she is a human being. If she learns a
language, saves for the future, and takes care of her daughter, then these
are good actions, for these are things that are good for a human being to
do. Furthermore, we can also explain these actions by noting the fact that
she is a human being, for these are some of the things that human beings
characteristically do. That is, we do not need to supplement our anthro-
pology with some biography in order to have a complete picture of why
Agnes gets up in the middle of the night in order to comfort her colicky
daughter. Just as calculators, Pacific salmon, and public-health agencies
have their characteristic activities, so too do human beings.
Here I rely only upon examples to convey the notion of a characteristic
activity of a kind of thing (calculators add, Pacific salmon migrate, public-
health agencies prevent infectious disease).10 But I should note that to say

9
Of course, a full account of Agness reasons for action will need to settle this question,
and it will make a huge difference which answer we adopt. I think that we do and should
evaluate some kinds of action with respect to the humanity of the agent and other kinds of
action with respect to narrower and wider categories. This complicates things, so I shall
pretend that Agness actions are all evaluated with respect to one category.
10
The next few paragraphs are heavily indebted to Thompson 1995. All errors or misun-
derstandings of his view are, per some cousin of the doctrine of double effect, my responsi-
bility.

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THEORIES OF PRACTICAL REASON 459

that a kind of thing characteristically fs is to make neither a universal nor


a statistical generalization about that kind of thing. It is not universal, for
although human beings look after their young until they are in their teens,
deadbeat dads do exist, all the while remaining human. It is not statistical
either: the field guide rightly says that the mayfly characteristically breeds
shortly before dying, even though most mayflies die long before breeding.
And even if most personal computers crash after several hours of use, no
orthodox dictionary will list this as one of the things computers do. Thus a
judgment linking a kind with a characteristic activity may be true even if
individuals falling under both the subject and the predicate are statistically
rare (Thompson 1995, 28485).
But saying that a kind of thing characteristically fs is not itself a norma-
tive statement either. Saying that calculators add is not, or is not simply, to
say that they should add. Someone who disagreed with the statements that
calculators add would not be a Nietzschean about the value of calculators;
rather, she would merely be poorly informed about what calculators are. I
for one recognize that marketing companies (characteristically) advertise
wares on highway billboards; that hardly means I approve of their doing
so.
Nevertheless, these statements do stand in some inferential relation to
what might be called normative statements, and here is where the
Aristotelians interest lies. If things of kind K (characteristically) f, but this
individual of kind K does not f, then we may conclude that this individual
is, in this respect, a defective or otherwise imperfect K. So if humans char-
acteristically treat their philoi well, but Agnes does not treat her philos so
well, she evidences a flaw.
Note how this style of explanation differs from the realists. Part of what
so many find implausible about realism is the way it cuts off the agent
from the source of normativity. According to realism, the thing that gives
me a reason to f is some fact about the world independent of my own
agency. This often drives philosophers to some form of psychologism,
where my reasons are a function of my (perhaps peculiar) psychological
states. But psychologism is not the only other option, and, in a way, it over-
shoots the correct understanding of the source of normativity. By focusing
upon the kinds of things we are, the Aristotelian view avoids both the
alienating objectivity of realism and the unprincipled subjectivity of
psychologism, thus providing an immanent critique of its subject
(Thompson 1995, 296).
We need to descend to the biographical only when explaining why a
human being does not act in ways characteristic of her kind. (I shall qual-
ify this statement later. Right now, it will be helpful to examine it in its
bald form.) If the cries of her daughter do not move Agnes to do anything,
then we shall wonder what it is about Agnes that makes her this way.
Perhaps she is deaf, perhaps she has just gone to sleep after having worked
two straight shifts at Wal-mart, or perhaps she herself was raised by an

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460 ERIC WILAND

inattentive parent. The peculiar qualities of Agnes, including the elements


in her subjective motivational set, will be explanatorily efficacious when
Agnes is not acting in ways characteristic of the kind of thing that she is.
But otherwise they are superfluous to this form of explanation; we can
instead just note that Agnes is of a certain kind. The form of explanation
of characteristic activity, then, differs from the form of explanation of
uncharacteristic activity.
None of this is to insist, however, that a human being who acts in char-
acteristic ways does not have subjective qualities, such as beliefs, desires,
projects, and the like. It may even be the case that human beings who act
in characteristic ways always have wants that their actions serve whenever
they act for reasons; the psychologist may very well be right about this.
Thus, the Aristotelian can accept and incorporate the claim that there is a
conceptual connection between doing and wanting. But these wants are not
always necessary parts of the explanation of what it is that human beings
do when they so act, not when the activity in question is one that already
is something that human beings characteristically do. Thus, the relevant
issue is not the universal coexistence of desires and rational action but the
explanatory power of the former with respect to the latter.
The most significant difference between the psychologist and the
Aristotelian, however, concerns the evaluation of Agness action. For the
Aristotelian holds that we evaluate Agness actions in roughly the same
way regardless of whether she is a typical human being or an atypical
human being. Just as the activities of the calculator in my office and the
calculator in my hot oven are evaluated with respect to the same criterion
the ability to calculate so too are human beings with various peculiar-
ities evaluated with respect to the same criteria. This means that Agness
not responding to her daughter would not be good even if she is deaf, tired,
or self-centered.11 And since rational action is good action, it seems that we
can say that if Agnes ignores her daughter, she does not do what there is
reason for her to do.12 Reasons are not conditional simply upon the pecu-
liarities of each agent; in particular, they are not conditional upon each
agents potentially idiosyncratic psychological states.
Now that I have sketched the Aristotelian theory, let me evaluate
whether it meets the criteria for a satisfactory theory of reasons for action.
11
But even if Agnes has reason to care for her daughter, she also may have some stronger
reason to do something else, such as attend to her other responsibilities. These possibilities
complicate the all-things-considered evaluation of her action. And the question of blame, of
course, is somewhat different from the question of the evaluation of the action.
12
This is not a strict inference, however, for while I have argued that all rational action
is good action, I have not argued that all good action is rational action. A fuller statement of
the Aristotelian theory would need to argue that the actions of agents who can act for
reasons, such as human beings but not Pacific salmon, are rational insofar as they are good.
The solution to this problem obviously bears upon the problem of determining whether the
evaluation of Agness actions is to be based upon her humanity, her nationality, her gender,
and the like.

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The psychologist rightly complained that because the realist had not
hooked up reasons with Agness psychological states, it remained a
mystery how reasons are supposed to explain Agness actions when she
acts reasonably. But by linking reasons to the characteristic activities of
kinds of agents, the Aristotelian does seem to capture a sense in which
reasons explain action. That is, we can explain why Agnes fs by noting
that f-ing is a characteristic activity of beings of her kind. Explaining her
action in this way is not a vacuous enterprise, no more vacuous than
explaining the grueling journeys of this particular animal by noting that it
is a Pacific salmon. Furthermore, we can explain why Agnes does not act
rationally by noting her subjective qualities that make her atypical of her
kind. Thus, we have schemata for explaining both rational and irrational
action, thereby meeting C1.
That is not all. By linking the evaluation of actions with the kind of
being the agent is, the Aristotelian theory also seems to capture a sense in
which reasons are normative. If Agnes fails to act in ways characteristic of
a human being, she acts unreasonably. Reasons get their grip on Agnes
neither in virtue of her psychological states nor in virtue of some fact that
exists independently of her agency, but in virtue of the kind of being she
is. Thus, this theory can meet C2.
Finally, the Aristotelian theory meets C3. The thing that explains why
Agnes does what she does is also the sort of thing that can justify her
action. For it is the kind to which she belongs that both accounts for and
justifies her activity. To say She did it because she is a real mensch both
explains and praises what she did. The material that justifies also poten-
tially explains. So there is a nice connection between the explanatory and
normative role of practical reasons.

IV
Before drawing any definite conclusion about the success of the
Aristotelian view of practical reasons, we should consider some of the
more obvious objections to it. Doing so will enable me to put some flesh
on the skeletal view sketched so far.
First, it seems as though some kinds of rational action must be
explained by psychological states; states of mind explain more than just
irrationality. For instance, my dislike of flavored coffee explains why I
would drink just about anything else instead. Furthermore, my action,
given my subjective likes and dislikes, seems to be perfectly rational.
The correct response to this challenge focuses upon the fact that it is a
characteristic activity of human beings each to look specially after her or his
own life. Thus, in many spheres of life my likes and dislikes will prove rele-
vant to what there is reason for me to do. We can accept this conclusion,
however, without reverting to some sort of psychologism. For it is not my
likes and dislikes themselves that directly make certain actions reasonable.

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462 ERIC WILAND

Rather, it is that, because of the kind of creature I am, in this sphere of life
the fact that I have these psychological states constitutes appropriate
grounds for determining what to drink.
But in some spheres of life, such as whether I should care for my chil-
dren, my psychological states will not be relevant in that way. That is, there
is reason for me to care for my children even if I do not like them or the
activities that caring for them involves. Determining whether psychologi-
cal states bear upon reasons depends upon what sphere of life is under
consideration, and how those spheres relate to the characteristic activities
of human beings (Foot 1994, 213).
These two points can interact in complicated ways. The reasons there
are for me to drink a particular liquid are determined by what I desire only
if the object of my desire falls within some appropriate range. For instance,
my desires might determine whether there is reason for me to drink coffee
or tea; they might not determine whether there is reason for me to drink
green paint or human blood. So, to be sure, psychological states are often
relevant in determining what there is reason to do, but their relevance or
irrelevance is itself determined by the nature of the kind of creature whose
states they are.
Here is another objection. One may reasonably wonder how a theory as
thin as the one the Aristotelian offers can account for the multitude of
reasons there are for a particular individual. Doesnt it seem that we have
to resort to something other than the fact that this individual is a human
being in order to show why there are reasons for her to do all of these vari-
ous things?
An adequate reply to this challenge would need to do two separate
things. First, it would need to develop further the idea I have just touched
upon, namely, the idea that in some (but not all) spheres of life, an agents
reasons are indeed sensitive to her psychological states. This should
partially account for the richness of our reasons that the objection points
to.
But we would also need to make room for the idea that an individual is
not an instance of only one kind. Agnes is not only a human being but also,
perhaps, a truck driver, a Presbyterian, a foster parent, and a Kennedy. That
she is a member of each of these kinds will generate lots and lots of
reasons for her. Of course, it seems that the reasons that issue from each of
these perspectives could conflict with one another. For instance, the fact
that Raymond is an American might give him reason to register for the
draft, while his being a Quaker might give him reason not to register for
the draft. Thus we might have the makings of a real dilemma. On the other
hand, there may be ways to adjudicate among the reasons generated from
multiple perspectives. Perhaps reasons generated from nonoptional kind-
memberships (for example, human being) either trump those generated
from optional ones (for example, member of the American Philosophical
Association), or forbid one from joining certain optional ones in the first

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THEORIES OF PRACTICAL REASON 463

place (for example, member of the KKK). This is a famously difficult


topic, but there is no reason to think that the Aristotelian view is peculiarly
disadvantaged when it comes to accounting for and resolving these
conflicts.
Another prominent objection to my view stems from the fact that
human beings frequently make mistakes. As the saying goes, to err is
human. And so it may seem to be a bad idea to ground the normative
dimension of practical reason in human nature, for that can seem to some
(for example, Kantians) to be not much more authoritative than individual
psychological states.
Here I think it is important to recall that our understanding of human
nature is not merely built up from an empirical-cum-statistical investiga-
tion of human history. Think of the way our understanding of human health
outstrips any scientific investigation of disease and mortality. There may
never have been a human being free from all forms of disease and disabil-
ity, but that is no bar to our understanding these conditions as dis-ease and
dis-ability, ones that indicate a kind of malfunction, rather than as ones that
characterize human fitness and functioning. Likewise, the fact that most
human beings do bad things does not by itself show that it is part of human
nature so to act. All human beings occasionally and even frequently err,
but it is not thus right to say that to err is human.
A more formidable objection invites us to focus our attention on the fact
that there are some individuals who are uncharacteristically good. We do
not characteristically sacrifice our interests to help perfect strangers, but
the rare souls who do are good, not bad. Similarly, those whose names fill
the Guinness Book of World Records are hardly typical, but breaking world
records is not ipso facto irrational. So, again, it seems wrong to link the
critical dimension of practical reason with the characteristic activity of
human beings.13
In response, we can say at least three things. First, it is not so clear that
there is reason for these individuals to do these very unusual things at all.
I do not mean to condemn atypical behavior; I mean only to question
whether such behavior is really required by practical reason. There are
certainly other normative dimensions along which we can evaluate people
beauty (physical and otherwise) comes to mind and it would be a
mistake to overlook these resources for making sense of our thoughts
about many of the unusual things some human beings do.
Second, we should not forget the possibility that these individuals have
reasons for action that stem not from their humanity but from their
membership in some other kind. So our praise for the odd activity of
unusual individuals may stem from the recognition that they belong to
some class or kind not binding upon all human beings for instance, I can

13
I would like to thank an anonymous referee for asking me to respond to this objec-
tion.

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464 ERIC WILAND

hold that there are certain things that Americans characteristically and thus
reasonably do, while not holding that everyone in the world shares the
reasons to do these things.
Third, there is nothing preventing us from thinking that there is an
asymmetry involved in assessing deviations from human nature. Having
determined that a human adult characteristically sleeps, say, eight hours a
day, we can rightly regard those human adults who need fourteen hours of
sleep to feel rested as suffering from some malady. But should we run
across a human adult who is rested after only five hours of sleep, we can
coherently regard her as unusual but not thereby diseased or disordered or
disabled or otherwise ill, although such a condition could be a sign of some
illness. Much the same may be true for how we evaluate human action.
Human beings characteristically form several close friendships (under-
stood broadly), and those who act in a friendly way toward no one act
badly. But this need not commit us to the view that someone who acts in a
friendly way toward an unusually large number of people thereby acts
badly, although it could be a sign that he is neglecting some other impor-
tant activity that there is reason for him to perform.
So I take it that the existence of uncharacteristically good activity is no
serious threat to the Aristotelian theory of practical reason.
Here is a final objection (or pair of objections). The Aristotelian
proposes that we can both explain and justify rational action by linking it
with what human beings do. But is this really much of an explanation? The
psychologist will point out that in everyday life we explain one particular
action by linking it to some other particular for example, he is moving
his arm up and down because he wants to operate the pump and he believes
that he can do so by moving his arm up and down not by linking it to
what human beings characteristically do. So it is hard to see how the kind
of explanation the Aristotelian focuses upon really counts as a reasons-
explanation.
The realist can launch a similar objection, this time focusing on the
normative dimension of reasons. In everyday life, we justify some partic-
ular action by linking it to some other particular for example, she is
going to the hospital because her ill friend there is lonely not by linking
it to what human beings characteristically do. So it is hard to see how the
kind of justification the Aristotelian focuses upon really counts as a
reasons-justification.
What kind of explanation or justification is it to say that someone does
something because she is human? Recall that Aristotle identifies the
human essence with a certain kind of functioning or activity. To be human
is to be the sort of creature that belongs to the species that characteristi-
cally does a certain range of things, the various things that human beings
do. Thus, if we can link up a particular explanandum (for example, moving
his arm up and down) with this range of activity, we will thereby explain
it in terms of human nature.

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THEORIES OF PRACTICAL REASON 465

Now we need not explain some particular action (moving his arm up
and down) in terms of the particular psychological states that putatively
produced it (wanting to operate the pump, and believing that he does so by
moving his arm up and down). We can instead explain it in terms of what
else he is doing: he is moving his arm up and down because he is operat-
ing the pump.14 And it is likely that we can explain why he is operating the
pump by linking it with something else he is doing: for example, he is
retrieving water. And so on. At some point, we shall reach an action-
description that cannot itself be explained in terms of another action-
description. But then (at least sometimes) we shall have reached an
action-description than can fairly be identified as one of those things
within the range of activities that characterize what a human being is. For
instance, I venture to say that one of the many things human beings char-
acteristically do is retrieve water, and so to explain someones moving his
arm up and down by linking it with his retrieving water just is to explain
it in terms of human nature.
A similar point also serves as an adequate reply to the realist. We
need not justify some particular action (going to the hospital) in terms
of some state of affairs (her ill friend in the hospital is lonely). We can
instead justify it in terms of what else she is doing: she is going to the
hospital because she is visiting her ill lonely friend there. At some point,
we shall reach an action-description that cannot itself be justified in
terms of another action-description. But then (at least sometimes) we
shall have reached an action-description that can fairly be identified as
one of those things within the range of activities that characterize what
a human being is. For instance, I venture to say that one of the many
things human beings characteristically do is socialize with their friends
who need some company, and so to justify someones going to the
hospital by linking it with socializing with friends just is to justify it in
terms of human nature.
So while it might initially sound odd to say that human nature both
explains and justifies rational action, this oddity should dissolve once we
see (1) that actions can be both explained and justified by linking them to
other actions and (2) that human nature is itself to be understood as a
certain range of activity.

V
There are undoubtedly other formidable objections to the Aristotelian view
I have failed to present and rebut. And much more work needs to be done
before we have a complete articulation of the view I have little more than
sketched. But the fact that the Aristotelian view seems to capture our basic

14
See Thompson (unpublished).

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466 ERIC WILAND

intuitions about the nature of practical reason (C1C3) strongly suggests


that this is the most promising area for further work.

University of Missouri-St. Louis


Department of Philosophy
St. Louis, MO 63121-4499
USA
wiland@umsl.edu

Acknowledgments
I would like to thank Candace Vogler, Thaddeus Metz, Martha
Nussbaum, Robert Gordon, Mark Timmons, Eric Brown, Erik Curiel,
and Lauren Tillinghast for their helpful comments on earlier versions of
this article.

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