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The Rationality of Dispositions and the Rationality of Actions: The Interdependency Thesis1

  • Anita M. Superson (a1)

I defend the Interdependency Thesis, according to which rational evaluations of dispositions and actions are made in light of each other. I invoke a model of rationality that relies on various levels of consistency existing between an agent's reasons for adopting a moral disposition, the argument for the moral theory she endorses (relying on the Kantian notion that all persons are equal in humanity), her desires, disposition, and choice to be a moral person as reflected in the maxim she adopts. The Interdependency Thesis shows that we do not need to demonstrate the rationality of every morally required action in order to defeat scepticism fully.

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2 Gauthier David, Morals by Agreement (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

3 The label is coined by Campbell Richmond in his “Moral Justification and Freedom,” The Journal of Philosophy, 85, 4 (1988): 192213, at p. 199. Gauthier clearly states the thesis as follows: “If it is rational for me to adopt an intention to do x in circumstances c, and if c come about, and if nothing relevant to the adoption of the intention is changed save what must be changed with the coming about of c (such as my hope of avoiding c), then it is rational for me to carry out x.” See Gauthier David, “Afterthoughts,” in The Security Gamble: Deterrence Dilemmas in the Nuclear Age, edited by MacLean Douglas (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984), p. 159. The same thesis applies to dispositions, too.

4 How we assess the rationality of dispositions and acts depends of course on our settling the prior issue of what their connection is.

5 Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

6 This alternative is designated by Darwall Stephen in “Rational Agent, Rational Act,” Philosophical Topics, 14, 2 (Fall 1986): 3357, on p. 55, n.24.

7 Parfit , Reasons and Persons, pp. 67.

8 Ibid., p. 3.

9 Darwall , “Rational Agent,” pp. 37, 40.

10 Ibid., p. 34.

11 Ibid., p. 41.

12 Ibid., pp. 34, 39.

13 I thank David Copp for prompting this distinction.

14 The weak reading of the Independency Thesis is equally problematic since it still judges the action according to a standard or value independent of the agent. Although it sensibly takes actions to be performed by agents instead of considering them as mere events in the universe as on the strong reading, what matters still is only whether the act achieves the independent value. To press the point, consider that this value need not even be held by the agent. Kate might not have the aim that her life go as well as possible, but the weak reading assesses the rationality of her actions (as actions performed by Kate) strictly according to whether they promote this aim.

15 Davis Nancy (Ann), “Acting Utilitarians,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 66 (1985): 125–40, esp. pp. 126–28. Davis is suggesting that the judgements rendered by value-based theories need to be richer than they usually are.

16 This in fact may be one reason Gauthier offers his thesis, but I think his main motive is to provide a theory that is grounded in self-interest so as to reach the sceptic who accepts only self-interested reasons for action.

17 Gauthier , Morals by Agreement, p. 167.

18 MacIntosh Duncan, “Two Gauthiers?Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review, 28, 1 (1989): 4361, esp. p. 45.

19 Gauthier , Morals by Agreement, p. 182. See MacIntosh for a good list of other relevant passages (“Two Gauthiers,” p. 46). One other Gauthier does not mention is in Morals by Agreement (p. 169) where he says that a constrained maximizer is disposed to comply even when compliance “results in real disadvantage to herself,” because a disposition to comply affords her greater expected utility than being non-compliant on the occasion. This suggests that something must “take hold of” the self-interested agent and make her comply.

20 Gauthier , Morals by Agreement, p. 186.

21 Ibid., pp. 164–65.

22 Ibid., p. 158.

23 Ibid., p. 167; emphasis mine.

24 Herman Barbara, “On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty,” The Philosophical Review, 90, 3 (07 1981): 359–82, esp. pp. 363–66.

25 Gauthier , Morals by Agreement, p. 169.

27 Herman , “On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty,” p. 366.

28 Herman rejects the “fitness model” of the moral motive, according to which an act has moral worth only if the moral motive is strong enough to prevail over other inclinations, in favour of the view that moral worth rests on whether the agent has an interest in the moral rightness of his actions (ibid., pp. 368–69).

29 See my “The Self-Interest Based Contractarian Response to the Why-Be-Moral Skeptic,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 28, 3 (1990): 427–47.

30 In my “Scepticism about Moral Motives” (Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review, 35 [1996]: 1534), I argue that a person who acts morally but who merely goes through the motions in doing so, and so lacks moral motives, is irrational because he displays a kind of schizophrenia between his actions and his motives. The schizophrenia stems either from a conflict of motives, such as when the agent internalizes a reason to act, and so has a motive to act on the reason, but yet this motive conflicts with another motive the agent has. Her motives would then point towards different actions. Or, the agent might endorse a reason to act, and does act, but does not have the right motive to prompt action, as in the agent who endorses self-interested reasons to act, and acts self-interestedly, but is not moved by self-interest, but, say, a desire to appear self-interested. Even if we were to defeat scepticism about acting morally, that is, give reasons for acting morally, were we not to demonstrate that it is rational to act from a moral motive, we would leave the sceptic in a position of irrationality due to his schizophrenia.

31 Kupperman Joel, “Character and Ethical Theory,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 12, Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp. 115–25, esp. p. 120.

32 Davis , “Acting Utilitarians,” p. 128.

33 Herman Barbara, “On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty” (revised version), in The Practice of Moral Judgment, edited by Herman Barbara (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 122, esp. pp. 11–12. Christine Korsgaard reinforces this interpretation of Kant: “An inclination by itself is merely an incentive, and does not become a reason for action until the person has adopted it freely into her maxim” (“Morality as Freedom,” in Creating the Kingdom of Ends [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996], chap. 6, p. 165).

34 Baron Marcia, “The Alleged Moral Repugnance of Acting from Duty,” The Journal of Philosophy, 81, 4 (1984): 197220; see especially footnote 2, p. 198, and the discussion on pp. 208–209. She offers this view as one that is Kantian, though not necessarily Kant's, and believes that it is in certain respects consistent with Herman's interpretation of the moral motive.

35 Baron Marcia, “Is Acting from Duty Morally Repugnant?” (revised version) in her Kantian Ethics Almost Without Apology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 117–45, esp. p. 129.

36 Herman agrees. Her account of the moral motive allows for the presence of non-moral interests. In these “overdetermined” actions, the agent must be moved by the moral motive in order for her action to have moral worth. In the case of morally permissible actions, the moral motive functions as a limiting condition by limiting the ways in which non-moral motives may be acted upon. That is, the moral motive gives the agent a commitment to act on nonmoral motives only if she judges that her action complies with the categorical imperative (see Part 4 of the original version of “On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty”). One main difference between Herman's and Baron's views is that while Herman believes that a morally good person can have non-moral motives present when she acts in morally good ways, Baron believes that in order to be a perfectly moral person, one must have non-moral motives along with the moral motive, since the latter is a way of life.

37 Benn S. I., “Wickedness,” Ethics, 95 (07 1985): 795810, esp. p. 796.

38 This is an example of conscientious wickedness. For other examples of immoral behaviour that may be masked in seemingly good maxims, see my “Privilege, Immorality, and Responsibility for Attending to the ‘Facts about Humanity,’” Journal of Social Philosophy, 35, 1 (Spring 2004): 3455. Benn claims that a person might be wicked not because his first-order maxims are inherently wicked, but because they are governed by a higher-order maxim that is wicked—e.g., a maxim preventing overriding the duty to obey one's superior officers. See Benn , “Wickedness,” p. 797.

39 David Copp and Ann Cudd proposed this objection.

40 Davis , “Acting Utilitarians,” pp. 127–28. A similar view is expressed by Robert Louden, who objects to Susan Wolf's characterization of a moral saint as one who spends as much time as possible producing as much moral good as possible. In opposition to this view, Louden characterizes the moral person as “one who is disposed to live according to principles she reflectively accepts. The more strongly one is disposed to stand fast by one's reflectively chosen principles when tempted by considerations that are morally irrelevant, the more one conforms to the ideal of the moral person” (“Can We Be Too Moral?” Ethics, 98, 2 [01 1988]: 361–78, on pp. 371–72).

41 Baron , “The Alleged Moral Repugnance,” pp. 205, 208.

42 Herman Barbara, “Integrity and Impartiality,” in The Practice of Moral Judgment, edited by Herman Barbara (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 2344, esp. p. 26.

43 McDowell John, “Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Suppl. Vol. 52 (1978): 1329, esp. p. 21.

44 McDowell John, “Virtue and Reason,” The Monist, 62, 3 (07 1979): 331–50, esp. pp. 334–35.

45 See Louden , “Can We Be Too Moral?,” p. 373.

46 Davis , “Acting Utilitarians,” p. 128. See also Sher George, “Ethics, Character, and Action,” Social Philosophy and Policy, 15, 1 (Winter 1998): 125–40, at p. 14.

47 Elizabeth Spelman argues that the self and self-conception are central to treating a person as a person. See her “On Treating Persons as Persons,” Ethics, 88 (1978): 150–61.

48 Frankfurt Harry G., “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” in Moral Responsibility, edited by Fischer John Martin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), pp. 6580, esp. pp. 70–73.

49 A good account of the psychopath can be found in Duff Antony, “Psychopathy and Moral Understanding,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 14, 3 (07 1977): 189200. The psychopath fails to see how moral or other concerns generate reasons for action for others or for himself. Although he might understand simple moral concepts (e.g., causing physical pain to others is bad), he does not understand the complexities of morality (e.g., the concept of insulting a loved one), and so is outside the scope of morality.

50 See Johnson Charles and Smith Patricia, WGBH Series Research Team, Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998), p. 301. According to Julien Joseph Virey's theory, Blacks were ugly and savage, and their heads were shaped more for eating and not for thinking. Charles White believed that Blacks were closer to apes. Such racists were able to spread propaganda and breed hatred for Blacks, and distance them from Caucasians in order to facilitate ill treatment of them.

51 Katha Pollitt accuses the media of making this mistake due to its obsession with sensational acts of violence against women and dismissiveness of everyday threats, rapes, bashings, and murders of women, all of which display the same hostility toward women. See her “Violence in a Man's World,” in Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, edited by Pollitt Katha (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), pp. 2630.

52 Apparently this happened with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws discrimination on grounds of race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin. Sex discrimination was a late amendment to the bill, proposed by Southern congresspersons who attempted to defeat the entire bill, a plan that backfired. See Anderson Joel T., “Employment Discrimination: The Expansion of Scope of Title VII to Include Sexual Harassment as a Form of Sex Discrimination—Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson,” The Journal of Corporation Law, 12, 3 (Spring 1987): 619–38, esp. pp. 620–21.

53 Pollitt , “Violence,” p. 30.

54 The phrase comes from Kavka Gregory, in his “Some Paradoxes of Deterrence,” The Journal of Philosophy, 75, 6 (06 1978): 285302.

55 See McFall Lynne, “Integrity,” in Ethics and Personality: Essays in Moral Psychology, edited by Deigh John (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 7994, at p. 81.

56 My point is a modified version of McFall's (ibid., p. 90). See also Schauber Nancy, “Integrity, Commitment and the Concept of a Person,” American Philosophical Association, 33, 1 (01, 1996): 119–29. Schauber mentions what she calls the self-unification view of integrity that includes both moral and non-moral commitments. An agent remains true to herself by keeping both kinds of commitments.

57 Elster Jon, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 1. In this article, I rely on the thin theory of rationality as the minimum standard we must meet in order to defeat scepticism. I argue elsewhere, though, that we ought to assess rationally the desires the sceptic is assumed to have. Specifically, I argue in favour of eliminating deformed desires as ones it is rational to have. See my “Deformed Desires and Informed Desire Tests,” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, 20, 4, Special Issue on Analytical Feminism (Fall 2005): forthcoming.

58 See Brown Charlotte, “Is Hume an Internalist?Journal of the History of Philosophy, 26 (01 1, 1988): 6987, especially footnote 10, p. 74. The example comes from W. D. Falk. Brown characterizes my view as a version of internalism; the alternative is externalism. Although Brown talks in terms of the connection between the justification for a theory and a motive for following it, a different version of internalism would necessarily connect the justification and a reason for following or endorsing it.

59 Darwall , “Rational Agent,” p. 52.

60 I discuss this more fully in “Privilege, Evil, and Responsibility for Attending to the ‘Facts about Humanity,’” Journal of Social Philosophy, 35, 1 (Spring 2004): 3455, where I show the ways in which evil behaviour, particularly that rooted in privilege, reflects not attending to the facts about humanity.

61 Gauthier David, “Deterrence, Maximization, and Rationality,” Ethics, 94, 3 (04 1984), p. 436. For a similar view, see also his “Rethinking the Toxin Puzzle,” in Rational Commitment and Social Justice: Essays for Gregory Kavka, edited by Coleman Jules L. and Morris Christopher W. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 4758.

62 Gauthier , Morals by Agreement, p. 8. Gauthier is speaking specifically about the maximizing conception of rationality according to which rational action is action that maximizes the agent's utility. He believes that interests of the self, not interests in the self, form the basis of rational action. Thus, a person might have an interest in promoting another's welfare, and so would have reason to promote it. But the other's interest in having his welfare promoted does not give the person reason to promote it unless he, too, has an interest in promoting it.

63 Anderson Elizabeth defends an excellent alternative in Value in Ethics and Economics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). See also Hampton Jean, “Rethinking Reason,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 29, 3 (07 1992): 219–36.

64 Gauthier David, “Why Contractarianism?,” in Contractarianism and Rational Choice: Essays on David Gauthier's Morals by Agreement, edited by Vallentyne Peter (New York: Cambridge University Press), pp. 1530, esp. p. 17.

65 Vallentyne Peter, “Contractarianism and the Assumption of Mutual Unconcern,” in Contractarianism and Rational Choice: Essays on David Gauthier's Morals by Agreement, edited by Vallentyne Peter (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 7175, esp. p. 75.

66 See Milo Ronald D., Immorality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), for a thorough discussion of these various kinds of evil.

67 Again, see my “Privilege, Evil, and Responsibility for Attending to the ‘Facts about Humanity.’” Russ Shafer-Landau suggested (in conversation) that one kind of evil behaviour that does not exhibit inconsistency is that carried out by the terrorists in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. The terrorists failed to respect the humanity of their victims, but also failed to respect their own humanity. Kant is likely to agree, since he believes that suicide is morally wrong partly because it treats the person who commits it merely as a means to the person's own ends. Yet Kant would still say that there is an inconsistency. The suicidal person exhibits inconsistent desires: he has a desire, out of self-love, to end his life, and a desire, out of self-love to maintain his life. This inconsistency explains why he cannot will (imagine) a maxim involving suicide to be a universal law, and so why suicide is morally wrong. The terrorists, on Kant's view, are immoral and irrational.

1 I dedicate this article to the memory of my younger brother, Tom, who passed away after a valiant fight against Hodgkin's disease lasting over six years. He taught everyone who knew him never to give up in any pursuit, and to go on with life and relish its pleasures even in the face of deep sorrow.

I thank David Copp, Ann Cudd, Russ Shafer-Landau, two anonymous referees for Dialogue, and the Philosophy Department at the University of Kansas for helpful comments on versions of this article.

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