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Rational Planning Agency 1

  • Michael E. Bratman (a1)


Our planning agency contributes to our lives in fundamental ways. Prior partial plans settle practical questions about the future. They thereby pose problems of means, filter solutions to those problems, and guide action. This plan-infused background frames our practical thinking in ways that cohere with our resource limits and help organize our lives, both over time and socially. And these forms of practical thinking involve guidance by norms of plan rationality, including norms of plan consistency, means-end coherence, and stability over time.

But why are these norms of rationality? Would these norms be stable under a planning agent's reflection? I try to answer these questions in a way that responds to a skeptical challenge. While I highlight pragmatic reasons for being a planning agent, these need to be supplemented fully to explain the force of these norms in the particular case. I argue that the needed further rationale appeals to the idea that these norms track certain conditions of a planning agent's self-governance, both at a time and over time. With respect to diachronic plan rationality, this approach leads to a modest plan conservatism.


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This is a substantially revised version of my talk at the Royal Institute of Philosophy in October 2015. A version of this essay was presented at the April 2016 Conference on Practical Reason and Meta-Ethics at the University of Nebraska.  The ideas in this essay are developed in more detail in my 2016 Pufendorf Lectures, delivered at Lund University in June 2016. (See



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2 For this way of formulating a norm of agglomerativity see Yaffe, Gideon, ‘Trying, Intending and Attempted Crimes’, Philosophical Topics 32 (2004), 505–32, 510–12.

3 For a more precise formulation see my Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason (Harvard University Press, 1987; reissued CSLI Publications, 1999), 31 .

4 Bratman, Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason.

5 This is the structure of the video games example I discuss in Chapter 8 of Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason.

6 An early version of this challenge is in McCann, Hugh, ‘Settled Objectives and Rational Constraints’, American Philosophical Quarterly 28 (1991), 2536 .  It is developed further in Raz, Joseph, ‘The Myth of Instrumental Rationality’, Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 1(1) (2005) and in Kolodny, Niko, ‘The Myth of Practical Consistency’, European Journal of Philosophy 16 (2008), 366402 .  Talk of ‘psychic tidiness’ is from Kolodny, Niko, ‘How Does Coherence Matter?Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 107 (2007), 229–63, 241.  The worry about being ‘fetishistic’ is from Kolodny, ‘Why Be Rational?Mind 114 (2005), 509–63, 547.

7 Cp. Christine Korsgaard: ‘If the problem is that morality might not survive reflection, then the solution is that it might’ – though my concern here is not with morality but with basic plan-theoretic norms. See Korsgaard, Christine, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 49 .

8 This is to some extent in the spirit of Kolodny, Niko, ‘Reply to Bridges’, Mind 118 (2009), 369376 .

9 My hope is thereby also to respond further to trenchant challenges to my earlier treatments of these issues in Velleman, J. David, ‘What Good Is a Will?’ in Vargas, Manuel and Yaffe, Gideon (eds), Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman  (Oxford University Press, 2014), 83105 , and in Kieran Setiya, ‘Intention, Plans, and Ethical Rationalism’ in Vargas and Yaffe, (eds), Rational and Social Agency,  56–82.

10 See Bratman, Michael E., ‘Intention, Belief, Practical, Theoretical’, in Robertson, Simon (ed.), Spheres of Reason: New Essays on the Philosophy of Normativity (Oxford University Press, 2009), 2961 ; and Intention, Belief and Instrumental Rationality’, in Sobel, David and Wall, Steven (eds), Reasons for Action  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 1336 .

11 An idea built into the strategy of creature construction in Grice, H.P., ‘Method in Philosophical Psychology (From the Banal to the Bizarre)’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 48 (1974), 2353 .  And see my ‘Valuing and the Will’, as reprinted in Bratman, Michael E., Structures of Agency: Essays (Oxford University Press, 2007), 4767 ; and Morton, Jennifer, ‘Toward an Ecological Theory of the Norms of Practical Deliberation’, European Journal of Philosophy 19 (2011), 561584 .

12 For helpful discussion of related issues see Luca Ferrero, ‘Inescapability Revisited’, unpublished manuscript, April 2016, section 6.

13 Incoherence and Irrationality’, as reprinted in Davidson, Donald, Problems of Rationality (Oxford University Press, 2004), 189–98, 196–7.

14 Niko Kolodny makes this point in his ‘The Myth of Practical Consistency’, 386.

15 Smart, J.J.C., ‘Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism’, in Foot, Philippa (ed.), Theories of Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1967), 171–83.

16 Harman, Gilbert, Change in View: Principles of Reasoning (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 9 .  Harman is here focusing on what he calls principles of reasoning, whereas our focus is on principles of plan rationality.  We can nevertheless apply the spirit of Harman's comments to our concerns about plan rationality. This is also to some extent in the spirit of Nadeem Hussain's emphasis on a strategy of reflective equilibrium in his ‘The Requirements of Rationality’, vers 2.4. (unpublished manuscript, Stanford University), though Hussain would not be sympathetic to what I later call the reason desideratum.

17 For this broad issue see Broome, John, Rationality Through Reasoning (Wiley Blackwell, 2013), ch. 11.  Broome, however, does not work with the model of normative reasons to which I turn in the next paragraph. Further, talk of a ‘systematically present’ reason is mine, not Broome's; and I will have more to say about this idea below.

18 A classic source of this idea is Williams, Bernard, ‘Internal and External Reasons’, in his Moral Luck (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 101113 .  My formulation follows, with important adjustment, Schroeder, Mark, Slaves of the Passions (Oxford University Press, 2007), 59 .

19 Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason, 82.

20 See Holton, Richard, Willing, Wanting, Waiting (Oxford: Clarendon, 2009).   And see my Toxin, Temptation, and the Stability of Intention’, as reprinted in my Faces of Intention (Cambridge University Press, 1999), and my Temptation and the Agent's Standpoint’, Inquiry 57 (2014), 293310 .

21 For Paul's approach to these matters see her Doxastic Self-Control’, American Philosophical Quarterly 52 (2015), 145158 , and her Diachronic Incontinence is a Problem in Moral Philosophy’, Inquiry 57 (2014), 337355 .  For a discussion of related phenomena see Jennifer Morton and Sarah Paul, ‘Grit’, (unpublished).

22 See Tenenbaum, Sergio and Raffman, Diana, ‘Vague Projects and the Puzzle of the Self-Torturer’, Ethics 123 (2012), 86112 , esp. section III.

23 A related idea is in Copp, David, ‘The Normativity of Self-Grounded Reason’, in his Morality in a Natural World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 309–53, 351.  A somewhat related idea is Kenneth Stalzer's thought that a violation of these norms is a breakdown in ‘self-fidelity’. See his On the Normativity of the Instrumental Principle (Ph.D. Thesis, Stanford University, 2004), ch. 5.

24 J. David Velleman sees the constitutive aim of action as self-intelligibility. However, I take it that on his account this constitutive aim is, in effect, an aim of autonomy. See Velleman, J. David, How We Get Along (Cambridge University Press, 2009), chapter 5, esp. 131–5. See also 26–27. (In his The Possibility of Practical Reason’, in his The Possibility of Practical Reason (Oxford University Press, 2000), 170199, 193, Velleman appeals explicitly to a constitutive aim of ‘autonomy’ and notes the continuity of that appeal with his account in his Practical Reflection (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989).)

25 Thanks to Jon Barwise and John Perry (in conversation) for this apt term.

26 ‘Normativity, Commitment, and Instrumental Reason’, as re-printed in Wallace, R. Jay, Normativity and the Will (Oxford University Press, 2006), 82120, 91.

27 Frankfurt, Harry, ‘Identification and Wholeheartedness’, as reprinted in Frankfurt, Harry, The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge University Press, 1988), 159–76, 166.  And see also Watson, Gary, ‘Free Agency’, The Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975), 205220, 216.

28 E.g. Styron, William, Sophie's Choice (Random House, 1979).

29 For a distinction between local and global rationality see Smith, Michael, ‘The Structure of Orthonomy’, in Hyman, John and Steward, Helen (eds), Agency and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 165–93, 190.

30 See my Three Theories of Self-Governance’ as reprinted in my Structures of Agency (Oxford University Press, 2007), 222253 , and my ‘A Planning Theory of Self-Governance: Reply to Franklin’, Philosophical Explorations (forthcoming).  For a deep challenge see Elijah Millgram, ‘Segmented Agency’, in Vargas and Yaffe (eds), Rational and Social Agency, 152–89.

31 See Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason, 38–9.  Carlos Núñez develops a forceful challenge to a prohibition on intention-belief inconsistency. See Núñez, Carlos, The Will and Normative Judgment (Stanford University PhD Thesis, 2016).

32 I note this complexity in my Intention, Practical Rationality, and Self-Governance’, Ethics 119 (2009), 411443 at note 7.  It is the target of an extended discussion in Shpall, Sam, ‘The Calendar Paradox’, Philosophical Studies 173 (2016), 801825 .

33 In asking this question here I continue with my strategy of postponing the question whether there is, systematically, a reason that favors conformity with these norms.

34 This is the focus of my ‘A Planning Agent's Self-Governance Over Time’ (unpublished).

35 Given the hierarchical structure of plans, there can be such interconnections at a higher level despite a breakdown in interconnection at a lower level.  If the lower level breakdown in interconnections is grounded in a sensible reassessment of lower-level plans, perhaps in light of new information, the higher-level interconnections will, in the context, normally support a judgment of diachronic self-governance.   But in some cases a more complex judgment about the extent of diachronic self-governance will be apt.

36 Bratman, Michael E., Shared Agency: A Planning Theory of Acting Together (Oxford University Press, 2014). I defend this analogy in my ‘A Planning Agent's Self-Governance Over Time’.

37 For ideas broadly in this spirit see Sobel, Jordon Howard, ‘Useful Intentions’, in his Taking Chances: Essays on Rational Choice (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 237254 , and Rabinowicz, Wlodek, ‘To Have One's Cake and Eat It Too:  Sequential Choice and Expected-Utility Violations’, Journal of Philosophy 92 (1995), 586620 .

38 Velleman, J. David, ‘The Centered Self’, in his Self to Self (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 253283, 272.

39 A full story would also appeal to the agent's expected regret at giving into temptation, but I put that aside here.  See my ‘Toxin, Temptation, and the Stability of Intention’.

40 For a seminal discussion of the case of Abraham and Isaac, see Broome, John, ‘Are Intentions Reasons? And How Should We Cope with Incommensurable Values?’ in Morris, Christopher W. and Ripstein, Arthur (eds), Practical Rationality and Preference: Essays for David Gauthier (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 98120 , esp. 114–119.  My earlier discussion of such cases is in Bratman, Michael E., ‘Time, Rationality, and Self-Governance’, Philosophical Issues 22 (2012), 7388 .

41 Sartre, Jean-Paul, ‘Existentialism Is a Humanism’, in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Kaufmann, Walter. rev. and expanded. (New York: Meridian/Penguin, 1975), 345–69.

42 This is to disagree with the Sartrean theme of the total inefficacy of the past resolution’. Being and Nothingness (Barnes, Hazel translation) (New York: Washington Square Press, 1984), 70 .

43 I take it that concerns with trivial cases, tragic cases, and preface-analogue cases do not apply here; so we can express REDSG without the appeal to defeasibility that appears in our earlier principles.

44 This is an argument for rational pressure in favor of a certain end, given capacities for planning agency and diachronic self-governance; it is not an argument for rational pressure in favor of the introduction of a new basic capacity.

45 A point made by Gideon Yaffe.

46 See Bratman, Michael E., ‘Intention, Practical Rationality, and Self-Governance’, Ethics 119 (2009). I here put aside complexities about this inference.  For an insightful overview of related issues, see Kiesewetter, Benjamin, ‘Instrumental Normativity: In Defense of the Transmission Principle’, Ethics 125 (2015), 921–46 (though Kiesewetter focuses on the transmission of what he calls the deliberative ‘ought’, whereas the issue here is the transmission of normative reasons).

47 I take it that the value of X does not by itself induce even pro tanto rational pressure to have the end of X: there are too many goods and, in our finite lives, not enough time.

48 This is where my talk, in my formulation of the reason desideratum, of a ‘systematically present’ reason is doing important work.

49 Many thanks to audiences at the Royal Institute of Philosophy, the University of Nebraska, and Lund University, and to participants in my winter 2016 seminar on plan rationality at Stanford University. Special thanks to: Ron Aboodi, Facundo Alonso, Gunnar Björnsson, Olle Blomberg, John Broome, David Copp, Jorah Dannenberg, Luca Ferrero, Amanda Greene, Carlos Núñez, Herlinde Pauer-Studer, Sarah Paul, Björn Petersson, David Plunkett, Johanna Thoma, Han van Wietmarschen, Gideon Yaffe, and an anonymous reviewer.

1 This is a substantially revised version of my talk at the Royal Institute of Philosophy in October 2015. A version of this essay was presented at the April 2016 Conference on Practical Reason and Meta-Ethics at the University of Nebraska.  The ideas in this essay are developed in more detail in my 2016 Pufendorf Lectures, delivered at Lund University in June 2016. (See


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