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McNaughton and Rawling on the Agent-relative/Agent-neutral Distinction

  • Douglas W Portmore (a1)

In this paper, I criticize David McNaughton and Piers Rawling's formalization of the agent-relative/agent-neutral distinction. I argue that their formalization is unable to accommodate an important ethical distinction between two types of conditional obligations. I then suggest a way of revising their formalization so as to fix the problem.

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1 This distinction comes from Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, 1984, pp. 27 and 129.

2 Both constraints and special obligations limit an agent's freedom to pursue the best overall state of affairs (i.e., the best state of affairs from an impersonal standpoint). Constraints prohibit the commission of certain act-types (e.g., murder) even for the sake of preventing numerous others from committing comparable instances of that act-type. Special obligations are duties specific to an individual given her particular circumstances and history. These include duties arising out of past acts (e.g., the duty to keep one's promises) and also those duties that come with occupying certain roles (e.g., professional duties and familial obligations). In contrast to both constraints and special obligations, options do not prohibit an agent from doing what will produce the best overall state of affairs. Options provide agents with the choice of either safeguarding their own interests or sacrificing those interests for the sake of the impersonal good. In the case of options, agents are permitted to perform a sub-optimal act even where that act does not involve the violation of either a constraint or a special obligation. All three (options, constraints, and special obligations) have an agent-relative component and thus cannot be accommodated by an agent-neutral theory. (The above is meant only to be a brief sketch of the three basic features of common-sense morality. For a more thorough and illuminating account, see Kagan's ShellyThe Limits of Morality, Oxford, 1989 and The Structure of Normative Ethics’, Philosophical Perspectives, vi, Ethics (1992).

3 See Nozick Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York, 1974, pp. 2833.

4 In Value and Agent-relative Reasons’, Utilitas, vii (1995), esp. 34.

5 See McNaughton D. and Rawling P., ‘Deontology and Agency’, Monist, lxxvi (1993), 84.

6 See their Agent-relativity and the Doing-happening Distinction’, Philosophical Studies, lxiii (1991).

7 They state this in an unpublished paper entitled ‘On Conditional Rules’.

9 This caveat is necessary, because otherwise it would be possible to substitute the conjunction of (x)(Fx → xR[φ]) and (x)(∼Fx → xR[φ]) for its equivalent (x)(xR[φ]) when listing a theory's aims. And if ‘φ’ does not contain an occurrence of ‘x’, then a theory which had (x)(xR[φ]) as its sole aim could come out either agent-neutral or agent-relative depending on whether the theory's aims were listed singly as (x)(xR[φ]) or conjunctively as (x)(Fx → xR[φ]) and (x)(∼Fx → xR[φ]). I thank Matthew Hanser for bringing this problem to my attention.

10 In form 2, the contents inside the brackets of the antecedent do not have to be the same as the contents inside the brackets of the consequent.

11 I prefer my ‘xR[]’ to McNaughton and Rawling's ‘xS[…]’, because ‘xS[]’ does not allow for an agent to omit doing her duty in order to do a supererogatory act instead. Consider that if, on the way to a meeting that I promised to attend, I come across the scene of a car accident in which one of the victims is in desperate need of a kidney transplant, I can skip the meeting and instead rush to the hospital and serve as a kidney donor. Of course, I have no duty to serve as a kidney donor, and I do have a duty to keep my promises. Yet, it is surely permissible for me to break my promise in order to save this stranger's life. But if we use ‘xS[]’ to capture the obligation that I have to keep my promises, it will turn out to be impermissible to do so. For ‘(x)(xS[x keeps x's promises])’ stands for ‘x should ensure, to the best of x's abilities, and in so far as there is no conflicting duty of greater weight, that x keeps x's promises’, and, in this case, there is no conflicting duty at all, let alone one of greater weight, for donating my kidney is completely supererogatory. (This example is borrowed from Kamm Frances, Morality, Mortality, vol. ii, Oxford, 1996, pp. 313–15.)

12 I have Piers Rawling to thank for this example.

13 I would like to thank David McNaughton and Piers Rawling for a helpful discussion of this issue via e-mail. And I would like to especially thank Piers Rawling for helpful comments and criticisms on an earlier draft of this paper.

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
  • URL: /core/journals/utilitas
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