Imperative Inference and Practical Rationality

Philosophical Studies (4):1065-1090 (2021)
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Some arguments include imperative clauses. For example: ‘Buy me a drink; you can’t buy me that drink unless you go to the bar; so, go to the bar!’ How should we build a logic that predicts which of these arguments are good? Because imperatives aren’t truth apt and so don’t stand in relations of truth preservation, this technical question gives rise to a foundational one: What would be the subject matter of this logic? I argue that declaratives are used to produce beliefs, imperatives are used to produce intentions, and beliefs and intentions are subject to rational requirements. An argument will strike us as valid when anyone whose mental state satisfies the premises is rationally required to satisfy the conclusion. For example, the above argument reflects the principle that it is irrational not to intend what one takes to be the necessary means to one’s intended ends. I argue that all intuitively good patterns of imperative inference can be explained using off-the-shelf formulations of our rational requirements. I then develop a formal-semantic theory embodying this view that predicts a range of data, including free-choice effects and Ross’s paradox. The resulting theory shows one way that our aspirations to rational agency can be discerned in the patterns of our speech, and is a case study in how the philosophy of language and the philosophy of action can be mutually illuminating.

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Daniel W. Harris
Hunter College (CUNY)


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