Normative Powers, Agency, and Time

In Carla Bagnoli (ed.), Time in Action. The Temporal Structure of Rational Agency and Practical Thought. New York and London: pp. 52-72 (2022)
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Agents have powers to bring about change. Do agents have normative powers to bring about normative change directly? This chapter distinguishes between direct normative change and descriptive and institutional changes, which may indirectly be normatively significant. This article argues that agents do indeed have the powers to bring about normative change directly. It responds to a challenge claiming that all normativity is institutional and another claiming that exercises of normative powers would violate considerations of supervenience. The article also responds to a challenge - generalizing Kent Hurtig’s recent challenge about consent - which states that exercises of normative powers are valid only in cases that do not matter - they never bring about a “normative transformation” of what the agent overall ought to do. It turns out that consent is normatively transformative in some cases, but the main contribution of exercises of normative powers is at the contributory level not that of overall oughts. Invalid exercises of normative powers are void of any normative effects. Rational agents as possessors of normative powers are not merely responsive to pre-existing normative reasons, but they can also create normative reasons. A “responsive” view of rational agency sees us as being able to track existing normative reasons and make descriptive changes (on which normative changes supervene). The “creative” view of rational agency sees us as being able not only to construct institutions but also to create normative reasons directly. The chapter concludes that agents are both responsive and creative.

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Arto Laitinen
Tampere University


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