Categorically Rational Preferences and the Structure of Morality

In Peter Danielson (ed.), Modeling Rationality, Morality and Evolution; Vancouver Studies in Cognitive Science, Volume 7. Oxford University Press (1998)
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David Gauthier suggested that all genuine moral problems are Prisoners Dilemmas (PDs), and that the morally and rationally required solution to a PD is to co-operate. I say there are four other forms of moral problem, each a different way of agents failing to be in PDs because of the agents’ preferences. This occurs when agents have preferences that are malevolent, self-enslaving, stingy, or bullying. I then analyze preferences as reasons for action, claiming that this means they must not target the impossible, they must be able to be acted on in the circumstances, their targets must be attainable, and having the preferences must make their targets more likely. For groups of agents to have a distribution of preferences, their preferences must jointly have those four features, this imposing a kind of universalizability requirement on possible preferences. I then claim that, if all agents began with preferences satisfying these requirements, their preferences would not be of the morally problematic sort (on pain, variously, of circularity or contradiction in the specification of their targets). Instead, they would be either morally innocent preferences, or ones which put the agents in PDs. And it would then be instrumentally rational for the agents to prefer mutual co-operation. Thus if all agents initially had rationally permissible preferences and made rational choices of actions and preferences thereafter, they would never acquire immoral preferences, and so never be rationally moved to immoral actions. Further, the states of affairs such agents would be moved to bring about would be compatible with what Rawls’ agents would chose behind a veil of ignorance. Morality therefore reduces to rationality; necessarily, the actions categorically required by morality are also categorically required by rationality.

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Duncan MacIntosh
Dalhousie University


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