Good Intentions and the Road to Hell

Philosophical Explorations 20 (2):40-54 (2017)
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G.E.M. Anscombe famously remarked that an adequate philosophy of psychology was needed before we could do ethics.  Fifty years have passed, and we should now ask what significance our best theories of the psychology of agency have for moral philosophy.  My focus is on non-moral conceptions of autonomy and self-governance that emphasize the limits of deliberation -- the way in which one's cares render certain options unthinkable, one's intentions and policies filter out what is inconsistent with them, and one's resolutions function to block further reflection.  I argue that we can expect this deliberative "silencing" to lead to moral failures that occur because the morally correct option was filtered out of the agent's deliberation.  I think it follows from these conceptions of self-governance that we should be considered culpable for unwitting acts and omissions, even if they express no ill will, moral indifference, or blameworthy evaluative judgments.  The question is whether this consequence is acceptable.  Either way, the potential tradeoff between self-governance and moral attentiveness is a source of doubt about recent attempts to ground the normativity of rationality in our concern for self-governance.

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Sarah Paul
New York University, Abu Dhabi


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