A niggle at Nagel: causally active desires and the explanation of action

In Constantine Sandis (ed.), New essays on the explanation of action. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan. pp. 220--40 (2009)
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This paper criticizes an influential argument from Thomas Nagel’s THE POSSIBILTIY OF ALTRUISM, an argument that plays a foundational role in the philosophies of (at least) Philippa Foot, John McDowell and Jonathan Dancy. Nagel purports to prove that a person can be can be motivated to perform X by the belief that X is likely to bring about Y, without a causally active or biffy desire for Y. If Cullity and Gaut are to be believed (ETHICS AND PRACTICAL REASONING) this is widely regarded within the practical reasoning industry as an established fact. My thesis is a simple one. Nagel’s argument is an abject failure and the philosophies that are founded on it are built upon sand. There is a little bit of rather amateurish X-Phi at the end, but I don’t want readers to get too excited about this as it is essentially icing on the cake. This paper is not primarily an exercise in Experimental Philosophy but in Baby Logic, and it’s central thesis is a logical one, namely that Nagel (to put the point politely) fails to prove his thesis.

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Charles R. Pigden
University of Otago


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