Acts, Attitudes, and Rational Choice


In this paper, I argue that we have obligations not only to perform certain actions, but also to have certain attitudes (such as desires, beliefs, and intentions), and this despite the fact that we rarely, if ever, have direct voluntary control over our attitudes. Moreover, I argue that whatever obligations we have with respect to actions derive from our obligations with respect to attitudes. More specifically, I argue that an agent is obligated to perform an action if and only if it’s the action that she would perform if she were to have the attitudes that she ought to have. This view, which I call attitudism, has three important implications. First, it implies that an adequate practical theory must not be exclusively act-orientated. That is, it must require more of us than just the performance of certain voluntary acts. Second, it implies that an adequate practical theory must be attitude-dependent. That is, it must hold that what we ought to do depends on what attitudes we ought to have. Third, it implies that no adequate practical theory can require us to perform acts that we would not perform even if we were to have the attitudes that we ought to have. I then show how these implications can help us both to address certain puzzling cases of rational choice and to understand why most typical practical theories (utilitarianism, rational egoism, virtue ethics, Rossian deontology, etc.) are mistaken.

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Douglas W. Portmore
Arizona State University


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