Acts, Attitudes, and Rational Control


I argue that when determining whether an agent ought to perform an act, we should not hold fixed the fact that she’s going to form certain attitudes (and, here, I’m concerned with only reasons-responsive attitudes such as beliefs, desires, and intentions). For, as I argue, agents have, in the relevant sense, just as much control over which attitudes they form as which acts they perform. This is important because what effect an act will have on the world depends not only on which acts the agent will simultaneously and subsequently perform, but also on which attitudes she will simultaneously and subsequently form. And this all leads me to adopt a new type of practical theory, which I call rational possibilism. On this theory, we first evaluate the entire set of things over which the agent exerts control, where this includes the formation of certain attitudes as well as the performance of certain acts. And, then, we evaluate individual acts as being permissible if and only if, and because, there is such a set that is itself permissible and that includes that act as a proper part. Importantly, this theory has two unusual features. First, it is not exclusively act-orientated, for it requires more from us than just the performance of certain voluntary acts. It requires, in addition, that we involuntarily form certain attitudes. Second, it is attitude-dependent in that it holds that which acts we’re required to perform depends on which attitudes we’re required to form. I then show how these two features can help us both to address certain puzzling cases of rational choice and to understand why most typical practical theories (utilitarianism, virtue ethics, rational egoism, Rossian deontology, etc.) are problematic.

Author's Profile

Douglas W. Portmore
Arizona State University


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