Ethics and the Metaphysics of Action
In the Republic Socrates embarks on an argument that, as he says, ‘concerns no ordinary topic but the way we ought to live’ (352d). His aim is quite ambitious: namely to justify that we all should lead a just life and live in accordance with ethical- and moral virtue. Ethics and moral philosophy has been wrestling with this issue ever since. How, if at all, could we ground ethics and show that we all have reason to lead a morally good life? In my thesis I consider an approach to this question developed by philosophers of a certain breed—which I lump together under the category of ethical rationalism—who think that the project of grounding and justifying the normative authority of ethics and morality can be founded on the nature of practical reason and the independent standards of practical rationality. On their view one has reason to be a morally good person because that is what practical reason, when properly exercised, would recommend. Their idea is thus to capitalize on the fact that the moral subjects—i.e. the ones towards which the justification of ethics is aimed—are all agents and subject to the standards of practical rationality. They thus think that the fact that one is endowed with agency—i.e. the capacity to produce behaviour of a certain kind or to act for reasons—gives the moral philosopher enough material to show that one has reason to lead a life in accordance with morality.
However, in order to get this project flying it is crucial that one has a conception of the nature of agency, which is where my project comes into the picture. What I will do in my thesis is to investigate the metaphysics of agency and in particular the nature of human agency since it is in human beings (or agents able to act for reasons) that we find the paradigm for the kind of agency we are after. I will then assess whether (or the extent to which) there are enough resources in the nature of agency to ground ethics in the way pictured by the ethical rationalist. On my way I will consider and in the end reject two main approaches to agency—what is recognized as a practical evaluative approach and cognitivism—before I suggest an alternative approach that is trading on G.E.M. Anscombe’s notion of practical knowledge. What I suggest is a metaphysical account of human agency that trades on a primitive notion of knowledge that is distinctively practical. As I will argue, this account may explain the nature of action while avoiding the pitfalls of practical evaluationism and cognitivism. Armed with this conception of agency I will go on to consider whether the nature of practical reason and action can provide leverage for the justification of ethics and morality.