The Act Itself

The Act Itself

The Act Itself

The Act Itself

Synopsis

The Act Itself offers a deeper understanding of what is going on in our own moral thoughts about human behaviour. Many of the descriptions of behaviour on which our moral thoughts are based are confused; others may be free of confusion, but still we are not clear in our minds about what thoughts they are. That it would hurt her, it would be disloyal, it wouldn't be done with that intention, it would be dangerous, it would involve allowing harm but not producing it - thoughts like these support our moral judgements and thus guide our lives. In so far as we do not deeply understand them, this is a kind of servitude. As Locke said, 'He is the most enslaved who is so in his understanding.' This book presents conceptual analysis as a means to getting more control of our thoughts and thus of our lives.

Excerpt

Moral theorists distinguish the consequences of an act from the act itself, a distinction which is supposed to define the ongoing fight between consequentialism and deontological moralities. Although this book will contain arguments for something like consequentialism, my main concern is not to take sides in that debate but rather to clarify the terms in which it is defined and conducted. I want to offer help in thinking more clearly and sharply about some aspects of human conduct, including the helpful proposal that the concept of 'the act itself' be dropped entirely.

My work in this area, which started nearly thirty years ago, began to accelerate in about 1980 and eventually reached a snail's pace. The themes in this book overlap the materials of several graduate courses, two Summer Seminars for College Teachers under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and two sets of formal lectures--the Tanner Lectures on Human Value (Brasenose College, Oxford, 1980) and the John Locke Lectures (University of Oxford, 1902). I warmly thank all three of the above-named institutions for their support and help, and All Souls College for its hospitality in the Trinity Terms of 1991 and 1992. For a year's research leave in 1991 I owe thanks to Syracuse University and, again, to the NEH.

Down the years I have taken on a great burden of intellectual debt to people who have questioned, challenged, argued back, and in other ways helped me to think. Those of whom I have record are Robert Adams, Simon Blackburn, John Broome, Ruth Chang, G. A. Cohen, Andrew Cortens, Ann Davis, Alan Donagan, Philippa Foot, James Griffin, R. M. Hare, Gilbert Harman, Dale Holmes, Jennifer Hornsby, James Hudson, Joel Kidder, Steven Lee, David Lewis, Judith Lichtenberg, Joseph Lombardi, Thomas Loughran, Thomas McKay, Penelope Mackie, Alastair Norcross, Eric Olson, Michael Pritchard, Peter Remnant, Andrew Simester, Thomas M. Scanlon, Jonathan Schonsheck, William Shaw, Michael Stocker, Steven Sverdlik, Richard Swinburne, Michael Tanner, Laurence Thomas, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Henry West, Rick Wiley, Susan Wolf, and Naomi Zack. I am deeply grateful to all of these friends, and apologetic to others-- there must be some--who should be on the list.

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