Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

In Defense of the Wide-Scope Instrumental Principle

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

In Defense of the Wide-Scope Instrumental Principle

Article excerpt

SUPPOSE THAT WHAT I SHALL CALL the instrumental principle is true: people have reason to take the known, necessary means to the ends they intend. (1) Then it appears to follow that your intentions to pursue ends, however you arrived at them, automatically give you reasons to take certain means. This idea might seem appealing: intuitively, people who fail to take the means to their ends are in violation of the reasons for action that they have, and that is why we describe them as practically irrational. (2) But it is also deeply problematic, because it makes reasons for action too easy to come by. No reason to drink the petrol in that glass? Just adopt the bizarre intention of filling your stomach with any old liquid and suddenly you will have reason to do so! I will call this the Bootstrapping Problem. (3)

In his much-discussed paper "The Myth of Instrumental Rationality," Joseph Raz sees the Bootstrapping Problem and concludes that the instrumental principle must be false: your actual ends and intentions do not give you reasons to take the means to fulfilling them. (4) Raz's suggested alternative is, roughly speaking, the principle that you have reason to take the means to just those ends that you have undefeated reason to have. But there is an immediate difficulty with this alternative sort of proposal: it leaves unexplained the phenomenon of cleverness and its opposite. Intuitively, people who take the means to ends they have no reason to pursue (or good reason not to) seem to be rational in a certain way (a way we may call clever), while people who fail to take the means to their ends, even when they lack any good reason to have those ends, seem to display a distinctive form of irrationality (let us call them obtuse). If the instrumental principle is false and only Raz's alternative principle is true, then we seem to have no grounds for saying that clever people do any better at following the reasons they have than obtuse people do. So how are we to explain the intuition that it is more rational to be clever than to be obtuse?

We face an apparent dilemma: If we say that you have reason to take the means to the ends you actually have, the Bootstrapping Problem threatens. If we say instead that you have reason to take the means just to ends you should have, there seems to be no room left for explaining what is rational about good means-end reasoning to bad ends: the rationality of cleverness. (5)

I advocate a scope distinction that promises to rescue the instrumental principle from the Bootstrapping Problem. According to the proponents of the wide-scope reasons approach with whom I agree, the instrumental principle is ambiguous because the deontic ("reason") operator in it can take either wide or narrow scope with respect to an implicit conditional (I will explain this more fully below, in section 1).The instrumental principle is held to be true only on the reading in which the deontic operator takes wide scope with respect to the conditional. But this reading is not the one that entails reasons of the kind that raise the Bootstrapping Problem. (6)

Most of this paper is taken up defending the wide-scope reasons approach against an objection Raz makes to it in "The Myth of Instrumental Rationality." Raz claims there that the Bootstrapping Problem arises even on the wide-scope reason approach: on both available readings of the instrumental principle, he argues, it entails that our intending an irrational end always gives us a reason to take the means to it (I will expound his argument in sections 2-4). I will argue (in sections 5-7) that Raz's argument only looks plausible due to a natural but rather serious misunderstanding of a certain class of wide-scope reason claims--namely, claims of the form "S has a reason to p or to q."

My argument clarifies and resolves an important debate between Raz and John Broome. Broome has raised a separate objection to Raz's argument which is not obviously successful because it relies heavily on intuitions about which reasons we have in particular cases. …

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