Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Ends to Means: A Probability-Raising Account of Means and the Weight of Reasons to Take Them

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Ends to Means: A Probability-Raising Account of Means and the Weight of Reasons to Take Them

Article excerpt

LET US SAY THAT YOUR ENDS are whatever you have ultimate (underived) reason to do or to bring about. This leaves open whether your ends are stance dependent and so "given" to you by your contingent desires, your nature as a rational being, your self-identity, etc., or whether at least some of your ends are not stance dependent and so not "given" to you in any of these ways.

So understood, it is uncontroversial that you have reason to take the means to your ends. More specifically, some reason to do or bring about an end is going to transmit to reason to take the means. Using this as a point of departure, this paper considers what it is to be a means to an end and how much reason transmits from an end to its means. The theory on offer is a probability-raising theory that says roughly this: an action is a means to an end just in case it raises the probability of the end relative to the worst one could do--i.e., relative to that action that would make the end least probable. And the amount of reason transmitted from an end to a given means is a function of the degree to which it raises the probability of the end relative to the worst one could do.

Some recent literature addresses these issues, though given the importance of means-ends relations and the ascendance of reason-based analyses of normativity the issues remain relatively underexplored. (1) My own exploration will proceed by generating plausible proposals within a certain framework and "Chisholming" to a correct analysis. Though I do not offer a comprehensive compare and contrast with other approaches in the literature, along the way I indicate some of my reservations about some of those approaches.

1. WHY PURE PROBABILITY RAISING?

Before I begin, let me briefly address some objections to a pure probability-raising approach, which aspires to offer necessary and sufficient conditions for being a means and to provide resources for modeling reason transmission. I hope I can do this in a helpful way before nailing down the best version of a probability-raising theory and answering some intramural questions within that approach.

One big-picture issue is whether probability raising of any sort is necessary for being a means. The crucial question here is whether there are means to an end that do not raise the probability of the end. In that vein, consider the following. Ann is golfing and one of her ends is to get a hole in one. If she slices the ball, intuitively that reduces the probability she will get a hole in one relative to some relevant baseline (e.g., hitting a clean shot). (2) But on this occasion, Ann gets lucky. Though her tee shot slices the ball, she hits it just so and the result is a hole in one. Arguably, this is a case in which an action (slicing the ball) is a means to an end (getting a hole in one) by virtue of causing it (/bringing it about) and despite the fact that it lowered the probability of that outcome relative to a relevant baseline. (3) If so, probability raising is not necessary, and being an action that causes, brings about or constitutes an end is sufficient for being a means.

Cases like this raise tricky issues. One question is how to demarcate an action so that we might ask of it whether it is a cause or a probability raiser or a means to an end. For instance, are we to consider whether slicing the ball is a means to the hole in one, or slicing the ball just so is a means to the hole in one? It looks like the coarse-grained action of slicing (any which way, as it were) has less claim to being a cause of the end than the more fine-grained action of slicing it just so, for there are lots of ways in which the coarse-grained action can play out and very few of them result in a hole in one, whereas the fine-grained action leaves little room for ways of doing it that do not result in a hole in one. So let us first consider a specification of the case that focuses on the fine-grained action. …

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