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Actions, Reasons and Values (PH351-15)

This module is not running in 2015-16.

Programme content

The central theme of this module will be the nature of intentional action. We will start by looking in some detail at Elizabeth Anscombe’s groundbreaking work Intention, in particular at her version of the idea that acting intentionally is a matter of acting for reasons. We will then focus on two related sets of issues raised by that idea:

  1. What is a practical reason? What has to be the case for someone to have a reason to do something? Do reasons essentially depend on the agent’s (unreasoned) desires — is reason, as Hume maintained, a ‘slave of the passions’? Or are reasons generated by our autonomous choices? Or are they provided by plain evaluative truths about the world (e.g. that a certain activity or outcome would be valuable in some way)? We’ll approach these issues via Bernard Williams’s famous article ‘Internal and external reasons’, and we’ll discuss some more work on the nature of practical reasons and reasoning.
  2. We think about reasons not only in the context of deliberating on what to do, but also in the context of explaining why people do things. This can seem puzzling. Practical reasons are normative — they tell us what we ought to do. How can they help to explain the occurrence of an action? As Jonathan Dancy has argued, it’s natural to think that practical reasons themselves can indeed be explanatory; we do, after all, sometimes seem to manage to do things for good reasons. But how should this idea be understood? And is Dancy’s point compatible with Davidson’s influential argument (in his ‘Actions, reasons, and causes’) that only causal explanations can make it intelligible why someone acted in a certain way?

Topics covered

The following is a list of topics for this module in the 2013/14 academic year; precise seminar content may change from year to year.

  • Anscombe (1): Intentions and Intentional Action

  • Anscombe (2): Practical Reasoning

  • Anscombe (3): Practical Knowledge

  • Davidson: Reason Explanation

  • Williams: Reasons and Motivation

  • Bratman: Intentions and Plans

  • Is instrumental rationality a myth?
  • Reasons: facts or mental states?
  • Agency
Timing and CATS

This module runs in the Autumn Term and is worth 15 CATS.