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The Normative Requirement of Means-End Rationality and Modest Bootstrapping


“Myth theorists” have recently called the normative requirement of means-end rationality into question. I show that we can accept certain lessons from the Myth Theorists and also salvage our intuition that there is a normative requirement of means-end rationality. I argue that any appeal to a requirement to make our attitudes coherent as such is superfluous and unnecessary in order to vindicate the requirement of means-end rationality and also avoid the problematic conclusion that persons ought to take the means to whatever ends they happen to intend.

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  1. By contrast, I fail to be 7 ft tall because I am well short of that height. My failure to be 7 ft tall is not a normative failure on my part, in the sense that will be at issue in this paper. This is because, let us suppose, I do not have any normative reason to be at least 7 ft tall or to see to it that I am.

  2. Some readers might not see this as any kind of “explanation,” because it doesn’t explain why the normative demand of the principle is binding or authoritative. That is why I referred to this as a “quick explanation”. It is important to distinguish the question of whether something is the case from the question of what makes something the case. A comparable example can show why this is important. Suppose that the basic Utilitarian principle is true or valid. That is, suppose that it is true that people ought to always do whatever act is available to them that will maximize net aggregate happiness. Now, suppose that we say that Fred does something φ that is, in his case, the action that maximizes net aggregate happiness. And, suppose also that Alfredo does something ψ that is, in his case, not the action that maximizes net aggregate happiness. One question that we can ask is: What “explains” why it is true that Fred does what he ought to do, while Alfredo does not? A “quick explanation” is given by reference to the basic Utilitarian principle (if we are supposing it is true). That is, it is true that Fred does what he ought to do because people ought to do whatever act is available to them that will maximize net aggregate happiness. Fred does that. Alfredo does not do what he ought to do, and this is also explained by reference to the principle. This kind of “quick explanation” does not explain why the Utilitarian principle is binding or authoritative. That is a separate question.

  3. See, for example, Bratman (2009b); Broome (2005a, b); Raz (Raz 2005a, b) and Schroeder (2004, 2005). I am putting aside those accounts that attempt to reduce the requirement of means-end rationality to independent demands on belief. See, for example, Broome (2009), Setiya (2007), and Wallace (2006).

  4. Not everyone seems to use ‘pro tanto’ and ‘prima facie’ in the same way, so I want to be very clear as to how I am using the terms. As I use the terms, a prima facie reason “seems like” a reason, though it may not be. I use the modifier as an epistemic modifier, and nothing more. From the fact that a particular consideration is a prima facie reason nothing at all follows regarding its status as a pro tanto reason. A pro tanto reason is a defeasible normative reason (Kagan 1991: 17).

  5. This last claim can seem to be in conflict with Raz’s own writings. He does not believe that normative requirements of rationality supercede normative demands of morality, for example. But note that this is because Raz believes that purported “requirements” of rationality, as they are typically conceived these days, are not in fact normative requirements. So he takes it that there is only a misleading and merely apparent tension.

  6. Traditionally, the Ethical Rationalist seeks to establish that this relationship also holds the other way around, given that moral reasons always outweigh reasons from other sources.

  7. This is sometimes called the “deliberative ought” and is often distinguished from the “evaluative ought” (Kolodny and MacFarlane 2010; Schroeder 2011; Wedgwood 2006).

  8. Raz sometimes seems to imply that the failure of one’s “rational capacities” might explain an instance of means-end irrationality, so one must be careful in interpreting his account. A failure of those capacities is a non-normative failure on Raz’s account (Raz 1999). We are here concerned with normative requirements on persons; requirements that persons have a normative reason to comply with. Raz agrees that some failures of a person when she is means-end irrational are normative failures on her part.

  9. This has been a point of emphasis in Kolodny’s work. I take it that Raz implies the same point, though he does not present his arguments in the same manner.

  10. Again, I am setting aside the belief complexity. It only adds to the complexity of the argument, but does not alter its substance. To see how quickly things become very complex, see Kolodny (2008b).

  11. The argument that I have just presented depends upon the simple assumption that it cannot be the case that a person simultaneously ought to φ and ought to ψ, when φ-ing and ψ-ing are mutually exclusive. Cf. (Kolodny 2008a: 382). I have benefitted from discussions with Nadeem Hussain on several points here.

  12. The argument can be recast in terms of two individuals that intend ends that they ought to intend; one of whom intends the means and one of whom does not. In that case, the fact that these individuals ought to intend their ends is sufficient to rule out abandoning their ends as a way of doing what it is that they ought to do, so that cannot be what the person who apparently is additionally failing in some way ought to be doing. That person ought to make her attitudes coherent by intending the means, possibly. But again, the only way in which each of these individuals can avoid a normative failure is by intending and taking the means to their ends. One of them does this and the other one does not. Failing to do this therefore does not represent any additional normative failure.

  13. Raz (2005b, 2011) has also argued that the wide-scope coherence-as-such methodology is false because it does not avoid the bootstrapping problem that it apparently sidesteps. I try to develop the arguments of this paper so that they are independent of that controversial issue.

  14. Strictly speaking, while the fact that you intend an end in these cases cannot affect the fact that a reason applies to you, on Raz’s account, it may be that your practical attitudes affect the strength of a reason as it applies to you.

  15. See especially pages 39 and 69 of (Raz 1975a). The view of exclusionary reasons is reiterated in Chapter 8 of (Raz 2011). Raz’s more recent work only mentions these exclusionary reasons, and no longer mentions decisions entailing first-order normative reasons to do what one has decided to do.

  16. Of course, this may come as no surprise, because Raz does not offer positive support for a normative requirement of means-end rationality.

  17. It is possible that Raz no longer believes that there is a first-order normative reason. In his latest discussion of means-end rationality, for example, Raz (2011: 162–165) reiterates his commitment to exclusionary reasons but does not even mention the previous comments about a first-order normative reason. However, in his ‘Reprise’ (2005a: 3–4), particularly with respect to his comments on Broome, Raz seems to again acknowledge something like a first-order pro tanto reason for people to do what they have decided to do.

  18. This gives some sense to the colloquial thought that “irrationality” typically has to do with a person undermining herself. Julia is also unlikely to do anything that will bring it about that she climbs Everest. But she need not be undermining herself in any way whatsoever. Rather, the common thought that we are likely to have here is that she may be perfectly rational and an exemplar of practical agency because she does not intend to do anything that will help to realize a mere desire that she has no intention to realize.

  19. For example, when one has been released from a promise, that non-normative fact (the fact constituting the release) is sufficient to make it the case that there is no residual normative demand on a person regarding the fulfillment of the promise. The normative landscape has changed, and that reason is no longer a part of it.

  20. Generally speaking, reasons for and reasons against φ-ing are distinct. This is part of what allows us to make sense of the “balancing” metaphor. Cancelling conditions relate to something specific that contributes to making into a reason the fact that is a reason and that would be cancelled. Thus, if the fact that deciding to φ makes it the case that a person has a reason to φ, then a canceling condition for the specific reason that this entails must relate to whatever is grounding the reason. We are typically not dealing with the same kind of relationship when a person ought not to do what she has decided to do as when we are dealing with a person being released from a promise, for example, which is the exemplar for cancelling. What grounds the fact that a person ought not to φ in many cases has nothing at all to do with the value of whatever would ground the reason stemming from the formation of her intention. Thus, the reason entailed by a decision to φ, if there is one, is one that would be outweighed or overridden (but not canceled) by the fact that one ought not to φ in normatively-loaded cases against φ-ing.

  21. This last fact about means follows from reasonable transmission theses from ends to necessary means and the claim that ‘oughts’ entail ‘reasons’.

  22. Recall that I am putting aside the belief element. Strictly speaking, the Argument of Superfluity is only complete if it is always the case that a person ought or ought not to intend her actually adopted end or ought not to believe what she does about realizing the end.

  23. This is one point on which the account that I am proposing is in agreement with Korsgaard’s account. Raz (2011) also makes similar comments on this point about Korsgaard’s account in particular in his revised version of the ‘The Myth’.

  24. One move that is available to a coherence-as-such proponent is to simply deny the possibility of what I have called normatively-loaded cases. This would be a considerable cost. But I have not argued against the position.

  25. In most conversations, that is, saying that someone like Caligula or Iago ‘had a reason’ would be insignificant to our conversation and divert our attention away from the real points of interest in the conversation. So we are typically unlikely to say that someone who intends something really bad ‘has a reason’ (this, a descriptive claim), and we typically ought not to say it (this, a normative claim), and these two factors can help to explain why it usually sounds very odd in our abstract philosophizing when we do say that someone like this ‘has a pro tanto reason’. On the normative claim, we would be violating what Grice (1975) called the maxim of “relation” in particular. This point was highlighted by Raz in his first book, though he did not attribute it to Grice. It has been reiterated recently by Schroeder (2005).


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I am especially grateful to Tamar Schapiro for her time and many discussions. I would also like to thank Michael Bratman, Luca Ferrero, Paul Hurley, Nadeem Hussain, and Niko Kolodny for helpful discussions. An early version of this paper was presented to an audience at the 2011 Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, and two Referees of this journal also provided valuable comments on previous drafts. Part of the research for this paper was undertaken while I was a Geballe Fellow in residence at the Stanford Humanities Center.

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Correspondence to Luis Cheng-Guajardo.

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Cheng-Guajardo, L. The Normative Requirement of Means-End Rationality and Modest Bootstrapping. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 17, 487–503 (2014).

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  • Practical rationality
  • Instrumental rationality
  • Autonomy
  • Bootstrapping