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Pains of Perseverance: Agent-Centred Prerogatives, Burdens and the Limits of Human Motivation


An important question in recent work in political philosophy concerns whether facts about individuals’ motivational deficiencies are facts to which principles of justice are sensitive. In this context, David Estlund has recently argued that the difficulties individuals’ face in motivating themselves to act do not affect the content of normative principles that apply to them. Against Estlund, the paper argues that in principle the motivational difficulties individuals face can affect the content of normative principles that apply to them. This argument is made with reference to so-called Agent-Centred Prerogatives. The paper argues that because the limits on human motivational capacities can affect the extent to which it is burdensome to do something, those limits also impact on the nature of justified Agent-Centred Prerogatives. If Agent-Centred Prerogatives to depart from a putative normative principle depend on the burdensomeness of complying with that requirement, human motivational capacities can affect which normative principles apply.

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  1. This is a substantive claim inasmuch as it suggests a legitimate consideration with respect to the content of an ACP, however it does not entail any concrete claims with respect to the burdens motivational difficulties impose. To put it another way, the argument draws a connection between motivational difficulty and burdensomeness that, if it obtains, means that motivational difficulty constrains moral norms but this is compatible with the claim that, as a matter of fact, motivational difficulty does not characteristically impose burdens.

  2. Estlund takes the example from Jackson and Pargetter (1986: 233–255).

  3. It might be thought that the Professor’s inability to do anything other than procrastinate makes his a clinical case of the sort that makes the Professor genuinely unable to do the things the putative normative principle requires. However, this inability only renders the Professor unable to refrain from procrastinating, it does not render him unable to do those things that, through concentrated mental effort, he could do if he tried to.

  4. A further thread of discussion in Estlund’s paper suggests just such a line of resistance (Estlund 2012: 230–235).

  5. For an attempt to advance our understanding in this regard see Greenawalt (1984).

  6. I am grateful to Rob Jubb for first suggesting a point along these lines.

  7. In making this point I do not presuppose that accounts of moral reprehensibility must be drawn entirely independently of failures to be motivated towards putative normative requirements but that unless further reasons beyond something’s being a failure to be motivated towards a putative normative requirement are given for a trait being morally reprehensible then the question will be begged against the view that motivational failure can sometimes be non-reprehensible in a way that can in principle ground ACP.

  8. The argument is therefore consistent with G. A. Cohen’s contention that “a principle can reflect or respond to a fact only because it is also a response to a principle that is not a response to a fact.” (Cohen 2005: 214)

  9. Notice, moreover, that motivational difficulties do not themselves make it the case that some course of action is unreasonably demanding, but do so indirectly by affecting the extent to which a course of action is burdensome. In other words, the mere fact that something is motivationally difficult does not affect its demandingness, it is the impact of that motivational difficulty on burdens of performance that does so.

  10. The thesis here does not take a view on whether or not persons can be morally bad simply in virtue of character traits as opposed to their failure to satisfy normative requirements.

  11. Such a project might be to care for children that are (perhaps biologically) their own, rather than in a capacity as a state or collective carer.

  12. I use the language of goodness/badness here as opposed to permissibility/impermissibility given that the subject here is a state of being rather than an act.


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I would like to thank the two anonymous referees at Ethical Theory and Moral Practice for very helpful comments on an earlier draft of the paper.

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Correspondence to Gideon Elford.

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Elford, G. Pains of Perseverance: Agent-Centred Prerogatives, Burdens and the Limits of Human Motivation. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 18, 501–514 (2015).

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  • Agent-centred prerogatives
  • Ideal theory
  • Justice
  • Normative principles