Acting for a Reason and Following a Principle


According to an influential view of practical reason and rational agency, a person acts for a reason only if she recognizes some consideration to be a reason, where this recognition motivates her to act. I call this requirement the guidance condition on acting for a reason. Despite its intuitive appeal, the guidance condition appears to generate a vicious regress. At least one proponent of the guidance condition, Christine M. Korsgaard, is sensitive to this regress worry, and her appeal in recent work to the constitutive principles of action can be seen, in part, as a response to it. I argue, however, that if we are to appeal to the constitutive principles of action to resolve the regress, then we must determine whether acting on such principles is also subject to the guidance condition. This raises a dilemma. If following these principles is subject to the guidance condition, then the regress remains unresolved. But if not, then the rationale for applying it to acting for a reason vanishes as well. I conclude that we should embrace an account of acting for a reason that rejects the guidance condition.

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  1. 1.

    The main aim of Korsgaard’s constitutivism is to ground the normativity of practical reason in the constitutive principles of willing or action. But, for Korsgaard, this aim can be satisfied only by showing how agents actively constitute themselves by acting for reasons. Thus, establishing how agents can act for reasons without generating a regress plays an important role in Korsgaard’s constitutivist account.

  2. 2.

    See Davidson (1963) for the canonical contemporary development of this model.

  3. 3.

    J. David Velleman makes a similar point and proposes a requirement similar to the guidance condition (2000, 9, 194). For reasons on which I cannot elaborate here, however, I do not think his view is vulnerable to the regress problem I describe later.

  4. 4.

    The example comes from Nagel (1970), 33–4.

  5. 5.

    The last sentence of the quoted passage—“Such an agent is guided by reason”—suggests that, for Korsgaard, being motivated by one’s recognition of some consideration as a reason is not only necessary but also sufficient for acting for a reason. It is the necessity claim that primarily concerns me, however. If a proposed necessary condition for acting for a reason cannot be satisfied without generating a vicious regress, then we must either conclude that acting for a reason is impossible or conclude that the proposed condition is not necessary after all.

  6. 6.

    See, also, related arguments by Arpaly and Schroeder (2012) for why an act of past, present, or possible deliberation cannot, on pain of regress, be required to act for a reason.

  7. 7.

    On Korsgaard’s view, these principles include the principle of instrumental reason and, ultimately, the categorical imperative (2009).

  8. 8.

    I do not mean to suggest that the regress problem Carroll illustrates is generated by a requirement to preclude “blind conditioning” but only that such a requirement—as represented by the guidance condition—generates a structurally similar regress when applied to guidance by principles. For some further discussion of the Tortoise and Achilles regress problem in practical reason, see Railton (1997) and Dreier (2001).

  9. 9.

    See Katsafanas (2013, 49), who makes a similar point.

  10. 10.

    Thanks to Adam Leite and Aleksy Tarasenko-Struc for sharing a version of this objection with me.

  11. 11.

    Notice the conditional character of this claim. I am not claiming here that we should be gripped by the worry about accidental conformity in either case.

  12. 12.

    For an enlightening discussion about how some of these concerns about guidance figure in the literature about rule-following—specifically in Wittgenstein (1973) and Kripke (1982)—see Bridges (2014).

  13. 13.

    See Railton (2004) for an outline of such an account and Arpaly (2006) for a more elaborate development of such an account.

  14. 14.

    Whether the conditions for answerability are identical to the conditions for attributability is a deeper question on which I cannot elaborate in this paper. See Shoemaker (2011) for critique of this identity thesis, a thesis he attributes to Scanlon (1998) and Smith (2005).

  15. 15.

    I argue for and elaborate on this thesis in McAninch Andrew (forthcoming) “Activity, Passivity, and Normative Avowal.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly. See also Moran’s (2001) treatment of the connection between avowal and rational agency.

  16. 16.

    Of course, the regress problem implies that no agent can meet the guidance condition on acting for a reason all the way down.


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For helpful comments and suggestions, I would like to thank audiences at the University of Pennsylvania, the 2013 APA Central Division meeting in San Francisco, and the 2012 Illinois Philosophical Association meeting in Champaign, IL. I would also like to thank the following individuals: Gary Ebbs, Adam Leite, Kate Abramson, Colin Allen, Matt Carlson, Michael Koss, Susan Blake, Blakely Phillips, Marija Jankovic, Aleksy Tarasenko-Struc, Daniel J. Singer, and Justin Bernstein.

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McAninch, A.J. Acting for a Reason and Following a Principle. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 18, 649–661 (2015).

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  • Agency
  • Constitutivism
  • Korsgaard, Christine M
  • Practical reason
  • Regress