Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 217–242 | Cite as

Three Conceptions of Rational Agency

  • R. Jay Wallace


Rational agency may be thought of as intentional activity that is guided by the agent's conception of what they have reason to do. The paper identifies and assesses three approaches to this phenomenon, which I call internalism, meta-internalism, and volitionalism. Internalism accounts for rational motivation by appeal to substantive desires of the agent's that are conceived as merely given; I argue that it fails to do full justice to the phenomenon of guidance by one's conception of one's reasons. Meta-internalism explains this phenomenon by postulating higher-order dispositions, consitutive of (rational) agency itself, which causally interact with the agent's normative beliefs to produce corresponding motivations to action. I show that meta-internalism comes to grief over cases of akrasia, insofar as it leaves no room for the capacity for rational guidance when agents voluntarily act at variance with their judgments about what they have reason to do. Volitionalism, I contend, improves on both internalism and meta-internalism. Its distinctive feature is the postulation of a kind of motivation that is directly subject to the agent's control, and independent of the dispositions and desires to which the agent is passively subject.

agency akrasia desire intention internal reasons practical reason reasons for action Bernard Williams 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. Jay Wallace
    • 1
  1. 1.Institut für Philosophie, Humbolt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany

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