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Ethics 101: Reasons to Be Good


Foreword

Questions like “Why be moral?” or “What do we mean when we say something or someone is morally bad?” have been protractedly debated within the philosophical tradition. This series gives an overview of the traditional and contemporary discussion on the topic of Ethics and morality by focusing on the philosophical foundations of the moral phenomenon and the most relevant schools of thought trying to answer the question: “What should I do?”. Whether in assessing other people’s actions or our own, moral questions are part of our daily lives; their answers shape how we behave and expect others to behave. Thus, giving a philosophical and systematic answer to these questions gains relevance beyond the mere sphere of academic circles. The series explores how the moral question is not just about “good” or “bad” but also about what type of life we want to live and how we advocate for a world that reflects such life choices. The articles will present arguments for and against different schools of thought, showing different ways of behaving and thinking in everyday life according to those theories. Readers are expected to interiorize terminology and the conceptual depth of the development of ethical theory.


Ethics 101 is divided into six articles:


Ethics 101: Reasons to Be Good.

Ethics 101: Follow the Rules.

Ethics 101: It Is All about the Consequences.

Ethics 101: Virtue over Goodness.

Ethics 101: Are We More Moral Than Before?


Ethics 101: Reasons to Be Good


The way in which we rationalize our actions has been a philosophical concern since antiquity. Few concepts are as relevant in the discussion of morality as the one of practical reason. Originally introduced by the Greeks, the idea of practical reason is linked to two elemental dimensions of the human experience, i.e. rationality and morality. Thus, the idea of practical reason is the one that, thanks to our rational capabilities, we are able to discern and reach the proper conclusions that guide our conduct and action in order to reach the desired outcome. One of the main questions that encapsulate the role of practical reason is “What should I do?” a question that philosophically relates to our modes of living and our understanding of what is “good.” Practical reason, then, arises as a concept that takes us to achieve this “good life” in view of our values and the actions regarded as virtuous. This article aims to give a brief description of the philosophical meaning of practical reason. Later, two of the main views that explain the workings of practical reason will be presented. They tell us how relevant its use is for the motivation towards moral action. Following this exposition, the final part of the essay will present a recent view developed that tries to answer the question “What constitutes good reasoning?” aiming to give an account of the criteria to adopt in order to discern proper from improper reasoning.



The Triumph of Virtue Over Vice
Figure 1: "The Triumph of Virtue Over Vice" (Veronese, 1554-1556).


What is Practical Reason?

Practical reason encompasses the overall human ability to address the question of how one should act. As presented by R. Jay Wallace (2020), this form of deliberation is practical in two key aspects. Firstly, it pertains to actions, making it practical in its subject matter. Secondly, its practicality extends to its outcomes, as reflection on actions directly prompts individuals to take action. The philosophical challenges arising from our capacity for deliberative self-determination can be categorized in two ways. First, questions arise regarding the nature, scope, and form of practical reason. This difficulty could be encapsulated in the question: How should rational deliberation be for it to be practical? The answer to this question relates to the structure and content of practical reason. The second challenge can be summarised in the question: What norms for action bind us as agents? Which pays attention to moral norms' conditions to our practical reasoning.


The concept of practical reason has been developed since the ancient Greeks, as Josiah Ober (2022) presents, and it could be regarded as one of ancient Western history's most relevant intellectual discoveries. Ober presents that the initial formulation of practical reasoning, predating Aristotle, was a significant revelation for the Greeks. This concept centered around the idea of achieving goals through means, had tangible effects in the real world and was promptly acknowledged by various figures such as poets, historians, and philosophers, including Aristotle. This aspect represents a neglected segment in the classical thought timeline, as the theorization of rationality served as a deliberate use of reason in the pursuit of goals and objectives (Ober, 2022, p. 2). From this perspective, an assessment of the Aristotelian concept of practical reason is due, as it has served as a source of inspiration and philosophical debate.



Aristotle, Luca Giordano, 1653
Figure 2: "Aristotle" (Giordano, 1653).


Aristotle elaborated the concept of practical reason extensively in his philosophical works, notably in the Nicomachean Ethics. According to him, practical reason, or phronesis, is the rational capability that empowers individuals to contemplate and make well-founded judgments regarding morally virtuous actions and the pursuit of the good life. Like many philosophers after and before him, Aristotle, in Books VI and VII of his Nicomachean Ethics, drew a distinction between theoretical reason (episteme), dealing with abstract and universal knowledge, and practical reason, which focused on the practical and specific aspects of human conduct. Practical reason involves the capacity to discern the morally right course of action in particular situations. He underscored the significance of virtue (arete) in practical reason, asserting that virtuous actions align with the mean between excess and deficiency. He believed that individuals could develop practical wisdom through experience, education, and habituation, leading to a life characterized by virtue and flourishing. In his work, Aristotle says:


All men, then, seem somehow to divine that this kind of state is virtue, namely, that which is in accordance with practical wisdom. But we must go a little further. For it is not merely the state in accordance with correct reason, but the state that implies the presence of correct 25 reason, that is virtue; and practical wisdom is correct reason about such matters (Nichomachean Ethics Ch. VII 13, 20-25).

The concept elaborated by Aristotle has at its core the idea that there is a proper, rational way of acting. The capacity for deliberation in producing a good action is that of practical reason, which involves elements of rationality, values, and action. In what follows, two accounts of practical reason will be presented. How they attempt to answer the questions about the concept’s nature and content will be shown.



Wisdom, Titian, 1560
Figure 3: "Wisdom" (Titian, 1560).


Accounts of Practical Reason

Neo-Humeanism

The first account of practical reason to be reviewed is the neo-Humean account. It derives from David Hume's writings, especially his work Treatise of Human Nature. It presents one of the strongest philosophical positions in the discussion about human action and moral theory. In his work, Hume claimed that our beliefs and actions are more influenced by our sentiments and emotions than by pure reason. According to him, moral judgments are rooted in sentiments, such as approval or disapproval, rather than being the result of a rational deduction from objective principles. In the Treatise, he says that

[...] reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will [...] it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will (Treatise, 2.3.3).

Additionally, he argued that moral distinctions are based on feelings and that reason serves the purpose of guiding us in achieving our desires rather than determining those desires themselves. From this theory, a new form of understanding practical reason arose that has desires, or passions, as a necessary precondition for action and, henceforth, moral action.


As mentioned above, to capture the full idea of a theory of practical reason, one must typically associate it with a theory about human action. A neo-humean account of action, as emphasized by Peter Railton (2007), involves some of the basic ideas presented by Hume. Action, Railton argues, are


behaviors suitably caused by an intention, which is understood to involve, at a minimum, a belief-desire pair (Railton, 2007, p. 266).

The explanation of action, for example, the one of standing up from her desk and going to her kitchen to get a cup of coffee, is grounded in the preexistence of a belief and a desire or a set of these. In the case of this example, the action of intentionally going to the kitchen to get coffee is the reflection of the desire to drink coffee and the belief that, in her kitchen, she can find it. These two necessary elements serve as a causal-psychological explanation of the action as they give origin to the intention that causes it. The necessity of both the belief and the desire could be more easily understood if one thinks of the example without one of these preexisting elements. The belief alone that there is coffee in the kitchen cannot explain the intention leading to the action of standing up and going to the kitchen. Likewise, the desire to drink coffee cannot be explained since the intention of going to the kitchen would not have arisen if she did not believe it was there where she could find the coffee.



Accommodations of Desire, Dali, 1929
Figure 4: "Accommodations of Desire" (Dalí, 1929).


The double condition of belief and desire helps us understand the rationale behind actions. The difference between one and the other is the relationship they hold with the world. Beliefs represent the world; therefore, they can be true or false. Following the previous example, the belief that in one's kitchen, there is coffee represents a world in which a certain state of affairs is the case, i.e., there is coffee in the kitchen. On the other hand, desires do not represent the world but move us to bring the world into accord with them (Railton, 2007, p. 268). If one has the desire to drink coffee, one will eventually act in a way in which such desire becomes reality. Thus, actions are explained based on the causal connection between desires, beliefs, and the resulting intention leading to action. It is important to note that the correctness of this rationale could be understood in two ways. First, one can assess as “correct” the action of standing up and going to the kitchen if such an intention is conducive to the action that fulfills my desire to drink coffee. In this sense, the correctness of the action is the proper outcome based on my belief and preexistent desire. A contrary case would be that, based on the same previous belief and desire, an agent stands up and goes to the bathroom, somehow hoping that coffee will be found there. The incorrectness of the action is derived from the mismatch between the action that came as an outcome and the preexistent belief and desire.


The second way of understanding the correctness of the action, as emphasized by Railton, depends on the correctness or incorrectness of the preexisting belief. Let us imagine another situation. Having the preexisting desire to drink coffee and the belief that the content of the mug in front of an individual is coffee, the intention of drinking the content of the mug originates. If the real content of the mug turns out to be muddy water and not coffee, then the action is derivatively incorrect because the original belief is incorrect. As a consequence, the intention derived from my belief and desire is incorrect because is based on wrong information. As these examples imply, the “incorrectness” of an action, desire, or goal is derived from ignorance, false beliefs, or erroneous inference.



Empirical Subjects of David Hume, Roitburd, 2017
Figure 5: "Empirical Subjects of David Hume" (Roitburd, 2017).


Having described an account of human action, the question remains: how does rationality enter into the discussion? The asymmetry in beliefs and desires helps us introduce rationality. In the introduction, we distinguished between theoretical and practical reasoning. While the first aims to answer the question “What to believe?”, the second focuses on the problem of “What to do?”. According to neo-humean accounts, theoretical reasoning guides us to create causal connections between events. It helps us understand what possible material means are available to us in order to accomplish our goals and ends. Then, in order to put such theoretical reasoning into practice, we need practical reasoning showing us the way in which we should act in order to bring about determined goals. Practical reasoning will say: if an agent has a desire B and that agent believes that doing A will help bring about B, then the agent has a reason to do A. As a consequence, making good use of practical reason means arriving at an intention to act in a way that helps us achieve our goals in the best possible way. A practically rational agent who wants to bring about a desire prioritizes “the strengths of her desires or ends, to consider outcomes in terms of their probabilities, and to choose causally effective means.” (Railton, 2007, p. 269). Neo-humanism considers that the proper use of rationality in order to answer the question about what to do implies arriving at an intention, based on preexisting desires and beliefs, that realizes our goals in the most effective way. The implication of the presented theory is double. In the first place, it necessarily places the existence of a previous desire in order to arrive at an intention about how to act. Thus, and this is the second implication, the force of morality in guiding our actions is weakened. If one were to act morally, there must exist the precondition of a desire-based motive for the agent to be moral. In this account, a moral commandment of the sort of “You shall not murder” does not have by itself the force to make an agent act morally. As a consequence, neo-humeans are skeptical about the force of morality in its rational authority. This last point, as we shall see in what follows, contrasts with other accounts of the role of practical reason in bringing about actions cataloged as morally correct.


Rationalism

An alternative view to one of the neo-humean accounts is the one derived from the works of Immanuel Kant, exhibited mainly in both his Critique of Practical Reason and his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. The Kantian understanding of practical reason, at times presented as a rationalist account, diverges from the previously presented theory in its scope and emphasis. As with the previous ideas about practical reason, Kant presents it as a faculty that deals with the principles guiding human actions, especially in the moral realm and highlights the aspect of autonomy in moral actions. Kantian theory adds more importance to the force of morality in guiding action. In this view, as commented by Stephen Darwal (2007), a development in moral philosophy is reached through understanding that the idea of moral duty entails that the will, i.e. what moves us to act, is governed by its own law and that is the essence of morality (Darwal, 2007, p. 284). Similarly, as Christine Korsgaard (2008) describes rationalist views, rationality entails intentionally aligning one's will with specific rational truths or truths pertaining to reasons that exist autonomously from the will. She describes the Kantian perspective as one that presents that being subject to reason and self-governance are synonymous. The principles of practical reason form the essential elements of autonomous action, not serving as external constraints on our actions with inexplicable motivational power but rather delineating the processes integral to autonomous volition. These principles operate as normative or instructive guidelines, as adhering to these processes entails self-guidance.



Kant, Roitburd, 2016
Figure 6: "Kant" (Roitburd, 2016).


The Kantian account is based on the idea that human action, always following a duty in the form of an “ought”, can be divided into two types. According to Kant, there are "oughts" beyond our moral duties; these oughts differ from moral obligations as they are grounded in the agent's will and are called “hypothetical imperatives.” A hypothetical imperative is a directive that applies to us by virtue of possessing a rational will contingent upon the prior "willing" to reach a particular end. According to Kant, the act of willing an end goes beyond mere desiring; it entails an active choice or commitment to the end instead of merely finding oneself with a passive desire for it. We act following a categorical imperative when we adopt the necessary means to reach the end posed by our will.


The second source of action is the one that directly relates to practical reason and morality. Kant's moral philosophy is grounded in the idea of the categorical imperative, a principle that he believed could serve as the foundation for moral judgments. He describes the categorical imperative as an objective, rationally necessary, and unconditional guideline that mandates adherence irrespective of any inherent desires in opposition. According to Kant, all specific moral obligations find their rationale in this overarching principle, making actions deemed immoral and irrational by being in contradiction with this imperative. In his own words,

the categorical imperative would be that one which represented an action as objectively necessary for itself, without any reference to another end (Groundwork, Ak 4:414).

The last part makes explicit that there is no reference to our will aiming to a specific end. It possesses a categorical nature by universally applying to us, irrespective of any conditions, solely due to our possession of rational wills, without regard to any goals we may or may not have adopted. It does not hinge on the prerequisite that we have previously embraced specific objectives for ourselves.



Duty, Hardy, 1880
Figure 7: "Duty" (Hardy, 1880).


The categorical imperative is expressed in different formulations, but a central idea is that individuals should act according to principles that could be universally applied without contradiction. Kant argued that moral principles must be based on reason and rationality, and he believed in the existence of moral duties that apply universally to all rational beings. About this, Kant says:

One could not deny that its law is of such an extensive significance that it would have to be valid not merely for human beings but for all rational beings in general, and not merely under contingent conditions and with exceptions, but with absolute necessity, then it is clear that no experience could give occasion for inferring even the possibility of such apodictic laws (Groundwork, 2018, p. 23).

As shown by the previous reference, the power of morality is not only categorical but it is necessary for all rational beings. Kant's philosophy of practical reason revolves around the concept of the autonomy of the will, emphasizing individuals' capacity to legislate moral principles independently. Moral actions stem from a sense of duty, divorced from consequences, and are binding on all rational beings due to their inherent rationality. The role of reason is to give these inescapable laws to our will in a way that leads us to guide our actions and be moral. Overall, Kant's practical reason offers a rationalist and deontological framework for moral conduct rooted in autonomy, duty, and universalizable moral principles.



The Moralistic Moon Dualism, Schroder-Sonnenstern, 1955
Figure 8: "The Moralistic Moon Dualism" (Schroder-Sonnenstern, 1955).


Good Reasoning

After showing the two most mainstream accounts of the theory of practical reason, it will be equally important and interesting to show a recent theory about the idea of what “good reasoning” involves. The aim of this theory, presented by Conor Mchugh and Jonathan Way (2018), is to determine what constitutes good or bad reasoning by focusing on the structure and coherence of the rationalized results in view of certain antecedents. The interest in showing this particular account lies in the novelty of the theory as an alternative to one of the most common positions in the debate.


In the first place, it is important to notice that the theory presented by Mchugh and Way is an alternative to an account known as the reasons view of proper reasoning. In accordance with the reasons view, as its name implies, criteria for sound reasoning are rooted in reasons. This perspective presents that effective reasoning is characterized by processes leading to responses grounded in discernible reasons. This concept is inherently appealing, given that in the realm of reasoning, attitudes are shaped and adjusted based on reasons—guided by specific considerations. Consequently, it seems intuitively reasonable to assert that reasoning is deemed successful when it results in forming and revising attitudes grounded in substantial reasons. Moreover, the reasons view readily accommodates the notion of defeasible reasoning. For example, if an individual asserts that proposition p, this constitutes a defeasible reason to consider p plausible. Consequently, the view allows for the recognition of reasoning as both effective and defeasible when transitioning from the belief that someone asserted p to the belief that p. McHugh and Way present the reasons view in the following formulation:

(Reasons View) The move from P1. . .Pn to C is a good pattern of reasoning iff, and because, if there is sufficient reason for P1. . .Pn, then the contents of the beliefs in P1. . .Pn are reasons for C. (Mchugh and Way, 2018, p. 161).

The authors see three main general problems with this view: the problem of bad starting points, which means that you can carry out good reasoning from the wrong premises; the wrong kind of reason problem, in which there could be a mismatch between the reasons for holding P and the arrival at C; and implausible implications about the point of reasoning.



The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Goya, 1799
Figure 9: "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" (Goya, 1799).


Mchugh’s and Way’s account for good reasoning recognizes that attitudes are subject to standards of appropriateness or correctness. A familiar illustration is belief, which is considered correct or appropriate when it aligns with truth. However, other attitudes also adhere to standards of appropriateness. The appropriateness of different attitudes, such as admiring an individual X or doing a determinate action, depends on the features of their respective objects. For example, it is deemed appropriate to admire Mandela and fear an approaching tiger but not to admire Adolf Hitler or fear an approaching kitten. The term "fitting" is employed here as a specialized term, and equivalent expressions such as correctness, getting it right, worth admiring, or appropriateness convey the notion of fittingness (Mchugh & Way, 2018, p. 165). The fundamental concept is that attitudes are linked to standards applicable to their objects, and an attitude is fitting when its object meets the stipulated standard.


The core proposition of the suggested approach is that proficient reasoning positions an individual to cultivate fitting attitudes; this involves acquiring more true beliefs or intentions aligned with permissibility. While good reasoning typically cannot generate fitting attitudes ex nihilo, the starting points are crucial. Starting from fitting attitudes, it is anticipated that good reasoning will lead to additional fitting attitudes, all else being equal. As an initial approximation, the authors posit that good reasoning is characterized by fittingness-preserving reasoning:

(Fitting View) The transition from P1. . .Pn to C is deemed a sound reasoning pattern if, and because, all else being equal, if P1. . .Pn are fitting, then C is fitting as well (Mchugh and Way, 2018, p. 165).

The fitting view focuses on reasoning patterns and not on the content exhibited in particular instances of those patterns, i.e. it does not focus on particular instances of reasoning. Therefore, the proposed condition of fittingness-preservation, generally holding for a reasoning pattern, does not merely entail the avoidance of transitioning from fitting responses to unfitting ones in specific instances. Additionally, this view does not provide an account of competent reasoning and, by extension, does not entail a reliabilist justification for beliefs acquired through reasoning.



The Fitting, Cassatt, 1892
Figure 10: "The Fitting" (Cassatt, 1892).

The fittingness view addresses challenges faced by the reasons view. It avoids the issue of bad starting points by considering it a sound reasoning process to move from an intention and a belief to another fitting intention, regardless of the actual state of affairs or the rationality of these attitudes. Additionally, the view accommodates the defeasibility of good reasoning, allowing for sound reasoning to proceed from the belief that someone said p to the belief that p or from the belief that one promised to F to the intention to F.


Moreover, the fittingness view rules out problematic reasoning patterns permitted by alternative views. It does not endorse ideas such as that 'I am not going to do A, so it is okay not to do A' constitutes sound reasoning, as even if one is not going to do A, it may still be the case that one ought to do so (Mchugh & Way, 2018, p. 166). Unlike the reasons view, it rejects the notion that 'believing in God would make me happy, so God exists', which qualifies as sound reasoning, as the truth of a belief is not guaranteed by its potential to bring happiness.


Finally, the fittingness view implies that the ultimate purpose of reasoning is the cultivation of fitting attitudes. This aligns with the intuitive notion that getting things right is a worthwhile objective, particularly when revising one's attitudes. Furthermore, since fitting beliefs correspond to true beliefs, the fittingness view extends the plausible idea that the goal of theoretical reasoning is truth.



Pure Reason, Magritte, 1948
Figure 11: "Pure Reason" (Magritte, 1948).



The concept of practical reason stands as a cornerstone in the debate of morality, encapsulating the human capacity to deliberate thoughtfully and act autonomously. Practical reason has evolved as a central tenet shaping human agency and moral understanding. This essay has focused on presenting two relevant accounts of the concept while parallelly presenting their views on the nature of human action. Each account offers unique insights into the nature of rationality and the normative power of morality.


The Neo-Humean perspective, rooted in David Hume's empiricist tradition, emphasizes the role of desires and beliefs as causal determinants of human action. In this view, practical reasoning is intertwined with the pursuit of personal desires, with moral obligations deriving their force from individual inclinations and sentiments. While this account highlights the subjective nature of moral reasoning, it raises questions about the universality and authority of moral principles. Contrastingly, the Kantian framework, championed by Immanuel Kant, posits practical reason as the foundation of moral autonomy and universal moral principles. Here, rationality transcends individual desires, guiding individuals toward moral duties grounded in the categorical imperative. In this view, moral actions stem from a sense of duty and adherence to objective moral laws, irrespective of personal inclinations or sentiments. Recent contributions to the debate, such as the fittingness view proposed by McHugh and Way, offer alternative perspectives on what constitutes good reasoning. By focusing on the coherence and appropriateness of attitudes, this approach seeks to refine our understanding of rationality and moral decision-making. Through a nuanced examination of reasoning patterns, it sheds light on the complexities of human agency and the pursuit of moral truth. The exploration of practical reason unveils the deep relationship between rationality, desire, and moral obligation. While diverse perspectives offer valuable insights into the nature of human action, they also underscore the complexity and multifaceted nature of ethical deliberation. As we continue to grapple with philosophical questions surrounding practical reason, we are reminded of the enduring relevance and profound significance of moral inquiry in shaping human conduct.



Bibliographical References

Darwall, S. (2007). Morality and Practical Reason: A Kantian Approach, in Copp, D. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory, Oxford Handbooks (2007; online edn, Oxford Academic, 2 Sept. 2009), https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195325911.003.0012 


Hume, D. (2007). A Treatise of Human Nature: A Critical Edition, Norton, D. F and Norton, M. J. (eds.), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2007.


Kant, I. (2018). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals  (A. Wood, Ed.). Yale University Press. 


Korsgaard, C. M. (2008). The Normativity of Instrumental Reason, The Constitution of Agency: Essays on Practical Reason and Moral Psychology (Oxford, 2008; online edn, Oxford Academic, 1 Jan. 2009), https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199552733.003.0002 


McHugh, C., & Way, J. (2018). What is Good Reasoning?, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 96: 153–74.


Ober, J. (2022). The Greeks and the Rational: The Discovery of Practical Reason, University of California Press. 


Railton, P. (2007). Humean Theory of Practical Rationality, in Copp, D. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory, Oxford Handbooks (2007; online edn, Oxford Academic, 2 Sept. 2009), https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195325911.003.0011 


Ross, D. & Brown, L. (2009). Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics (New edition, revised with an introduction and notes by Lesley Brown). Oxford World's Classics. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press


Wallace, R. J. (2020). Practical Reason, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Zalta, E. N. (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/practical-reason/>. 


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Since ancient times, philosophers have studied how we rationalize our acts. Few notions are as important geometry dash breeze in morality as practical reason.

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