Title: Foot's Naturalism and Normative Reasons for Action
Wednesday, Nov. 12th, 2008
Smith Memorial Union 236
University of Chicago
Philosophy Department Portland State University
Philippa Foot has recently argued for a bold, and controversial, form of ethical naturalism, according to which claims about what human agents have (moral) reason to do derive their basis from thought about species-wide human good. In this paper I explore what I see as a crucial but under-appreciated aspect of this work: namely, the fact that it operates with a conception of practical normativity that diverges sharply from the one standardly held in contemporary meta-ethics. It is typically thought that the normativity of a practical reason - that wherein it expresses an "ought" - is to be understood in terms of motivational psychology. A normative reason for action that is ascribed to a given agent, on this conception, says what she should be moved to do, what she should weigh most heavily in deliberation, or what she should be most "responsive" to in moments of decision. Normative "force," as it is sometimes called, is more or less a psychological force, one that a normative reason for action is thought to possess, and which distinguishes it from being a mere descriptive, factual claim about the world (including a claim about what is good or best for us as human beings). Foot, I argue here, departs this conception: the normative basis of Footian reasons for action derives from two interrelated considerations: a) the justification of an act-type in terms of the broader ends it serves in a given life-form, and b) the idea of an act-type as (thus) being a suitable or fitting thing for one of that life-form to do. These are, I argue, normative conceptions, while neither is best understood in psychological terms. For all this, Foot's theory does appear to imply claims about what should take place at the level of human motivational psychology, and in the last section of this paper I explain what they are, squaring this with my reading of Footian normativity as extra-psychological.