Michael Smith – Agents and Patients

Event Date: 18 June 2012
Senate House
University of London
London WC1E 7HU

The Aristotelian Society presents:

Professor Michael Smith (Princeton) – Agents and Patients

Can we draw substantive conclusions about the reasons for action agents have from premises about the desires of their idealized counterparts?  The answer is that we can.  The argument for this conclusion is Rawlsian in spirit, focusing on the choices that that our counterparts have to make simply in virtue of being ideal agents, and inferring from these choices the contents of the desires that they have to have.  But whereas Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves choosing principles that will govern the basic structure of a society in which we will live, the argument given here focuses on choices made in much more mundane circumstances in which our basic agential capacities are exercised.  What would our ideal counterparts have to choose to do in order to bring their capacities for belief-formation and desire-realization into coherence with each other when they are engaged in certain mundane processes of thought?  Somewhat surprisingly, the answer is that they would have to choose not to interfere with the exercise of capacities for belief formation and desire-realization, not just their own but others’ as well, and that they would also have to choose to help make sure that there are such capacities to exercise.  The upshot is that all agents have reasons to help and not interfere, and, beyond that, that they have reasons to do whatever they desire to do.  This conclusion is itself reminiscent of Rawls’s own, much as might be expected.

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