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Brute Rationality
Normativity and Human Action

This book presents a new account of normative practical reasons and
the way in which they contribute to the rationality of action. Rather
than simply ˜counting in favor of ™ actions, normative reasons play
two logically distinct roles: requiring action and justifying action.
The distinction between these two roles explains why some reasons
do not seem relevant to the rational status of an action unless the
agent cares about them, while other reasons retain all their force
regardless of the agent™s attitude. It also explains why the class of
rationally permissible action is wide enough to contain not only all
morally required action, but also much sel¬sh and immoral action.
The book will appeal to a range of readers interested in practical
reason in particular, and moral theory more generally.

Joshua Gert is Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy,
Florida State University. He has published in a number of philo-
sophical journals including American Philosophical Quarterly, Ethics,
and Noˆ s.
General editors e. j. lowe and walter sinnott-armstrong

Advisory editors
jonathan dancy University of Reading
john haldane University of St Andrews
gilbert harman Princeton University
frank jackson Australian National University
william g. lycan University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
sydney shoemaker Cornell University
judith j. thomson Massachusetts Institute of Technology
recent titles
joshua hoffman & gary s. rosenkrantz Substance among other categories
paul helm Belief policies
noah lemos Intrinsic value
lynne rudder baker Explaining attitudes
henry s. richardson Practical reasoning about ¬nal ends
robert a. wilson Cartesian psychology and physical minds
barry maund Colours
michael devitt Coming to our senses
sydney shoemaker The ¬rst-person perspective and other essays
michael stocker Valuing emotions
arda denkel Object and property
e. j. lowe Subjects of experience
norton nelkin Consciousness and the origins of thought
pierre jacob What minds can do
andre gallois The world without, the mind within
d. m. armstrong A world of states of affairs
david cockburn Other times
mark lance & john o™leary-hawthorne The grammar of meaning
annette barnes Seeing through self-deception
david lewis Papers in metaphysics and epistemology
michael bratman Faces of intention
david lewis Papers in ethics and social philosophy
mark rowlands The body in mind: understanding cognitive processes
logi gunnarsson Making moral sense: beyond Habermas and Gauthier
bennett w. helm Emotional reason: deliberation, motivation, and the nature of value
richard joyce The myth of morality
ishtiyaque haji Deontic morality and control
andrew newman The correspondence theory of truth
jane heal Mind, reason, and imagination
peter railton Facts, values and norms
christopher s. hill Thought and world
wayne davis Meaning, expression and thought
andrew melnyk A physicalist manifesto
jonathan l. kvanvig The value of knowledge and the pursuit of understanding
william robinson Understanding phenomenal consciousness
michael smith Ethics and the a priori
d. m. armstrong Truth and truthmakers
Brute Rationality
Normativity and Human Action

Joshua Gert
Florida State University
cambridge university press
Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge cb2 2ru, UK
Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9780521833189

© Joshua Gert 2004

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of
relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place
without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published in print format 2004

isbn-13 978-0-511-21121-8 eBook (EBL)
isbn-10 0-511-21298-4 eBook (EBL)

isbn-13 978-0-521-83318-9 hardback
isbn-10 0-521-83318-3 hardback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of urls
for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not
guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.
To my parents, my sister Heather,
and my wife Victoria

Preface and acknowledgements page xi

1 What would an adequate theory of rationality be like? 1
2 Practical rationality, morality, and purely justi¬catory reasons 19
3 The criticism from internalism about practical reasons 40
4 A functional role analysis of reasons 62
5 Accounting for our actual normative judgments 85
6 Fitting the view into the contemporary debate 111
7 Two concepts of rationality 136
8 Internalism and different kinds of reasons 167
9 Brute rationality 186

References 221
Index 226

Preface and acknowledgements

I would guess that the ¬rst time I read any real philosophy was when I was
about ten years old. Sitting and reading aloud on the living room couch
with my father, I took the part of Hylas in Berkeley™s Three Dialogues. It
is a happy memory for me, despite the fact that I turned out, as those
familiar with that dialogue will know, not to have very many lines, and
always to be wrong. I also have a very distinct visual memory, from roughly
the same period, of the moment my father presented the open question
argument to me. He didn™t explain the problems with the argument, and
if he had, I doubt I would have understood what he was saying. I was just
sophisticated enough that the argument seemed to me to show exactly
what Moore thought it showed. I didn™t like having to believe in non-
natural properties. I didn™t even have any clear idea what they were. But I
had to do it. Twenty-seven years later, I think I might have gotten out of
the problem.
Those two memories may be the oldest ones I have of doing any philos-
ophy with my father, but they are by no means the only ones. Later mem-
ories are less distinct, probably because philosophical discussion became as
common as eating dinner. But as far as I can recall, all of these memories
of talking philosophy with my father “ of arguing and criticizing, and,
generally, of being shown that I didn™t know what I was talking about “
are uniformly happy. My love for philosophy is, I am sure, continuous
with my great love for my father. There is no doubt that it is my father
who has had the most profound philosophical impact on me. Indeed, I
am pleased to think of myself, in many parts of this book, as re¬ning,
building upon, and modifying his views, just as other philosophers have
re¬ned, built upon, and modi¬ed the views of their advisors. Given that
my father™s in¬‚uence began early, I cannot adequately express how lucky I
feel that so many of his starting points have turned out to be so fruitful. For
it is hard to deny that the students of Kantians tend to become Kantians,
and the students of Humeans tend to become Humeans. When I consider

Preface and acknowledgements

the strength of this law of philosophical inheritance, and realize how easily
I might have fallen under the spell of a mainstream view (or, worse, a
currently fashionable one), I am reminded of the huge role fortune plays
in all the achievements for which we would like to take exclusive credit.
Other than my father, I would like to thank a number of people with
whom I have had pro¬table conversations or correspondence on the top-
ics I address in the following chapters. I should single out Daniel Callcut,
Charles Chastain, and John Deigh, both for the sheer volume of con-
versation, and also for entering into the discussion with suf¬cient sym-
pathy to understand the whole picture. Thanks also to Peter Achinstein,
Ken Akiba, Robert Audi, John Broome, Mar´a Victoria Costa, Jonathan
Dancy, Heather Gert, Peter Hylton, Anthony Laden, Paul McNamara,
Al Mele, Andrew Melnyk, Karen Neander, Brian Neuslein, Joseph Raz,
Thomas Scanlon, Jerome Schneewind, Paul Weirich, and Susan Wolf.
I also owe a great debt to Oscar Jorge Mainoldi, who accidentally taught
me Spanish, and who superintended the writing of virtually the whole
of this book during ¬ve successive summers at what must be the world™s
most fertile environment for the production of philosophy: the bar/caf´ e
“Porto¬no,” at the corner of 13th and 42nd, in La Plata, Argentina. For
being among the truthmakers behind this fact, thanks also to Daniela
“Pichu” Memna, Mercedes Mirabella, Mart´n Zamudio, Rub´ n Peralta,
± e
and Sebasti´ n Alvarez.
Chapter 1 takes the form it does largely because I was invited to give
an overview of my account of reasons and rationality at the Universidad
Nacional de La Plata in La Plata, Argentina, in the summer of 2002. I am
very grateful to Pedro Karczmarczyk and Mart´n Daguerre for organizing
that talk, and I am grateful to all the members of that audience for their
patience with my Spanish. The material for chapter 2 was previously pub-
lished as “Practical Rationality, Morality, and Purely Justi¬catory Reasons”
in American Philosophical Quarterly 37 (3), 227“43. I am grateful to the Exec-
utive Editor of APQ, Nicholas Rescher, for permission to use that material
here. Most of the material for chapters 3 and 7 was previously published in
the Southern Journal of Philosophy as “Skepticism about Practical Reasons
Internalism” 39 (1), 59“77 and “Two Concepts of Rationality” 41 (3),
367“98, and some material for chapter 3 was also taken from “Korsgaard™s
Private-Reasons Argument” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 64
(2), 303“24. I thank the Editor of the Southern Journal, Nancy Simco,
and the editors of PPR for permission to use that material here.
Chapter 4 appears as “A Functional Role Analysis of Reasons” in

Preface and acknowledgements

Philosophical Studies (2004). A version of chapter 5 was published as
“Requiring and Justifying: Two Dimensions of Normative Strength”
Erkenntnis 59 (1), 5“36, and appears here with kind permission of Kluwer
Academic Publishers. A distant ancestor of chapter 7 was published, in
Spanish, in Revista Latinoamericana de Filosof´a 25 (2), 255“81, after having
been presented to the members of the Centro de Investigaciones Filos´ ¬cas
in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1998. I am grateful to Mar´a Julia Bertomeu
for her invitation to address this group. Chapter 8 ¬rst appeared in The
Philosophical Forum 34 (1), 53“72, and chapter 9 appeared in Noˆ s 37 (3),
417“46. I acknowledge the kind permission of Blackwell Publishing to
reprint both of them here.
Finally, I should thank Florida State University for summer funding
provided through their FYAP Summer Grant program. It was during the
summer in which I received this funding that I was able to revise the
manuscript to deal “ I cannot say how successfully “ with the comments
of Russ Shafer-Landau and Michael Ridge, who reviewed the original
manuscript for Cambridge University Press. My ¬nal thanks go to them
for their sympathetic and open-minded attitude, and for many useful crit-

What would an adequate theory of
rationality be like?

th e f undam e ntal normat ive not i on
When we argue with other people about what to do, very often we appeal
to principles. Certainly when philosophers offer moral theories, and argue
that we should be moral, they appeal to principles. And even when we,
or they, offer reasons in place of principles, it is reasonable to think of
such arguments as shorthand for appeals to principles. For no one would
advocate an action simply because there was some reason in its favor, if it
were clear that there were compelling reasons against performing it. Thus
when reasons are cited in arguments, there is some idea that all the relevant
reasons, taken together, support the action. This implies that there is some
principle in the background that produces overall verdicts based on all those
reasons: perhaps it is the simple principle ˜perform the action supported by
the most reasons™, or perhaps it is some more complicated principle. One
cites particular reasons in order to suggest that those reasons are suf¬cient
to determine the outcome of the application of such a principle. The very
plausible idea that two actions to which the same reasons are relevant must
have the same rational status also suggests that reason-based arguments are
backed by a unique principle: a principle that takes those reasons as input
and yields the status of the action as output.
When a principle is made explicit in an argument, it is often appro-
priate to ask ˜Why should I follow that principle?™ And when an answer
is given, in terms of some other principle, it is often appropriate to ask

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