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the Kantian duty to develop one™s talents, and also to treat oneself as an end, there seems
to be not only room for, but also a principled reason why one should spend a certain
amount of one™s time and resources on projects that are one™s own. This may sometimes be
a signi¬cant burden, but it does leave room for what is recognizably an individual human

Practical rationality and justi¬catory reasons

these cases suggest views on which the set of characteristics of an action
that make it prima facie required is not the same as the set of characteristics
that could justify some action that stood in need of justi¬cation. Another
sort of case, which leads into the next point, is one in which a person
is justi¬ed in hurting someone because only by doing so can that person
avoid a far greater hurt for himself. One example of this case might be
knocking someone unconscious in defense of one™s life from an attack by
that very person. Another might be very roughly shoving someone out of
the way (but not into harm™s way) so that one will, oneself, avoid being
hit by a car.

The distinction between persons is relevant to the distinction
between justifying and requiring
Suppose one knows that an action will have certain harmful consequences
and certain bene¬cial consequences for certain people. This knowledge
alone is not always suf¬cient to determine the moral status of the action.
For an action done by me, which has the same relevant consequences for exactly
the same people as an action done by you, might have a very different moral
status, because of the relation of the harms and bene¬ts to the agent.24
For example, suppose that I am so violently allergic to eggs that should
one break in my vicinity, I risk going into anaphylaxis. You and I have
gone grocery shopping, and you have picked up a half-dozen of these
dangerous objects. As we are unpacking, I take three eggs out of the
carton, and show you how I have learned to juggle. I am pretty good
at juggling, but am putting myself at risk of a signi¬cant harm. Many
common views of morality will claim that, at least solely in virtue of the
risk I am taking with my own life, I am doing nothing immoral. Of course
it would be traumatic for you to see me die in your kitchen. But my claim
is not that it is perfectly ¬ne for me to juggle the eggs. My claim is only
that it matters that it is me putting myself at risk. For suppose that, knowing
of my allergy, you take out three eggs while unpacking, and show me how
you have learned to juggle, putting me at equal risk. I maintain that you are
doing something morally problematic just in virtue of putting me at risk.
How is this difference between your action and mine to be explained?

24 The suggestion is not that the mere addition of the knowledge of this relation will automat-
ically suf¬ce to determine the moral status of the action. Rather, it is that this information
is relevant to such a determination.

Brute Rationality

Consent might be cited as a relevant factor. For it might be claimed
that I cannot be taken to have any objection to my own juggling, but that
I might have an objection to your juggling, and this difference in consent
is what accounts for the moral difference. But suppose I assure you that I
have absolutely no objection to your risking my life by juggling; suppose
in fact that is I who bring up your recent efforts to learn juggling, and
ask you to show me. There still is a signi¬cant moral difference in virtue
of its being you, and not me, who is taking the risk with my life. If it is
declared inconceivable that I should give such consent, it must be asked
how it is conceivable that I should juggle the eggs myself. So we must
locate the relevant difference elsewhere. The difference, as many moral
theorists have urged, is that one needs a moral justi¬cation for risking
harm to someone else, but does not need such a justi¬cation when risking
harm to oneself.25 It does seem right that if, just because I believe I will
enjoy it, I hurt, disable, or deprive some person of freedom or pleasure, I
have done something wrong. In order to do these things, I need a moral
justi¬cation. But if, in order to give myself equal pleasure, I harm myself in
these ways, I do not seem to require it. Perhaps I need rational justi¬cation.
But that is not the issue here.
For those unpersuaded by this example, perhaps because of a belief that
my consent to my friend™s juggling the eggs really does make it morally
unproblematic, there is the case of morally culpable negligence. If I simply
do not give suf¬cient consideration to the obvious danger in which I place
myself by some action, no one seriously believes I have done anything
immoral thereby. Rather, my action is termed stupid or irrational. But if
I fail to pay attention to the likely harmful consequences of my action on
someone else, I am morally blamed. In neither of these cases is consent
a relevant issue, since in neither case is the person being put at risk in a
position to give consent.26
I am not arguing here that the correct moral view takes harm to others
always to provide a prima facie moral requirement, while avoiding harm to
self can only provide moral justi¬cation. All I am doing is trying to engage
the intuitions of those who agree that it is often the case that the distinc-
tion between agent and other is relevant to the question of whether some
25 See Baier (1954); Ross (1939), pp. 72“75 and 272“77; Stocker (1994), esp. p. 690; Darwall
(1994), esp. p. 700.
26 See Slote (1984), pp. 190“91 for more reasons to believe consent is not the relevant issue.
In fact Slote (1992) argues that the asymmetry that he shows very clearly to be a part of
commonsense morality counts against commonsense morality. But these latter arguments
are far less persuasive.

Practical rationality and justi¬catory reasons

consideration could require an action, or could only justify an otherwise
immoral action. If one™s agreement goes this far, then one should ask one-
self why one takes the normative notion of practical rationality to be so
different from that of morality. Consider that we do not generally take
the Nazis to have been irrational, and hence free from blame.27 But we
do often consider irrational and free from moral responsibility those who
harm themselves in equally signi¬cant ways for no reason. This suggests that
avoiding harm to others does not provide a prima facie rational require-
ment to act, but that avoiding harm to oneself does. And yet we do not
consider it irrational to harm oneself in order to avoid harm to others; we
do not, generally, try to discourage children who want to be ¬re¬ghters.
This suggests that avoiding harm to others does provide a rational justi¬ca-
tion for otherwise irrational actions. When one thinks on this one should
at the very least also begin to think that there is a good chance that in
many respects morality provides a stronger analogy for practical rationality
than does theoretical rationality. And one should grant that it is plausible
that there is a relevant difference between practical reasons stemming from
harm to the agent, and practical reasons stemming from harm to others.
And, ¬nally, one should see that it is arbitrary to take as the default posi-
tion that there is no relevant difference between such practical reasons.
We need arguments on either side before we embrace or deny this

Justifying considerations need not motivate even a morally good person
Suppose one is doing something that requires moral justi¬cation, such
as taking money from someone. And suppose one is in fact justi¬ed. It
is not typically true that the justi¬cation has any power whatsoever to
require one to act on it. In many cases justifying considerations are ones
that it would be morally better to ignore. For example, David Copper-
¬eld™s enemy Uriah Heep is morally justi¬ed in con¬scating a piece of
property offered as security on a loan he has made, when the terms of
27 The move from irrationality to lack of moral culpability is of course not a simple one:
some irrational actions can be morally blameworthy. But if the psychological defect that
makes one™s action irrational is precisely what explains why one performed an action that,
in a normal person, would have been morally blameworthy, then there is more reason
to think that one™s irrationality mitigates one™s moral responsibility. And this would be
the case for the Nazis if an indifference to or delight in the suffering of others were
itself irrational. I discuss the connection between irrationality and moral responsibility at
greater length towards the end of chapter 4.

Brute Rationality

the loan have been violated by a delay in payment. But it is emphatically
not the case that that clammy fellow is morally required to con¬scate the
property. If he decides not to con¬scate the property “ not to act on a
justi¬cation that is available to him “ not only isn™t the action immoral,
and not only doesn™t it count against his moral character, it counts in favor
of his moral character. While this is not true of all moral justi¬cations, the
example shows that the reasons people offer in order to justify otherwise
immoral actions are not reasons that they are always morally required to
act on, or even to be motivated by, even in the absence of countervailing
Another example of the above phenomenon involves the justi¬ed in¬‚ic-
tion of pain on someone who is harming one. It is commonly accepted
that it is morally justi¬ed to harm, or even to kill, in self-defense. But if one
is a committed paci¬st, one might accept any level of harm “ even death “
if the only alternative was to harm one™s attacker. And in doing so, one
would not be behaving immorally at all. No matter how strong this sort
of justi¬cation for harming one™s attacker became, it would never morally
require one to harm him in the slightest way. Indeed, it is at least plausi-
ble that being completely unmotivated to act on this type of justi¬catory
reason would count in favor of one™s moral character.
The parallel here with practical rationality is that certain reasons, relevant
to the rationality of an action, need not motivate even a rational person.
These, of course, are purely justi¬catory practical reasons, among which,
this book suggests, we should classify all altruistic reasons. If an agent is
never motivated by such reasons, that agent can, nevertheless, always act
rationally. For one is not rationally required to act on purely justi¬catory
reasons. Someone who is habitually sel¬sh, petty, and mean, need not ever
do anything that would generally be regarded as irrational. Perhaps it is the
truth of this claim that lends an initial plausibility to the claims, discussed
above, of egoists and desire-satisfaction theorists.

conc lu s i on
This chapter has drawn a parallel between practical rationality and common
moral views in order to shift the burden of proof on two issues. Many
common moral views imply the existence of purely justi¬catory moral
reasons: reasons that do not provide even prima facie moral requirements.
And the dividing line between reasons that do, and reasons that do not,
provide prima facie moral requirements is often drawn by means of the

Practical rationality and justi¬catory reasons

distinction between the agent and other people. Attention to these features
of commonly accepted moral views should make it easier for theorists to
go against an overwhelmingly popular philosophical tendency to simplify
the notion of practical rationality by crediting the existence of only one
sort of reason: one that, prima facie, both justi¬es and requires. If one™s
intuitions about morality allow purely justi¬catory reasons and a relevant
distinction between persons, then one should begin to ask why it should be
different when the topic is practical rationality. The burden of proof should
shift onto the shoulders of those who maintain that all reasons relevant to
the rationality of action can both justify and require, and that there is no
fundamental difference, relevant to the rationality of one™s actions, between
one™s own interests and those of other people.
If the above line of argument is correct, all accounts of rationality that
claim that one is rationally required to act on one™s best reasons, or the
balance of reasons, or the strongest reasons, or one™s judgments about these
˜bests™ or ˜balances,™ must be wrong. For suppose, as this chapter has argued,
that reasons can play two different roles in determining the rational status
of an action: requiring action, and justifying action that would otherwise
be irrational. And suppose that the only two reasons relevant to some
particular action are a strong requiring reason in favor of the action, and
a very strong purely justi¬catory reason against the action.28 For example,
suppose one is on holiday. One is scheduled, on the day of one™s return,
for an important job interview: one that cannot be rescheduled, and the
likes of which one may never see again. But on the day before one™s return,
a terrible storm hits the underdeveloped town where one is vacationing,
and one™s special talents will save many villagers from harm. What is ˜the
rational thing to do™? On the view offered here, there is no answer to this
wrongly-framed question, which presupposes a unique answer (or, at best,
a tie for ¬rst place) that tells one what one is rationally required to do. It
would indeed be irrational to miss the job interview for no reason, but one
has a suf¬cient reason; indeed it is more than suf¬cient, for it would justify
a sacri¬ce of a more signi¬cant good than a mere job interview. But the
justifying reason is not a rationally requiring one, so it is not irrational to go
home as scheduled. Nor would it be irrational to go home for some less
strongly compelling reason, which shows that the rational permissibility
of the former choice was not a matter of the equality of reasons for and

28 The notion of strength here “ indeed, in this chapter as a whole “ is an intuitive one. It
will be given a clear content in chapter 4.

Brute Rationality

against the action. Talking of ˜bests™ and ˜balances™ here is not helpful,
because although the reason to stay and help may be a better justi¬er
than the reason to return, it nevertheless does not require one to act on
it. Nor can one say that purely justifying reasons are simply weaker. For
it might not be rational to risk one™s life for the job interview, while it
would be rational to risk one™s life to help the villagers. So in this sense the
justifying reason is in fact stronger. In the face of such examples, and of
the parallel between practical rationality and morality, one should admit
that the logical role of some reasons may simply be to justify, and that this
is a different logical role than the role of requiring.
One ¬nal remark on another possible parallel between morality and
practical rationality may be helpful here, for those who cannot yet wholly
embrace the position advocated in this chapter. Many Kantians claim that
all immoral behavior is irrational. This is quite an extreme position, and
though it may be argued for, is not overly plausible on its face. Nevertheless,
even its face may contain a grain of truth. Many people do believe, after all,
that certain extremely immoral behavior is irrational: performing medical
experiments on prisoners in concentration camps, for example, or allowing
a baby to drown because one is late for the movies. What is interesting
about this belief is that it is controversial. Everyone of course agrees that
such behavior is the height of immorality. But is it irrational? There are
con¬‚icting intuitions here. The parallel with morality is this: there are also
con¬‚icting intuitions about the morality of actions that involve extremely
severe self-in¬‚icted harms, such as suicide or drug abuse. Some people
have a basic intuition that suicide and drug abuse are immoral in virtue of
the harm to the agent. But other people hold that if an action will harm
only the agent, then it cannot be immoral. The striking similarity in the
structure of these controversial cases in morality and practical rationality
strengthens the case for a parallel between these two notions. And, for
those who wish, it may also provide the material for constructing a view
that is very similar to, but slightly weaker than, the view advocated in
this book. For it may be that harm to others does have some relatively
small power to make actions rationally required, so that when the harms
are very great indeed, they can generate a nontrivial prima facie rational
requirement. And it may also be that, in a similar way, harm to self does
have some relatively small power to make actions morally required. The
proposed modi¬cation would do nothing to undermine the main point
of this book. The parallel between practical and theoretical rationality

Practical rationality and justi¬catory reasons

would remain just as strongly opposed “ indeed, even more strongly. And


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