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Investigations
Reason for doing


In Candace Vogler's most recent and ambitious work, the associate professor in philosophy set out to publish her 1994 dissertation on practical reason-reason directed toward action or policy-but ended up refuting her earlier work.

Her new book, Reasonably Vicious, due from Harvard University Press in November, became a limited defense of the "standard view" of practical reason-a theory that was popular dissertation fodder when Vogler studied philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh because, she says, it was ripe for hole finding.

The standard view's modern incarnation, called "instrumentalism," holds that reasons for action involve both cognition and desires or preferences, and it claims that action is instrumental-a tool-in satisfying desires. In other words, action is derived from a psychological state. With "unending, wild, and unruly" human wants at the center of the supposed standard base for further study, Vogler and other doctoral students darted to disprove the theory. They seemed to succeed.

"When I set out to revive my dissertation into a book, I realized that it was too easy to refute instrumentalism," Vogler says. "If any competent doctoral student can refute it, why is it called the 'standard' theory?"

She thought that instrumentalism must not be the view that sets the standard for work on practical reason. "I decided to try to refute the genuinely strong version of a calculative view"-a means-end or part-whole view-"and I found it in Aquinas."

Thomas Aquinas, she says, explained practical reason so well she couldn't refute him. "So the book turned into a defense of a Thomistic account of practical reason."

In his Summa Theologiae and other works, the 13th-century philosopher and theologian argues that people act to achieve good. He highlights how goodness shapes the structure of intentional action, pointing out three kinds of reasons for action: we do things because they are pleasant or enjoyable, useful in attaining an immediate or further end, or consistent with our sense of how to conduct ourselves.

Vogler, who had read Aquinas's commentaries on Aristotle but not the Summa, pored over his paragraph explaining the "threefold division" of good in the summer of 1994, sitting on the rocks along Lake Michigan at Promontory Point. "The elegance, the simplicity, and the power of Aquinas's method for sorting out the reasons for action just blew me away," she says. "I literally got the shivers."

What amazed her was Aquinas's focus on an action's structure, which she found more powerful than a focus on psychological states alone. By focusing on structure, Aquinas showed how practical reason shaped intentional action. For him, psychology emerges from action rather than action from psychological states.

For example, Vogler explains, imagine a woman about to cross the road. If asked why she was crossing the road, she might answer that she was going to the cafe on the other side. If asked why she was stepping off the curb, her answer would be so that she could begin walking. If asked why she was shifting her weight, the answer would be that she was going to step off the curb, and so on. Vogler's point is that every action has a means-end or part-whole structure, though our protagonist doesn't think it out in advance. That structure drives practical reason.

Drawing from Aquinas, Vogler formed her "standard picture" of practical reason ("picture," she says, is a less grand term than "theory"). Her standard picture asserts that practical reason is a person's power to match a means to an end, or part of an action to its whole. Without that calculative structure, Vogler argues, there can be no rational assessment of human acts.

Next Vogler considers morality, asking, how can we treat good as the object of human pursuits, as Aquinas suggests, "when any sane person knows full well that people sometimes knowingly and deliberately do bad things?" As a Christian theologian, Aquinas would answer that an immoral person seeks a "transitory" or worldly good rather than the greater good, and in so doing makes an error in judgment. One's relationship with God and hope for resurrection in paradise makes it rational to act morally.

But outside specific religious intellectual circles, contemporary ethics turns on secular work. Vogler's theory - like instrumentalism - proves to be morally neutral. Removing theology from Aquinas, she says, leaves no argument that acting immorally is irrational or philosophically erroneous. The woman crossing the street does so, perhaps, because it will bring her pleasure to have a mocha cappuccino. A Good Samaritan helps an old lady cross the street, perhaps, because he believes that is what a Good Samaritan should do. A murderer shoots a person crossing the street, perhaps, because it is useful to the murderer to have the victim dead.

Although she can't present a philosophical rationale for morality, Vogler believes there is one. "It might be that the most excellent thing you can be is a good person," she says. "That kind of life has its own rewards, and the only way to get those rewards is by being decent. The people who will do anything to get their way are missing out, but that doesn't mean they're irrational."

As for her original dissertation, Vogler says, her new research effectively destroyed it (except for a short section on John Stuart Mill that was published by Routledge in 2001). Parts of Reasonably Vicious's manuscript already have created a slight buzz in the philosophy community. Now she is waiting for the book's November release and the critics to find the flaws in her logic, she says, "because that's what philosophers do."
- A.B.

 



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