Practical Reason and Ethics Above the Line

Tollefsen, Christopher
March 2002
Ethical Theory & Moral Practice;Mar2002, Vol. 5 Issue 1, p67
Academic Journal
In John McDowell's recent Woodbridge Lectures at Columbia University, he characterizes Wilfrid Sellars' s `master thought', in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, as drawing a line between two types of characterizations of states that occur in people's mental lives: "[A]bove the line are placings in the logical space of reasons, and below it are characterizations that do not do that" (McDowell, 1998, p. 433). In this essay, I ask what would be required for ethics to be "above the line." More precisely, what would be necessary to characterize episodes as actions, and persons as agents, so as for them to be answerable to moral criticism in light of rationally relevant considerations. The requirements are twofold: that practical reason motivate in virtue of the content of its deliverances; and that there be a will which is sensitive to those deliverances, and which chooses freely. A widespread procedural account of practical reason is examined and found insufficient to place ethics above the line; and a suspicion is raised that McDowell himself, and Jonathan Dancy, do not have a robust enough conception of will to avoid the below the line ethics they accuse their opponents of defending.


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