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September 18, 2013


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Thanks so much for doing this, Connie.

I have an honest question about the focus of your (and other people's) work on personal good. An important object of your interest, suggested above, is what a good life for a person might consist in. I'm curious about why this is the (sole?) temporally sustained target, as opposed to, say, mere enduring stretches within the life of some person. Let's use "selves" to designate stretches within my life that are more psychologically unified than others (I'm borrowing language from Parfit here). So the stages within my twenties are much more unified with each other than my 20-year-old stage and my 80-year-old stage are (presumably) going to be with each other. And we can imagine all sorts of more dramatic, radical psychological breaks that may occur, such that the pre-break person is significantly different from the post-break person.

In such case, I don't have much of a grip on a good life for that person, whereas thoughts about what a good self-life would be are more compelling. It may also be easy to conjure up cases in which something that would make a couple self-lives within my person-life good may count as a bad for my person-life.

Anyway, as I said, just an honest question about why lives are the focus here. Perhaps "lives" is flexible enough to be applied to selves as well, or perhaps lives are not your exclusive focus.

I think the vows or commitments we make earlier in life give us reasons that are fundamental to individuals living an authentic life that is true to their sense of personhood and identity. This is particularly true of cases where individuals have been required to subsume their own wants, desires or conception of the good in deference to the constraints of family or social concepts of what is good for living one's life. For example, daring to dream beyond the bounds of local or parochial concepts of the good has taken many people very far in their lifetimes as they have been able to relinquish the limitations of the constraints associated with education or resource based opportunities. Similarly, promising yourself as a young person that you would not repeat the same mistakes as an abusive parent, or promising your younger self that you would always strive to rise above certain behaviours or pursue certain modes of living are really critical to individuals developing a concept of personhood that is independent of others. Breaking these promises to oneself can be far more critical than a promise to anyone else since the expectations and disappointments rest inside the constitution of self and the betrayal of this can break a person through the incremental or radical betrayal of their very concept of being. The agent relation to regret can be a significant burden particularly if the consequences of these betrayals lead to circumstances where further betrayals of the self are likely to occur. This would be the case present in an individual engaging in acts of prostitution for example although that would not generally considered to be an agent making an informed and rational choice it would generally occur as a consequence of limited choice options. However, the incremental relaxing of standards or tolerance towards conduct that was once considered to be outside of the boundaries of a normal conception of the good and actually then constitutes a redefinition of the good or lays the foundations for the changes in perception is what is critical in the redefinition of the self in these conditions. A much lesser or more critical discussion would be someone declaring that they would not go for a month without bathing but then finding themselves in circumstances where they have no access to facilities so their concept of good hygiene is compromised. This may seem small but the emotional response of disgust is a critical biological reaction present in humans assessing what is good or good for them and it is obviously socially relative. (Contempt, anger and disgust or the CAD triad, are three innate biological emotional responses that human's rely upon to determine what is good). In relation to self sacrifice and agent regret, I would suspect that if the sacrifice of the self occurred in the pursuit of a higher purpose or a greater good or a greater social good, such as a victim of sexual assault sacrificing their own good to proceed through a criminal trial to prevent this from occurring to others would represent a much greater external purpose. Any sense of regret would be substantially different from circumstances where internal motivations provided the only incentive or basis for sacrifices. In this respect the concept of what is good is such a relational term. In response to David's comment, Aristotle's discussion of the Good Life means living a flourishing life in all these different stages or phases of a personas existence. In this sense the concept of the good is defined through achieving your best relationships or successes through various lives - family life, professional life, social life. If you look at Rawls Social Goods and Primary Goods his individuals are seeking to achieve a flourishing life over the course of a natural lifespan which encompasses all of the different development phases and so how successfully someone lives their life through their twenties or thirties is going to be different than in their eighties yet the bounty or rewards of their living a good life should be reflected in their standard of living at eighty. Both Aristotle and Rawls consider that concepts of the good evolve over the course of a natural lifespan and evolve to adapt to the individuals maturing conceptions of what constitutes a good life. Great area of discussion. Thanks for sharing your work Connie.

Thanks, Dave, great question. The focus of my work has not been on what a good life for a person might consist in. Rather, at least thus far, it has been on what it is for something to be good for a person, that is, on the property of being good for someone. I haven’t much explored the normative questions about personal good. The metaethical version of the question about a good life would concern what it is for a life to be good for a person, though I guess I could have expressed this better in my summary. I gather that some people might think that we have to first understand a life’s being good for a person before we can understand particular things being good for her. I don’t take that view. I think it necessary to explore the metaethical question about a good life because I take it that there are many things that are or could be good for a person—many things that do or could suit her—that won’t all fit together in a life. So now, why think that we should focus on a life rather than one smaller temporal segments? I don’t have any particular reason for thinking that we should, so perhaps I could address the basic puzzle that interests me without putting it in terms of lives, focusing instead on temporal segments. We sometimes do experience more or less dramatic breaks with earlier parts of our lives and with our earlier selves. I suspect that the connections between later and earlier selves are incredibly complicated and subject to change. For example, I can imagine an 80 year old feeling more connected with stages in her twenties than in her forties. We can, so to speak, sometimes lose ourselves for periods of time and feel like we have found ourselves again later. It would be interesting to mine the phenomenology.

Thanks, Melanie. I find a lot to agree with in what you say about the importance of our vows or commitments to our sense of identity, and particularly, about the importance of our self-promises. Of course, some have thought that there cannot be valid promises to self. Because the individual is both promisor and promisee, she can simply release herself from the promise at will, which means that she was never really bound in the way that a promisor is bound in cases of promises to another. If this is right, then self-promises would be something more like firm intentions. I’m inclined to think that promises to self are genuine promises, though I recognize the difficulties for this position. Some of the cases you describe strike me as ones in which what we have promised to ourselves takes on especially great importance. Of course, not all cases are like that and not all vows or commitments we make to ourselves are self-promises. We may come to conceive of ourselves in a certain way, and some of the vows or commitments that we make are tied to our self-conceptions. We act so as to match our self-conceptions, but we needn’t do so perfectly in order for it to be true of us that we are the persons we conceive ourselves to be. Some lies are compatible with being truthful, some acts of selfishness are compatible with being generous, and some insensitivity is compatible with being a kind person. Given that this is the case, there is, I think, a puzzle as to why certain particular acts, which we have vowed to do, might give us reasons to act at a much later time. If they do, then I am inclined to think that this is because of how acting on them helps to constitute us as the sort of person we conceive ourselves to be.

Yes, I meant to formulate the question in terms of the metaethical approach you'd mentioned, but botched it. Thanks for the correction and the interesting answer, Connie. I suspect that focusing on temporal segments might be the more plausible (and neutral) way to go, but then the devil will really be in the metaphysical identity details (or, more precisely, in the details about what matters in identity). You're exactly right: any plausible story about these segments will have to allow for the possibility of my 20 and 80 year old selves actually being united with one another, but not with many of the other segments of my "life." Anyway, thanks for the response!


The way you put the problem for naturalized (in this case idealized desire) accounts, it can feel like the issue is a failure to be fully responsive to what matters to the agent whose good is in question. It feels like you are saying, in part, that a problem with traditional full info views is that they impose a one size fits all idealization on the agent. And this one size fits all idealization may itself fail to capture aspects of what the agent cares about—in this case cares she has about what the proper idealization should look like for her. If this is part of the problem, one might say two things. First, that this is a concern from within a broadly subjectivist point of view—the worry is that some of the agent’s concerns are not finding expression in the theory. I wonder if you see it that way or you see a pressure here to reject even this broader form of subjectivism. Second, it might seem that a more individualized understanding of the idealization process, something more like your “two-tier” account in which the agent’s concerns regarding the process of idealization are given a role in determining what counts as the appropriate idealization process for her, would answer the worry. As I understand your current direction of investigation, it would not be so individualized but rather focus on aspects of agency itself. Could you say something about why, if I have you right, moved away from the more individualized picture?

Thanks, Dave, lots to think about here. I can see why it might seem that the problem for informed-desire theories is a failure to be fully responsive to what matters to the agent, and in a sense that is right. There are a couple of ways we might express the problem. One is in terms of the agent’s question about why to treat as indicative of her good the reactions of her idealized self rather than those of another ideal advisor. From her point of view, though they may be equally ideal cognitively, but not equally ideal motivationally. The other is less in terms of a question that arises from the standpoint of the agent and expresses her concern about ideals of the person than from a more theoretical standpoint. Here, the issue might be expressed in terms of the normative authority of an idealization that is hostage to a particular motivational system. The problem, when put in this way, is perhaps best understood by considering what might come out as good for a person, depending upon the motivational system of the ideal advisor. I don’t mean for the worry to be about a one size fits all idealization. There might be one idealization that would be normatively favored; the question is whether the account that adopted it would still be a form of naturalism, whether or not it is a form of subjectivism. I’m not sure what to say about the connection with my discussion of internalism, I don’t think the two-tier view was meant to be individualized, at least if I understand what you mean by that. I don’t think there has really been a shift from a more individualized focus to a focus on aspects of agency, but I can appreciate why it might look that way, and perhaps I’m just not alert enough to a shift in my thinking. The latter focus occurs in my earlier work, too. But one thing I was wondering in “Agency and the Open Question,” was whether naturalists could get around the problem I had raised earlier for informed-desire theories by incorporating into their idealizations the motives and capacities that make us agents. The current direction of my work is individualized in the sense that fit is individualized—what is good for an individual is what appropriately fits her, and what fits her depends on what she is like, which includes the features she has in virtue of being an agent. I hope this somewhat answers your questions. Thanks again.

Excellent, that is helpful. Thanks!

Hello Connie, I would be curious to hear your response to David Enoch's 'Shmagency'-challenge to constitutivist theories of normativity. Does it pose a challenge to your account at all? Why or why not? Thanks!


I happen to know that Connie's upcoming paper at the Metaethics thing at Madison is on exactly this topic so if you will be there you are in luck.

Thanks for your interest, Hanno. Here is the short version. As I explain in the draft I'll be presenting, there are various ways in which I think that the project I undertook in "Agency and the Open Question Argument" has been misunderstood. At least as David characterizes constitutivism, I don't think I fall into that camp, though I do think that normativity depends on agency. The paper was prompted by some doubts I had about the force of my earlier criticisms of naturalism (in the form of informed desire theories). What I undertook to do in AOQA was to offer a diagnosis of what I take to be the lingering force of the Open Question Argument. I suggest that it poses a challenge for naturalism, rather than defeats it, and I do suggest one route a naturalist might take to try to meet the challenge. But I do not endorse that route, nor is my aim to defend naturalism. As for the general challenge David raises for constitutivism, I think the force of it depends very much on the conception of agency on offer. For example, if the capacities and motives that make us agents are things like the capacity to remember, reason, and reflect, and a motive to have desires consonant with reality, then the normative relevance of agency seems to me to be pretty clear.

@David + Connie: downloaded the file and reading the paper right now - thanks for your replies!

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