Practical Reason and Practical Good

Practical reason is reason in or toward sound action or policy. (Theoretical reason, by contrast, is reason toward sound views about how things are or ought to be.) I follow Aquinas in taking it that practical reason aims at practical good, even in cases where the action or policy in question is in some respects evil. Aquinas sorts practical good into three categories--good in the sense pleasant, good in the sense useful, and good in the sense fitting. This vision of practical good has come to inform my work on reasons for acting and practical reason more generally.

I mean "practical" in "practical account of good" and "practical reason" to carry more weight than it has for a long time. I mean the term to direct our attention straight off to doing things, to intentional action. Intentional action is action that can be explained and justified by giving one's reasons for so acting. A practical account of good, then, will have to do with reasons for acting.

The more usual starting place in thinking about reasons for acting these days is moral psychology, that region of psychology that concerns the aspects of subjectivity pertinent to action and responsiveness to the world--emotions, for instance, or thought-processes that take place before one acts. Intentional action and mental life aren't unrelated: one's intentions both shape action and give what one has in view in so acting. Elizabeth Anscombe directed our attention to this feature of intentional action initially by noting that "if you want to say at least some true things about a man's intentions, you will have a strong chance of success if you mention what he actually did or is doing," because, "whatever else he may intend, or whatever may be his intentions in doing what he does, the greater number of the things which you would say straight off a man did or was doing, will be things he intends" (Intention, §4). Her interest in intentional action is unusual. Contemporary philosophers are more inclined to suppose that the operation of practical reason is most readily detected by examining what goes on when people think about what to do or pursue. In short, we often treat the term practical as marking out a region of topics about which one can think, and practical reason as what is at work when one thinks about such topics. The region of practical topics consists in topics pertaining to action in general, with considerations pertinent to one's own doings as a kind of sub-division. The latter are of special interest since they are most likely to be brought to bear on what one does.

Contemporary focus on practical topics as objects for critical reflection has the unfortunate consequence of rendering reason in intentional action rather opaque. The mise en scène of reason becomes the mental theater and the operations of practical reason become head work separated from, and often taken to be temporally prior to, the work of enacting one's will. We have, one might say, a white-collar vision of reason in action. Mental labor and manual labor were not in this way distinct for Aquinas. Accordingly, to begin to get a sense for what distinguishes an old-fashioned practical account of good from some other variety, we need to imagine that practical reasoning is not just thought about action, but rather reasoning toward (paradigmatically extra-mental) action. The force of toward is at least this: not only does practical deliberation issue in doing something and concern topics pertinent to what one does, the fit between the two must be such that the reasoning is undertaken in order to decide what to do and what is done is done on account of and in accordance with the grounds provided by deliberation.

Aquinas's work on practical deliberation sees the objective of practical thinking as action. On many contemporary views, it looks as though it will count as a coincidence if reason ever reaches this destination.¹ It is as if we have become so interested in what a rational agent takes it into his head to do (and why) that we are unconcerned about how it all turns out, as though he could be a perfectly realized practically rational being without all the fuss and bother of engaging in extra-mental activities, without lifting a finger, really. We are driven to this kind of view by imagining that excellence in the exercise of practical reason--practical rationality--is attained by developing, say, a beautiful character, or a deep commitment to morality, or a sound understanding of what matters, or very fine principles (where principles are understood not, in the first place, as sources of what people do which give shape to their lives in practice, but as considered opinions about what ought to be the case, opinions which one is occasionally called upon to actualize), and that the way one gets principles, knowledge, commitment or character is by critical reflection on oneself and on practical topics. Whereas I think that any theory of practical reason which locates practical reason first and foremost in moral psychology (and so renders doing things a simple adjunct to the rich inner life--a little bit off to the side which is no part of the real topic of interest) is not a theory of the excellent exercise of practical reason at all.

My work concentrate on intentional action, with the thought that reasons for acting both shape it and are what one has in view in doing what one does. This gives the right sort of sense to practical reason. Additionally, by thinking about reasons in and for acting, we attend to what one might say on behalf of doing what one does. And this is the way to think about good in practical account of good. A practical account of good becomes an account of reasons for acting. To say that good is what people pursue is to say that intentional action as such is subject to reasons-for-acting-seeking questions, criticism, and the like.

¹Some contemporary theorists are unconcerned about this. One such view has it that in learning and practicing seeing circumstances in different ways, one stores up things which might later be of use (or not, as the case may be), and that the whole business of building one's practical repertoire should be treated as practical reasoning. I think it better to avoid this outcome if possible, and would rather confine practical reasoning to putting what one has to use in figuring out what to do.