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Evaluators, Explainers, Planners: The Importance of Basic Conceptions of What We Are Like as Agents

  • Author(s): Mitchell-Yellin, Benjamin
  • Advisor(s): Reath, Andrews
  • et al.

This dissertation focuses on two questions: What is right/wrong action? What is self-governed action? I argue that prominent, contemporary answers to these questions--moral theories and theories of self-governance, respectively--are grounded in basic conceptions of what we are like as agents. The substance of these theories can be explained, ultimately, in terms of a conception of what is fundamental to human agency. And I show how this observation has significant implications for how we should understand debates about which of these theories is best.

I focus on three basic conceptions of what we are like as agents: the evaluator, explainer and planning conceptions. I show that three of the leading theories of self-governance are each grounded in a different one of these conceptions and how this affects the debate about which theory is best. This way of looking at the dialectic tells against a common way of arguing against rival views. Arguments that appeal to intuitions about cases in order to generate counterexamples are not apt to be fair or persuasive because they too easily invoke contentious conceptions of what we are like as agents. But it suggests an alternative way to proceed. One can muster a holistic argument in favor of one's preferred basic conception, showing that it can ground independently plausible philosophical theories of various kinds. I suggest how such an argument might go for the evaluator conception, considering its merits as grounds for both a comprehensive theory of human agency and a moral theory.

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