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The Morality of Mental Practical Action

  • Author(s): Richardson, Ira Andrew
  • Advisor(s): Herman, Barbara
  • et al.

Thinking is something we do, and some of the thinking we do is morally wrong. If we included examples of morally wrong mental action among starting points for philosophical reflection, how would they be explained by our best ethical theories and what might they illuminate about ordinary examples of morally wrong overt action? My project develops the view that some mental activities are genuine practical actions, and I propose that the moral norm for mental practical actions is the standard of their kind: using standards of goodness to make determinations about what to do. The practical activity standard requires practical agents to use valid standards of goodness only. A practical activity which fails to meet this standard cannot be good, I conclude, since it fails to meet the standard of its kind. I illustrate how this standard of practical activity can be used to articulate what makes it is morally wrong to fantasize about murder. To address the practical mechanics of fantasizing about murder, a mental activity that consists in mentally imagining murder for pleasure, I sketch an account of the practical imagination. Since our practical ends are regulative standards determining the goodness of what we do, our practical ends can determine the mental content of our imaginings. I argue that, by imagining murder for the sake of pleasure, the fantasizer uses an invalid standard of goodness and thereby violates the practical activity standard. The fantasizer's use of an pleasure as a standard of goodness is invalid, I argue, because it applies to the ends of whichever practical agent's murder is imagined but incorrectly determines that it would be good because pleasing. I show how this basic argument strategy can be extended to other salient moral phenomena, including morally wrong mental hopes as well as familiar examples of morally wrong overt actions such as making a false promise and killing for profit. I address examples of acting for the wrong reason and sketch a few interesting implications for future research. I suggest that the moral significance of the practical activity standard suggests a friendly reinterpretation of Kant's Humanity Formula as a deliberative constraint against using the standard of practical activity as a mere means. Since the standard of practical activity captures the nature of practical agents as rational, to use it as a mere means is to use the rational nature of a practical agent as a mere means. According to the view that begins to emerge, morality calls for us to deliberate about the ends of other practical agents not only when our activities would do something to them (and hence use them) but also when our activities would do something about them (and hence use their rational nature).

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