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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Right Action and Integrity

  • Author(s): Jennings, Justin
  • Advisor(s): Herman, Barbara
  • et al.

If there exists a right thing to do, why should the internal consistency of persons’ attitudes matter, at all? Acting on one’s best judgment or to taking the means one believes necessary to one’s ends could lead one into incorrect action. Perhaps acting against one’s best judgment or with inconsistent intentions could lead one into right behaviors or away from wrong ones. So why be consistent? Why not just be correct? Why should akrasia matter? Why not just right action? Why should rationality matter? Why not just reasons?

I try in my dissertation to answer these questions through an account of the structure of right action as such. I do not suggest one has reason in every case sufficient to make consistent action always right action. I argue instead acting on one’s best judgment about what is right partially constitutes any instance of right action, at all. Right action, I argue, must be done because it is right, which suggests it must be done out of the attempt to do what is right. Yet one who tries to do what is right forms her best judgment about what is right and tries to act on it. She may fail to do the right thing with consistency. Yet she cannot succeed in doing the right thing without it.

Chapter 1 formulates this account as a response to Niko Kolodny’s critique of theories justifying internal consistency. Kolodny argues all the going theories either (1) entail one should act on one’s beliefs merely because one has them, (2) give implausible reasons as to why one should be consistent, (3) require one to act for the sake of consistency rather than correctness, or else (4) do not explain why one’s beliefs should guide one’s actions, at all. An accurate theory must avoid all these unacceptable results. This account of right action avoids them by suggesting not the sufficiency but the necessity of consistent action to right action. One must form and act on one’s best judgment as a constitutive part of carrying out any particular right action as such.

Chapter 2 argues for the sufficiency of the above account of right action to ordinary uses of the concept by responding to an objection Nomy Arpaly raises against accounts of right action as entailing action on best judgment. She argues no such view can account for the actions of the titular character from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck, being from the antebellum American South, believes he should report his friend Jim to the authorities because Jim recently escaped enslavement. But after their journey down the Mississippi River together, Huck finds he cannot go through with it and instead helps Jim escape. Arpaly claims Huck acts against his best judgment and yet still acts rightly. I argue Huck does act rightly but acts on a non-deliberative form of judgment on which persons appear to act over the vast majority of their lives. Huck sees Jim’s humanity and inchoately knows he cannot turn him in. Persons who “act against their best judgment” as Huck does seem to act rightly where those merely causally overpowered by emotion or desire do not.

Chapter 3 presents two accounts of the Instrumental Principle. Wrong ends do not make it right to take the means one believes necessary to them. So what does one mean in saying, “I don’t think you should be a musician, but if you’re intending to be one, shouldn’t you be practicing?” What is this “should”? I give two accounts. First, persons cannot achieve ends if they do not intend means they believe necessary to achieving them. One must achieve ends intentionally to count as achieving them. But intentionally achieving ends entails intending the means one views as necessary to achieving them. Instances of instrumental inconsistency thus give evidence of one’s general unreliability for right action. Second, actually correct ends seem to count in favor of the means necessary to achieve them. One who believes an end to be correct but not the means she views as necessary to it thus has inconsistent beliefs. Someone trying to do what is right necessarily pursues an accurate view of the facts and act on it. But an inconsistent view cannot be accurate. Instances of instrumental inconsistency thus give evidence a person lacks the intention to do what is right, which right action as such requires.

Chapter 4 attempts to explain the relationship Bernard Williams identifies between right action and integrity. Pure consequentialism views the right action as in every case the action producing the maximally good state of affairs. Williams argues such views of right action take inadequate account of the cost such actions impose on persons’ commitments. For instance, one usually takes it one should look after one’s family even though seeing to the welfare of strangers might produce greater aggregate happiness in the world. Intuitively, Williams argues, one’s integrity, one’s fidelity to one’s commitments, partially determines when one acts rightly and what it is right for one to do. I suggest that under a conception of integrity closer to ordinary language this argument holds not merely intuitively but deductively. Under the above account, forming and trying to act on her best judgment about what is right partially constitutes right action as such. But integrity ordinarily means forming and trying to act on one’s best judgment about what is right. So, on the one hand, acting against one’s best judgment constitutes failed right action in every particular case. On the other hand, action constitutively requiring one not to form or act on one’s best judgment cannot be right action, at all. Right action’s structure rules out pure consequentialism a priori as one of its possible contents. Pure consequentialism cannot give the content of right action inasmuch as right action has the structure it ordinarily seems to have, that is, if one must do the right thing because it is right.

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