Essays on Values and Practical Rationality

Ethical and Aesthetical Dimensions

by António Marques (Volume editor) João Sàágua (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 392 Pages
Open Access


The essays presented here are the outcome of research carried out by members of IFILNOVA (Institute for Philosophy of New University of Lisbon) in 2016.
The IFILNOVA Permanent Seminar seeks to show how values are relevant to humans (both socially and individually). This seminar is the ‘place’ where different research will converge towards a unified viewpoint. This includes the discussion of the following questions: What is the philosophical contribution to current affairs and decisions that depend crucially on values? Can philosophy make a difference, namely by bringing practical reason to bear on these affairs and decision? And how to do it? Which are our scientific ‘allies’ in this enterprise; psychology, communication sciences, even sociology and history?
This volume shows the connection between practical rationality and values and covers the dimensions ethics, aesthetics and politics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Foreword
  • Table of Contents
  • I – Practical Rationality at Work
  • Understanding Value ‘Relativity’ (Jamie Buckland)
  • Intersubjectivity and Freedom in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (Luís Sousa)
  • The plural role of emotions in Ethics: the case of ethical dilemmas (Dina Mendonça / João Sàágua)
  • John McDowell on practical rationality – is he (really) talking about us? (Susana Cadilha)
  • Rules and personal changing (Regina Queiroz)
  • The Ethico-Political Dimension of Foucault’s Thought (Marta Faustino)
  • Some notes on Rawls’ critique of Kant’s comprehensive moral philosophy (António Marques)
  • Moral Choice without Moralism (Erich Rast)
  • Moral Relativism and Perspectival Values (Pietro Gori / Paolo Stellino)
  • Political ethics as a functional requirement of democracy: sketching a theory of political values in democratic systems (Gabriele De Angelis)
  • II – Arguing about values
  • Practical Rationality at Work – A New Argumentation Model (João Sàágua / Michael D. Baumtrog)
  • Arguing, bargaining and persuading in constituent processes (Giovanni Damele / Francesco Pallante)
  • III – Ethics and Aesthetics: Implicit and Explicit Conections
  • ‘I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist.’ The Interval of Álvaro de Campos (Bartholomew Ryan)
  • Rational Landscape: Spatial justice, politics and aesthetics: The city of Lisbon as a case study (Diana Soeiro)
  • Technology and urban space: on the relation between the historical approach and the transformation of aesthetic values in Walter Benjamin (Nélio Conceição)
  • Aesthetic Values Before and Beyond the Evaluation of Artworks (Nuno Fonseca)
  • Images and Values: a Husserlian perspective (Claudio Rozzoni)
  • The Value(s) of Cinema: Mise-en-scène, Point of View and Ethical Problems (Maria Irene Aparício)
  • Vivre sa Vie: the décalage between language and life (Susana Nascimento Duarte)
  • ‘I’d rather be lucky than good.’ Ethical variations in Pickpocket and Match Point (Susana Viegas)
  • List of Contributors/Affiliations
  • Series Index

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I – Practical Rationality at Work

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Understanding Value ‘Relativity’


In this paper I want to question the feasibility of the distinction between agent-neutral and agent-relative values, and explore an alternative method of understanding value in terms of Alan Thomas’s distinction between non-relational and relational intrinsic value. I shall then briefly suggest that these observations can lend support to value primacy: the idea that talk of value cannot be reduced to talk of the reason-giving force of other (perhaps non-evaluative) properties.1 I shall begin by explaining how Thomas Nagel drew the distinction between the agent-neutral and agent-relative in terms of both reasons and values.

1.  Agent-Relativity and Agent-Neutrality: A Value-Based Theory of Reasons

The clearest statement of the distinction between the agent-neutral and agent-relative can be found in Nagel’s account of reasons for action in The View from Nowhere:

If a reason can be given a general form which does not include an essential reference to the person who has it, it is an agent-neutral reason. For example, if it is a reason for anyone to do or want something that it would reduce the amount of wretchedness in the world, then that is a neutral reason. If on the other hand the general form of the reason does include an essential reference to the person who has it, it is an agent-relative reason. For example, if it is a reason for anyone to do or want something that it would be in his interest, then that is a relative reason. (Nagel 1986: 153–154) ← 13 | 14 →

In a nutshell, agent-neutral reasons are said to be reasons for anyone and everyone, for instance, the general reasons there are for us all to donate money to charity or look after the environment. Such reasons are said to ‘depend on what everyone ought to value independently of its relation to oneself’ (Nagel 1991). If some act, event, or circumstance is said to have agent-neutral value, then anyone has reason to promote its occurrence, or at least desire that it happen. Agent-relative reasons, on the other hand, are said to be reasons only for particular individuals or groups; the special reasons there are for each of us to look after our own interests, or the interests of our family and friends, etc. If some act, event, or circumstance is said to have agent-relative value, then only some particular agent or groups of agents have reason to want and pursue it because it is related to them in the right way – it is valuable for that individual. For instance, everyone’s life is considered to possess both agent-relative and agent-neutral value. We each have agent-relative reasons to care about our own lives (because our lives are valuable for us) as well as having agent-neutral reasons to care about the lives of others (because the lives of all individuals have intrinsic or absolute value). In this sense one-and-the-same act, event, or circumstance can often be understood as having both agent-relative value for someone in particular, or as having agent-neutral value simpliciter, or absolutely.

2.  Understanding Agent-Neutral Value

Christine Korsgaard noted there is some ambiguity surrounding this notion of agent-neutral value or good-absolutely. In her examination of Nagel’s distinction, she considers two approaches to understanding agent-neutral value. The first approach she calls ‘objective realism’:

An agent-neutral value might be a value that is not relative to what agents actually value. According to this interpretation, the goodness of, say, my happiness, has what G. E. Moore called an intrinsic value, a property that is independent either of my interest in promoting it or yours. It provides a reason for both of us the way the sun provides light for both of us: because it’s out there, shining down. And ← 14 | 15 → just as the sun would exist in a world devoid of creatures who see and respond to light, so values would exist in a world devoid of creatures who see and respond to reasons. (Korsgaard 1996: 278)

On this Platonic or Moorean view, one comes to value something when one perceives or discovers its value empirically. Consequently, agent-neutral values are understood as fundamental; agent-relative values are generated by, or derived from agent-neutral ones (Nagel 1970: vii; Korsgaard 1996: 278). On a second approach, agent-neutral value is understood in terms of its intersubjectivity:

[A]gent-neutrality does not mean independence of agents as such, but neutral with respect to the individual identities of agents. On this reading values are intersubjective; they exist for all rational agents, but would not exist in a world without them. (Korsgaard 1996: 278)

Given this intersubjective account, agent-relative value is fundamental; agent-neutral values are constructed out of agent-relative values when agents recognise and come to share each other’s ends.

Before considering where Nagel’s position fits in with these approaches, it is worth looking at G. E. Moore’s form of objective realism in some more detail, particularly his argument against what is now understood as agent-relative value. Moore infamously rejects the idea of agent-relative value qua some sui generis evaluative property:

What, then, is meant by ‘my own good’? In what sense can a thing be good for me? It is obvious, if we reflect, that the only thing which can belong to me, which can be mine, is something which is good, and not the fact that it is good. When, therefore, I talk of anything I get as ‘my own good,’ I must mean either that the thing I get is good, or that my possessing it is good. In both cases it is only the thing or the possession of it which is mine, and not the goodness of that thing or that possession. […] In short, when I talk of a thing as ‘my own good’ all that I can mean is that something which will be exclusively mine, as my own pleasure is mine (whatever be the various senses of this relation denoted by ‘possession’), is also good absolutely; or rather that my possession of it is good absolutely. (Moore 1903: 99)

Now, some take this position to amount to the claim that talk of what is good-for or valuable-for some particular agent or another is, itself, ← 15 | 16 → nonsensical (Kraut 2007: 70). However, the more plausible interpretation of Moore’s argument is that the idea of some kind of sui generis agent-relative evaluative property is nonsensical, for goodness, itself, is not a relational property. Consequently, talk of agent-relative value, or ‘good-for x’ can only ever be talk of good-absolutely which stands in a certain relation to a particular agent. Goodness or value is a metaphysically simple, non-natural property which belongs to things which are good.

Moore’s view aside, Korsgaard’s favoured position is intersubjectivism. Nevertheless, she insists there is some ambiguity as to whether Nagel shares this position or is, rather, committed to some kind of objective realism (Korsgaard 1996: 279–282). However, when understood correctly, it is clear that Nagel’s position is more akin to the intersubjectivist position, whereby values are understood as objective in the sense that they are normatively real.

As we saw in section 1, Nagel advances a value-based theory of reasons where the presence of a reason for action is explained by the relation in which an action stands to some valuable state of affairs, yet for Nagel the idea of some kind of Platonic or Moorean objective realism is misguided. For Nagel, evaluative judgements depend on judgements about the presence of particular reason-constitutive considerations, and the objectivity and reality of value is fundamentally grounded in the conception of a practical agent. Thus, values arise from and are analysed in terms of the conception of a good reason for action:

Values are judgments from a standpoint external to ourselves about how to be and how to live. Because they are accepted from an impersonal standpoint, they apply not only to the point of view of the particular person I happen to be, but generally. They tell me how I should live because they tell me how anyone should live. (Nagel 1986: 135)

What appears odd, however, is that Nagel’s objection to reductive accounts of normativity more generally is stated explicitly in terms of values rather than reasons:

If values are objective, they must be so in their own right, and not through reducibility to some other kind of objective fact. They have to be objective values, not objective anything else. (Nagel 1986: 139) ← 16 | 17 →

Nevertheless, for Nagel this does not amount to a reduction of values to reasons; the relationship he envisages between reasons and value is one of direct correspondence or equivalence; there is an asymmetrical dependence relation between value and the grounding of reasons in the sense that valuable acts, events, or states of affairs are said to provide agents with a reason to promote them. It is in this sense that values are said to be normatively objective, for to objectify them under a non-normative criterion would be to reduce them to some other objective fact, for instance, a psychological fact such as a desire which is said to explain the presence of a reason.2 Consequently:

Normative realism is the view that propositions can be true or false independently of how things appear to us, and that we can hope to discover the truth by transcending the appearances and subjecting them to critical assessment. What we aim to discover is not an aspect of the external world, called value, but rather just the truth about what we and others should do and want. (Nagel 1986: 139 [emphasis added])

Agents, then, do not discover reasons for action that exist independently of their pre-existing subjective motivational states and interests, but rather, taking up an objective standpoint allows objectivity to bear on their will, which can alter and constrain those motives that are already present. These considerations are, as such, the seeds of our moral theorizing. Objectivity and realism in ethics, then, is not analogous to the sense found in theoretical reasoning or empirical Moorean realism. Nagel offers a practical account of objectivity and a normative realism disanalogous to theoretical reasoning in the sense that we do not arrive at new beliefs that include ourselves as components; rather we arrive at an extended set of values and normative judgements from a centreless and impersonal standpoint of objectivity.3 ← 17 | 18 →

3.  Three Kinds of Agent-Relativity?

Nagel’s aim in The Possibility of Altruism was to show that all personal agent-relative reasons had to have an agent-neutral counterpart4 (Nagel 1970: vii). Nevertheless, he eventually succumbed to the idea that there are agent-relative reasons (and values) that are too idiosyncratic to be subsumed under a suitable agent-neutral counterpart, so he allowed for the existence of certain agent-relative reasons (and values) so long as they were tolerable from an agent-neutral perspective. These agent-relative reasons were said to fall into three categories. Firstly: reasons of special obligation. These are reasons stemming from the value of the personal/familial relationships we have with others, for instance, the agent-relative reasons I have to look after my own family and friends. Secondly: reasons of autonomy. These reasons are grounded in the value of an agent’s personal projects or goals, for instance, my ambition to climb Kilimanjaro. And, thirdly: reasons of deontology. These are reasons stemming from an agent’s special concern with his or her own actions, for instance, reasons not to kill innocent people, tell lies, etc.

Now, although orthodox, the idea that deontological reasons are agent-relative is somewhat controversial (cf. McNaughton & Rawling 1991; Portmore 2013). Remember, the idea is that agent-relative reasons track agent-relative values, yet it is far from clear how the disvalue of, say, killing an innocent person is ‘agent-relative’ in the required ← 18 | 19 → sense. Granted, there is a sense in which not killing an innocent person is good-for-me, but it is simply odd to say that this is what makes the killing of innocents bad. Nevertheless, it certainly seems fitting that the value of one’s personal/familial relationships, personal projects, or goals can fittingly be described as ‘agent-relative’, i.e. ‘good-for’ particular individuals. Though, again, as Korsgaard has noted, this seems to mischaracterise the phenomena.

4.  Korsgaard on Ambitions and Special Obligations

Korsgaard refers to reasons of autonomy as ‘ambitions’. For Nagel, the agent-relative value of one’s ambitions provide agents with agent-relative reasons to do things, yet the normative force of these reasons does not extend beyond the agent for whom they are ambitions: no one else has a reason to, say, help me climb Kilimanjaro, and I have no reason to help you achieve your ambitions (Nagel 1986). Korsgaard rightly insists this is mistaken:

Suppose it is my ambition to write a book about Kant’s ethics that will be required reading in all ethics classes … Following Nagel’s analysis, we will say that this ambition is agent-relative … But this way of describing the situation implies a strange description of my own attitude. It suggests that my desire to have my book required is a product of raw vanity, and that if I want to write a good book, this is merely a means to getting it required [in all ethics classes.] … So the structure of this ambition is not:

(1) I want my book to be required reading (where that is an agent- relative end);

(2) therefore: I shall write a good book (as a means to that end); but rather:

(1) Someone should write a book on Kant good enough that it will be required reading (where that is an agent-neutral end);

(2) I want to be that someone (agent-relative motive). (Korsgaard 1993: 287–288)

The same observation extends to reasons of special obligation: ← 19 | 20 →

The structure of reasons arising from love is similar to that of reasons of ambition. I think that someone should make my darling happy, and I very much want to be that someone. And others may have good reasons to encourage me in this. But if I try to prevent someone else from making my darling happy, or if I suppose that my darling’s happiness has no value unless produced by me, that is no longer an expression of love. Again, it is a very familiar perversion of it. (Korsgaard 1991: 211)

The structure of ambitions and obligations is more complex than Nagel allows, then. Rather than a self-interested desire for an object, or a desire to realize something you think is good-for-you, an ambition is the desire to stand in a special relationship to what is good, agent-neutrally (intersubjectively). It may well be some type of ‘agent-relative’ element that has the motivating force, i.e. it is my ambition to climb Kilimanjaro, and my daughter whose care I must prioritize, but this desire is not the source of my reason. It is here that Korsgaard’s intersubjectivism becomes apparent. In offering you my reasons I am offering you the ‘familiar voice of humanity, not the voice of alien idiosyncrasies’ (Korsgaard 1996: 290). Subsequently, the value of our ambitions and personal obligations is not, as the objective realist would have it, intrinsic, but rather an expression of the interest in other agents or humanity. Qua intersubjectivist, an agent first understands himself as simply an agent among many, and then attempts to understand and share the ends of others. The objective realist works in the opposite direction. He must first see if he can share another’s ends, and then decide what relationship he wants to have with others. Korsgaard regards this as a mistake: ‘We should promote the ends of others not because we recognize the value of those ends, but rather out of respect for the humanity of those who have them’ (Korsgaard 1996: 279).

5.  A False Dichotomy?

With regard to the nature of value, for Korsgaard there are only two possibilities: either all value is accounted for in terms of some mind-independent Moorean objective realism, placing it in no relation to the ← 20 | 21 → subjective interests of agents whatsoever (objective realism), or it is explained in terms of intersubjectivism, where the interests of rational agents enter into the very analysis or content of value itself in the sense of rendering all values relational, i.e. the value of an object of moral concern obtains ‘in its relation to the subject’ (Korsgaard 1996: 279). However, this leaves Korsgaard committed to the implausible idea that all values are extrinsic values, as their existence depends solely on a process of construction by rational agents.

Following Alan Thomas, we can refer to this importation of relationality into the very content of value as relationality in value (Thomas 2006: 48). It is this peculiar notion which seems to fuel the idea of agent-relative value: that an agent’s apprehension of value somehow constitutes it, i.e. the idea that the value of my ambition to climb Kilimanjaro is essentially mine is what constitutes it being valuable. This idea seems confused. Indeed, it is more than plausible that you (or anyone) can grasp the value of my ambition to climb Kilimanjaro in the same manner as you can grasp the value of your ambition to, say, play the piano. For Thomas, the very notion of agent-relative value points towards a more interesting distinction between relational and non- relational intrinsic values.

A value is both intrinsic and relational when it stands in an asymmetrical constitutive relation to a subject. In this sense, the value of my ambition to climb Kilimanjaro can only be accounted for by making reference to whom the project is valuable. However, unlike Korsgaard’s intersubjectivism, these relational values can be both relational and intrinsic:

[Relational intrinsic] values do not derive their value from the relations to any object outside their nature (extrinsically); it is, rather, that it is in their nature to be values or disvalues in so far as they stand in a certain constitutive relation. (Thomas, unpublished)

Biographical notes

António Marques (Volume editor) João Sàágua (Volume editor)

António Marques is Full Professor at the Department of Philosophy – Faculdade Ciências Socias e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa. João Sàágua is Full Professor at the Department of Philosophy – Faculdade Ciências Socias e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa.


Title: Essays on Values and Practical Rationality