Social Agency and Practical Reasons

A Practice Account

by Christine Chwaszcza (Author)
©2017 Monographs 229 Pages


Tying in with major traditions of ordinary language philosophy, the author presents an account of practical reasons in social agency that radically challenges the two mainstream accounts of practical reasons, the desire-belief model and the neo-Aristotelian «sub-specie-boni» model of practical reasons. She argues that the traditional focus on instrumental rationality and teleological reasoning ignores important types of non-purposive and agent-related reasons that play a major role in rule-based context of social agency and reciprocal interaction. The argument contributes to the analysis of promising and social conventions, reconstructions of acting together and shared intentions, and develops a new account of institutional and rule-based agency in terms of non-moral normativity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Outline of the Book
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Promising. A Paradigm Example of a Social Practice
  • 1.1. Promising as a Practice: An Analysis
  • Hume’s First Problem: the Meaning of “I Promise”
  • Hume’s Second Problem: the Normative Force of the Utterance “I Promise”
  • An Outline of Promising as a Rule-Guided Practice
  • 1.2. Standard Objections to the Practice Account of Promising
  • The Challenge of Precision
  • Practices, and the Analogy of Games
  • Objections to Searle’s Concept of Institutional Facts
  • Does Normative Validity Depend on an Internal Point of View?
  • The Normative Quality of Promissory Obligations
  • 1.3. Practices, and the Analysis of Practical Reasons: A Preview
  • Chapter 2. Conventions, Rules, and the Limits of the Desire-Belief Model of Practical Reasons
  • 2.1. Lewis’ Analysis of Conventions
  • Ad (i): The Common Interest Condition
  • Ad (ii): The Arbitrariness Condition
  • Ad (iii): The Theoretical Point of Observed Generality
  • Ad (iv): The Common Knowledge Requirement (CKR)
  • 2.2. A Philosophical Criticism of CKR as an Account of Practical Rationality
  • 2.3. Gilbert’s Criticism of CKR and the Concept of a Plural Subject
  • Sociality as Non-Moral Normativity
  • Critical Assessment of Gilbert’s Analysis
  • A Preliminary Conclusion
  • 2.4. Bratman’s Account of Shared Intentions
  • Practical Reasons in Bratman’s Planning Theory of Intentions
  • Practical Reasons in Bratman’s Analysis of Shared Intentions
  • Limits of the Role of Desire-Belief Reasons in Interpersonal Coordination
  • Limitations of Bratman’s Analysis
  • (i) Social Exchange
  • (ii) Reciprocal Agency
  • (iii) Reactive Agency
  • 2.5. Reasoning in Contexts of Social Conventions
  • Appendix: Some Remarks Concerning the Rational Choice Framework of Lewis’ Analysis
  • Nash’s Equilibrium-Concept and the Problem of Coordination
  • Rationality Concepts in Game Theory and Decision Theory: Nash Equilibria versus Maximization of Expected Utility
  • Chapter 3. Reasons Sub Specie Boni: A Constructive Criticism
  • 3.1. Introductory Remarks concerning Anscombe’s Methodological Approach
  • Actions as Meaningful Behavior: The Main Idea
  • The Individuation of Actions and Intentional Actions: Outline of the Theoretical Framework of the Analysis
  • Intentions Proper and Practical Reasoning
  • 3.2. Practical Knowledge as Genuinely Practical
  • (i) Knowledge Without Observation
  • Criticism of the “Two Directions of Fit”-Interpretation of Practical Reasons
  • (ii) Anscombe’s Neo-Aristotelian Account of Practical Reasoning
  • Practical Reasoning as Non-Inferential Reasoning
  • The Exercise and Acquisition of Practical Knowledge
  • Synopsis
  • 3.3. Beyond Purposive Reasons: A Theoretical Proposal
  • Appendix: Two Remarks concerning Velleman’s Account of Rationality in Practical Reasoning
  • Chapter 4. Outline of a Practice Account of Reasons in Social Agency
  • 4.1. Introductory Remarks concerning Individualism-Holism Debates
  • 4.2. Standards of Reasons in Institutional Agency
  • The Structure and Function of Institutions
  • Individual Agency and Reasoning in Institutions
  • Institutional Reasons
  • Institutions as Collective Agents
  • Two Problems of Rule-Conforming Agency that Must Be Kept Apart
  • Institutional Agency and Interaction
  • Summary
  • 4.3. Practical Reasons and Social Practices
  • Economic Exchange Considered as a Practice
  • The Structure of Social Practices in General
  • Agency and Interaction in Economic Exchange
  • Agency and Interaction in the Practice of Promising
  • Reactive Attitudes versus Prognostic Expectations
  • Reasons for Participation in Promising
  • Trust in General Compliance versus Lewis’ Concept of Common Knowledge
  • Summary
  • Appendix: Agency versus Ontology
  • Ontological and Explanatory Individualism/Holism: What Is It About?
  • The Concept of Action in Searle’s Analysis of Speech Acts
  • The Analysis and Role of Intentions and Practical Reasons in Tuomela’s Account of We-Intentions
  • Social Holism and Social Choice Theory: Two Remarks Concerning Rationality Requirements in List’s and Pettit’s Account of Group Agency
  • Chapter 5. Practical Reasons and the Rationality of Reciprocal Agency
  • 5.1. Game-Theoretic Analyses of Reciprocal Cooperation
  • The Informal Concept of a Genuinely Collective Action
  • The Prisoner’s Dilemma as a Formal Model of Collective Action
  • Introducing the PD: 2-Person One-Shot Models
  • The Structure of N-Person PDs: The Tragedy of the Commons
  • Iterated Games: Some Results
  • Unorthodox Game Theory: Team Reasoning
  • 5.2. The PD as a Challenge to the Concept of Instrumental Rationality
  • Gauthier’s Concept of Constrained Maximization
  • Introducing Altruism: The Ethical Solution to the Problem of Cooperation
  • Universalizability-Requirements of Rationality: The Moral Solution to the Problem of Cooperation
  • Baier’s Account of Social Rationality
  • Restatement of the Problem of Reciprocity
  • 5.3. Rational Reciprocity and the Concept of “Reactive Reasons”
  • Chapter 6. Are External Reasons Rational?
  • Types of External Reasons and Standards of Deliberative Reasoning
  • Is Practical Rationality Normative?
  • A Final Remark
  • Bibliography
  • Index

| 13 →


“[I]t is more important that our theory fit the facts

than that it be simple […]”

W. D. Ross, The Right and the Good, p. 19

When philosophers analyze the concept of practical reasons, they employ frameworks of means-end reasoning that typically apply to goal-oriented activities of individual agents. Given the fact that human agency is largely embedded in rule-based social practices and that agents have to interact with other agents in conventional settings, the conceptual framework is quite narrow. Too narrow, as I will argue. This book proposes an analysis of the concept of practical reasons that is adequate for agency in social contexts, i.e., social agency, which is characteristically guided by rule-based reasons and agent-related reasons.

Traditionally, philosophers tend to think of human agency as purposive, and of practical rationality in terms of means-end reasoning. This is not to say that all philosophers agree about the analysis of agency or the structure and substance of practical reasons. The two most widespread theoretical models of practical reasons, the so-called desire-belief model and the neo-Aristotelian model, which I will call the sub-specie-boni model, differ with respect to the function of practical reasons in human agency as well as the concept of practical rationality. Proponents of the desire-belief model tend to think of human agency as goal-oriented and of practical rationality as instrumental, whereas proponents of the sub-specie-boni model conceive of human agency as teleological and of practical rationality in terms of Aristotle’s characterizations of phronesis.

Interestingly, however, both largely focus on individual agency, i.e., actions, plans and projects of individual persons, which often enough are about the handling of things, artifacts, or nature. Although the choice of examples fits the implicit focus on purposive actions, it is not representative of the full range of human agency. Agents also interact with other agents, they participate in group activities, and they engage in activities which are largely constituted by conventions, institutions, and rule-based practices. Neither one of the standard models of practical reasons works well in such contexts of social agency. ← 13 | 14 →

Current analyses of practical reasons appear to be primarily motivated by questions that derive from problems in the philosophy of mind or metaphysics. By contrast, philosophers such as J.L. Austin and G.E.M. Anscombe who—notwithstanding their huge differences in philosophical temperament—are rightly considered as eminent figures in the field, explicitly pursued an analytical approach tied to the understanding of agential terms as exhibited in ordinary social practices, especially ethical and legal reasoning. Notwithstanding significant differences in so-called ordinary language philosophy, the general idea coincides with Wittgenstein’s remark: “For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” (Wittgenstein 1958, § 43; emphasis in the original)

This book is an attempt to revive a practice account in the following sense. It presents an analysis of the concept of practical reasons that reflects their role and common understanding in contexts of social agency, or at least an outline of such an analysis.

Neither the concept of practical reasons nor the term agency is likely to be found in the vocabulary of the common man. They are philosopher’s terms of art that stand for a rather wide range of issues, with which philosophers traditionally have been preoccupied in their analyses of practical rationality and action. This, however, is not an obstacle to the enterprise. For a practice account articulates a requirement that applies to theoretical analyses. It demands that philosophers check whether their conceptual framework adequately represents the role and function of concepts in relevant practical contexts. In the case of concepts such as practical reasons and agency, which are highly abstract, an appeal to practice can even be considered a theoretical “must”, because traditional accounts of agency-related and reason-related terms have been largely shaped by systemic controversies that preoccupied philosophers in past centuries, but have partly been revised since.

The present analysis, therefore, is primarily a critical discussion of the conceptual adequacy of the two standard models of practical reasons, of the theoretical motivations that support particular versions of them in current debates, and of their shortcomings in contexts of social agency. An assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the two models has to reflect the different theoretical motivations that support them. Since such a project requires a separate discussion of the models, the following chapters do not ← 14 | 15 → present a single line of argument, but approach the analysis of practical reasons from different theoretical perspectives. The common theme that binds the chapters together is the focus on the role and understanding of the concept of practical reasons in contexts of social agency.

Given that social agency is largely embedded in conventional, i.e., rule-guided, practices of a heterogeneous plurality, three clarifications are tantamount. First, a clarification of the normative force of rule-based reasons in different contexts of social agency; second, an adequate reconstruction of rule-based reasons; and, third, an adequate reconstruction of reasons for compliance with the rules. Since the account of social agency and practical reasons that will be presented in the following is to a large extent inherently normative in a non-moral sense, I would like to emphasize that the systematic problems addressed here all concern aspects of the conceptual analysis of practical reasons rather than their normative justification.

At present, theories of social agency flourish, but a practice account is not popular in current academic writings. I, therefore, do not even attempt to present a comprehensive overview of the current state of the art, but have decided to address only a few paradigmatic theoretical contributions, in order to be able to follow a straight line to my main systematic points. That means that I also have had to omit the discussion of non-traditional approaches that are motivated by theoretical problems different from my own.

Outline of the Book

The first systematic problem that has to be addressed is a methodological one. It concerns the concept of a “practice” and its function as a point of reference in philosophical analysis. Chapter 1, therefore, will start with an outline of the practice of making a promise (“promising”), which—besides the practice of language—seems to be the most discussed paradigm of a practice in philosophy.

The aim of the chapter is limited. It is meant, first, to elucidate characteristic features of social practices and their function in philosophical analysis; second, to distinguish moral and non-moral forms of normativity; and, third, to introduce a preliminary account of practical reasons. I will approach the first task through a discussion of the role of the utterance “I promise” in undertaking an obligation. Arguing that no such utterance in isolation from further ← 15 | 16 → rules suffices for generating an obligation, I will defend a practice account against major methodological objections that have been raised against it.

The second task is preliminarily addressed in the first chapter, but not confined to it. The main idea, which will be developed further in later chapters, is that rules, in contrast to behavioral regularities, generate normative expectations concerning the behavior of other agents, insofar as non-rule-conforming behavior justifies criticism, whereas regularities support prognostic expectations, the violation of which requires one to revise one’s beliefs. All rules qua rules are normative in this sense, but many rules, e.g., traffic rules and rules of etiquette, do not qualify as moral. The special function of morality within the overall system of rule-guided practices consists in the possibility of raising questions such as: “The rule requires that I do x, but is the rule ‘right’?” and “The present state of affairs generates practical problems or interpersonal conflicts of interests of a structural or systematic kind. What would be morally acceptable rules for dealing with those problems or conflicts?”. Such questions ask for a moral justification of the substantive contents of rules and systems of rules.

Also the third task can be only mentioned in the first chapter and has to be developed further in later chapters. I will confine my remarks here to the general idea. The present analysis of practical reasons starts from the assumption that practical reasons are meant to provide answers to the question “What shall I do?”, where more than one alternative course of action is feasible. Such questions arise when we ask for an evaluative ranking of alternative courses of action and, more importantly, in contexts of practical deliberation that require weighing and balancing of prima facie practical reasons in order to yield a reasonable all-things-considered practical judgment.

Following Kurt Baier, I will propose that answers to the question, “What shall I do?”, qualify as practical reasons, insofar as they articulate considerations that are generally accepted as relevant and valid in accordance with socially shared standards of practical reasoning.1 One widely discussed ← 16 | 17 → standard is prudence. As I will argue in later chapters, however, there exists a heterogeneous plurality of such standards. A more detailed outline of the general idea, however, requires further argument and will be presented at the end of chapter 3.

Since the distinction between internalist and externalist accounts of practical reasons is a common theme in philosophical debates, I would like to mention in advance that the proposed account of practical reasons is an externalist one. Conceived of as considerations that are valid according to standards of evaluative assessment, practical reasons are normative in a non-moral sense, insofar as they articulate considerations that agents should take into account if they are to reason well. Practical reasons qua reasons thus apply generally to all agents. The concept is understood to stand for the human capacity of reflection in making choices about what to do as well as the capacity to reflect about how to reason in contexts of practical choice and deliberation.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (June)
reciprocity trust promises conventions philosophy of action
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 229 pp., 8 b/w. ill.

Biographical notes

Christine Chwaszcza (Author)

Christine Chwaszcza is Professor of Political Philosophy, Social and Legal Philosophy at the University of Cologne. Previous publications include contributions to the Ethics of International Relations, Human Rights, Philosophy of Action and Practical Reasons.


Title: Social Agency and Practical Reasons
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