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Ethics and action

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L3572-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2015
Retrieved March 22, 2018, from

Article Summary

Moral theories are theories of right action. Moral principles are meant to guide action. And, if moral rules exist, they apply to all agents. Theories of action and agency seek to determine what counts as an action, what distinguishes agents from nonagents and the principles that govern what happens when agents act. These joint ventures both depend on and inform one another.

When we deliberate about what to do, we often consider what moral requirements we might be under. We think about what we morally ought to do. It often seems like the answer to that question can depend on what sorts of abilities we have, what options are available. If I cannot do something, either because I lack the ability to do it or because I do not have the opportunity to act in that way, then plausibly it is not the case that I should do that thing. More importantly, perhaps, it is not the case that I failed a moral requirement. So what sorts of abilities do we have and how do they constrain what we ought to do?

Moral principles tell us what we should do. But action theory tells us that what people do is a complicated affair. Typically, agents want and believe things, form intentions to act, then act on those intentions, while producing various results or outcomes. So an important question for ethics and action theory is: What parts of my action determine whether I act wrongly? Am I morally evaluable only for those parts I intend explicitly? Or must I answer for unintended consequences? In difficult cases, which take priority?

Only moral agents need concern themselves with right action. However, we also think that morality is not optional. If some action is wrong, then no one should do it. No matter how much you want to, you still should not. And this seems like an important and necessary feature of morality. Ethicists have struggled, however, to justify why moral requirements should be universally binding. Some think that if we pay close attention to what it is to be an agent, one who performs actions for reasons, then we will find such a justification. Thus, a major foundational question of morality depends on a deeply foundational question from action theory: What does agency consist in?

Citing this article:
King, Matt. Ethics and action, 2015, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L3572-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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