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Article: Subjectivism, Instrumentalism, and Prudentialism about Reasons

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Abstract: According to a subjectivist theory, normative reasons are grounded in facts about our desires. According to an instrumentalist theory, reasons are grounded also in facts about the relevant means to desired objects. These are distinct theories. The widespread tendency to conflate the normativity of subjective and instrumentalist precepts obscures two facts. First, instrumentalist precepts incorporate a subjective element with an objective one. Second, combining these elements into a single theory of normative reasons requires explaining how and why they are to be combined. I argue that the most plausible justification for combining the two elements—which appeals to a theory of well-being—exposes the inadequacy of the instrumentalist theory: the grounds required to justify the instrumentalist combination are also grounds for the normativity of prudential precepts, and with them practical reasons that may have no internal connection to an agent’s conative, motivational states.

Photo credit: Ardabil Carpet, 16C Persian carpet, Victoria and Albert Museum

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