Connie Rosati is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona. She received the Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Michigan and the J.D. from Harvard Law School. Her research interests lie primarily in metaethics, the philosophy of law, and constitutional theory. She is currently working on a book on the nature of personal good.
The following post is an excerpt from work in progress on the kinds of normative reasons facts about our good provide.
“On Reasons of Personal Good”
Among the many things I came to believe when I was young was that people should be prepared to make at least some significant sacrifices for one another, including at least minimal physical sacrifices. In particular, I came to believe that, other things equal, people ought to donate blood. After all, what could be a more important, while still minimal physical sacrifice, than donating a pint of a bodily fluid that would readily replenish itself? As it happened, I didn’t weigh enough to give blood. So I vowed that if I ever met the minimal weight requirement of 110 pounds, I would make a donation. I did not stably meet that requirement until my mid 40s. Periodically, it would cross my mind that I had once committed myself to giving blood, if ever I could. Time continued to pass, however, without my ever doing much more than checking, on a few occasions, for the location of the local American Red Cross.
On Wednesday, January 13, 2010, I again located the nearest Red Cross blood donation center, but this time, I scheduled an appointment. On Saturday, January 16, 2010, I became an “FTD,” as the forms identified me: a first-time blood donor. When I arrived, the receptionist informed me that they were running behind, and my 12:00 appointment would be delayed by half an hour; I could come back another day if I wanted, she said. But I figured, no doubt correctly, that doing it later might well mean doing it never, and so I stayed, waiting until nearly 1:30, at which point another staff person took me into a room to check my hemoglobin and complete the required questionnaire. Giving blood was mostly uneventful, except for the part when, just after they finished drawing a pint and filling several vials, I passed out (twice).
There were, as it happens, excellent reasons for me to have arranged to donate blood when I did. A massive earthquake had just shaken Haiti to its knees, and news reports were grim. No doubt the disaster was in the back of my mind when I called. But in truth, it served more as a reminder of a vow as yet unkept than as a direct impetus to action. Perhaps it played some unconscious part in my doing what I did when I did it, but I can’t say that I felt any sense of urgency about donating blood, and when asked by the staff person why I had decided to become a donor, I didn’t mention Haiti. I had, in fact, already donated money to the Red Cross in response to the tragedy. And when I returned home after donating blood, I made a second monetary contribution. Surely donating money was enough and probably mattered more than donating a pint of blood, at least so far as Haiti was concerned. Given the lag time between when I made the donation and when the blood would be usable, and given the complexities of the blood distribution system, I couldn’t rationally have been moved by the thought that my blood would help someone in Haiti. Of course, someone, somewhere, at some time would presumably benefit, and I could rationally have been moved by the thought of that benefit, but it was no particular part of my thinking. The consideration of such a benefit was among the reasons for doing what I did, but it wasn’t the reason for which I acted.
It seems to me that I was ultimately moved to act, at least in part, by the fact of that long-ago vow, that somehow a commitment made by me then weighed with me now. Suppose, that I am right about this, that among other considerations, the fact of my having once made a vow did move me to act 35 years later. Did that fact give me normative reason to act? Do facts about our earlier vows or commitments give any of us normative reason to act? And if so, do they give reasons weighty enough to sometimes make a difference to what we ought to do?
As I shall explain, facts about earlier vows and commitments are among the things that can give an agent a special kind of reason—reasons of self-constitution—and such reasons are reasons of personal good.
Reasons of personal good include at least the following. There are first, intrinsic reasons of personal good. These are reasons that exist in virtue of the fact that something is good for a person at a time. The fact that an individual is engaged in activities that are currently a part of her flourishing, for example, is a source of reasons for doing what is constitutive of engaging in those activities, reasons distinct from whatever reasons morality may provide for doing so. Her engagement in parenting is a source of reasons to attend to her children. Her career as a lawyer provides reasons for carrying out the sundry tasks involved in the practice of law. There are also instrumental reasons of personal good. These are, as the name indicates, reasons that are grounded in facts about the means to be taken to attain or maintain what is now good for an individual.
In addition to facts about what is good for a person at a time, there are facts about what could be good for her, what could become a part of her good. The fact that something might be good for a person provides her with pro tanto reasons as well. Because they arise from facts about a person’s possible good, a good that could be hers if she were to choose it and do the necessary work to bring herself into a relation of fit with that possible good, let’s call these conditional reasons of personal good.
Conditional reasons are among what we might call constitutional reasons of personal good. Constitutional reasons are reasons to constitute our good in particular ways. A person might have constitutional reasons to make certain things a part of her good, to make her possible good her actual good. Constitutional reasons include reasons that bear on whether to pursue some ends rather than others, whether to undertake various sorts of education or training, whether to lead a particular sort of life. They also include reasons to undertake acts that will constitute, sustain, or reconstitute oneself as a particular sort or person. They include, that is, reasons of self-constitution.
Now here we must consider certain peculiarities about the good of persons. As persons, creatures with the capacity for autonomy, we live our lives not only with conscious awareness, but with a kind of self-awareness. We each have a certain need to make sense of ourselves to ourselves, and so we reflect on ourselves and our doings. We care about what sort of persons we are, whether for moral or aesthetic reasons or reasons of expected benefit, and we sometimes deliberately seek to alter or develop ourselves. We each have a self-ideal, a normative conception of the sort of person we are and of what our lives are about, though we typically embody that self-ideal imperfectly. Sometimes we find that we have changed in unexpected ways so that we have strayed from our self-ideals, or we become aware of ways in which we fail to fit our self-ideals, so that we are not as we conceived ourselves to be. As a consequence, we may experience a need to “reconsolidate” ourselves, to get back to who we were so as better to match our self-ideals, or to revise our self-ideals as we adjust to the persons we have become, perhaps integrating aspects of our former and current selves. Our ability to function effectively as autonomous agents, and so our ability to lead flourishing lives partly depends on our having and acting from effective self-ideals. If a person has a self-ideal that is too at odds with what she is really like, if she has a conception of what matters to her that is too at odds with how she acts, her ability to be self-governing and her ability to achieve a good life will be impaired.
A person’s ability to develop and sustain an effective self-ideal requires activity on her part. Aristotle famously emphasized the role of practice and habituation in the development of moral virtue, and the need for practice and repetition, as well as the cultivation of habits, is important, too, in developing and sustaining an effective self-ideal. Habits, though, may be just so sturdy, and a person may, due to poor choices, self-deception, a lack of self-knowledge, laziness, or circumstances beyond her control, come to act in ways that are “out of character”—not in keeping with who she conceives herself to be. She may also simply fall short of her self-ideal, because she has not fully developed habits and practices in line with her self-ideal. As a consequence, she may need to deliberately undertake to perform actions that she would perform as a matter of course, were she acting in line with her self-ideal, thereby working to make it true of herself that she is as she conceives herself to be.
No doubt we all fail to do some of the specific things that we take to be a part of being the sort of person we conceive ourselves to be. And no doubt failing in this respect is compatible with leading a satisfying life. Nevertheless, having specified some things as significant in this way, we create reasons of self-constitution, when circumstances permit, to undertake the actions in question. In my own case, although many acts would have been ways of acting as the person I conceive myself to be, there was a particular act that I had singled out, and I had done so by vowing that I would someday do it. Because of its relationship to my self-ideal, and because of the importance of our having effective self-ideals to our flourishing, it seems to me that I had reasons of self-constitution to give blood in a way that I did not have to do a great many other things.
Let me now bring the forgoing discussion to bear on the questions raised earlier. Here are my answers. The fact that a person made an earlier vow or commitment can give pro tanto reasons to act, even many years later. The kinds of reasons such facts give are reasons of self-constitution, which are reasons of personal good. These reasons can be significant enough to at least sometimes make a difference to what it makes most sense for a person to do. Reasons of self-constitution have this significance because they concern acts that are a part of our efforts to form, develop, and sustain effective self-ideals, and so to constitute ourselves as particular sorts of people.