Three Theories of Self-Governance

Michael Bratman
Durfee Professor in the School of Humanities & Sciences and Professor of Philosophy
Stanford University
April 1st, 2005, 4:00 to 6:00 pm
Ellis 113

We care a lot about autonomy, about governing our own lives. But what is it to govern one’s own life? I begin by considering two different approaches to this question that have been prominent in the recent philosophical literature. One approach is associated with work of Harry Frankfurt. The main idea, roughly, is that in self-governance one’s practical thought and action is under the control of appropriately stable higher-order desires – desires about what desires are to move one to act. A second approach is broadly Platonic in spirit and associated with work of Gary Watson. The main idea here is that in self-governance one’s practical thought and action is under the control of one’s judgments about what is good. Both approaches face a basic problem of explaining why it is that when certain desires or judgments shape thought and action, it is the agent who is directing and governing the thought and action. Reflection on these approaches and this problem leads me to a third theory, one that highlights the guidance of thought and action by policy-like commitments to treat certain considerations as reasons, and that understands these policy-like commitments by appeal to what I have called the planning theory of intention.

bratmanMichael E. Bratman is U. G. and Abbie Birch Durfee Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University. He is the author of Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987; Re-issued by CSLI Publications, 1999), Faces of Intention: Selected Essays on Intention and Agency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), and various articles in philosophy of action and related fields. Some his recent work on agency and self-governance will be collected in his Structures of Agency: Essays (Oxford University Press, in preparation).

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