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The importance of materiality for theories of practical reasoning Essay

1. On the face of it an agents reasons for acting would seem to depend on (1) factors about the agent themselves; and (2) factors concerning their environment and circumstances. This has often led to a claim of pluralism: that there are incompatible views on what courses of action there are good reasons to engage in.

The importance of materiality then, would seem to rest on its distinctive feature of universality: that is, it is unique in virtue of placing a universal constraint on all agents irrespective of who they are, precisely because there are features which all human beings share by just by virtue of being practical beings. The claim of universality thus carries significance independent of what human beings think of it. It presents a reason for engaging in certain courses of action irrespective of an individual’s distinct interest and in this regard materiality is of brute significance. The claim would be that materiality places a constraint on the second of these factors which necessarily impinges upon the first, and thus provides, a reason for all agents to engage in certain courses of actions: In this case, fulfilling their material needs.

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2. This essay challenges the significance of this universality. It argues that materiality is universal only in a very basic sense, and that beyond this the truth of our materiality and the constraints it places on our practical reasoning is very much localized, that is, depending on an agents circumstances and environment. I suggest also that there is a paradoxical feature involved in its recurrence in that whilst placing material constraints on all persons continually, for many the significance will become less and less as a mental process for engaging in securing material needs depending again on one’s social context or environment.

I begin this essay by trying to root out the core features of materiality that I have suggested makes it distinct and more fundamental then the plurality of values people find reason to hold. I suggest that it may force people into relations they may not otherwise choose to engage in, and that we must take account of our engagement with others in that respect. I suggest also that, though materiality provides a basic constraint on practical reasoning, beyond this the constraint varies according to the agent’s circumstances.

3. It is possible to distinguish between actions and goals of original, reactive, and brute significance. Thus where some goal or engaging in some activity (for example, playing the guitar) gains its significance through one’s endowing it with importance, or some goal or activity gains its significance through other people attributing to it a significance which affects you, we can call these factors of original and reactive significance respectively. Materiality by contrast illustrates that a factor may carry significance independent of anyone’s attitude towards it; that is, it is a brute consideration that must be factored in to one’s practical reasoning.

As a fact of brute significance it makes its importance an objective consideration, and to that extent beyond the reach of any particular culture or person, and their valuation of it. It is a truism that my engaging in an activity – for example, kicking a football – requires certain preconditions or prerequisites being met first: For example, enough oxygen to my brain, enough food and other general necessities of health which are necessary to engage in such an action. Simply, our materiality provides a universal precondition we have to fulfil before we do anything. Beyond this truism that touches all agents however, it is much less clear where the significance of our materiality is born out in our everyday reasoning.

4. Before we investigate its significance apart from our basic biological needs and in terms of our practical reasoning, a second important feature must be added to the brute significance of materiality as a constraint of necessity: Its recurrence. Simply, meeting our material needs is not a question of meeting our needs once-and-for-all, but is a condition that requires constantly meeting those needs throughout our life times. The claim here is that since all human agents must satisfy certain material needs continually it is a contingent fact of enormous consequence that the satisfaction of material needs becomes a central rather than peripheral part of human life. Thus for many the constraints of materiality operate in the form of making it necessary to enter into complex relations of dependence with others who can provide the resources necessary to engage in any extra-activity beyond the basic needs of sustenance.

It is possible to discern a qualitative distinction between ourselves and other animals in this respect: As human beings we have the ability to produce the means to satisfy these material needs through labour, technology and so on and so forth. Whilst animals may interact with one another in a complex set of relations (as when ants work together), there is at least a difference of degree in our ability to provide for our material needs. This will often involve some sort of employment, which compatibly will involve other people, and so it follows that the very idea of human agency – contra the autonomous figure portrayed in the pre-social state of nature – is already deeply social in character.

In one clear sense then, human lives are not separate at all, but connected, in the sense that any plan of action will involve other people because of the material prerequisites of pursuing it. Contrary to the Hobbesian individual, depicted as somewhat of any autonomous self carrying out his tasks in life, it raises the possibility that our actions and what reasons we have for engaging in certain courses of action might not simply be determined by reference to oneself, but by reference to others, and where they stand in relation to those choices and actions: this constitutes part of our embeddedness in social life, and illustrates how many things will become of reactive significance, depending not necessarily on us, but on those around us.

This registers the familiar communitarian thought that we are embedded in a rich social contract, and that the individual forms part of a multiplicity of communities. Nevertheless, the possibility of critical reflection is crucial here if we are to maintain some sense of the individuals making choices in life. Thus the possibility of dissociation from one’s embeddedness (at least mentally) through process of critical reflection allows for the more liberal position of autonomous agents choosing their life-plans and goals in life. In essence it is important to maintain a medium between both the embedded and unencumbered self.

This further has implications for notions of distinctness of persons. If distinctness of persons is understood as “the state of affairs in which as many distinct persons as possible are carrying out their plans as successfully as possible and achieving their good”, we can not be understood as separate by virtue of the fact that, achieving such states of affairs necessarily requires us engage with others in a rich social contract in order to fulfil the material requirements necessary for achieving our good. Thus, even where these plans themselves are distinct, our means to bring those plans about will often interconnect with others; and we may share a common interest in this respect. There is necessary a trade-off then with our autonomy, since achieving any private life-plan will require engagement with others, and might be shaped in that respect.

Thus whilst it may be the case that our basic material needs as human beings is a truism, it is important to register its centrality and importance, in that it often forces human beings to enter into relations independent of their will as a mechanism for successfully carrying out their life-plans. Thus a balance is struck between our being bound by certain factors of materiality as a route to fulfilling our own goals in life.

4. It would seem clear that the provision of our materiality provides what Rawls would term a primary good: that is, a good required by everyone irrespective of what their notion of the good-life and what their plans for achieving it are (it is not so clear however, that the list of primary goods Rawls presents us with is similarly so primary in the universal sense depicted). Walzer raises a possible scepticism with regard to the primacy certain goods. He provides the example of bread, which would appear, by all means, to be a good whose ‘meaning’ is not a matter of social or cultural construction but of biological necessity. Nevertheless, for Walzer ‘Bread is the staff of life, the body of Christ, the symbol of the Sabbath, the means of hospitality, and so on’. The idea here would seem to be that different meanings attach to different goods in different cultures and in that way take precedence over other possible meanings and uses.

There is one simple response in this regard, and that is to distinguish between the function of some good, and its function proper: Thus whilst clothes may perform some extra-function(s) in terms of making me appear a certain way, and perhaps making me fit in with a particular style accustomed to a community, its primary function is nevertheless to provide the basic needs of warmth, comfort, protection and so on. In a similar fashion then, whilst bread may provide extra-functions in terms of being the staff of life and so on, its function proper is to provide for our nutritional needs. Whilst primacy may be given, in a religious culture, to bread as a representation of the staff of life, it must be recognised that attaching such primacy and engaging in such religious activities can only happen secondarily to providing for our basic nutritional needs.

Nevertheless the cultural differences which may place different meanings on such primary goods raises another interesting point: Simply, that the significance of our materiality in placing a universal constraint on practical reasoning is heavily dependent on one’s context or environment; and to this degree, we fall back on the idea that what we have reason to do depends on the agent and their circumstances.

Moreover, it is a paradoxical feature of recurrence that whilst it makes materiality a central factor in our lives as human beings, it also has the feature that in some cultural climates the recurrence of materiality makes it less and less intrusive in our practical reasoning: that is, in one sense, we take it for granted; we become unaware of it. It is important to notice then, that in many peoples society we do not think of bread in terms of its function proper or clothes in terms of their function proper; but instead terms of their extra-functions: My desire to look a certain way, my desire to take part in a religious activity. This is the case when securing our basic material needs does not figure highly in our practical reasoning: we simply take their fulfilment as granted.

5. Thus the constraint that materiality places on us as a species, will differ massively according to, as much as anything else, where in the world one is born. As a standard case, the man in the developing world who has to walk five miles everyday just to secure enough drinking water to carry out his daily tasks is constrained in an entirely different way from the man in the developed world where the thought of securing such a basic need or precondition does not even cross his mind. Thus the constraint for the man in the developing world is not merely a physically time consuming one in that it limits what activities he can engage in, but a mental constraint also.

My aspiration to do different things – for example, to play the guitar – requires different kinds of material resources, and as such, it is possible that I should acquire an indirect material interest whose origin lies in a distinct non-material circumstance. This connects to all individuals – no matter what their life plan – though certain things require different basic requirements. In this respect it is possible to make a distinction between what I call here primary and secondary materiality.

We have primary material needs in terms of sustenance, but we have secondary material needs in terms of our ability to engage in choice-making above and beyond our basic or primary material needs as a species. Whilst the constraint of primary materiality is universal by virtue of our being a species, the degree or extent to which we fulfil such primary needs will shape the way in which we formulate and engage in choice making, and this will vary wildly, and this it seems will depend on one’s environment.

The purpose of the distinction is to highlight that whilst primary materialism is a brute universalistic fact, secondary materiality is localised and varies accordingly on the basis of: (1) The agents ability to meet these basic needs in terms of one’s access to the relevant resources and; (2) The agents ability to even formulate such goals in the first instance. Thus the man from the developing world is unlikely to form the same interests and goals as the man from the developed world precisely because the constraint materiality places on each of them is different. It is doubtful that is, that the man who walks five miles everyday for water can form intentions and life-plans akin to those of the man in the developed world: He does not form intentions of the like ‘I want to learn to play the guitar’, as it is similarly unlikely that fulfilling our basic material needs places a mental constraint of any form on the man in the developed world: He simply takes it for granted (partly because of its recurrence), that fulfilling those needs is a biological necessity.

It places much less of a constraint on which choices and actions he may propose to engage in thereafter, which are then of original rather than brute significance. That is, having fulfilled his basic needs, he then endows his projects and goals with some significance. Thus the room for autonomy is much greater in the life of one than the other, though it should be noted, that this might be thought to stem partly from is interrelations and dependence on others, in which case this itself may place a constraint on ones autonomy. Notice also, that such variation not only occurs between nations or the developed and under-developed world, but might exist also in communities. Thus whilst our materiality in places a constraint on everyone in terms of biological necessity, it will be much more localised and variable in terms of our engagements thereafter in different life-plans.

6. This essay has question the significance of our materiality beyond the obvious. It has claimed that despite being a universal precondition that applies to all agents recurrently, it may be less or more significant as a practical constraint in ones reasoning and choice of life plans. In this sense then, its universalizability is questionable.

I have suggested that its recurrence for example, may maybe reduced to a biological necessity which does not necessarily register with our mental formulation of goals and reasoning, though of course it places a constraint in the sense that one needs to be in position of material health to accurately conceive such goals in the first place. Judging different social environments according to their conduciveness in the realisation of plans would seem to presume that the agents in those lesser environments could in the first instance formulate such plans as those formed in the secondary class of materiality. There is a sense in which are materiality binds all of us in our practical reasoning, though how it binds us may vary massively.

Hello again. I’ve attached 3 pieces of work (Note: this is complex stuff)

The first deals with relativism, whether ethcial properties exist. But you can talk more generally about cultural realtivism, judging others etc., along similar lines. There should be some arguments applicable in there.

The second has more to do with the use of everyday language in real life and the way we attach truth values to things: i.e when we say ‘Lying is wrong’ we speak as if it is truth-apt. This all links with the stuff regarding belief and desieres where

Belief = world to mind direction of fit (i.e. way the world is)

Desire = mind to world D.of.F (i.e. way we desire or want the world to be)

Consider also minimalism about truth; or what is sometimes termed deflationary truth.

Descriptive judgements are truth-apt – that is they can be either true or false (note the post-modernists will probably want to ay no such thing as true and false; just attitude or expression, and this links back to the Frege-Geach stuff in that second essay).

Now here’s the languge stuff:

First off: Consider the scenerio: I’m hammering a nail for my picture in the wall and hit my thumb, and go AGGGGGGGGG!!!!!! (exclamation). Then i do it again except this time i go “Oh shit, I’ve done it again”. The question is whether surface grammer is different from depth grammer. That is, In the first on the surface grammer is an exclemation and the second one it is a description (they are different on the surface grammer). But the depth grammer of the two may be the same: “Oh shit…” might just be a more complicated way of saying (or a more complex version of) “AGGGGGG!”. So one might argue in fact that whilst “I like x” has surface grammer of a descriptive staement, in actual fact its depth grammer is the same as an attitude/expression, and that really thats all it is: its not really truth apt at all.

A good test for whether something has the surface grammer of a descriptive, fact-ststing utterence (or judgenmment that for example ‘cheating is wrong’) is whether it can be placed in this wider sense and make grammtical sense:

‘It is true that”. . . . . . . “‘

Alternatively ‘it is false that “…….”‘

The larger sentence doesn’t have to be true or false, it just has to make grammatical sense. E.g. ‘It is true that “poodles is a rock god”‘ makes sense, and so has the surface grammer of a descriptivce statement although it is false.

Now, expressive judgements are different: it does not make sense to say that ‘It is truye that “AAAAAAAGGGGGGGGG!”‘. So expressions are not truth apt. So?

Well if ethical judgements are expressions of attidude then they can’t be true or false and so we can’t debate with them, say one value is better then the other etc. Thats why in my essay, Blackburn wants to mimic realism as much as possible; so we can rank ethical judgements; so we can say waht Hitler did, for example, was evil etc. without people going well, you’re just expressing you’re attitude, and i can express mine, and I think it was Ok. Again, we need to be able to say about that person ‘we’ll you’re wrong’.

I can’t remeber what you question was, but what i’m going to talk about is whether ethixal properties (good, bad, right wrong etc) exist.

Consider: what is it that makes x good or right? (where x is an an action, a situation, a character trait, whatever)

Now: the whole probably with all of this (i.e. ethical statemnts aren’t truth apt is that we dopn’t speak in this way in the real world, and this goes back to all the stuff about deconstructing knowledge, because we don’t deconstruct into expressions, but construe things as if they were in fact truth apt).

This is hard to explain, and the essays are tricky, so you might just want to ignore all of this. It will take some thinking to really make an argument from it regarding you’re essay. And there’s loads of other really ionteresting stuff which I won’t tell you about because its complicated and probably not relevent.

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