Beyond Belief and Desire: or, How to Be Orthonomous

  • Michael SmithEmail author
Part of the Library of Ethics and Applied Philosophy book series (LOET, volume 27)


The standard belief-desire account of the explanation of action is inadequate to the task of explaining even the very simplest actions. We must suppose instead that three psychological states are in play when we explain action, not just two: desire, belief, and the exercise of the capacity to be instrumentally rational. Once we enrich our understanding of action explanation to acknowledge the causal role played by an agent’s exercise of his rational capacities, much richer accounts of action explanation come into view, accounts that highlight the many different ways in which agents’ actions can be explained by their rational capacities. Of special interest are cases in which agents’ actions are explained by their failure to exercise their rational capacities, where these are capacities that they possess, and cases in which their actions are explained by their failure to exercise their rational capacities, where these are capacities that they do not possess. Richer accounts of action explanation such as these suggest a distinctive story about the conditions under which people are responsible for wrongdoing, a story with surprising implications for our understanding of what it is for an agent’s moral beliefs to be justified.


Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Action Explanation Moral Belief Rational Capacity Peripheral Vision 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Australian Government. 2005. “The Age of Criminal Responsibility, Australian Institute of Criminology.” Accessed 21 January 2011.
  2. Christenfeld, N. 1995. “Choices from Identical Options.” Psychological Science 6:50–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Davidson, Donald. 1963. “Actions, Reasons and Causes.” Reprinted in Essays on Actions and Events, edited by Donal Davidson, 3–20.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.Google Scholar
  4. Davidson, Donald. 1970. “How Is Weakness of the Will Possible?” Reprinted in Essays on Actions and Events, edited by Donal Davidson, 21–42. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.Google Scholar
  5. Hall, Daniel. 2008. Criminal Law and Procedure. New York, NY: Cengage.Google Scholar
  6. Hempel, Carl G. 1961. “Rational Action.” Reprinted in Readings in the Theory of Action, edited by Norman S. Care and Charles Landesman, 285–86. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1968.Google Scholar
  7. Hume, David. 1740. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.Google Scholar
  8. Kant, Immanuel. 1786. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. London: Hutchinson and Company, 1948.Google Scholar
  9. Lippman, Matthew. 2009. Contemporary Criminal Law: Concepts, Cases, and Controversies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  10. Raz, Joseph. 1999. “Explaining Normativity: Reason and the Will.” In Engaging Reason: On the Theory of Value and Action, 90–117. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Scanlon, Thomas M. 2002. “Rawls on Justification.” In The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, edited by Samuel Freeman, 139–67. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Smith, Michael. 1994. The Moral Problem. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  13. Smith, Michael. 2003. “Rational Capacities.” In Weakness of Will and Varieties of Practical Irrationality, edited by Sarah Stroud and Christine Tappolet, 17–38. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Smith, Michael. 2004. “The Structure of Orthonomy.” In Action and Agency, edited by John Hyman and Helen Steward, 165–93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Smith, Michael. 2009. “The Explanatory Role of Being Rational.” In Reasons for Action, edited by David Sobel and Steven Wall, 58–80. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Wolf, Susan. 1987. “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility.” In Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions: New Essays in Moral Psychology, edited by Ferdinand Schoeman, 46–62. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

Personalised recommendations