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Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2012 Mar;43(1):92-103. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2011.05.008. Epub 2011 Jun 21.

Normativity, agency, and life.

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Department of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame, 100 Molloy Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556, USA.


There is an immense philosophical literature dealing with the notions of normativity and agency, as well as a sizeable and rapidly growing scientific literature on the topic of autonomous agents. However, there has been very little cross-fertilization between these two literatures. As a result, the philosophical literature tends to assume a somewhat outdated mechanistic image of living things, resulting in a quasi-dualistic picture in which only human beings, or the higher animals, can be normative agents properly speaking. From this perspective, the project of 'naturalizing normativity' becomes almost a contradiction in terms. At the same time, the scientific literature tends to misuse 'normativity,' 'agency,' and related terms, assuming that it is meaningful to ascribe these concepts to 'autonomous agents' conceived of as physical systems whose behavior is to be explained in terms of ordinary physical law. From this perspective, the true depth of the difficulty involved in understanding what makes living systems distinctive qua physical systems becomes occluded. In this essay, I begin the attempt to remedy this situation. After some preliminary discussion of terminology and situating of my project within the contemporary philosophical landscape, I make a distinction between two different aspects of the project of naturalizing normativity: (1) the 'Scope Problem,' which consists in saying how widely in nature our concept of normative agency may properly be applied; and (2) the 'Ground Problem,' which consists in rationalizing the phenomenon of normative agency in terms of the rest of our knowledge of nature. Then, in the remainder of this paper, I argue that the Scope Problem ought to be resolved in favor of attributing normative agency, in the proper sense of those words, to living things as such. The Ground Problem will be discussed in a companion paper at a later time.

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