Pattern-Based Reasons

Most of my research has been about what I call ‘pattern-based reasons’. These are reasons for action of the following form:

There is a reason for the agent to do A because it is part of some favoured pattern of action P.

An example might be a reason to decline a doughnut now, because doing so is part of a diet. It’s the whole diet that has the good effect, or at any rate not merely this present bit of abstinence. This is a plan-based reason: the sort of pattern-based reason in which P consists of actions all of which are performable by the primary agent. But we might think also about group-based reasons, in which P consists of actions some of which are performable only by others. For example, we might think that there are reasons of this sort to cut down on one’s own carbon emissions, because doing so is playing one’s part in a pattern of action that involves many people and that would have good effects.

My distinctive contribution to the literature on pattern-based reasons has been to frame more familiar debates using this idea, and to present the skeleton form of my own theory of such reasons. Until recently, a distinctive feature of my view about pattern-based reasons was that it rejected all versions of the idea that a pattern P can support reasons only in cases where the agents who could perform the actions that P consists of would be willing to do so (an idea that I call the Willingness Requirement). However, in response to some arguments made by Alexander Dietz, I have now revised my view, and accept a version of the Willingness Requirement. My revised view will be presented in my book on Utilitarianism (see below).


My recent work has been to develop and defend a distinctive form of utilitarianism. According to this form of the theory, Act Utilitarianism is half right, in the sense that all of the reasons that it claims exist do exist. However, there are also other reasons — pattern-based reasons. As mentioned above, I now accept a version of the Willingness Requirement, but I try to show that this is compatible with using the concept of pattern-based reasons to explain moral constraints. The overall character of the theory I develop is somewhat similar to Rule Utilitarian theories, though it is not idealising in the way that they tend to be.

I aim to show that this utilitarian theory of reasons has plausible implications across a range of issues in ethics and political philosophy. I also argue that it enables plausible replies to many standard objections to utilitarianism. I have recently finished a book for OUP, titled Taking Utilitarianism Seriously, developing these ideas.

In 2016-17 my work on this project was generously supported by a Research Fellowship funded by the Leverhulme Trust.