Are there “reasons for action” without other people?

1.1 Introduction

In a previous post (, I asked: is there an “ought” without other people?

I answered yes: there are things a person “ought” to do even if they are stranded on a desert island.

To clarify, we are talking about a situation where there is no hope of future human contact. Let’s say that the island is eroding away; it will disappear into the sea soon after the person’s lifetime ends. Nothing the person can do will ever affect anyone else. She cannot create a lasting work of art for others to admire; she cannot preserve the island for others to enjoy. And let’s say she is thought to be dead. We all thought the plane crashed into the ocean; we don’t expect her to swim back to shore someday. And there aren’t enough supplies for her to build a raft to leave the island.

Anyways, back to the question: is there an “ought” without other people?

I still think the answer is “yes”, but for different reasons than I proposed previously.

Here is my new answer. Given that people have “reasons for action” (Searle, 2001), it may be safe to say that even someone who is stranded on a desert island will still have “reasons for action”. And she can have “reasons for action” without other people involved.

And, importantly, it is from her first-personal perspective that she thinks she “ought” to fulfill her reasons for action.

1.2 Interpersonal “oughts”

The question, as originally formulated, was ambiguous: is there an “ought” without other people? The ambiguity lies in the word “ought”. Usually, the things we “ought” to do are interpersonal things.

Normative concepts such as obligation, accountability, and blame are necessarily interpersonal. You have an obligation to someone else. Once you have accepted an obligation, you become accountable to that someone else (Darwall, 2013). They can blame you for failing your duty.

When a person is stranded on a desert island, there is no one else to whom they are obligated or accountable.

We have to make a distinction between interpersonal “oughts” and first-personal “reasons for action”. I think this distinction will achieve a lot of clarity.

To begin, let’s say that the person who is stranded on the island is named Jolene. Jolene may do a number of things on the island. She may craft tools – or not. She may build a shack – or not. She may explore the island – or not. She may try to self-actualize in some way, e.g., meditating – or not.

These are all things that Jolene can do. And, to put it bluntly, we don’t care what she does. If she makes tools, we don’t care. If she doesn’t make tools, we still don’t care.

The reason we don’t care what Jolene does is that her actions do not affect us. Now, if someone were to build a shack on our property, we might say they “ought” to go somewhere else because they are infringing on our rights. If someone were to steal our supplies to build tools, we might say they “ought” not to do that. But Jolene’s actions will never affect us. For this reason, she is not accountable to us. She owes no obligations to us. So we don’t have a right to tell her what to do; we don’t have a basis for telling her what she “ought” to do.

So in some sense, it would be accurate to say: in the absence of others, there is nothing a person “ought” to do. From a second-personal, third-personal, or interpersonal perspective, there is really nothing a person “ought” to do if they are completely isolated from others.

However, Jolene – from her own perspective – may still think that she has reasons for action. Now, to emphasize the “first-personal” nature of reasons for action, I will switch from using Jolene to using myself as the example.

1.3 First-personal “reasons for action”

I am stranded on the desert island.

I want to make the most of my remaining years. I think that exploring the island is something worthwhile, something worth doing. It would be perfectly reasonable for me to say to myself: “I ought to wake up early tomorrow so that I have more time to explore the island”.

I think that hunger is unpleasant. I would rather be satiated than hungry. It would be absolutely reasonable for me to say to myself: “I ought to create a spear to catch some fish”.

I ought to create a spear to catch fish not because I am accountable to someone else who demands a fish quota from me. I ought to create a spear to catch fish because being satiated is, for me, a reason for action.

It is not an interpersonal reason, but it is clearly a reason.

So the point is, we don’t have to appeal to categorical imperatives or veils of ignorance to establish “oughts” in the absence of others. Even from our own first-personal perspective, there are reasons for action that we may consider worthwhile. In our attempts to fulfill these reasons for action, we think about what means we “ought” to implement in order to achieve our goals.

1.4 Are there “oughts” without culture?

A problem still remains.

I am a bad example to use because I have already inherited a bunch of normative ideas, e.g., that it is worthwhile to self-actualize. I bring a lot of culture with me to the desert island. And if I have culture, I might still have the little voices in my head that represent what people would think of me if they were there. So would I really be alone?

To fully address the question – is there an “ought” without other people? – we need to think about someone who has never encountered culture.

Let’s say that, by some crazy sequence of events, a supply plane crashes into the island. The only survivor is a newborn baby. Let’s say the supply plane had enough supplies (e.g., non-perishable milk and baby food) for the person to consume until she was old enough to forage by herself.

Would this person, who has never encountered any culture at all, have reasons for action?

I believe the answer is yes. I think that the human mind, being extremely sophisticated, would enable cognitions such as goals, self-reflections, and evaluations even without language or culture.

I can envision that this person would get to a point in development when she could recognize, as I do, that being full is preferable to being hungry. And I can envision that she would be able to represent goals and subgoals (i.e., means to other means to desired ends). Even without language, she might be able to cognize some form of the proposition: “I ought to throw this pointy stick at that fish to get something to eat”. In other words, I “ought” to implement these particular means to achieve this particular desired end.

To conclude: reasons for action are not dependent on other people. It is true that, as members of culture, we give each other reasons for action all the time. Many of these interpersonal reasons for action are formalized into social norms, legal codes, and conventions. However, at the most basic level, any being who is capable of first-personal experiences may be said to have reasons for action. And insofar as this being wants to fulfill her reasons for action, there are things she “ought” to do.


Darwall, S. (2013). Essays in Second-Personal Ethics. [Vol. 1: Morality, Authority, and Law]. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Searle, J. R. (2001). Rationality in action. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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