Why we shouldn’t complain quite so much about complaint theory

In Ch. 4 (“Wrongness and Reasons”) of Thomas Scanlon’s WHAT WE OWE TO EACH OTHER, Scanlon introduces us to the basic idea of his “contractualist” theory of moral rightness and wrongness. Specifically:

an act is wrong if its performance in the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behavior that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced general agreement.(p. 153, WWO)

There are many elements here to unpack, in order to fully understand Scanlon’s view. But it is in a certain family of views of moral wrongness (or moral wrongness that is also the wronging of a person): what Derek Parfit calls “complaint theories” of moral wrongness. On this kind of view, roughly, an action is morally wrong just in case (and because) someone would have sufficient reason to complain about it being performed or publicly allowed (the action being, in this sense, unjustifiable to others).

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In the MTSP discussion of the third chapter of Scanlon’s WWO, on well-being, I brought up the following as a case of generic normative pressure (for an agent) that does not consist in the realization or promotion of some inherent benefit (for that agent): one having reason (or it being appropriate to) to fear scary things.

My suggestion was met with vociferous protest (from Irfan and David R.). If any response is tightly connected to standards of well-being, it is the fear response! Classroom to Calvin (Calvin and Hobbes): “Bat’s aren’t bugs!” But I suspect that I was misunderstood (and was not, myself, clearly distinguishing the claim I meant to be making from other, somewhat similar claims).

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Gaslighting the Nuclear Fuse

This article, “Fear Mounts that Ukraine War Will Spill Beyond Ukraine Borders,” appeared in The New York Times a few days ago. I single it out as an instance of the collective gaslighting that now seems to prevail in “the West” regarding the war in Ukraine. The article starts out like this:

For nine weeks, President Biden and the Western allies have emphasized the need to keep the war for Ukraine inside Ukraine.

A better way of putting this might be to say that for nine weeks, President Biden and his allies have pretended to hope that the war for Ukraine stays within Ukraine, while hinting simultaneously at regime change for Russia, while dragging all of Europe into a proxy war with Russia, and while demanding that the rest of the world, Europe and beyond, join in an embargo of Russia. Having done this, the President and his advisers now express surprise and alarm that the war might be spreading beyond Ukraine.

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Multitasking as Epistemic Injustice

Multitasking is considered a premium job skill, a sign of productivity in both job candidates and job holders. But the psychological evidence is clear: In extreme cases, multitasking is impossible, essentially leading the mind to a kind of paralysis. In less extreme cases, multitasking is a drag on productivity that imposes significant psychological costs. In general, multitasking is a thoroughly bad idea.

I don’t dispute that there are some jobs where multitasking is sometimes necessary. If so, one can’t coherently object to it. But both common sense and psychological evidence suggest that the need for multitasking is exaggerated, as is multitaskers’ capacity to do it well. Multitasking is neither as necessary as is often contended, nor as effectively done as is often claimed. There’s more bluffing than truth involved on both counts. Continue reading


At my urging, MTSP (the PoT-associated discussion group) is tackling Thomas Scanlon’s book, What We Owe to Each Other. In the second chapter, Scanlon endorses the so-called “buck-passing” view of value (BP).

On this view of value, instead of value being something basic in the broadly normative realm, is a derivative property that is a function of normative reasons (or normative pressure to respond to various things in relevant ways). The ultimate normative explanatory “buck” gets passed to reasons (having reason to exhibit some response to something, there being some degree of normative pressure to do so), hence the spiffy (or annoying) name. Roughly, BP says: if X is valuable (say, impersonally valuable) then X is such that it is appropriate to respond to it in various ways (and so one faces normative pressure, of some relevant sort, to respond to X in these various ways – e.g., by caring about it, respecting it, admiring it, being in awe of it, taking steps to promote it, etc.).

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Chomsky on Ukraine

I’ve previously plugged John Mearsheimer’s views on Ukraine here, with generalized agreement but many misgivings. I have fewer misgivings about Chomsky’s views, which are in the same anti-interventionist ballpark as Mearsheimer’s, at least as regards Ukraine, but without the problematic realist baggage. This interview with Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs seems the best of the bunch that I’ve seen.

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Markets, Uncertainty, and Health Care

After about a year and a half of working in health care, and at least some casual reading of the relevant literature, I’m increasingly skeptical that a libertarian free market can provide an adequate basis for the provision of health care. The longer I work in the field, the more convinced I become of the essential truth of Kenneth Arrow’s famous insight about the economics of health care: 

[T]he special economic problems of medical care can be explained by adaptations to uncertainty in the incidence of disease and in the efficacy of treatment (emphasis added).* 

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Thus to Tyrants

Here’s one small step toward justice, democracy, and the rule of law for Pakistan, and a fitting follow-up to this post from a few years back. Pakistan has something to be proud of for a change, and possibly something to teach the democrats, aspiring democrats, and erstwhile democrats of the world: it is possible to fight tyranny through a tenacious commitment to activism and the rule of law. Here’s to a new beginning, not just for Pakistan, but for every country afflicted with a leader like Imran Khan.

Rand and I contra Kant

I have completed a ten-part essay titled “Rand and I contra Kant”. It addresses almost all of Ayn Rand’s representations and criticisms of Kant’s philosophy, all of my criticisms of Rand in those writings, and some of my criticisms of Kant. This serial essay is posted here: https://forum.objectivismonline.com/index.php?/topic/36888-rand-and-i-contra-kant/

I’ll post here the tenth part (~J~) as the first Reply under this post.

A Slap in the Face

The United States has just spent the last two decades fighting a series of ruinous wars, has created a million-person refugee crisis in Afghanistan, and is now fixated on the prospect of supporting a proxy war in Eastern Europe that might well go nuclear. So what, in the midst of all this, has genuinely engaged the country’s moral attention? The sight of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock during the Academy Awards. The idea of endless warfare, even the elevated risk of nuclear warfare, is righteously taken for granted. Meanwhile, Will Smith has become the poster boy for deranged, untethered violence. That moral inversion, it seems to me, is a more consequential slap in the face than the one Smith planted on Chris Rock’s cheek. But try to get anyone to notice.