thinking of (a version of) moral rationalism as a formal or conceptual truth

One might think that the following is true (this is a version of “moral rationalism” — not Portmore’s version, but a better version that I have invented and framed in my own way):

(1) If, after all of the moral reasons (including those associated with specific moral requirements) are considered, what morality requires of one is that one PHI (perhaps keep one’s word), then one has decisively most reason — not just decisively most moral reason — to A.

You might think this is true because moral reasons (or the collective or resultant verdict of the moral reasons) is never outweighed by countervailing non-moral reasons (or their collective or resultant verdict).  Or — I think much more plausibly — one might think [1] is true because ‘morally required’ or ‘what morality requires of one’, when used to refer to requirement-type resultant valence, as a conceptual or definitional matter, already include the non-moral considerations in the “calculation” of the resultant valence.  On this view, one is not saying anything substantive about the relative strengths of non-moral (e.g., personal, self-interested, parochial) and moral reasons (including the reasons associated with specific moral requirements). If you think we live in a world in which super-strong moral reasons regularly swamp the moral reasons (including those associated with specific moral requirements), then you won’t think very many things are all-in morally required (and probably, based on similar conceptual considerations, you won’t think that many putative specific moral requirements are really moral requirements, since the associated reasons will not carry the day decisively in large ranges of typical choice situations).

An old-school analyst would say that this makes (this version of) moral rationalism “trivially true.”  I don’t think that [1], if it is true in this way, is trivially true. For it tells us something important about the reasons or specific valences (and hence ends) that being morally required (the non-specific, resultant valence) takes into account.  The non-moral reasons are already baked in, this is not obvious, and we can and do get confused about it.

12 thoughts on “thinking of (a version of) moral rationalism as a formal or conceptual truth

  1. Sounds right to me, except I take a more reciprocal-determination approach: just as (prima facie) nonmoral reasons play a role in determining the content of (all-things-considered) moral reasons, so (prima facie) moral reasons play a role in determining the content of (all-things-considered) nonmoral reasons.

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    • Same question for Roderick (mutatis mutandis) as for Michael: is there really a need or place for a sharp distinction (if it is a sharp distinction) between the moral and non-moral on a reciprocal determination approach? Why not just say that there are lots of different sorts of practical reasons that reciprocally determine each other, skipping the moral/non-moral talk?

      It’s not so much that I reject any distinction between the “moral” and “non-moral” considerations altogether as that I seem to draw it in a totally different way from most people, and find myself puzzled both by (a) those who refuse to make any such distinction at all, and are thereby often led to an endorsement of moral luck, and (b) those who draw it differently from me, and are thereby often led to a supposed bifurcation of “moral” and “prudential” (or “moral” and “personal”) reasons. To borrow a phrase of Riesbeck’s, when this happens, I find myself disoriented and bewildered, as if to ask: “WHAT IS HAPPENING?”

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      • Also I take part of your query to take the form of “Okay, maybe there is, or at least we can stipulate, a clear distinction, by why is the distinction important — what work does it do? There are home-life reasons and work-life reasons, but this distinction is not explanatorily important in any general way. What is different about the moral/non-moral reasons distinction?” Is that right?

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  2. OK, so I’m going to pre-empt Riesbeck and ask a quasi-Riesbeckian question, which is: how are you* conceiving the distinction between “the moral” and “the non-moral”?

    *”You” primarily meaning Michael, but I won’t object if others decide to share.

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    • I don’t have a precise account of the distinction, but I (and I think most of us) know the distinction roughly and can identify paradigm cases. One has moral reason not to do the unfair thing, non-moral reason to do things that benefit oneself. One has moral reason to help needy others generically, non-moral reason to help needy friends or family specifically. I think these are good intuitive cases. If you press me, I’ll say something about moral reasons or ends being concerned with treating others (or other sentient beings) with appropriate concern and respect due to their humanity (or due to having some other universal feature like being sentient or being able to feel pain) — not due to their having some special relationship to you. Something like this is our rough general understanding. (However, as it is intuitively obvious that non-moral, special-relationship-related reasons figure into what is morally required and permitted (one is morally permitted to save one’s son or daughter versus a stranger if only one person can be saved), there is a straight-forward purely universal or impartial interpretation of the content of moral requirement and morality that is clearly wrong.) I think coming up with a good theoretical account of the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons would be a very interesting project.

      I guess if one thinks that there are simply practical requirements (that there is no distinction in kind between different practical requirements), then one being all-in required to keep one’s promise in some situation might seem to pretty obviously entail that one has decisively most reason, all-in, to keep one’s promise. An anti-rationalist thesis on this way of thinking about things would be one that severs or weakens the connection between practical requirements and reasons (or having most reason or having decisively most reason). A position like this would be a very real possibility on Matt Bedke’s theory of what requirements are (on his view, they are a function of reasons to require that the agent do the thing or reasons to hold accountable — not a function of the agent’s reasons to do the thing). But this is a very different sort of skeptical worry that the inference from ‘required to keep my promise here, all relevant things considered’ to ‘have decisively most reason to keep my promise here, all relevant things considered’ does not go through.

      Maybe there is a way to get at the issue here while carefully (and hopefully not too artificially) side-stepping the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons. Suppose that, in some situation, only one option conforms to the requirement of keeping one’s promise and that this requirement conflicts with no other similar requirement (e.g., that one not murder, rape, torture, etc.). We might wonder whether (and if so why) it is necessary that, if this is true of one, then it is also true of one that one has most, or decisively most, reason to keep one’s promise. Are the reasons to keep one’s promise so strong that reasons like ‘if I keep my promise then I’ll miss by train and have to sleep in the office’ simply cannot outweigh (substantive/empirical claim)? Or is the very idea of a requirement not defeated by other more important requirements such that other, potentially competing reasons like this have already been taken into account (formal/conceptual claim)?

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      • I’m now worried that my idea does not work. Specifically, I’m worried that, if X being “all-in morally required” to A takes non-moral as well as moral reasons into account, then the resultant valence here — perhaps more perspicuously characterized as a kind of decisive-ought valence — would seem to be simply generically practical, not specifically moral. If this is right (and if, contra Bedke, we take X being required to A to be, at least in part, a function of X having decisively most reason to A), then we need to do something like connect up having most (or decisively most) moral reason to A to having most (or decisively most) generic practical reason to A. And doing this would seem to require making substantive claims about different sorts of reasons and their relative weights.

        So here is another, different explanatory story supporting a broadly moral rationalist position. In this story, I take moral requirement to entail weighty moral reasons that normally carry the day and produce a resultant decisive ought but need not (what is correlated with moral requirement is a specific normative valence, not a decisive sort of resultant ought). I think part of what got me in trouble before was waffling between ‘requirement’ as referring to reason-type specific valence and as referring to decisive-ought-type resultant valence.

        Here goes:

        (I) MORAL REQUIREMENTS AND PRACTICAL REASONS: If X is morally required to A (whether or not her A-ing would, in the choice situation at hand, constitute violating a more important requirement), then the moral reason to A entailed by X being required to A is sufficiently weighty that, in a wide range of normal choice situations, X has decisively more moral reason favoring her A-ing than she has non-moral reason against her A-ing (even if X has most moral reason, and most reason generally, to take some option other than A-ing, due to her A-ing constituting, in the choice situation and circumstance, a violation of a more important requirement).

        (II) UNDEFEATED MORAL REQUIREMENTS AND PRACTICAL REASONS: If, in a choice situation, X is morally required to A (and if, in A-ing, X would not violate a more weighty moral requirement), then, in a broad range of normal choice situations, (i) X’s moral reason for A-ing outweighs (usually decisively) her non-moral reasons against her A-ing and (ii) X has most (usually decisively most) reason to A.

        [I] explains [II]. What does the work is a substantive view of the relative weights of practical reasons (and different classes of practical reasons), not a definitional claim about moral requirement (considered, I now think erroneously, to be a specific decisive sort of broadly ought-type resultant normative valence). The sort of rationalism you get here is weak (weaker than most moral rationalists want) because, outside of some range of normal choice situations, non-requirement-type moral considerations (e.g. reasons of moral value, not moral duty) or non-moral considerations (e.g., reasons of personal benefit or perhaps some sort of personal imperative) can outweigh the weighty moral-requirement-entailed reasons.

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        • Standing at a distance from the whole thing, it seems to me that the project lacks a strong motivation if the moral/non-moral distinction lacks one. It just looks to me that you’re looking for an analysis that makes it the case that moral reasons are overriding. But that seems ad hoc. Suppose that we draw a distinction between X-type and Y-type reasons but don’t cash out the motivation for drawing the distinction, and leave the distinction itself somewhat vague. Why think a priori that X-type reasons override Y-type if we don’t really have an account of the distinction in the first place? That seems like “rationalism” in the bad sense Rand sometimes uses–a set of theory-driven inferences not sufficiently tied to any clear-cut motivation.

          To bastardize an example I’ve used in a different context: Suppose someone has moral reason to rush into a building and save two dozen other people, except that by doing so he invites certain death for himself. Now suppose he has non-moral reason not to rush into a suicide mission–namely, by not doing so, he saves himself, and regrettably lets others die without actually killing them.* It seems question-begging to me to assume a priori that construed this way, moral reasons override non-moral ones. But doesn’t your account make that a priori assumption?

          *This example is loosely based on the Scot Peterson case, but it’s intended as a hypothetical possibility, not a description of the case itself. In other words, I don’t mean to be suggesting Scot Peterson actually sat there and deliberated about what to do based on the considerations I mention. My point is that a hypothetical person might do that, not that he did. One of the problems with using a pending case as the basis of a thought-experiment is that you can’t say anything about it, even hypothetically, without risking the possibility that someone will deliberately misinterpret what you’re saying.

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          • The idea in question is not whether moral reasons always outweigh non-moral, but whether, when you are morally required (in this sense morally ought) to take option A (from A, B and C), this implies that you have decisively most reason to take A. Focusing on why this might be true if it is, my most recent suggestion (7 Sept. 1:26 pm) is that moral requirements or the sort of moral oughts that they entail (and moral oughts in general perhaps) are species of all-in practical ought or having-most-reason (specifically, ones in which strong moral considerations, paradigmatically the usually-decisive reasons of general requirements like the requirement to keep one’s word, do the bulk of the work in getting us to ought). This gets the result without making moral requirement (or the resultant normative feature entailed) identical to the all-in practical ought, the decisive all-in practical ought or the like (my worry from last night).

            The simple “moral reasons always override non-moral reasons” thesis is pretty obviously false. Super-small moral reasons do not override really large personal reasons.

            We might disagree about the intuitiveness of the moral/non-moral reasons distinction (and as well about the adequacy of the “showing appropriate concerns and respect for others due to their humanity” kind of gloss on a general specification of the distinction). I suspect — and your case shows this — we can move forward by just agreeing on a rough first-shot stipulative definition of what makes a reason moral that does not seem horribly inadequate (and that, in itself, might take some work — maybe my gloss is too glossy).

            (I find it helpful to think of Portmore’s moral rationalist (MR) thesis as addressing, in a particular way or in a particular aspect, the question ‘Is morality normative? If so, how, in what way, or with what importance?’. I don’t think he is worried about moral requirements being like what is required when you play soccer — in other words, normative only in a very contingent way, dependent on individual choice, desire, etc. He is worried, roughly, about the idea that it might be that you morally ought to PHI even though it is not the case that you ought to PHI (perhaps because, though morality is normative, it might not be strong enough in its normativity to get the entailment to all-in practical guidance — or something like this). According to my now-preferred, third-try approach, the strength of moral reasons in relation to non-moral reasons is not at the heart of matters. What is at the heart of matters — what gives us the entailment — is what we mean in using ‘morally required’ in a certain way. If moral reasons, are, individually and collectively, weak compared to the non-moral reasons, then it will just rarely be the case that one is morally required to choose option A (from A, B and C). That moral reasons, or certain sorts of moral reasons, are super-strong — and the how and why of this — is just a different matter and one that is probably empirical/substantive not conceptual/formal in nature.)

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      • Just a preliminary, scratching-the-surface response to your 9/6, 8:34 pm comment: claim (1) can’t be trivially true if it presupposes a moral/non-moral distinction that (as you suggest in that comment) isn’t trivially obvious. This is not so much contra your view as contra the “old school analysts” you mention in the last paragraph of the original post.

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      • I’m just now appreciating two important points.

        First, when ‘morally required’ is used to refer to a particular option in a particular choice situation, it does refer to a type of resultant ought feature. Even though I remain morally required to keep my word, when my strong non-moral, personal reasons (say, need to make my mortgage payment on an emergency basis) dictate not showing up for scheduled office hours, I am no longer morally required to keep them (but I would be if the countervailing personal reason were just that I don’t feel like keeping them). So it looks like — after all – there is a sense of ‘requirement’ that refers to a type of (resultant) ought feature as well as a sense that refers to a (contributory) reason (or having-reason) feature.

        Second, moral requirement (the kind that is or entails a resultant ought feature) could imply a decisive, all-in generic practical ought (or having decisively most reason) due to to moral requirement being a specific type of all-in practical ought or having-most-reason feature. And here’s a candidate for the relevant species of practical ought or having-most-reason: one in which most of the decisive-ought-making work is done through one or more moral reason, perhaps paradigmatically through one super-weighty one (e.g., that of, as a general matter not as an option in a present choice situation, being required to keep one’s word). In such a case, being morally required to take a specific option in a specific choice situation automatically (as a conceptual matter) takes non-moral reasons into account — yet is not identical to some all-in, generic practical ought (or having most reason). However, you get the ‘morally required’ to ‘have decisively most reason’ entailment in all cases (Portmore’s moral rationalist thesis or MR), as a conceptual matter (for Portmore, the connection seems to be a non-conceptual necessary connection of some sort — and I’m not sure if he seeks particularly to explain why MR it holds). Right now, I’m inclined to think that this is the best approach.

        (If we take the same approach to all moral oughts or all resultant normative valence of the moral flavor, we would deny that ‘morally ought’ means something like ‘what you ought to do, taking only the moral things into account’. Instead it would mean ‘something that you all-in ought to do, with strong moral reasons doing most of the work of getting to the ought’ or something similar to this.)

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  3. The idea in question is not whether moral reasons always outweigh non-moral, but whether, when you are morally required (in this sense morally ought) to take option A (from A, B and C), this implies that you have decisively most reason to take A. Focusing on why this might be true if it is, my most recent suggestion is that moral requirements or the sort of moral oughts that they entail (and moral oughts in general) are species of all-in practical ought or having-most-reason (specifically, ones in which strong moral considerations, paradigmatically the usually-decisive reasons of general requirements like the requirement to keep one’s word). This gets the result without making moral requirement (or the resultant normative feature entailed) identical to the all-in practical ought, the decisive all-in practical ought or the like (my worry from last night).

    The simple “moral reasons always override non-moral reasons” thesis is pretty obviously false. Super-small moral reasons do not override really large personal reasons.

    We might disagree about the intuitiveness of the moral/non-moral reasons distinction (and as well about the adequacy of the “showing appropriate concerns and respect for others due to their humanity” kind of gloss on a general specification of the distinction). I suspect — and your case shows this — we can move forward by just agreeing on a rough first-shot stipulative definition of what makes a reason moral that does not seem horribly inadequate (and that, in itself, might take some work — maybe my gloss is too glossy).

    (I find it helpful to think of Portmore’s moral rationalist (MR) thesis as addressing, in a particular way or in a particular aspect, the question ‘Is morality normative? If so, how, in what way, or with what importance?’. I don’t think he is worried about moral requirements being like what is required when you play soccer — in other words, normative only in a very contingent way, dependent on individual choice, desire, etc. He is worried, roughly, about the idea that it might be that you morally ought to PHI even though it is not the case that you ought to PHI (because, though morality is normative, might not be strong enough in its normativity to get the entailment to all-in practical guidance — or something). According to my now-preferred, third-try approach, the strength of moral reasons in relation to non-moral reasons is not at the heart of matters. What is at the heart of matters — what gives us the entailment — is what we mean in using ‘morally required’ in a certain way. If moral reasons, are, individually and collectively, weak compared to the non-moral reasons, then it will just rarely be the case that one is morally required to choose option A (from A, B and C). That moral reasons, or certain sorts of moral reasons, are super-strong — and the how and why of this — is just another matter that is empirical/substantive not conceptual/formal.)

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