Justify Yourself

According to a family of “contractualist” views of morally wrong action pioneered by Thomas Scanlon (in the narrow sense of ‘wrong’ that entails wronging someone and the victim having claims against one not to perform the action — “what we owe to each other”), what makes an action wrong is that it cannot be justified to others. The appeal of this sort of view is at least twofold. First, it specifies a very intuitive way in which actions are made wrong by the reasons (interests, well-being) of others. Second, it occupies a theoretically appealing “third way” between the utilitarian take on morally wrong action as not-welfare-optimific (or indirectly some function of this) and various Kantian (and related) positions according to which morally wrong actions are a type of action that reason itself forbids us (or that otherwise are irrational or violate rational requirements). The specific formulation of contractualism that Scanlon defends is a bit different (and of necessity more complicated) from the core idea just expressed, but the core idea of justifiability-to-others captures the essence.

I suspect that action not being justifiable to others, or at least not being justifiable to them in a certain moral way, hits close to the mark, if not precisely on the mark, of what makes an action morally wrong. I suspect that something like this is true: the essential constitutive kernel of the wrongness is actions being objectionable to affected parties or patients — and that this is what (a certain kind of)  justifiability-to-others is concerned with, leaving inability to justify to others as a kind of criterion for wrong action (and also as an ideal for consensus regarding what is objectionable and unobjectionable, wrong and right, in contexts of rational and reasonable contention). This, I believe, suggests the right directions and challenges for an account of what moral wrongness is (and of which general sorts of actions are right and wrong and why).

My task here is modest: saying some important things about what it is to justify actions to others and, in doing this, distinguish the different roles for actions being objectionable and unjustifiable (to the affected party or patient) and, in doing so, provide a strong, basic reason for thinking that contractualism (or any kind of contractualism that takes unjustifiability-to-others as constitutive of wrongness) is false.

*****

I might attempt to justify a proposition (or belief) to you. I take that to work like this: I am providing you with reasons or evidence for you to take up and use in your own, private rationalizing process. And I am hoping that, on the basis of the reasons that I provide, you will come to believe the proposition. Maybe I want to convince you that Worchester is farther from Providence than Boston.

But something different is going on when I try to justify my action to you. If we are building a house together, I might try to justify to you my using screws instead of nails to attach the wall studs. My aim here is to get you to accept my action (or at least acquiesce in or not reject it) on the basis of relevant reasons that I articulate to you (like that using screws results in an adequate amount of structural strength for the wall). My aim is not (or not simply) to get you to believe some proposition (though perhaps the route to rationalizing your acceptance would be via believing that using screws is acceptable relative to what having an adequately sound and strong wall requires or some such).

Now consider a moral case: I am trying to justify to you (say, after the fact) my telling you a small lie to avoid us having (what I regard as) a pointless argument. I might give you reasons like “this lie actually benefits you” or “this lie was not performed out of negligent, self-indulgent or malicious intent.” Whether or not, if we filled in some more details, my attempt at justification would or should succeed, what I am trying to get you to do is this: not object to my action (on familiar moral grounds concerning how one is being treated). 

How would the objection-producing rationalizing (that I am wanting you not to engage in and appropriately not given the reasons or evidence that I present) go for you? Something like this: you’re representing the action as being of some salient descriptive type, you’re judging that because of this my action warrants resentment (or moral anger) and lodging an objection against me, you’re experiencing resentment and objecting. (Most often, such reasoning or rational response is super-quick and perhaps unconscious: often, one experiences resentment or moral anger in a way that seems automatic or almost reflexive. Typically, one does not experience the movement from explicit belief in attitude-appropriateness to having the attitude.)

We might, then, sum up what I am doing in this moral scenario as follows: I’m trying to convince you that my action (my lie) is unobjectionable in the specific sense of not warranting resentment (or moral anger) and hence objection. My action might be unobjectionable even if I’m not able to justify it to you. And I might be able to justify it to you even if it is objectionable. This is analogous to the distinction between truth and justification in private epistemic justification. Meeting rational or justificatory standards, especially idealized ones, reliably meets the correctness standards, but it need not do so in any given case and the correctness standards are independent of the justificatory standards. The correctness standard here is the standard for resenting something that someone else does (in one’s role as patient or affected party).

But if this is right — and if an action being objectionable (or “patient-objectionable”) in this sense is necessary for it being wrong — then the wrongness of an action cannot be constituted by it being unjustifiable to others. This would be analogous to saying that truth is constituted by justification (or justification under ideal conditions). So: the wrongness of my negligently stepping on your toe might be (partially) constituted by the normative correctness standards internal to resentment, but it is not constituted by this action not being justifiable to you (or to anyone in your position). This leaves many of the normative features of wrongness unexplained: (i) appropriate observer attitude and behavior reaction, (ii) appropriate agent attitude and behavior reaction to her patient-objectionable action and to patient — and observer — complaint or objection, (iii) the sorts of reasons that go into what actions we collectively appropriately or best allow or disallow and (iv) how and why all of these distinct normative elements, plus the fundamental normative element of patient-objectionability, hang together to form one unified normative feature. Providing such explanation is the path not taken by Scanlonian contractualism. It is a different path starting from the common idea that the wrongness of actions is very closely tied to justified or appropriate resentment, complaint, objection, rejection, etc.

14 thoughts on “Justify Yourself

  1. I agree with the general argument f your post. One quibble, thogh:

    “Most often, such reasoning or rational response is super-quick and perhaps unconscious: often, one experiences resentment or moral anger in a way that seems automatic or almost reflexive. Typically, one does not experience the movement from explicit belief in attitude-appropriateness to having the attitude.”

    I’m skeptical of the need for these too-fast-to-notice “ninja inferences” (to borrow a phrase from my colleague Michael Watkins) here. My resentment against Irfan isn’t just caused by a prior judgment that he’s committed an action of the salient descriptive type; rather, it embodies such a judgment. (That’s why, for example, it makes no sense to say that I feel pride in the number 7.) Hence there’s no need for a prior judgment from which to make a ninja inference. The reason we don’t “experience the movement” is that it’s not a movement.

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    • Another weakness in the Scanlon-type account is that there needs to be a reason why we should care (in a way that goes beyond the merely pragmatic) about justifying our actions to others. And whatever reason we find will have to appeal to some principle that does not itself get its grounding solely from being justifiable to others. And that principle, whatever it may be, seems likely to do some other normative work for us too.

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      • All other issues aside, that is my main objection to accounts of this sort. Any view that treats ‘moral’ rightness and wrongness as independent of ‘prudential’ value will face objections of this sort. I suppose some proponents of such views will want to say that other-regarding reasons are just fundamental and obvious, or at least no less fundamental and obvious than self-regarding reasons, and while I find that deeply implausible I’m not sure I could give its proponents any undeniable reasons to agree with me.

        Another question, though, is whether views of this sort can get the content of moral / other-regarding reasons right while abstracting from whatever it is that gives us reasons to care about justifying our actions to others. I’ve thought that they can’t because at least some significant part of the content of our obligations to others will depend on just what is good for us. I take it that contractualists of a more Hobbesian sort agree, but I think even a more moralized contractualist like the Rawls of ToJ agrees, despite all the talk about the priority of the right to the good. Chapter IX of ToJ is pretty clear that we should want to abide by the norms generated in the Original Position because adopting that standpoint is how we develop and express our sense of justice, which is good for us at least insofar as it expresses our nature as free and equal rational beings, while of course the OP generates the principles that it does only given certain assumptions about the narrower good of the parties to it. So Rawls’ contractualism includes an account of the reasons we have to care about justifying ourselves to others and it makes the correct principles and their application depend on what it takes to be good for people. Rawls and Rawlsians do not always give the impression that they take morality to have this kind of grounding, though, and in fact they often give the impression that morality is inconsistent with it and can be given its content independent of whatever reasons we have to care about others or be just.

        Nonetheless, ToJ gives an account of the reasons why what is just is just and what is unjust is unjust. I don’t see why he couldn’t say that wrongness is constituted by unjustifiability to the person who is wronged. There need be no problem akin to identifying truth and justification (though perhaps that is what Rawls is doing), because what makes for practical justification is a matter of what is adequately oriented toward the interests of the patient and the agent; justifiability is not de facto justification, but justifiability in principle, justifiability to people presumed to be rational. His account also seems capable of explaining at least somewhat plausibly what the appropriate reactions of observers, agents, and patients to wrong acts should be, all by appealing to the primary goods and the good of the sense of justice.

        My passing acquaintance with Scanlon suggests that he’s not so interested in offering accounts of the same sort, but he still seems to be trying to develop something in the same family as Rawls’ contractualism. If I’m right that Rawls could get away with treating wrongness as constituted by unjustifiability to the wronged party, your argument against Scanlon wouldn’t warrant the conclusion that contractualism is false. So what am I missing? For what it’s worth, I am more than prepared to conclude that contractualism is false!

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        • Thanks, David. That is helpful. Most of what you say rings true. Scanlon does a good bit of compare-and-contrast with Rawls in WWO and does view their two views as related sorts of accounts of slightly different topics (roughly: Scanlon is focused on what we should allow and disallow each other generally, Rawls on what we should allow and disallow each other in the political realm). I’m not exactly sure where my suggestion intersections with the Rawlsian contractualist picture, so I’ll have to think about this more. Though perhaps unhelpful, I’ll repeat my idea in slightly different words: when we justify our actions to each other morally, we are trying to show that our actions are not patient-objectionable (do not warrant resentment on the part of the patient). If so, why isn’t this property — what we are trying to convince someone else that our action has — the wrongness property (or at least a part of it), not the fact that we could successfully convince them of this on the basis of good reasons? Even if the mistake here is not like that of mistaking truth for ideal justification, just acknowledging that there are two candidate normative features here in the right ballpark should, I think, give us pause. I agree that I need to tighten up the argument about different sorts of standards (correctness vs. justification or rational procedure) and the different roles they play to successfully drive home the conclusion that my generalized contractualist (or Scanlon in particular) makes the truth-as-justification error. But that would be a nifty, strong criticism.

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        • (1) In my last too-off-the-cuff comment, I failed to grasp and rebut the crucial point you made: in justifying our actions to others we are, indeed, doing something like demonstrating adequate orientation toward the interests of both the agent and the patient. But if, through establishing this, we are attempting to establish that the action does not warrant resentment, then the contractualist has to say this: being able to demonstrate to others (or to the patient) that one’s action does not warrant resentment constitutes that action being wrong (and in this not warranting resentment).

          (2) Regarding the agent having reason to justify her actions to others (or the patient). I can imagine a contractualist saying this: justifiability-to-others constitutes wrongness, but that has nothing to do with whether or not we have reason to justify our actions to others. I don’t think this is in the spirit of the view, but it is worth thinking just what considerations make a contractualist defend or explain or presuppose our having reason to justify our actions to others. If you press me on my approach, I’ll say something like this: the most basic element of normative pressure for agents to refrain from performing patient-objectionable actions is grounded in the appropriateness of guilt or shame response to doing something patient-objectionable. I think this just gets the explanatory ball rolling and does not by itself yield anything like a normative requirement to refrain from performing patient-objectionable actions. I’m not sure how well such descriptors as ‘other-regarding’ and ‘prudential’ work to describe the nature of this normative pressure.

          (3) Consider the Rescue Principle: we are obligated to render aid to others in dire need if we can do so at only a small cost to ourselves. In speaking of the relevance of self-interested reasons (reason, normative pressure) to the content of such obligations, I take you to be speaking to the nature of the obligation — not the interest-balancing content of such a principle. Something like this: (a) one of the most important things at stake, in adhering to such a principle or not, is something at least personal if not a matter of benefit and cost to self — as is reflected in Aristotelian ethics, virtue ethics, ethical theories that place great importance on moral sorts of identity-commitments. (There is good reason why there is a philosophical backwater of crypto quasi-egoists!) And (b) contractualists are not in a good position to explain this. All of that seems right and important to me. My approach is, I think, in a pretty good position to accommodate. First, avoidance of warranted guilt seems like a personal (if not benefit-oriented) motivation or aim. Second, there is room, in explaining why one is obligated not to perform wrong action, for additional normative elements that are personal or egoistic in nature, like reasons to be true to adherence-to-moral-principle-constituted identity commitments.

          I hope these remarks are a bit more on-target and helpful. Much thanks for prompting me to think harder about some of this stuff!

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          • In your first reply, you write: “when we justify our actions to each other morally, we are trying to show that our actions are not patient-objectionable (do not warrant resentment on the part of the patient). If so, why isn’t this property — what we are trying to convince someone else that our action has — the wrongness property (or at least a part of it), not the fact that we could successfully convince them of this on the basis of good reasons?”

            I think this point might be some of what I was missing in your original objection to contractualism. I understood the contractualist to be saying something like this: for an action to be wrong is for it to be objectionable to the patient and to warrant resentment precisely because it is objectionable, where objectionability is a matter of what a reasonable person objects to, not a matter of what a given individual happens to object to. On such a view, the wrongness property is not the fact that the agent could not successfully persuade the patient to waive objections. Rather, the thought is that to be wrong is to be such as a reasonable person would reject. We can then, in accordance with this or that theory, go on to identify the properties that make an action objectionable. Once we’ve done that, we might sensibly say that the ‘wrongness property’ is the property that makes the action such as a reasonable person would reject (to take a simplified example, let the relevant property be violation of the patient’s informed consent; that’s not plausibly the only thing that makes an action objectionable, but it is plausibly one such thing). We might also say, just as sensibly, that the ‘wrongness property’ is the property of being objectionable, or such as a reasonable person would reject.

            If that’s right, the contractualist doesn’t need to say that what constitutes wrongness in an act is its patient being able to demonstrate that an action warrants resentment (as your second reply suggests). The contractualist can say, instead, that what constitutes wrongness in an act (in the sense of being what it it is to be wrong) is that act’s being such that a reasonable person would object to and resent it, while what constitutes wrongness in an act (in the sense of being what makes an act such as a reasonable person would object to and resent) is some set of further properties understood in relevantly context-dependent ways.

            A view of that sort seems not to face the problem you pose in your original objection. The response to your objection, taken against such a view, is that it mistakenly tries to drive a wedge between an action’s being objectionable to a reasonable person and the property that makes it objectionable to that person; we should indeed distinguish these properties, but we should regard the latter as constituting the former, not as identical to it, and we should understand the former not in terms of what anybody can convince someone of, but in terms of what a reasonable person would accept or reject.

            Now one problem might be that I’ve made a mistake somewhere here, and your objection would still apply to a contractualist view understood as I understand it. But I suspect that the real issue here is that the contractualism you’re critiquing doesn’t understand the relationships between wrongness, objectionableness, and the properties that make for objectionableness in the way that I’ve laid out.

            So I guess two questions would be: (1) do you take your objection to apply to contractualism interpreted in the way that I’m interpreting it here? (2) is the contractualism you’re objecting to in Scanlon et al. plausibly interpreted in the way that I’m interpreting contractualism here?

            Very broadly, I am inclined to reject contractualism on the grounds that any plausible version of it will talk about agreement and acceptability where it’s really trying to talk about the reasons that suitably reasonable agents recognize in agreeing or accepting (rejecting, etc.), and that an appropriate focus on those reasons themselves would render the notions of agreement, rejection, contract, etc. redundant or secondary if not wholly eliminable. Your objection seems to be in a similar spirit.

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            • Thanks, David. Those are good, helpful points and questions. I’d been thinking, somewhat less precisely, about just this kind of adjustment to (or perhaps precification of) the contractualist thesis. I’ll chew on this a bit and reply when I have more time (soon).

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            • Okay, I’ve digested this now. Again, much thanks and super-helpful. There are some interesting issues to sort through here and I think I’ve got them sorted pretty well…

              djr1: I understood the contractualist to be saying something like this: for an action to be wrong is for it to be objectionable to the patient and to warrant resentment precisely because it is objectionable, where objectionability is a matter of what a reasonable person objects to…

              mly1: (apologies for length and for unintentionally answering questions that you ask more directly further down; this first response is my main response): Right. I took the contractualist to say something like this: what constitutes an action being wrong (and this will entail it being patient-objectionable or resentment-warranting) is that it would be rejected (the broad, catch-all category for relevant sort of reaction by her lights) based on the reasons that are available for and against rejection, if these reasons were brought to bear (and we can implicitly characterize these reasons as including some intuitively moral considerations by using the term ‘reasonable’). (The ‘justifiable’ in ‘justifiable to others’ is more like ‘admirable’ than ‘winnable’ — it references a normative standard, not, or not just, a capability.)

              One thing your comments here are prompting me to see is that, if we take away that hypothetical-justification element in the contractualist analysis, we get a feature that is very similar, perhaps identical, to the fitting-attitude-type resent-ability (and objectionability) that I took to be distinct from justifiability. So: if the contractualist were to say “yes, we can entirely eliminate the hypothetical justification element here and just talk about existing and available reasons for and against the patient resenting the agent’s action,” then it is less clear that there is any fundamental disagreement between my approach and the contractualist approach — beyond the difference between the wrongness feature and the patient-objectionability feature. If the contractualist further says “oh and you are right that all I’m offering is an account of patient-objectionability,” then I might be in near-total agreement with her.

              Of course, the first contractualist concession departs from something that many take to be essential to the position — and a whole family of positions on normative matters that contractualism is just one instance of — the hypothetical-justification element. It is basically conceding that talk of hypothetical, ideal process should be thought of as an inexact (if heuristically and criterion-wise virtuous) way of speaking about the balance of the patient’s reasons for resenting. This amounts to conceding your main objection to contractualism (that you make at the end of your response to me here)!

              If all this is right, I take it as a victory. I’m as happy to lay bare the obfuscatory trickiness of appealing to hypothetical, ideal justification (ideal and appropriate responsiveness to reasons, etc.) as I am to refute a version of “contractualism” that is willing to drop reference to hypothetical justification and just talk about the different basic normative standards (reasons, normative pressure) that apply to the response in question.

              djr2: We can then, in accordance with this or that theory, go on to identify the properties that make an action objectionable. Once we’ve done that, we might sensibly say that the ‘wrongness property’ is the property that makes the action such as a reasonable person would reject (to take a simplified example, let the relevant property be violation of the patient’s informed consent; that’s not plausibly the only thing that makes an action objectionable, but it is plausibly one such thing).

              mly2: Yes. In my terms: to do this is to specify the standard or pattern of the normative pressure (at a certain level of specificity, in a certain context) in favor of resenting being treated certain ways.

              djr3: A view of that sort seems not to face the problem you pose in your original objection. The response to your objection, taken against such a view, is that it mistakenly tries to drive a wedge between an action’s being objectionable to a reasonable person and the property that makes it objectionable to that person; we should indeed distinguish these properties, but we should regard the latter as constituting the former, not as identical to it, and we should understand the former not in terms of what anybody can convince someone of, but in terms of what a reasonable person would accept or reject.

              mly3 (hoping I’m not getting the sort of contractualism you have in mind wrong — I think it is the kind that I offered a version of, but I’m not sure!): My criticism distinguishes (“drives a wedge between”) appropriate resentment and justifiability (where ‘justifiable’ essentially references relevant normative standards, but also hypothetical justificatory processes). I’ve indicated why this is correct, but also how the contractualist could retreat by treating justifiability (hypothetical, ideal justification based on the relevant reasons) less seriously, as an eliminable part of the view. I’m not failing to distinguish an action being resentment-worthy and there being normative standards (normative pressure, reasons) with a certain sort of other-insensitivity-specifying content (including, at a quite-determinate level, things like relevant consent not being informed) that makes this so (but also not entirely sure if this is the charge you are making).

              bonus dialogue: A – “What you would agree to in conditions of ideal information and rationality is important!” B – “Okay, sure. But what are the reasons I would be responding to, how would I be responding to them, and why — in this fine, ideal world of yours? I’ll even ignore the actual context I’m in, the information I actually have and why this is important. Okay, go!” A – “Hey, I was trying to avoid having to talk about that!”

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      • Yes (reply to Roderick). The full Scanlonian contractualist formula includes reference to the shared aim of cooperating on basically moral terms (and as well specifies that the terms of justification, and the objection or rejection, has to be reasonable, where this involves sensitivity to basic moral ends). I worry that this makes the morality of right and wrong dependent on a bad kind of hypothetical or aim-relative normative pressure. On my approach as stated this question is left unanswered as well.

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    • My resentment against Irfan isn’t just caused by a prior judgment that he’s committed an action of the salient descriptive type; rather, it embodies such a judgment

      How can it embody such a judgment when I haven’t even done anything?

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    • I agree with your quibble, Roderick. I was aware of this problem (that quick-inference is not really what is going on in the relationship between resentment and judgment that resentment is the appropriate response to such-and-such) when I wrote that, I just didn’t have a good, pat line on how the judgment and reactive attitude elements relate, so I defaulted to a likely-false fast-inference line. I like the idea that reactive attitudes embody judgment to the effect that they are appropriate responses to such-and-such. I have to think about it more, but this seems like a more promising way to think about these matters.

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  2. I basically agree with what’s been said so far. I think I can guess why Scanlon rejects utilitarianism, but is there a way of summarizing his objections to the other view he’s trying to avoid, the one you described as….

    various Kantian (and related) positions according to which morally wrong actions are a type of action that reason itself forbids us (or that otherwise are irrational or violate rational requirements).

    I realize it may be impossible to summarize his objections in some easily digestible way, in which case just tell me to read the book. I own it, but it’s in storage, so give me like three months and I’ll probably be able to find it.

    By the way, “various Kantian (and related) positions” refers to a lot of different positions! Does Scanlon really think that there’s one problem, or some small, unified set of problems, with all of them?

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    • It might be helpful to distinguish (i) (more “Kantian”) views according to which something like a formal rational requirement yield moral wrongness or obligation from (ii) (less “Kantian”) views according to which rationality (regarded as substantive, not just formal, so that it includes substantive reasons as well as formal principles) simply includes relevant sorts of other-regarding reasons. And distinguish both from (iii) other, perhaps more-traditional contractualist-family views, that reference rational as against reasonable complaint (objection, rejection) or consensus (I’m not sure, but maybe Gauthier fits this mold). Maybe the better contrast — but not the one that Scanlon draws — is between utilitarian (or agent-neutral welfare consequentialist) views and various traditional deontological views? You are right to question this somewhat-muddy distinction on the Kantian-esque-views end (and I might have made it even muddier than Scanlon has it). It might also be questioned on the utilitarian end, as rule-utilitarianism does not take right action to be directly value-maximizing or optimizing (Scanlon acknowledge this later and draws lessons and parallels for regarding making right and wrong derivative of some prior normative standards). I take this kind of positioning in the logical space of extant theories to be an approximate exercise, meant to provide basic orientation and motivation to the reader (I often get stuck on this kind of thing and have to remind myself: this might not be intended to get to the heart of matters in a precise way — that stuff comes later in the treatment).

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