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).

In our recent MTSP discussion, Roderick voiced the following objection to Scanlon’s view that I believe applies to all versions of the complaint theory of moral wrongness: even if complaint-theory T has provided a perfectly good criterion for distinguishing right and wrong action, it might not be a good account of wrong action (and, in particular, an action might be unjustifiable-to-others because wrong, not wrong because unjustifiable-to-others). We might add the following kind of reason to motivate this concern: it makes good sense to say (and we do say) things like “making that decision without her input was unjustified because doing that was wrong” and even “making that decision without her input is not something you could justify to her because doing that was morally wrong.” This seems like a pretty decent reason to tilt the tables in the direction that is not good for Scanlon. And, unfortunately, Scanlon punts on his main defense of his direction of explanatory priority, putting the case off until the next chapter.

However, I want to say a little bit here and now in favor of Scanlon’s order of (metaphysical) explanation. In doing this, I’ll present some key elements of moral wrongness that I think any good theory of moral wrongness should explain. With this providing something of a framework, we can begin to evaluate the general family of theories of moral wrongness (“complaint” theories) that Scanlon’s contractualism is an instance of. I’m not sure what I have to say on behalf of the complaint-theory approach much tracks what Scanlon will have to say for himself.

First, wrongness is not a basic, unanalyzable property of actions. So there should be some sort of constitutive explanation of what it is for an action to be wrong (that we think this is probably part of why we think that “because right actions are right” is not an informative answer to the question “why do the right thing?”). That does not speak to contractualism (or complaint theory in general) as the right account, but it does speak to a presupposition one should avoid making in thinking that complaint-worthiness is explained by wrongness, not the other way around. Dude, there’s gonna be something that explains wrongness and it might be complaint-worthiness.

Second, that an action is morally wrong (and specifically a wronging of a person, the more precise feature that Scanlon is concerned with) is relevant to the reasons of three different types of persons, in three different roles: to the agent (who is normatively required to refrain from wronging others), to patients (who appropriately resent and object to being wronged) and to observers (who have reason, perhaps of a certain impersonal and community-preserving sort, to be morally angry and object to the wronging having been committed). Any good theory of what makes a wrong action wrong (and a right action right) has to explain how and why moral wrongness is connected-up in this way to these three distinct normative elements.

One way to do this work is as follows: if, for any given agent X, if X were to PHI, patient Y would have (a rather personal or parochial sort of) reason to resent (and object to) X for PHI-ing, then (i) any given observer or community-member (who might also be a patient or the agent) Z has an impersonal, community-preserving reason to be morally angry and object to X’s PHI-ing and (ii) the agent is normatively required to refrain from PHI-ing (fill in the specific explanation – obviously, more needs to be said). And the antecedent of the conditional expresses that the action is wrong. That’s quite schematic, perhaps not terribly plausible as it stands – and not precisely what Scanlon does. But it illustrates a general explanatory strategy that Scanlon’s view instantiates: make the wrongness of an action a function of the patient having sufficient reason to complain (resent, object, etc.) about her treatment (by the agent, by society allowing the agent to perform the action, etc.) and then – somehow, with some additional normativity-relevant machinery – have this normative fact be part of what explains the distinct reasons of the agent and of observers (specifically, as what the agent and observers have reason to respond to in the ways that are familiar to moral psychology and practice).

We might profitably compare this kind of explanatory schemata with that of J.S. Mill. Roughly, his view is that an action is morally wrong just in case and because it is welfare-optimific that it be publicly discouraged or punished. That an action is punishable (punishment-worthy) in this sense provides everyone with reason to participate in its being discouraged: to object to it. This same ultimate goal also provides reason for one to refrain from performing it (so that, if an action is punishment-worthy, one has reason for refrain from performing it). The same ultimate end provides reason for the patient to discourage punishment-worthy action, but apparently no reason specific to her being the victim of the punishment-worthy action (and no reason to resent the agent for her performing the action). This is a weakness of the theory. It is also perhaps a weakness of the theory that (observer-role or general) reasons to punish get connected-up to agent reasons to refrain only via the ultimate end of collective welfare maximization or optimization (and through there being reason to punish only because there is reason that the action generally not be performed – thus generating an implausibly weak reason to refrain). The “complaint theory” approach, of which Scanlon’s contractualism is a variant, does better, both in respect of a kind of theoretical simplicity (no reference to some further ultimate-end-type element to tie together agent, patient and observer reasons) and with respect to doing justice to reasons to resent being wronged and – perhaps, with some additional machinery, perhaps some kind of moral identity-commitment on the part of the agent – to requirement-type reasons to refrain from wronging others (or doing morally wrong things more generally).

To these general sorts of constitutive-explanatory reasons in favor of the “complaint” family of theories of moral wrongness, we might add Scanlon’s intuitive reason: complaint-worthiness (of an action, of a social regime of allowing and disallowing an action, of principles that allow or disallow an action) seems quite close to wrongness (or wrongness-that-is-wronging) and therefore a good candidate for being constitutive of it. I think, then, that, for these reasons at least, we should take the “complaint” family of theories of what moral wrongness is (or what wrongness-that-is-wronging is) seriously.

Of course, that’s a long way from establishing that something in this family of theories is right or best. After all, the most powerful justificatory element here is probably some kind of inference to the best explanation – and, in order to evaluate a theory in this way, we need to know what the alternative theories are (and why the target theory does the best job of explaining what needs to be explained). I’ve just barely, barely started that task here. Maybe, when all is said and done, Mill’s view – or some Aristotelian or virtue-theory view – will turn out to be better. And maybe, in this case, the salient order of explanation does go in the wrongness-to-complaint-worthiness direction, as Roderick (appropriately enough) fears.

One thought on “Why we shouldn’t complain quite so much about complaint theory

  1. I want to hold off responding to this until we’re through all of chapter 5. Having made my way half-way through the chapter, I’m still inclined to think that the “explanatory priority” problem remains, but without reading the rest, it’s premature to comment.

    Liked by 1 person

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