a thought or two prompted by reading chapter one of Gaus’ “The Tyranny of the Ideal”

Suppose that, for a certain type of cooperative endeavor in a certain type of circumstance, the only appropriate fairness-pattern (in the distribution of benefits and burdens) is equal shares of what is produced (as long as a certain minimum effort, of a certain minimal quality, is put forth). So, we do the thing, everyone crosses the effort/quality threshold, and we distribute the fruits of our labor equally. Is the distribution perfectly or completely fair or just?

Not necessarily. Maybe my contribution involved my unfairly acquiring something (say, wood for a fire that needed to be fed) from someone. Or maybe, though I traded fairly to get my wood, the person I got it from obtained it from some other person unfairly. The general pattern here (that need not involve anything like a chain of transactions a la Nozickian procedural justice) is: (social state of affairs) that-P is just only relative to the justice of (relevant social circumstance) that-Q; but it might be that, if that-Q is just, it is just only relative to the justice of (further relevant social circumstance) that-R; etc. Though there is no reason why this explanatory chain has to be super-long or super-complicated in all scenarios, at the level of evaluating whole societies and the complex interactions, norms and institutions that compose them, some considerable number of salient justice-evaluable circumstances and some considerable complexity should be expected. But that pushes us toward the idea that ideals of perfect or complete justice are unmanageable and quixotic. 

Continue reading


I think Scanlon’s main thing, his account of moral wrongness, asserts an implausible explanatory relationship. Arguably, it says something like this: morally wrong actions are those actions that would be disallowed according to a principle of public, collective disallowing (“discouraging”) that, if followed, would not result in anyone being wronged (mistreated, abused, etc.). 

This is funny at least because morally wrong actions that are wrongings of persons seem to be morally wrong because the actions themselves are wrongings of persons. Why should something like [the public, collective disallowing of an action] not being a wronging of a person be relevant to the disallowed action being morally wrong?

Continue reading

resenting you, rationally

Suppose I believe that you have insulted me unprovoked and I have some, but not sufficient, reason for this belief (we’ll be setting aside entirely whether you have actually insulted me unprovoked and hence whether my resenting you for what you have done would be correct). In a certain familiar sense, it is not rational for me to resent you for what you have done (there is more rational support for the not-resenting than for the resenting). This is the same sense in which I am not justified in believing Q if, though I believe that P and that P implies Q, I’m not justified in having one or both of these beliefs.

Continue reading

why (and in what sense) is there always reason to object when there is reason to resent?

Here’s a puzzle. Or at least something that we might want to have a good explanation of. Intuitively, one having reason to have some particular type of attitude (including some particular type of moral, reactive attitude) is tightly, necessarily or essentially connected to one having reason to do things that one tends to do when one has the attitude (or that tend to “go along with” having the attitude). For example, when I have reason to resent you for how you have treated me, I have reason to object to you (or the community at large) for your treating me this way (and also: complain, protest, resist, demand apology, demand compensation, etc.). Plausibly, if it is appropriate for me to resent, then necessarily it is appropriate (in some related way) for me to object (even if, all things considered, I have more reason to refrain from objecting than to object); and, conversely, if it is appropriate for me to object (in the requisite way), then necessarily it is appropriate for me to resent. Yet: we have two distinct responses here, PHI-ing and PSI-ing and, if this is all the information we have, we should suppose that having reason to PHI and having reason to PSI are not connected in any necessary or essential (or even systematic but conceptually or metaphysically contingent) way. Why does having reason to resent have anything at all to do with having reason to object?

Continue reading


If I’m resenting the things that I should resent and not resenting the things that I should not resent, I’ll resent you for just up and insulting me out of nowhere. But I won’t resent you for insulting me if you have good reason (or reason of the right kind) to insult me. Similarly, if you negligently do me harm or knowingly (or intentionally) harm me.*

If, as I think we should, we read ‘you have good reason (or reason of the right kind) to insult me’ as referring to fact-relative or objective normative support for the insulting, then appropriate resentment (and non-resentment) is sensitive, in part, to the reasons of (or what matters to) the person who would insult one. And that, I think, is an important result, for it implies that “taking the interests of others into account” (a rough but apt phrase) is built into the standards that govern our reactive attitudes (or at least this reactive attitude). I think this is an interesting way of explaining our taking others into account – as agents, as rational beings, as beings with things that matter to them, not just as ordinary furniture of the universe or generic circumstances relevant to setting goals and making plans – at a basic psychological and normative level. Continue reading

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).

Continue reading


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).

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.).

Continue reading


Suppose I’m a judge in state (government) S1 and, in the judicial system of this state, due to cultural and institutional factors that do not prominently include explicit bigotry or anything like this, those in the non-dominant ethnic groups are twice as likely to get a death sentence than are those in the dominant ethnic group. If I’m in this position, it seems morally objectionable for me not to speak out and do something (or this or that specific thing) about the situation or my connection to it. It is not just that speaking out and doing something (or some particular thing like organizing for change or quitting) is morally best, morally ideal, apt for moral praise (as supererogatory acts are).

Continue reading

the right sort of intrinsic desire to avoid doing morally wrong things

One can do what is morally right without the action having moral worth, as with Kant’s (merely) prudent shopkeeper (not overcharging a naive customer when she easily could). The reason that the shopkeeper’s right action lacks moral worth is, roughly, that she does not have the right sort — the moral sort — of aim or motivation in doing the right (honest) thing.

In recent literature, folks distinguish two different sorts of motivational contents (motivating reasons) that might go into having the correct sort of motivation for a right action to have moral worth. First, there is content that concerns right-making features (RMF-type content), content like that overcharging this customer would fail to treat each customer equally. Second, there is content that concerns rightness (or wrongness) itself (RI-type content), content like that it would be wrong to charge this customer more than I charge the others. Some, like Nomy Arpaly and Julia Markovitz, have argued that only RMF-type motivational content is necessary. One intuitive point that works in favor of this approach is this: absent any knowledge of what makes a right action right, the insistence on doing the right thing can begin to look like a kind of empty fetish. Also, in the Huckleberry Finn case, Huck doesn’t turn Jim (the slave) in partly because he sees Jim as concretely human in various aspects (something that would make turning Jim in wrong, so an RMF-content) even though he thinks doing this is wrong (an RI-content that motivates toward turning Jim in).

More recently, others (e.g., Zoe Johnson King, Paulina Sliwa, Kashev Singh) have argued that RI-content is necessary as well (and sometimes that RI-content is primary, as Johnson King and Sliwa argue). Among other things, these authors (and others) produce reasonably convincing arguments against drawing the conclusions that Arpaly and Markovitz draw from cases of doing what is right simply because it is right (with no particular understanding of what makes right actions right operative, hence the charge of fetishism) and from the Huck Finn case (responding, by doing what is right, to the things that make the right action right, while holding explicit judgments that the right action is wrong).

Continue reading