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?

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Scanlon and “Justifiability to Others”

T. M. (“Tim”) Scanlon is best known for his advocacy, especially in his book What We Owe to Each Other (1998), of the moral theory of contractualism. Contractualism is broadly the idea that morality is based on a social agreement or “contract.” It can in principle refer to any contract-based moral theory, within a certain range to be described in a moment, but in practice it refers to Scanlon’s theory unless the context makes clear that something else is meant. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) article on “Contractualism” by Elizabeth Ashford and Tim Mulgan says that contractualism is distinguished from contractarianism by being grounded in the equal moral status of persons. Contractarianism, especially of the sort identified with Hobbes and Gauthier and Buchanan, tries to derive morality from an agreement that individuals make based on their own self-interest. A contractarian theory imagines people forming an agreement which each sees as maximizing his own personal self-interest and nothing else, and in particular without regard to the interests of anyone else. By contrast, contractualism imagines that people are deciding mutually agreed-upon principles from a position in which each person accepts every other person as a rational autonomous agent of equal moral importance with himself. Scanlon claims (5) that this conception of the social contract can be traced back to Rousseau.

The key concept of contractualism seems to be justifiability to others. In what follows, I shall explain what “justifiability to others” means in Scanlon’s contractualism and why I think it lies at the root of a serious deficiency of the theory.

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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.

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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?

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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).

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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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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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