A FUNDAMENTAL RESPECT IN WHICH SCANLON SEEMS TO BE WRONG ABOUT MORAL WRONGNESS (AND WHAT THE CORRECT APPROACH MIGHT BE)

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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MacIntyre, Individualism, and Modern Moral Philosophy

In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre published the book that would make him famous (in the small world of professional philosophy): After Virtue. I read it soon after it was published, and it was way over my head. The book promoted the importance of history of philosophy, Greek philosophy in particular, and virtue ethics. Indeed, I believe it was a major stimulus to the revival of virtue ethics in analytic philosophy that took place soon thereafter. I recall it having the status of an “it book.” Still, the book’s main argument was abstract and somewhat obscure, so that although I was eager to be persuaded, I was left feeling that I mainly just didn’t understand it very well. I also figured it was my fault, because I didn’t know enough to comprehend the historical argument.

I still have my original copy of After Virtue, full of my marginal comments and handwritten notes shoved between the pages. But I haven’t reviewed any of it now. Instead, this post is stimulated by my happening upon a brief passage at the end of MacIntyre’s discussion of Joseph Butler in his 1966 book, A Short History of Ethics. This passage presents what seems to me a précis of the argument of After Virtue. It may be that this is not fair. To the extent that it isn’t, then obviously the comments and criticisms I make here will be inapplicable to the argument of After Virtue. That’s all right: the argument given in A Short History of Ethics is interesting in itself and worth commenting on. That will be my task in what follows.

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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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Hart, Nationalism, and the “Invention of Tradition”

After a hiatus of a few months, we’re back to discussing H.L.A Hart’s The Concept of Law in our MTSP Discussion Group, so I thought I’d throw out some ideas I’d had on the past few discussions on chapters 8 and 9 of the book, “Justice and Morality,” and “Law and Morals,” respectively. This post is on chapter 8. I’m hoping to revisit chapter 9 at some point. Continue reading

Desert and Merit (4)

In a previous post, I criticized George Sher’s view that merit-based desert is based on (the recognition of) existing conventions of merit. In these cases, the existing rules are already fashioned to reward merit in a justified way, so that justice (in the sense of rewarding desert) consists simply in acknowledging that a given person satisfies the criteria of merit, and acknowledging that in accepting the convention, we accept the further implication that the person deserves what the rules say they deserve. Continue reading

Desert and Merit (3)

The value or worth of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power, and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgement of another.

–Hobbes, Leviathan, I.10.16

Sher’s account of desert and merit raises many questions, so let me double back to consider some of these, some addressed in his chapter, some not. I’d originally thought I’d leave the criticisms of Sher’s chapter at a single post, but it turns out that my criticisms have eaten up more space than I’ve thought they would. So this series on “Desert and Merit” is going to be longer than the promised or predicted two installments. Frankly, at this point, I couldn’t tell you how long it will be. As Michelangelo said (or is reported to me by Roderick Long to have said) about the Sistine Chapel, “It will be done when it is done.” I follow Michelangelo in such matters. Continue reading

Cancel Culture and the Arc of the Moral Universe

I’ve heard so many whining, incoherent complaints about the evils of “cancel culture” over the past few years, usually from the same old suspects saying the same damn thing over and over. I wouldn’t offer a blanket endorsement of every cancellation or every cancellation-oriented group or movement. But I’m curious (once again) to hear what anti-cancel-culture warriors have to say about Trafficking Hub’s campaign to cancel human trafficking in porn.

Either the pressure exerted on MasterCard (and other vendors) was an instance of “cancel culture,” or it wasn’t. If not, why not?

Suppose it was. Was there anything wrong with it? Were the aims unjust, or the means immoral?

If there’s nothing wrong with the Trafficking Hub campaign, what’s the rationale for the blanket attack on “cancel culture”? Why don’t cases like this prove that if we’re to use the phrase at all, “cancel culture” has both legitimate and illegitimate instances?

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Desert and Merit (1)

Having finished Sher’s Desert last week, the MTSP Discussion is on to discussing HLA Hart’s The Concept of Law, but I’m going to spend the next few weeks hammering out summaries of the last four chapters of Sher’s book, just for the hell of it. I’ve had to break my discussion of Chapter 7 of Desert into two parts, a summary and a critique. This post is the summary; I’ll post the critique when I get a chance.

Chapter 7 of Desert discusses a so-far neglected basis of desert, merit. It seems self-evident or obvious to many people that we deserve things insofar as we have or exhibit the right kind of merit, whether moral or non-moral, to do so. Chapter 7, “Merit and Desert,” discusses contexts where moral and non-moral considerations merge in ways that are hard to entangle.  Take for instance the common claim that college admissions be based on candidates’ “merit” with respect to admission. Is that a moral claim or a non-moral one? Does it involve a moral conception of merit or a non-moral one? Continue reading