Suppose that Sue’s considered opinion was that Joe had all things considered most reason to do one thing. In what sense could Sue, in consistency with that thought, earnestly criticize Joe for failing to do something else? Of course, it could be that Sue thinks that Joe had no good reason to believe that he had good reason to act as he did, despite having most reason to act that way, and so was irrational, given his information, to act as he did. Such a possibility opens the door to the earnest criticism of Joe that he was irrational. But let us ignore cases where the assessor and the actor have different information. Additionally, of course, Sue might criticize Joe merely with an eye to the causal upshot of that criticism. She might hope that the criticism would produce a situation that she thinks is better. But here the criticism is less than fully earnest in that it does not truly express Sue’s view of what there was most reason for Joe to do. So let us ignore cases where one criticism of the agent misrepresents one’s view of what the agent has most reason to do.
Sue might criticize Joe from various points of view. She might say that although he did what he had most reason to do, what he did was contrary to etiquette and therefore is criticizable as uncouth. But such a criticism would seem to need to be tempered, if not downright ironic, due to Sue’s concession that it did not make most sense to heed the call of ettiqutte in this case. Sue’s maintaining that Joe’s reasons to heed the call of ettiqutte were outweighed in this case makes her criticism that Joe’s act was uncouth seem less than (all things considered) earnest.
The issue seems interesting in its own right, but I am especially interested in this topic because I am wondering to what extend a subjectivist about reasons for action can, in consistency, engage in earnest moral criticism of an agent’s act when the act is what the actor had most reason to do by the lights of the subjectivist’s own account of reasons.
What I would like to see better is how the subjective account can fit together happily with earnest moral criticism. Any ideas on this score (or reasons to despair of this) would be greatly appreciated. I will list some of the options that seem to me worth considering below, but I wish I saw better options (or at any rate options that did not tie the subjectivist to another significant philosophical project).
1: Williams Attempt to Have One’s Cake and Eat it Too
One might, as Bernard Williams did in “Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame,” try to show that in all cases where intuitively blame is in good order there will be an internal reason that the blame taps into. If this were the case we could continue our practices of blaming immoral action in roughly the ways we used to without pretending the agent had external reasons to comply. For reasons I cannot adequately go into here (unless asked to do so), I am persuaded that Williams’s case for this option is unworkable.
2: Abandon Moral Criticism
One might say that the subjectivist must, in consistency, avoid earnest criticism of an agent’s action when, by the critics own lights, the agent acts in the way she has most reason to act. This would introduce a significant and largely unacknowledged cost to embracing subjective accounts of reasons.
3: Reasons but not the Agent’s Reasons
Third, one might say that while there are good, normative reasons for the agent to do the moral thing, those reasons are not the agent’s reasons and the subjectivist account is an account of the agent’s reasons. Williams gives a plug for this view by saying “I also agree that if we think of this [the failure to see certain considerations as reasons] as a deficiency or fault of this man [as I just agreed we should] then we must think that in some sense these reasons apply to him…. But none of this implies that these considerations are already the defective agent’s reasons: indeed the problem is precisely that they are not.” [“Some Further Notes on Internal and External Reasons,” p. 95-6]. But if this is so, then why is the deliberation of the agent not subject to criticism for failing to connect up with the reasons that there are? And why not say that the account is an account of the agent’s reasons simpliciter, but rather an account of the reasons that are especially accessible to the agent? And why doesn’t this force us to say that there are values which ought to move the agent even if she would not be moved by them after “sound deliberation.” And if we accept this, what more could the externalist want?
4: Reasons Not a Master-Assessment of what Ought to Happen
Fourth, we could understand the subjectivist account of reasons to be not a master assessment of all things considered reasons, but just a particular flavor of reasons that apply to the situation. This would involve significant revision in the traditional understanding and threatens to trivialize the subjectivist component of the story. On this story, the subjectivist is offering an account of “rationality” reasons, but not claiming that such reasons are more significant than “etiquette" reasons. Fellow subjectivism sypathizer Don Hubin, at least in casual conversation, suspects that this might be the way for the subectivist to go.
5: The Appeal to the Reasons of the Assessor
Fifth, we could think that what grounds the criticism is not some subjective reason that the agent has, but a subjectively determined reason that the critic has. But this threatens to relativize the criticism to my wants—there could be nothing more objective in my criticism than that I do not want you to behave thus. This will not mark the distinction between valid and self-serving moral criticism where we would expect to find it.
6: Expressivism about Moral Claims
One could interpret the moral criticism as not pointing to any truth about the reasons that there are, but rather as giving vent to the assessor’s non-cognitive disapproval. However, how should we understand this disapproval as being consistent with the thought that the agent acted as I say she had most reason to act?