Subjectivism and Moral Criticism

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 such cases. Additionally Sue might criticize Joe with an eye only 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, at least it will be if it misrepresents 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 in Sue’s mouth 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 agent acted in the way that they had most reason to 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.

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 will not mark the distinction between legitimate moral criticism and self-serving criticism in an attractive way.

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 she says the agent had most reason to act?

25 Replies to “Subjectivism and Moral Criticism

  1. Your initial description of the problem makes no mention of specifically _moral_ criticism. So in that light, here’s a possibility.
    Suppose Sue and Joe are lovers. And suppose Sue thinks that Joe has most _reason_ to V, but criticizes Joe for not X-ing instead, because X-ing would have said something about Joe’s degree of affection for her. She might think: “Well, V-ing is what Joe has most reason to do, but if he really cares about me, he would X.” Someone more romantic than me could fill out this story better, but I hope you can see what I’m pointing to. Not all criticism of action stems from failure to act upon the weightiest reason. Sometimes we want, wish, and even expect that people will set aside their judgments about reasons in order to express solidarity with something else.
    I suppose the reply to my challenge would be: “well, there must be strong REASONS for X-ing, or expressing solidarity, or whatever.”
    But I think we are owed a worked-out detailed plausible theory of reasons before anyone is really entitled to that reply. Otherwise, the term ‘reasons’ just seems to be a placeholder for whatever we want to fill it in with, and this leads to confusion.
    Eric, on my first Maker’s, so I’m guessing this is still fairly coherent prose.

  2. Dave,
    You seem to be assuming that if subjectivism about reasons for action is true, then what one is morally required to do will sometimes (perhaps, often) differ from what one has most reason to do, all things considered. This is why, I take it, you’re having trouble seeing how the subjectism about reasons for action can fit together happily with earnest moral criticism. But why think that the requirements of morality can come apart from what there is most reason to do, all things considered? That is, why not accept Moral Rationalism (MR)?
    MR: If S is morally required to do X, then S has most reason to do X, all things considered.
    If you deny MR, then it’s hard to see why we should care any more about morality than we do, say, etiquette or any other normative domain that has only some contingent connection with what we have reason to do.
    If you accept MR, then I don’t see any problem for the subjectivist with regard to earnest moral criticism. When they fail to do what they are morally required to do, they will have also failed to do what they have most reason to do, all things considered. So the problem you originally pose doesn’t arise.

  3. Doug,
    It seems to me that the conjunction of Subjectivism about Reasons and Moral Rationalism yields Subjectivism about Morality. That is, if all reasons for action are subjective, and the morally right thing to do in any situation is just what one has most reason to do, then figuring out what the morally right thing for an agent to do is will just be a matter of weighing the agent’s subjective reasons. No other considerations will be relevant in determining what morality requires.
    If this is right, then we run into the familiar problems attending relativist and subjectivist views of morality regarding what moral criticism amounts to. It seems to me that for the view you’ve suggested moral criticism would be identical to a charge of irrationality. That’s a perfectly coherent view, but fails to capture what we at least think we’re doing when we criticize others on moral grounds. Then again, if Subjectivism about Reasons is true, then our common-sense views about moral criticism are at least partially false anyway.

  4. This may be in line with what Eric and Doug are suggesting: It seems as if either 3 or 5 of your options are the most promising. As Eric suggests, it seems perfectly understandable and in order for me to criticize a friend for doing what he had most reason to do if it quite adversely affects our friendship. “I see your reasons, and, indeed, they weighed decisively toward doing x. But how can I not complain of being so badly treated nonetheless?” There seems to be an inevitable tie to things that matter to us, albeit only to us, so that it would be very odd, perhaps even deranged, not to complain, even when we see the reason behind the action.
    Also, there might be dilemmas, cases in which an agent can only do wrong. In those cases, where each party is wronged, even if the agent does what he has most reason to do, he’ll be answerable to the other person. (You make a promise to two different people to do something with them this evening. You’ll be criticizable, even if the weight of reasons go with one rather than the other person.)

  5. Eric,
    I’m not sure why you don’t like the reply that you offer to your worry. Two thoughts that occur to me. First, keep in mind that in the case I have in mind it is Sue’s own assessment of the reasons that Joe has, not Joe’s assessment of his reasons, that we are looking at. The questions is how can Sue criticize for Joe failing to do what Sue herself says Joe has most reason to do. So there does not seem to be an issue about Joe setting aside his assessment of the reasons to show his love for Sue.
    Second, a picture I understand is the thought that Joe should sacrifice his well-being for the sake of Sue, but I don’t understand the thought that he should do what he has less reason to do (from Sue’s point of view) for the sake of Sue. As you say, if she thinks this makes sense, then shouldn’t we say that her view is that he has big reasons to do that?

  6. Doug,
    I do think, no doubt partly because of my subjectivist leanings, that one can have most reason to do things that are not morally permitted. So I reject moral rationalism. I would have guessed that someone who starts out committed to subjectivism would do best to say this. Otherwise we will be forced to say either that there are no moral requirements on people with nasty desires or that what morality requires of them is that they do nasty stuff. Neither seems a plausible story about morality to me. Clearly morality (like etiquette) has norms that detail what is required in my situation, and they do so regardless of my concerns. The question is how strong is my reason to listen.
    In one kind of case that interests me, the assessor is a subjectivist but morally earnest (has many strong concerns that answer to what we would commonsensically call morality) and the assessed is not morally decent and, by the assessor’s own lights, has no reason to comply with morality’s requirements. But this is not yet to say that the assessor’s own stance towards the assessed person is uncritical. Indeed, it seems obviously true that if the assessor were morally decent she would be quite critical of this person. So one threat to the subjectivist story is that the subjectivist cannot coherently have the critical attitude towards terrible immorality that we think all decent people would have. This makes it seem that, at least in her assessments of others, the subjectivist is not merely contingently morally awful (depending on her concerns), but necessarily so (because she cannot have a morally decent critical response to those that are immoral but not acting contrary to their –subjectively determined–reasons.

  7. I’m not sure if this addresses your worry since you come close to stipulating that you’re worried about cases in which the agent acts on what s/he has most reason to do. But still it may be worth mentioning, it seems to me that many subjectivists allow for legitimate criticism only from areas of overlap in the commitments of the speaker and agent. So one kind of criticism a subjectivist is certainly entitled to is criticism relative to common commitments. And relative to these they can certainly claim that a person did not act on what they had most reason to do, at least in many cases. (Gil Harman, at least in some papers, essentially makes that move when he requires moral judgements of right and wrong to connect up with the agent’s commitments, but also says that we don’t make them unless we share those commitments.)
    It is an interesting question whether it would make sense to make earnest criticisms relative to common commitments even when one realizes that the commitments that are not common make some other action most reasonable relative to the global commitments of those one criticizes, given the subjectivist idea that no commitments or actions are simply intrinsically rationally required apart from their relation to one’s other commitments. I was originally inclined to think not, but common project examples of the sort suggested by Eric and Robert make me less sure than I originally was.

  8. Robert,
    In the kind of case you mention it seems that it makes sense that one complains but it does not make sense to complain (this is Gibbard’s terminology). That is, we understand why a person would do it, and might not even find it blamable because it is so understandable that humans would behave thus, but we would not recommend the action—it is not what we think it makes most sense to do. This, by the way, is what I think we should say about Korsgaard’s Tex—the guy whose considered view is that he wants us to dig the knife into his wound to remove the bullet but each time we start, he yells for us to stop.
    Or are you saying the stronger thing, that even if the agent’s own view is definitively that the friend had most reason to treat her this way and this judgment is in no way hedged, still it is rationally recommended for that agent to complain and criticize the friend about the way the friend treated her. If so, I don’t feel the force of that thought yet.
    In the dilemma case, I would have said the agent is not appropriately blamed for doing what she has most reason to do in this situation–maybe honor the more important promise–but rather best seen as blamable for having done what presumably you are thinking she had reason to not do earlier (i.e. make incompatible promises).

  9. Mark,
    Tell me if I was understanding the last part of your post. You were supposing that if the assessor is a subjectivist then she can coherently criticize the assessed so long as they share common commitments. But then you are wondering if they share common commitments that have it that there is a pro tanto reason to X, but the assessor’s full commitments say that X is not the thing the agent has most reason to do (whereas the assessed person’s commitments say X is the thing all things considered that one has most reason to do). In that situation, you were wondering if it still make sense for the assessor to earnestly criticize the agent based on their common commitment. I guess, partly perhaps because I think I am not yet persuaded by the examples of Eric and Robert, that I don’t see that such a criticism makes sense simply in virtue of their common commitments.

  10. Perhaps this is a snappier way of getting at the puzzle that is bothering me. It seems to me that earnest criticism entails an all things considered ought judgement. So if I earnestly criticize you for X-ing, this entails that I think all things considered that you ought not to X. And this judgement can conflict with the assessor’s judgement about what the agent has most reason to do—for judgments about what the agent has most reason to do also seem to entail all things considered ought judgments. Or at any rate the puzzle is to understand how the earnest criticism could fail to entail the all things considered ought and/or how the all things considered thought that Joe ought not to X can co-exist comfortably with the thought that Joe has most reason to X.

  11. Dave,
    You note that if we accept both subjectivism and MR, then “we will be forced to say either that there are no moral requirements on people with nasty desires or that what morality requires of them is that they do nasty stuff.”
    And you don’t find either plausible. But it seems to me that what you, the subjectivist, must say instead is just as implausible: people with nasty desires are rationally required to do nasty things. (Let me just stipulate that, as I’ll use the phrase, to say that S is rationally required to do X is to say that S has most reason to do X, all things considered.) Now I would prefer (1) that people be morally required to do nasty things but have decisive reason not to do them than (2) that people be morally required to refrain from doing nasty things but have decisive reason to do them. Of course, this isn’t an argument, but only a preference.

  12. Doug,
    Doesn’t it seem clearer that morality is against the nasty than that reason is against the nasty? Er, maybe that was not the best way to put the point, although it perhaps works both ways.

  13. David,
    Naturally, if criticism amounts to saying that you all things considered ought not to have done something, and what you all things considered ought to do is the same as what you have most reason to do (and vice-versa), then it is impossible to say that you all things considered ought not to have done what you had most reason to do. But if there is any space at all in between these things, then it is possible to say that. It seems the right place to put pressure is on the idea that criticism amounts to saying that you all things considered ought not to have done something. That, at any rate, is behind the idea that you can justifiably criticize a friend for having harmed the friendship by doing what he had most reason to do. Also, it is behind the idea that dilemmas will generate a justifiable criticism. If I can only discharage my obligation to A by violating one to B, then B has grounds for complaint against me even if I did what I had most reason to do.
    BTW, not all dilemmas need be self-imposed, or at least it seems possible to get into them with that.

  14. Dave,
    Yes, I suppose you’re right. Nevertheless, I think that it is pretty implausible to suppose that, say, Hitler could have been rationally required to do all the nasty things that he did. If he did have most reason, all things considered, to do those nasty things, then it would be hard to fault him for doing so in any robust sense, just as it would be hard to fault someone for being rude (or doing something illegal) when that is what she had most reason to do, all things considered. Of course, this is just the problem that worries you. And I see no solution to the problem, as I suspect that there is no plausible way to deny either (1) that earnest criticism of S only makes sense in light of a judgment that S failed to do what S all things considered ought to have done or (2) that if S has most reason to do X, all things considered, then S ought, all things considered, to do X.

  15. Hi Dave.
    I’m not sure I understand the problem. In particular, I don’t see why it’s a problem especially for subjectivists.
    In your later comments, it seems the problem arises from the inconsistency of the following three claims:
    (a) One may coherently criticise a person for doing X only if one does not believe that this person has most reason, all things considered, to do X.
    (b) One may believe that X is immoral and that a person has most reason, all things considered, to do X.
    (c) If one believes that X is immoral, then one may coherently criticise a person for doing X.
    Is the idea that the objectivist, but not the subjectivist, has grounds for rejecting one of these three, perhaps (b)?

  16. It seems to me that you can, as others rightly point out, criticize someone for having harmed a friendship, for having acted immorally, for having acted contrary to the norms of etiquette, etc. But I thought that Dave was defining ‘earnest criticism’ as criticim that isn’t merely criticism from the point of view of some subset of norms that Joe doesn’t have, all things considered, reason to heed in this particular instance.

  17. Campbell,
    Isn’t the idea that Dave must accept (b) given that he accepts both:
    (d) It is immoral to do nasty things.
    (e) Those with nasty desires have most reason, all things considered, to do nasty things.
    Unlike the subjectivist, the objectivist can deny (e) and thus also deny (b) while accepting (d).

  18. Following Campbell’s lead, here are four mutually inconsistent propositions:
    (i) Earnest criticism of S’s doing X is appropriate only if S does not have most reason, all things considered, to do X.
    (ii) If S’s doing X is immoral, then earnest criticism of S’s doing X is appropriate.
    (iii) S’s doing nasty things (e.g., torturing someone for fun) is immoral.
    (iv) If S has nasty desires, then S will have most reason, all things considered, to do nasty things.
    You seem to set up things such that (i) is true given the way you understand earnest criticism. In response to my question, you expressed an unwillingness to deny (iii). Given your subjectivism, you have to accept (iv).
    So you must deny (ii). Thus it seems to me that you have to take the second of your various proposals and abandon the idea that earnest criticism of immoral conduct that is rationally required can be appropriate. This would, as you say, “introduce a significant and largely unacknowledged cost to embracing subjective accounts of reasons.”

  19. David,
    What do you think of Foot’s (abandoned) view in her paper about Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives? There, her theory of reasons for action is largely subjectivist (except for prudence), yet at the end of the paper we see she is perfectly willing to criticize the immoral as immoral. I do think there are problems with the view she expresses there, but I don’t think that there is anything inconsistent going on…
    On another note, I’d like to make more explicit something that I think Robert already noted. I worry that this discussion of moral criticism has been a bit too action-focused. That is, we often criticize _people_, and then only partially on the basis of what they do. So Sue might criticize Joe, not because he acted unreasonably, but because of the thoughts and feelings he has.
    As philosophers, we can distinguish the criticism of an action, and the criticism of a person based (partially or entirely) upon an action. But in practice, I don’t think these are always neatly distinguished, and perhaps not always neatly distinguishable.

  20. Campbell,
    Yea, I was thinking that the non-subjectivist can say that her view is that agent’s never have most reason to do what they themselves think criticizable. But for the subjectivist to say this, they must be unwilling to criticize even the most nasty kinds action.

  21. Dave and Doug, thanks, I get it now. Though, I suppose, some objectivists might be in a similar bind. The problem seems to arise for any view which allows that one may have most reason, all things considered, to do something immoral. And some objectivist views allow that, I assume.

  22. Eric,
    Well I am quite a fan of the Foot paper, but even so I need to ask to be reminded of the criticism she levels against the immoral? She might be criticizing the immoral as immoral in the same spirit that she would criticize the uncouth as uncouth. These normative systems render these verdicts about the agent, but without her, as it were, seconding the verdicts. The line I found that seemed to disavow earnest criticism of others on ethical grounds was “My own conclusion is that “One ought to be moral” makes no sense at all unless the “ought” has the moral subscript, given a tautology, or else relates morality to some other system such as prudence or etiquette. I am, therefore, putting forward quite seriously a theory that disallows the possibility of saying that a man ought (free unsubscripted “ought”) to have ends other than those he does have…. [from the long footnote added in 1977 (the version with the footnote is available in the Darwall, Gibbard, Railton collection of essays).

  23. Doug,
    The way you present the argument above does make it strongly seem that subjectivists must accept 2 (as, in her subjectivist day, I guess Foot did–see above). Perhaps I need to play with other senses of earnest criticism. But in any case, your formulation of the inconsistent 4 claims is quite helpful to me. Thanks!

  24. Campbell,
    Yes, I agree, the problem is for anyone who wants to embrace a theory of reasons which says that people can have sufficient reason to act in ways that the assessor thinks are earnestly criticizable. That is a helpful modification and I think you are right that some objectivists will feel whatever sting there is here as well as the subjectivist.

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