As everyone knows, I ‘Reealy’ like Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other. One good
thing about the book is that every time you read it (and I’ve read it quite a
few times) you find something new that’s usually both interesting and puzzling.
Here’s three quite recent small things that I’ve spotted.
1. In the Introduction, Scanlon presents contractualism in
‘[A]n act is wrong if and only if it would be disallowed by
any principle that such people could not reasonably reject (p. 4)’.
Note the biconditional. Then, when the view is introduced
later in the book, it’s put in this way:
‘[A]n act is wrong if its performance under the
circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general
regulation of behavior that no one could reasonably reject (p. 153)’.
Note that the biconditional is now gone and we are left with
only the left-to-right conditional part of it. Furthermore, there is a whole section
(4.7) on the idea that contractualism only describes the core of morally wrong
actions and that there are actions that are wrong on other grounds than the
contractualist principle. This is to deny the truth of the right-to-left
direction. What happened inbetween the introduction and the account?
2. The second chapter has become famous because of the buck-passing
account. Here’s some representative quotes:
‘To be good or valuable is to have other properties that
constitute such reasons [to respond to a thing in certain ways] (p. 97)’.
Note that here the normative buck is passed to properties
that are actually providing reasons.
‘Judgments about what is good or valuable generally express
practical conclusions about what would, at least under right conditions, be
reasons for acting or responding in a certain way (p. 96)’.
This is slightly different. Having value is not accounted
for in terms of provided reasons but rather in terms of dispositions to provide
reasons under right circumstances. I think the latter is better and enables the
buck-passer to respond to some Dancyan worries.
Anyway, given such quotes, you would think that Scanlon is a
buck-passer. I’m not sure though. Here’s a quote that has received less attention:
‘A state of affairs in which I am in pain is, for that reason, a worse state of affairs for me, and this fact gives rise to the reasons to do what is necessary to prevent it. But it is not always possible to identify outcomes whose independent value can plausibly be seen as a source of the reasons we have (p. 92-3).’
This is really hard to square with the buck-passing account.
As I read this passage, pain makes the state of affairs worse and the fact that the state of affairs have
less value for me gives reasons to prevent that state of affairs coming
about. And, values are sources of reasons… Buck-pass that!
3. I’ve also got new worries about judgment-internalism. I
think some version of that view is correct. Thus, if I judge that I have
reason to do something, then I must necessarily have some motivation to do it or I’m
suffering from some sort of practical irrationality. Scanlon seems to accept
something like this too in this quote:
‘[A] rational person who judges there to be compelling
reason to do A normally forms the intention to do A, and this judgment is
sufficient explanation of that intention and of the agent’s acting on it. There
is no need to invoke an additional form of motivation beyond the judgment and
the reasons it recognizes, some further force to, as it were, get the limbs in
motion (p. 33–4)’.
And, as Scanlon says this seems to follow from his account
of minimal rationality. This sort of rationality just is coherence between
reason-judgments and the judgment-sensitive attitudes for which the reasons are taken to
be reasons. Judging that one has reason to adopt certain attitude and not
having that attitude seems incoherent (even without the Smithian story).
Rational agents have disposition towards coherence and therefore the
motivations follow the judgments. If they don’t, rationality is failing by
So far so good. However, I think similar
judgment-internalism is plausible also in the case of wrongness-judgments. So,
if I judge that some action is wrong, I must have some motivational
dispositions to avoid doing that sorts of actions or I’m irrational. I’m
starting to think Scanlon cannot get this conclusion. Here’s two quotes he
gives about the content of wrongness judgments:
‘[J]udgments of right and wrong [are] claims about
reasons–more specifically about the adequacy of reasons for accepting or
rejecting principles under certain conditions (p. 3)’ and
‘[t]his leads me to describe the subject matter of judgments
of right and wrong by saying that they are judgments about what would be
permitted by principles that could not be reasonably rejected (p. 4)’.
Notice first that these two quotes give a different content
for our judgments about right and wrong. According to the first they are about
the adequacy of reasons for accepting and rejecting principles and according to
the second they are about actions that would be permitted by the principles.
Whichever content they were about, I don’t see how they could have the right
motivational implications. The first content could imply motivation to accept
and reject principles but for the actions I think are wrong. I’m not sure how the judgments about the second content
could motivate as such. In some way part of the content has to be that I have
reasons to do these acts that are forbidden by the relevant principles or these
are the acts that ought not to be done. But, the contents Scanlon gives exclude
both these thoughts. It is true that he describes reasons there are not to do
the actions that are forbidden by the non-rejectable principles. However, these
reasons may exist without the agents making judgments about them, and therefore
they cannot be behind the motivational force of (even false) wrongness-judgments.