Hi everyone, and thanks to PEA Soup for providing this forum and inviting me to contribute.
1. The Issue
Standard theories on normative reasons rarely mention roles* and their attendant reasons and obligations, and when roles are mentioned, they are accorded derivative normative significance. The particulars of the theories vary wildly, but the general picture they give is as follows: while there are standards for what constitutes a good parent (and a good doctor, friend, citizen, and so on), these standards are not normative, where ‘normative’ means or entails ‘reason-giving’. The standards of a role ground reasons for its members – the standards become normative – only if some other, more foundational, normative conditions are met. So occupying a role need play no important role in a theory of practical reason. But here, I offer arguments in support of the following thesis.
Role Thesis: By virtue of occupying a role, and by that alone, one has reason to do that which is conducive to achieving the ends of that role and obligations to refrain from doing that which defies the ends of that role.
I think the thesis is interesting in its own right, even though it does not make the more robust claim that all normative reasons are grounded in role occupation. For one, if the Role Thesis is true, then internalism about practical reason is false, since a) people occupy roles they have no desire to occupy and b) role-grounded normative reasons persist even when the people in the relevant roles have no desire to act in accord with those reasons.
I’ll begin by considering two objections I bet you already thought of: immoral roles and being forced into a role. I’ll then give a positive argument for the Role Thesis.
2. Clearing the Air: Two Objections
“Thieves and Nazis don’t have reasons qua thief or qua Nazi, respectively, to do that which makes them good thieves or Nazis, so the Role Thesis is false. Further, women forced to be wives do not have reasons to do that which makes them good wives by virtue of being wives, so the Role Thesis is false.”
There are a variety of things to say here, but since this is a blog post, I’ll just mention two lines of response to which I’m drawn and that I’d be happy to discuss in comments: we can a) treat the immorality and/or involuntariness of role occupation as disablers, and/or b) argue against the reliability of one or both of these intuitions in particular. At any rate, Humeans will need to answer similar questions about immoral and involuntarily acquired desires (e.g. someone forced or deceived into taking a highly addictive drug), and non-naturalists will need to tell us whether we can have normative reason to involuntarily pursue something of value, so these objections are less about the Role Thesis and more about constraints any account of normative reasons must (allegedly) accommodate.
3. An Argument in Favor of the Role Thesis
I’m going to give a case that I think intuitively supports the Role Thesis, and I’ll argue that denying these intuitions lands the denier in uncomfortable philosophical waters.
The case is that of a deadbeat father – one who is indifferent towards, and does nothing to promote, the welfare of his children, despite his having the ability to do so. He is, I would say, a bad father. But more than this: he is, all else equal (e.g. he does not have greater countervailing reasons relating to, say, being an artist in Tahiti) failing to act on his reasons to care for his children, and he has those reasons by virtue of being a father, full stop.
He has those reasons even if he does not care about his children. In fact, lack of caring is not only not a disabling condition for his having a reason to promote their welfare, but also makes him worse qua father. Not caring about one’s children is a bad-making feature of a father qua father, and it cannot be that one can get out of the reasons and obligations of fatherhood simply by being a bad father (nor by instantiating a bad-making feature of a father). Nor is apathy towards one’s children an exit condition for the role of fatherhood; it is not as if there are only good fathers around since the ones that would be bad simply cease being fathers before they get to be bad ones. Analogous claims apply if he fails to “identify” as a father, however that gets analyzed. One cannot exit the role of father by (intellectually or emotionally) refusing to recognize oneself as a father.
I think these (anti-internalist) intuitions in support of the Role Thesis are robust and reliable, but here is a further argument that pushes someone without these intuitions into troubling philosophical waters.
- If C has a normative reason to resent F then F had a reason to do otherwise. [I take resentment to be a form of blaming.]
- The children have reason to resent their father.
- Thus, the father had reason to do otherwise.
I think the premises are both highly plausible, and denying (2) seems, well, kind of crazy. And I think the reason we think (2) is true supports the Role Thesis. Why do they have reason to resent their father? Because he’s their father and so he’s supposed to care for them. So an internalist will have to deny (1). But denying (1) also seems wrong. For if one accepts (2) but rejects (1), one is claiming that resentment can be justified despite the object of blame not having a reason to do otherwise. But if C can justifiably blame F despite F not even having a normative reason to do otherwise, then whether F can do otherwise is irrelevant to justified blame. Why would F having an alternative possibility matter to whether blame is justified if F has zero normative reasons to take it up if it is possible? So defending internalism would drive one to deny (1) and claim that moral responsibility doesn’t require alternative possibilities, but it cannot be right that affirming internalism entails denying PAP. Or, at the very least, that would be a highly contentious move that requires much further argumentation (e.g. weighing the arguments in support of internalism against the arguments in support of PAP).
Two notes before closing.
First, the deadbeat father case is just one example of a kind of case that has a certain structure, viz. one in which a person occupies a role (through not involuntary actions or through no action at all, e.g. being born in a certain country) that she would like to exit but has not yet exited. Perhaps she signed up for military service and now regrets it, or is the romantic partner of someone she no longer wishes to be with, or she is a citizen in one country and wishes to gain citizenship elsewhere. Still, in all those cases, she has a reason to do what makes members of those roles good members of those roles (e.g. report for duty, not betray the partner, and vote, respectively).
Second, I’ve only gone some (small) way in defending the Role Thesis. One important missing element is an explanation as to why or how the father’s normative reason is grounded in his occupying the role of fatherhood instead of being grounded in some other (non-desire based) way. Part of that explanation, I think, consists in articulating the relation between occupying a role and the instantiation of non-instrumental value. At this point, though, I hope to have shown that the Role Thesis is at least plausible, and theories of practical reason should pay them greater attention.
Ok…let me have it! And thank you for your interest!
* A role, as I use the term, is anything a person can be that has a constitutive function or end. For instance, a mother qua mother has the end of the welfare of her children and is a good mother to the extent that she is effective at pursuing their welfare, a professor qua professor has the education of her students as her end and is a good professor to the extent she is effective at educating them, and so on.