Welcome to our NDPR Review Forum on R. Jay Wallace’s book The Moral Nexus (PUP 2019), recently reviewed in NDPR by Rahul Kumar. Below is a brief description of the book, an excerpt from the review, and an initial discussion from R. Jay Wallace. Please feel free to comment on any aspect of the book, the review, and the discussion below.
From the book blurb:
The Moral Nexus develops and defends a new interpretation of morality—namely, as a set of requirements that connect agents normatively to other persons in a nexus of moral relations. According to this relational interpretation, moral demands are directed to other individuals, who have claims that the agent comply with these demands. Interpersonal morality, so conceived, is the domain of what we owe to each other, insofar as we are each persons with equal moral standing.
From the NDPR Review:
The idea that, as Christine Korsgaard once put it, “The subject matter of morality is not what we should bring about, but how we should relate to one another” is one that resonates with moral and political philosophers. R. Jay Wallace’s book brilliantly explores, with nuance and in detail, the reasons embedded in ordinary moral thought that undergird the appeal of a relational interpretation of moral reasoning, one that characterizes it as a matter of working out how we ought to regulate our conduct if we are to stand in a relation of moral equals to one another. It argues, in particular, for the merits of a distinctive, and contentious, version of such an interpretation that conceives of the whole of the morality of right and wrong — interpersonal morality — as a nexus of irreducibly relational requirements, or directed duties. These duties, or obligations, linking particular individuals to one another as duty-bearers and correlative claim holders, are owed by persons to one another simply in virtue of their standing as moral equals who, because they share a world, can affect one another through their actions and attitudes.
Contractualism, I take it, has commonsense on its side: we don’t generally think that all moral wrongs involve wronging someone. Contributing to the alleviation of global poverty and disease, for example, is morally required of those who are in a position to do so at little cost to themselves. It is also a requirement that seems as central to interpersonal morality as the obligation to keep one’s promises. But unlike a promissory obligation, it is considered an imperfect duty, one that allows discretion with respect to how you incorporate it into your life. It does not mandate either the form your contribution takes, nor to whom it ought to be directed. This discretion, together with the fact that, from the point of view of the duty-bearer, the duty is not associated with respecting the claims of individuals, suggest that it is not properly characterized as a directed obligation; failing to comply with it is wrong, but does not wrong anyone.
Wallace’s point, however, is that if we do not conceive of interpersonal morality as a nexus of directed duties and linked claims, we sacrifice being able to make good sense of the deliberative and interpersonal significance, as well as the cosmopolitan scope, of the requirements constitutive of it. He addresses this apparent dilemma in the final chapter, arguing that intuitive convictions concerning the substance of what morality requires, that do not initially look to be concerned with requirements owed to particular individuals, are either more amenable to a relational analysis than one might initially think, or are insufficiently secure to put much weight on. The discussion covers a lot of ground; its objective, however, is not to try and settle substantive issues, but to illustrate the fruitfulness of reasoning about them in relational terms.
We can, for example, think of the duty of the affluent to aid those in need as one that invests each of the potential beneficiaries with a claim to assistance held against each who is in a position to do so. The reasons that justify the duty concern the personal interests at stake, whose comparative importance render any principle permitting an affluent person to not offer aid (presumptively) unjustifiable to those in need of it. The claims in question are admittedly unusual, insofar as what a claimant is entitled to demand of a particular affluent agent, against whom she holds a claim, is not that she in particular be aided, but that the affluent agent contribute his fair share to a collective effort by the affluent to aid those in need of assistance (207). Flouting this obligation wrongs those in need of aid, communicating to them a denial, or disregard, of their equal reality as persons. Their resenting, and in other ways blaming, the derelict affluent is fully warranted.
This point, concerning the interpersonal significance of flouting the duty to contribute, is plausible and easy to overlook. That this aspect of it is brought into relief by Wallace’s account of its grounds helpfully illustrates how examining substantive moral questions in relational terms can be illuminating. On the other hand, holding those in need to be wronged by the affluent who do not contribute to their aid strikes me as implausible, and I am uncertain that doing so is forced upon us if we are to make sense of the reactive attitudes in question.
Consider the analysis of the duty to contribute to aid that contractualist reasoning invites. Though it is not relational in Wallace’s sense, the concern it identifies as lying at the heart of interpersonal morality, that of conducting yourself in ways justifiable to others, can be aptly described as relational in character. The personal interests of individuals do figure in working out what, by way of conduct, is justifiable to them. But that is because many of the reasons they have for objecting to principles licensing certain forms of conduct appeal to their interests. It is relating to others in ways responsive to their reasons, not the promotion and protection of interests, that contractualism takes to be fundamental.
Looked at in this way, not contributing to the aid of those in need is wrong because no principle permitting affluent individuals to not contribute is justifiable, in light of their reasons for wanting assistance, to those in need. Acting wrongly, by not contributing, constitutes a failure to acknowledge, or a denial of, the comparative significance of their reasons, and by implication, their equal moral standing as persons. The gulf this creates between the wrongdoer and those who have good reasons for refusing to license the permissibility of their conduct constitutes a form of interpersonal estrangement.
My sense is that this gulf provides the right kind of warrant for those in need holding the derelict affluent accountable. If I’m right, the point calls into question the extent to which practices of interpersonal accountability actually support Wallace’s relational interpretation. That we do not just register a person’s conduct as being morally wrong, but are disposed, when the wrong concerns how she has related to another, to hold the person accountable for her wrongdoing is perhaps the most intuitively compelling consideration in favor of theorizing morality in relational terms. But it only speaks in favour of morality as a nexus of duties and linked claims if we accept that holding a person accountable for her conduct requires her having wrongedanother by disregarding the person’s claim. The contractualist analysis of the duty to contribute implies this is something we ought not accept. It can be appropriate to hold a person accountable for acting wrongly, though the act wrongs no one, because the grounds of it being wrong to act in that way are relational — in the sense of being concerned, not with the valid claims of others, but with the reasons they have for reasonably refusing to license the type of conduct in question.
In the abstract, this may seem like a small difference. But it makes a significant difference to the prospects of being able to make sense of the content of interpersonal morality in relational terms. Consider, for example, a standard non-identity problem case, in which a person is faced with a choice between conceiving a child now, knowing that there is a non-negligible risk that it will be born with significant physical impairments, and taking a safe, costless drug for six months before conceiving that will vastly reduce the likelihood of impairment. Many share the intuitive conviction that the objection to not taking the drug is relational, having to do with how she would be relating to the future child. Sometimes theorized as a violation of the child’s right, Wallace suggests that we better get at the insight behind the positing of such a right by attention to how the implications of taking the drug for the child’s non-comparative interests underwrite its claim that it be taken (212).
From R. Jay Wallace:
The Moral Nexus sketches and defends a relational interpretation of the domain of interpersonal morality. The starting point is the idea that there is a distinctively relational form of normativity, illustrated by promissory commitments, that involves three features:
- First, there are directed duties, owed by an agent to another party (in the promissory case, the promisor owes it to the promisee to live up to the terms of the agreement);
- Second, there is a claim that is held by the party to whom the obligation is owed, against the agent who stands under the directed duty (cf. the promisee’s claim against the promisor to the latter’s compliance with the promissory commitment);
- Third, there is the idea that a failure on the part of the agent to live up to the directed duty is not merely wrong, but constitutes a wrong done to the claimholder (thus a promisor who flouts their promissory commitment will thereby have wronged the promisee, in a way they will not necessarily have wronged a disinterested third party to the transaction).
The central idea of the book is that it is open to us to understand interpersonal morality as a relational nexus of this kind, involving duties that are owed to other individuals, and claims held against us by those individuals, just insofar as they and we are each moral persons whose interests matter equally. The book argues that interpreting the moral domain in these terms illuminates central normative features of moral norms that are otherwise deeply puzzling; that an interpretation along these lines can be extended to the totality of our moral relations with other individuals; and that the relational interpretation sheds light on a range of challenging first-order moral issues.
In his thoughtful and probing review of the book, Rahul Kumar takes issue with my relational interpretation of some of these first-order issues. The focus is on duties of rescue and cases that involve the non-identity problem. Rahul agrees that our moral obligations in these cases have relational elements. According to the version of contractualism he favors, our moral obligations reflect a concern for the way in which we relate to individuals who might be affected by the things we do, and he thinks this applies to cases that involve helping the needy or making responsible procreative decisions. But he rejects my suggestion that the duties agents are under in these cases correspond to claims of other individuals against them, or that flouting the obligations could be said to wrong those who are adversely affected by the agent’s actions. The first of the three elements in my relational model thus appears to come apart from the other two in cases of this kind.
This is an interesting suggestion, but I don’t think I’m convinced by Rahul’s defense of it. Start with the case of assisting those in severe need. Rahul and I agree that our obligations in this case are anchored in the interests of the potential beneficiaries of our efforts to provide assistance. Individuals in that position have compelling reasons to reject principles that permit affluent agents to contribute nothing to collective measures to address their basic needs. A refusal to contribute to these efforts is thus a failure to acknowledge the “comparative significance” of the reasons of the potential beneficiaries of our contributions, which impairs our ongoing relations with them. A gulf opens up between us and them as a result of this failure, and this is sufficient to explain their resentment of us for failing to provide assistance. We don’t need to postulate, in addition, that they have a claim against us to our help, or that our flouting of the duty of mutual aid wrongs them.
But it isn’t clear to me why Rahul takes these elements in my relational model to be out of place here. He agrees, after all, that there are individuals (the potential beneficiaries of our assistance) who have compelling objections, on their own behalf, to principles that permit us to contribute nothing. He agrees, as well, that our failure to help impairs our ongoing relationships with those individuals, insofar as it constitutes a failure to acknowledge the equal significance of their personal reasons. My own thought is that when these contentions are plausible, it will equally be plausible to ascribe claims to the individuals who have reasonable objections to principles of non-assistance, and to suppose that flouting the obligations will wrong them in particular. This is the way in which my relational model seems implicit in the structure of contractualist reasoning about what it is permissible to do.
Moreover, unless we suppose these elements to be in place, it becomes obscure why the form of estrangement between the agent and those who might benefit from their contributions provides a basis for moral blame. Friends sometimes grow apart from each other, in ways that involve diminished investment in each other’s interests and projects, but this might warrant mere sadness rather than anything intuitively recognizable as blame. The kind of estrangement that occasions blame is that which wrongs the other party, where wrongs in turn involve the failure to acknowledge the party’s claims to continued involvement in the relationship.
Rahul says that the grounds of an action’s being wrong are relational, insofar as they are concerned “not with the valid claims of others, but with the reasons they have for reasonably refusing to license the type of conduct in question”. I agree that the wrongness of actions is not grounded in the valid claims of others; whatever it is that makes it the case that an action is wrong will also make it the case that some other party or parties has a claim against the agent not to perform it. Furthermore, I agree with Rahul that it is illuminating to think that what grounds both directed obligations and claims are the reasons that individuals have, on their own behalf, for objecting to principles that define the obligations. My thought is just that, whenever the objections of individuals are compelling enough to make it reasonable for them to reject principles of permission, it is natural to think both that the resulting obligations are owed to those individuals, and to suppose that they have claims against the agent to compliance with the obligations.
In the non-identity cases, too, Rahul thinks that our moral obligations have to do with how agents would relate to their prospective children, rather than with the claims that prospective (but not yet actual) individuals might have against them. Once again, however, I find it difficult to understand what is problematic about these relationships without assigning implicit claims to the future persons, or supposing that the failure to take their interests into account amounts to a wronging of them. If one’s relationship to the child who suffers the impairments is problematic, this is presumably because one did not take that child’s non-comparative interest in freedom from the impairments appropriately into account in making one’s procreative decisions. One knew that the child one conceived would likely suffer the impairments, and there was an alternative course of action open to one that would almost certainly have resulted in a child without the impairments. Under these conditions, it seems to me reasonable to conclude that one wronged the child one actually gave birth to, failing to acknowledge the claims that one’s prospective children have to reasonable conditions of life.
Against this, Rahul asks: “how can not taking the drug wrong the child who is then conceived if that child would not have come into existence had it been taken?” My answer is that it wrongs that child in particular by reflecting an insufficient regard for the (non-comparative) interest of the child in a life free of impairment. Of course, the child who is thus wronged might not prefer on balance that their parents had not conceived them, assuming that they find their life with the impairments to be sufficiently rewarding. But in this and other cases, one can be wronged without it being the case that one wishes ex post that the wrongful act should not have occurred. (This is a theme in my previous book, The View from Here.) Furthermore, I think a version of the same question can be put to Rahul: how can not taking the drug result in a problematic relation with the child who is conceived if thatchild would not have come into existence without the action that renders the relationship problematic?
For these reasons, I continue to favor my relational interpretation of the moral obligations that obtain in Rahul’s cases. But I thank him for raising some challenging questions about my view, and look forward to fielding further questions about this or any other aspect of the relational account developed in The Moral Nexus.