Some time ago I argued that a problem with a certain sort of virtue ethics might not be fixable (in “Virtue and Right”). The banner ‘virtue ethics’ covers a variety of views united by not much more than the thought that ethics is in some way or other best approached through the idea of good character and virtue. My arguments set aside many of those views, especially those that, while giving pride of place to virtue, adopt a ‘no theory’ or ‘anti-theory’ stance toward the right. If you are anti-theory, then my train didn’t leave the station. Indeed, perhaps the best version of virtue ethics is one that turns its back on a theory of the right. But the sorts of views I was interested in thinking about were those that aspire to such a theory in order to create an alternative to deontological or consequentialist theories of right action.
All over there are arguments that employ the following premise: Necessarily, the true moral theory is action-guiding. I must confess that I don’t really have a grip on what this notion is. And yet it is often appealed to to do some very heavy-lifting: most often to establish that some form of subjectivism about moral obligation is true and also that ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’ is true. But given that I don’t understand what this action-guidingness is supposed to amount to, I don’t know how to understand these arguments, let alone evaluate them. Mayhaps someone here can help me out with this. Can anyone articulate for me in a non-metaphorical way what it means to say that a theory is action-guiding?
Over the last decade, I have been developing an interconnected set of claims and arguments concerning the second-personal character of central moral phenomena. My focus has been the deontic moral notions of obligation, duty, right, wrong, rights, and so on, which I have argued are distinguished by their conceptual connection to accountability and to the Strawsonian reactive attitudes through which we hold one another and ourselves answerable (Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment”). Two central tenets are, first, that it is a conceptual truth that an act is wrong if, and only if, it is an act of a kind that it would blameworthy to perform without excuse. (Since all other deontic notions can be defined in terms of wrongness (and wronging), this means that all deontic ideas are tied to blameworthiness.) Second, blame is a reactive attitude that implicitly addresses a demand to its object, presupposes the authority to do so, and bids for its object to acknowledge this authority and hold himself accountable for his action. It is the implicit element of address that makes reactive attitudes second personal (or, as Strawson says, “interpersonal”). Reactive attitudes are felt from a presupposed perspective of relationship (better, relating) to their objects.
More recently, I have begun to do some work on a group of reactive attitudes that have the same second-personal, reciprocation-seeking structure, but that are unlike accountability-seeking deontic reactive attitudes like blame, resentment, and guilt.
Here’s an argument against subjectivism about moral wrongness I’ve been kicking around. (By ‘subjectivism’ here I just mean any theory which is not “objective”—that is, a subjective theory is one that has it that that in virtue of which one’s behavior is wrong (when it is wrong) is either one’s beliefs about, or one’s evidence concerning, one’s situation.) I thought I’d post it and see if it has any legs.
Helen Frowe wrote me yesterday to try to understand better my position on how to count the agent’s interest in a trolley switching case. The text she was trying to understand was a piece I co-wrote with David Wasserman, called “Agents, Impartiality, and the Priority of Claims Over Duties; Diagnosing Why Thomson Still Gets the Trolley Problem Wrong by Appeal to the ‘Mechanics of Claims,’” Journal of Moral Philosophy 9 (2012). Thinking about how to answer her brought me to consider an interesting case I hadn’t really thought about before. So I post it here on Pea Soup to invite replies to my tentative read on how to handle this case.
Sharon Street has argued that (prominent versions of) quasi-realist expressivism (“expressivism,” for short) has a knowledge problem. Others, such as Allan Gibbard and Jamie Dreier, deny this. I’m inclined to agree with Sharon on this matter, albeit for reasons somewhat different from those she offers when she states her challenge.
Stating what the alleged problem is requires a bit of set up. The first step is to get a sense of what distinguishes quasi-realist expressivism from realism. Here is one way to do so that meshes with much of what expressivists say.