The domain of morality


0842  | Continuing a study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other

I am really glad that I wrote that essay on the benefit of sensitivity now.

On page 57, Scanlon writes:

“Even though reasons are the sort of thing that we, as rational creatures, are in principle capable of apprehending, some of us are better able to assess some kinds of reasons than others are, not because of lack of information or of failure to engage in “critical reflection,” but because of our particular sensitivity or lack of sensitivity to considerations of the relevant kind.”

Who needs other encouragement? It is little things like this that seem to me to be encouraging evidence that I am cut out for this task. Not only does it feel good to be doing philosophy, but maybe my doing philosophy could actually be beneficial to the world, and other people like me in the world. (For instance, I could be helpful to Rusty.)

It’s a fact that at least some people in this world want a paternalism. Since I know that this is the case, I must have confidence that what I want to be doing is what is good for everyone else also — whether they know it or not. At least I must know, because I want it to be my task to know such things. If there is going to be some paternalism in the world, then I must be on the side of it that is the knowing side. Like Charles Xavier, I need to be able to see everyone with my mind — even if they can’t all see me.

But I’m not quite a paternalist; it is more a defensive move, simply because I know for a fact that there are people in the world that want to be paternalized. Korsgaard might be one such person, for instance.

But because I’ve suffered from “faulty paternalism,” I am wary of making the same mistake for others. But in the end, I am still Socratic; I am intellectually humble and I know that I do not know. This means that even if I am willing to traverse the infinite and go all the way to the very edges of the universe, still I am not willing to transgress that territorial boundary and I must leave the deciding choice up to the one who does know. My mind conjures up Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel (the one they call ‘The Creation of Adam’). The spirit of what I’m saying can be captured by that image; God makes all the effort, and Adam need only lift his finger to complete the motion.

But too much humility can make one hesitate beyond cautiousness, and hesitating too much does not fit my temperament either. I know that I am a born hunter, and my soul demands that I also be a leader. I hunt the truth, and I desire success in my endeavors. And if I am going to hunt, then I must be able to trust my instincts. And if I must lead, then I need confidence. I think that sensitivity will give me the sort of confidence that I need.

Finally, I cannot be any other way than to be anti-paternalistic. To be a paternalist would be to do to my other selves, the harm that has been done to me. And I cannot do it. A coward dies a hundred deaths, they say. At least, I will not harm my other selves, since I believe in reincarnation. Also, I do not intend to harm the Others, who are not my selves; but neither do I intend to benefit the Others who are not my selves, for it’s not possible for me to know how to do this. The one who lifts her finger, is the one who is of concern to me. It is for her sake that I make the effort that I do.


1038 |  In order to give my mind time to marinate and process some of the things that Scanlon has been saying in his book, I’m reading an article by Stephen Darwall called Civil Recourse as Mutual Accountability; it is the one pdf that I did not get to read properly while following the course.

Now, this is a problem that I may run into again and again — this confusion between the domain of morality and the domain of ethics. (See my topic post, “Justice.”) But Darwall explicitly distinguishes “morality” as something “relational, directed, or bipolar” (p.18) — in short, it concerns something that arises between two or more people. And I disagree with this meaning. I think that it’s wrong.

The term “morality” comes from the Latin root, mos, which the dictionaries say means “custom, mood, habit.” That is fine for now, though I think that the better translation would be to call it a “rule.” But there is a conventional way to understand mos, and a genuine way to understand mos. I think that he’s possibly confused by the other Greek word, nomos, which has the root “nem-/nom-” that means something similar — “custom, habit, law”. And while in English mos and nomos seem to share some similarity in translations (custom, habit), there is still an important difference between mos and nomos. (See my topic post on “Morality” ) The root “nem/nom-” means “assigned, allotted” and necessarily implies a contractual relationship. While mos is just simply “rule.” I think that Darwall’s mind mistakes mos to be nomos, and so this explains why he thinks that morality’s domain is inter-relational. But it is not.

My intuition tells me that the relevant domain of this custom/mood/habit is the Self. On my view, morality concerns what is good or bad and what is pleasant and painful — and these things can only be assessed by the sovereign individual, the God, the Self. No one else has the authority to judge these things. For me, the domain of morality is something transcendent and abstract, and therefore it is something that is both omnipresent and nowhere at all. That is, morality is indeed about rules — but not just any rules, and especially not conventional or arbitrary rules. For one thing, morality is about rules that have power in a particular domain, and the relevant domain in which these rules have power is within the boundaries of the Self. But what’s most important is that the source of the power of this rule is the truth. Thus, the rules/mores which govern the Self are not arbitrary at all, because they are necessarily grounded in truth.

But for Darwall, morality is precisely the opposite of this. For Darwall, morality is something that is contractual, artificial, and arbitrary — or, to use his words, “relational.” I can see how he might think this. And yet, my intuition about the domain of morality is very different from what Darwall describes. What Darwall really wants to talk about is nomos, or even ethics — since, these concern the inter-relational domain where many selves interact with one another. But he uses the wrong word; he thinks that nomos is mos, and so he uses the latter word when he means the former. He equivocates, and equivocations cause further confusion — especially when they’re unintentional. And so, the rules/mores that Darwall really means to talk about are the rules that govern humans and their dealings with one another — ie ethics, conventions, law, contracts, traditions — in short, the rights and wrongs in relations.