Being Homo

Sunday, Father’s Day

1022 | [ Continuing a study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Scanlon writes:

“…the judgment in question involves taking something to be true, namely that for a person in a certain situation X counts in favor of holding attitude A, or that a person in a certain situation has sufficient reason to adopt A (or to modify it). The distinctive motivational force of such judgment in cases of the first kind can then be accounted for by the fact that it is central to being a rational creature that one’s attitudes are responsive to one’s judgment about reasons: in particular that if one accepts a judgment of the form just mentioned and believes one’s situation to be of the kind in question then one modifies one’s attitudes accordingly, because one sees reason to do so.” (p.61-62) [followed by note #48]

If I understand Scanlon correctly, one important point is that one chooses reasons the way that one chooses products in a store. Just like the way that the same product can have different varieties, there’s many different reasons to choose from, even if they all aim to do the same thing. The chosen reason is then distinguished from the others with the title “good reason.” It signifies the fact that the chosen reason has earned one’s ultimate “pro-attitude.”

Another thing that’s pretty clear from this passage is that (to Scanlon) being “responsive” to reasons is just what it means to be a “rational being.” But this where I begin to have some questions for Scanlon. For instance, is Scanlon thinking that X is something like “the correct reason,” or does he mean something more benign, like “a reason” (so long as it is legitimately a reason)? (See my post, “Reason“.)

Now, suppose that I add a few other considerations to the claims that Scanlon has made. Suppose that I add the hypothesis that the PIE root for the Latin word homo is not “dhghem-” (meaning “earth”), but rather that it is “sem-” (meaning “same”). In which case, the Latin word homo doesn’t mean “earthling” or “man”; instead, it means “same [as me].” If my hypothesis is correct, then what does it mean to be homo? For starters, it isn’t the same as “human” — which does take its root from “dhghem-“. It means something else…

Presumably, the argument would go something like this:
(a) A homo is simply a being who is the “same.” But in what way the same?
(b) According to Aristotle, man is a rational animal. So (according to this definition), having reason/reasoning-ability is what distinguishes humans from nonhuman animals.
(c) From (a) and (b): the relevant way of being the same, is in terms of reason or reasoning-ability. (eg, having 5-fingers or being bipedal is not the relevant way for humans to be the same)
(d) From Scanlon: a “rational creature” is one who is in fact responsive to reasons. (Strangely, I think this either allows almost all animals to be “rational creatures” with homo sapiens just being one of many such creatures, or it restricts the “homo” status only to the creatures that respond to certain reasons in the expected way. This is where I am puzzled as to what Scanlon means.)
(e) From (c) and (d): Being similarly responsive to the same reasons makes us homo sapiens.

And if only those with “human” status have certain rights and privileges, then it becomes important who is seen as “human” or not. If “being similarly responsive to the same reasons” is what makes you “human,” then anyone who doesn’t conform to the expectations aren’t really “human.” They’d be something like “aliens” or “subhuman-animals.”

Even if my hypothesis is incorrect and you can’t get to the conclusion at (e) from it, it’s apparent to me that human society is still set up a certain way such that my hypothesis certainly does seem correct. Consider things like standardized tests, and laws, and political systems, and even social structures (eg, class divisions, economic policies). These are designed to filter out certain sorts, and also to pick out certain sorts from the rest. It’s meant to create divisions between “us” and “them.”

Sometimes, or in some places, it seems to be a dangerous thing to be different from the ideal. (Ironically, it’s also sometimes dangerous to be different from the norm). In some times and/or places, it’s dangerous to be someone who thinks or reasons differently — whether it is a deviation from the masses, or a deviation from the ideal. Difference is a threat.

I wonder what Scanlon would think.


1506 |  [ Continuing a study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

But now I also want to examine note #48, which follows the passage on page 62. Note #48 goes like this:

“My thinking about this question has been helped by Christine Korsgaard’s discussion of what she calls ‘substantive moral realism’ in The Sources of Normativity and her arguments against ‘dogmatic rationalism’ in ‘The Normativity of Instrumental Reason.’ I believe that my own view, even on what I have called the belief interpretation, amounts to what she calls procedural rather than substantive realism.” (p.380)

Basically, the note suggests two opposing views which goes something like this:
♦ Korsgaard’s view: consequentialistic; teleological; what Korsgaard calls “substantive moral realism”
♦ Scanlon’s view: principled; what Korsgaard calls “procedural” and “dogmatic rationalism”; what Scanlon himself calls “belief interpretation”

[Perhaps it was this difference, in note #48, that was the difference that Scanlon was thinking of when he had remarked that he and Korsgaard don’t usually hold the same views.]

So, what is Korsgaard’s position? Based on this and from the little I know of Korsgaard, I think she’d say that success justifies the process. Hence, any process might be prima facie [morally] permissible, so long as it’s the one that leads to success. What’s important is whether the process is effective or not. In other words, a good-will alone would be insufficient for truth-making; it could only ever be sufficient for being truth-worthy. But by itself, it would be — as even Kant might say — “niggardly endowed.”

[“Even if, by some special disfavor of destiny or by the niggardly endowment of step-motherly nature, this will is entirely lacking in power to carry out its intentions; if by its utmost effort it still accomplishes nothing, and only good will is left (not, admittedly, as a mere wish, but as the straining of every means so far as they are in our control); even then it would still shine like a jewel for its own sake as something which has its full value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add to, nor subtract from, this value.” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals)]

And so, I think this must be what she means by “substantive moral realism”  (though, I haven’t read her book yet, so this is a guess). I think that this sounds “consequentialistic,” even though Kantians are not your typical consequentialist.

And what is Scanlon’s position? Presumably, if Korsgaard’s position is somehow consequentialistic, then Scanlon’s view is more principled; he clings hard to the process; he trusts in the process, no matter where it might lead him. But it’s not just any-ole process for Scanlon. This is going to be another intuitively-motivated guess, but I think that the particular process that Scanlon proposes is a process that is associated with discovery, choice, and free-will. [In some sense, this could be seen as the Parmenidean way, and also the Socratic way.]

However, the challenge to Scanlon’s view comes in the form of questions like this: What justifies this particular process? What privileges this particular process as the preferred or even necessary process, over the other processes?

I think that the best way for Scanlon’s view to answer this challenge is to argue that the process is itself an important aim/end somehow. And so, the process is itself a product of nature, and of truth. Korsgaard’s way is fine when we have a concrete view of what the end should look like. But what do we do when we don’t? We would need to trust in something more structural — like a reliable process. I think this is the strongest that I can make Scanlon’s position in my mind, if I were to argue for his view.

Well, what is my own view? Is it more like Scanlon’s, or more like Korsgaards, or neither?

The hardest part of doing philosophy, I think, is figuring out what I myself think. In this case, I’m still not entirely sure what I myself think on this issue. (Though, if I know myself well enough, it’ll probably end up being very Platonic/Socratic somehow.)

But I do think that at least Scanlon and Korsgaard need not be in such opposition over this particular issue. To me, the situation is as though J and TB were in disagreement with one another. According to the Socratic recipe for knowledge (in Meno), knowledge is justified true belief (ie, K=JTB). In Meno, it’s clear to me that true-belief alone isn’t enough to be called knowledge. But an account by itself is also insufficient to be considered knowledge. Knowledge requires both. But, it’s a fact that in Meno, the true-belief usually comes first; an account is what follows, and a good account is what does the justificatory work.

Similarly, I don’t see why Scanlon’s views and Korsgaard’s views must necessarily be at odds. Both of their accounts seem to be somehow incomplete on their own. What will Korsgaard do, now that Scanlon has retired?