The special force of moral reasons


0851 |  [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Scanlon finished his chapter with this passage:

“Perhaps there are some things that are of value — the grandeur of the universe might be an example — which no one is ever in a position to respond to in any way except passively, by being in awe of it, say. In such a case it might stretch the idea of success in one’s aims, and the idea of well-being, too far to say that responding in this way made one’s life better. If there are such values, however, they are rare, and it remains true that most things are of value only if they figure in the well-being of at least some individuals.” (p.143)

Here, it seems that he acknowledges that happiness is to become conscious of the good things that one currently now possesses. But he says that it is a passive response, and that it is “rare,” and that it would “stretch…the idea of well-being” too far to say that this is plays a critical role in happiness.

Are my intuitions vindicated here, or not? Is it the case that he does he reserve a space for genuine gratitude and complete happiness here too — just as Barbara Herman does? It’s hard to decipher. It reminds me of the sort of ending that is characteristically aporetic.


0956 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

I’ve now started on Chapter 4:

“Wrongness and Reasons”, and I want to think about this passage: “This is the first way in which moral reasons seem to have a special force that needs to be explained. The second concerns our attitude toward people who are not moved by considerations of right and wrong. Failure to see the reason-giving force of such considerations strikes us as a particularly serious fault. This failure is not, in my view, a case of irrationality.” (p.148-149)

Well, what entails being moved by considerations of right and wrong?

I think that for someone to be motivated by reasons of right and wrong:

(e1) The person must first have a sensitivity to the fact of pleasure and pain, in the way that one is sensitive to light and dark. [And this sensitivity to pleasure and pain just is to be capable of feeling the certain force of “good” and “bad” in general.]

(e2) She must be capable of making a “judgment,” which is simply to draw a line between one and the other — between what is and is-not.

(e3) Using her abilities from e1 and e2, the self must then discern what she wants and does not want. [The difference between e2 and e3 is a matter of choice in some sense, and what people usually call “free-will.” But I think that it could also be a kind of “heart’s desire,” in which case it is less a matter of choosing and more a matter of being sensitive to “what” it is that one truly wants. When e3 is more like the former, then it is largely the result of an all-knowable-preferences-considered choice. When e3 is more like the latter, then it is largely the result of the force of Eros translated into the language of the Logos.] I think that it is here that the moral “ought” first comes into formation.

(e4) It is according to the standard of the judgment made at e3 of the moral “ought” (ie, what is good and bad) that the assessments of “right” and “wrong” depend. [And presumably, these assessments have “moral” standing only because they are founded on the discoveries and/or judgments made at e3. But it is worth noting, I think, that some will think that the conclusion arrived at in e3 is only morally legitimate if it is discovered (like the Stoics perhaps). While some may think that the conclusion of e3 is only morally legitimate if it is voluntarily made.] This is where “right” and “wrong” first comes into formation.

(e5) Finally, an account or explanation is given for each assessment given at e4. This account can be seen as the “way” from e3 to e4. When the explanations seem invalid or otherwise faulty, we call them “rationalizations.” When the explanations seem consistent and strong, we call them “reasons.” And these latter explanations are what give us what Scanlon might call “reasons of right and wrong.”

The basic aspect of motivations are thus built into the entire mechanism via the initial step at (e1). The motivational force is then reinforced by the will at (e3).

So now I have responded to the first part of Scanlon’s challenge, and I have explained for myself the way in which [what people commonly call] “moral” reasons have special force.

Next, there is the concern of our attitude towards others who may not moved by considerations of right and wrong. To this, I would say that the issue can be resolved in several ways.

• If the issue is at e1, then in some sense the issue is already decided to some extent, and not much more can be done about the facts. However, it may be the case that the person did not have the relevant opportunity to exercise her sensitivities. This situation may be resolved by exposing the person to such opportunities. But whether the situation should be resolved by such means is itself a question that must be answered on a case-by-case basis.

• I’m not inclined to say much about issues that occur at e2 at the moment, and I don’t want to interfere with e3 — so, I’ll leave these two unaddressed for now.

• And now, if the issue is at e4, perhaps a reassessment is due.

• Finally, if the issue is at e5, then the solution is more straightforward: reformulate the account so that it is clearer and easier to understand.

Now, if it turns out that Scanlon’s worry genuinely does occur at e3, then the situation gets quite complicated I think. Due to my staunchly anti-paternalistic stance, I am unwilling to think of ways to attempt to resolve the differences that may occur at e3. However, if the issue at e3 is not that there is a difference, but that there is a lack of clarity or some indecision, then I do know of one remedy for this — and it is to question the person. By questioning the person sincerely, in the way that Socrates might have, then one can help bring forth the truth in steps and increments by means of dialectic — the way a midwife might gently help bring forth an newborn infant into the world. In this way, a person can be aided to attain clarity and to be gently encouraged to form some sort of decision — regardless of what the decision itself is, though presumably, the desire is for a decision that is true and freely made.

It has taken me all morning, but now that I have worked out at least a prima facie account for myself, I am ready to proceed with learning what Scanlon has to say about these things and perhaps gain something from learning it.


1928 |  I took a little break and thought about my life. I imagined that I was “the little mermaid,” wanting to be a part of the world of the prince. And wanting to have a soul. The original version gave her a soul, but not the happy life with the prince. Disney gave her both.

But now I am back to tackling this book.

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

I’ve had a number of thoughts running through my mind while I’ve been slowly digesting his words, and I have some disjointed thoughts that I want to keep track of and note here today, for possible future research:

Thought #1–
One difference that I noticed between Scanlon’s views and mine is that his domain of morality is the third-person “nowhere” space. He calls it “contractualism,” but it’s really just a Kantian-utilitarianism, because contractualism requires that ideally everyone’s actual view be taken into consideration. For instance, contractualism depends on what “others could reasonably” license us to do or not. Scanlon’s contractualism is also a deontological view, since it is a moral-theory that is grounded on the notion of duty. He means as much when he says on page 158: “To summarize, I have so far claimed that contractualism offers an account that accurately describes moral motivation as many of us experience it, and that it can account for the diversity of moral reasons and for the diverse roles that moral motivation plays in our practical thought.” What he means by “moral motivation as many of us experience it” is a sense of duty or obligation that one feels compelled to do, despite other inclinations against doing it because it is unpleasant, difficult, inconvenient, or otherwise undesirable.

On the other hand, on my view the domain of morality is the first-person transcendent self. And it does not require that (ideally or not) everyone’s actual views be taken into consideration. It only requires that one’s true, genuine, uninfluenced view be taken into account, for it is the only view that truly matters. And directly contrary to what Scanlon claims, morality is aimed at enjoyment.

Thought #2–
Curiously, I get the feeling that Scanlon’s moral-theory is one that he produced for a functioning and stable world, but not one that he himself believes in. It’s not a judgment against Scanlon. It’s just a feeling anyways. I think it was Einstein who said that the solution to a problem can’t be thought up by the same mind that has created the problem. One is not a hypocrite, just because one does differently from what one says or recommends to others.

Thought #3–
I noticed was Scanlon’s expertise into what an amoralist thinks. Unless one is or was an amoralist oneself — or, at least has the potential to be one — she cannot claim to say what amoralists think. Yet, Scanlon boldly speaks on behalf of the amoralist on numerous occasions in this chapter. In one instance, on page 159 he writes: “Moreover, this attitude includes not only us but everyone else as well, since the amoralist does not think that anyone is owed the consideration that morality describes just in virtue of being a person.” Basically, an amoralist is either an idiot or a god.

Thought #4–
He makes some dangerous observations about the United States, and basically Western Civilization in general, on page 163. What he alludes to is the inevitable and utter destruction of a nation that comes from the lack of a will to continue — ie, a genuine and total loss of morale and good-faith. And this loss arises from a genuine sense of guilt. As Plato noted Aeschylus as having once said, guilt destroys a house utterly. Scanlon’s worry, as he says, is not merely a matter of people “feeling” guilty, but his concern is for the real disintegration of the project that is called “the United States of America.” It’s a concern for the substantive.


2153 |  [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

It’s encouraging to see Scanlon writing about “friendship” on page 164, because I myself have had similar thoughts independently. It’s encouraging. Some days, I am tired of life, and I need encouraging.

I imagine that this is how Black people sometimes feel. Maybe, even young Black grad-students. Perhaps they feel discouraged, or insecure about their own abilities to do philosophy well at an ivy-league university, and wonder about whether they are in the right place and whether they will fit in. Perhaps their feelings of insecurity is enhanced because of their encounter with me. Perhaps I intimidate them, just as Prof. Morris said that I intimidated the undergrads when I talk too much and too often during class. But if this is the case, then I refuse to “shut up” and “shut down” for their sake. I’m too angry to do that.