A just society


0823 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

I can’t help but smile when thinking about what Scanlon is up to. He is actually trying to please everyone — the deontologists, the utilitarians, the Jews, the Nietzschean amoralists, the Blacks, the Whites — all those who disagree with one another on moral issues the most, and who tend to make the biggest ruckus over it. (Perhaps if I want Harvard’s attention, I ought to make some sort of great ruckus over moral issues — like start a war or something.)

It’s fairly apparent now that “contractualism” is essentially arguing for a kind of categorical imperative. At the same time, he very cleverly makes it a negative version of the categorical imperative. Whereas Kant’s categorical imperative — and also the Christian version of the golden rule — is positive, and recommends doing what you would will for everyone to be doing universally, Scanlon’s version of the categorical imperative (ie, contractualism) says that one should not do to others what everyone else who is reasonable would likewise not do to others. In other words, Scanlon’s negative version is simply the more original Jewish version (ie, don’t do to others what you don’t want to be done to you) of the Christian “golden rule”.

But what I realized as I was thinking this is that what Scanlon puts forth as contractualism is not a “moral” theory by my standards, but rather, it is an “ethical” theory. What I mean by that is that contractualism does not provide a way for the individual to discern between “good and bad”; it provides a way for the person to know the right and wrong ways to behave in a society with other people in it — and that latter thing is the domain of ethics, not morality. One would have to suppose that the lessons of good/bad are either built-into the human condition, or it is something that is best left up to parents and religions and cultural customs to instill in individuals.

Now, on page 168-169, Judith Thomson challenges Scanlon saying that what makes an act morally right or wrong isn’t the justifiability to others, but simply that the act is morally wrong. In other words, an act’s moral status is determined at the stage of e3 and prior. And she accuses Scanlon of claiming that moral status is determined at the stage of e4 or e5 — and for Thomson, it’s much too late for that.

One way that I might defend Scanlon’s view is to say that his is an “ethical” theory, and not a “moral” theory — ie, a theory for how people should treat one another, and not a theory for what’s morally good or bad. And I would argue that all of ethics is grounded in morality. Furthermore, I understand “justification” just to mean “to have an [useable] account.” In other words, justification simply is the road to Larissa — ie, the way from e3 to e5 (from yesterday’s post). And if knowledge is a “justified-true-belief,” then he is only recommending that one choose to act in accordance with one’s knowledge, in contrast to acting out of one’s unjustified inclinations/emotions/instincts. Presumably, when one can no longer choose to act, but simply acts unreflectively out of inclinations/emotions/instincts, the individual — in that moment anyways — is either a beast or a god. The point that defeats Thomson is that while it’s correct that justification is not prior to morality, and that it also does not determine moral status, we can only expect justified-actions from one another, and so justified-actions are the fabric that holds civil society together — and a civil society is a moral necessity for [most] human well-being because it is a biological fact about us that we are social beings. But, this necessity doesn’t rule out other factors that may necessitate breaking up this or that particular civil society — and it is these exceptional and rare factors that tends to cause the disagreements; ethical theories are fine in times of peace, but morality is needed in order to establish a just society.

But he doesn’t go this way. He still considers “morality” to be synonymous with “what we owe to each other” — ie, how we treat one another. In other words, he makes no useable distinction between ethics and morality, as I do. And this causes in Scanlon’s theory an inherent, structural weakness to Thomson’s challenge.

So, his defense is basically that without a better moral theory as an alternative, this just is the best one. He says: “A positive defense of the stronger challenge would consist in offering some alternative account of the motivational power of considerations of right and wrong. I cannot respond to these defenses fully without considering every alternative that might be offered…my view is that…other accounts of the reason-giving force of right and wrong…seem to me to fail the intuitive test posed by the negative defense just mentioned: they lack a tight enough intuitive connection with our ideas of right and wrong.”

Needless to say, this kind of defense is the weakest sort and is unsatisfying to me. I’m thinking about visiting Scanlon after the summer, and proposing to him my “positive alternative” to see what he might think of it.