As everyone knows, I ‘Reealy’ like Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other. One good
thing about the book is that every time you read it (and I’ve read it quite a
few times) you find something new that’s usually both interesting and puzzling.
Here’s three quite recent small things that I’ve spotted.

1. In the Introduction, Scanlon presents contractualism in
this way:

‘[A]n act is wrong if and only if it would be disallowed by
any principle that such people could not reasonably reject (p. 4)’.

Note the biconditional. Then, when the view is introduced
later in the book, it’s put in this way:

‘[A]n act is wrong if its performance under the
circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general
regulation of behavior that no one could reasonably reject (p. 153)’.

Note that the biconditional is now gone and we are left with
only the left-to-right conditional part of it. Furthermore, there is a whole section
(4.7) on the idea that contractualism only describes the core of morally wrong
actions and that there are actions that are wrong on other grounds than the
contractualist principle. This is to deny the truth of the right-to-left
direction. What happened inbetween the introduction and the account?

2. The second chapter has become famous because of the buck-passing
account. Here’s some representative quotes:

‘To be good or valuable is to have other properties that
constitute such reasons [to respond to a thing in certain ways] (p. 97)’.

Note that here the normative buck is passed to properties
that are actually providing reasons.

‘Judgments about what is good or valuable generally express
practical conclusions about what would, at least under right conditions, be
reasons for acting or responding in a certain way (p. 96)’.

This is slightly different. Having value is not accounted
for in terms of provided reasons but rather in terms of dispositions to provide
reasons under right circumstances. I think the latter is better and enables the
buck-passer to respond to some Dancyan worries.

Anyway, given such quotes, you would think that Scanlon is a
buck-passer. I’m not sure though. Here’s a quote that has received less attention:

‘A state of affairs in which I am in pain is, for that reason, a worse state of affairs for me, and this fact gives rise to the reasons to do what is necessary to prevent it. But it is not always possible to identify outcomes whose independent value can plausibly be seen as a source of the reasons we have  (p. 92-3).’

This is really hard to square with the buck-passing account.
As I read this passage, pain makes the state of affairs worse and the fact that the state of affairs have
less value for me
gives reasons to prevent that state of affairs coming
about. And, values are sources of reasons… Buck-pass that!

3. I’ve also got new worries about judgment-internalism. I
think some version of that view is correct. Thus, if I judge that I have
reason to do something, then I must necessarily have some motivation to do it or I’m
suffering from some sort of practical irrationality. Scanlon seems to accept
something like this too in this quote:

‘[A] rational person who judges there to be compelling
reason to do A normally forms the intention to do A, and this judgment is
sufficient explanation of that intention and of the agent’s acting on it. There
is no need to invoke an additional form of motivation beyond the judgment and
the reasons it recognizes, some further force to, as it were, get the limbs in
motion (p. 33–4)’.

And, as Scanlon says this seems to follow from his account
of minimal rationality. This sort of rationality just is coherence between
reason-judgments and the judgment-sensitive attitudes for which the reasons are taken to
be reasons. Judging that one has reason to adopt certain attitude and not
having that attitude seems incoherent (even without the Smithian story).
Rational agents have disposition towards coherence and therefore the
motivations follow the judgments. If they don’t, rationality is failing by

So far so good. However, I think similar
judgment-internalism is plausible also in the case of wrongness-judgments. So,
if I judge that some action is wrong, I must have some motivational
dispositions to avoid doing that sorts of actions or I’m irrational. I’m
starting to think Scanlon cannot get this conclusion. Here’s two quotes he
gives about the content of wrongness judgments:

‘[J]udgments of right and wrong [are] claims about
reasons–more specifically about the adequacy of reasons for accepting or
rejecting principles under certain conditions (p. 3)’ and

‘[t]his leads me to describe the subject matter of judgments
of right and wrong by saying that they are judgments about what would be
permitted by principles that could not be reasonably rejected (p. 4)’.

Notice first that these two quotes give a different content
for our judgments about right and wrong. According to the first they are about
the adequacy of reasons for accepting and rejecting principles and according to
the second they are about actions that would be permitted by the principles.

Whichever content they were about, I don’t see how they could have the right
motivational implications. The first content could imply motivation to accept
and reject principles but for the actions I think are wrong. I’m not sure how the judgments about the second content
could motivate as such. In some way part of the content has to be that I have
reasons to do these acts that are forbidden by the relevant principles or these
are the acts that ought not to be done. But, the contents Scanlon gives exclude
both these thoughts. It is true that he describes reasons there are not to do
the actions that are forbidden by the non-rejectable principles. However, these
reasons may exist without the agents making judgments about them, and therefore
they cannot be behind the motivational force of (even false) wrongness-judgments.

9 Replies to “Scanlon oddities

  1. As Jussi notes, the following claims of Scanlon’s appear to conflict with his Buck-Passing account of value, and goodness:
    A state of affairs in which I am in pain is, for that reason, a worse state of affairs for me, and this fact gives rise to the reasons to do what is necessary to prevent it. But it is not always possible to identify outcomes whose independent value can plausibly be seen as a source of the reasons we have.
    On the Buck-Passing Account (the BPA), something is good, or has some other kind of value, if there are facts about this thing and its properties—other than that of how it has its kind of value—-which give us reasons to respond in some positive way to this thing. So, given that Scanlon accepts, and also argues for, the BPA, why would he say that when some state of affairs is bad for him, then this gives him a reason to try to prevent it? Are Scanlon’s beliefs about badness, goodness, and reasons incoherent?
    The terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are used in a number of different ways. Sometimes when we use these terms we are, I believe, expressing our approval or liking of this thing. If I say, for example, that something tastes, feels, or smells good, then I could just as well have said that I like the taste, feel, or smell of this thing. We have reason to taste, feel, or smell what tastes, feels, and smells good to us, since we have reason to go for things we like, and to claim this is not to reject the BPA. But, this cannot, I believe, be the uses of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that Scanlon has in mind the given passage.
    When we say that something is good for somebody, we may also mean that this is one of things in which this person’s wellbeing consists, or that is in her interest. And, we have reasons to do what would promote our well-being, or be in our interest to do. So, we can say, without rejecting the BPA, that if something is good for us, then we have reason to try to achieve it, since we would then be promoting our future well-being. Our getting this thing, which might be a massage, might then be good for us in a different sense—namely in Buck-Passed sense—since we have reasons to try to achieve this thing.
    When we say that something is bad for someone, we may, again, mean many different things. We may mean, for example, that this thing is bad for our character, or health, in the sense of damaging these things. We may also, as before, mean that this is thing decreases our well-being. We have reasons to try to avoid things that would damage our well-being. So, if something—like some event—is bad for us in the sense of being contrary to our interests, or of being something that decreases our well-being level, then this thing can also be bad for us in the BPA sense of being something whose features give us reasons to avoid, or to try to prevent, it.
    Scanlon’s acceptance of the BPA suggests that, when he wrote the first of the two sentences above, he was using bad in the well-being related sense. If that is the case, then his views are, I believe, not incoherent, but perfectly coherent. But, his second sentence seems harder to combine with the BPA of value, and also suggests that my charitable reading of Scanlon is mistaken.
    Even so, since I assume that Scanlon’s beliefs are coherent, since he is such a great philosopher, I take it that there is some other interpretation of his second sentence that makes his claims about value and reasons in his great book come out coherent. For a much clearer discussion of some of the different senses in which we use, or can intelligibly use, the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’, which I here draw heavily on, see some recent version of Climbing the Mountain.

  2. Sven,
    I wonder if it would be even worse for him to be referring, as you suggest, to the fact that well-being is being diminished as *that fact* which grounds the reason in the situation. This would conflict with what he says about well-being as it would imply that the well-being as a value property is as such a reason-providing property.
    After all, he has a whole chapter arguing that well-being is a transparent, inclusive good. It is the first-level goods of which well-being consists that are supposed to provide all the (derivative) reasons that we have for pursuing well-being. So, in this case, pain itself is supposed to provide the reasons for avoiding the painful state of affairs. In the BPA, well-being is supposed to be a value property just because the things of which well-being consists are reason-providing.
    I think if he took BPA seriously he would have had to write something like this:
    ‘The fact that some state of affairs is painful for me grounds certain reasons I have for avoiding it, and because of these reasons that state of affairs has less value for me.’
    It is a matter of opinion whether this is plausible. If you think it’s not, then (dare I say this) maybe we would have an objection to BPA.
    BTW, don’t get me even started about Parfit’s different senses for moral and evaluative terms… Well, now you did. I call his view Humpty Dumpty semantics. Here’s the wonderful quote from ‘Through the Looking Glass’:
    “There’s glory for you!”
    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’ ” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is, ” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty. “which is to be master—that’s all.”
    I rather tend to agree with Alice. If these terms had as many senses as Parfit lists and you could ‘master’ in which sense you use them, I have no idea how communication would be possible. How could I, as an intepreter, pick out in which of the all possible senses you are intending to use the term in the given situation? Contextual clues and other tools for disambiquation, go only so far. Rather, it is the shared senses that are as univocal as possible that determine what we mean by our terms whether we intend this or not.

  3. Thanks, Jussi, for this interesting reply to what I wrote.
    You may be right that, if Scanlon uses ‘good for’ in its wellbeing-related sense, then this can seem to conflict with his claims about well-being in the book.
    I think that you are right about how the meanings of our terms are given by our shared use of them. But, in the case of terms like ‘good’, ‘bad’, and many other terms, we seem to be using them in a number of different, more or less over-lapping senses. So, while we sometimes mean that something meets some commonly recognized standard for things of its kind when we can it ‘good’, we do at other times use this term in other ways, like for instance some of the ways I mentioned in my post, or those which Parfit discusses.
    I think that this creates communication problems, not only in everyday life, but also in philosophical discussions of the concepts that are associated with some of the uses of the terms ‘good’, ‘bad’, etc. For example, when some writers claim that Scanlon is making a mistake when he claims that goodness is not reason-providing, and they give examples of cases in which goodness gives us reasons, they sometimes seem to falsely assume that we only ever use the term ‘good’ in single way. I have, for example, seen supposed counterexamples to Scanlon’s view in which ‘good’ is obviously used in the standard-meeting sense I mentioned above. If something is a good movie, in the sense of meeting some of the standards that many people base their judgments about movies on, then this may give me a reason to see this movie, which means that the event of my seeing it would be good in the reason-based sense. This would be a counterexample to Scanlon’s theory only if ‘good’ is only ever used in one way. That, I believe, is false.
    Compare the following two things we might say:
    (1) It would be good if the war ended.
    (2) This coffee tastes really good.
    While little would be lost if we changed (2) to
    (3) I really like the taste of this coffee,
    it does not seem as if we can restate (2) as
    (4) I really like the possibility of the war’s ending,
    without loosing part of we would mean if we said (1). While (1) seems to carry the implication that we should all try to stop this war, if somebody were to say (2), then this does not seem to necessarily imply that she thinks that we should all drink this coffee.
    We can also say things like
    ‘I know that these cigarettes are not good for me, but they are such good cigarettes that I cannot help but wanting to smoke them’
    without contradiction.
    Sometimes, as in this example, it is clear what we mean, but in other cases it is less clear which sense we are using some term in, and we ourselves may be unclear as to what that sense is. This, I believe, often creates problems for moral philosophers. However, since this is supposed be a thread discussing what seem to be oddities in Scanlon’s great book, I should probably stop here.

  4. Sven,
    I’m not sure about the taste case. I do think you are saying more when you say that this coffee tastes good than when you say that you like its taste. For instance, I can like the taste of something without thinking that it tastes good. I do think saying that it tastes good adds something – at least the thought that other people with normal sensitivities will have a positive attitude towards that taste. This is not to say that everyone ought to drink that coffee but saying that it would be good that the war ended is not to say that everyone ought to try to stop it either.
    What I find wrong in the Parfit picture is that it seems to imply that there are a set of meanings for the term and we can pick one of them and use the term in that very meaning. That’s the Humpty Dumpty idea that we are the master of the senses in which we use the term in a given situation. I don’t think that’s possible. We can always try to do so just as well as Humpty can try to use ‘glory’ to mean that ‘there is a nice knock-down argument for you’. But, trying is not succeeding and *meaning* with the expression what you intended. That is decided the conventional rules of the language-games we take part in and whether we succeed in playing according to them. I don’t think you can mean anything else with an expression in a situation than what others interpret you to mean according to those rules.

  5. Thanks again, Jussi.
    On your view, do we always use the term ‘good’ in one and the same way? And, do people always understand what others mean when they use this term?
    I find it hard to believe that people mean the same thing by ‘good’ in, to use two new examples, claims like
    (1) She is a good person
    (2) This food smells good.
    Studying myself, and my use of the term ‘good’, I have found that I seem to mean different things by this term, in the sense of using in it in different ways, on different occasions and in different contexts. I may be wrong about this.
    Also, in philosophical contexts we can easily, it seems to me, stipulate definitions of terms and use them in these senses in our arguments if, for some reason, there is a point in doing so. In the case of a term like ‘good’, which seems to be used in a number of different ways, there can be a point in doing so. This may be part of the reason why Parfit carefully defines the different senses of ‘good’ that he uses in his draft.
    Lastly, some term’s having different uses does not mean that its meaning is not determined by the conventional rules of our language games, does it? And, as far as I can see, that these are the things which determine the meaning of these terms does not, if true, mean that communication always works smoothly.

  6. Sven,
    good points. Couple of things:
    1. No, we don’t always use ‘good’ in the same way. We don’t use any term always in the same way. But, that we have different uses for terms does not imply that they mean something different in the different uses. And, of course there are ambiguous terms. I’m not sure ‘good’ has different meanings even though I admit we can use the terms for a variety of pragmatical purposes. I can use ‘that’s just so good’ to express disappointment but that doesn’t mean that good means bad.
    2. No we don’t always understand what others mean. We can make mistakes in interpretation just as well as we can make mistakes in use of the terms. But, there are correct interpretations just as well as there are correct uses.
    3. That example is good one of where good is used in the same meaning. Compare:
    a)That is a big elephant.
    b)That is a big flea.
    ‘Big’ means the same here – how individuals compare in the relevant comparison class. Your example seems similar something is said about the person and how she compares with other persons and in the same way something about a smell and something how it compares to other smells. Meaning of ‘good’ remains the same even though comparison classes change. Indexical terms are a good example. I use ‘she’ to refer to different persons in different contexts but that doesn’t mean that ‘she’ has a different sense or meaning on different occasions of use.
    However, this is one case where I might be willing to accept different meanings of ‘good’. I might accept that ‘good’ means different in attributive and predicative uses. So, in ‘a good machine gun’ and ‘machine guns are good’ ‘good’ means different. One compares an individual machine gun and its effectiveness to other guns. The other attributes an evaluative property to machine guns (which it of course does not have). But, which meaning ‘good’ has here is not decided by what we intend to mean with it but rather with the grammatical structure. Of course that doesn’t always happen. So you might say ‘that machine gun is good’. This leaves it open what you mean. We look for contextual clues to interpret the utterance in a charitable way to decide what your utterance meant. But, what you intended to mean with it in advance does not decide that.
    4. Of course we can define technical terms like Parfit does. However, the question is whether the term ‘good’ means the different things he says it does or whether he just has defined good*, good**, and so on.

  7. The same problem about meaning applies to the expressions philosophers use to specify what they mean by well-being. Often the expression “what is good for a subject” is used. But this expression can be used to signify things that clearly cannot be well-being, because “good for a subject” can be used to express “the subject’s point of view” in different senses. I will quote only three: p believes x to be good; X is the most worthy choice to be made by p; P is most desirable according to P’s agent-relative reasons.
    So the philosopher that used the expression “good for p” in order to explain what well being is must say: “I mean good for p in the sense of well-being” of course. Now, how any philosopher is able to convey this particular sense to the expression “good for p” is and remains a mystery to me. (As I am trying to argue in my thesis.)

  8. I have tried to understand the relation between the buck-passing view of value and the account of well-being as a transparent good. My provisional conclusion is that well-being can be said to be valuable, even if it is transparent, coherently with the buck-passing account; and that the buck-passing account implies that it is a valuable thing.
    I wrote the point in my post here
    I post this here in the hope that some of the people who read this blog may read my post and give me their opinion because this is a difficult issue.
    But it is also interesting that Scanlon never explicitly mentions whether he wants to apply the buck-passing account of value to well-being.
    Another interesting question is whether Scanlon needs the buck-passing view in order to be able to say that people value their well-being, just because they have reasons to pursue the goods that compose it. I do not know anybody who has tried to answer it. Anybody has suggestions about the literature?

  9. Jussi, another oddity:
    it seems that Scanlon’s treatment of well-being as an inclusive good IS NOT THE SAME THING AS buck-passing well-being. The biggest evidence for this is that Scanlon does never say that he provides a buck-passing account of well-being.
    The oddity: why does Scanlon NOT analyze the relation between well-being and the goods that make it up IN THE SAME WAY as the relation between good and good things?
    After all, the intuition behind the thesis that well-being is a transparent good is very similar to the intuitions that motivate the buck-passing account of good.
    Well-being is a transparent good because the sensible answer to the question: “why do you engage in philosophy” is “because it is enjoable” and not “because it increases my well-being” or “because it is enjoable and enjoments augment my well-being”.
    The buck-passing view is justified by the intuition that if we answer tothe question “why did you do X” you do not answer “because X is good” but by quoting a “desirability characteristic” that justifies a pro-attitude towards X.
    ARen’t these cases too similar? What justifies a different analysis of the two?

Comments are closed.