PEA Soup is very pleased to host this discussion on relational morality with R. Jay Wallace (University of California, Berkeley) and Stephen Darwall (Yale). These two leading voices each examine the topic, providing both complementary and contrasting views, which should prompt a lively discussion below.
Morality and the Other
By R. Jay Wallace
I still remember my excitement when I first read Stephen Darwall’s The Second-Person Standpoint. I’d assigned it in a graduate seminar I was teaching at Berkeley in the spring of 2007, and I was immediately taken by the way the book framed basic issues in ethical theory. There was something captivating in the idea that morality is fundamentally interpersonal—a matter not of the internal consistency of the agent’s will, or of the impersonal goods that might be advanced through the agent’s conduct, but of how the agent relates to other (moral) persons. It was exciting to think about how moral norms might look if we tried to incorporate this interpersonal dimension into our understanding of them, at the most basic level of interpretation.
Another thing that fascinated me about The Second-Person Standpoint was the connection Steve makes between moral requirements and practices of accountability. I’d long been interested in these practices, and in my first book (Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments) I offered an interpretation of them in broadly Strawsonian terms, emphasizing the way in which the reactive emotions are connected to the stance of expecting or demanding that others comply with moral standards in their treatment of us. What I had not quite understood, and what Steve makes a compelling case for in his book, is that there is a tight connection between the role of moral norms in our accountability practices and the agent’s obligation to comply with them. We are subject to obligations to comply with moral norms, in some sense, because other parties are entitled to address moral demands to us in the way that is characteristic of interpersonal accountability.
As impressed as I was by these general themes in The Second-Personal Standpoint, however, I was also a little uncertain how to understand the idea of a second-personal reason that was central to Steve’s development of them. His own discussion seemed to suggest two different ways of thinking about the relational aspect of interpersonal morality. One model, which I have called the voluntarist conception, applies fairly literally to Steve’s example of the sergeant creating an obligation for their troops through the issuing of a command. The idea is that obligations derive from the addressing of a demand by an authority figure, who creates deontic reasons that wouldn’t otherwise exist by exercising a kind of normative power. But there were also hints of a very different picture in The Second-Person Standpoint, a relational interpretation, as I have called it, which understands moral requirements to be obligations that are owed to other persons. On the relational model, obligations are normative considerations that are directed to other individuals; they correspond to claims that those individuals have against the agent to compliance with them, and their violation is not merely wrongful, but something that wrongs the claimholder in particular.
It seemed to me in reading The Second-Personal Standpoint that some version of the voluntarist model was probably Steve’s favored way of thinking about moral obligation, and he has confirmed this impression in more recent work. Thus he does not deny that there are some obligations that are directed to other individuals. But what makes these relational considerations moral obligations is that they can be made sense of in broadly voluntarist terms, as demands that representative members of the moral community are authorized to address to the agent.
This approach, to be sure, departs from the literal voluntarist paradigm in certain important respects. That paradigm traces obligations to the actual exercise of a normative power by an authority figure, where it is taken as given that the obligation would not have obtained had the command not been issued. (The students in your course are under a requirement to submit a final 10-page paper by a specific date only because you are their teacher, and because you have in fact made this a requirement in setting up your syllabus.) On Steve’s picture, by contrast, it is not required that anyone actually address a moral demand to you in order for you to be under an obligation to comply with it. What matters, instead, is the hypothetical fact that the representative member of the moral community could legitimately demand that you comply with the requirement.
I think this is an interesting picture, and agree that moral requirements are ones that could (in some sense) be addressed to agents by other parties, in the ways that are characteristic of our accountability practices. But I think Steve is committed to thinking that norms become obligations for agents because of their suitability to be addressed hypothetically by the representative moral person, and this seems less plausible to me. The elements in the voluntarist picture that make it promising, as a model for the generation of obligations, include the ideas that there is an individual authority figure; that their authority invests them with a normative power; and that they create obligations through the free exercise of that power. But these ideas are either entirely missing, or present only in very attenuated form, in Steve’s appeal to the merely hypothetical demands of an arbitrary representative of the moral community.
For this reason (among others), I have come to favor a different interpretation of the basic idea that morality is fundamentally an interpersonal phenomenon. According to the approach defended in my book The Moral Nexus, morality is a domain of directed obligations and the claims constitutively connected to them; it is a matter of what we owe to each other, just insofar as we are persons whose interests stand to be affected by each other’s agency. As noted above, I discerned hints of this relational picture in The Second-Personal Standpoint, but it took me a while to see that it might provide the key to understanding the fundamentally interpersonal dimension of morality. Moral norms link us in a normative nexus with other individuals who have claims specifically against us. It is in this way essentially about our relation to the other, and it differs from standards of merely personal attainment and from demands (if there are any) that have their source in impersonal value.
One impetus for thinking this is that directed duties represent an independent and plausible model for a normative obligation. We understand debts that are owed to other parties to generate deontic constraints on agency, and their functioning in this way has something to do with the fact that they constitutively implicate two different individuals in a complex of directed duties and claims. So an appealing account of the special “reason-giving force” of moral norms seems to fall out of the relational interpretation of them, fairly directly.
Against this, it might be thought that we need a different model of moral obligation to make sense of the fact that it is sometimes okay not to live up to the literal terms of what we seem to owe to each other; we can permissibly break a promissory commitment, for instance, if a medical emergency arises that couldn’t have been anticipated in advance. Philosophers sometimes speak of situations of this kind as ones in which a moral right or claim is permissibly infringed, and that way of talking implicitly invokes a fundamentally non-relational notion of moral obligation and permission. But the relational interpretation will favor a different way of understanding the cases at issue. The unexpected emergency doesn’t make it all right to infringe a claim that remains fully in place; rather it shows the limits of the claim, and it is permissible to fail to honor to the terms of the promise precisely because you do not literally owe it to the promisee to live up to them in these exceptional circumstances (though you might owe them back-up obligations of explanation and compensation).
What about the connection of obligation with our accountability practices? I agree with Steve that this is an important aspect of morality, and one that is neglected in most prominent treatments of the subject. The way I would put the point is by saying that it is part of our conception of moral norms that they function both to define obligations in the perspective of agential deliberation and to provide a basis for relations of interpersonal accountability. Our understanding of something as a moral obligation is thus connected to our sense that its violation would reasonably attract blame on the part of others.
Steve would make sense of this idea by appeal to the fact that considerations become obligations through their suitability to be addressed to the agent by the representative member of the moral community. This is what, on his approach, explains their status as obligations in the first place. On the alternative picture that I favor, it is the relational character of moral requirements that explains their status as obligations in the perspective of agency. But that same feature of them also explains why they provide a reasonable basis for relations of interpersonal accountability. Relational requirements are connected essentially to claims, and claims in turn are considerations that individuals are entitled to assert on their own behalf in their interactions with each other. Thus you are apt to resent it when I have wronged you, and this is a response to my recognitional failure to acknowledge the moral claims you hold against me.
This approach, to be sure, incorporates a different conception from Steve’s of the relations of interpersonal accountability that structure the moral domain. On my picture, which is relational all the way down, the primary locus of accountability is the assertion of moral claims on one’s own behalf, which can be understood as a way of addressing demands to other parties that they honor the claims one has against them. On Steve’s account, by contrast, the paradigmatic expression of accountability is the (hypothetical) assertion of claims by a representative person on behalf of the entire moral community.
I of course agree with Steve that there is such a thing as third-party blame or indignation. But the relational approach interprets this as an essentially vicarious activity, which is to be understood against the background of the idea that morality is structured in terms of claims that individuals are entitled to assert against agents in their own person. Third party blame is not the primary case of interpersonal accountability, but something we do on behalf of other individuals whom we understand to have privileged complaints, insofar as agents fell short of demands that were owed to those individuals in particular.
This essentially relational conception of interpersonal accountability seems to me both plausible and attractive, by comparison with the more impersonal conception that Steve seems to favor. In addressing demands to agents, we are not fundamentally speaking as representatives of the entire moral community. Who elected us to this role, anyway? By what right do we presume to represent everyone? Rather we are speaking primarily for ourselves, and secondarily for other individuals who have claims on their own behalf that have been flouted or ignored. Among other things, this approach provides a helpful framework for thinking about the ethics of blame—the ways we go astray, morally, in holding other members of the community accountable for their actions. Asserting claims on behalf of another is an inherently fraught activity, and it is open to moral objections when it undermines the individual we are endeavoring to speak for, or otherwise impairs our relations to them.
What is Relational About Morality?
By Stephen Darwall
There are two quite different ways to think about morality and relationship. One way, which I associate with Jay Wallace, sees morality as a “nexus” of relations that give rise to “directed” duties or obligations that are owed by an obligor (the obligated agent) to an obligee (the being to whom they are obligated). Relationship here is something approaching a logical notion. It need not involve any relating between the relata. As far at the idea of directed duty goes, I might be obligated to the environment even though it is incapable of relationship in the sense of mutual (second-personal) relating.
A second approach to thinking about morality emphasizes this second sense of mutual second-personal relationship. This is the approach I pursue in The Second-Person Standpoint and later writings, including, most relevantly for present purposes, “Bipolar Normativity.” I argue that deontic morality is relational in this second, second-personal sense, in its nature. It is a conceptual truth, I contend, that an act is morally obligatory if, and only if, it would be blameworthy to perform the act without excuse. What brings in second-personality is that Strawsonian reactive attitudes like blame are second personal in the sense that they involve implicit address. Not actual address, necessarily; their implicitly addressing character consists in the fact that reactive like blame are naturally expressed in language with the second-person pronoun, e.g., “You shouldn’t have done that. What were you thinking?”
Strawson says that reactive attitudes are held from the “participant” stance within relationship and that the deontic ones implicitly address demands to their objects. It is their addressing, relating character that leads me to call the participant stance “second personal.” This does not necessarily mean “second party.” Guilt is a second-personal attitude though there is no second party.
Blame, resentment, and guilt mediate mutual accountability. They implicitly address their objects and expect reciprocating attitudes in response. They come with RSVPs. They hold their objects accountable and expect mutual accountability in response.
If I am right in my claim that deontic morality involves accountability, therefore second-personal interaction, conceptually, it will follow that deontic morality is about relationship in the second of the two senses I distinguished. A second-personal approach seeks to account for the phenomenon of directed obligation and duty as a consequence. The idea of moral obligation “period,” as I say, is distinguishable from the concept of a directed obligation owed to someone. As a conceptual matter deontic morality might exist—hence moral obligations—even if no obligations were directed. They would not be owed to anyone. But they would still entail accountability, but the accountability would not be to any individual; it would rather be to the “moral community” (a presupposed transcendental ideal rather than any actual community) or to any person as its “representative.”
In this opening post, I would like to lay out what I take it that Jay and I agree about, where I think we disagree, and why I prefer my approach.
What do I think Jay and I agree about?
First, I agree with Jay that we have many directed duties, so owed by obligors to obligees. (I, but not Jay, hold these are always necessarily accompanied by pro tanto moral obligations period. If I make a promise, I am both obligated to you and obligated period.)
Second, we agree that directed duties come with a special standing—what I call “individual authority”—that obligees have to hold their obligors personally accountable in a way that makes it fitting for them to feel resentment and demand compensation, but also to forgive. My theory offers a conceptual or, perhaps, metaphysical explanation of this.
Third, Jay and I also agree that contractualism offers a promising normative theory of deontic morality. For Jay, that means an explanation of the moral nexus of directed duties. For me, it means that plus moral duties period, those not owed to anyone in particular or to any collective. The details of how this would work in both instances would take a while to lay out.
Fourth, we agree that among the directed duties are those that are owed to each and every person (or human being or . . . ).
Fifth, we agree that this last situation differs from what I call moral obligation period. That’s because duties that are owed to individuals involve their individual authority, and moral obligation period are not owed to anyone, not even to the moral community. The point is not just that they are not owed to any particular individual; duties owed to everyone do satisfy that condition. Though they are not owed to the moral community, moral obligations period involve accountability to the moral community and to any person as a representative member having representative authority.
Why does this last make a difference? Individual authority involves various things one can do as an individual—e.g., consent, waive a correlative right, seek compensation or not, forgive, and so on. If moral obligations period were owed to each and every person, everyone would have the relevant individual authority to do some or all of these things. That is a very different idea than moral obligation period.
So what, then, do Jay and I disagree about?
Some of our disagreements have been implicit in what I have already said.
First, I think Jay is skeptical about all of the following:
-moral obligation period
-blame conceived of as an attitude that is held from a representative, second-person standpoint
-the moral community, or a representative, conceived as a transcendental idea that is presupposed by deontic moral concepts and judgments
Second, because he is skeptical about these, I think is tempted to see my view as
-a form of voluntarism.
Third, I am skeptical that morality can be adequate conceived as a nexus of directed duties.
Finally, why do I prefer my view?
There are a number of matters having to do with the normativity of moral obligation that I think a second-personal view can explain that a “moral nexus” view cannot.
One thesis that it would be nice to be able to capture is what we might call, following Butler, the supreme authority of moral obligation, that is, the claim that there is always conclusive normative reason to do what we are, all things considered, morally obligated to do. This thesis about the normativity of deontic morality is sometimes called rationalism.
The claim that morality has supreme authority in the above sense is not:
-the claim that moral reasons always override normative reasons of other kinds
-the claim that a directed obligation always overrides other reasons
-the claim that a pro tanto moral obligation always overrides other reasons.
It is the claim that there is always conclusive normative reason to comply with all-things-considered moral obligations.
I think there are a number of considerations related to this for preferring a second-personal view.
First, it is not at all clear how to distinguish between pro tanto and all-things-considered duties in a moral nexus framework where there is no such thing as moral obligation period. This is because neither pro tanto duty nor all-things-considered duty is a directed notion. This distinction only makes sense with respect to moral obligation period.
Second, I argue in “Making the Hard Problem of Moral Normativity Easier,” that what explains the supreme authority of deontic morality is the distinctive feature of moral blame, conceived of as an attitude that is held not from any individual’s standpoint but from the standpoint of the moral community or a representative person. My idea here is that blame, guilt, and resentment all have the same reciprocating RSVP demand-addressing structure. Where they differ is that resentment is what Strawson calls a “personal” reactive attitude, held from the perspective of a victim perhaps vicariously, as when one identifies with the victim. Guilt is also personal, but it is felt from the perpetrator’s standpoint. And blame (Strawson uses ‘indignation’), I argue, is felt from the third-party perspective of the moral community or a representative person. The content of these attitudes is identical: “You shouldn’t have done what you did and you need to take responsibility for it.”
Strawson calls this last attitude “impersonal” and says it is a “vicarious” version of personal resentment. I think this is unhelpful in two ways. First, blame is not so much impersonal as impartial; it is definitely it not Sidgwick’s “point of view of the universe.; it is an implicitly addressing, so second-personal attitude. And second, a truly vicarious version of resentment would be expressed from the victim’s perspective: “You shouldn’t have treated me that way and you need to hold yourself responsible to me.” Blame is addressed from a third-party, second-personal perspective: “You shouldn’t have treated them that way and you need to hold yourself responsible as one accountable person among others.” The demand it addresses comes from the perspective of the moral community or a representative person.
Guilt is internalized blame. If it is genuine, it implies not just that one has violated a moral obligation, but also that one did not have, and could not have had, sufficient normative reason to do it.
But why is the latter true? I follow Williams in holding, as he argues in “Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame,” that blame presupposes that the blamed person did not have sufficient reason for acting as they did. If they had such reason, then there action would have been justified. But it is conceptually impossible for an attitude both to be blameworthy and justified. But if, then, it is a conceptual truth, as I argue it is, that an act is morally wrong, all things considered, if and only if it is an act of a kind that would be blameworthy lacking excuse, it then follows that there cannot be sufficient reason to violate all-things-considered obligations and do moral wrong.
None of this can be explained, I think, on a “moral nexus” view. If I make you a promise to meet for lunch, then I have given you some claim to my keeping it. But imagine a Kamm-like situation in which I can some great good (say, save someone’s life in a way I am not obligated to) at the cost of breaking my promise. Although my promise gave you a claim (or something weaker, like a claim to claim, see below), I would not be doing anything blameworthy despite the fact that I didn’t keep my promise. Though you still have a claim or something claim-like that requires me to do something to make up my not keeping my promise to you, I have not done anything that is blameworthy even though I lack an excuse. I can’t have an excuse, after all, since what I did was justified and therefore not wrong. Only wrongdoing can be excused.
Now I believe that Jay would prefer to say about such cases that although you would have had a claim but for the justifying consideration, you no longer do when the justifying consideration comes along. He is, of course, permitted to stipulate a meaning to ‘claim’. However, I think we need something like ‘claim’ to keep track of the fact I still owed and owe you something. Imagine that I hadn’t informed you or tried to make it up to you. Moreover, I can’t see how Jay will be able to avoid the idea of culpability (lacking excuse) in trying to justify his thesis that you end up with no claim, even though you would have had it otherwise. What does the work in keeping the books, I think, is the idea of culpability. And blame, again, involves representative authority, not the individual authority that is in play with directed duties.
Presumably, Jay would want to rely on Scanlonian contractualism to sort out these matters. But despite his title—What We Owe to Each Other—directedness does not enter into Scanlon’s theory. The ideas he seems to be working with are moral obligation, right, and wrong period.
There is a final matter I would like to mention concerning the normativity of moral obligation. Some people object—I think I have heard Jay make this objection—that blameworthiness cannot do the work I want it to for Euthyphro-like reasons. We think that something is culpable because it is wrong, not that it is wrong because it is culpable without excuse. Now up to this point, I have only been relying on the biconditional, that is, on its being conceptually necessary that an act is wrong (violates a moral obligation) if, and only if, it is an act of a kind that it would blameworthy to do without excuse.
I am, however, strongly attracted to the view that wrongness consists in an act’s being of a kind that it would be blameworthy to do without excuse. Here is why. It is the only way I know of explaining why the deontic moral notions—duty, right, wrong, etc.—are normative notions. Something is a normative notion, I think, if, and only if, its being instantiated entails the existence of normative reasons, or its being the case that someone ought, to have some attitude or to act in some way in the instantiated situation (or, equivalently, I think, that the attitude or action would be fitting in the technical sense that has been in play in metaethical discussions for the past century or so). Without loss of generality, we can assume a reasons-first position like the one Parfit holds in On What Matters. Now Parfit also makes the very objection I’ve just referred to and says that if we hold that something’s being wrong consists in its being blameworthy lacking excuse, we will then be unable to say that something is blameworthy because it is wrong. I’m not sure that is right, but suppose it is. Parfit holds on those grounds that wrongness is an irreducible notion. But if that is true, it then turns out that wrong is not a normative notion by Parfit’s own lights, since it does not entail normative reasons. If, however, we hold that wrongness consists in there being reason to blame lacking excuse, we get the benefit being able to demonstrate wrongness’s distinctive normativity. It entails reasons, in the first instance, for blame and, in virtue of that, for not doing what is blameworthy.
These are some, at least, of the reasons I prefer a second-personal account of deontic morality to the moral nexus account. The former sees morality as relational in the sense of being concerned with relatings. The latter seems relational in a thinner, less philosophically pregnant, sense.
By R. Jay Wallace
Steve’s initial post helpfully lays out some of the reasons he rejects the relational account of the moral that I have tried to develop and defend (and that I summarized in my post). In this response I want to look at three questions that seem to divide us.
Relating and Relationships
Steve rightly notes that the relational aspect of my view is very different from that implicit in the story he favors, which emphasizes “mutual (second-personal) relating”. He asserts that the relationship defined by what I call the moral nexus is “something approaching a logical notion”, which might not involve any individuals at its two ends—a duty might conceivably be owed to something, like the environment, that is not even capable of mutual accountability.
This is misleading, however. It is part of the relational conception I favor that the nexus of directed obligations and claims links two moral persons with each other. Granted, I allow that there will be different ways of interpreting the manifold of individuals who are potential bearers of claims against each other. This might well include some individuals who are not capable of fully reciprocal “mutual accountability”, such as mentally infirm persons or even animals. (Does Steve deny that such individuals might be members of his “moral community”, given their incapacity for “mutual accountability”?) But I don’t think there is a plausible interpretation of the manifold of persons that would assign claims to something impersonal such as the environment. We of course have obligations not to despoil the environment that sustains our common life, but these are owed to other moral persons, not to the trees and to the atmosphere, considered in themselves.
It is true that the moral nexus, so construed, links persons who might not do much concrete “relating” to each other, in practice. Individuals have moral claims against each other, even if they do not stand in any thick causal or social relationship—indeed, I might have obligations to individuals who do not yet exist and whose lives will not even begin until long after I am gone.
Steve appears to disagree about this, asserting, for instance, that deontic morality conceptually involves “second-personal interaction” [emphasis mine], whereby moral demands are addressed to the agent. But this seems to me misleading. What is conceptually entailed by deontic morality, on his conception of it, is that a representative member of the moral community would have reason (of some kind—more on this below) to address demands to the agent. But there need not be any actual addressing at all, or what Steve would call “second-personal interaction”. The “relating” that figures in his view thus seems to me no less “logical” or “thin” than the nexus at the center of my account.
Moreover, there is a sense in which Steve’s account seems to me not to involve a relationship of any kind between real moral persons or individuals. As he sees things, we are accountable ultimately to the “moral community” (as a “presupposed transcendental ideal”), not to the real citizens who individually inhabit it. Granted, real persons can address demands to us, as agents, on behalf of the community in which we all together participate. But in doing this, they are not speaking for themselves, but serve rather as impartial representatives of a kind of moral abstraction. What ultimately matters is not the “interaction” between real persons through which one of them (actually or potentially) addresses demands to the other, but the ideal of accountability to the transcendental community, which is not well-thought of as a relationship of any kind.
Steve and I are both influenced deeply by Strawson’s conception of moral accountability. In his post, Steve invokes Strawson’s notion of the participant stance, remarking that we take this perspective when we address demands to each other. I of course agree with him that we address demands to each other through our susceptibility to the reactive attitudes. But on my approach, this is a way for two individuals to relate to each other, asserting claims on their own behalf, which constitutively involves “participation” in normatively-structured interpersonal relationships.
The representative of the abstract moral community, by contrast, does not in this role really participate in the kind of relationships I think Strawson had in mind; rather, they are stepping back from such relationships to adopt an impartial point of view that abstracts from their interactions as one person to another. There is, at any rate, a significant difference between our views when it comes to the interpretation of this notion of participation in human relationships, and the view I favor seems significantly more interpersonal than Steve’s, not less.
Pro Tanto Obligations and Claims
Steve asserts that there is no way to make sense of the distinction between pro tanto and all-things-considered obligations on a moral nexus framework of directed obligations and claims. I think he is right about this, and am happy to accept this consequence of my position. I am in fact skeptical about the very idea of a pro tanto obligation. The notion of pro tanto normativity is familiar from the domain of reasons, where (for instance) the fact that a course of action would be valuable along some dimension might still count in favor of doing it, even if there is more reason to choose some alternative action. But deontic notions do not operate in this way.
Take Steve’s example in which the opportunity to realize some superlative moral good makes it the case that I am no longer strictly obligated to keep my promissory commitment. I suppose he thinks that the promissory commitment represents a pro tanto obligation in this scenario, which obtains despite the fact that I am not under an all-things-considered obligation to keep the promise. But what does this really mean? Are we supposed to think that, insofar as I promised, I am to that extent still obligated to keep my word, which would seem to be the deontic analogue of a pro tanto reason? I do not believe that deontic notions really function in this way, as considerations that contribute to normative reasoning in their deontic guise.
As Steve anticipates, I would say about his imagined case that the promisee no longer has a strict claim against me to promissory compliance under the circumstances he has described. But he thinks this won’t work, arguing that “we need something like [a] ‘claim’ to keep track of the fact I still owed and owe you something. Imagine that I hadn’t informed you or tried to make it up to you. Moreover, I can’t see how Jay will be able to avoid the idea of culpability (lacking excuse) in trying to justify his thesis that you end up with no claim, even though you would have had it otherwise.”
On this point, I would say that the exceptional opportunity to do good might well undermine the promisee’s strict claim to fulfillment of the original terms of the promise. But it would not necessarily undermine all claims against the promisor; in particular, it is plausible to think that there will remain claims to timely warning and to compensation in the case in which I decide to take advantage of the exceptional opportunity to realize beneficent ends. I would be culpable for failing to honor these residual claims if I was in a position to meet them, even if I was not culpable for the failure to honor the original promissory commitment itself. The idea that that original promissory claim remains in place, as a ghostly “pro tanto obligation”, is thus entirely dispensable. (For the record, I think Scanlon would agree with me about this, but I won’t argue the case here.)
Rationalism about the Moral
Steve argues, finally, that his view has resources to make sense of the supreme authority of deontic morality that my relational account lacks. The account he favors emphasizes the conceptual connection between blameworthiness and the agent’s reasons. Steve follows Williams in thinking that blame (in the absence of excuse) presupposes that its target had sufficient reason to follow the moral norms they in fact flouted. He argues, further, that we can exploit this conceptual presupposition to explain the authority of moral norms if we hold that “wrongness consists in there being reason to blame lacking excuse”, as he himself believes. If an action is wrong according to this definition, then it will follow from its being blameworthy that the agent must have had sufficient reason not to perform it.
I am inclined to agree with Steve and Williams about the normative presuppositions of reactive blame. Steve thinks a vindication of moral rationalism falls out of this idea if we combine it with the claim that wrongness consists in being blameworthy without excuse. But I’m not so sure. A true skeptic about the supreme authority of deontic morality might grant Steve his account of what wrongness consists in, but deny that any actions are really wrong in that stipulative sense. Alternatively, they might follow Williams in agreeing that we sometimes have good reason to blame people when they act wrongly, but offer a “proleptic” account of why this might make sense despite the literal falsity of its normative presupposition.
Be that as it may, I reject Steve’s story about what deontic wrongness “consists in” on independent (Euthyphro-like) grounds. His account suggests that acts are morally wrong because they are blameworthy, whereas it seems to me that acts are blameworthy because they are morally wrong. Steve acknowledges this concern, but prefers his constitutive approach because of its advantages when it comes to the question of supreme authority.
To see what is at stake here, it will be helpful to spell out his constitutive account a little more explicitly. The account holds that wrongness “consists in there being reason to blame lacking excuse”. Blame in turn is understood to involve the second-personal addressing of demands to an agent, where that is implicit in the “Strawsonian reactive attitudes”, such as resentment and indignation. So our reasons for blaming people should be reasons for the reactive attitudes.
But the constitutive story Steve favors is radically revisionary on this score. Our reason for resenting someone is ordinarily taken to be, at least in part, that they have acted wrongly (indeed, that they have wronged us in particular); this is the consideration that is taken to make the Strawsonian attitude apt or fitting. But of course, that consideration is not yet available to be invoked within the account Steve is offering us. What makes the act wrong in the first place is the fact that there is reason to respond to it with a reactive attitude, and whatever that reason is, it looks to me to be a reason of the wrong kind.
Even if there is a (non-deontic) reason of some kind for the representative of the moral community to blame the agent, is this really enough for the constitutive account? Maybe there is, in a given case, more reason to refrain from blaming the agent—perhaps they are a violent narcissist who will just lash out and kill the hostages if we impartially blame them for their action. It surely wouldn’t follow that it wasn’t wrong for the narcissist to take the individuals hostage and threaten to take their lives.
But I think I am still unclear about the details of Steve’s appeal to hypothetical address. I understand how a recognized authority—the platoon sergeant in his own canonical example—might make it the case that an action was wrong by exercising their normative power to create obligations through the issuing of a command. But what seems to do the work in his account is not the actual addressing of a demand to the agent, but the fact that the representative of the community would have reason to do so, and this doesn’t look like it is enough.
Finally, on the issue of rationalism, I favor the relational approach because I think it promises to shed some light on the distinctive normative features of the deontic moral right. The relational account offers a substantive characterization of the moral right, holding that to be morally right is to be something that the agent owes to another individual or individuals, just insofar as they are persons with moral standing. Directed obligations of this kind intelligibly function within deliberation as practical requirements or presumptive constraints of agency, which is one way of characterizing their normative authority. They also provide a normative basis for relations of interpersonal accountability between real individuals, insofar as they give those individuals claims that they have authority to assert on their own behalf, and the violation of those claims provides a reason (of the right kind!) for reactive blame.
By Stephen Darwall
Jay has helpfully laid out three areas of remaining disagreement, which I will take up under his headings.
Relating and Relationships
It may be that there is less distance between Jay and my view than it initially appears. Jay says that the moral nexus of directed obligations “links two moral persons with each other.” This goes beyond a more abstract notion of a moral nexus between a being who has the directed obligation and one whom the obligation is owed. It adds the idea that the beings between whom the directed obligation holds are both moral persons. There is, of course, the further question of what a “moral person” is. I suspect Jay and I agree in holding that one concept of moral person is Locke’s “forensic” notion of a subject of moral obligations, a being who, as Locke puts it, is “capable of a law.” As I interpret that idea, it is a being capable of mutual accountability, hence a being with what I call “second-personal competence.” But that leaves open what is necessary to be an obligee, that is, a being to whom directed obligations are owed. I don’t know that Jay has said anything about that.
I think Jay and I agree here also that obligees can include beings who lack second-personal competence. I’m inclined to agree that we can owe things not just to other second-personally competent beings but to “mentally infirm persons” and “animals” who lack this competence. As I see it, for that to be the case, it must also be the case that second-personally competent beings must hold themselves accountable for organizing themselves to act as trustees for those who are not able to claim their own rights. (Like the Lorax in the Dr. Seuss book who “speak[s] for the trees.) So Jay and I are both inclined to extend the moral nexus beyond the class of moral subjects.
My thought, then, is that we both need a story about what such directed obligations consist in. That is where, as I see it, the idea of accountability and “second-personal interaction” enters in. Directed obligations consist in the relevant accountability relations that are constituted by the relevant individual authorities.
I say that I am inclined to believe that we have directed obligations to non-second-personally competent beings. (I argue that we do in “Animal Value and Right.”) I am certain, however, that we have moral obligations period with respect to non-second-personally competent beings. That also, I argue, must consist in the relevant accountability relations, only this time they involve representative rather than individual authority.
Pro Tanto Obligations and Claims
What is at issue between Jay and me here? We are agreed about the kind of case I describe that once the exceptional opportunity arises, I am no longer obligated (all things considered, according to me) to keep my promise, and that I have various residual obligations to compensate, etc., if I will or do not. The question is what explains these residual obligations? I say, they arise because of the pro tanto obligation to keep the promise that was created when I promised. I am not clear what explains them on Jay’s view. Perhaps what we can both say is that my promise obligated me to keep my promise, unless exceptional opportunities arose, etc. Perhaps we could add: in which case, I am obligated to give due warning, compensate, etc. However, if we think of what we are doing when I fail to keep the promise as compensating, I don’t see how to avoid the idea the legal/moral idea of injury in the sense of a violated, or at least infringed, claim.
The point can be illustrated with Feinberg’s famous cabin case in which I break into your cabin during a very dangerous blizzard to keep myself alive. What I do is fully justified though I have still violated, or at least infringed, your property rights and so owe you compensation. Jay would say, I think, that you no longer have a claim to my not breaking in in these circumstances. But if we say that, I don’t see how we can think you are owed compensation.
My larger points with the language of pro tanto and all things considered is, first, that it is only when all-things-considered obligations are violated that culpability enters, second, that blame is from the perspective of representative authority, and third, that it is blameworthiness that assures conclusive normative reasons, as we appreciate when we feel guilt and make the moral demand of ourselves, thereby assuming the role of representative of the moral community.
Rationalism about the Moral
Jay says he can agree with my claim that justified blame entails insufficient normative reason for doing wrong, hence conclusive normative for acting as duty requires. He doesn’t say that he agrees with me that perspective of the attitude of blame is a third-party representative standpoint and not that of vicarious identification with the victim. This is important, I think, because it is only on that assumption that the presupposition of insufficient reason to have done wrong goes through. I can fully accept that you have reason, from your perspective, to resent something I did, and so I must listen to your complaint, without agreeing with your complaint and internalizing the attitude as guilt. It is blame that is internalized as guilt, where both involve the implicit addressing of a demand from a position of representative authority.
Jay notes, however, that agreeing with me so far still leaves a thoroughgoing moral skeptic free to argue that there just are not any actions that are wrong in my stipulated sense, that is, that are blameworthy lacking excuse. I agree that this is a possible position. I argue in “Making the Hard Problem of Moral Normativity Easier,” however, that the moral skeptic is now in a difficult dialectical position. I assume that the moral skeptic we are talking about is not a normative skeptic across the board. Presumably, they are prepared to accept other normative notions, such as the credible (what there is normative reason to believe), the desirable (what there is normative reason to desire), and so on. This then would put them in the dialectical situation of having to argue that there can be normative reasons and oughts with respect to other attitudes, like belief, desire, esteem, and so on, but that there cannot be with respect to the reactive attitude of blame. What could justify that? If, however, there sometimes are normative reasons for blame, then it will follow that deontic moral notions—culpability, wrong, right, duty, and so on—are instantiated.
Alternatively, Jay says, the skeptic might accept, as Williams does, that there are “proleptic” reasons to blame. Such reasons, however, are reasons “of the wrong kind” for the attitude of blame. They do not bear on blameworthiness and hence on moral right and wrong. Of course, the skeptic is unlikely to be moved by this. The real problem for them, as I see it, is the one mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Related to this, Jay says that even if we agree that there is some reason to blame someone that might be insufficient to justify blaming them, since if we did, they might lash out in response. Again, this would be a reason of the wrong kind for not having the attitude of blame. Whether they would lash out or not is irrelevant to whether their act was blameworthy and morally wrong.
This brings us to the Euthyphro problem. Jay and I both want to say that an act is blameworthy because it is wrong. And Jay thinks that I cannot say that if I also say that act’s being wrong consists in its being wrong lacking excuse. This is like an objection Scanlon faces to contractualism that acts are not wrong because they violate norms that no one could reasonably reject. Scanlon’s reply, as I understand it, is to say that what makes acts wrong according to contractualism is that they have more specific wrong-making features such that no one could reasonably reject principles requiring people not to instantiate them. Contractualism aims to provide an account of what makes those specific feature wrong making.
I argue in The Second-Person Standpoint that my second-personal can be seen as a deeper foundation for contractualism, based on conceptual requirements of deontic moral concepts. Ultimately, what being a wrong-making feature consists in its being a blameworthy feature, lacking excuse, that is, that there exists reason of the right kind for holding people accountable through moral blame for not instantiating the feature.
The costs of not holding this but holding, as Parfit does, that wrongness is not itself analyzable in terms of reasons (of the right kind) for blame, but is rather an irreducible moral notion, is that one thereby loses any explanation of how deontic moral notions are normative concepts in the sense of entailing normative reasons for attitudes and actions. On my analysis deontic moral notions are normative for blame in the first instance and, in virtue of that, normative for action.