Scanlon at Berkeley, Part II. Being Realistic About Reasons

While hanging out in the philosophy library before the first of Tim Scanlon’s Townsend lectures, I finally got around to reading the last chapter of his Being Realistic About Reasons (OUP 2014), a book with the supreme virtue of being very short. Some thoughts.

Strength: Reasons have varying strengths. The reason to turn the wheel of the car in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian, for example, is a stronger reason than the reason to go on listening to enjoyable music. What is strength, and how do we determine the strength of different reasons? p105

Some reasons for action are stronger–better!–than others. What makes one reason better than another? Anything?  Nothing?

In 1850, plantation owners had a strong economic reason to continue slavery. But there was an even stronger moral reason to abolish slavery. That in a nutshell is the problem of moral philosophy: what makes one reason for action better than another? What makes morality stronger than economics? What ought we to do?

Scanlon is a really smart guy who has spent 50 years thinking about this. Therefore, he sidesteps the issue.

I conclude that there is no non-normative or normative coin in terms of which the strength of reasons, considered on their own apart from comparison with other particular reasons, can be expressed, and which then serves as a basis for comparative judgments of the kind involved in relations such as SR and CR [reasons strong enough to be conclusive reasons for action: Let’s do this!] The strength of a reason is an essentially comparative notion, understood only in relation to other particular reasons. p111

Fair enough. But when we’re trying to decide what to do, when we’re comparing particular reasons, what  are we thinking about? Do moral reasons always supersede economic ones? That was what Kant thought. What makes them do that? Scanlon is resisting Kant’s idea that morality must be grounded in reason. I’m reminded of Julian Baggini: muddle, muddle better. Sure, fine. But are everyone’s muddles equally good? On a par? (Ruth Chang) If not, then something outside the muddles/reasons is making them better. The problem is to figure out what that is. Do we have nothing to go on other than our Darwin-installed feelings about reasons to do things?

Scanlon sees his connection with Kant, according to whom,

a person (correctly) decides which maxims to adopt on the basis of his or her inclinations [Darwin-installed feelings] under the constraints of the Categorical Imperative. I do not accept Kant’s argument for the Categorical Imperative as a fundamental principle of practical reasoning, and I do not want to say that the strength of reasons is in general determined by the strength of the agent’s desires or by any other atomistic account. p112

If the strength of desires were all that determined the strength of reasons for action, there would be no morality in the normative sense.

So I need to say something more about how we arrive at conclusions about the strength of reasons. I do not have a general answer to this question, but I will describe a few ways of arriving at conclusions…

To me, Scanlon never quite answers this question, though he has many insights into it. He thinks of himself as engaged in “normative taxonomy”. He said he is an “explorer of the normative domain”. Describing what people actually do would be social psychology–morality in the descriptive sense, not the normative.


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Willi Baumeister (1889-1955)


BQTA contributor Carter Gillies has a few thoughts of his own.

I think you are right that Julian Baggini points to the way forward in urging us to “muddle better”. I think we are too susceptible to the siren call of neat solutions. Maybe having ‘sharp thoughts’ as per JL Austin is sometimes (not always!) like dancing in a crowd with a knife in your hands. If we only expect or demand sharpness it limits what we are able to do. 

But having sharp thoughts does matter when the thing we are doing requires it. Just so, a sharp knife is a good thing in the kitchen for preparing food, but it doesn’t mean you give it to your 4 year old kids to play with…. 

So the question is (always) whether the issue can be sorted neatly and tidily or if it will always come out messy and complicated. Don’t simply presume that it does! Look and see what the actual conditions are. Wittgenstein’s ‘method’ was to go back and forth over the ground, first from one direction and then another, to get a composite sort of understanding of the terrain. He was aiming at a perspicuous point of view, an ‘overview’ rather than the perennial philosophical overreach aimed at ‘essences’. Good on him!

Sounds like I need to read Scanlon. I’ve been reading Avrum Stroll’s book Moore and Wittgenstein On Certainty (OUP 1994) to better wrap my head around Wittgenstein’s response to skepticism (‘better’ here meaning minimally “growth that includes new considerations”). I also finally got my hands on a copy of Barry Stroud’s The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism (OUP 1984).

Maybe a problem is that we take the simple word ‘better’ to only mean one thing? Isn’t that the sort of temptation that Wittgenstein was keen to point out? That we have to get our ‘taxonomic’ house in order before we can even sensibly use the words we are interested in? That otherwise we end up spouting nonsense and chasing fantasies down their respective rabbit holes? 

Because a word looks so innocuous–the same letters in the same order every time– we get an unwarranted impression (conviction) of stability and essence. But every time we use a word like ‘better’ seems to indicate the possibility of something different. The sameness of the appearance of the word on a page or heard in conversation hides a multiplicity of different meanings. Maybe some occasions we look to the Platonic heavens for what ‘better’ means, but not always, not consistently, and not universally. The fact that we use it in different ways and differently on different occasions means we have mastered the subtlety. 

 If you don’t have at least a minimal grounding in what the words actually DO how can you expect to run out a normative program that completely ignores the way that people use them? To what end do we even attempt this? Maybe philosophers should step outside their armchair-induced hallucinations and pay just a tiny bit of attention to ‘social psychology’.

You can’t understand what ‘better’ means unless you account for the ways it is used for in our ordinary language. It is a muddled thing simply because there is no essence to ‘better’, no sharpness to the boundary of where it plays out. It is fundamentally a family relation type term. But then so much of philosophy takes a wrong turn by ignoring precisely this…… Attempting a ‘theory’ based on an invented or an ideal or unnaturally circumscribed use of our familiar words only invites trouble. Doing so is hardly a better use of our time, it seems. Unless one hears the metaphysical Angels calling, I suppose…..


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Willi Baumeister “Homunculus Ascending” 1953


BQTA contributor Rick Lenon has some thoughts too.

Slavery does seem like a good subject here.

If I am born into a culture where slavery is taken for granted, like the world before maybe 1550, is it a moral failing on my part not to devote myself to abolition?  Or for that matter, to take over the slavery-driven family plantation upon my father’s death, as had generations before me? 

At the same time, it’s clear enough now that slavery in the South was an abhorrent institution.  The predominant world view across the South back then was that blacks were lesser beings, and that their existence was if anything improved by having been removed from naked savagery back where they came from, and shown the light of Christianity. 

And then there was the hereditary slavery of whites by whites, going way back.  Lose a war, become a slave.  Hereditary class status, a world wide phenomenon.  Wage slavery… The Coal and Ice exhibit at Fort Mason in San Francisco  shows children in coal mines, apparently well into the 1930’s.   

Also difficult… Harper Lee, of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, wrote Go Set a Watchman around the same time.  It follows Mockingbird, describing the town some years later, when outside pressures come to bear to bring about justice and equality.  Problem is, there is enormous resistance to the imposed changes.  Blatant racism… but it’s also true that blacks there had been oppressed for so long, their culture so deeply damaged, that it seemed absurd to have them immediately assume the rights and responsibilities of leadership in the community.  Lower class whites there never had such presumption.  But clearly true, from our perspective, that it would have been wrong to tell black parents there that their children should wait another generation or two, and earn equal status, before it’s granted?       

Witchcraft is still accepted fact in many cultures.  If I live in one, must I reconsider in response to ridicule from Boston? 

And what if it becomes accepted fact, a hundred years from now, that consciousness, sentience, is present in all the creatures we now kill and eat?  Raise in small cages? 

Seems like it’s perception/knowledge that makes the difference.  Better, I assume.  Or just different? 

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Willi Baumeister “Bluxao” 1955


GNS weighs back in.

Before about 1800 or so, nearly everyone accepted slavery as a fact of life. Slavery had been common for thousands of years, not only in the American south. The ancient Athenians were enlightened in many ways, but took slavery for granted.

Maybe even the slaves accepted slavery in principle. They would have wanted to be the slave-master rather than the slave, but perhaps they had no general moral objection. Soldiers in combat are not opposed in principle to killing their fellow humans. They just want the other sons of bitches to do the dying.

Now slavery is universally condemned on moral grounds, though pockets persist. Does that make everyone who lived in earlier times morally wrong? If morality is objective or absolute, the answer is yes. But does it make sense to think of everyone who lived prior to 1800 as immoral?

That sort of thought inspires moral relativism. People should be judged in historical context, not against some absolute standard. As a way of understanding history, that seems reasonable. Pushed as a philosophical thesis, it means that there are no moral principles that apply in all times and places. Morality is relative to a culture, not absolute. Relativism is further supported by the difficulty of figuring out what the absolute principles are supposed to be, and what makes them absolute.

Moral relativism is standard in social science, where the job is describing what people actually do, and suspending judgment about what they ought to do. The first anthropologists found that sexual practices varied throughout the world, and that it would be silly to assume that Victorian culture was the only way to do it. American anthropologists opposed the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the grounds that it “would be defining universal rights from a Western paradigm which would be unfair to countries outside of that scope.”

However, in most situations, when we condemn behavior as immoral, we don’t think that our condemnation is limited to a group or culture. We deny that slavery or misogyny have cultural justifications. We assume that human rights are absolute and universal.

Another effect of thinking about slavery is to wonder what we are still doing that will be thought of as immoral in the future. We are pushed to become ever more vigilant and morally enlightened. Or perhaps we create a climate of political correctness that leaves most Americans behind and gives Trump a huge opening he is happy to wallow into. Given a choice between scolding school marms and Trump, most guys pick Trump.

Are domesticated animals slaves? Does making their lives as comfortable as possible entitle us to eat them? We force our pets to trade freedom for security. That’s our choice for them, not theirs. Are animals lesser beings? That was the historical justification for slavery.

Pluralism deserves consideration. John Campbell rejects “unificationism”. The multiple sciences operate fairly independently. How can economics be reduced to biology, let alone physics? Still, something limits what gets to be part of science. Astronomy, not astrology. Chemistry, not alchemy. How exactly do we understand what keeps astrology and alchemy out? The answer would show part of what unifies science. Scientists themselves don’t worry too much about it, nor should they. It’s a philosophical problem.

Value pluralism would seem to be our standard operating procedure. We value lots of things. Painting and music. Mozart and Picasso. Michelangelo and Shores (to a lesser extent). Football and basketball. Burgundy and Bordeaux. Cycling and running. Yo Yo Ma’s Bach and Heinrich Schiff’s Bach. All valuable! Equally? Incomparably?

Scanlon is sympathetic to value pluralism. His “reasons fundamentalism” means that reasons for actions cannot be reduced to anything else. 

I conclude that there is no non-normative or normative coin in terms of which the strength of reasons, considered on their own apart from comparison with other particular reasons, can be expressed, and which then serves as a basis for comparative judgments of the kind involved in relations such as Sufficient Reasons and Conclusive Reasons [reasons strong enough to be conclusive reasons for action: Let’s do this!] The strength of a reason is an essentially comparative notion, understood only in relation to other particular reasons. p111

But that leaves him and us with a problem: what makes one reason better than another. The whole idea of “values” is that some things are more valuable than others. We can compare particular reasons; we do it all the time. Right now, you are finding more reasons to read this than to listen to Yo Yo Ma (unless you are doing both!) So we compare particular reasons to do particular things. Is there anything other than our feelings that makes us choose one reason over another? 

Pluralism sounds like it would lead to relativism. If assorted values are valid, assorted cultures— or maybe even individuals— can pick their favorites. One pick is as good as another. But SEP “Value Pluralism” says that pluralism has no special connection to relativism.

It is also worth emphasizing that moral value pluralism does not entail relativism. The idea is not that all values or value systems are equally true. Value pluralism is independent of any particular meta-ethical view. It is a claim about the normative domain: about what value looks like.

Commonsensically we talk about lots of different values—happiness, liberty, friendship, and so on. The question about pluralism in moral theory is whether these apparently different values are all reducible to one supervalue, or whether we should think that there really are several distinct values.

There are different ways that value might be conceived, but the debate about pluralism should be able to cut across different sorts of moral theory. Traditionally, moral philosophers recognize three different ways of thinking about morality: the deontological way, the consequentialist way, and the virtue ethics way, although there is debate about the cogency of these distinctions. The term ‘value’ as it appears in ‘value pluralism’ is neutral between these three theories. Deontologists think of morality as being fundamentally about moral principles. Thus the question of whether a deontological theory is pluralist is a question about how many fundamental principles there are. The consequentialist, by contrast, tends to see value as being realized by goods in the world, such as friendship, knowledge, beauty and so on, and the question of pluralism is thus a question about how many fundamental goods there are. Virtue ethicists focus on how agents should be, so are interested both in principles of action (or motivation) and the pursuit of goods, such as friendship.

Deontologists can clearly be monists or pluralists. Kant can be understood as a monist—arguing that there is one overarching principle, and that all other principles are derived from it. Ross, by contrast, is a  pluralist, because he thinks that there is a plurality of prima facie duties.

Many utilitarians are monists, arguing that there is only one fundamental value and that is well-being or pleasure or happiness, or something of that sort. In other words, some utilitarians are committed to hedonism. Monist utilitarians must claim that all other putative values, such as friendship, knowledge and so on, are only instrumental values, which are valuable in so far as they contribute to the foundational value. But utilitarians need not be monists. Amartya Sen, for example, argues that utilitarians can take a ‘vector view of utility’, according to which there are differences in the qualities as well of the quantities of utility in goods in the world. According to Sen, we should interpret Mill as a pluralist in this way. (I return to Mill below: it is not entirely clear how we should understand his view). Sen points out that desire satisfaction theorists can be pluralists too. Just as different sorts of pleasure might have different sorts of value, so different desires might have different sorts of value. Even utilitarians who claim that the value to be maximized is well-being can be pluralist: a prominent view of well-being is that well-being itself is plural, an objective list of things that are fundamentally plural. Another reason to think that hedonistic utilitarians should be pluralists is that it seems essential to say something about the disvalue of pain. As Shelly Kagan points out (2014), we need an account of ill-being in addition to an account of well-being.

None of this has anything to do with relativism. These are all absolutist positions.

It’s not that there is space between relativism and absolutism. There isn’t. What we can agree on is that there are many ways to slice the philosophical pie. There are error theorists: all moral statements are false. There are non-cognitivists: no moral statement has any truth value at all. I’m not sure how Scanlon fits into the absolute-relative dichotomy.

Overall, the field is highly creative and gets very complicated. My hope would be that when we talk about it, we try to be clear about what we mean, and face the consequences of whatever we advocate.


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Willi Baumeister, “Head” 1920, Harvard Art Museum. This is the cover of Scanlon’s Being Realistic About Reasons





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