WHAT WE OWE TO EACH OTHER
By T. M. Scanlon
The Belknap Press of Harvard UniversityPress. $35.
By SIMON BLACKBURN
There are moral philosophers who are famous for the depth and weight of their treatises, and there are those who are remembered more for a single formula, such as 'act only on that maxim throughwhich you can at the same time will that it should become universal law'. In practice, however, philosophers of the second kind usually need to write at least as much as those of the first kind, just to explain what their formula really means. Professor Tim Scanlon of Harvard is no exception. He has long had a formula embodying what he calls a contractarian approach to morality. And now, some eighteen years after finding the formula, he has a whole treatise.
Scanlon'sformula is not quite as pithy as Kant's. A version as succinct as any occurs on p. 153: 'an act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behaviour that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced general agreement'. This is no bumper sticker. The double negative and the circumspect clauses foreshadow the need for interpretations and distinctions and defences,and this is what they get.
The idea that principles of right action, or right government, are those that wecould expect reasonable people to agree upon is of course neither new nor uncommon. It lies in the same corner of logical space as the golden rule: do as you would be done by. And anything shared by Thomas Hobbes, David Hume,Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and R. M. Hare must have something right about it. More immediately, a version of it lies at the heart of the 1971 classic from which this book is a direct descendant, John Rawls's A Theory ofJustice. In that book Rawls tried to identify the principles of a just society as those it would be rational to contract into. He confronted the problem that the people who make real contracts are people who have divergent concerns and agendas, and asymmetries of needs and powers and wealth. Famously, to defend against the way these forces create unjust contracts and principles, he imposed a 'veil of ignorance', asking us to imagine contracting into general principles in ignorance of our own particular properties and circumstances. Scanlon does without the veil of ignorance by relying on two ideas. First, his contractors are motivated by a common concern to find the principles he talks of (they are not, for instance, motivated solely by desire for local competitive advantage). And second, the talk of 'reasonable rejection' invokes a conception of universal, shared reasons, so that what is a reason for one is to be a reason for all.
Critics of Rawls quickly pointed out that once individual differences are bleached out by the veil of ignorance, we are relying not so much on the idea of a contract any more, so much as on an idea of rational choice. Rawls's arrangements for society become simply those that, supposedly, it would be rational to choose if you did not know which niche in society you were going to occupy. The contractual element becomes effaced. A similar problem dogs Scanlon's version.Once peoples' actual differences are submerged beneath their concern to find general principles, and once their reasons become not reasons from within one perspective or another, but universal, then the formula begins to look rather different. In fact, it begins to look something like: 'an action is wrong if principles allowing it could reasonably be rejected', or 'try not to act sothat people have a complaint against you', which seem less than electrifying.
But the role of contract diminishes further if we turn our attention to those reasons for rejection. Why not suppose that they themselves provide the very reasons why an action is wrong, short-circuiting any residual appeal to contracts with others? Suppose it is reasonable to reject my principles because, for instance, they lead to vast inequalities of wealth. Why then isn't that the very feature that makes my principles wrong? Why go through the detour of dragging in the hypothetical agreement with others? The question becomes particularly pointed when we think of actions that are supposed to be wrong although the harm is done to a creature or even a thing that is incapable of making contracts: aborting a young fetus, tormenting animals, or flooding the Grand Canyon for water skiing. About this kind of case Scanlon admits that 'the idea that there is a moral objection to harming or defacing works of nature (apart from any effects this has on human life) is adequately explained by the fact that the character of those objects-such as their grandeur, beauty, andcomplexity-provides compelling reason not to harm them. Nothing would be added by bringing in the idea of what a trustee for these objects would have reason to reject' (p. 183). But then one might suppose that the character of other things, such as misery, pain or death, provide compelling moral reasons as well, just by themselves.
Scanlon valiantly faces questions such as these, and valiantly tries to answer them.The discussions are deep and honest, and they illuminate many key concepts of moral philosophy: well-being, trust, friendship, loyalty, promises. It would be- and will be - the business of more than one doctoral thesis to assess his success (students will not, however, be helped by Harvard University Press putting important notes at the end of the book instead of on the page, a minuscule saving given modern typesetting technique).
The book bears witness to a different element in contemporary moral philosophy, and perhaps one of more general cultural significance. Suppose we ask further about the reasons upon which everything hinges. For Scanlon, believing that something provides a reason is having a belief, capable of truth and falsity, but it is not a belief 'about the natural world' (p. 60). Belief about these unnatural reasons occupies a central role in his moral psychology; such states as emotions,passions and desires, by contrast, are either identified with such beliefs, or heavily belittled.
Now,when some feature of things weighs with a person in her deliberations, we can say that she sees it as a reason for or against a course of action. But which side of the equation explains the other? Does the weight come first, and explain what is meant by seeing something as a reason? On that side lie the allies of Hume and St Augustine: '...in the pull of the will and of love appears the worth of everything to be sought or avoided, to be thought of greater or less value'. On the other side lie those owing allegiance to Plato, Aristotle and sometimes Kant. They hold that our passionate natures come entirely under the control of Truth, apprehended by Reason. Apollo rules Dionysus. The trouble with this sunny picture is that Apollo's control is unintelligible: for beliefs that are not about the natural world are eminentlydispensable. Why should we care about anything they allegedly represent – and if we did, wouldn't this care itself be an intrusion from the dark, a gift fromDionysus? On St Augustine's side there is no difficulty: we talk of reasons to reflect the fact that we already care.
Itis a matter of great cultural interest how so many analytic philosophers,including Scanlon, are bemused by the Apollonian vision. I suspect many think that their role as Guardians of the Norms requires it. I find this belief sad and puzzling at the same time. After all, St Augustine can be as fierce a defender of the norms that matter as anybody. Scanlon himself sometimes comes close to realizing that he does not really need the Apollonian image. But at other points panic sets in. On p. 20, for example, he surmises that Hume 'may have held' the view that nothing ever counts in favor of any action or intention at all. At first sight this deserves some kind of prize even in the highly competitive field of traducing Hume. It is only explicable if we allow Scanlon to impose the view that reasons that are seen only in the pull of the will and of love are not real reasons at all. But when we reflect what that really means, I think we should find it rather sad.