Monthly Archives: January 2011

OPR, Ch.2.5: Revisionist Theories


Sections 2.5 and 2.6 form the core argument of this chapter. These sections can be studied independently of each other, but I think it worthwhile to first take a look at how they work together to support Gaus’ main conclusion of Chapter 2, which is that the instrumentalist program fails. Gaus constructs a dilemma for the instrumentalist: In order to complete the instrumentalist project, one must either (1) adopt some reformed account of rational decisions in interactive contexts (formally, game theoretic contexts), or (2) show that societies will settle into following rules for guiding conduct in repeated interactions that coincide with moral rules, and neither (1) nor (2) is a viable option. Gaus argues that (1) and (2) are both nonviable options in sections 2.5 and 2.6, respectively.

I like to relate the instrumentalist program to the so-called reconciliation project, the attempt to show that acting morally is compatible with rational prudence. There are at least three nonexclusive ways one can try to complete the reconciliation project, which can be illustrated with alternative responses to a moral skeptic like Hobbes’ Foole (Leviathan 15) who claims that at least some of the time rational prudence requires one to violate moral requirements. In response, one can argue either that:

(a) The skeptic overlooks certain goods intrinsic to the practice of morality (a response in the tradition of Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas), or:

(b) The skeptic overlooks some of the options available both to her and to those with whom she interacts (a response in the tradition of Hobbes, Hume, and in our time Sugden, Skyrms and Binmore), or:

(c) The skeptic adopts the wrong account of rational choice in interactive contexts (a response in the new tradition initiated by McClennen and Gauthier)

Responses (b) and (c) obviously dovetail with Gaus’ sections 2.5 and 2.6. Of course, Gaus is discussing the instrumentalist program and not the reconciliation project, but it might be worth noting here that Gaus says little in Chapter 2 regarding supposed intrinsic goods of moral practice, and of course many including skeptics like the Foole deny there are any such goods. In any event, while I think it’s conceivable that an instrumentalist could believe in some goods intrinsic to moral practice (say, if one believes that following moral requirements is a necessary means towards achieving the desired end of reaching Heaven in the afterlife), Gaus keeps his focus in these sections on external goods like others’ labor that one could in principle obtain by means other than following moral requirements, and are more commonly associated with economic analysis.

In Section 2.5 Gaus gives his specific arguments against revisionist theories of game theoretic rationality, and he makes it clear that these arguments resemble some that have appeared before. (Perhaps I should add that I agree with pretty much all of Gaus’ discussion in this section.) Interestingly, Gaus considers only two specific proposals for a revisionist theory, namely, the evidential decision theory of Richard Jeffrey and the past-formed-disposition rule of Gauthier that I regard as a special case of Gauthier’s constrained maximization (Morals By Agreement 1986, Chapter V). I think Gaus believes that the two specific proposals considered here suffice to illustrate a moral general argument: Proposals for a reformed account of game theoretic rationality require us to give up certain fundamental dogmas of instrumental rationality (discussed in section 4.3) we really should not give up, so the revisionist program should be rejected.

Evidential decision theory recommends following C (cooperate) rather than D (defect) in Prisoners’ Dilemma when one believes one’s own choice is sufficiently correlated with her partner’s choice, same as evidential decision theory recommends choosing only the opaque box in Newcomb’s problem. This is tantamount to treating one’s own choice as if this choice is not causally independent of the choices of one’s partners. But Gaus, following Skyrms, reminds us that the players’ choices in a Prisoners’ Dilemma are causally independent (p. 76). Here is another way to another way to make the point (though Gaus does not explicitly make the point this way): To claim that one should choose a strategy on the grounds that this strategy is probabilistically correlated with the strategy one’s partner chooses is to in effect deny that the Prisoners’ Dilemma is a game in strategic form. (By definition, in a strategic form game the players must select their strategies without being able to observe the selections of their partners.) In this context, evidential decision theory would recommend that we don’t follow strictly dominant strategies, but we really have no good reason to give up on dominance reasoning. (Perhaps I should add that Jeffery himself did not think evidential decision theory recommends cooperation in the one-shot Prisoners’ Dilemma, though some evidential decision theorists do think this.)

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Call for Papers: Conference on Value Inquiry, topic “Liberty, Equality, and Business” (proposals due SOON).

I just received a call for papers through the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics list that might be of interest to Public Reason members.  As you’ll see, it’s encouraging submissions very soon (within a few days for best chance of acceptance).  (Update: originally I said I’d be posting two calls, but the second turned out not to be very relevant.)

Call for Papers

The 37th Conference on Value Inquiry “Liberty, Equality, and Business” will be held at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska 14-16 April 2011.  Broad participation is sought.  Papers and proposals for papers that address moral considerations such as liberty and equality and their interplay in business and society are particularly welcome.  Early Submission is strongly encouraged and advised.  Early notification of acceptance will begin February 1st. read more...

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CFP: Association for Legal and Social Philosophy 2011

Warwick: 4-6 July 2011 | CFP: 15 March 2011

The 2011 conference of the Association for Legal and Social Philosophy will be held at the University of Warwick on 4-6 July 2011. The theme of the conference is “Authority, Legitimacy and Rights.” Sub-themes include:

  • Legitimacy and authority
  • Human rights
  • Diversity, pluralism and toleration
  • Political power and punishment
  • Environmental justice
  • Democracy
  • Property rights
  • Just war.
  •

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    OPR Ch. 2.4: The Instrumentalist Approach to Social Order


    This section begins with a question that Gauthier poses, one that Gaus thinks we ought to take very seriously: why pay attention to morality’s demands when those demands can be so restrictive? Where does morality get the authority to constrain the pursuit of our objectives? The Hobbesian answer to this question that Gauthier favours, one that Gaus concedes is extremely appealing, is this: accepting morality’s constraints is instrumentally rational. Morality doesn’t constrain the pursuit of our ends, it is rather the most efficient means of pursuing them, and so the tension between morality’s authority and our own aims dissolves entirely. The aim of chapter 4 is to show why this attempt to derive the authority of social morality from instrumental reasoning is doomed to fail, and the first section of the chapter is devoted to a close examination of what instrumental rationality is.

    Gaus begins by alerting us to two dangers in discussing instrumental rationality. First, it’s important not to confuse instrumentally rational behaviour with self-interested or selfish behaviour. Instrumental rationality makes no assumptions about what aims or objectives people might pursue, and so super-altruists can be every bit as instrumentally rational as super-egoists. Second, Gaus warns against confusing Gauthier’s question with a similar-looking question, the famous “why be moral?” question. To ask this question, however, is to mistakenly suppose that even if morality’s normative basis and content are securely understood, we face a further question about whether we ought to be moral that must somehow be answered from outside of morality. Gauthier’s question is different and more sensible; he wants to know whether there is a good basis to support morality’s alleged authority over us. Maybe morality’s claims to authority are just a sham, and we would be better off not making moral demands, in the way we now think there’s no good basis for talking about angels and demons.

    With those caveats out of the way, what is instrumental rationality? You might think it must be to a conception of Rationality as Effectiveness: Alf’s action X is instrumentally rational if and only if X-ing is the effective way to achieve his desired goals. The problem with this view (to borrow some helpful terminology from Derek Parfit’s forthcoming book, On What Matters) is that it relies on a fact-relative view of effectiveness. That is, Alf’s X-ing is only instrumentally rational if it turns out that, as a matter of fact, X-ing achieves the desired objective. But surely if X-ing looked like the right decision on the basis of all the evidence available to Alf, X-ing was instrumentally rational even if things turn out badly? If the weather service tells Alf there’s no chance of rain, then surely Alf does not fail to be rational when he doesn’t carry an umbrella, even if it does rain later that day. And surely Betty is not instrumentally rational if, for all the wrong reasons, she carries an umbrella and then ‘gets lucky’ when it starts to rain.

    These objections might lead us to endorse Subjective Rationality, whereby Alf’s action X is rational if and only if his choice to X is based on his beliefs, and if his beliefs were true, X-ing would be the effective means to achieving his desired goals. But this account fails because (again to borrow from Parfit) it relies on a belief-relative standard, and this doesn’t seem like the right standard for assessing a person’s rationality. Alf might hold obviously false and silly beliefs, and it seems wrong to declare that acting on the basis of absurd or obviously false beliefs can vindicate one’s actions as instrumentally rational. Gaus concludes that what we need is a conception of instrumental rationality that is similar to the subjective view, but places some restrictions on what can count as a plausible belief. As Gaus puts it, Alf’s action X is instrumentally rational only if Alf soundly chooses X because he believes it is the best prospect for achieving his goals. Here Gaus relies on the rough idea that Alf’s beliefs must not be grossly defective from his own epistemic perspective, and the deliberation leading to action must be similarly not grossly defective, but it seems clear Gaus is wary of setting a more stringent standard.

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    OPR Ch. 1.3: Evaluative Diversity and the Problem of Indeterminacy

    Gaus begins this section by describing a Kantian proposal for how to reconcile the freedom and equality of persons with the authority of morality. First, we bracket our private ends-those things that divide us. Second, we focus on those common considerations that can serve as the basis for justifications of moral requirements. Rawls famously formalized this two-step procedure with the veil of ignorance and the idea of a list of primary goods essential to the exercise and development of the two moral powers. But because the Kant-Rawls solution involves bracketing everything that divides us–most importantly, our different comprehensive doctrines–there is no real evaluative diversity in the original position. The original position, as many critics have pointed out, is not a problem of collective choice, but a problem of individual choice since there is only a single perspective that remains after the veil of ignorance has been imposed. For Gaus, this creates two big problems.

    First, how do we know that we have sufficient reason to follow the rules of morality if those rules have been determined only by abstracting away from those values (i.e. our comprehensive doctrines) that we care deeply about? Merely showing that we can get a set of justified moral rules by bracketing what divides us doesn’t establish that we have good reasons to follow these rules when we consider our full set of reasons. This is the problem of stability. Gaus argues the later Rawls recognized this problem, and this explains Rawls’s claim in Political Liberalism that the rules generating by the freestanding argument in the original position provide only a pro tanto justification–the full justification of those rules is not achieved until each person sees that he or she has reasons from within his or her wider doctrine to endorse the rules. When everyone achieves this reconciliation, we famously have an overlapping consensus on a public conception of justice.

    But Rawls’s solution appears to ignore (or at least downplay) a second problem: indeterminacy. Rawls gets a unique set of principles out of the original position by eliminating all the evaluative diversity from that choice procedure. But once we let the evaluative diversity back in, either via the overlapping consensus, or in some other way, Gaus argues we are bound to get quite a bit of indeterminacy regarding the publicly justifiable rules. There just isn’t enough common ground, Gaus believes, to derive anything like a uniquely justified list of moral rules. Rawls saw indeterminacy as a potentially fatal problem, but Gaus encourages us to embrace it as the inevitable result of respecting evaluative diversity while searching for publicly justifiable moral rules. If we consider what could be justified to members of the public, Gaus suggests that what we will get is a non-empty and non-singular set of optimal eligible proposals, and of course there will be disagreement regarding the ranking of these different proposals.

    So how do we solve this problem of indeterminacy? Here is where Hume provides a helping hand. Instead of following Kant or Rawls and looking for ways to exclude evaluative diversity and thereby avoid indeterminacy, Gaus urges us to draw on the resources of a more Humean approach to social morality. In particular, Gaus says we can draw on the idea that moral norms evolve and become stable as a solution to the large-scale coordination problem of how to live together cooperatively in a way that can benefit everyone. Without this kind of convergence–for example, convergence on rules over property rights and how they are to be respected–social life would be filled with costly and inefficient conflicts. So even if idealized members of the public will not converge on a unique set of moral rules due to evaluative diversity, real people will inevitably do so as a result of evolutionary pressures to reach an equilibrium. This evolutionary perspective also helps to dissolve the puzzle of mutual authority mentioned in the previous sections. Social morality is a form of decentralized social authority between many people, and not some puzzling form of mutual authority between two agents.

    Gaus’s brilliant solution to the puzzle of how morality’s authority can be reconciled with our freedom and equality is thus a reconciliation of Kantian and Humean perspectives. A publicly justified morality is a set of moral rules that is both: (1) an equilibrium solution that has evolved to help individuals solve their large-scale coordination problem of social cooperation, and (2) is among the members of the optimal eligible set that could be justified to idealized members of the public. As Gaus puts it, without the evolutionary story, the Kantian approach is hopelessly controversial or indeterminate. But without the emphasis on public justification, evolved moral rules are merely authoritarian.

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    OPR, Ch.I.2: Moral Authority among Free and Equal Persons

    OPR attempts to show how moral authority can is possible despite disagreement among free and equal persons about the nature of morality. To do so, we must determine what moral authority is and the challenges it raises.

    Section 2 might be read as an explanation of the various notions of freedom at work in the book. The first idea that Gaus analyzes is the “presumptive” or “natural” freedom in the state of nature. On this “negative” conception of freedom, X is free when X is free from requirements to comply with the judgments of others about morality. Notice that this is not freedom from morality but freedom that obtains when one is free from the others’ varying interpretations of morality.

    Gaus ties his conception of freedom to the Kantian notion of autonomy and to what Susan Wolf calls Kant’s “Reason View” where one is autonomous when she has the option to act in accord with reason. For Gaus, “a free moral person is one who acts according to her own reasoning about the demands of morality.” (15).

    A justified moral order rejects the claims of natural or self-appointed authority of some over others. When citizens make unjustified demands, those that do not appeal to the reason of citizens, they are “authoritarian”. (16). For Gaus, authoritarianism is the original sin of political philosophy. The authoritarian is not only morally suspect but fails to establish authoritative claims over her compatriots, since she appeals only to her own reasons, not to others’. For Gaus, for John to treat Reba as a free and equal moral person means that he must “acknowledge a fundamental constraint on the justification of claims to moral authority over her.” (17). The political philosopher must dispel the suspicion that morality is a form of illegitimate social control to explain how such moral authority can be justified.

    Gaus next introduces a contrast between two conceptions of free and equal moral persons and their connection to social morality. Gaus ascribes to prominent Kantians Tim Scanlon and Stephen Darwall what he calls the “Expansive View” where we recognize others as free and equal means by “act[ing] toward others according to principles they could not reasonably reject.” Gaus takes Darwall and Scanlon to hold that “recognizing others as free and equal immediately implies [emphasis mine] a formula for what actions are morally permissible.” Yet the Expansive View is unattractive because it loads too much of the content of morality into a conceptual claim about the nature of recognizing others as free and equal. The Expansive View is therefore too controversial to form the foundation of a justification for social morality under conditions of reasonable pluralism.

    The “Restrictive View” is an alternative to the Expansive View. It holds that moral personhood “consists in the capacity to care for moral rules in such a way that one recognizes a compelling reason to abide by the rule even when such conformity does not promote one’s wants, ends, or goals.” (19). Gaus believe that he can demonstrate that the Restrictive View is an implicit part of our social practices and so is presupposed by participation in any extended system of social cooperation. Notice that Gaus endorses the Expansive View (p. 20) but that he thinks it is vital to publicly justify the Expansive View in light of the Restrictive View.

    Gaus introduces two puzzles about morality authority in Section 2.3. The ideas of freedom from judgment, natural moral personhood and equality among persons raise the Puzzle of the Assertion of Authority over an Equal. The puzzle concerns not speech acts but “claims to authority over another.” The puzzle is this: How can moral equals show that they have the authority to demand that others conform to certain social rules? The second puzzle is the Puzzle of Mutual Authority which arises because all persons have the ability to acquire authority over each other despite their equality. Gaus thinks that Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant all thought the puzzles could be solved. On their view, authority among equals must be possible in order to resolve conflicts of private judgment.

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