Monthly Archives: February 2011

OPR IV.13 The Reasons One Has

As Keith pointed out in his last post, Section 13 is one of the most important, and likely to be one of the most controversial, sections of The Order of Public Reason.  Although there have been a lot of controversial points made in earlier sections, much of the last several sections may have seemed more descriptive than normative and, therefore, less threatening.  This, however, is the section where the normative rubber hits the descriptive road.  The account that Gaus develops here represents a continuity that goes all the way back to at least Value and Justification and is continued in Justificatory Liberalism, those that are familiar with these earlier works will find much that is familiar here, though often in a different or expanded form.  There is a lot in this section so I won’t necessarily be discussing everything, only the most important points.  If there is something that I leave out that is important, we can definitely expand on those points in the comments.  I will spend most of my post today presenting Gaus’ view and save my critical remarks for Wednesday’s post, but feel free to bring up any critical issues that you may have in the comments.

Gaus begins this section by noting that the idea of social morality that he has been advancing seems to rely on an internalist conception of reasons.  As he claims, the debate between internal and external reasons has become a kind of obsession.   Gaus’ conception of reasons stakes out a position in that debate in opposition to what Joseph Raz has called the Classical View of external reasons as facts about properties of action.  On the Classical View, internal reasons are merely beliefs about facts, not reasons themselves.  The internalist, however, argues that reasons for action must be connected to the motivational set of an agent, that is, to her beliefs and desires about the action in question.   The debate between internal and external reasons has, according to Gaus, become confused.  The debate is really about what reasons there are or what reasons exist.  It is, therefore, really a question about the ontology of reasons.  But, as we have seen throughout the Order of Public Reason, social morality in a world of constrained and embodied reasoners is about what reasons we have, not with what reasons there are.  Gaus’ theory then is only inconsistent with externalism if the externalist also holds an externalist theory of what it means to have a reason, basically that to have a reason is for there to be an external reason that applies to that person.  Gaus rejects this form of externalism, the externalist view of having a reason, as implausible.

Externalism about having reasons is implausible because “it misconstrues the relation between having a reason and being a rational agent.” (233) Consider Aristotle, for instance.  The externalist is committed to saying that Aristotle had a reason to accept the truth of particle physics; but surely, Gaus argues, to think that Aristotle had a reason to embrace particle physics is to make a serious mistake.   Reasons are justificatory, but there is no way that Aristotle could be justified in believing particle physics.  Similarly, to claim that a person or a group have a certain moral reason even though that reason is totally inaccessible to them, in the same way that Aristotle’s reason to accept particle physics is inaccessible, is to not only misuse the language of reasons but, more importantly, to misunderstand and “undermine the point of discourse about reasons and rationality.”(235) We use the idea of having a reason, according to Gaus, to make the actions and intentions of other people intelligible.  The externalist view of having a reason severs the idea of a reason from its role in explaining and justifying action.

Rejecting the externalist view of having a reason does not, however, commit Gaus to, what he calls, the Reason Affirmation Thesis that to have a reason is to affirm that one has that reason.  Affirming a reason is neither necessary nor sufficient to having a reason.   The neurotic may affirm reasons that they do not, in fact, have–crazy beliefs, that the world will end if one blinks for instance, do not provide reasons.  Affirmation is also not necessary to have a reason, all that is required is that there be, in the words of Bernard Williams, “a sound deliberative route” from the subjective motivational set that one has to the reason.  We might think of the Reason Affirmation Thesis as the idea that only the reasons that an agent actually claims to have at any time can justify action.  The rejection of the Reason Affirmation Thesis means that Gaus is committed to some amount of idealization of rational agents.  If we notice that we need to go beyond the actual reasons that agents claim to have, we need another standard of what counts as a reason.  The problem is that once we begin to idealize, we move closer and closer to the externalist view of having a reason.  Gaus cites Steve Wall who argues that once we begin to idealize we realize that “a fully rational person will affirm all, and only, the (external) reasons that apply to her.” (237) If Wall is correct; we will have backed into the externalist view of having a reason merely by idealizing.

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Call for Papers – 9th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy

On the 22nd and 23rd of September 2011, the Human Development, Capability and Poverty International Research Centre of the Institute for Advanced Study of Pavia and the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Pavia (Italy), under the joint patronage of the Italian Society for Political Philosophy and the Italian Society for Analytic Philosophy, will host the 9th edition of the Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy. This two-day conference is meant to offer graduate students an opportunity to present papers, get helpful feedback in a friendly atmosphere, and exchange ideas both with peers and with leading academics in the field of political philosophy. In addition to parallel sessions devoted to students’ presentations, there will also be two plenary sessions. Plenary speakers in past editions have been: Hillel Steiner, Peter Jones, Gianfrancesco Zanetti, Jonathan Wolff, Michele Nicoletti, Philippe Van Parijs, Sebastiano Maffettone, Giovanni Giorgini, Andrew Williams, David Miller, Alessandro Ferrara, Michael Otsuka, Nadia Urbinati, Valeria Ottonelli, Adam Swift. This year’s keynote speakers will be:


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OPR IV.12: Moral Emotions and Moral Autonomy

My apologies for posting this a little bit late. I came down with something and couldn’t get the comments put together as quickly as I had hoped and then ran into some compatibility issues with Word Press and my browser. Anyway, on to section 12.

If sections 4 – 11 have been primarily descriptive, section 12 is where the book begins to take a distinctly normative turn. Having sketched over the last three sections an account of how his positive and normative projects relate to one another, in section 12 Gaus expands the discussion he left us with at the end of section 11 in order to bring his descriptive work to bear on some of the questions he set out at the beginning of the book.

As I pointed out in my earlier comments, Gaus concludes section 11 with a brief discussion of the relationship between guilt, moral authority, and moral autonomy and as I said above, section 12 is primarily dedicated to developing this discussion further. Gaus emphasizes that guilt is part of the mechanism through which we internalize moral rules and on his view this is important for two closely related reasons:

(i) When an individual feels guilty for violating a moral rule, that guilt carries with it an implicit recognition of the authority of those who make demands on her that she comply with the rules of social morality. In this way, guilt complements resentment and indignation in Gaus’s Strawsonian account of how the moral emotions constitute the practice of social morality; guilt being the mechanism that gives standing to others to make demands on us, whereas resentment and indignation are (among) the mechanisms through which we make the actions of others our business. This is Gaus’s focus in 11.4.

(ii) By facilitating and ultimately manifesting our internalization of moral rules, guilt expresses our moral autonomy. When it is directed at a moral rule (and not simply a taboo), guilt typically indicates that an individual accepts the authority of the rule over her and is capable of appreciating the reasons why the rule applies to her. This, as opposed to (i), is Gaus’s focus in section 12.

Although Gaus spends a lot of time discussing the importance of guilt, he begins section 12 by discussing the moral emotions more generally. In particular he emphasizes that the moral emotions have built in appropriateness conditions, meaning that they typically require (or at least entail) that the person subject to a moral emotion has certain beliefs about the person towards whom her reactive attitude is directed (12.1). As we saw in section 11, on Gaus’s view the moral emotions are a constitutive part of our social morality and in this section he argues that this insight, combined with evidence from moral psychology undermines the rationalistic picture of morality on which reason allows us to overcome our passions. Gaus’s emphasis on the appropriateness conditions of the moral emotions though distinguishes him from ‘the new sentimentalists’ who argue that our moral judgments and practices are grounded primarily in our affect and that our moral emotions do not (and more importantly, need not) carry a substantial amount of cognitive content. On Gaus’s view, both reason and affect are important, and more important still is that our emotions engage our reason in the right sort of way. Ultimately Gaus will argue that it is only when this is true, that our practice of social morality can be consistent with our nature as free and equal moral persons.

In emphasizing the importance of our emotions engaging our reasons, Gaus’s point is not that beliefs about those whom our emotions are directed towards are always prerequisites of the moral emotions, but rather that they are typically required in order for our emotions to be sustained. To illustrate this Gaus directs us towards the concept of responsibility, asking what sorts of beliefs and emotions are required to sustain our practice of holding one another accountable to the demands of social morality. Gaus argues that responsibility requires more than just the ability to identify that a moral rule has been broken and the capacity to blame others for violating those rules. Specifically it requires that the individual being held responsible has certain beliefs and that we know her to have these beliefs. It is hard to sustain blame (and similarly hard to maintain resentment) if we come to doubt that the person we are blaming lacked either the requisite knowledge of the moral rule in question, recognition that the rule applies to her, or an understanding that her actions in fact violated that rule.

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OPR IV.11: Moral Demands and the Moral Emotions

Now that we’re moving into the fourth chapter of the book (and the second month of the reading group) I thought that it would be helpful to begin my comments by briefly summarizing the ground that we’ve already covered. Doing so will hopefully make it clearer how Gaus’s arguments in Chapter 4 fit into the rest of the book, remind us of what Gaus has done so far, and orient us towards where we still have to go.

Gaus’s big question is: what sort of social order is appropriate for a society comprised of free and equal persons? The goal of the book then is to provide a framework for gaining critical leverage on our idea of social morality and its attendant practices. Gaus spends the Preface and Chapter 1 laying out the idea of social morality and making the case that social morality is both critically necessary, but at the same time, not an entirely rosy affair. As a result, he argues that our practices call for both normative justification and positive explanation. Chapter 2 began that task by looking at instrumentalist accounts of morality which, Gaus tells us, provide a promising framework for justifying and explaining social morality. Unfortunately, Gaus argues, instrumentalism fails, meaning that we can’t simply reason our way into morality. Chapter 2 leaves us with an explanatory project then that Gaus takes up in chapter 3. There he asks us to look at our actual practices, psychologies, and commitments and, drawing on work in evolutionary game theory, anthropology, and psychology, among other things, he directs our attention to the importance of deontic reasoning, the need for moral/social rules, and the necessity of having a community in which individuals are not merely disposed to follow the rules, but to enforce them as well.

As J. Brennan pointed out in his comments two weeks ago, Gaus’s discussion in sections 7 and 8 of Chapter 3 of how and why something that looks like social morality might develop left us with a number of questions about the normative significance of the descriptive account Gaus offers. I think it’s now clear though that, having left us with these questions, the latter half of chapter 3 is where Gaus begins to offer answers. In sections 9 and 10 Gaus provides us with an account of the rationality of rules and draws our attention to the relationship between positive and true social morality. As Ian Ward emphasized in his comments last week, a core part of Gaus’s story is the idea that an account of true or appropriate social morality must necessarily be constrained by a society’s positive social morality. On Gaus’s view we can gain critical leverage on our practices (in part through employing “transcendent moral concepts”), but that criticism must always proceed from within our existing practices.

In chapter 4 Gaus continues to develop the normative/explanatory project that he began in chapter 3 focusing on how our emotions (sections 11 and 12) and our reasons (section 13) respectively fit into our moral practices. In the rest of these comments I’ll focus on section 11 where Gaus discusses the relationship between our emotions, the concept of moral standing, and our practices of enforcing morality. Later this week I’ll turn my attention to section 12 where Gaus discusses the relationship between our emotions and our concepts of moral autonomy and moral personhood.

Comments on Section 11:

We’ve now seen in several places that an important feature of social morality is that it makes one’s actions the business of others. Section 7’s discussion of the importance of rule-following punishers gave us an account of why this is an important part of social morality, but in section 11 Gaus returns to this important feature of morality, reminding us that we still need an explanation of where the authority to make demands on others comes from. In order to provide this explanation Gaus directs us to two fundamental features of a system of rules populated by rule-following punishers: (i) that we normally display a concern with the conformity of others, and with enforcing this conformity and (ii) a recognition on the part of individuals that the rules normally override one’s own goals, values, and ends (p. 187). Gaus then point us towards our psychology and in particular our emotions in order to explain both (i) and (ii).

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CFP: MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory 2011

Eighth Annual Conference: August 31-September 2nd 2011

Final Call for Convenors – Deadline for Submission: 28th February 

From 2011, the Manchester Centre for Political Theory (MANCEPT) in Politics at the University of Manchester will be organizing the annual Political Theory Workshops. Over the last seven years, participants from over twenty countries have come together in a series of workshops concerned with issues in political theory/philosophy widely construed. This note is a call for convenors for the 2011 workshops.

Workshop Structure  

Convenors organize a workshop which can have between 3 and 12 paper-givers.  The reading of these papers takes place over four sessions, each lasting three and a half hours. For workshops with just 3 paper givers this normally requires only one session, with 6 papers 2 sessions and so on. In most cases, paper-givers will be asked to speak for 30 minutes, and will then field questions and comments for a further 30 minutes. However, workshop convenors are free to organize the length of the presentation and question time as they see fit.  In short, a workshop can last for one session, or it may extend through all four sessions. For example, some may find it convenient to squeeze four paper-givers into one session or use 2 sessions with 2 papers read per session. Also, if a workshop has, say, 5 paper-givers, the second session can finish an hour early. On occasion workshop convenors in the past have had a ’round table’ discussion about a particular topic. This could have up to six speakers and would normally last for only one session.

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OPR III.10: Moral Rules as Social Rules

Chapter 9 concluded with the requirement that an adequate account of social rules must be able explain how rule-based reasons can generally override, and yet be somehow responsive to, the other kinds of normative reasons we consider in our deliberations.  If this is required of an account purporting to explain how social rules can be rational, what is required of an account that purports to explain their specifically moral character?

The key concern here is what the normative authority of moral rules consists in.  Gaus identifies two conditions that such rules must satisfy:

1) The justification condition: the rule must pass justificatory muster from the perspective of free and equal persons addressing each other; and
2) The minimal effectiveness condition: the rule must already command some degree of compliance among a significant number of members of the group to which it is taken to apply.

The requirement that a moral rule satisfy both conditions, in turn, places certain constraints on the business of moral theorizing.  Gaus has already claimed that especially austere and rigorist forms of deontolotical ethics that neglect what we might call the holistic character of moral deliberation – the ways in which deontic (rule-based) reasons interact with other species of normative reasons (here Gauss focuses primarily on reasons of the instrumentalist/consequentialist variety; a full account would presumably specify the role of aretaic reasons as well) in context of our reasoning on ethical and political matters.  At the same time, his account of the “strong” character of the relevant rules signals a concern about ethical theories that reduce certain moral concepts to how they are understood within the concept of a particular conceptual scheme, cultural order, or set of social conventions.

Moral rules, and the deontic reasons they generate, must be exhibit some degree of responsiveness to the traditions and practices of a given group:

Unless our analysis of “true morality” connects up with what actual agents see as morality, our philosophical reflections will not address our pretheoretical worries. We come to philosophy worried about the nature of morality, moral relations between free and equal people, and the justification of moral claims. If we develop a philosophical account of morality that tells us what is “right and wrong” that treats moral and conventional rules the same, or sees morality as just another form of prudence, or insists that morality is entirely a matter of reason and so emotion is simply a threat to sound moral judgment – then our account is too far distant from our actual moral concepts to enlighten us about our initial concerns (OPR 174).

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