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).

Yet such rules cannot be understood as mere codifications of existing practice; part of the business of making such norms explicit and subjecting them to rational scrutiny from the perspective of free and equal persons addressing each other is to “test” their justificatory adequacy:

The wonderful work in moral psychology of the last twenty years has, I fear, tempted some to think that moral philosophy is essentially a sort of systemization of moral psychology and positive morality. In the end, however, we cannot rest content with understanding “moral” in a quasi-anthropological sense to refer to what people themselves take (and have taken) to be moral…it is important to stress that although the rules of social morality must be social rules, and so exist, this is simply a necessary, and by no means a sufficient, condition for a rule to be part of “true social morality.” We begin with existing social rules; we do not end there (OPR 177).

The chapter concludes then, with a desideratum: a satisfactory account of the authority of moral rules must account for employments of moral concepts that can find the fundamental structures of a given community lacking.  Gaus calls such employments “transcendent” – not in the regulist sense of specifying rules that can be instantiated by all agents at all times and places, but rather in a critical sense that renders vivid the distinction between what we as a group take to be morally correct and what is morally correct from the perspective of free and equal persons giving and asking each other for reasons.

I’ll conclude for the moment with a critical/comparative point.  The goal of explaining how moral norms – whether implicit, in patterns of behavior in which we are held responsible for our actions, or explicit, in the form of rules – might satisfy both the justificatory and minimal effectiveness conditions has increasingly been cast in terms of the practice of giving and asking for reasons among free and equal participants.  There appears to be a significant degree of convergence on the idea that there is something about the structure of this practice that gives us a special grasp on the character of normative authority.  This is seen, for instance, in contractualist accounts of justice (and constructivist ethical theories more broadly).  It also has strong affinities with developments in the later critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which has turned its attention to how participants in certain forms of discursive activity incur special normative commitments.  It also dovetails with significant new work by pragmatist figures like Robert Brandom (e.g. his Making it Explicit), which attempt to account for what Gaus calls “transcendent” employments of moral concepts in the perspectival features of discourse.  Three major currents in contemporary intellectual life – Anglophone political philosophy, Frankfurt critical theory, and American pragmatism – are all devoting significant attention to the nature of discursive social practice.  Might we be in the midst of something worth calling a “social-practical turn” in moral and political theorizing?

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9 Responses to OPR III.10: Moral Rules as Social Rules

  1. One thing I don’t fully understand is the contrast Jerry draws in this section between his own view of morality and the view held by some philosophers—G.A. Cohen is the one philosopher Jerry identifies (p. 176)—who allegedly deny the relevance of social morality’s purpose or function in making cooperative life possible. The latter view, according to Jerry, assumes there are just authoritative “facts” about the way we must act whose existence or truth is independent of what people think or how social life works. Jerry says that whether or not such facts exist ‘they cannot be the whole story of morality, or even I think the really important part’ (p. 176). The really important part of morality is the social role that moral rules perform in making cooperative and beneficial life possible.

    I have a couple of points or questions I’d like to raise about this distinction. First, the gap between Jerry’s own view and the Cohen-type view he criticizes is not as great as one might imagine, since Jerry’s view also involves moral principles and ideas that stand apart from any existing social morality and form ‘the moral point of view’ from which any existing social morality is evaluated (p. 177, 180). So the difference between the two positions is not that one posits independent moral principles (i.e. independent of the existing social norms) and the other doesn’t: they both posit such principles. Second, I don’t think Cohen (or any other contemporary political philosopher I can think of) believes that what Cohen calls fact-insensitive fundamental principles are the whole story of morality. I am certain that Cohen and others sympathetic to his view would readily agree that many of the most important debates in moral and political philosophy do not concern these abstract fundamental principles, but are usually about more fact-sensitive principles that govern our existing practices. I can’t imagine Cohen saying that the question of what people are willing to do, or what rules they can be brought to endorse, is irrelevant to the question of how our society ought to govern itself. He clearly believes such facts are essential to reaching judgements about the rules that ought to regulate our social life even if such facts do not ground fundamental principles. I’m equally confident that Cohen and others sympathetic to his view do not think that the correct or true moral principles should yield a dysfunctional social world where cooperative life is impossible.

    So I guess I am a bit puzzled about the distinction Jerry’s drawing here. In the end the distinction seems to boil down to exhortation to ‘take seriously the way in which morality makes a cooperative social life possible’ (p. 176). But since taking it seriously is also consistent with believing that there are independent moral principles which shape the moral point of view from which any existing social morality must be evaluated, I’m not sure why Cohen (or any other philosopher) is not being serious about the importance of social morality’s function in making a metaethical argument that purports to show that if there are fact-sensitive normative principles, then there must also be fact-insensitive principles. That metaethical thesis is, as far as I can tell, consistent with Jerry’s theory as articulated thus far, and it certainly needn’t entail a view of morality employed ‘by the high-minded (or, the priestly) who refuse to acknowledge that the facts of our social life can possibly have a fundamental impact’ (p. 176) on how the world ought to be organized.

  2. Ian Ward says:

    Point well taken. I do not believe that Cohen’s best views accurately mirror the position Gaus is targeting (having had the privilege of seeing Cohen in action during my old McGill days, I have to confess that I’m a bit partial). Given the extensive effort Cohen put into thinking through the macro-distributive consequences of our micro-level quotidian behaviors and habits, I find it hard to believe that his considered position on distributive justice would be oblivious to the facts of modern social life.

    A remaining challenge for Gaus, I believe, is to find an actually-existing contemporary representative of the kind of social-fact-oblivious deontology he is criticizing. However, given the allusions to Hegel in the positive appraisal of Rawls in Chapter 10, I can still see that a critique of something akin to Hegel’s “Beautiful Soul” (the hyper-Kantian caricature of the PhG – aimed not at I.K. per se, but at some of his epigones) might serve a useful dialectical purpose when it comes to positioning Gaus’ view, even if it doesn’t have a significant contemporary constituency. “Cohen” & co., at p. 176, are conscripted into the role of a dialectical foil, I think, to a kind of normative positivism (to borrow an expression of Pippin’s) which seems to concern Gaus much more: the reduction of our account of what is moral to an empirical-psychological survey of what our untutored intuitions tell us. The “experimental” turn in Ethics (surveyed by Berker, Appiah, et. al.) seems to be Gaus’ principal target here.

  3. A question about practices. In 10.1, G invokes a discussion of Green’s about political authorities. I read the point being a familiar and widely accepted one, that something cannot be a de jure authority unless it is not to some extent a de facto authority. This traditional formulation may be overreaching, the point being that authority presupposes some actual control. That seems quite right and may be generalized to the kind of social norm that Gaus is interested in.

    I haven’t assimilated fully yet our late friend GAC’s view of principles of justice, but I think we do have a disagreement here with Gaus. But Jonathan and Ian may know better.

  4. Another note. Is Jerry endorsing Hegel’s and Rawls’ statism on p. 176 when he notes that he accepts their view of the subject of philosophical theory being people in society, practices, the basic structure, etc? Certainly focusing on the basic structure of society and limiting oneself to most contemporary societies will impose a statist structure on the project.

    I don’t expect this will affect too much; we’ll see. But it is noteworthy that both Hegel’s project and Rawls’ — certainly 1971 — privileges societies organized as states (or “nation-states” if you prefer).

  5. @Chris: Jerry’s going to take many social-moral rules as outside of and constraining the legitimate reach of state power. So in fact it will be a quite anti-statist view.

    @Jon and Ian: I think Jerry’s standard of criticism is not unlike that of a Hegelian who looks for critical traction on present practices but the standard of criticism is somehow constructed from the practices (that’s what Chapter IV is about, as we shall see). I think this is very different than Cohen’s view, where fact-insensitive principles give us so much traction on the way things are that we can criticize the world for failing to live up to even infeasible states of affairs. Another related difference is the deep externalist-internalist contrast about justificatory reasons between Gerry C and Jerry G.

  6. Just to clarify: I’m not suggesting that Cohen’s broad philosophical perspective really is the same as Jerry’s philosophical perspective–clearly there are many major differences between them. I am suggesting that the particular distinction Jerry attempts to draw in the pages I’ve cited is not clear to me, and I’m not sure the exact way in which Cohen’s arguments in ‘Facts and Principles’ (the paper Jerry cites) provide an example of failing to take the function of social morality seriously.

    And a small exegetical point in response to Kevin: Cohen’s argument in ‘Facts and Principles’ is explicitly intended to be neutral between internalist and externalist conceptions of moral reasons.

  7. While it is true that Cohen explicitly states that his account in “Facts and Principles” is neutral between internalist and externalist conceptions of moral reasons, we will see in section 13 that Gaus would characterize Cohen’s approach as inconsistent with his own internalist conception of what it means to have a moral reason. As Gaus argues, though, his account is silent on what reasons there actually are, something that of more interest to Cohen than Gaus.

    I think one of interesting questions that arises form this discussion is to what degree does someone like Cohen, or really any realist, take moral reasons to be independent of our ability to recognize them. An important part of Gaus’ account is that social morality must be a set of rules that are accesible to respectably well functioning epistemic agents. It is not clear to me that Cohen, or someone like him, is as concerned with the ability of respectably well functioning epistemic agents to be able to recognize the appropriate moral reasons. Gaus takes himself to be presenting a theory of social morality where we can say that individuals in society have certain reasons that they can recognize and that those reasons can be justified. So, social morality is a real social practice and there is the possibility of getting leverage on reasons from something like a “moral point of view” but, as we will see in section 13, this “moral point of view” is very different from the common approach.

    When he is criticizing the view that he attributes to Cohen, the target seems to be philosophers who might think that morality can be discovered through logical analysis or read off of the fabric of nature. Gaus is arguing that, instead, we should see social morality as an order of interaction that does something really important in terms of coordinating and organizing our social lives. In some sense, the only role of social morality is to do this. While the views that Gaus is criticizing in this section, like Cohen, certainly realize that their conceptions of morality or justice will have important effects on social coordination and organization, this seems to be independent of the truth of those moral principles. It may be a concern of implementation of the moral principles, but we decide the truth of the principles independently of possible issues with implementation.

  8. Jonathan Quong has asked how different Gaus’s philosophical perspective really is from someone like Cohen. John Thrasher has suggested a number of important differences. I think most of what John T. says is right. I’m not sure how much of what John says though actually addresses Jon Q’s worry. If I understood him correctly Jon’s point was that Gaus looks like he’s committed to accepting some fact-insensitive moral principles (e.g. the idea of free and equal persons) that allow us to get some critical leverage on our practices. I think Jon is right that Gaus might be committed to this although in my comments on section 11 I express some reservations about this (specifically, I think there’s a case to be made that all of the moral concepts in our true morality are built up out of concepts in our positive morality). Even if Jon is right about this though, there is still an important difference in the perspectives of Gaus and Cohen.

    As I read Cohen in “Facts and Principles” he is committed to something like the idea that at the ground level all we have are fact-insensitive principles. Cohen clearly recognizes that there is a place in morality for fact-sensitive principles, but on his view these principles all ultimately depend upon fact-insensitive moral principles for their normative force. Gaus’s view is very different though. Even if Gaus accepts that fact-insensitive principles play an important role in our evaluation of social morality, there is an important place in his theory for fact-sensitive principles the normative force of which is not entirely reducible to our fact-insensitive principles. In other words, on Gaus’s view our true social morality is fundamentally constrained by principles that our drawn from our positive morality and this is something that I think Cohen clearly rejects.

  9. I think that Keith makes some good points on the key differences between Cohen and Gaus, but I think the issue is, as some have picked up on, much broader than a dispute between the two Jerrys. This may be clearer if we go back to 2.1 and 2.2 where Gaus distinguishes between what he calls the “expansive” and the “restrictive” view of moral authority. The expansive view holds that moral authority is a consequence of our recognition of others as free and equal. That is, the freedom an equality of other people generate interpersonal requirements of treatment in terms of moral authority claims. Gaus, however, rejects the expansive view partly because it is based on a controversial moral theory (in the example he gives, Kantianism) in favor of the restrictive view which is not concerned with treatment directly, but morality as a social practice. Moral authority is an internal condition of our social practices of morality. So, this is another reason to think that our moral leverage is drawn from our positive morality rather than to think that positive morality is something like an implementation of other, more controversial moral principles.

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