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).

In 11.2 Gaus offers an explanation of how it is that we come to be concerned with the conformity of others to moral/social rules by referring us back to earlier discussion. Gaus emphasizes two things: (a) the tendency of the moral emotions, especially resentment and indignation to attach to rule violations (sec. 9) and (b) our well developed capacities to identify rule violators (sec. 8). More specifically, in 11.2 Gaus brings these ideas together by suggesting that the moral emotions provide us with both the motivation to exploit our capacities to detect rule violators and with the attendant desire to blame or punish those that are caught. Gaus goes a step further though in an effort to bridge the normative-explanatory gap. Drawing on Strawson and Darwall, he argues that part of our concept of social morality is the fact that our emotions, attitudes, and reactions are not simply psychological correlates of our practices, but rather a constitutive part of them (pp. 187-91). Indignation, outrage, and resentment on this view are not simply reactions to the failures of others to comply with moral demands, rather, Gaus argues, “we make demands on others because we are prone to the moral emotions” and “part and parcel of the moral emotion is that the appropriate action is that the other stops” (p. 191).

Gaus shows us that the moral emotions presuppose the authority to hold someone responsible, but he recognizes that we still must ask whether this fact bears normative weight. It is in answering this question that we see a distinctively Gaussian view emerge. Gaus argues that because we are so embedded in the web of beliefs and emotions that attend the practice of social morality, these beliefs and emotions form part of our reasons. On Gaus’s view this means that we cannot hope to give a wholly external, rational justification of our practices because we cannot reject our practices, at least not wholesale. This is because doing so would require us to “renounce most of the things that we care for and value” (p. 192). Still Gaus recognizes that it might simply be an unfortunate fact that we can’t reason our way out of the moral practices we have. This is not the case though, or so Gaus argues. Rather, society depends upon our being rule-following punishers, and that in turn plausibly requires that individuals have a psychology with the moral emotions deeply embedded within it. This, Gaus concludes, suggests a reconciliation of instrumental view of social morality and the Kant/Strawson/Darwall view that moral relations can’t be reduced to instrumental benefit.

Having located the moral emotions generally within our practice of social morality Gaus turns his attention to the practice of blame. As Gaus points out, blame is not a quintessential reactive attitude because it is not essentially an affective response. We might note however that even if blame is not essentially affective, it might nevertheless depend upon our having certain affective responses. We might only be capable of blaming others in non-affect-laden ways because the vast majority of cases share enough structural similarities with cases where we are disposed to blame others in affect-laden ways. I want to flag this here because I’ll be returning to it in my comments on section 12. Although blame is not a paradigmatic reactive attitude, Gaus shows us that it is closely related to the reactive attitudes because it is a core part of our enforcement of social morality. If the moral emotions motivate us to make the actions of others our business, and give us the standing to do so, blame is (one of) the primary mechanisms through which our moral demands are transmitted to others.

To make the case for his rule-centered account of blame, Gaus first focuses his attention on dispatching Scanlon’s relationship-centered account of blame (11.3.a). On Scanlon’s view, blame is primarily a response to impairment in one’s relationship with another, playing the role of signaling how our relationships have changed and in doing so perhaps also drawing our attention to the need to do something to repair these relationships. Gaus argues that Scanlon’s account is not tight enough and that it miscategorizes some cases because it doesn’t draw a tight connection between blame and punishment and our reactive attitudes. Scanlon moves from core case of friendship to general claims about moral relationships centered on justifiability but, Gaus argues, this gets things backwards. Gaus’s primary complaint against Scanlon is that there are a range of cases where relationships are impaired, but where blame is inappropriate (and often not present) and this is true even when the impairment is a result of one party violating an expectation of the other. On Gaus’s view what is important in understanding blame is the violation of a justified requirement not the impairment of a moral relation (11.3.b). Specifically, blame is important because it constitutes a form a social sanction that gives force to our social rules (we might note that blame fills this role both by serving as an informal sanction and by serving as a signal that more formal forms of punishment are called for as well). Further, Gaus argues that the rule-based account of blame better fits our psychology (Gaus cites evidence from social psychology that judgments of blameworthiness more closely tracks negative desert judgments than judgments of wrongness).

Gaus concludes section 11 with a brief discussion of guilt. I want to set discussion of that off until my next post because I think Gaus’s discussion of guilt is more closely related to the issues I want to focus on from section 12. To anticipate things though, guilt is important on Gaus’s account because it is one of the main mechanisms through which we internalize moral rules. While the discussion of guilt is arguably more at home in section 12, it is important for Gaus’s discussion in section 11 because it is completes the account of how our moral emotions fit into the practice of social morality. Specifically, guilt carries with it an implicit acceptance of the authority of those who place demands on an individual. Our psychology doesn’t just commit us to pushing others around then; it commits us to accepting that (at least sometimes) others have the right to push us around.


I’ll conclude with two questions both of which reflect issues that I think have been coming up throughout our discussion of the book and which are particularly evident here.

(1) Gaus points out that our moral emotions have rich cognitive content, and that they typically require (i) normatively justified moral rules and (ii) expectations of social conformity. It’s not clear to me though exactly how thick the normative justification required of our rules must be for them to gain traction on our moral emotions. It looks like all that is required is that a rule be part of our positive morality, but in what sense does that count as normative justification?

(2) Gaus stresses that our practices and psychology constrain the social morality that will be appropriate to us. For Gaus, true morality must reflect positive morality. We need to distinguish between two ways in which this might happen though.

(a) On one hand positive morality might simply constrain both what true morality can demand of us and how it can make these demands.

(b) Alternatively, Gaus might be saying that true morality is not simply constrained by positive morality, but constructed out of it. On this view the moral concepts of true morality that allow us to get leverage on positive morality are built up from the concepts and practices that already inhere in our positive morality.

Gaus seems to be adopting the latter view, but it’s not yet entirely clear how that process works. What our moral emotions are able to track clearly matters, but exactly how much remains to be seen.

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One Response to OPR IV.11: Moral Demands and the Moral Emotions

  1. Jerry raises a worry at OPR 191-2 which is roughly this: the fact that feeling resentment and indignation is in part assuming that we have standing to make demands on others does not show that we do in fact have standing to make demands on others. So, one might think that the practice stands in need of justification.

    In reply, Jerry argues, with Strawson, that too much of what it means to be us is wrapped up with our having this practice for us to be able to make sense of a standpoint external to it from which to construct a justification. However, for those at whom “the worry [still] gnaws” (192), Jerry offers this further consideration:

    Our current moral practice is made intelligible and sensible once we understand that human society depends on a social morality based on Rule-following Punishers. For such a system to have arisen, we must care about the moral actions of others, care about making demands on them, and hold that we have standing to make these demands…human society would not even be possible without this framework (193)

    Jerry’s surely not talking about all parts of our moral practice here: only the practice of feeling resentment and indignation and assuming thereby that we have standing to make demands on others. This is indeed made intelligible, in the sense that we can see how it came to develop, by the consideration that human society (at least in any recognisable sense of that term) depends on it. (That’s the point of the evolutionary/game-theoretic discussion of earlier sections.)

    But what if reasons internal to our current moral practices, taken as a whole, point away from them and away even from the practice of feeling of resentment and indignation? This is what can happen when we’re worried about the compatibility of free will and determinism, for example: for some of those who accept determinism, reasons internal to our moral practice undermine not just some of its principles (in the way that reasons internal to moral practices eventually undermined the supposition that slavery is permissible) but also the wider framework of reactive attitudes. (Not everyone is convinced that Strawson wins that argument.) You might think that a certain kind of individualistic outlook could also include reasons which pointed away from that framework. For those who have that outlook, Jerry’s pointing out that the framework of reactive attitudes is an evolutionary winner, a framework without which human society in anything like this form couldn’t exist, might not work as it’s meant to. So what, the person might ask? If society depends on this unjustified system of reactive attitudes and demands, then so much the worse for society. It’s not clear that instrumentalism fills in the gaps adequately here.

    I’m not claiming that I share this dismal view, or that that I find it especially convincing. All the same, Jerry seems to me to be surprisingly quick about things here. (Perhaps he says more later?)

    David Wiggins has a brilliant discussion of issues in this area here. I guess Jerry would endorse Wiggins’s Humean strategy; I don’t have the paper with me at the moment, but that strategy, as I dimly remember, appeals to the idea that even those who wish to reject morality (and, we can add, the framework of reactive attitudes) wholesale will have a kind of fundamental social urge, an urge to find a common point of view with others–which presumably involves the kind of web of attitudes that they supposedly reject. I’m not sure what Wiggins says about people who don’t have this urge: probably that it’s not clear that we should be worried about them, because their worries don’t engage with what we recognise as human concerns at all. That sounds in keeping with what Jerry says here.

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