OPR V.14 Part 3: Resentment / Indignation vs. Authority

I summarized Section 14 in a separate post; here I want to raise a question about the reactive attitudes and authority claims that Gaus argues are essential parts of our ordinary moral practices. For the purposes of this post, I want to accept Gaus’s claim that recognition of sincere and conscientious disagreement has to undermine feelings of resentment and indignation at rule-violations. The question I want to ask is why in identifying the rules of social morality we must assent only to those rules that all members of the partly idealized public have sufficient reason to accept.

A rule that fails to meet this standard will be one that will not support the normal reactive attitudes with respect to all normal moral agents. But so what? Why is it crucial that all normal moral agents be subject to resentment and indignation for rule violations, to the point that it would be preferable not to have a rule at all, than to have a rule that (in virtue of being reasonably rejectable) would fail to license reactive attitudes with respect to even just one normal moral agent? Gaus’s answer, I think, is that our moral practices include not only reactive attitudes such as resentment and indignation, but prescriptions that claim to be authoritative. We express resentment and indignation as a prelude to issuing imperatives. But if someone doesn’t have sufficient reasons to endorse a rule, it would be wrong for us to order them to comply with it, which means that the rule would effectively not apply to them. But then we would not have a common set of rules of social morality; instead, we would have a parcellized set of rules covering the various overlapping bits of conflicting evaluative perspectives. Morality would not fulfill its function.

If this is the argument, I have two doubts. The first is that I’m still not clear that moral practices involve claims to authority, in the specific sense of authority of one person over another, authority to command compliance in face of disagreement, e.g. “Even though you don’t think you should ?, you should still ? simply because I am ordering you to ?.” Moral practice clearly involves expression of reactive attitudes and claims that others should respect the authority of morality, but these claims may simply be epistemic claims about what is right, rather than claims that others should defer to our judgment about what is right.

The second doubt is about whether the BPPJ vindicates such authority claims, assuming they are part of ordinary moral life. The problem is that the BPPJ does not require actual acceptance but only idealized acceptability, and in the last instance it is my judgment about what reasons others have that determines whether I can make moral demands of others. Gaus makes this point clear in his response to Wall in 12.4, on 225-6. Starting from one’s own concepts and commitments (paraphrasing), one sees that one can advance authoritative prescriptions for others only if they have certain capacities (principle of minimal autonomy) and reasons (principle of moral autonomy). Because of the principle of moral autonomy, there can be no authoritative prescriptions without an interpersonally justified social morality. However, it is my point of view that commits me to such a morality, and my own point of view that requires me to provide others justifications that are accessible to them given the reasons they have.

“Now in the end, of course, this must be based on deliberations from one’s first-person perspective about what reasons another has… this modeling of others must remain her own model of them… In the end, each person must, on the basis of her own reasons, judge whether her authority claims and reactive attitudes conform to the Principle of Moral Autonomy. Because of this, a person’s standard T of what constitutes a good reason R for others need not itself be verified by the reasoning of others” (226)

Thus at the end of the day, even if we accept the BPPJ, we will make demands on each other on the basis of rules that not everyone in fact accepts. Although everyone in fact has reasons for accepting the rule, I think, you do not actually accept the rule, and yet still I insist “?! (because we are in C, L applies in C, and L requires ?).” Gaus argues that such demands are legitimate so long as we can claim that others’ reasons do in fact support L and ?

“When another demands that you comply with a rule, she is demanding that you do what you have sufficient reasons to do; she is appealing to your rational nature, not demanding that you put it aside. She must be saying: ‘You have reasons to comply that you are ignoring. My demand is not simply a demand that you live as I see fit, but as you would see fit if you adequately employed your reason'” (263).

Yet suppose I just don’t see that I have reasons for endorsing L. What am I to make of her demand? I understand that she thinks that L is truly valid, and applies in C, and requires ?, and I have heard her reasons for thinking so, but, having deliberated about the issue for some time, I still think she is mistaken (as she thinks of me). Can she still demand of me that I ?? What does this demand amount to, if it is not en epistemic claim nor simply a threat? Why should I consider myself obligated to go against what my judgment tells me is right, simply because she has reached a different judgment? In specific instances there might be an answer to this question. She might say “you’re forgetting that I have special experience in this area that you lack, which gives you reason to defer to my judgment, given our need to have common rules and our inability to agree.” But unless she can make some such claim, the problem of moral authority persists, it seems to me. Of course the situation would be different if she could point to a law requiring ?, a law enacted according to legitimate procedures, because it is the point of law to require obedience despite disagreement. But that is political authority, and in this stage of the book we are only talking about moral authority, I think.

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