Author Archives: John Thrasher

OPR VI.18 Jurisdictional Rights

At the end of Chapter 17 we saw that the argument from abstraction cannot provide the determinate moral rules that are needed for social coordination.  Members of the public are left with a set of optimal eligible interpretations of the abstract rights presented in Chapter 17.  In Chapter 18 we see how that set can be further narrowed.

Gaus begins with a discussion of the function of rights and an attack on the common taxonomy of choice vs. interest theories of rights.  Rather than give a theory of the necessary conditions of something being a right, Gaus is concerned with what he calls the jurisdictional function of rights.  Gaus’ concern with rights is practical; he is concerned with what rights do, not with giving a theory that specifies the necessary and sufficient conditions of rights.

In so many places in OPR, we have seen Gaus put aside the traditional metaphysical and epistemological concerns with reasons, morality, and responsibility to focus on the practical problems that arise from an attempt to make sense of individual reason and social morality.  The distinctiveness of Baier-Strawson view (which should really be just called the Gaus view) is primarily this focus on the essentially practical nature of the philosophical enterprise.

Gaus sees rights as a solution to the practical problem of the incommensurability of values.  How is it possible to find a collective choice or social agreement between persons when their fundamental values so often conflict?  In the last section we saw that one solution may be to abstract or idealize to find out what common standards we share, but as we have seen, this solution only has limited usefulness.  Another solution is to “partition the moral space” (372) so that each individual is the rightful decision maker in his or her own defined sphere.  In effect, why not privatize social morality in a publicly justified way so that not all value questions are open to social choice?  In each individual’s sphere, they are sovereign and others may not  override their decisions.

The contrast to what might be called the devolution of moral authority is what Gaus calls the centralizing response.  The centralizing response hold that when faced with evaluative diversity, the proper response is look to commonalities in values to try to regulate and organize social morality with an overarching standard.  The problem with this solution to the problem of diversity is that, as we saw in the last section, it is indeterminate.  In contrast, by devolving moral authority each individual has a determinate authority over a determinate sphere.  This solves the problem of seeking a common standard for the basis of public moral authority by relocating that authority in the rules of devolution rather than in the substantive claims of public moral authority itself.

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OPR IV.13 The Reasons One Has (Part 2)

As we saw on Monday, Gaus believes that the externalist view of having a reason carries with it serious problems.  Furthermore, the attempt to decrease the diversity of reasons that one has through idealization is beset by the twin problems of indeterminacy and path-dependence. Even with radical idealization of our cognitive faculties, we would still not necessarily, or even likely, end up sharing all of our reasons.  This leads Gaus to give up on the idea of full rationality as a possibility.

Once we give up on the idea of full rationality, we are led, Gaus argues, to theorize from the point of view of what John Pollock called real rationality.  Pollock distinguishes, helpfully, between justified and warranted choices.  Justified choices are the products of epistemically valid procedures of reasoning; warranted choices are the product of all possible relevant reasoning.  Gaus argues “in a world of less than perfect information and cognitive capacities, we need some concept to indicate when a person’s reasoning about the world is up to acceptable standards and when it is not.” (247)

This conception of justification cannot be equated with truth, however.  The fact that there is a reason does not necessarily mean that anyone actual person will necessarily be justified in acting on that reason.  One can be justified in having a reason, but what ultimately matters in terms of interpersonal justification is whether or not that reason is warranted.  One can be reasonably said to have a reason, however, if they do not have any defeaters that are accessible to them.  This standard is importantly not that there are no defeaters, there may be, but they are not accessible to a person that has done a reasonable amount of reflection and investigation.  Gaus argues that “the reasons you have must be accessible to you, and as a real rational agent in a world in which cognitive activity has significant costs, rationality does not demand one keep on with the quest to discover less and less accessible reasons.”  (253)

What counts as a respectable amount of deliberation is often vague and will vary with context.  Gaus compares what counts as a respectable amount of deliberation in a physics seminar to what counts for a baseball umpire.  Baseball umpires need to make calls quickly and, hence, deliberation must be very quick, understanding that there will be a certain amount of error.  Not so in a physics seminar.

Morality, after all, is not meant to be the esoteric doctrine of the epistemic elite.  We expect normal adults to be able to grasp and follow the rules of social morality.  Gaus claims that “normal moral agents have accessible undefeated reasons to affirm” the rules of social morality. (255) The idea that normal adults should be able to recognize their moral reasons sets a maximum limit on the epistemic demands of normal moral reasoning. But, we must be careful not to set the bar too low.  People do wrong and we often think it is because they did not take sufficient care or deliberation before they acted.  The thing to do is not always glaringly obvious.  After all, our conceptions of social morality are not static, we genuinely learn both from our own actions and from what others tell us.  The possibility of moral change, both progressive and regressive, occurs because finding out what reasons we have is often a social and collaborative venture.

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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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