Tag Archives: Gerald Gaus

Inaugural Conference, Centre for PPE, University of Groningen

Dear Colleagues,

The new Centre for Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Groningen is hosting its inaugural conference on Sept 28-29, 2017.

Keynote speakers are Simon Caney (Warwick), Nancy Cartwright (Durham/UCSD), Gerald Gaus (Arizona), and Catherine de Vries (Essex).

For more information, please go to

To register, please send an email to groningenppe@gmail.com

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Vallier Reading Group: Chapter 4

Summary of chapter 4

The goal of chapters 3 and 4 is to explain that the “Public Justification Principle” (PJP) does not entail the ‘principle of restraint.’ This involves showing that there is no necessary relation between the PJP and an ‘accessibility’ or ‘shareability’ requirement on justificatory reasons. Chapter 3 identifies two desiderata for evaluating different conceptions of justificatory reasons: (1) respect for personal integrity, and (2) respect for the fact of reasonable pluralism. Chapter 4 argues that the convergence account of public reason, which does not include the principle of restraint, fulfills these desiderata more successfully than rival consensus accounts. read more...

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OPR VI.17. Arguments from Abtraction and the Claims of Agency

Summary of OPR.VI.17

Chapter VI begins by reminding us of an important conclusion from the previous chapter, namely, that the Members of the Public (MoP) will be confronted with a large set of rules of social morality, and that with respect to these rules, the MoP (as a group) is indifferent (they prefer any member of the set to no rule at all, but do not converge on any particular member of that set).

The goal of this chapter is to advance to two partial solutions to this ‘problem of indeterminacy.’  They both concern individual rights, specifically, those rights commonly known (from Benjamin Constant’s famous essay) as the ‘liberty of the moderns.’  These solutions are only ‘partial’ because they serve only to narrow somewhat the set of eligible rules of social morality, but do not pick out any particular rules.

Section 17 presents the first of these two partial solutions.  In this section, drawing on the work of Benn, Gewirth, and Rawls, Gaus employs an ‘argument from abstraction’ to show that all reasonable Members of the Public would be committed to endorsing, at least in an abstract form, certain fundamental individual rights (the ‘liberty of the moderns’), as such rights are essential for effective agency.

Gaus begins the section by reminding us of the ‘Kantian-Rawlsian two-step procedure’ for arriving at justified principles under circumstances of reasonable pluralism (diversity of ends and values among the reasonable MoP). Roughly, this procedure involves ‘bracketing’ our disagreements, adopting a shared perspective, and reasoning on the basis of this shared perspective (the perspective of pure practical reason for Kant, the perspective of the original position for Rawls).

Gaus advances his own ‘argument from abstraction’ in this section in order to show that the MoP would support certain individual rights for all persons.  However, specific interpretations of individual rights, that is, specific rules, acceptable to all MoP in accordance with the ‘deliberative model,’ will need to be formulated at a later stage.  Nonetheless, showing that all reasonable MoP endorse such rights can serve to narrow the set of eligible rules of social morality (rules that deny such rights to some persons or deny them altogether are ruled out).

Gaus claims that the success of any argument from abstraction (whether Rawls’s original position argument, or the argument that Gaus advances in this section) depends on three claims:(a) the successful identification of a shared perspective (the original position for Rawls; the perspective of abstract agency for Gaus); () the importance or weightiness of the evaluative standards identified by the shared perspective (why the conclusions of the shared perspective should be taken seriously by the MoP for the purposes of evaluating rules of social morality); and (c) the ability of the conclusions generated via the shared perspective to survive the return of the Members of the Public to their ‘full set of evaluative standards’ (i.e., the ability of the conclusions of ‘pro tanto justification’ to survive ‘full justification’).

Gaus asserts that it was a concern with (c), the compatibility of the conclusions of the shared perspective (the conception of ‘justice as fairness’ endorsed by the parties in the original position) with reasonable persons’ various ‘comprehensive doctrines,’ that prompted Rawls’s move to political liberalism.  Rawls’s commitment to the original position device as the appropriate perspective for ascertaining principles of political justice remains constant from A Theory of Justice to Political Liberalism (p. 336).  As we’ll see, Gaus thinks that while the first principle of justice as fairness (the basic liberties principle), or some version of it, survives (c), the difference principle cannot.

The “second abstraction characteristic of Rawls’s original position,” Gaus explains, is that it focuses on the justification of abstract principles rather than rules.  Gaus restates his claim (from 14.3) that “principles are too vague and too subjective to interpretive controversy to provide an effective framework for cooperation” (p. 337).  Nonetheless, identifying principles shared by the MoP can be useful, since such stably shared principles would at least eliminate many proposed rules for social morality.

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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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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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