Tag Archives: Gerald Gaus

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).

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OPR III.8: Deontic Reasoning

Society depends upon rules—we cannot live together successfully without some shared set of social rules. But what exactly is a rule, and how do people act upon them?Quoting Gaus, “Rules…identify certain general characteristics or properties, and issue directives for actions with these properties. A fully specified social rule identifies (i) a set of persons to whom the prescription is addressed, (ii) a property of actions, (iii) a deontic operator such that actions with that property may, must, or must not be performed and (iv) a statement of the conditions under which the connection between (ii) and (iii) is relevant.” (123)

To illustrate the import of (iv), Gaus brings up two different rules:

1.     In our school, you will not speak without first raising your hand and being called upon.

2.     In our school, you will not pull another student’s hair.

Gaus says that psychological studies indicate that though the surface grammar of these rules is the same, children understand them differently. They understand 1 as merely a conventional rule, which may or may not hold in other schools or other places. Though 2 also begins with “In our school”, they understand 2 as a moral rule, which applies in all places. So they see factor (iv)—the conditions under which the property and deontic operator are relevant—as different between these two rules.

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OPR, Ch. 3.7: The Evolution of Rule-Following Punishers

Social cooperation is good—we do better with it than without. But social cooperation depends upon trust—we need to be able to count on others being cooperative and disinclined to cheat, break the rules, take advantage of us, and so on. In the kinds of game-theoretic situations that best model society, cooperation and conformity to useful social rules will form a stable equilibrium provided people possess a strong enough conditional preference for following such rules, i.e., provided they prefer to cooperate with cooperators for its own sake, and provided they prefer for its own sake to follow rules when others follow rules.

Gaus asks, “But how could rational individuals develop an independent ‘preference’ or reason to follow a rule?” (103)  He claims to have shown that individual cannot reason themselves into being devoted to such rules, because such devotion might cause them to follow rules even when doing so does not best promote their values. (I am not convinced by Gaus’s arguments; I’ll say more on this below).  We could just posit that people have a preference for following generally-followed rules, but this is unsatisfying, even if it turns out to be true. (Cf: Some economists explain voter turnout—which seems irrational—by positing that voters just have a preference for voting, much like some people have a preference for playing golf. This is unsatisfying, even if true.)  The preference for conditional rule-following is widespread, so a satisfying account would explain why this is so, rather than leave this as a happy accident of human psychology. To explain this preference, Gaus turns to sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and related fields.

People do not simply have a preference to cooperate and follow generally-followed social rules. They also have a preference for punishing defectors, even at their personal expense. For an instance, consider the ultimatum game (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimatum_game). If the second player in the ultimatum game had entirely non-tuistic preferences and were indifferent to social rules, we’d expect her to accept whatever money she gets. But, in fact, the second player tends to reject low offers from the first player, thus losing a potential monetary gain. One common explanation for this behavior, and similar behaviors in related games, is that players prefer to punish bad behavior from other players, even at personal expense. (Some economists might be inclined to say that if a player prefers to punish defectors, then by definition punishing defectors is part of that player’s self-interest. I am assuming everyone here understands why that’s a mistake.) When Gaus turns to evolution to explain our preferences for cooperation, he will also explain why the preference to punish is widespread.

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