Topical duties and the force of reasons

Over at Siris (a great blog), Brandon has a nice post on Ross’s “prime facie” duties. I’ve been thinking about Rossian pluralism for the last little while, so it caught my attention. I agree with much of the post, but also think I have a minor philosophical (not scholarly) quarrel with it. I confess it is a little nitpicky — to the point where I would ordinarily have just posted it over there in the form of a question. However, I can’t comment over there without using Discus, and Discus is either incompatible with Firefox or is otherwise cranky, so I’ll have to post my thoughts here. I’m sorry / you’re welcome.

For the sake of context, here is a brief summary of the post. Broadly speaking, Brandon’s argument seems to have three aims. First, he offers a few observations about the inadequacies of the label of “prime facie” duty, suggesting that we are better-off calling these topical duties (deontic topoi). Second, he suggests that the character of the duties are best understood as the kinds of reasons that are relevant when we assume responsibility over actions and situations. And, third, he suggests that the nature of the inter-relations of the duties is best understood when viewed in the context of the humanitarian tradition, concerned with medicine, apparently as opposed to (e.g.) law.

I agree with his first point entirely, and I love the second point. I am inclined to disagree with the third point, because it seems to me that privileging one relevant responsibility-bearing context over another might lead us to miss out on the most promising features of Ross’s contextual pluralism. But I will the main issues aside. My concern for the moment is with a footnoted remark he makes related to the second thesis, where he explores the relationship between topical duties and reasons.

Before I make a deep dive into the discussion, I will interpret the Latin qualifiers in the following way. ‘Prime facie‘ (preferred spelling, sorry) means ‘on the face of it’, ‘pro tanto‘ means ‘minimally good’, and ‘prime ultima‘ means ‘peremptory’ or ‘decisive’.

Here is the footnote (reposted in its entirety to give you a sense of its context, bolding added):

People have argued that Ross should have used ‘pro tanto‘ rather than ‘prima facie‘, but I don’t think this is any sort of improvement. ‘Prima facie duties’ at least has the merit of suggesting that they are not necessarily duties, which thus far is at least not wrong; ‘pro tanto duties’ suggests that they are partial duties, which is certainly not right. Nor does it help to switch to ‘pro tanto reasons’, because (while they would certainly be more accurately called ‘reasons’ than ‘duties’), they are not ‘pro tanto‘ as reasons; they are just reasons. At least, if we call them ‘pro tanto‘ they aren’t so in any sense that they don’t share with most of the things we call ‘reasons’.

Here is how I understand what is happening in this paragraph. In the unbolded passage, Brandon considers the possibility that we should examine topical duties in terms of pro tanto duties, and then dismisses that possibility as untenable. Which is fair enough; after all, in some contexts, some topical duties (e.g., gratitude) are just not relevant to the moral features of the situation. Then, in the bolded passage, he considers the possibility that topical duties are pro tanto reasons, and dismisses that claim. Which is almost fine — since, like him, I doubt that topical duties are themselves minimally good (pro tanto) reasons for action. To be very clear, I essentially agree with both claims. Ross’s topical duties are not straightforwardly described as pro tanto reasons, nor can they be understood as pro tanto duties.

What I am concerned with is the reason he uses to dismiss the ‘pro tanto reasons’ reading — he claims that topical duties “are not ‘pro tanto’ as reasons; they are just reasons“. I am not sure what this amounts to. In particular, I am concerned with the contrast between minimally good (pro tanto) reasons and reasons as such. It is natural, as either a reading or a misreading, to think that this passage is telling us that there is no reason to believe that topical duties provide minimally good reasons for action, in any sense that does not apply to all talk to reasons. That is to say, all reasons are minimally good reasons, in some sense, so adding ‘pro tanto’ in front of the name is not any help. Hopefully that is an accurate characterization of what Brandon had in mind, here. Anyway, let’s assume it is. Is it true?

I think not. While it is true that all reasons are presented under the guise of being good reasons, that does not imply that all reasons are in fact minimally good, in any sense that is usually at issue in reasons-talk in ethical contexts. For some reasons only seem to be good, but dissolve under scrutiny, as the weight against them overwhelms (or subverts!) their initial, first-blush appeal. Those, and only those, are worth being called prime facie reasons or duties.

So, for an example of a prime facie reason, take Hume’s obtuse rational man, who says “Let the whole world burn, for the sake of a scratch of my finger”. The reason to avoid a finger-prick is presented as good, and intelligible enough to understand Hume’s point, but it is not minimally good. For, as I see it, when presented out of context, “scratching my finger” is bad, and so avoiding that is a minimally good reason for me to act in a certain way. But when that same event is presented in the context of saving the world, it is not a minimally good reason. For persons of conscience, there is no rational contest, no agonizing over the relative weight of mid-level principles, where ‘avoid pricking your finger’ plays the role of a defeated contestant. In that context, it is mere ephemera. We call it a reason for action only because we want to understand the obtuse rational man’s claim, which includes understanding what is wrong with it.

I suggest that this Humean example is only a prime facie reason; I do not suggest it is a prime facie duty. My aim here has only been to offer reason to doubt that most of our talk about reasons are also about pro tanto reasons.

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