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.

Where does moral responsibility come from?

I am uncomfortable with the idea of moral responsibility. Not because I deny there is such a thing, or because I don’t know what it entails, but because I’m not sure where it comes from.

We might want to say that moral responsibility emerges naturally from the facts, and is not dependent upon our other moral convictions. So, moral responsibility is a kind of gloss on causal responsibility, which can itself be read off of the world, and which subsequently forms an indispensable part of a complete moral theory. If that were the case, we should expect non-confused convictions about the nature of responsibility to be relatively insensitive to the contents of normative moral doctrines. Evidence of its truth might be the fact (if it is a fact) that people really do think that responsibility has some important connection to agency, consciousness, and control.

Lately I have been teasing myself with another idea. Maybe the idea of moral responsibility plays no antecedent part in a moral theory at all — perhaps it is the output of such theories in practical application. If that were the case, we should expect our non-confused convictions about the nature of responsibility to be very sensitive to the contents of theory. Evidence of its truth might be the fact that utilitarians endorse a theory of responsibility that will be wildly at odds with a Williamsian theory of responsibility.

I suppose that another possibility is that the notion of responsibility is just a convention which contingently functions as an input to our moral theories, and which itself has no moral significance. That is a confused relativistic position that I find upsetting, but I suppose it’s possible.

On the idea that normative reasons are indistinguishable from their force

I think that the following claims have no practical normative force. i.e., regardless of the form of normative discourse (legal, moral, etc.) we have in mind, each of these claims are either paradoxical, or guilty of equivocation because their truth is strictly irrelevant to the project of guiding the actions of persons.

a) “The asylum inmate is responsible for what he did.”
b) “My personal reasons for acting are never minimally good reasons for action.”
c) “There is a pretty useful short-cut, but you should ignore it if you’re trying to get there quickest.”
d) “You shouldn’t put anti-septic on your wound, just because that feels bad.”
e) “The doctor probably knows what’s best for me, but that’s no reason at all to follow their advice.”
f) “The fact that state terrorism is a horrible thing has no bearing on whether or not we ought to endorse it.”
g) “There is never any difference between blameworthiness and responsibility.”

Notably, none of these claims are absurd — that is, none of them are straightforwardly incoherent or nonsensical. Rather, it seems to me that they are only false or irrelevant on reflection.

Of course, they are problematic in their own ways: on my reading, (a) denies that practical responsibility involves epistemic responsibility, (b) alienates the agent from their own rational agency, (c) is imprudent, (d) confuses feelings for reasons, (e) is mindlessly anti-deferential, (f) takes an oddly ironic stance towards what matters, and (g) fails to recognize that individual capacities for practical action are almost never at their peak. They are all false, or fallacious, by some standard or other. Hence, they lack normative force.

That said. It seems reasonable to expect that for more of these defects that a claim about practical action has, the more it will seem absurd or internally incoherent. i.e., like contradictions. And if that were the case, then it should tell us something about how the truth-conditions of practical normative claims have an important connection to their reason-giving force. That, in other words, the semantics of a claim is intimately connected with its practical effects.

I put this forward as a line of inquiry, a speculation. Whether it is true or not will have to wait for another occasion.

Sophiboles: or, cases of cooperative misleading

I am still thinking about misleading and truth from an interesting and thought-provoking talk by Jennifer Saul last week. Many of my intuitions have gained form and structure from her presentation. In it, she argued that misleading and lying are not (all other things equal) morally different. Importantly, Saul suggested that misleading can be different than lying in one special subset of cases — effectively, in those contexts where the listener can be reasonably expected to have special duties to scrutinize the testimony before them, owing to the adversariality of the context and the capacity of the listener to engage in critical inquiry.

I have long had reservations about academics and the subject of truth-telling. So, here’s an essay from 2006: (…/who-needs-sophistry-…/) In it, I argued that the public assertion of certain kinds of exaggeration are sometimes both faultless and laudable. Over the past decade I have had plenty of occasion to have that thesis challenged, but am generally unpersuaded by those challenges.

In that essay I argue that philosophers and scientists frequently engage in a kind of wise exaggeration, which I have mentally given the label of “sophiboles”. That is, we faultlessly assert things in a black-and-white bivalent fashion, when the closest justified belief is much more complex. Example. According to his critics, Galileo was guilty of asserting a sophibole when he decided to cast aside fictionalist and probabilist readings of the evidence; and for what it’s worth, I’m inclined to say that he is guilty of doing right. (Anyway, this is my simplistic conception of the history, and reminds me I really ought to read Alice’s Dreger’s 2015 book, “Galileo’s Middle Finger”. But for now it’ll suffice as a toy case.)

Are sophiboles cases of misleading? Much depends on how you define “misleading”. To me, “misleading” involves distracting someone away from apprehending a true proposition that is worth caring about in a conversational context, and hence to cue belief in a falsehood, or distract away from a truth, without explicitly thereby asserting a falsehood. (It is hard not to include reference to what conversation partners care about if we are to assess them in terms of the cooperative maxims.)

Unlike most cases of misleading, sophiboles are constructively focusing our attention upon *true* beliefs worth caring about, and are not directed towards the malicious creation of false beliefs. e.g., for Galileo, the truth of the theory of heliocentrism as a model of the solar system; it is not to inculcate a false belief in the solar system. Suffice it to say, Galileo did not lie in any of this; he did not assert a falsehood. Moreover, his intention was to lead us to a truth about the world, not to lead us to a falsehood.

But that will not save his sophibole from being a case of misleading, since people in a cooperative conversation can be concerned with different things, and they can disagree about the truths worth caring about in such contexts, so long as those cross-purposes are jointly acknowledged. So, the Church — wanting Galileo to tone down his rhetoric — encouraged him to adopt a probabilist or fictionalist vernacular. Those little qualifiers (i.e., “In all probability, p…”) mattered to them. For them, Galileo was attempting to mislead away from the epistemic, or second-order, status of his claims. Galileo’s actual heliocentric claims were true, but (according to his critics) the realist statement of his claims misled people from the form of justification, and in that sense were distracting people away from an important truth about the limits of our knowledge. Galileo was misleading about something worth caring about.

To be sure, Galileo’s highly politicized insistence on realist rhetoric soon evoked an adversarial context. And, FWIW, I would even argue that he was right to be adversarial, because while neither departed from intellectual good faith, it is the case that the Church’s epistemic concerns are not so much worth caring about as the realist ones are. (There’s that famous middle finger of his.)

But that’s a historical contingency. My point is that we should be able to see the two parties continuing to accuse each other of misleading even if they had been able to maintain a cooperative dialogue. And so misleading, at least in the form of sophiboles, is generally not so bad as lying.

The conditions for moral objectivity

If there are genuine moral truths, then they are objective truths. But this is not very interesting, because all it amounts to saying is that there is an appropriate moral authority out there who says this thing that must be done.

The harder question is what to say about the rational constraints that produce the authority in the first place. Are these king-making features that ground moral authority “objective”?

Well… sort of. The funny thing about moral authority is that it gets lost when it stops being worthwhile. This is in apparent contrast to legal authority, which arguably continues onward beyond the point where it has stopped being worthwhile. Still, these are matters of degree, not of kind — morality is relatively more sensitive to the idea of worthiness than law, but both do care.

So the right thing to do is to ask, not whether or not the claims are true or false, but instead: when is the authority *earned*? Some practices will be geared towards the achievement of goals (“technology-like”), others will be more geared towards maintaining expectations (“convention-like”), and some are geared towards the expression of lived experience (“art-like”). Morality qua morality is a kind of social technology, whose central point is to get things done by telling us who has the best advice on how to get on with things. In contrast, law qua law is a set of conventional verdicts, whose central point is to keep things going as they’ve been going.

If moral authority were earned only as a means towards the expression of lived experience, then the grounds of moral authority would turn out to be subjective, in the relevant sense. In those conditions, some kind of error theory would be best to hold. But I am inclined to believe that error theory is a mistake, so I won’t be saying that.

“Ought implies can, if ought implies must”

Here is an argument. If ought implies can, then cannot implies not ought. Not ought implies either permission or ought not. But permission implies can, since one cannot permit what is impossible. So cannot implies ought not. If can is a descriptive term, then this shows how to derive an ought from an is.

[Update from August 21]

Wesley Buckwalter brought it to my attention that, actually, very few subjects will agree that moral ought implies moral can. This appears to be reason to dispute the argument above.

I think part of my conviction that ‘ought implies can’ has been undermined in part because there is an ambiguity to the word ‘ought’. It seems to me that ‘ought’ implies either ‘should’ or ‘must’. While ‘should’ only implies ‘sometimes can’, ‘must’ implies ‘can’ in some broader sense. And the moralist tends to be more interested in imperative-like statements (e.g., musts over shoulds).

The advice model of moral truth and meaning

I recently wrote the first (and, given the lack of interest, the only) instalment of a children’s story. The tale is meant to illustrate some basic ideas in meta-ethical theory in a fun and accessible way. However, on the face of it, I only make allusions to meta-ethics, and don’t really get explicit about what model of meta-ethical theory I am advocating.

But if you’re not satisfied by mere allusions, you can always hover over the images in the story. In this way, you get a few more details on what theories are being illustrated. Here (with some editing for clarity) is what it says, along with some references to who I’m drawing on. I’m advocating what you might think of as an ‘advice model’ of moral semantics and truth.

1. Cognitivism, not emotivism.The meaning of a moral sentence, like “Stealing is wrong”, is not as obvious as it looks on first glance. Let’s assume that some moral sentences are true, and hence that ‘error theory’ is wrong. What is it that makes them so?2. Existentialism, not realism. There are no spooky moral properties in the world. Hence, moral sentences do not directly refer.
3. Deference, not reference. It is plausible to believe that moral sentences are true or false depending on whether they are spoken with the right authority. Moral sentences are true or false depending upon whether or not the sentences felicitously defer to a moral authority.  [The irreducible sense of authority attached to moral claims is something I learned from H. Sidgwick’s Method of Ethics, though come to think of it, it probably owes more to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.]
4. Epistemically objective, not subjective. However, it is not always obvious who that authority might be. In case of uncertainty, we might be tempted to say that a moral sentence is true just in case it is uttered by an authority who is giving good advice. The authority of the speaker is determined, in part, by whether or not we have a justified sense that the authority making the claim knows that the advice shall lead to good consequences.  
5. The problem of egoism. But even if moral sentences were about giving good advice to achieve the best outcomes, it isn’t obvious what outcomes count as good ones. For example, a thief can always claim that the maxim, “Stealing is wrong”, does not lead to good consequences for him.  [The argument of the moral knave, of course, belongs to D. Hume.]
6. Grounded in orientation, not psychology. It is obvious that the victims of stealing are the ones who are suffering the consequences. The question is, how can you convince the thief that the suffering of his victims should be a reason not to steal? The answer, I think, is just that moral advice is addressed to a certain kind of audience: namely, people who have a pro-social orientation towards others. Anyone who lacks a pro-social orientation will not have the ability to understand what is said in a moral claim. And at this point, the thief faces a dilemma. If he thinks the moral claim is true, then you might say one of two things to him. a) On the one hand, you might say that the thief implicitly recognizes that the moral claim entails that there is a reason for action. b) And if he persists in recognizing that the moral claim is correct, but disagrees that this entails he has a reason for action, then you might use that as grounds to say that he is unable to understand the point of the moral claim after all. [The use of ‘orientation’ as a technical term is borrowed from R. Geuss, though I don’t know that ‘orientation’ has ever been used as a sui generis category used to block a reduction to beliefs and desires.]
7. Generated by psychology: desire. Admittedly, the connection between morality and the motivations of pro-social people is still pretty obscure. Even if everybody agrees that genuine moral claims provide a reason for action for pro-social people, that says almost nothing about what it takes for moral claims to be effective in bringing about an actual intention to act. If moral claims nominally provide a reason for action, but rarely or ever compel actions among pro-social people, then we might have reason to question whether they provide a reason after all. We need, in other words, to acknowledge the role of sentiments.
8. Generated by psychology: reasons. The role of the sentiments should not be overstated. For while all must agree that reasons aren’t sufficient to bring about intentions to act in pro-social people, sentiments aren’t sufficient to explain the distinctively sane and practical quality of moral claims. If the only thing behind moral claims were expressions of ‘boo’ and ‘hooray’, then you couldn’t make arguments which appeal to evidence, or have rational conversations about what ought to be done. But that is clearly false: not all moral blame is piacular. [The non-cognitive position of ’emotivism’ probably owes the most to the formulation given by A.J. Ayer.
9. So neither reasons nor passions are individually sufficient to account for the distinctiveness of moral claims, and their efficacy in producing intentions to act. However, they may be jointly sufficient. (Some may argue that reason or passion necessarily precedes the other; but, it is more likely that they are mutually supporting. If desires produce an intention to act, we call it eudaimonia; and if the desire coming after the action, then we call it eleutheronomia.) [The division between those forms of moral cognition owes to I. Kant, though I have modified the categories for my own purposes.]
10. Prerequisite of authority. What makes moral claims true or false, we remember, is the degree to which we think they are trustworthy, conferred by the right kind of authority. And when people base their advice on little more than intuition or feeling, untempered by deliberation, we all have a basic sense that this advice is not to be trusted if there are alternatives. The reason it cannot be trusted is that the authority has no integrity; and if they lack integrity, then all other things equal, you don’t have a reason for believing what they say. [The importance of integrity was a trenchant theme in the work of B. Williams]
11. Requirements of integrity. Integrity implies two things. First, it implies that the advice given or accepted has been, in some sense, voluntarily adopted — that it is not enacted by rote. Second, integrity implies sincerity; and sincerity implies non-arbitrariness in one’s convictions. By improving the coherence of your beliefs, you become more distinctive as a person, and any moral claims that you assert begin to take on a veneer of plausibility.  [The idea of wholeheartedness owes to H. Frankfurt.]
12. One of the potential downsides of looking at moral claims as advice is that it raises a difficult question: “Who can you trust, and when?” We can gesture towards a few characteristics, like “reasonable” or “social”, but it seems as though it is a fact of the matter that people tend to trust their familiars and close associates more than they trust strangers. And if that is true, then it is very hard to see morality is the sort of thing that could apply between strangers. This is a genuine dilemma, since it cannot be taken as an item of faith that the human race shall continue along the track to have a heightened sense of maturity and enlarged sympathies.  [J.S. Mill, in Utilitarianism, articulated a kind of optimism about the moral capacity that I’m skeptical of in this passage.]

Morality — whether you want it or not

Originally published at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog.

Abstract. There are some good reasons for us to use the concept of “moral realism”, in the following sense: moral realism asks us to think of morality as independent of the will. It entails moral optimism — that all other things equal, the interests of the right will triumph. Moreover, it suggests that some interests are objective because we didn’t choose them. If moral claims are “real”, it’s because they have a force whether we want them or not. Yet if moral regularities are “real”, it is because it derives from instincts (sympathy and resentment) that are independent of the will. And, perhaps, instinctive sympathy and resentment are more important than the other parts of our psychology. If so, then moral realism is defensible because moral norms hold (for morally competent observers) whether we want them or not.

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