The de se route to justifying prime face claims

There is quite a lot of utility in distinguishing prime facie and pro tanto reasons for action. It sure seems to many of us that philosophical or meta-ethical good sense to articulate ethical claims (including, come to that, duties) in terms of reasons. But if that’s true, then at least on face value, it would seem natural to also suppose that the magnitude of a claim (or duty) should track the magnitude of a reason, all other things equal.

So, for example, there is just plumb good sense in understanding minimally good reasons for action as ones that have “squatter’s rights” (to borrow a phrase from Graham & Horgan, itself borrowed from Owen Flanagan). The idea here is that a normative “stickiness” is intrinsic to pro tanto claims, and such claims have a default hold upon us that has to be positively displaced by another claim before it can be dismissed or outweighed. This property is somehow lacking for prime facie ethical claims — or, anyway, those prime facie claims that are not also pro tanto ones. For instance, ‘gratitude’ does not readily apply at all to the strict interpretation of the trolley problem, so it can’t be said to have a normative ‘stickiness’ in that context. It does not have squatter’s rights, since it is not even squatting.

When thinking about what it is that the prime facie ethical claims are lacking, my first temptation is to assimilate the idea of apparent (prime facie) reasons for action to de se reasons, i.e., the sort that are entertained in rational, relativistic judgments. For there are such things as relativistic rational judgments (e.g., in art). Hence, apparently, Youtube McCray’s opinion that The Last Jedi is a bad film may be reason for McCray to boycott it. It just isn’t a proper reason to boycott it (de re), because it does not direct my action in the slightest. It is just a reason-for-McCray (de se).* The upshot of this analysis is that merely apparent reasons for action are minimally good reasons for you, but not minimally good for everyone else (pro tanto & de se == prime facie & de re).

Does it work? Well, it seems like a viable characterization of our duties of self-improvement, which are certainly part of the Big Seven Topics that Ross cared about. As I mentioned previously, this was a major point of contention for Ross in his description of his project. So there is a useful sense in talking about merely apparent reasons in ordinary talk, if only to capture the common denominator of the Big Seven.

Does it make sense to say that all of Ross’s prime facie claims are de se reasons? Here is one reason to think not: some people would like to say that such relativistic (de se) reasons are not distinctively ethical, in the sense of commanding shared rational attention of particular (virtue-leaning) kinds of people. For example, Hume’s obtuse man who refuses to scratch his finger to save the world: while this might be a case of someone who has a prime facie reason in some amoral sense, it is not a prime facie ethical claim. And since Ross is interested in the objective parts of the moral situation, one might think any talk of objectivity precludes reference to relativistic (de se) reasons, since they sound suspiciously like subjective features of a situation. So a critic might allege that this talk about apparent reasons is so ethically defective as to be indefensible. My first inclinations, then, are seemingly off base.

*No such person exists. I would have used the more obvious empty name, “Youtube McGee”, except that it doesn’t rhyme with “de se”.