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Prior Knowledge

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Tuesday Seminar: Deontic Reasons

I think this website could serve as a useful forum to discuss issues that arise in Canterbury's weekly seminars. The main post could give a brief overview of the main argument, followed by an open discussion in the comments section.

Yesterday's research seminar was led by Prof. R. Jay Wallace (visiting from the University of California, Berkeley), and discussed the deontic structure of morality.

The full paper is available online, so I'll just quote the abstract here:
Normative reasons apparently come in different varieties. Some are attractive or aspirational, recommending actions in a way that leaves the agent some scope to ignore their claims; other reasons - including those at the center of morality - seem peremptory, demanding compliance in a way that the agent has no discretion to ignore. This paper offers an interpretation of the distinction between what I call aspirational and deontic normativity, paying special attention to the moral realm. I suggest that deontic reasons are grounded in principles that specify reciprocal normative claims, structuring our relationships to other agents. Some conceptions of morality seem much better suited than others to accommodate this distinctive kind of deontic normativity, a thesis I defend by contrasting consequentialist and contractualist approaches.

To illustrate the distinction, Prof. Wallace offered some example scenarios. Suppose that an agent has decisive reason to spend their evening at the cinema - it is a better option for them than any of the available alternatives. The agent might recognise this, but legimately choose to ignore this reason and stay home instead. Such reasons, which an agent has discretion to discount, may be called 'aspirational' reasons. It seems that we have no such discretion in the case of other ('deontic') reasons. If we have a debt to repay, or a friend in need, these provide reasons that we cannot legitimately ignore. What explains this difference?

Wallace points out that deontic structure is not the same thing as conclusive weight. We have (ex hypothesi) conclusive reason to go to the movie, but we nevertheless have discretion to ignore this reason, conclusive or not. Conversely, we might have a deontic reason which is overridden by more powerful considerations. Imagine a medical emergency arises which takes priority over repaying your debt. We are not at liberty to ignore the reasons that arise from our indebtedness; we must recognise their force even as we judge that they are nevertheless overpowered (but not negated) by other reasons.

After dispensing with various other accounts of the distinction, Wallace suggests that the answer may be found by considering the interpersonal context of deliberation as giving rise to reciprocal normativity, which has two key features:
(a) The consideration that grounds my reasons gives someone else a special claim or entitlement to performance on my part.

(b) The consideration that grounds my reasons renders someone else specially vulnerable to being wronged or injured in the case of nonperformance on my part.

He then goes on to explicate this in terms of a 'relational' or contractualist conception of morality, which appeals to those general principles that all might reasonably agree on (as being necessary to a functioning society):
If I discount or neglect my moral reason not to harm someone, for example... I will not merely have acted wrongly, by the terms of a normative standard that applies to my own conduct, but wronged the person I have harmed, insofar as my action will not be justifiable to that person on grounds that it would be reasonable for the person to accept.

Now, I agree that the social considerations make for the most plausible explanation of the aspirational/deontic divide. But I'm not sure if this can be adequately spelled out in contractualist terms, particularly in cases of 'overriding considerations'. Overriding considerations (such as medical emergencies) seem the sort of thing that all could reasonably accept in terms of the general principles of the Social Contract. So my failure to repay my debtor in case of emergency is something that will be justifiable to him. Nevertheless, as noted earlier, the reasons arising from my indebtedness still retain their force even when (justifiably) overriden. So appeals to social justification cannot explain the resilience of deontic force.

(To be clear: there is still a sense in which you've failed your obligation to the debtor and he has a legimate grievance, so the explanation of reciprocal normativity holds strong. But the legitimacy of your action, in accordance with general social principles, is not in question. This makes me think that appealing to the general principles of the social contract might be an inadequate explication of reciprocal normativity.)

Some other issues that might be worth further discussion:
1) Could we dispense with the aspirational/deontic distinction? (What would be the consequences of doing so?)
2) To what extent does it mirror the distinction between self- vs. other-regarding actions (as in, e.g., J.S. Mill's harm principle)?
3) Is Wallace right that consequentialist conceptions of morality cannot account for the a/d distinction?
4) Is he right that contractualist conceptions can account for it?

Feel free to raise any other issues that I've missed...

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  • An objection to Wallace's argument: the reciprocal normativity explanation of deontic requirements is question-begging: we could accept everything said about how some reasons “are constitutively implicated in complexes of reciprocal (or “bipolar”) normativity” and some do not. But why assign deontic significance to the former and aspirational to the latter? It is the answer to this question that is going to do most of the work in the overall argument.

    Wallace does seem to have an answer but it is in section 3: the importance of relating to others, mutual recognition, etc. So, as I understood the intended structure, the explanation for deontic requirements came in section 2 and then s.3 says that this better fits into a contractualist rather than consequentialist view. But it seems to me the full explanation only comes in s.3 and the importance of having relationships of mutual recognition and regard and “the value of relating in this way to our fellows...” It is the latter importance that GIVES that class of reasons their deontic-ness.

    5/03/2005 07:12:00 PM  

  • Richard, I think your objection is mistaken. Not paying my creditor due to an emergency could just be a case of a clash of deontic reasons. The emergency creates a deontic reason that trumps the paying creditor reason.

    Or perhaps I haven't followed you correctly?

    5/03/2005 07:18:00 PM  

  • Simon, I agree that we want to say there is a clash of deontic reasons here. What I wasn't sure about is whether an appeal to the "social contract" can explain this.

    I understood Wallace to be analyzing reciprocal normativity in terms of contractarian thinking. But while it is clear that there can be clashes between the demands of reciprocal norms (as when you can only possibly fulfill one of two legitimate claims that others have on you), it isn't clear to me that this will be accompanied by a clash as to what is socially justifiable. Perhaps one claim would win out, on contractarian thinking.

    For example, it seems that all reasonable people would agree to the principle that medical emergencies take priority over the repayment of minor debts. So neglecting to repay the debtor, in the above case, is something that is justifiable in general terms. So if the social-contract analysis is correct, this suggests that your reason to repay the debtor is merely aspirational, not truly deontic. This seems mistaken.

    (This problem might be avoided by disallowing the consideration of second-order principles which decide between conflicts of our first order social principles. Considering the debt reasons on their own, their fulfilment is indeed required by the social contract. So would could say that this is what makes them 'deontic'. It's only when we consider it in relation to other pressing concerns that we judge that neglecting the debt is socially justifiable.)

    5/04/2005 12:28:00 PM  

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