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Moral DimensionsReview - Moral Dimensions
Permissibility, Meaning, Blame
by T. M. Scanlon
Belknap Press, 2008
Review by Lisa Grover, MPhil
Feb 10th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 7)

T.M. Scanlon’s central aims are to argue that the permissibility of an action rarely depends upon the reasons of the agent and to explore the implications this has for moral responsibility. He argues that there is a distinction between the permissibility of an action and the meaning of an action; only the latter depends upon the agent’s reasons for performing the action and is relevant to blame. The intended audience is philosophers interested in moral responsibility and the ethics of blame.

Scanlon commences with an argument that the appeal of the doctrine of double effect is illusory. He characterizes the doctrine of double effect as stating that an action that aims at the death of an innocent person as its end, or as a means to its end, is wrong. He gives the example of believing that bombing a military target in war, even though it will cause the death of some innocent civilians, is permissible, whereas a terror bombing in wartime to undermine morale that kills the same number of innocent civilians is not permissible. In the former case, the intention is not to kill innocent civilians, even though this is a side effect, whereas in the latter case the intention is to kill the civilians. He argues that although the difference between these two actions appears to depend upon the intentions of the agent, this is an illusion.

For Scanlon, it is not possible for the intentions of the agent to determine whether an action is permissible; under this view it would appear that, if we hold fixed the consequences of an action, it is possible for it to be permissible for one person with a certain intention but impermissible for another person with a different intention. He argues that an act is impermissible because it is wrong, not because of the intention. For example, he thinks that the moral difference between tactical military bombing and terror bombing depends upon the application of a principle about the permissibility of destructive force in war and not upon intent. He defends his claim that the appeal of the doctrine of double effect is merely illusory, using two features of moral principles: that principles assert moral requirements, to which there can be exceptions, and that principles can be used by an agent to decide how to act (deliberative use) and to assess that decision-making process (critical use). He argues that only the critical use depends upon the reasons of the agent and, that if no clear distinction is made between the two uses, it may also appear that the permissibility of the action depends upon the agent’s reasons.

 An important distinction is identified between the permissibility of an action, which is determined by the features of the situation that count for or against the action, and the meaning of the action, where the agent’s reasons for doing the action affect the significance of the action for the agent and others. The meaning of the action, therefore, depends upon the reasons of the agent, according to Scanlon, whereas permissibility, in general, does not. He argues that permissible actions are amongst those that an agent can choose and that the agent cannot choose which reasons to act on, so it is possible that the agent may act in a way that is permissible even though the agent could be criticized for having the wrong reason for that action.   

Scanlon rejects the view that if the only permissible actions are those that treat individuals as ends, then this an example of when the permissibility of an action depends upon what the agent sees as reasons for acting that way. He rejects this view on the grounds that the permissibility of the action depends upon the reasons for or against the action, not upon what the agent sees as reasons for action. He thinks making a claim that an agent treated someone as an end, meaning that the agent had certain reasons, is to make a claim about the meaning of the action, not its permissibility.

Scanlon concludes that in the light of the distinction between the permissibility and the meaning of an action, we need to revise our interpretation of blame. He argues that a claim that an action is blameworthy is a claim about the meaning of the action, saying that one blames an agent for something when his action indicates certain attitudes of the agent that impairs one’s relationship with him. He offers this as an alternative to the view that blame is a moral sanction or an evaluative assessment and argues that his interpretation is to be preferred because it fits better with our moral experience. Blame is important for Scanlon because he relates it to questions about freedom and responsibility; he questions whether blame requires freedom, arguing that his understanding of blame does not presuppose a strong sense of freedom.

One question I have is whether blame is a uniquely moral response for Scanlon or does his definition also apply to non-moral attributions of blame? Take the example of a manager completing an administrative task incorrectly that means an expenses claim is charged to the wrong account; this is not a moral error, but is one for which we would blame the person at fault; can this be accommodated by a relationship-based interpretation of blame?

Overall, Scanlon raises some thought-provoking issues about the extent to which an agent’s reasons are relevant to assessing the permissibility of an action. His resulting distinction between the permissibility and meaning of an action leads to his revised notion of blame based upon the relationships between agents and an interesting discussion of the links between blame, freedom and responsibility.

© 2009 Lisa Grover

Lisa Grover has an MPhil from King’s College London and is currently a research student at the University of Kent.  Her research interests include virtue ethics, moral psychology, practical reasoning and motivation.


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