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We typically assume that moral obligations come with a distinctive authority. If X is morally wrong, then we take this to mean that I have a decisive reason not to do X. But what explains the purported authority of moral obligations? Kantian approaches attempt to show that the authority of the moral law can be derived from the constraints of rational deliberation itself. On this view, the purely first-person point of view of rational thought gives me my reasons for acting morally. On consequentialist theories of ethics, by contrast, independent facts about what would be better or worse states of the world give me my reasons for acting. Such reasons are third-personal, or agent-neutral, in the sense that they apply to anyone in a position to affect the general state of affairs.
According to Stephen Darwall, however, both approaches fail to account for the fundamentally interpersonal nature of morality. Making sense of moral obligation, in his view, requires a central insight from the late eighteenth to nineteenth century German philosopher Gottlieb Fichte: that the unique authority of morality is derived from reasons that are irreducibly second-personal, or relational. When we make demands, lodge complaints, assert our rights, enter into agreements, deliberate about our duties, and hold people accountable for their actions-- in short, engage with each other as members of a moral community -- we enter into reciprocal relations of recognition in which each of us presupposes a shared authority to make claims on others, to give other people reasons for acting. Darwall's book is an attempt to elucidate this so-called second-person standpoint, or the "perspective you and I take up when we make and acknowledge claims on one another's conduct and will" (3). Assembling materials from historical philosophers ranging from Pufendorf and Suarez to Kant and Fichte, Darwall traces the significance of the second-person standpoint in the history of philosophy and shows its relevance to contemporary debates in normative ethics, particularly in the context of contractualist theories of obligation. His goal is to show that only by taking seriously the second-person standpoint can we make sense of crucial notions in moral theory such as moral obligation, accountability, dignity, respect for persons, and autonomy.
The book is divided into four parts. Part I consists of three introductory chapters, the first two of which summarize the main claims to be advanced in the rest of the book and the third of which explains in more detail the distinctive features of the second-person standpoint, distinguishing second-personal reasons of the relevant kind from other forms of interaction that either fail to be reason-giving (intimidation, coercion, and seduction, for example) or fail to be second-personal (such as advice, which affects my beliefs about what I have reason to do, rather than making a claim on my will directly).
Part II, consisting of Chapters 4-6, argues that the notion of moral obligation is inextricably linked to the notion of moral accountability, and that both are essentially second-personal concepts. Moral obligations involve the demands that members of the moral community are entitled to make of each other, and making such demands presupposes mutual accountability. In turn, the notion of mutual accountability, Darwall claims, leads us to the notion of equal respect and the dignity of persons, conceived of as the authority to demand certain kinds of treatment of each other as moral equals.
In Part III, Darwall discusses the "psychic mechanisms... involved in respect and the second-person standpoint" (151), examining the ways in which empathy, norm acceptance, and other psychological capacities demonstrate second-personal attitudes in action. The second of the two chapters in this part (Chapter 8) includes an interlude on Thomas Reid's critique of Hume's account of justice, the aim of which is to "fill in our picture of second-personal aspects of cooperation and justice" (181).
Part IV goes beyond conceptual claims about what is involved in the notion of moral obligation to consider questions about justification. Darwall argues that Kant fails in his attempt to vindicate morality-- to show that moral obligations do, indeed, have binding force-- because the materials available from the purely first-person standpoint of rational deliberation are insufficient for the task. Since Kant holds that autonomy is a necessary and sufficient condition for morality, his strategy in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is to show that autonomy is presupposed by practical deliberation, and hence that we can infer that we are bound by the moral law simply from our experience of deliberation. According to Darwall, however, autonomy of the will is necessarily presupposed only in deliberation from the second-person standpoint-- the interpersonal deliberation we engage in when we address claims to each other, giving each other reasons for acting that are grounded not in the value of any independently existing outcomes or states, but in our shared authority to make demands of each other and our presumed capacity to act on those reasons. These arguments are developed in Chapters 9 and 10.
But even if Darwall has shown that the second-person standpoint entails autonomy, he still needs to show that the notion of a second-personal reason is not merely an empty concept. As he puts it: "Even if taking up the second-person stance commits us to equal dignity and autonomy, that is consistent with that standpoint and its associated commitments being no more than rationally optional, or worse, illusory" (277). Chapter 11, the penultimate chapter of Part IV, takes up the challenge of "vindicat[ing] the presuppositions of the second-person standpoint" (291). The eventual answer, however, may strike readers as somewhat underwhelming. "We have no less reason," Darwall concludes, "to accept second-personal reasons grounded in equal dignity than we do reasons for acting of other kinds and... these second-personal reasons can plausibly be accounted for on the major metaethical theories of reasons for acting" (299).
The final chapter, Chapter 12, briefly turns to questions about the content of moral principles, arguing that the second-person standpoint can provide a foundation for contractualist accounts of moral obligation that explain right and wrong in terms of the demands of mutual respect. In his influential What We Owe to Each Other, Thomas Scanlon attempts to base contractualist principles on the value or desirability of relating to others in terms of mutual respect. Darwall argues, however, that reasons of desirability are the wrong kind of reasons for grounding moral obligation because they fail to provide binding reasons for acting morally. Even if it would be desirable for our interactions with other people to be based on mutual respect, I might still ask why I am bound to do the desirable thing. By contrast, according to Darwall, on a second-personal interpretation of contractualist ideals, our reason for relating to others with respect is not just that this is desirable, but, rather, that we are committed to the notion of mutual accountability in the very act of taking up the second-person standpoint at all. In Darwall's words, "in the reciprocal recognition of the second-person standpoint, addresser and addressee are committed alike to their mutual accountability as free and rational persons, and this commits them to the demand for justification to one another" (320). It's not clear, however, that Darwall's answer works. Even if I implicitly presuppose that you are free, rational, and morally equal every time I interact with you from the second-person standpoint, it's not clear why this entails anything about what the content of my interactions with you ought to be unless I make some further assumption-- for example, that I ought to act in ways that are consistent with my implicit presuppositions. But the assumption that I ought to be consistent simply rests on a claim about the desirability of consistency, and so it looks like Darwall hasn't avoided his own criticism of Scanlon.
A few final remarks about the intended audience of the book are in order. Notwithstanding the occasional references to pop culture -- Dr. Seuss, Alanis Morissette, and Bob Dylan, for example, make it into the bibliography -- Darwall's book is not written to appeal to a general readership. Lamentably, like much work in academic moral philosophy, the book studiously avoids using examples of genuine moral interest and importance.(Darwall's central example of wrongdoing is stepping on someone's foot; to illustrate disrespect of a person's dignity, he asks us to imagine parents who inappropriately pressure their middle-aged daughter to eat her broccoli.) The triviality of the examples, combined with the constant repetition of highly abstract and technical terms like "second-personal reason," "second-personal competence," and "second-personal authority," can leave the reader with an odd sense of blankness, as if the notions of moral obligation, responsibility, respect, dignity, and freedom have been stripped empty. Readers low on patience may wish to read only the first two chapters, where Darwall's main arguments and conclusions are given in condensed form. Readers who persevere, however, will find a great deal of interesting material to repay their efforts. Those with an interest in the history of philosophy, in particular, will be interested in Darwall's discussions of early modern natural law theorists such as Suarez and Pufendorf, his second-personal interpretation of Kant's categorical imperative, and his attempt to bring Fichte into the forefront of ethics.
T.M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other, Harvard University Press, 1998.
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, transl. Mary J. Gregor, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
© 2007 Elisabeth Herschbach
Elisabeth Herschbach has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches in Rhode Island.