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T.M. Scanlon's What We Owe to Each Other (WWO) (1999) has been one of the most important contributions to moral philosophy of the last years. The contractualist ethical theory developed in this book has been able to initiate fresh discussions on many questions that have animated moral philosophers for centuries (e.g., moral wrongness and motivation, the nature of value, the role of desires and well-being). On What We Owe to Each Other can be read as a critical assessment of What We Owe to Each Other. It includes five essays -- originally published as a special issue of Ratio (2003) -- in which five prominent philosophers set out to address some key but relatively contentious features of Scanlon's contractualism. They are followed by Scanlon's replies to the central issues they raise.
The book starts with a very helpful introductory chapter in which the editor, Philip Stratton-Lake, reminds us of the basic tenets of Scanlon's contractualism. Among them, we find the distinction it establishes between practical reasons and desires, its 'buck-passing account of value', its refusal to regard well-being as a 'master value', and its endorsement of what Stratton-Lake calls a substantive good 'theory' of well-being. As is generally known, Scanlon understands the 'wrongness' of an act in terms of its being disallowed by principles that no one could 'reasonably reject'. While he allows different types of considerations to count as grounds of reasonable rejection (e.g., adverse effect on well-being, unfairness and arbitrariness), he also imposes important constraints -- so the grounds of reasonable rejection must be personal and generic reasons, they must no consist in the belief that some actions are wrong, and individuals can only object to a principle on their own behalf (the so-called 'individualist restriction', which is offered as an alternative to consequentialism and which prevents different individuals' objections from being aggregated). Stratton-Lake also pays some attention to how Scanlon's contractualism is best understood: he notes that while in WWO Scanlon characterised his contractualism as an account of the property of wrongness, in his reply to Timmons and Parfit, he proposes a new account involving a 'ground level description': his contractualism is now taken to describe the standards whose violation by an act makes this act wrong, as well as the reason they should be taken very seriously. Finally, Stratton-Lake shows the central place that the substantive value of mutual recognition occupies in Scanlon's approach to the issue of moral motivation. Those who fail to care about the justifiability of their actions to others fail to appreciate the importance of standing in a relation of mutual respect -- a relation which, because of its value, makes one's life go better.
One of Onora O'Neill's central claims in Chapter 2 is that Scanlon's account of practical reasoning might be better understood as constructivist rather than as contractualist, as Kantian rather than as Rousseauian. By this she means that Scanlon grounds moral justification in some conception of reason rather than in some sort of agreement: what is fundamental is not, like in Rawls, whether individuals do or would agree on certain principles, but whether their acceptance or rejection of certain principles would be 'reasonable'. Moral principles are arrived at through a process of exchanging reasons for action -- they are principles of action that could be principles for everyone within the scope of those who recognise each other; their justification can therefore not assume any antecedent agreement.
Chapter 3 is devoted to the notion of 'well-being'. According to Jonathan Wolff, Scanlon's refusal to regard well-being as a master value grounding all other values could be read as an attempt to 'cut utilitarianism off at the knees, by arguing that there is no notion capable of playing the role that utilitarianism needs' (33). Wolff's purpose is to identify and refute several arguments behind this refusal. A first argument refers to the fact that no single conception of well-being can serve as basis for practical decision-making in different contexts. A second argument holds that conceiving of well-being as a master-value gives a false picture of individual motivation as people rarely act with the explicit aim of increasing their well-being. And a third argument appeals to the idea that in order to avoid counterintuitive outcomes moral arguments must take a notion of well-being that is already morally cleansed and that can therefore not be morally basic. In Wolff's view, none of these arguments need invalidate the claim that well-being is a master value: a) a person's well-being could be regarded as a matter of satisfaction of her informed preferences, b) rational action could be equated with action that does in fact advance well-being so understood, whatever one's motivation, c) the fact that we use different notions of well-being in different contexts is not inconsistent with the idea of well-being as the satisfaction of informed preferences, and d) morality could start from the notion of well-being as satisfaction of informed preferences.
Joseph Raz en Derek Parfit's contributions in Chapter 4 and 5 both tackle the question of aggregation: how to capture the intuition that in cases in which one has a duty of rescue and one has to choose between saving either one drowning person or five drowning persons, it is wrong to save the lone drowning person? Scanlon's 'individualist restriction' does not provide any reason to save the larger number: since the benefit of being saved would be the same for each and since the sum of benefits to different persons is not allowed to outweigh a benefit to one person, it seems to be a matter of moral indifference whether to save the one or the five. To avoid this undesirable result, Scanlon proposes the 'Tie-breaker View': there are reasons of various kinds and while numbers do not count across kinds, they break ties and count within kinds, that is, when the strongest opposing claims are equally strong. Flipping a coin to decide whom to save might be allowed when there is only one drowning person on each side, but not when there are more persons on one side, for each additional person could reasonably reject this (coin-flipping) principle on the ground that it fails to respect the equal value of each person's life since her presence makes no difference to how others should act.
Raz offers an alternative account of why numbers do count in the drowning case, one based on the contrast between complete and partial compliance with reason. One of his aims is to show that Scanlon fails to establish contractualist reasons for aggregation in such case and that the argument he offers can be recast in non-contractualist terms without any significant loss. Now, Raz concedes that it might be more important for Scanlon to show that his contractualism does not block aggregation where it 'should not' be blocked, rather than to provide contractualist reasons for aggregation. Yet, he also doubts whether Scanlon's contractualism can block aggregation where it 'should' be blocked. According to him, Scanlon's suggestion that a person could reasonably reject a principle requiring saving one person from a greater burden (e.g., death) rather than a (sufficiently) large number of persons from a burden that is smaller but serious enough to be morally relevant to the greater one (e.g., paralysis) on the ground that it did not give proper consideration to her burden (namely, paralysis) ─ and in particular, the distinctions which he correlatively introduces (and which he does not justify on contractualist grounds) between different categories of moral importance of harms and between harms on the basis of their relevance to each other ─ reveals that the problem of aggregation must already be solved before contractualist arguments can get off the ground.
Parfit agrees with Scanlon and Raz that in the drowning case we ought to save the larger number, but he holds the 'Tie-breaker View' to be incompatible with the 'individualist restriction' (which, he argues, will always favour the 'Equal Chance Principle'). He believes that Scanlon would provide a better response to utilitarianism and increase the strength of his theory if he abandoned the 'individualist restriction' and developed instead the idea of 'justifiability to each person'. In his view, Scanlon rejects utilitarianism for the wrong reason -- namely, because it lets numbers count, and not because it takes the importance of all benefits to be proportional to their size and ignores therefore any principles of distributive justice. This might explain that his contractualism runs up against the same difficulties as utilitarianism: it can hardly accommodate the idea that benefiting people matters more the worse off they are, and that benefits should be discounted not when they are smaller, but when they come to people who are relevantly better off. According to Parfit, Scanlon's idea of 'justifiability to each person' does not require that the grounds of reasonable rejection be provided by the burdens a principle would impose on an individual person; in rejecting some principle, "each person could appeal to the burdens that this principle would impose not only on her, but also on other people"(87).
In Chapter 6, Mark Timmons argues that, by working with a morally loaded (namely, a non-welfarist, non-consequentialist) account of 'justifiability to others', Scanlon makes his view vulnerable to some form of objectionable moral relativism. Two persons who seemingly endorse conflicting moral views may in fact not be disagreeing at all, but simply working with different (normative) concepts, which they express by their respective uses of the words 'right' and 'wrong'. Or they may be expressing the same (normative) concepts in their respective uses of the words 'right' and 'wrong', but these concepts may involve an implicit reference to some determinate normative outlook fixing the conditions under which moral judgments are true. In the former case (conceptual relativism), the moral terms and concepts that the two persons use are not intertranslatable. This form of relativism obtains if Scanlon's constructivist account of moral terms is understood as incorporating into the concepts of 'right' and 'wrong' the moral theory he favours: a person who incorporates in these concepts an alternative conflicting normative outlook could then not be disagreeing with him, but simply failing to employ the same normative concepts in her own use of 'right' and 'wrong'. In the latter case (standard moral relativism), the apparently conflicting claims that two persons make may both be true, which is at odds with Scanlon's attempt to defend moral objectivity. This form of relativism obtains if moral terms and concepts are taken to involve an implicit relativisation parameter so that the proper use of the words 'right' and 'wrong' involves reference to some fairly determinate moral outlook. Being pessimistic about any metaphysically substantive account of moral properties, Timmons proposes to situate Scanlon's view within what he calls 'metaethical minimalism'.
These are some of the challenges Scanlon is expected to address in the final chapter. I am not going here to provide a summary of his replies -- I leave to the reader the pleasure of discovering and appreciating their content --; I think it is enough to say that Scanlon offers important clarifications and is sometimes led to reconsider some aspects of his contractualist theory as laid out in WWO.
Needless to say that this book is absolutely indispensable reading for anyone interested in contractualist accounts of moral wrongness. It offers a careful assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Scanlon's approach and suggests thereby paths for possible further developments. But it is also particularly illuminating for all those who wish to gain better understanding and a clearer picture of the current (meta)ethical landscape (e.g., contractualism vs. moral realism, relativism, constructivism). It should however be noted that for those not familiar with Scanlon's contractualism, the preliminary reading of WWO might prove required to grasp the subtlety and relevance of the various arguments developed in these essays (even though the introductory chapter no doubt provides appreciable help).
© 2010 Sylvie Loriaux
Sylvie Loriaux, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher, Centre for Law and Cosmopolitan Values, University of Antwerp (Belgium) & Radboud University Nijmegen (the Netherlands).