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  • John Skorupski (a1)

This paper shows how moral concepts are definable in terms of reasons for the blame sentiment. It then shows how, given that definition, the categoricity of moral obligation follows from some plausible principles about reasons for blame. The nature of moral agency is further considered in this light. In particular, in what sense is it self-governing agency? Self-governing actors must be at least self-determining: that is, they must be able to think about what reasons they have, in order in order to assess what they have sufficient reason to believe, feel, or do. Thus any moral assessment implies that the person assessed is capable of self-governance in that sense. Furthermore, this notion of self-governance implies that an agent's moral obligations are relative to the agent's warranted beliefs. However it does not entail that moral agents must be autonomous, in the strong sense intended by Kant. Some consequences for modern conceptions of morality are considered.

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1 Some further discussion can be found in Skorupski John, Ethical Explorations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), part III; and Skorupski , “Blame, Respect, and Recognition: A Reply to Theo van Willigenburg,” Utilitas 17 (2005): 333–47.

2 Gibbard Allan, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 1819.

3 Mill John Stuart, Collected Works (London: Routledge, 1963–91), X, 246.

4 Smith Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1984), Part I, section 1, chapter iii, and Part II.

5 Compare Scanlon T. M., Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), chap. 4.

6 I argue that this is so in my book The Domain of Reasons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). The themes of this essay will be developed more fully there.

7 Note the restriction to factual beliefs. Purely normative beliefs that are false can sometimes excuse or remove a person from blame; however, in the following examples, I am abstracting from such issues.

8 The example is adapted from an unpublished discussion of these issues by Derek Parfit, which I have found very helpful.

9 If I believe that an action is morally wrong, it does not follow that it is. But, depending on my actual factual and normative beliefs, it may be blameworthy on my part to do it, even if it is not morally wrong. Furthermore, conscientious conviction can itself affect moral permissibility.

10 I am grateful to David Copp for very helpful discussion of this point (about which we disagree).

11 That is, not just insufficient reason to believe that there was sufficient reason to α (which would also entail absence of warrant to α).

12 This is David Brink's terminology. See Brink David O., “Kantian Rationalism: Inescapability, Authority, and Supremacy,” in Cullity Garrett and Gaut Berys, eds., Ethics and Practical Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

13 Moral obligation is categorical, but that is not to say that it is reason-constituting. If you have a moral obligation to α, you have warrant to α; but it is not the fact that you have a moral obligation to α that constitutes that warrant. The moral obligation exists in virtue of the nature of the warrant. It is because of the kind of reasons there are for doing the thing that it is morally obligatory to do it. Those reasons are what make it morally obligatory—moral obligation supervenes on them: that is, knowingly to ignore them merits blame.

14 It is true that, if you do not die, people would not in practice feel the sentiment of blame as strongly as if you had. That is a significant point; however, I think the general view would still be that I had a moral obligation to act and was blameworthy not to have acted.

15 As Gibbard points out (Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, 19).

16 Final elucidation: I have been speaking about moral obligations, not about rights and the corresponding duties of right. The latter should be distinguished from moral obligations. Suppose you are a deceased person's executor, and that person has left a last will. You don't know that: the will is lost but still exists. The will leaves the property to X. In that case, X has a right to the property and you have a duty of right to execute the property in accordance with the will. But you don't have a moral obligation to do so, because you don't know of the will. (You may have a moral obligation to make a search, etc.)

17 Egoism holds that what there is reason for you to do wholly depends on what promotes your own good. Instrumentalism holds that what there is reason for you to do wholly depends on the objectives you actually have.

18 Williams Bernard, “How Free Does the Will Need to Be?” in Williams Bernard, Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 16; emphasis in the original.

19 I say he is assenting to something like these, because he does not discuss whether moral obligation is connected to reasons as such or to warranted reasons.

20 Skorupski John, “Internal Reasons and the Scope of Blame,” in Thomas Alan, ed., Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 73103.

21 Williams treats Kant's view as a “limiting case” of internalism (Williams, “Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame,” in Williams, Making Sense of Humanity, 44, note 3); see also Bernard Williams, “Replies,” in Altham J. E. J. and Harrison Ross, eds., World, Mind, and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 220, note 3. I do not think it is quite right to treat Kant as a limiting case of motivational internalism, but he certainly is a cognitive internalist.

22 Schneewind J. B., The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), recounts how a command model of morality increasingly gave way to a model of morality as self-governance, with Kant's notion of autonomy as a culmination of the process. The striking subsequent history of autonomy remains to be told. (Schneewind takes it that autonomy is implicit in the notion of ‘self-governance.’ My use of ‘self-governance’ is somewhat different: self-determination is the basic kind of self-governance required for any moral or rational agency; autonomy is stronger. A pure command model would not be morality: it must combine with some notion of inner assent.)

23 Kant Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason, in Kant , Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Gregor Mary J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 169 (Akademie edition, 5:36).

24 Hegel 's most extended discussion of this contrast is to be found in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1821). For commentary, see (for example) Wood Allen W., Hegel's Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

25 Hegel G. W. F., Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817), sec. 503.

26 It would be a one-sided caricature to say that Kant himself propounded this picture, since there is much in his ethics taken as a whole that goes against it. Yet it is also true that Kantian ethics has historically both played to and entrenched the picture.

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