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SUBSTANTIVE MORAL THEORY

  • Philip Pettit (a1)
Abstract

Philosophy can serve two roles in relation to moral thinking: first, to provide a meta-ethical commentary on the nature of moral thought, as the methodology or the philosophy of science provides a commentary on the nature of scientific thought; and second, to build on the common presumptions deployed in people's moral thinking about moral issues, looking for a substantive moral theory that they might support. The present essay addresses the nature of this second role; illustrates it with substantive theories that equate moral obligations respectively with requirements of nature, self-interest, benevolence, reason and justifiability; and outlines a novel competitor in which the focus is shifted to requirements of co-reasoning and respect.

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1 Stalnaker Robert, “Conceptual Truth and Metaphysical Necessity,” Philosophical Studies 18 (2004).

2 Pettit Philip, “Descriptivism, Rigidified and Anchored,” Philosophical Studies 18 (2004): 323–38.

3 See Jackson Frank and Pettit Philip, “Moral Functionalism and Moral Motivation,” Philosophical Quarterly 45 (1995): 2040; reprinted in Jackson Frank, Pettit Philip, and Smith Michael, eds., Mind, Morality, and Explanation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). For further background, see Jackson Frank, “Critical Notice of Susan Hurley's Natural Reasons,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 70 (1992): 475–87; Jackson Frank, From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defence of Conceptual Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); and Pettit Philip, “Embracing Objectivity in Ethics,” in Objectivity in Law and Morals, ed. Leiter Brian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 234–86.

4 Or, to gesture at a variant, it is the higher-order property of there being some property present that meets those specifications; it may be the role property, as it is sometimes called, rather than the realizer property that plays the role. On this distinction, see Jackson Frank and Pettit Philip, “Functionalism and Broad Content,” Mind 97 (1988): 381400; reprinted in Jackson, Pettit, and Smith, eds., Mind, Morality, and Explanation, 95118.

5 For an example of an error theory, see Mackie J. L., Ethics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977).

6 The approach represents an analytical functionalism in the moral area that parallels the analytical functionalism that is often defended in the area of mind. It identifies different moral properties, at least in part, by the ways in which they are connected up in the practice, and in the implicit thought, of participants. Notice that the connections signaled involve the way people treat properties and the sorts of practices they follow. The connections are different, but not so different, from the causal connections that figure in functionalism within the philosophy of mind. In particular, they are not themselves normative connections.

7 On reflective equilibrium, see Rawls John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).

8 If I take myself to be guided by common markers of value and disvalue, after all, then I will have to assume that that guidance is not peculiar to me. The common meanings established for terms like “just” and “good” and “right” hold out the prospect of convergence in judgments of value, and so long as that possibility is live, I will find a point in talking with others, exchanging comments on what differences and continuities register with us, how different presumptions are weighted in relation to one another, how they are amended in the course of reflective equilibration, and so on. I may come to believe, of course, that the meanings available leave issues of value indeterminate, and I may come to treat those issues, like various issues of baldness and color and the like, as vague at certain margins. But I will presumably retreat to this sort of quietism only as a last resort; it amounts to throwing in the conversational towel.

9 For an argument that there must be an inherent character there to explain the semantic competence of moral speakers, in particular their ability to catch on to the reference of a term like “right,” see Jackson Frank, Pettit Philip, and Smith Michael, “Ethical Particularism and Patterns,” in Moral Particularism, ed. Hooker Brad and Little Margaret (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000). This argument challenges the radical version of particularism, according to which there need be no independent pattern of any kind in the extension of a term like “right.” A more moderate form of particularism would defend the aesthetic model of moral judgment mentioned below in note 10; this model holds that there need be no pattern in the extension of “right” that is accessible, at least in principle, to reflection on the part of competent speakers. See Dancy Jonathan, Ethics without Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

10 This assumption is rejected under what may be described as the aesthetic model of moral judgment. When I make an aesthetic judgment on a painting, I must do so on the grounds of how it impacts perceptually and causally on me. It would be absurd to have a painting described and then, on the basis of that description alone, to pass aesthetic judgment—to say, for example, that the painting must be very beautiful, or elegant, or whatever. See Pettit Philip, “The Possibility of Aesthetic Realism,” in Pleasure, Preference, and Value: Studies in Philosophical Aesthetics, ed. Schaper Eva (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1738. The aesthetic model of moral judgment would suggest that I can only form a moral judgment about an action on the basis of how it impacts experientially on me. There may be a substantive pattern to identify across the aesthetic judgments we defend (or across moral judgments, if they are conceived as similar to aesthetic ones), but it will be there to be identified only on the basis of empirical research; there will be no possibility of relying on reflection in order to bring it to light. Those who passed a positive judgment on the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, and a negative judgment on various imitations, were in no position to identify the substantive pattern that physicists have since claimed to unearth in Pollock's paintings—a pattern of self-similarity at different grains of analysis. See Taylor Richard P., “Order in Pollock's Chaos,” Scientific American (December 2002): 117–21.

11 See Foot Philippa, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); and Hursthouse Rosalind, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

12 See Brett Annabel, Liberty, Right, and Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Tuck Richard, Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

13 Bentham Jeremy, “Anarchical Fallacies,” in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. Bowring J. (Edinburgh, 1843).

14 Hobbes Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Curley E. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994), 15.41.

15 Gauthier David, Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). On the Hobbesian approach more generally, see Kraus J. S., The Limits of Hobbesian Contractarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

16 Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), part 1.

17 Hobbes, Leviathan, 15.5. See Hoekstra K., “Hobbes and the Foole,” Political Theory 25 (1997): 620–54.

18 Gauthier argues, in later work, that rationality can oblige people to take a temporally extended course of action (say, promising at one time and then actually delivering on the promise later) even where promising-and-not-delivering has higher expected utility than promising-and-delivering. See Gauthier David, “Resolute Choice and Rational Deliberation,” Noûs 31 (1997): 125. See also McClennen Edward, Rationality and Dynamic Choice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). But this is an unorthodox and highly controversial view, since it introduces an artificial way of limiting the options that agents can rationally consider; it rules out the option of reconsidering whether to deliver on the promise, even when that possibility has become salient. It may, of course, be rational to have a policy of not in general reconsidering one's options—a policy of not reconsidering except when the red lights go on. See Bratman Michael, Faces of Intention: Selected Essays on Intention and Agency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). But this does not mean that rationality rules out reconsideration, period.

19 Harman Gilbert, Explaining Value and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), chap. 11.

20 Hume David, An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. Schneewind J. B. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1983); Hume David, A Treatise of Human Nature, 2d ed., ed. Nidditch P. H. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

21 Sayre-McCord Geoffrey, “On Why Hume's ‘General Point of View’ Isn't Ideal—and Shouldn't Be,” Social Philosophy and Policy 11, no. 1 (1994): 202–28.

22 Quoted in Harman, Explaining Value, 186.

23 Singer Peter, Practical Ethics, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

24 Hare R. M., Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981); Herman Barbara, The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Korsgaard Christine, The Sources of Normativity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

25 Kant Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), trans. Gregor Mary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

26 See Hare, Moral Thinking.

27 For a critique, see Pettit Philip, “Universalizability without Utilitarianism,” Mind 96 (1987): 7482; and Pettit Philip and Smith Michael, “Backgrounding Desire,” Philosophical Review 99 (1990): 565–92; reprinted in Jackson, Pettit, and Smith, eds., Mind, Morality, and Explanation, 131–53. See also Pettit Philip, “Preference, Deliberation, and Satisfaction,” in Preferences and Well-Being, ed. Olsaretti Serena (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 131–53.

28 Smith Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), ed. Raphael D. D. and McFie A. L. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1982).

29 Here I follow Harman, Explaining Value, chap. 11.

30 Scanlon T. M., What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

31 Smith Michael, The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

32 These are requirements of reason on two counts, and in that respect connect also with the Kantian approach. First, they are requirements associated with the perfect, informed operation of reason within the advising self. Second, they are requirements that the advisee self, as a creature of reason, will want to satisfy. As between the self that does satisfy them and the self that doesn't, there is no question about which is the more rational.

33 See Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other; and Ridge Michael, “Saving Scanlon,” Journal of Political Philosophy 9 (2001): 472–81.

34 For the central, motivating idea, see Pettit Philip and Smith Michael, “The Truth in Deontology,” in Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, ed. Wallace R. J., Pettit Philip, Scheffler Samuel, and Smith Michael (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). And for a fuller account, see Pettit Philip, “Joining the Dots,” in Common Minds: Themes from the Philosophy of Philip Pettit, ed. Smith Michael, Brennan H. G., Goodin R. E., and Jackson F. C. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

35 Co-reasoning need not involve any degree of rigor or formality. It may often be wholly implicit, as when you draw my attention to something and let me fill in the missing lesson. And it may be quite rhetorical in form. It may involve a story or a parable, in which you invite me to see things another way; it may introduce ironic or sarcastic or mocking comment; and it may employ metaphor and image, and all the colors of persuasive overture. Such rhetoric may be needed in order to knock me out of my complacency, let me see how stupid my point of view is, and make your standpoint seem truly habitable.

36 We may sometimes describe an option in a way that reaches out to a desired consequence, as when we think of it as hitting the target rather than firing the gun, but each option has to be accessible also as something we can just do.

37 For relevant arguments, see Broome John, Weighing Goods (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991); and Pettit Philip, “Decision Theory and Folk Psychology,” in Essays in the Foundations of Decision Theory, ed. Bacharach Michael and Hurley Susan (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991); reprinted in Pettit Philip, Rules, Reasons, and Norms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

38 See Pettit and Smith, “The Truth in Deontology.” The making of offers may not have this cast outside what I later describe as the circumstances of respect, where everyone is sufficiently well-off to be able to function properly in the local society. Extreme conditions might make it rational for someone to accept the offer of a slave contract, but that offer could hardly be said to be respectful. See Pettit Philip, “Freedom in the Market,” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics 5 (2006): 131–49.

39 The lesson is akin to that of the master and slave. What sensible slave would be honest in speaking his or her mind with a master? What sensible master would expect the slave to be honest? What sensible slave, indeed, would expect to be expected to be honest? Notice that if a class of masters is saliently distinguished, as under an apartheid regime, then masters may disrespect those in the slave class without disturbing their own reputations as persons who respect other masters; slaves will not count as comparators of the masters. That is why it is important, not just to focus on the instantiation of respect, but also on the promotion, as I describe it later, of respect-enjoyment.

40 On such functioning requirements, see Sen Amartya, Commodities and Capabilities (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1985).

41 Thus, one will not be able to argue that one is co-reasoning with another, on the grounds that while one is violating the requirements of respect in some way, that is because this promises to maximize the respect of others for others. One might as well argue that one is playing chess, on the grounds that while one is violating the rules of chess, that is because such violation promises to minimize violations overall. The practice of co-reasoning requires one to instantiate respect toward those with whom one co-reasons, not to promote such respect overall. This may not be for the best, but it will be required for being able to claim to co-reason.

42 See Nozick Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974), 30n.

43 Consequentialism might prescribe the honoring of the requirements of respect under the proviso that this is for the best overall. Or, more plausibly, it might prescribe it under a stricter proviso that imposes constraints on how far agents should check on what is for the best (because such checking might itself be bad for respect-satisfaction). One such proviso would prescribe the honoring of the requirements except when there is independently salient reason to think that this is not for the best overall; conformity to the requirements would become a default option under this proviso, but not an unconditionally compulsory one. See Pettit Philip, “A Consequentialist Perspective on Ethics,” in Baron Marcia, Slote Michael, and Pettit Philip, Three Methods of Ethics: A Debate (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997). One way of seeing T. M. Scanlon's contractualism is as a theory that endorses, broadly, the requirements of respect in dealings between the respectful, and that argues for a distinctive, nonconsequentialist form of modulation for other cases: the right way to behave in those second-best cases is in accord with the principles for such cases that we might expect to prove reasonably unobjectionable among people respectfully debating with one another. See Pettit Philip, “Can Contract Theory Ground Morality?” in Dreier James, ed., Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005).

44 I take it that the sort of regime envisaged would maximize freedom in the republican sense of nondomination. See Pettit Philip, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). Another approach that might be taken to politics, starting from the practice of respect, is to ask in contractarian style about the sort of global regime that people might be led to adopt as a result of reasoning with one another in a situation of mutual respect. Yet another approach would be to ask about the global sort of regime that would emerge as a result of the different local arrangements that we might expect people to make with one another in co-reasoning contracts. The first approach is in the spirit of Rawls, the second in the spirit of Nozick.

45 See Pettit and Smith, “The Truth in Deontology,” and Schroeder Mark, “The Hypothetical Imperative?Australasian Journal of Philosophy 83 (2005): 357–72.

I was aided in preparing this essay by comments on an earlier draft by Tristram McPherson and by conversations both with him and with Michael Smith. I am grateful for the written suggestions that I received from the editors of this volume and from Jan Narveson and Michael Huemer.

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