Scanlon on reasons and morality (Wonkish)

Okay, I know that ‘wonk’ technically has social science connotations and conveys a nerdy attention to policy details, but philosophers don’t have their own word, so I’m stealing it and using it to signal that I won’t be bothering to explain the basics in this brief post. You’ll probably need some familiarity to follow.

In ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism‘, Scanlon proposes that there are two ways in which one can be a utilitarian. The higher-order kind believes that on the ground level, all that matters morally is the well-being of individuals, and we can understand our employment of concepts like right and wrong by directly referring to such facts. The lower-order utilitarian, in contrast, has a more round-about form of justification. He doesn’t believe an act is right because it promotes well-being. He believes acts are right and wrong based on some other facts or reasons, and it happens that these other facts or reasons depend on claims about well-being so that utilitarian prescriptions are still ultimately endorsed.

To put this slightly more simply: if you ask a first-order utilitarian why donating money to charity is morally right, they will say it’s because it is right to act in a way that promotes the well-being of individuals. Period. A second-order utilitarian may reach exactly the same conclusion about what should be done, and he may do so also by invoking claims about well-being, but he may also be some sort of contractualist. That is, he may think that what makes charitable giving right is the fact, say, that this act conforms to a rule which reasonable persons would accept, or could not reasonably reject, in some hypothetical and ideal procedure of deliberation. And the reason such people may affirm a policy of charitable giving may be because it promotes well-being, but what makes the act right is not that, but rather their agreement. So in both cases, well-being may determine the content of morality, but in the latter it is not what morality is about.

Now, if I remember rightly, this sort of distinction has implications for Parfit’s project, though given Scanlon doesn’t mention what I have in mind in his own reply to On What Matters, I may be misfiring here. But it seemed to me that Parfit was arguing for a substantive convergence between consequentialism, contractualism and Kantianism. Their independent theories entail the same conclusions about what we should do. However, that does nothing to prove that throughout history, philosophers have secretly agreed about what the right-making features of acts are, and I’m struggling to think how the Triple Theory could avoid prioritising one of them as the ‘real’ explanation of morality. All three may be incorporated into Parfit’s final formulation, but is it not inevitable that one is assigned some sort of metaphysical primitiveness? If so, that’s a sense in which convergence is merely apparent.

On another note, there is something very strange that happens in the middle of the article. I know from reading Scanlon elsewhere that he is a realist about reasons, alongside Parfit and Enoch. He believes reasons are desire-independent and precede rationality, which responds to them. However, he writes in ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’ as if his endorsement of contractualism allows him to avoid the sort of queer metaphysical implications of first-order utilitarianism. The moral claims flow from the procedure, rather than being directly invoked.

But this would mean that Scanlon is trying to borrow the perks of moral constructivism, a theory which he explicitly rejects in his essay ‘How I Am Not A Kantian’. The difference between Rawls’ Original Position and Scanlon’s contractualist scenario is that in the former, no prior materials are ‘brought to the table’, so to speak. Rawls is happy to say that reasons are created, the moral content manufactured. This is obscure, but that’s besides the point at hand. Scanlon does not endorse this view. He believes that contractualism depends on the invocation of desire-independent objective reasons that already exist – the sort that first-order utilitarianism also tends to invoke. So this is no advantage of his view. I’m not sure how he doesn’t see it in this particular paper.


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