Saturday, April 11, 2009

Might Our Moral Views Underdetermine the Demands of Justice?

Update: It appears that I've misrepresented Dr. Long's position in this post. With due apologies, please see the comments section for his clarification.


Congratulations are due to Jerry Gaus, my professor-to-be at Arizona, for winning the Gregory Kavka Prize in Political Philosophy for his essay, "On Justifying the Rights of the Moderns: a Case of Old Wine in New Bottles." In my perpetual state of playing catch-up, I'm only now reading the essay. And so far, I'm enjoying it a lot.

In this post, I wanted to hammer out some thoughts on a point that Dr. Gaus raises about reasonable pluralism about morality and justice. This point particularly caught my attention because of a conversation that I had with Roderick Long last summer about this exact subject, where Dr. Long expressed reservations about the idea that people could reasonably disagree about the demands of justice. If I recall correctly, he fully acknowledged that individuals disagree about what constitutes a good life or what values are worthy of pursuing, and that there is often no impartial way to proclaim one person's views to be "correct" or "better" than others' conflicting views. But I recall Dr. Long being skeptical of the idea that this sort of reasonable pluralism in views could extend to the realm of morality. He contended that where it can be perfectly reasonable to disagree about what constitutes "the good life," it is not reasonable to disagree about how others ought to be treated.


So it was with this backdrop that I wanted to discuss Dr. Gaus' arguments in "On Justifying the Rights of the Moderns." On page 94 of his essay, Gaus puts aside the idea that we can reasonably disagree on the kinds of normative considerations that are important in justifying moral claims, in order to focus on problems that arise when agree about these things. He points out, on pages 94-95, that even if we agree on what is morally relevant, we may still disagree on the relative importance of these different considerations.

If I understand him correctly, we might illustrate Gaus' point with the example I used in my essay on the rich victim problem. In that essay, I set up a scenario in which a poor guy, Jerry, needed to make a phone call in order to secure a life-changing job, but his own phone had been disabled by a fallen branch. The only way for him to get the job would be to break into his neighbor Lucy's house by smashing one of the windows in order to use her phone. But in the example, Lucy was incredibly wealthy, and while her windows were not of enormous importance to her, they were so expensive that Jerry would never be able to afford to replace them, even with his new job. The question I raised was whether Jerry would be justified in breaking in.

And in the paper, I argued that he would be. Jerry's need for the job, I took it, was of moral importance, as was Lucy's legitimate claim to her property. But I suggested that because it was critically important to Jerry to break the window, and because it would harm Lucy very little if he did so, that it would be morally permissible for Jerry to break in. But since writing that, I've spoken to a lot of people who disagree. Jerry ought not to break into Lucy's house, according to these people, even in his situation. Maybe, some of them concede, he would be justified in doing so to save his life or preserve some basic functioning, but in my story Jerry would have been fine if he hadn't been able to get the job, and so he had insufficient justification to break in.

I'll immediately point out that my argument in that paper is nowhere near as developed as it would need to be for me to go to battle on this point. I don't, for example, talk about what sort of compensation Jerry would owe (if any) even if he couldn't pay the full compensation. And that seems pretty important. But for our purposes, it'll only be important to note that in my paper, I posited a sort of "priority principle" about how moral claims should relate to each other, and other people disagreed with that priority principle even though they agreed on a basic level with my attribution of moral importance of both Jerry's need and Lucy's property claims.

This raises the possibility, which I interpret Dr. Gaus to be discussing in his paper, that perhaps even if we agree on what kinds of things have normative significance, there can still be reasonable pluralism about morality if we can reasonably disagree on priority principles.


But it seems like one would immediately want to say, "Well yes, there are disagreements about priority principles. But no one is denying it. No one is saying that there is no pluralism about morality; the issue would be whether or not that pluralism is reasonable. Someone like Dr. Long (if he wanted to maintain the position that you've attributed to him) would want to say that when people genuinely disagree about priority principles, it's because at least one of them is wrong." Accordingly, I'll need to provide some reason for thinking that pluralism about priority principles can be reasonable in order to settle this issue.

And here it is: I take it that the objects of our moral concern are seen as being valuable in themselves (otherwise, they would not directly be the objects of our moral concern; they would be means towards something else or "proxies" for the true objects of our moral concern). And yet, I take it that there is no objective or impartial way to determine just how valuable an end-in-itself is that would allow us to objectively or impartially compare its moral significance with other ends-in-themselves with any manner of precision (I don't claim that we can never make impartial inter-value comparisons, but only that there will almost necessarily be hazy areas -- the existence of reasonable pluralism does not entail that all pluralism is reasonable). If this is all true, then at least some reasonable pluralism about priority principles seems inevitable.


Gregory said...

This might be relevant to your argument:

If we have biologically different perceptions of morality then plurality would seem to be the only reasonable outcome.

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks, Greg; I'll check out the video when I get a chance!

Roderick T. Long said...

Just a quick initial response -- I'll say more once I've more fully digested your post. But I just wanted to say that the view that we could reasonably disagree about conceptions of the good life but not about justice wasn't my view; it was the view I was attributing to Rawls. And I was saying that I thought Rawls was mistaken; as I see it, any conception of "reasonable" generous enough to make disagreements about conceptions of the good reasonable will be generous enough to make disagreements about justice reasonable too, and contrariwise any conception of "reasonable" exacting enough to make disagreements about justice unreasonable will make disagreements over conceptions of the good unreasonable too.

I also don't see the contrast as one between moral and nonmoral values, but rather as between one moral value (justice) and a bunch of other values (some moral, some not). In any case, as an Aristotelean I would reject either contrast.

One more point: a conception of "reasonable" lax enough to make moral disagreements reasonable wouldn't thereby make both sides equally right.

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks for dropping by, Dr. Long!

I guess I either misunderstood or misremembered your position in our conversation. In either case, I apologize for the misrepresentation; I've tacked a note at the top of the post mentioning the mistake. As you've put it here, I think you're right.

I'm not sure what you meant by your second paragraph. If you wouldn't mind fleshing out that point, I'd really appreciate it.

Regarding your last point, I guess I would have to whether there is a practical difference between a) being fundamentally unable to know who's right, and b) there being no totally impartial truth about the issue. That is, if we can't say with any degree of certainty that anyone's view is the right one, then it seems to me like it doesn't matter if maybe one of them really is. Does that respond to what you were saying, or am I not understanding your point?

The State said...

found a pretty clever twitter

it’s from the point of view of the state, kinda funny

thought you might enjoy it :)

Danny Shahar said...

Haha jeez! How depressing! It's definitely funny, though; thanks so much for sharing!

Roderick T. Long said...

I agree that in ethics (as opposed to, say, history) there's no real difference between there being no way to know which side is right and neither side's being right. But I take that to be not because of any inherent subjectivity in ethics but rather because of the "ought implies can" principle; it makes no sense to say we're morally obligated to do the right thing unless it's possible for us to figure out what the right thing is.

But I don't necessarily take reasonable disagreement in ethics as the equivalent of the answer's being unknowable. That's why I talked about stricter and looser standards of reasonableness; by loose standards of reasonableness, we can have reasonable disagreements about all sorts of things where the right answer is discernible. Sometimes reaching the right answer is possible, but difficult and time-consuming, and so someone who hasn't found the right answer yet, and so mistakenly believes the wrong thing, may not have violated any epistemic duty -- yet is still wrong, and provably wrong.

So here's my quarrel with Rawls. Rawls says there's reasonable disagreement about conceptions of the good (or "comprehensive doctrines," as he calls them later). But he's not a moral skeptic or moral relativist; he doesn't commit himself to claiming that conceptions of the good are *unknowable*. All he says is that it's an area where, thanks to the "burdens of judgment," it's especially easy to make innocent, or mostly innocent, mistakes. So it sounds to me like he has a lax, rather than a strict, conception of reasonable disagreement -- one that entails caution, but not necessary uncertainty. OK, fine. But in *that* sense, surely there are reasonable disagreements about justice too.

But then he says that BECAUSE there's this reasonable disagreement about conceptions of the good, it's unfair for me to impose a particular conception of the good on those who disagree. But in that case we would expect it likewise to be true that it's unfair to impose a particular conception of *justice* on those who disagree. But that he does not say -- and for good reason, since justice, insofar as it's concerned with legal rights and duties, is *necessarily* going to be the sort of thing that gets imposed on those who disagree. So that's why I said that his reasoning seems inconsistent to me.

To put it another way: he treats reasonable disagreement about X as a reason not to impose a particular conception of X on dissenters. But to have a conception of justice is precisely to have a conception of something that can be imposed on dissenters. So Rawls is committed to saying that reasonable disagreement about justice is impossible. Yet the reasons he gives for thinking there's reasonable disagreement about conceptions of the good are just as good reasons for thinking there's reasonable disagreement about justice. So that makes me wonder whether he isn't illicitly raising the bar for what counts as reasonable disagreement when it comes to justice, and then lowering it when it comes to conceptions of the good.

Re my second paragraph: I thought you made it sound as though the distinction between justice and conceptions of the good was a distinction between moral and non moral concerns. But I don't think of it that way, and neither does Rawls. Moral theories like utilitarianism and Aristoteleanism are conceptions of the good too, or part of such. Justice (at least as the term is usually used in political philosophy) concerns that part of morality that can be legitimately enforced by law; so my duty not to steal form you would be a matter of justice, but my duty not to be rude to you wouldn't be.

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks so much for expanding!

I definitely think you’re right to point out that not all reasonable disagreements need to be based on the truth being unknowable in principle. Your use of the idea of setting bars for reasonableness at different levels resonates with me, and I think that’s a good way to put it. In the initial post, though, I was mainly concerned with the possibility that some reasonable disagreement might arise from disagreements which are (at least for the individuals involved) irresolvable. So I guess I agree that I had unfairly limited my discussion, and that my conclusions don’t apply to the stuff that I was unfairly ignoring.

But I think the more central issue has to do with your next set of comments which deal with Rawls and enforcement. I agree with your critique of Rawls’ view, but I have to say that I’m still not entirely sure that I understand your objection.

Part of the problem seems like it might arise from our different uses of the word “justice.” I’ve been exposed to your usage before – for example, in the introduction to Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics, Peter Vallentyne writes, “…an action is unjust if and only if others are morally permitted to coerce one not to perform it. Some just actions may be morally impermissible (e.g. refusing to help an elderly neighbour, where one has a moral obligation to help, but others are not morally permitted to coerce one to help), and (more controversially) some unjust actions may be morally permissible (e.g. stealing a car to save someone’s life).” I’m not sure you’d agree with that completely, but it seems pretty close to what you’re saying, right? And I can make sense of that.

That view is, however, admittedly different from the way I’ve been using the word. Puzzlingly, the very same Peter Vallentyne gives a pretty fair account of my usage in his SEP definition of libertarianism: “It [libertarianism] is normally advocated as a theory of justice in the sense of the duties that we owe each other. So understood, it is silent about any impersonal duties (i.e., duties owed to no one) that we may have.” That is, something is unjust when it fails to give others their due.

I don’t think that this is an entirely unreasonable or unfamiliar way to use the term – for example, we often speak of sexism in the workplace as “an injustice,” and we seem to talk about “justifying” our actions in the sense of demonstrating how they do not violate duties, rather than in the sense of demonstrating that they should not be prohibited by law. But whether or not you agree with my choice of terminology, it should still be pointed out that when I was talking about reasonable pluralism about justice, I wasn’t talking about reasonable pluralism about justice in the sense that you have in mind. I was talking about cases where people could reasonably disagree about what people are due. Does this help at all?

Switching to approaching the issue from your definition, I agree that in order for a justificatory liberal to see her coercive enforcement actions as legitimate, she would seem to need to believe that no one could reasonably disagree with her, since impartiality would be required to justify the action in question. I actually tend to think that this is a very real problem for justificatory liberalism (even though I am very sympathetic to it). For one thing, I think that our duties to each other underdetermine the answers to questions about things like procedural norms, and it seems to me that impartial procedures have a lot to do with public justification. But that’s beside the point; the bottom line is that I agree.

With regard to your objection to my apparent distinction between conceptions of the good and justice being, I think this may have also had something to do with our different uses of the word “justice.” Because I think of justice in terms of duties that we owe to each other, I would predictably want to divorce certain kinds of moral considerations from a whole range of other considerations that don’t inform these duties, at least for the purposes of discussing justice. I’m not sure I would want to posit a hard distinction between them, and I confess that I’m not entirely sure exactly what I said in my initial post that you’re objecting to. But I guess I’m not surprised that I would do something like what you described, and I would want to know if there’s something wrong with my approach that isn’t the result of accepting an “inappropriate” definition of “justice.”

Thanks again for taking the time to discuss all of this with me; I really appreciate it!

Roderick T. Long said...

With regard to the two senses of justice, I agree. And in fact Aristotle distinguishes special justice, which concerns legally enforceable rights, form general justice, which covers the whole of interpersonal morality. (See my article Proletarian Blues.) Plus, there's even a third sense, as when we speak of someone as doing themselves an injustice. But in the context of political philosophy it's usually the legally-enforceable-rights sense that's being employed.

What led me to interpret you as I did is your characterisation of the Rawlsian contrast between conceptions of the good (which for Rawls include moral concerns) and conceptions of justice as a distinction between what "constitutes a good life or what values are worthy of pursuing" and "the realm of morality." In any case, as both an Aristotelean and a thick libertarian, I'm suspicious of the idea of there being any sizable range of "other considerations that don't inform these duties."

With regard to the underdetermination problem, it seems to me that there's a difference between saying that our norms underdetermine what to do in certain cases and saying that in certain cases disagreements are irresolvable. If our norms really underdetermine what to do, then we have no basis for disagreement; it's optional -- we can just flip a coin, or let custom decide. When disputes get surly is when we mistakenly think our norms determine something they don't (and *that* ignorance isn't ineliminable).

Roderick T. Long said...

The last sentence of my 2nd paragraph got truncated. It should read:

In any case, as both an Aristotelean and a thick libertarian, I'm suspicious of the idea that "what values are worthy of pursuing" could really have no impact on what our duties are, and thus suspicious of the idea of there being any sizable range of "other considerations that don't inform these duties."

Danny Shahar said...

Regarding the two conceptions of justice, I guess I haven’t seen people be faithful enough to the different contexts to have truly internalized the distinction. But fair enough.

I think you’re right to notice that when I distinguished between the constituents of a good life and the values worthy of pursuit from moral considerations, I spoke imprecisely. Granting that we can be immoral without violating any duties to others, I think I probably should have said “the realm of justice” to stay in my definition, and “the realm of interpersonal duties” to stay in yours.

As to your more substantive point, would it help to restate “values worthy of pursuing” as “ends worthy of pursuing”? I didn’t mean “values” in the sense of normative values; I meant it simply in the sense of pursuing objects of value. So the opportunity to spend my afternoon painting, for example, could represent a value that I might find worthy of pursuing, but it doesn’t really seem to be the sort of thing that would ground duties to other people (though I trust that I could enlist your skills as a philosopher to think of a counterexample – this might be one: a guy is having heart problems and he’ll only be saved if someone can sooth him effectively; I’m standing nearby with an easel and some soft hues…). I trust that even as a thick libertarian, you can agree that at least some things can still be matters of personal taste and preference, right? (Of course, I don’t mean to go so far as to suggest that not smoking or liking Mozart is okay…)

Responding on the underdetermination problem, it seems like it’s generally going to be a problem when we think someone has acted unjustly (in your sense), but they deny the legitimacy of the procedure by which we seek to establish that (and, of course, we deny the legitimacy of the procedure by which they want to adjudicate the issue). This is less of an issue when there’s a generally accepted norm, or at least a norm that has a good enough claim to impartiality, to address the problem. But I guess it comes up in my thinking when considering ways to justify the implementation of social institutions like those norms in the first place.

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