Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review of Scanlon's Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame

Forthcoming in Philosophy in Review. Vol. 29 no. 4. Pages 58-60.

T. M. Scanlon Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2008. Pp. 227. US$29.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-674-03178-4).

Following in the steps of What We Owe to Each Other (Harvard University Press 1999), this new, slimmer volume will garner plenty of attention in moral philosophy. It consists of four interconnected chapters, the last, on blame, substantially longer than the others, and an especially substantial contribution to the literature.

The first chapter criticizes the doctrine of double effect, arguing that it rests on a mistake about the role of intention in the permissibility of actions. The doctrine makes the following sort of contrast: in wartime, while it would be wrong to bomb an enemy with the intention of killing civilians in order to demoralize the populace in order to bring about a swifter end to the war, it would be morally permissible to bomb a military target such as a munitions factory, knowing that doing so would result in the deaths of an equal number of civilians. The contrast is between what we intend to achieve and what results from the foreseen but unintended effects of our actions. Scanlon holds that while the agent’s intentions may be relevant to the moral assessment of some actions, they are not directly relevant. Scanlon’s first criticism of the doctrine is that it is implausible to hold that the moral permissibility of a decision to bomb a munitions factory and thereby kill a number of civilians depends on one’s intentions. He argues that it is not the intention that matters directly in central cases, but rather what one does and whether one’s actions violate moral principles. He makes this argument by drawing a distinction between the deliberative use of a principle to decide whether an action is ethically permissible, and its critical use to assess how the agent made his or her decision. It is possible that a person’s (or organization’s) intentions will have an effect on how they carry out their actions, and how they would react in the case of changing circumstances. But when the action itself is fixed, and the effects of the action are known, then in assessing its morality, we need to look at the moral principles that apply. The distinction between intended effects and unintended but foreseen effects has no direct relevance, according to Scanlon.

The arguments in this first chapter are hardly conclusive, as they rest largely on unargued intuitions. Scanlon’s opponents can insist that how we understand what an agent did crucially depends on what her intentions were. Scanlon has not provided enough analysis of the concept of an action, or indeed of the sources of moral responsibility, to show his opponents’ view is incoherent. The main value of this first chapter lies in its statement of an alternative view, and Scanlon is right in saying that once one adopts that view, the claims of the doctrine of double effect look ‘bizarre’ when applied to familiar cases of trolley problems and of sacrificing one person to harvest her organs to save the lives of five other people. However, we also have strong intuitions that one’s intentions are relevant in assessing the permissibility of one’s actions, and Scanlon needs to show that his view has a place for these intuitions, in order to avoid having his own view look bizarre too.

The second chapter goes further in setting out an argument for his position. Scanlon agrees that intentions are indeed central in determining what action a person has performed, but he insists that it is the action and not the agent’s intent or understanding of morality that is crucial to the action’s permissibility. Scanlon provides an array of cases where he agrees that a person’s intentions make a difference, such as when a person who apparently does good is actually acting out of selfish or dishonorable motives. However, he argues that these cases can be explained by considering what he calls the ‘meaning’ of the actions. The meaning of an action does depend on the reason the agent did it, but it is not the same thing as the reason. One action can have different meanings for different people, but Scanlon emphasizes his view that the meaning is not purely subjective. People can be mistaken about the meaning of an action for them; they are not fixed by a person's emotions or beliefs, but instead depend on context. For example, Angela may regard Tom's action as a betrayal, but the actual meaning of Tom's action for Angela may in fact be different. To help explain his specialized conception of meaning here, Scanlon gives plenty of examples. Whether he succeeds in clarifying his concept of meaning is debatable.
The third chapter attempts to understand the idea that we should not treat people merely as a means to an end. Scanlon endorses a sense in which treating a person as an end can be used as a general criterion of moral rightness, but shows that this is different from the sense in which we generally mean that it is wrong to use people. He makes a strong case for this, and the chapter will be especially useful to those who work on the morality of using people.

The final chapter, on blame, draws on some distinctions from the prior chapters, but it largely stands alone. It not only has the most innovative and interesting claims of the book, but is also much clearer and supplies a stronger more sustained argument. On his view, blame is not simply an evaluative attitude or an emotion; rather, when one blames another, one judges her blameworthy and, crucially, takes one’s relationship with her to be impaired; one’s attitudes towards the blamed person change. To blame a person is not the converse of praising them; rather, it is closer to the converse of being grateful to another person. It follows, with some further argument, that it is reasonable to blame people for actions even in cases where they could not have done otherwise.

Paradigms of blaming on this account will be in cases where the blamer has a close personal relationship with the person she blames, and Scanlon focuses on blame in friendships and families. He spells out what dispositions are required for people in a good moral relationship. Yet it is possible to blame someone whom one has not met personally. To explain this fact, Scanlon holds that one has a relationship with everyone. Naturally, since one does not have a personal relationship with that person, the impairment in the relationship is different from the blame that occurs between close friends.

Scanlon argues that his account of blame explains several features. (a) Not every wrong action is blameworthy. For example, lack of ambition is a fault of character, but is not blameworthy in itself. (b) The blameworthiness of an action does directly depend on the intentions with which the action was performed, because the agent’s reasons constitute his attitude towards others. (c) We apply blame to young children differently, because of the inequality of the relationship between adults and children, in which adults are teaching the children to become good. Scanlon’s approach to blameworthiness is distinctive in focusing on the relationship between people, and particular actions are relevant insofar as they bear on those relationships. Indeed, blame can be independent of any particular blameworthy action. He acknowledges that this may be in tension with some common understanding of blame, but he argues that our ordinary intuitions are mixed, so no coherent theory can match them all.
People do not normally choose their characters, but since on Scanlon’s view our relationships with them are largely based on their character, this lack of choice does not mean that we should not blame them. The fact that a callous killer had a terrible childhood may alter the way we treat her, but it does not make her exempt from blame. Scanlon considers arguments that we should not hold people morally responsible for their actions when they lack choice about their nature, but maintains that such views rest on the idea that there is a real self that would be uncovered under the right circumstances, and he can make little sense of this. He emphasizes that we have to base our relationships with people on how they actually are, not how they might have been under different circumstances. Whatever the causes of their current attitudes, those are the ones that constitute their relations with other people.

One could retain many of Scanlon's insights about blaming but reject his claim that the change in relationship is partially constitutive; instead one could say that blaming expresses an evaluative attitude towards a person’s action that causes changes in our relationship with her.

Nevertheless, the great value of his proposal is his emphasis on the importance of relationships in understanding blaming. This brings ethics closer to addressing our everyday interactions with colleagues, friends and family. Scanlon’s writing style can make it difficult to pin down exactly how his arguments are meant to go or how they relate to other, well-known positions in this area, since he does not give much discussion of the relevant literature. Nevertheless, this book, and especially the chapter on blame, deserves and will repay careful study.

Christian Perring
Dowling College

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