Friday, July 24, 2020

Right Wrong-Makers (forthcoming in PPR)

My latest paper, 'The Right Wrong-Makers', has been accepted for publication in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research!  I actually think this is the best (and most significant) paper I've written.* The basic setup:
Stocker (1976) famously lamented the "moral schizophrenia", or disharmony "between one's motives and one's [normative] reasons," that he associated with modern ethical theories. Our moral theories appear to furnish us with highly abstract fundamental justifications--invoking the likes of aggregate utility, reasonable rejectability, universalizable maxims, or the balance of prima facie duties. Ordinary moral motivation, by contrast, often involves concern for particular, concrete individuals|and rightly so. This divergence between justification and apt motivation is all the more striking because many contemporary moral theorists explicitly endorse principles linking the two. Others (especially consequentialists) have responded by disavowing this link, effectively embracing the charge of schizophrenic disharmony. But I think such disavowals are a mistake. 
This paper offers a different kind of response to Stocker's charge. We can reject the assumption that our moral theories furnish us with highly abstract fundamental justifications, normative reasons, or moral grounds. Our theories may advert to highly abstract properties in specifying their criteria for right action: that which fills in the blank in statements of the form, "An act is right iff __." But we need not take those canonical criteria to themselves be the theory's fundamental moral grounds. Instead, I propose, we should interpret them as summarizing the full range of moral grounds posited by the theory. Highly abstract summary criteria are compatible with appropriately concrete and personal ground-level concerns. Harmony may thus be restored. 


The central thesis of this paper is that the moral grounds (fundamental right- and wrong-making features) posited by a theory can be more specific than its general criteria for right or wrong action. What's criterial for rightness need not be what most fundamentally makes an act right. This has important normative implications, especially (but not only) for morally apt or fitting motivation. As a result, our choice of moral grounds can make an immense difference to the plausibility of our moral theories.  Some powerful objections to consequentialism, for example, depend upon the assumption that maximizing value is the theory's posited right-making feature. Understanding why this assumption is false also makes clear why these objections fail. But it isn't only consequentialists who can benefit from the distinctions drawn in this paper. Moral theorists more generally would do well to ensure that their theories assign ground-level significance to particular individuals and their interests.

One important upshot (that I plan to expand upon more explicitly in future work) is that mainstream consequentialism took a wrong turn in its embrace of Stockerian schizophrenic disharmony (following Railton's famous 'Alienation' paper).  In the Fall, I'll be starting work on a book manuscript, Bleeding-Heart Consequentialism, that seeks to develop an alternative approach.  But you can see the outlines of it already in this paper (along with some of my earlier work).

* [Interestingly, it's probably also the most heavily-revised of my papers. It started life as a much narrower paper on Rossian Utilitarianism (which was evaluated quite negatively by my UK colleagues as part of the "REF preparation" process we had to go through).   Over time, it gradually expanded and shifted focus, in beneficial ways.  Perhaps most importantly, the current introductory section -- and associated "Stockerian" framing in terms of the "Problem of Excessive Abstractness" -- only resulted from revisions at PPR (thanks to an immensely helpful and generous referee, who noted a whole raft of structural problems with the previous version of the paper).  So I'm very grateful for how it all turned out.]

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