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WHY WE CAN'T UNDERSTAND THOUGHT FROM THE OUTSIDE 9 page

It follows that we each have value only to ourselves and to those who care about us. Considered impersonally, we are

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valueless and provide no intrinsic reasons for concern to anyone. So the egoistic answer to the question of what kinds of reasons there are amounts to an assessment of oneself, along with everyone else, as objectively worthless. In a sense, it doesn't matter (except to ourselves) what happens to us: Each person has value only for himself, not in himself.

Now this judgment, while it satisfies the generality condition for reasons, and while perfectly consistent, is in my opinion highly unreasonable and difficult to honestly accept. Can you really believe that objectively, it doesn't matter whether you die of thirst or not--and that your inclination to believe that it does is just the false objectification of your self-love? One could really ask the same question about anybody else's dying of thirst, but concentrating on your own case stimulates the imagination, which is why the fundamental moral argument takes the form, "How would you like it if someone did that to you?" The concept of reasons for action faces us with a question about their content that it is very difficult to answer in a consistently egoistic or agent-relative style.

VII

This step takes us to the basic platform of other-regarding moral thought, but at that point the path forward becomes more difficult to discern. We may admit that a system of reasons should accord to persons and their interests some kind of objective, as well as subjective, worth, but there is more than one way to do this, and none of them is clearly the right one; no doubt there are other ways, not yet invented, which are superior to those that have been. As a final illustration of the attempt to discover objective practical reasons, let me discuss the familiar contrast between two broad approaches to the interpretation of objective worth, represented by utilitarian and contractualist (or rights-based) moral theories, respectively. This is also, I must admit, the type of case where skepti-

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cism about the objectivity of reasons is most plausible, precisely because the substantive arguments are not decisive.

The problem is to give more specific content to the idea that persons have value not just for themselves but in themselves--and therefore for everyone. That means we all have some kind of reason to consider one another, but what kind is it? What is the right way to think from an objective standpoint about the nonegoistic system of reasons generated by multiple individual lives?

Each of the two approaches answers the question in a way that attempts to give equal value to everyone; the difference between them lies in the kind of equality they endorse. Utilitarianism assigns equal value to people's actual experiences, positive and negative: Everyone's personal good counts the same, as something to be advanced. The equal moral value that utilitarianism assigns to everyone is equality as a component of the totality of value. This leads to the characteristic aggregative and maximizing properties of utilitarian moral reasoning. Everyone is treated equally as a source of inputs to the calculation of value, but once that is done, it is total value rather than equality that takes over as the goal. Utilitarianism may have problems supplying a usable common measure of well-being for combinatorial purposes, but it is certainly a viable method of moral reasoning. If it is taken as the whole truth about morality, then rights, obligations, equality, and other deontological elements have to be explained derivatively, on the ground of their instrumental value in promoting the greatest overall good for people in the long run. The ruleutilitarian treatment of those topics is well developed and familiar.



The other approach is associated with the social contract tradition and Kant's categorical imperative. It accords to everyone not equality of input into the totality of value, but equality of status and treatment in certain respects. The way it acknowledges everyone's objective value is to offer certain

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universal substantive guarantees--protections against violation and provision of basic needs. Equality in moral status is therefore much closer to the surface of contractualist than of utilitarian moral recognition. Contractualism uses a system of priorities rather than maximization of total well-being as the method of settling conflicts between interests. It also allows the admission of rights, obligations, and distributive equality as fundamental features of the system of moral reasons rather than as derivative features justified only by their instrumental value. The resulting system will include certain guaranteed protections to everyone, in the form of individual rights against interference, as well as priority in the provision of benefits to serve the most urgent needs, which are in general to be met before less urgent interests, even of larger numbers of persons, are addressed.

The dispute between a priority or rights-based theory and a maximizing, aggregative theory is really a disagreement over the best way to interpret the extremely general requirement of impartial interpersonal concern. 11. The issue is at the moment highly salient and controversial, and I do not propose to take it further here. I introduce it only as an example of a large substantive question of moral theory, one that firmly resists subjectivist or relativist interpretation: The question demands that we look for the right answer rather than relying on our feelings or the consensus of our community.

Once we admit the existence of some form of otherregarding reasons that are general in application, we have to look for a way of specifying their content and principles of combination. That is not a first-person enterprise. We are trying to decide what reasons there are, having already decided that there must be some, in a certain broad category--a

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11. For an alternative position see Christine Korsgaard essay "The Reasons We Can Share: An Attack on the Distinction between Agent-relative and Agent-neutral Values," Social Philosophy and Policy 10, no. 1 ( 1993).

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generally applicable way of answering the question "What is the right thing to do in these circumstances?" That is simply a continuation of the original task of objective judgment that faced us when we took the first reflective step, by asking whether, from an impersonal point of view, we have any reasons to do anything at all. To answer the question it is not enough to consult my own inclinations; I have to try to arrive at a judgment. Such judgments often take the form of moral intuitions, but those are not just subjective reactions, at least in intention: They are beliefs about what is right.

The situation here is like that in any other basic domain. First-order thoughts about its content--thoughts expressed in the object language--rise up again as the decisive factor in response to all second-order thoughts about their psychological character. They look back at the observer, so to speak. And those first-order thoughts aim to be valid without qualification, however much pluralism or even relativism may appear as part of their (objective) content. It is in that sense that ethics is one of the provinces of reason, if it is. That is why we can defend moral reason only by abandoning metatheory for substantive ethics. Only the intrinsic weight of first-order moral thinking can counter the doubts of subjectivism. (And the less its weight, the more plausible subjectivism becomes.) 12.

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12. For Ronald Dworkin closely related treatment of these issues, see his essay "Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Believe It," Philosophy & Public Affairs 25, no. 2 ( 1996).

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Date: 2015-12-24; view: 231


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