Why We’re Bound by Moral Reasons

Responding to Reasons

We humans are different than anything else we know of in the universe.  Chemically, we’re not too far off from other carbon-based things like the turkey sandwich in my refrigerator.  Biologically, we’re not too far off from other members of the animal kingdom like my Aunt’s cat Fluffy.  But we do something that nothing else in the known universe does: we understand and respond to reasons.  Robert Brandom marks us out from everything else in these terms:

We are the ones on whom reasons are binding, who are subject to the peculiar force of the better reason.  This force is a species of normative force, a rational ‘ought.’  Being rational is being bound or constrained by these norms, being subject to the authority of reasons.

Drawing from intellectual history, Brandom jumps on the phrase “rational animals” to mark out the sort of beings that we are.  Another way of making the distinction to highlight the essential normative element is to say that we are “responsible animals.”  Insofar as we are persons, we are held accountable for what we say and what we do, and we can hold others accountable as well.  We are things that can give and ask for reasons.  That’s what distinguishes things like us from things like the turkey sandwich in my refrigerator and my Aunt’s cat, Fluffy.

We are what we might call reason-responsive agents, and essentially so.   We can’t help it, just like my turkey sandwich can’t help but be carbon-based.  Of course, I can bop myself on the head in the hopes that I’ll enter into a coma and no longer be responsive to reasons.  But for now, I’m stuck being reason-responsive, and, if I have some inclination to bop myself on the head, I’ll have to deal with the question of whether it’s reasonable to do that.  Further, asking “Why should I take myself to be bound by reasons?” doesn’t make much sense; one is asking here what reasons one has to take oneself to be bound by reasons, thus implicitly  acknowledging their boundedness to reasons.  A more sensible question is, “Why should I take myself to be bound by this or that set of reasons?”  One set of reasons for which this question is particularly interesting is moral reasons, and that’s my topic for this post.  I’ll try to make the case here that, if we are bound by any reasons at all, we must be bound by moral reasons.

The Intersubjective Nature of Reasons

What are reasons, really, and why are there any in the first place?  Reasons are considerations that count in favor of something.  In the paradigm cases, they count in favor of an action that we might take or a belief that we might hold. The fact that we understand ourselves as having reasons follows directly from our nature as agents, as things that act in accordance with a will.  We act deliberately, and this requires the possibility of deliberating on our actions, weighing out the reasons for and against them.  When we become conscious of the fact that we are acting, we understand ourselves in normative terms, in terms of how we ought to act.  Explicit self-consciousness is a normative sort of self-consciousness.  We only become self-consciousness of our actions given the possibility of going astray.  As fallible agents, we might stray from what we have reason to do, and the reflective assessment of our actions aims to avoid this.

Reasons, on this view, are dependent on a normative conception of self-conscious agency, but I have not yet said what the substance of these reasons consists in.  One answer to this question might be to say, that our reasons merely rely on the possibility of straying from our own desires and goals.  If that was the case, then the only sort of reasons we’d have would be hypothetical reasons: reasons given our goals and desires.  While many find this answer intuitive, I think it’s incorrect.  I think that the standards we hold ourselves to in making sense of our own actions must be, not merely our own standard, but our collective understanding of correctness.  This is to say that these reasons must not merely be our own reasons given our desires and goals; they must be intersubjective reasons.

One famous argument for this line of thought comes from Wittgenstein.  His argument can be construed as follows:  In order to evaluate something as reasonable or not, there must be a possibility of acting unreasonably, of making errors with regard to reason.  There has to be a possibility of getting it wrong.  But if the only possible evaluator is me, I can’t get it wrong.  If I was the only possible evaluator there’d be no difference between thinking I am acting reasonably, and actually acting reasonably.  As Wittgenstein puts it “whatever is going to seem right to me is right.  And that only means that here we cannot talk about ‘right.’”  So without the possibility of public evaluation the whole notion of correctness or incorrectness goes out the window.  This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for me to privately evaluate my reasons for doing an action on some occasions.  It is quite often that I evaluate my actions to see if they are reasonable without asking anyone else about them.  But Wittgenstein’s point is that this private evaluation takes its conceptual basis on the public, intersubjective evaluation of reasons.

If being responsive to reasons just is being responsive to public standards of correctness in our performance of actions and formation of beliefs, the reasons to which we respond must be, in the paradigm case, intersubjective reasons.  This is not, of course, to say that whenever I have a reason to do X, you also have that reason to do X.  That would imply that, if I have a reason to play soccer (since I enjoy it), you also have a reason to play soccer (even if you hate it).   Rather, it is to say that you must be able to understand and appreciate my reason to do X, in order for it to really count as a reason.   Consider again how I’ve said that understanding ourselves as having reasons for various things is dependent on self-conscious awareness of our actions.  Now that we’ve seen that these reasons are fundamentally intersubjective reasons, we can see that this self-consciousness in virtue of which we understand ourselves as having reasons must be a social self-consciousness.  Our identities are social identities. 

The social nature of our identities goes hand in hand with the intersubjective nature of the reasons to which we are responsive.  An example will help shed some light on this fact.  Suppose I am four years old.  My mom sees me steal a toy from my three year old brother and stops me saying, “No.  We don’t steal.”  She is making a prescriptive claim here about how I ought to act, but she is she is making that claim by identifying the sort of thing that I am.  What is this “we” of which my mom speaks?  Is it just me and her?  Or is it just those in our family, our culture, or our country?  No, when she says “we,” she’s talking about all the things like her and me that there might be; every reason-responsive agent is included in the scope of her “we.”  My identity which guides my self-conscious reflection (my conscience) is founded on these sorts of normative corrections.

What’s Really Wrong with Acting Immorally

In this context we can explain why it is the case that, if we are normatively bound by any reasons at all, we must be bound by moral reasons.   Moral violations directly go against the reasons of others.  This is what makes a violation of a moral norm a distinctly moral one, and this is what is what makes moral norms categorical.  Violations of moral norms are unreasonable in the strongest sense because these acts cannot possibly be publically evaluated as correct.  To knowingly act immorally is to reject ones responsiveness to some reason or another.  Sometimes we are quite aware of this, as Christine Korsgaard points out in an example with which many of us can sympathize:

If I call out your name, I make you stop in your tracks. (If you love me, I make you come running.) Now you cannot proceed as you did before. Oh, you can proceed, all right, but not just as you did before. For now if you walk on, you will be ignoring me and slighting me. It will probably be difficult for you, and you will have to muster a certain active resistance, a sense of rebellion. But why should you have to rebel against me? It is because I am a law to you.  By calling out your name, I have obligated you. I have given you a reason to stop.

Of course, we might have a good reason for not stopping.  We might be late for an appointment, and we might explain this to this person next time we see her, and, if she herself is reasonable, presumably she’ll understand.  But we also might not have a good reason for not stopping.  In this case, we would simply block out (to the best of our ability) the reason imposed on us, rather than being able to justify our action either internally or externally.

The greater the moral transgression, the more substantive this rejection of responsiveness to reasons is, and the harder it becomes to not respond with appropriate actions to the reasons imposed on our minds.  In this context, we can explain what’s objectively wrong with utterly appalling acts like torturing a person just for fun.  When we consciously commit any immoral act there are some reasons that we must be rejecting, but, with regard to particularly immoral acts like torture, the reasons that we consciously reject are reasons paramount to a person’s entire existence; these are pretty big reasons.  These are reasons that (practically) nothing could over-ride (I’ll table the question in applied ethics of whether it’s wrong to torture in all conceivable circumstances for now, and just say that we’re not talking about one of those possible circumstances).

Hardly anyone would enjoy torturing someone.  In fact, most people, if forced to do it, would find it absolutely awful.  It’s not too hard to give a neurobiological explanation of why this is the case.  It probably has something to do with mirror neurons, and we can likely give some sort of evolutionary explanation as to why these neural features devolved.   This sort of explanation, however, would only explain why, given our biological make-up, we are disposed to be averse to torturing someone.   It wouldn’t say why there is anything morally wrong or unreasonable about torturing someone, in the same way that giving a biological explanation about why most of us would not find spinach flavored ice-cream appealing would not give us a reason to think that there’s anything wrong with eating it.  But, given the sort of explanation I’ve been articulating here, we can say, in normative terms why we find the the prospect torturing of someone absolutely awful.  What you’re doing when you’re torturing a person is denying your own responsiveness to reasons.  In a sense, you are denying the very thing that you are, your rational agency, the thing that makes you different from my Aunt’s cat Fluffy.  That’s the normative content behind the horrible pain that we’d experience if we were forced to torture someone, and it’s in virtue of this fact that we can understand acts like this as unreasonable in the strongest sense of the term.


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