What We Owe to Each Other by T.M. Scanlon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like many readers of this book, I was led here by the show The Good Place—though my path was indirect. A friend of mine spent months trying to convince me to watch it, arguing that it was “made for me.” But I very rarely watch TV and I never felt compelled to make an exception for the show, however brilliant it may have been.

About a year after my friend moved away, however, I received this book in the mail. Apparently, this relatively obscure philosophy text was referred to multiple times in the show, as the protagonist slowly learned what it means to be a good person. And my friend decided, if she could not get me to watch the show, it would be far easier to get me to read a book. Considering that I am here now, this was a correct surmise.

I really don’t know why the show’s writers chose this, among all of the available philosophy texts, to be featured in the show (an in-joke?). For I really can hardly imagine a work of philosophy less likely to improve a person’s everyday behavior than this one. This is not a criticism of Scanlon, you see, as the book was not written to be exhortatory or uplifting. Rather, this is a work of academic philosophy about the abstract nature of morality. I only point this out to save fans of the show from disappointment.

Scanlon here sets out to give a contractualist account of morality. Well, not quite. He quickly admits that his focus does not include all of what is conventionally thought of as ethics. For some people, saying grace before a meal is morally right, whereas for others preserving a particularly beautiful tree from destruction is something they consider a duty. Indeed, what people consider to be a moral requirement is a large, messy, and varied category. Scanlon here restricts himself to a narrower domain, what he calls “what we owe to each other.” This, in short, has to do with the morality of interpersonal behavior—how we treat one another.

Scanlon begins in a somewhat unusual way, with a delve into the psychology of motivation. He argues that humans, as rational creatures, are better described as being motivated by “reasons” than by “desires.” A desire, in his view, is a kind of short-term motivational urge; and while we do experience such urges, we most often do things because of some larger goal or in accordance with some value. A parent may punish a child, for example, because they think discipline is a necessary part of child-rearing, even if they feel no actual anger—or, indeed, even if they are tired and would rather let it slide.

The fact that humans are motivated by “reasons” and not just “desires” is what makes us, in Scanlon’s views, particularly subject to the laws of morality. This is because we humans, as rational creatures, have a strong motive to care that the reasons for our actions be justifiable to our fellows. Social life would be impossible otherwise. Indeed, for Scanlon, this is the very heart of morality: that we act in a way that no one affected by our action could reasonably reject the principles which guided us.

You might notice that this formula has much in common with Kant’s categorical imperative. Where it differs is in its social (or contractualist) orientation. Morality is not a consequence of a priori rational rules or a special metaphysical category, but rather a consequence of the nature of rationality itself—something we are almost certain to care about, given that we live in communities and act in accordance with broad principles. This account of morality does, however, differ sharply from those along utilitarian lines, and Scanlon argues at length against such views.

I have been trying to present Scanlon’s views fairly, but I have to admit that I did not find this book compelling. For one, his distinction between reasons and desires—an important foundation of his theory—strikes me as particularly fragile. At various points in the book he formulates principles (such as about honesty) which could serve for ethical action. But it is obvious that these principles are so abstract that virtually no ordinary person would think along such lines. Indeed, Scanlon himself admits that most people have rather vague intuitions about their reasons for action, though for him it suffices that the reasons could be formulated.

Worse, while arguing for the primacy of reasons over desires in human motivation, Scanlon does not cite any but “phenomenological” evidence—which is to say, his own experience. To be fair, I have no idea what the state of psychological research into motivation was in 1998, when the book was published. But within a decade, researchers like Jonathan Haidt would make a very strong case that the reasons we profess for acting or thinking in a certain way are not reliable indications of our true motivation.

For example, people often have strong moral feelings (of outrage or disgust, say) without being able to say exactly why they object to something. It seems that our emotional reaction comes first and then our frontal lobe tries to justify the feeling, rather than the opposite. To quote Benjamin Franklin: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

If Haidt’s model is true, and humans are not primarily motivated by “reasons,” then many of Scanlon’s arguments about morality and why we ought to care about it are considerably weakened. Yet even if we leave this issue to the side, I also found Scanlon’s test of moral validity to be unhelpful. His formula is: Act in such a way that nobody affected by the action could reasonably reject the principles which guided your actions.

To my mind, Scanlon ought to have spent much more time specifying exactly what he meant by “reasonable.” He does not provide any sort of test or easily applicable standards which would show whether a given principle can be reasonably rejected or not, apparently believing that our intuitions about what is reasonable or not would mostly coincide. Perhaps that is true much of the time, but in my experience there is a great deal of disagreement over what is reasonable (and, indeed, what is moral). By the end, I could not help thinking that Scanlon’s formulation was so vague as to be close to useless.

This is related to another fault. Though Scanlon spends a great deal of time explaining the specifics and advantages of his ethical system, he does not show how his way of thinking applies to any tricky areas of morality. He entirely avoids any controversial case—such as abortion, animal rights, the death penalty—and seems content to show that his system forbids murder and most forms of dishonesty. Bertrand Russell once remarked that, in ethics, the philosopher often proceeds by taking the conventional conclusions of morality for granted, and then finding some extra way of justifying them—and this strikes me as precisely the sort of exercise Scanlon is engaged in.

As for the writing style, I notice that many readers found it off-putting. But by the standards of academic philosophy, I would actually say that this book is extremely accessible. That is, of course, not high praise, but at the very least Scanlon avoids formal logic and the impenetrable argot of continental philosophers. Yet it must be admitted that by normal standards the writing is quite dry and lifeless.

But I really do not want to heap so many criticisms upon this book. Scanlon here presents a thoughtful new take on ethics with a minimum of jargon and without being strident or doctrinaire. If I did not find it a rewarding read, it is probably because I am not part of the book’s intended audience (other academic philosophers). Now, after having spent weeks on the book and a lot of time on this review, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off just watching the show…

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