Is Scanlon a virtue ethicist?

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According to T. M. Scanlon’s contractualist ethics, an act is wrong if it violates a set of principles that no one could reasonably reject. Reasons for rejecting a principle must conform to two restrictions. First, they must be personal reasons; one cannot appeal directly to impersonal values to reject candidate principles. Second, they must be individuals’ reasons; contractualism does not allow the aggregation of mild objections to outweigh a small number of very strong objections. Being a violation of contractualist principles or some narrower set of special obligations to others are not the only ways an act can be wrong, however. It would also be wrong, Scanlon suggests, to use fine spirits as paint thinner, to develop an obsessive preoccupation with work or sex, to be indifferent to the suffering of non-human animals, or to use the Grand Canyon as a landfill.

It is not plausible, Scanlon argues, that these things would be wrong because no one could reasonably reject principles that disallow them. Rather, these other kinds of wrongdoing are related to violations of the principles that no one could reasonably reject through the higher order property of representing a failure to respond properly to different values. Violating contractualist principles involves a failure to respond to the distinctive value of persons in the distinctive ways that this value calls for; using fine spirits as paint thinner involves a failure to respond to the distinctive value of fine spirits in the distinctive ways that that value calls for (e.g. by enjoying a good whisky’s complex flavours, or at least getting joyfully smashed with some pals). According to Scanlon’s view, there is no underlying master value that ties all these things together. Rather, both values and principles of right and wrong are constructed from reasons, the most basic normative entities. To value something, on this view (what Scanlon calls a “buck-passing” theory of value) is to see the reasons to treat that thing in certain ways and not others.

Given this more general account of right and wrong, it becomes clear how impersonal values may bear indirectly on the rejectability of candidate principles. Conformity with contractualist principles is a proper response to the value of persons in part because of our distinctive nature as creatures that recognize and respond to reasons. If a candidate principle would leave no room in my life for certain impersonal values — in other words, if it leaves me no room to recognize and respond to reasons to alleviate the suffering of non-human animals, for example — then I have reason to reject it; refusal to take this reason into account in assessing the relevant principle would demonstrate contempt for my value as a person, as well as that of the animal.

Because Scanlon’s contractualism emphasizes principles of right and wrong, it is often regarded as a species of deontological (duty- or rule-based) ethics. Odd as it may sound, however, I think it may be more fruitful to think of Scanlon’s moral philosophy as a species of virtue ethics. What I have in mind by virtue ethics is a family of approaches to moral theory that focuses on the character of the agent and a humanistic ideal of flourishing or eudaimonia, as opposed to approaches that focus on conforming to fundamental duties or bringing about optimal states of affairs. On this view, contractualism merely specifies requirements of the classical virtue of justice, which seems to cover more or less the same moral terrain that Scanlon refers to as “what we owe to each other”.

Given that his contractualism does not purport to be a complete moral theory, why say that Scanlon’s philosophy is a species of and not merely consistent with virtue ethics? The first reason is that the normative authority of contractualist principles is derived from character traits and capabilities that ought to be included in any plausible list of the virtues and the elements of human flourishing. By acting on contractualist principles, Scanlon argues, we establish a basic moral relationship with others — a relationship of “mutual recognition”, as Scanlon calls it. This is not, of course, the only moral relationship. We have duties to friends and family members that we do not have to complete strangers. Plausibly, we also have special duties to neighbours, fellow citizens, classmates, co-workers, etc. But the relationship of mutual recognition, Scanlon argues, is the foundation upon which these other relationships are built. For example:

Friendship, at least as I understand it, involves recognizing the friend as a separate person with moral standing—as someone to whom justification is owed in his or her own right, not merely in virtue of being a friend. A person who saw only friends as having this status would therefore not have friends in the sense I am describing: their moral standing would be too dependent on the contingent fact of his affection.[…]

As is well known, it is crucial to friendship that we are moved to do things for a friend by the special affection and regard that we hold for him or her as a friend, not simply by consideration of a kind that we owe to everyone. But […] friendship also requires us to recognize our friends as having moral standing as persons, independent of our friendship, which also places limits on our behavior. (What We Owe to Each Other, p. 164-165)

As Mark LeBar has pointed out*, this kind of recognition seems very much like a virtue even though Scanlon does not explicitly characterize it as such. Moreover, seeing and treating others in this way is also a precondition for developing virtues and modes of flourishing peculiar to family, friendship and political life.

Second, it is not clear how the contractualist formula can be given much in the way of determinate content without reference to the virtues and the forms of flourishing. For example, as noted above in the discussion of impersonal values, we have reasons for benevolence to animals. And the trait of benevolence contributes to (both causally and constitutively) a relationship with non-human nature that is part of a plausible humanistic ideal of flourishing. The virtue of benevolence and the kind of relationship it is bound up with will often have a significant bearing on the rejectability of principles concerning what we owe to each other. Overall, I strongly suspect that the virtues and the relationships with which they are connected have some bearing on the rejectability of principles more often than not.**

Third, Scanlon stresses that contractualist principles are not categorically binding rules, nor do they specify a clear ethical decision procedure. The interpretation and application of contractualist principles always calls for the exercise of judgment, which he describes in terms reminiscent of the virtue ethical concept of practical wisdom or phronesis. Contractualist morality is action-guiding for an agent only to the extent that he or she possesses the master virtue of practical wisdom.

At the very least, then, Scanlon’s contractualism seems to be a fairly comfortable fit with virtue ethics — more so, it seems to me, than with deontology or consequentialism. This suggests that attempts to develop a first order contractualist ethics may profit from closer engagement with the virtue ethical tradition; likewise, attempts to fill out accounts of the virtues are likely to benefit from greater attention to contractualists’ efforts in mapping the domain of what we owe to each other.

*In his chapter “Virtue and politics” in the Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics.
**Robert Adams makes an argument to this effect in the fourth section of his article “Scanlon’s Contractualism: Critical Notice of T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other,” The Philosophical Review, 110 (2001): 563–86.

Response to Welbanks: Some problems with the case for free tuition

TimeLordsTIOTThey probably didn’t charge tuition at the Time Lord Academy either, and you know how egalitarian they were

The Georgia Straight has published a short column by Douglas Welbanks that purports to rebut criticisms of free tuition by Postmedia’s Tristin Hopper. Although Welbanks makes a number of worthwhile points about defects with the status quo, the part of his column specifically concerned with defending free tuition relies heavily on three unsatisfactory arguments. 

1. Free tuition is not a “free ride” for the wealthy because the wealthy pay taxes.

The wealthy also pay taxes under the status quo, which does not include free tuition. This means that if tax rates are held constant, free tuition would indeed be a free ride — an additional benefit the wealthy receive while paying a smaller proportion of their wealth into the system. The obvious response would be that taxes on the wealthy should be raised. But Welbanks admits that under the status quo, the wealthy are already not paying their fair share, and this calls for tax reform. However, there are no details on what reforms would ensure that the wealthy pay their fair share under the status quo, let alone after free tuition has been introduced. This is not, I suspect, because the answer is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be stated. Tax policy is hard. Given the difficulty of answering this question, I do not see how Welbanks can rule out in advance the possibility that ensuring the wealthy pay their fair share would have to involve a mix of taxes and user fees — including tuition fees.

2. Opposition to free tuition implies ignorance of free public education and universal health care.

This is really a sort of slippery slope argument, in which support for certain existing free services is claimed to lead inexorably to support for making some other service free. But an opponent of free tuition can just as easily turn around and say that support for free tuition leads inexorably to support for free all you can eat cookies. Neither of these are good arguments. Unless the causal chain is spelled out, slippery slope arguments are fallacious.

It is possible that Welbanks thinks the chain leading from public education and health care to free tuition is too obvious to elaborate. But if he were to attempt do so, it might turn out that there are relevant differences between these services. For example, it might be relevant that free public education is mandatory whereas postsecondary education is not, or that universality in the health care system results in a more equitable allocation of resources than a two-tier system. Relevant differences like these, I think, make it unlikely that a non-fallacious version of the slippery slope argument will succeed.

3. Many other wealthy countries, most of which are far more egalitarian than Canada, provide universal free tuition.

This is an excellent reason to take a look at free tuition. But it is not a good reason to conclude that free tuition is a more egalitarian policy. Whether free tuition is a more egalitarian policy depends on the policy’s effects on real opportunities for postsecondary education. As Alex Usher has shown, postsecondary attainment rates in countries with free tuition are lower and more strongly correlated with parents’ attainment. Free tuition does not seem to be part of the explanation for these countries’ successes in the pursuit of equality.

This is not to say that free tuition is an inherently bad idea. I think there may be ways to do it that would avoid the pitfalls that commentators like Hopper and Usher are worried about. But the first step in arguing for a free tuition regime worth wanting is to acknowledge that those pitfalls exist in the first place.

Why democratizing the party policy process is always doomed

Formally speaking, a political party convention is the organization’s supreme policymaking authority. But in practice, the convention qua policymaking body mainly serves to display support for policy decisions already taken by the leadership. Yes, resolutions passed by the convention end up in the policy book. But the leadership is not obligated to actually pursue anything in the policy book. Nor are the policies it chooses to pursue limited to those included in the policy book.

Nevertheless, no convention is complete without a pitched battle between supporters or opponents of this or that resolution. The mere presence of a controversial resolution on the convention agenda can cause the party serious political embarrassment, while the prospect of such a resolution actually coming to a vote is treated as mildly more worrisome than the coming of Ragnarok. Under these conditions, the convention qua policymaking body acquires a secondary function of demonstrating the relative strength (in terms of numbers, organizational capacity, and procedural acumen) of a party’s internal factions or ideological tendencies.

This state of affairs is understandably frustrating for many party members, a large proportion of whom are motivated to get involved in party politics in the first place because they perceive this as an opportunity to influence policy in a meaningful way. And as a result of this frustration, party members have often tried to overhaul the policy process so that the formal promise of authoritative* member control over policy can be reflected in practice. Such efforts are rarely met with any degree of success, and successes tend to be temporary rather than incremental. This establishes a vicious cycle; each setback seems to confirm activists’ suspicion that the party is dominated by elites who are out of touch with the rank and file, and the cure is to bring those elites to heel through further — inevitably doomed — attempts to capture the policy process.

However, the fundamental difficulty with democratizing the policy process in the ways that activists envision arises from the conflict this creates with other mechanisms in the larger democratic apparatus that party policy processes are meant to serve.

Some of these other mechanisms are internal to the party. Party leaders, for example, are increasingly likely to be selected by the membership at large, and members ostensibly choose leaders largely on the basis of their policy commitments. This selection process gives the leader a far more convincing claim to a democratic mandate to set party policy in practice compared to an assembly of convention delegates, most of whom are unknown except to the local activists they represent and who meet as a body only once every year or two.

Activists’ demands for authoritative control of policymaking also creates a conflict with external democratic mechanisms. The practice of democracy within parties must serve the practice of democracy in a system of representative, responsible government, and this requires that a party’s elected officeholders be responsive to policy demands originating outside the party organization, from individual members of the public or organized interest groups. Insofar as authoritative member control of policy conflicts with the ability of officeholders to respond to such policy demands, the goal of a “more democratic” policy process conflicts with the broader goal of democratic political process.

This is not to deny that political parties suffer democratic defects or that these defects can and should be corrected. It is just to say that the usual approach to correcting the democratic defects of our political parties is inevitably doomed, for very good reasons. Efforts to make political parties more democratic should focus on other avenues for reform.

*By authoritative control I mean the legitimate power to force a party’s officeholders to adopt positions that they would not otherwise have adopted.

Proportional representation and party discipline


In recent years, much of the discussion of democratic reform in Canada has focused on two themes: proportional representation and party discipline. To some observers, this pairing seems paradoxical. After all, the movement for proportional representation stresses the importance of political parties in a representative democracy, while critics of excessive party discipline stress the ways that parties can undermine the representative responsibilities of individual legislators. Some critics even go so far as to argue that parties ought to be abolished altogether.

The appearance of a paradox, however, is an illusion. Although proportional representation cannot satisfy those who call for an end to party politics, there is a strong affinity between the case for PR and the concerns of the moderate critics of party discipline. This follows from the fact that although party cohesion tends to be higher under any form of PR than it is under FPTP, PR tends to produce a larger number of competitive parties.

The main criticism of excessive party discipline, I take it, is that it results in a legislature that is less reflective of the full range of public opinion on political matters. At its most extreme, this makes legislators mere placeholders for their party leaders. And because there are usually only two or three party leaders in the legislature, the legislature is completely dominated by just two or three perspectives. Although in practice a leader must pay attention to the views of their caucus in order to remain in power, members can only express themselves freely in caucus meetings that are closed to the public. And even then, the leader — who normally enjoys a separate mandate from the party membership and exercises unrestricted control over disciplinary measures up to and including the right to expel a sitting member from the party or block their nomination — has an enormous amount of leverage.

Proportional representation presents a partial solution to this problem. This works in two ways. First, PR almost always increases the number of parties in the legislature. Even assuming that the simplified picture presented above holds true at all times, this means that the legislature will still do a better job of reflecting the full range of public opinion. Second, PR reduces the leader’s leverage by lowering barriers to entry for new parties. The threat of expulsion or a vetoed nomination has significantly less force if it is relatively easy for a group of renegades to set up a new party with a reasonable prospect of being returned to the legislature in the next election. This is likely to lead to a freer exchange of ideas within closed caucus meetings as well as in public proceedings of the legislature and its committees.

Finally, it should be noted that enacting PR is entirely consistent with other measures that have been proposed to restore balance to party discipline, such as legislating a procedure that caucus members can use to remove party leaders, transferring sole control over nominations to riding associations or regional bodies, and subjecting the most severe sanctions for members to the collective control of the party caucus rather than the leader.

These measures may sound familiar; all of them were included in the early drafts of Michael Chong’s Reform Act. By the time the Reform Act passed, unfortunately, every one of its provisions had been watered down to the point of meaninglessness. While the movement for proportional representation in Canada remains strong and continues to bear fruit, the other major theme in the conversation about democratic reform seems to have petered out for now. Given that these themes are in fact closely related, however, citizens who are still concerned about excessive party discipline in BC and the country at large have good reason to get behind proportional representation.