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.

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