November 21, 2011 columns

Is Contractarianism Serious (Or Just Clever)?

Pope deconstructs “Contractarianism” - the belief that the principles of justice and morality are not developped simply from intuition.

Julian has levied a very powerful critique of Narveson’s contractarianism. His objection provides a great opportunity to get to reconsider whether The Libertarian Idea is just too damn weird to be worth reading. (A secondary benefit is the welcome relief from the turgid work of analyzing the concept of libertarianism).

As we have seen, Narveson is a contractarian - believes that the principles of justice or morality are those for which each of us as we now are (i.e. with our idiosyncratic wants, tastes, and [maybe - we will see) values] would bargain for - in the first instance because he does not trust moral “intuition.” (Recall Narveson’s definition of “intuition” - “the philosopher’s word for seat-of-the-pants judgment.”) Because we cannot use intuition to determine the content of morality, we must either find some other procedure, or give up talking about morality at all [conclude that even if there are moral truths, they are inaccessible to us]. 

Narveson plumps for the former, and settles on contractarianism largely because it captures (what he regards as) a platitudinous truth about morality: that the fact that there is a moral obligation to do x gives everybody a reason to do x. Plainly (right?), if it is in each person’s self-interest to do x then each person has a reason to do x. If Narveson is right that morality is, in effect, the point where our prudence converges, it would seem to follow that moral obligations do give everybody a reason to act. 

Julian has two problems with Narveson’s motivation for contractarianism. First, he thinks it is myopic; it accommodates certain platitudes about morality, but fails to recognize others. Maybe it is a platitude about morality, as Narveson believes, that it gives each of us reasons to act. But surely it is also, if not a platitude, at least uncontroversially true that doing x will cause y great pain is a moral consideration against doing x. Maybe this moral consideration is sometimes overridden by other considerations. (If you are a retributivist - a brutal, inhumane thing to be - you will think it is overridden by considerations such as y deserved it.) But any proposed morality that does not recognize some action’s causing great pain as a consideration against performing that action is, for that reason, unsuccessful as a moral account. As Julian puts it: “If your account of why it is wrong to torture people does not include the fact that it feels horrible to the person who is tortured, then your account is not one I am prepared to describe as a “moral” one.” Julian observes, correctly, that Narveson does not regard the painfulness of torture as an ultimate consideration against torture, and also that Narveson allows that painfulness of a process inflicted on those incapable of bargaining for moral principles (e.g. on animals) is not a consideration against the process.*

Here’s how Narveson might reply. He might say that we need to be careful to distinguish between platitudes about morality and claims within morality. That is: a judgment might fail to be a moral truth because it isn’t even recognizable as a moral judgment, or it might fail because, even though it fits into moral discourse, it’s false. “Apes are sometimes large” isn’t a moral truth because it is a descriptive statement, not a moral judgment. “It is always a monstrous thing for loving, consenting adults to have sex with each other” isn’t a moral truth because, though it be a moral judgment, it is patently false.

It’s dangerous to generalize about the psychology of blog readers, but I’d ask you to notice the different ways you would react to these two candidates for moral truth. Say your friend came up to you and said: “I’ve been puzzling over a moral quandary for a while, and I want your thoughts.” He then said: “Moral truth: apes are sometimes large?” You’re reaction would be bemusement. “Do you even know what morality is?” you’d wryly inquire. But let’s say, instead, he said, “Moral truth: only bad people aren’t celibate.” You’re reaction would be outrage. “Do you even know what morality is!” you’d howl.

If this difference - outrage versus bemusement - marks the distinction between uncontroversial claims within morality, and platitudes about morality, then Narveson has his reply to Julian. The reply: if somebody says “you have a moral obligation not to kill your own mother, but you don’t have any reason not to kill her (the fact that it’s immoral to kill her doesn’t really tell you anything about what you ought to do)” the reaction is bemusement. “Do you even know what morality is? It is in the business of giving reasons, of telling you what to do.” On the other hand, if somebody says “it doesn’t matter morally that torture inflicts great suffering” the reaction is outrage. But that means that Julian’s objection to Narveson’s contractarianism - “If your account of why it is wrong to torture people does not include the fact that it feels horrible to the person who is tortured, then your account is not one I am prepared to describe as a “moral” one” - is an objection from within morality. Because Narveson is trying to give an account of morality - because contractarianism is supposed to capture the platitudes about morality - he can say that Julian’s objection is only as sound as the competing metaethical account on which it rests.** If that account can’t explain how morality gives everybody reasons to act, then it fails, along with Julian’s objection.

Which brings us, at last, to intuitionism. For Narveson, this is where the game is. He aims to establish (1) that only metaethical accounts that explain the content of moral judgments as reflecting, or the outcome of, moral intuitions can hope to explain how suffering qua suffering (as opposed to suffering qua something we each of us have prudential reason to avoid) can be something we all have reason not to commit, and (2) that moral intuitions are not reliable.  

Julian adumbrates a powerful “Companions in Guilt” response to this argument. (This is his second problem with Narveson’s contractarianism.) The thrust is that prudence, too, rests on intuitions. So for that matter does logic. You always have to start where you find yourself, and that will necessarily be a “seat of the pants” start. But that means judgments Narveson is comfortable relying on - judgments of prudence and logic - are in the same boat as moral judgments. Their common origin is in notions we just happen to have. If this is an original sin, then not only is morality suspect, but so too is prudence and logic. Consequently, Narveson’s argument proves too much. 

We’ll see how this reply fares next go round, when we get to the nitty gritty of Narveson’s argument against intuitonism, and for contractarianism. The important take-home here is that Narveson has the conceptual resources to defuse reductios that have their genesis in claims within morality. Contractarianism weathers the charge of moral perversity and remains, for the time being, a serious normative view.

* Narveson’s view on animals is representative: “[G]iven that we both can’t and also don’t need to make a general “contract” with … animals, the right conclusions about people’s relations  to animals must be subordinate to our firmly grounded conclusions about how to treat each other:  we should let each person do pretty much as he or she  wants … Manifestly,  animals are in not in the same moral class as we, in the  obvious respects that count for the generation of publicly compelling moral principles.” The fact that animals feel pain is, for Narveson, inapposite to what their moral status is. 

** There is a possible world Simon Blackburn’s counterpart-who-cares-about-marginal-political-bloggers is preparing to kill me.

Update: Added a link and a few clarifications.