Chapter 5, Part 2b, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations, “Constructivism”:



Perhaps one might think the objectionable features of Harman’s view come from his decision to treat moral obligations as the outcome of relativistic social bargains that individuals freely enter into. It’s thus worth investigating whether moral obligations can be understood as the result of a social agreement that is ideal and perhaps for that reason universal.

Ronald Milo has proposed a view that he calls “contractarian constructivism.” It holds that moral truths are most plausibly construed as truths about an ideal social order. On this view, a certain kind of act is wrong just in case a social order prohibiting such acts would be chosen by rational contractors under suitably idealized conditions. This introduces a number of questions. For example, are the decisions based on making possible some good? And if so, isn’t this an abandonment of contractarianism, since it’s the good the guides the contractors’ decisions? Milo tries to avoid this by saying the practical reasoning of the contractors will be shaped by “means—end” reasoning as to how best to satisfy our desires. The aim is to improve the satisfactoriness of our lives. But Evans notes that this stance still involves a theory of the good, namely, a desire-fulfillment theory, and such an account of the good is as realistic as any other, since it seems committed to the claim that it is objectively good for humans to satisfy as many of their desires as possible. It’s also a controversial theory, but there is a more fundamental problem with the whole project.

What authority do the decisions of these hypothetical contractors have over actual individuals? Even if we decided that there are true counterfactuals of this type and that we could know what they are, why should the decisions of these non-actual people be binding on actual people? If I don’t accept their view of the good, then there is no reason to think I would agree with the views about right and wrong that they base on their theory of the good. One might try to avoid this by saying the contractors have no theory of the good at all, but this should only make us more suspicious.

The best attempt Evans knows to resolve this problem of authority is provided by David Gauthier in his Morals by Agreement. He tries to motivate a social contract approach to moral theory by seeing such an agreement as a way of trying to resolve “prisoner’s dilemma” situations. In these scenarios, two accused criminals—call them Ed and Fred—have the chance to confess to a more serious offense. The situation is stipulated such that it appears that whatever Fred does, Ed will be better off confessing. If Ed and Fred, though, could somehow count on each other not to confess, then each would get a small penalty. It looks like the best strategy for both of them would be to reach an agreement not to confess, but there is little reason for them to behave in this way without some assurance the other will keep the agreement.

Gauthier believes that such prisoner’s dilemma situations are not simply unusual possibilities, but capture many features of actual human social interaction. There are many situations in which, if every individual in a group pursues his or her self-interest, the outcome for everyone in the group will be much worse than would be the case if the individuals accept some restraints on their self-interest. Without an agreement regulating our behavior, in the actual world we are doomed to “non-optimal outcomes that, in ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma-type’ situations, may be little better than disastrous.” The solution is an agreement that creates duties that limit our quest for self-interest, though in the long run the agreement actually furthers our self-interest. Duty overrides advantage, but the acceptance of duty is truly advantageous. The authority of the agreement lies in the advantages the agreement makes possible, along with the fact that those who are party to the agreement will withdraw their cooperation towards those who fail to comply.

Is the agreement actual or hypothetical? Evans thinks Gauthier thinks that both can be true. The agreements may be implicit rather than explicit, but they are not a “mere fiction” since they give rise to new modes of interaction. Gauthier thinks that the authority of actual agreements depends on the degree to which they resemble an ideal agreement. He argues that ideal agreement is one that adheres to the “principle of minimax relative concession,” in which the maximum that each party is asked to concede is as small as possible, thus giving everyone reason to commit to the agreement.

Gauthier’s attempt to see morality as a solution to the disasters that stem from unfettered pursuit of self-interest is powerful, and it’s a creative effort to get beyond Harman’s relativism. But Evans thinks many of the same problems beset Gauthier’s solution. For example, it’s still not clear why an agreement that would be made by ideally rational agents under certain conditions (which in fact do not hold) is binding on actual individuals. It seems unlikely that the agreement that it would be reasonable for an individual to keep if other people could be counted on to behave morally is binding on actual individuals, who know that in the real world people frequently lie and cheat.

It’s true that those who are known to violate the agreement can be penalized by others who keep the rules, but this only gives a reason to keep the agreement when breaking it is likely to be detected and the offender is likely to face some serious sanction if it is detected. Gauthier admits he isn’t claiming it’s never rational for one person to take advantage of another, never rational to comply with unfair practices. But Evans points out that this is simply to abandon key elements of the Anscombe intuition, since on such a view moral obligations are not always overriding and do not apply with equal force to everyone.

Perhaps to solve such a problem Gauthier suggests another response to the problem of why individuals should keep their agreement to behave morally. Morality can’t really survive if we are purely self-interested individuals who behave like “economic man.” What must happen is that we must strive to be like the “just man,” whose feelings are engaged by morality and adheres not because of self-interest, but because he simply loves the ideals he is committed to. But this limits the authority of morality to those with the relevant feelings.

The last difficulty Evans raises with Gauthier’s theory concerns the scope of the moral obligations as these are understood. Evans has argued that moral obligations are universal in scope: applying to all humans, and at least some obligations extending to all humans. It’s hard to see how an agreement grounded in self-interest could be the basis for obligations of this type. Gauthier concedes that animals, the unborn, the congenitally handicapped and defectives fall beyond the pale of morality tied to mutuality.

Nor is it easy to see why people in one human society should have obligations towards people in some distant land, particularly if the people in the distant land are too poor and weak to threaten or benefit the people in the first society.

Gauthier imagines such cultural contact between privileged purple people and impoverished green people, and gives three reasons why the purples might decide to treat the greens in a moral way. First, it may in the purples’ self-interest. Second, the purples may have become the kind of people who are so disposed to kind and compassionate treatment that they literally have no choice but to treat the greens well. Evans says this would only be plausible if human nature were completely transformed.

Third, the purples may possess a certain measure of sympathy for all whom they consider human. Evans replies, though, by saying it’s hard to see how such feelings of sympathy by themselves could be the basis of real moral obligations. All of the considerations to which Gauthier appeals manifestly fail to provide a foundation for genuine moral obligations that are overriding, binary in character, motivating, and universal. The contrast between such a view and a divine command account of moral obligations is clear.

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Image: "Construction Time Again" by Victory is Mine. CC license.