from the second person
Stephen Darwall interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Stephen Darwall takes his thoughts down the winding highways of second person ethics, touching on what happens if the second person stance is adopted, on why contractualism is the most naturally grounded position for it, on its juridical character, on its implications for autonomy, on Joseph Raz’s challenge, on nuancing Jonathan Dancy’s position, on morality, authority and the law, on honour, history, relationship and Adam Smith, on vengeance and John Stuart Mill, on Nietzschean ressentiment and a dark worship, on Kant, on what’s to learn from psychology and xphi and the relative status of P.F. Starwson compared to Quine. No one can sing these particular blues like this. Go figure.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Stephen Darwall: In a way, I want to answer that philosophy did: philosophy’s power to compel philosophy. It is pretty much impossible to engage appreciatively with philosophy without beginning to do it. I don’t think I was clear when I was growing up that there was such a subject that one could actually study. For various reasons, I wasn’t a voracious reader, and my (K-12) education (much of it in the time just after Sputnik went up in 1957) was focused more on math and science. (For younger readers, this was a time of massive public investment in math and science, with tremendous spillover benefits for fields like philosophy as well as general support that helped to create a system of excellent public universities that were the envy of the world. Of course, all this is pretty much unimaginable now.)
But more to your question, when I went to Yale as an undergraduate in 1964, I was a prospective math major. In my sophomore year though, I had the good fortune take some really difficult math courses (in real analysis with Shizuo Kakutani, who proved the Kakutani fixed point theorem) at the same time that I was taking my first philosophy courses. These showed me two things: first, I didn’t have the talent or even really the interest to do serious mathematics, and second, that the rigorous thinking that had attracted me to mathematics could be put in service of things I was actually interested in thinking about. Growing up with an Episcopalian clergyman father (check out the hymn tune “Darwall’s 148th” in many Protestant hymn books—by John Darwall, my great great great great grandfather) I was drawn to thinking about questions about the relation between religion and morality and the foundations of ethics. But I had no idea that this was a subject of academic study. Lucky me.
3:AM: You’re a top moral philosopher, and connected with the notion of ‘the second-person standpoint.’ So what is this?
SD: Well, suppose, I answer by saying that it is the standpoint you and I are in right now, though the people who are “overhearing” our conversation may not be. I am writing these very sentences in an attempt to answer the questions you addressed to me, and you addressed them to me in the expectation that I would take the fact that you asked them as at least some reason to answer them. This fact is an example of what I call a “second-personal reason.” In asking the question you were presupposing some standing or authority to ask them of me, that I would (do) recognize this authority, and take myself to have some reason thereby to answer them. Of course, this is a pretty lengthy list of questions (constituting, after all, a kind of interview), so you couldn’t just send me these questions out of the blue. But you could presuppose the standing to invite me to participate in an interview, which you did, and I agreed, thereby giving you the standing to send me with these questions with the expectation (not just the prediction) that I would answer them.
In relating to one another in these ways, we presuppose, I argue, that we each share a common basic second-personal authority to make claims and demands of one another and hold each other mutually accountable. We each presume this authority when we exercise our respective (second-personal) normative powers to make agreements and hold one another to them.
3:AM: What difference does it make to the kind of reasons one can use to justify moral beliefs? Is consequentialism, for instance, in difficulties if second personhood is adopted?
SD: My claims are, in the first instance, about the second-personal nature of certain moral concepts—more specifically, the deontic concepts of moral right and wrong, duty, obligation, requirement, demand, and related ideas of moral rights and so-called “directed” or bipolar duties that we owe to others. For example, I argue that it is a conceptual truth that if I am morally obligated to do something (if it would be wrong for me not to do it), then my action is of a kind that it would be blameworthy of me to fail to perform were I to do so without adequate excuse, and that would therefore warrant my feeling guilt. As I understand them, moral blame and guilt are Strawsonian reactive attitudes through which a holder of the attitude implicitly addresses demands to its object and assumes the authority to hold him or her accountable.
It follows that any theory of right, that is, as Ross put it, of “what makes right acts right,” must be an account of what can make an act something we are accountable in this sense to do or not to do. This certainly doesn’t rule out even act consequentialism on conceptual grounds. It just means that if act consequentialism is advanced as a deontic moral theory, as a theory of moral right and wrong, then it must say that it is blameworthy for moral agents to fail to perform optimific acts, so long as their failures are not excused by mitigating circumstances. Most consequentialists have reluctant to say that. Mill, for example, when he says in Chapter V of Utilitarianism that we don’t call actions wrong unless we think they are fittingly responded to by guilt or sanctions (a version of the conceptual thesis mentioned in the last paragraph), ends up making remarks that are much more rule utilitarian than act utilitarian. In my review of Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, which will be coming out soon in The Philosophical Review, I argue that something similar is going on in Parfit’s move from defending act consequentialism in Reasons and Persons to defending rule consequentialism as part of the “Triple Theory” in OWM.
In The Second-Person Standpoint, I argue that the normative ethical theory that is most naturally grounded in the second-person standpoint is contractualism. But one could accept my conceptual arguments and advance other theories on their basis. For example, one might argue for a version of rule utilitarianism as grounded in the idea of equal second-personal authority.
3:AM: What is distinctive about morality as an ethical concept from this perspective?
SD: Given what I have said above, I can be relatively brief. In “The Distinctiveness of Morality” I agree with Sidgwick, Anscombe, and others that what distinguishes the “modern” concept of morality is its juridical character: its consisting of duties or obligations that are incumbent on any moral agent (and its deep connection to rights that any moral agent has). It just follows from what I have said about deontic moral concepts above that morality distinctively implicates accountability and (reactive) attitudes through which we hold ourselves and one another answerable. Similarly, the idea moral rights just is the idea of what moral agents have the authority to claim or demand from one another.
3:AM: And does this approach lead to a particular view of autonomy? Is self respect a key attitude of someone taking a second personal attitude toward herself?
SD: I believe that it does. First, autonomy of some form is built into the idea of what I call “individual” second-personal authority as it is implicated in a moral claim right or an obligation owed to someone. These entail the notion that the right holder has the authority to claim or demand something at her own discretion. And autonomy has been central to conceptions of human (claim) rights from at least the time of Grotius. Grotius calls it “power over ourselves” and argues that it is a fundamental “perfect right” that individuals have the authority or “faculty” to demand. I argue that this second-personal aspect is central also to what Hegel calls the “modern” idea of a “right of subjective freedom,” that is, that everyone has a right to lead his or her own life, and consequently has the authority to demand that others let him or her do that.
3:AM: Joseph Raz’s ‘normal justification thesis’ poses a challenge to your second personhood thesis doesn’t it? Can you first say what Raz’s positions is and why it creates difficulties? And how do you propose to meet the challenge?
SD: Raz’s normal justification thesis says that the normal way of justifying a claim of authority that some person or institution makes over someone to direct that person’s conduct is that the latter would do better in complying with reasons for acting that apply to her independently were the latter to treat the former as having this authority and comply with them for that reason. I argue that this fails to distinguish between whether it would be desirable for the latter to treat the former as having authority and whether the former actually has the authority to make legitimate demands of the latter, which can only be justified by reasons of the right kind that would simultaneously justify the legitimacy of the former’s demands and the latter’s holding herself accountable to the authority.
As I see it, these reasons are second personal; it follows that all claims to authority must be justified within a second-personal framework. The challenge posed by the normative justification thesis is that if it were true, this would not be so. Seeing, however, why justifying the desirability of treating someone as an authority is different from establishing that person’s authority itself helps one to see why a second-person framework is indispensable.
3:AM: You argue against Jonathan Dancy’s moral particularism. What’s the problem with particularism?
SD: I don’t argue against particularism as Dancy actually advances it, at the level of reasons. I argue that that position is inaptly named “moral particularism,” because, when it comes to morality, there actually are features of deontic moral concepts that push in the direction of formulability in general principles. If what is morally wrong is what we are justifiably held accountable for not doing, then there just has to be some presumption that some common and public way of determining what is wrong is possible. In this way, morality is more like the law than, say, art. The point is not one about objectivity, but about a public standard of accountability. It is hard to see how we could intelligibly hold people accountable for complying with standards that are not publicly formulable in some way or other, even if only with pro tanto principles that it takes some judgment to apply, that admit of exceptions, and so on.
3:AM: You also argue that the second person framework can shed light on the nature of law. So what distinctive things does it illuminate?
SD: As I see it, the concept of law is second personal in its nature. It is essential to law that it is promulgated or addressed to those whom it purports to bind and make accountable for complying with it. Whether one is a legal positivist or not, it is hard to deny that law purports to have de jure authority (that doesn’t mean that it has it), so if I am right in my claims about the conceptual connections between authority, obligation, and accountability, law’s second-personal character derives from that. A second-person framework can also illuminate the difference between criminal and civil or private law, e.g., torts and the law of contracts. I make a distinction within morality between moral duties or obligations period and bipolar obligations that are owed to others. The latter entail correlative claim rights that the obligor has to the obligee.
I analyze the difference in terms of who has authority or standing to demand compliance. In principle, we can, as representative persons, demand compliance with moral obligations pure and simple, for example, through what Strawson calls “impersonal” reactive attitudes like moral blame. These therefore implicate a representative authority any person has. Someone with a claim right to whom someone else owes an obligation has a distinctive authority to demand compliance and hold the obligor personally accountable, for example, through the “personal” reactive attitude of resentment. An obligor with individual authority also has a standing to forgive a violating obligor at her discretion that others do not have. The difference between these two authorities, representative and individual authority, respectively, illuminate the difference between complementary legal authorities that are implicated, respectively, in criminal and private law.
For example, only a victim can bring a tort action to gain compensation for violation of his legal rights, whereas it is up to the people and their representatives, through, say, the district attorney, to bring criminal cases. This difference is reflected in the way cases are referred to. When O. J. Simpson (first Google example) was accused of murder, the case was named The People of the State of California vs. O. J. Simpson, whereas the civil case against Simpson was brought by Nicole Brown Simpson’s estate and the parents of Ronald Goldman.
3:AM: How does respect and honor fit into this approach, and why do you find Adam Smith interesting here with regard to honor?
SD: In “Respect as Honor and as Accountability,” I argue that honor cultures are mediated by forms of recognition respect and contempt that I had heretofore failed to distinguish from the recognition respect for persons that is the hallmark of morality. Honor respect and contempt socially construct status and rank in a kind of social drama in which participants enact what Goffman called the “presentation of the self in everyday life,” with a persona or face. When others recognize this presentation, “support” and “countenance” her countenance and her occupying the social roles she aspires to, then that person is able to maintain the social face she presents. If, however, others regard this with contempt or “look her out of countenance,” she loses face, which contempt can be internalized felt emotionally as shame. Honor respect is thus a kind of recognition respect for persons, only ‘person’ understood not as an accountable moral agent, but as having a distinctive place in a social hierarchy that honor respect and contempt construct. This sense of ‘person’ is precisely the sense in which the law is said to be “no respecter of persons,” (a phrase that can sound odd until you see what it means); it treats everyone equally as equally accountable citizens. Of course, this is the sense of ‘person’ as equally accountable moral agent of morality’s signature idea is equal respect for persons.
Adam Smith is interesting here because of his ambivalence about honor. On the one hand, some of Smith’s normative views about the importance of responding to insults reflect the ethos of honor culture. But, more importantly to my mind, Smith also holds that what “our resentment is chiefly intent upon” is not that the insult be avenged, but that the the other be “sensible” that “the person whom he injured did not deserve to be treated in that manner.”
3:AM: That’s relevent to my next question I think. John Stuart Mill thinks vengeance lies at the heart of justice, and is just nothing to do with morality. You argue that a second personhood perspective on reactive attitudes changes this, and does turn them moral . Is that right? How does that happen?
SD: The form of “animal resentment” that Mill takes to be central to the sense of justice is a desire for revenge that makes sense in hierarchies of dominance and submission and in honor hierarchies. Revenge is a form of getting even in which a dishonoring agent who has raised his relative status in lowering yours is humiliated by dishonor in return, which “turns tables” and reverses the relative hierarchy established by the initial insult. I agree with Mill that vengeance has nothing to do with morality. The difference between the kind of “justice” vengeance involves and justice as an important moral idea is that the latter involves holding someone who has acted unjustly accountable, whether by representative persons, or personally by the victim, or by the unjust agent himself (for example, through guilt, apology, compensation to the victim, and so on).
The crucial difference is that holding someone accountable is not returning evil for evil or getting back or getting even. Holding someone accountable in the sense I am elaborating is itself a form of recognition respect for someone as an equal moral person—holding him to demands that we and he have the authority make of him as an equal person. Although vengeance is taken against another person, it is not second personal in the sense of holding another accountable through a respectful demand for respect. Unlike second-personal reactive attitudes it involves no implicit demand that the other hold himself accountable.
3:AM: You similarly approach Nietzschean ressentiment – you have a great sentence – ‘ Repressed, ressentiment bores into the unconscious, a “dark worship” in which morality’s distinctive ideas of guilt, moral responsibility, and moral evil are fashioned.’ How does second personhood help nuance your approach to ressentiment?
SD: The point is quite similar here. Ressentiment as Nietzsche understands it is a repressed expression of self-hatred that attempts to get back at an envied superior in a way that will lower him to one’s level. It seeks a kind of revenge, not openly or honestly, but mendaciously from a position that cannot admit its own weakness and so is secretive and self-deceptive. Nietzsche’s view is that psychological mechanisms like these are the source of the distinctive moral ideas of moral accountability. Naturally, I disagree. I think Nietzsche has a quite brilliant and insightful analysis of a recognizable psychological syndrome that is responsible for much mischief, but he fails to appreciate the ways in which, properly conceived, morality involves a form of mutual respect that is quite positive and life affirming and that develops naturally out of our capacity for mutual response.
3:AM: Kant thinks dignity is a value that we all can achieve but only when we properly exercise our capacity for moral choice rather than a standing a person has regardless of merit. Do you agree?
SD: It is widely believed that this is not so, that Kant thinks that dignity of persons is rooted in the capacity itself, but I argue in “Kant on Respect, Dignity, and the Duty of Respect” that what Kant actually says at least sometimes admits of the interpretation you mention. (Richard Dean argued for this point earlier in his The Value of Humanity in Kant’s Moral Theory.) There are other places where Kant gets much closer to a view I think he should hold, namely, that dignity consists in a standing any moral agent has to claim or “exact respect” (Kant’s phrase), what I would call, equal second-personal authority. But even here there are probably ways of interpreting Kant in terms of merit and what I call “appraisal respect,” as when we say someone’s character “commands” respect.
3:AM: What is the relationship between your moral philosophy and cognitive science and xphi investigations into behaviours and attitudes and beliefs? Can you learn from biologists, for example?
SD: I have a chapter in SPS titled “The Psychology of the Second Person” in which I lay out some of the experimental evidence for second-personal psychological phenomena, for example, in producing cooperation in prisoners’ dilemma situations. People are prepared to expend resources to hold others accountable. But what is especially interesting is that this tends to elicit the others’ cooperation only when the latter view their doing so as legitimate. More recently, a former student of mine, Brendan Dill, and I have been writing a paper, “Moral Psychology as Accountability,” which reviews the experimental literature on moral motivation and emotions in psychology and argues that it can be best explained and unified if morality is conceived in the fundamentally second-personal terms of accountability. So I think there is a lot of benefit from mutual exchange there.
I am sure there is much to learn from xphi also. For example, I can’t really lay out the case properly here, but I think that the original Knobe effect cases can be explained in second-personal terms. Roughly, when an action (as I would put it) involves a violation of a moral norm that we are accountable for complying with, it is sufficient to for us to consider that intentional that it was done knowingly. When however, no such norm is in question and the (implicit) issue is whether someone is to be (positively) credited with something, we assess intentionality, not just by whether the agent knew what she was doing, but by her end or purpose. What the second-personal framework offers here is the idea that the attitudes of blame and praise (esteem) are not really contraries. Blame is a second-personal, holding-responsible reactive attitude that implicitly involves address, whereas esteem (crediting) is third personal; it does not implicitly involve address.
I haven’t thought as much about the interactions with biology, so I’m not sure what to say there.
3:AM: PF Strawson seems an important figure in your work. He’s someone who isn’t discussed as much today as say, Quine is , even though thirty years ago he was considered a contemporary giant. Is he underrated at the moment and due for a reassessment? And is it because a certain self image of scientific naturalism is rather predominant in the USA at the moment, overshadowing Kantian preoccupations?
SD: Strawson is certainly discussed a lot in the literature on responsibility, freedom of the will, and so on. Evidence is pretty equivocal on the relative prominence of Strawson and Quine, however. When I do a Google Book Ngram Viewer search of relative cites of Strawson and Quine, Strawson systematically dominates Quine (and a search of Strawson alone going up to 2008 shows the great interest Strawson has received relatively recently that I just mentioned). On the other hand, Word and Object has many more Google Scholar cites than any of Strawson’s works. Just from my own sense of things, though, I would say that Quine’s influence in philosophy these days is decidedly less than it was thirty years ago. So I’m not sure I’d endorse your diagnosis in terms of American scientific naturalism (though there is no doubt that that has been a strong current from the early twentieth century on).
3:AM: And finally, are there five books (other than your own) which you could recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that would help them go further into your philosophical world?
SD: Let’s see, how about, in no particular order:
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Samuel Pufendorf, The Law of Nature and Nations
Laura Blumenfeld, Revenge: A Story of Hope
P. F. Strawson, Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 2nd, 2013.