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Contractualism and the Moral Point of View


In this paper, I argue that accounts of the normative basis of morality face the following puzzle, drawing on a case found in Susan Wolf’s influential discussion of conflicts between the moral and personal points of view. On the one hand, morality appears to constitute an independent point of view that can intelligibly conflict with, and can conceivably be overruled by, the verdicts of other points of view. On the other hand, moral demands appear to carry a distinctive sort of authority; moral reasons normally seem to take priority over other kinds of considerations, and the verdicts of morality seem to possess a distinctive place in our deliberations, in that they appear to represent standards that we are open to legitimate complaint for failing to honor. After clarifying the nature of the problem, I argue that a contractualist theory of morality can resolve the puzzle by offering a compelling vindication of the independence of the moral perspective, the normal priority of moral reasons, and the deliberative significance of moral verdicts, within a unified theoretical framework. Furthermore, I claim that this contractualist analysis can help account for the sense of deep conflict that is characteristic of the sort of troubling moral choices that Wolf calls to our attention.

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  1. In the following, I make a number of assumptions that cannot be adequately defended within the scope of a single paper. For instance, I assume that it is possible to supply a non-trivial explanation of moral authority, and I also assume the availability of a comprehensive viewpoint of all-things-considered rationality that can rationally resolve conflicts between different practical points of view, at least in principle. For arguments to the contrary, see Prichard (2002) and Copp (2007), respectively. I maintain that these limitations on the scope of the present inquiry do not deprive the project of its theoretical or practical interest. Many philosophers have been animated by precisely the kinds of questions that I set out to address (Williams 1973a, b; Scheffler 1992; Foot 2002; Wolf 2015a, b, c; Dorsey 2016), and I trust that many will be able to recognize the intelligibility of these concerns on reflection.

  2. As Wolf puts the point; “there are situations in which an agent may reasonably act on behalf of a loved one and yet a third party, whose claims the agent thereby ignores, may reasonably object, and demand reparation or apology” Wolf (2015c, 160). See also Williams (1973a, 23–24).

  3. I thank the anonymous reviewers for this journal for emphasizing the need for me to articulate this point, and for their helpful suggestions on how to do so.

  4. The idea that morality essentially has to do with our impartial concern for others is highlighted in Dorsey (2016, 72–74). Robert Louden discusses this feature of the modern conception of morality critically in Louden (1988, 364–366).

  5. There is a further sense in which speaking of the “overridingness of morality" is potentially misleading in this context, aside from its overly strong connotations. The term is usually taken to imply that there is some property that moral verdicts possess, in and of themselves, that guarantees that they will always trump other considerations; whereas the claim I have in mind is more related to how the reasons of morality may or may not cohere with our other values and concerns within a well-integrated life. Of course, putting my point in terms of the “priority” of morality, rather than “overridingness”, might be viewed problematic for similar reasons. Thus, Samuel Scheffler uses the language of possible “congruence” to express the latter idea (Scheffler 2008, 118), and an anonymous reviewer for this journal, in their helpful discussion of this issue, has suggested referring to this claim as one concerning the “reasonable centrality” of morality. For ease of exposition, however, I will continue to refer to the idea I have in mind in terms of the normal “priority” of morality (see also Scanlon 1998, 148).

  6. Elsewhere, Wolf acknowledges that respecting the demands of impartial morality can have significant value and meaning for us (Wolf 2015a, 28; Wolf 2015b, 43). However, her discussion leaves it unclear what the nature of this value is and why it has this distinctive significance. In Sect. 4 of the present paper, I will offer an answer to these questions that draws on a contractualist account of the value that is realized by living in accordance with moral ideals.

  7. Note that Shiffrin herself does not make it her goal to address the specific sort of puzzle that is the main concern of this paper. Her aim is rather to show that the view that morality is overriding can be reconciled with the view that a consideration can be a reason for an agent only if it has some connection to her antecedent motivations (Shiffrin 1999, 775–776). Despite this, I believe it is instructive to focus on her view here because it seems to clearly encapsulate the attractions of an approach that conceives of morality as a uniquely comprehensive end. I thank an anonymous reviewer for this journal for urging me to be clear on this point.

  8. In fact, there is disagreement among contractualists over whether it is possible for an act to be wrong without wronging another. As an anonymous reviewer for this journal has pointed out, some of what Scanlon himself has written seems to indicate that he accepts this possibility (Scanlon 2013, 405). By contrast, Wallace has recently developed an interpretation of contractualism that takes the notion of wronging as essential for understanding our moral obligations; see, for example, Wallace (2019, 192–200). In my view, the latter interpretation of contractualism is more compelling, since—as the discussion in this section and the next will hopefully demonstrate—one of the primary attractions of contractualism as a moral theory lies in how it draws on the relational character of moral demands to account for their distinctive normativity.

  9. For instance, some have argued that there is an important disanalogy between personal relationships like friendship and love, on the one hand, and the moral relationship, on the other. In the case of friendship and love, the relationship that fixes our legitimate expectations is an actual relationship that is partly constituted by the mutual attitudes and dispositions that the participants have towards each other by virtue of their shared history of interaction. However, it is not so clear whether, in the moral case, such an actual relationship can be said to hold between rational creatures as such (Scheffler 2010, 66–67; Wallace 2011, 360).

  10. Scheffler (1992, 128–129). As Scheffler notes, the feasibility of integrating of our moral and non-moral commitments will also depend on the social conditions and institutions that form the background of one’s choice (140).

  11. For example, how we understand the ongoing debate concerning the demandingness of morality depends, in part, on how we conceptualize the rational authority of morality (Brink 1986, 432–433; Sobel 2007, 14–16; Dorsey 2016, 78–82).


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This work was partially supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Grant-in-Aid for JSPS Fellows (15J07262). I thank Masashi Yazawa and Jun-ichi Saito for their patient advice and criticism. I would also like to thank Takafumi Abe, Wataru Inukai, Masaya Miyamoto, Hiroki Narita, Satoshi Okuno, Ryo Ogawa, Shinichi Tabata, Yoshiki Yoshimura, and participants in seminars at Waseda University for their helpful feedback and suggestions on various versions of the manuscript. Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to the two anonymous reviewers for this journal for their very careful, constructive, and incisive comments, which resulted in substantial revisions that greatly improved the paper.

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Correspondence to Ken Oshitani.

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Oshitani, K. Contractualism and the Moral Point of View. Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2022).

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  • Contractualism
  • T.M. Scanlon
  • Susan Wolf
  • Relational ethics
  • The moral point of view
  • Moral impartiality