In this section I formulate my version of the deontic buck passing view. To prepare the ground for the analysis, we need first to be sensitive to two ways in which reasons can combine—two verdictive claims: first, reasons can be weighed for and against the same response; second, the net verdict of reasons against can be weighed against the net verdict of reasons for an alternative response. I call the former verdictive claim, having sufficient reason:
- Sufficient reason:
A has sufficient reason to Φ if, and only if, the reasons for A’s Φ-ing outweigh the reasons against A’s Φ-ing
Where, conversely, to have sufficient reason not to Φ is for A’s reasons against Φ-ing to outweigh A’s reasons for Φ-ing. Second, call the latter verdictive claim having greater reason:
- Greater reason:
A has greater reason to Φ if, and only if, there is more net reason for A to Φ than to Ψ (where Ψ is an alternative, or set of alternatives to Φ-ing)
Again, where, conversely, having greater reason against Φ-ing is for there to be more net reason against Φ than to Ψ.
In formulating my version of the deontic buck-passing view I make use of both of these verdictive claims, in addition to the distinction between reasons for and reasons against. Let me begin by first stating my analyses of requirement and ought, and I shall then comment on them at length. To anticipate, in an intuitive sense, a requirement functions to rule out courses of action. On the other hand, where an agent ought to do something, this (very roughly) expresses the idea that it would be a good (perhaps the best) course of action. I analyse these deontic properties as follows:
- Required to Φ:
A is required to Φ if, and only if, some consideration(s), F, give(s) A reason for Φ-ing and F also gives A sufficient reason against Ψ-ingFootnote 16 (where Ψ-ing is an alternative, or set of alternatives to Φ-ing)
- Ought to Φ:
A ought to Φ if, and only if, there is a set of considerations that gives A greater reason to Φ
In what follows I explain these analyses further, argue that they are independently plausible, and that they allow us to meet the two objections to the standard view. In Sect. 4 I discuss my view in relation to other buck passing views.
Required to Φ
Intuitively, a requirement expresses the idea either of ruling out any alternative course of action, or of ruling out a single action. This is not true for ‘ought’ claims. In order to respect this difference, a key move that I make in distinguishing these two deontic verdicts in my analyses, builds on the claim that a requirement is typically concerned with, or takes as its object, both an act and its alternatives. ‘Ought’, on the other hand, is typically concerned only with, or takes as its object, a single act, and bears on alternatives only indirectly.Footnote 17
Given this way of understanding a requirement, I need to defend the claim that a consideration that favours Φ-ing in the analysis of a requirement itself also counts against those actions that conflict with Φ-ing. For example, according to me, if A is required to keep her promise to B, then that A promised B that A would return B’s £10 this afternoon counts against A’s going to the cinema if, and only if, going to the cinema is a way of reneging on that promise.
By contrast, I claim, if A merely ought to visit the restaurant on the basis of its tasty fare, then that the restaurant’s fare is tasty does not count against, say, A’s going to the cinema, even if going to the cinema is a way of not going to the restaurant. In cases like this, the explanation why A should go to the restaurant is given by the fact that A has a good reason to go. On the other hand, promise-giving reasons count, in addition, against performing alternative actions, not just because there is something better to do, but because promise-giving reasons bear directly on those alternatives.
The intuition I’m trying to elicit is that the tastiness of the fare at the restaurant doesn’t give A reason against going to the cinema, but the fact that A promised to return the £10 this afternoon does give A reason against going to the cinema this afternoon. These latter sorts of considerations do more than just make some option, so to speak, attractive: they themselves count against other competing options. Thus, there appears to be a structural difference between pleasure-based and promise-based reasons. The object of a pleasure-based reason is the consideration that reason favours or disfavours.Footnote 18 The object of a promise-based reason is wider, ranging over both the act favoured/disfavoured, and the alternatives. Or, so at least, appears intuitive given the examples.
Note that the fact that A promised to return the £10 gives A reason against going to the cinema only if going to the cinema conflicts with A’s being able, within a reasonable amount of time, to return the £10 to B. But isn’t that true of any reason? For example, isn’t the fact that going to the cinema is enjoyable is a reason to go, and not to do whatever would conflict with going?
Here is one way of spelling out the difference: we could say that the fact that the cinema is more enjoyable than going to the restaurant is a reason not to go to the restaurant. But, again, that is just to say that the reason to go to the restaurant is stronger than the reason to go to the cinema. We are expressing the fact that there is reason of some strength to go to the cinema, and reason of weaker strength to go to the restaurant, and so conclude, on balance, that A should go to the cinema rather than the restaurant. We should not say that the fact that going to the cinema (now) is enjoyable is a reason not to go to the restaurant (now) because that reason does not bear directly on that alternative.
But there is a subtle difference in the way we express a requirement. It is not merely that there are reasons favouring Φ-ing and reasons favouring Ψ-ing and what A is required to do is given by the fact that A has a stronger reason to Φ. The fact that A promised to return the £10 (now) is also a reason not to do whatever conflicts with giving back the £10. Here the same consideration both favours Φ-ing and disfavours Ψ-ing. Thus it seems that requirements express the claim that you should do something both because the balance of reasons falls on one side, and that those reasons that fall on one side themselves also count against (bear on) acting otherwise.
We can make this point clearer by applying the distinction between reasons for and reasons against to these cases. As I claimed above, we should accept that reasons display a kind of asymmetry. Where A has reason against acting in some way, all else being equal she is appropriately subject to negative personal reactive attitudes, perhaps in light of her recognition of this reason. On the other hand, where A has reason for acting in some way, and A decides not to act in that way, A may be appropriately subject only to negative self-reactive attitudes.
There is, however, a problem for my analysis. Suppose that there is nothing to be said for doing X, but it is not as bad as Y or Z. Given the distinction between reasons for and reasons against, A could not be required to X. But surely you can be required to perform your least bad option? Suppose that the only difference between the three options is the degree of harm that they will cause to B, with X causing the least amount of harm, Y more, and Z still more. There is nothing to be said for doing any of these things. However, A has no further choices—these are the only options open to him.
We can get around this objection by dropping the condition that if you are required to do something, there must be something to be said for doing that thing:
- Required to Φ *:
A is required to Φ if, and only if, there is some consideration(s), F, that gives A sufficient reason against Ψ-ing
Thus although requirements are typically concerned with both an act and its alternatives, there can be cases in which you must perform your least bad option. Required* reflects this.
Consider now the following, second, objection to Required. Suppose that the fact that it is sunny outside gives A sufficient reason to go to the plaza, sufficient reason against going to the cinema, and sufficient reason against staying at home. And suppose that these are the only options available to A now. Since there is a consideration that gives A reason to Φ, which also itself gives A reason not to act in any of the ways that conflict with A’s Φ-ing, where the set of options is reduced to these three, Required tells us that A is required to go to the plaza. But, in an intuitive sense, A is not subject to a requirement to go to the plaza. So Required is false because its extension is incorrect.
First, the case is potentially misleading. That it is sunny outside is a reason for going outside, not a reason against staying in, at least according to my schema of reasons. To count against acting in some way, a consideration must make appropriate negative reactive attitudes for acting in that way, highlighting a negative quality of the action. But that it is sunny outside just doesn’t bear on staying inside, in the sense that missing out on something there is reason for is not itself a reason against.
Second, we need to specify more precisely what the relevant grounds are in this case. Suppose that the ground is the pleasure you get from being in the sun. Then according to me that pleasure gives you a reason to go to the plaza, but does not count as a reason against staying in or going to the cinema. So the claim ‘It is sunny outside’ really conceals a positive and negative aspect which allows us to truthfully say that it gives you a reason to go outside and a reason against staying in. Once we separate the negative and positive aspects we see that it is not really true that the very same consideration counts both for acting in some way and against acting on conflicting alternatives.
Third, I don’t find cases that severely limit the alternatives open to an agent to be particularly illuminating. In reality, we have a very large number of alternatives open to us at any one time, and given this very large number, having sufficient reason against each of these relevant alternatives looks relevant to what one is required to do. The most obvious cases that do make available only a very small set of alternatives are those that involve restricted agency or coercion. But in these sorts of cases, the external factor that limits an agent’s alternatives to a small set will likely itself imply that the situated agent is no longer in realm of “mere” choice.
Required not to Φ
My analysis of a requirement, however, is incomplete. Clearly requirements not to act in some way cannot be modelled on my analysis of requirements for acting in some way, because they rule out acting in one way, not all alternatives to acting in that way. The most obvious view here is the following:
- Required not to Φ:
A is required not to Φ if, and only if, (i) some consideration(s), F, give A sufficient reason against Φ-ing, and that reason has a significant degree of strength
Requirements not to do something in effect say simply ‘Do not do this’. According to my analysis, such requirements are expressed through the conjunction of two claims: first, that A has sufficient reason against Φ-ing, i.e. that the reasons against A’s Φ-ing win out against the reasons for A’s Φ-ing. Second, those considerations are of a significant strength. That is, not only is A subject to negative reactive attitudes for Φ-ing but the strength of those attitudes is significant enough to identify this as a case in which A is required not to Φ.Footnote 19
However, my definition of a requirement not to do something cannot be right as it stands. Consider again a scenario in which you must perform your least bad option. Assuming that you have sufficient reason against performing each of these options, and that there are no reasons favouring any of the options, according to my definition of a requirement not to Φ, as it stands, you are required not to perform any of these options. Furthermore, according to Required to Φ* you are required to perform your least bad option. That is an outright contradiction. Again, however, we can easily amend the definition to take account of these cases as follows:
- Required not to Φ*:
A is required not to Φ if, and only if, there is some consideration(s), R, which give A sufficient reason not to Φ and R has a significant degree of strength, unless Φ-ing is the only way that A can avoid Ψ-ing, and there is sufficient reason not to Ψ of greater strength
With this modification in mind, we should note some further differences between requirements not to Φ and requirements to Φ.
The questions ‘What am I required to do now?’ and ‘What am I required not to do now?’ raise different issues. In the first case, an answer places you under a demand to perform a single action, and only a single action.Footnote 20 In the second case, an answer may place you under a demand not to perform many actions, or many demands not to perform many different actions. It is a defensible view that you cannot, at t1, be required to do more than one thing. It is a platitude that you can, at t1, be required not to do more than one thing.
Another difference between acts and omissions, with respect to their normative status, is that when considering whether to perform some act, comparison classes are often important. Often you decide whether to X rather than Y or Z. When we deliberate over omissions, on the other hand, comparison classes are often of less significance. Usually when deliberation involves omissions it is by implicit or explicit reference to an action that is incompatible with that omission, as when we ask ‘Should I, or should I not go to the cinema?’ or ‘Should I not go to the cinema (and rather stay in and watch TV) or should I go out to meet my friend?’.
In general then, when considering acts, practical reasoning may include both considerations for and against acting in that way, and that value balanced against the considered value of acting in other ways. Being required to Φ, or that A ought to Φ, involves weighing competing reasons for competing actions (this may be why there is conceptual pressure to accept that there is an ‘ought, all-things-considered’). On the other hand, having sufficient reason not to act in some way involves (a) only competing reasons for and against that omission and (b) that there can be multiple non-competing ‘most reason’ verdicts supporting different omissions.
I claim that to be required not to act in some way is for there to be sufficient reason not to act in that way of significant strength. To have sufficient reason not to act in some way is for there to be more reason against Φ-ing than for Φ-ing, and to have reason against Φ-ing is to explain why A, in Φ-ing, is appropriately subject to negative reactive attitudes. Such negative attitudes, however, can take different forms, and the way in which criticism differs can in part determine what counts as ‘significant’ for the purposes of requirement.Footnote 21 For example, consider the difference between prudential and moral reasons: I have prudential reason to avoid acting in a way that causes harm to me, if I do it. I have moral reason to avoid acting in a way that causes harm to you, if I do it.
In the first case, we might construe this in broadly teleological terms: I have reason not to cause myself to be harmed because of the badness of harm. I am subject to criticism on the basis of my failure to care about the badness of the harm. In the second case, it is less plausible that this can be entirely captured in teleological terms. It is not merely my failure to recognise the badness of harm that forms the basis of appropriate criticism against me. It is also the fact that it is your body that gives me reason to care about avoiding causing you harm. So I am also criticisable on two fronts. One front is associated with the teleological reason against promoting harm, and another is associated with a respect-based reason against harming agents.
We can also note the difference between cases in which you have sufficient reason against, for which there are no reasons for, and cases in which you have sufficient reason against, for which there are reasons for. In the latter case one may be susceptible to misplacing or misconstruing the respective weights involved in the reasons bearing on that action. You may be more likely to mistakenly suppose that you can waive criticism in acting in that way because there is something to be said for doing so. In cases of the first sort, however, such mistakes seem more serious. That there is nothing whatsoever to be said for acting in that way makes acting in that way less understandably waivable by the agent.
Obviously, when considering requirements not to Φ, our criticisms will be strong. But is the difference between a moral requirement not to murder, and a prudential requirement not to cause myself some bodily discomfort reflected solely in terms of the strength of reasons against?
To answer this question let us examine whether we should appeal to the idea that reasons also play a dual-role where they figure in requirements not to Φ. We could claim that moral reasons which figure in negative requirements also play the role of shaping an agent’s dispositions in the following way: that it would harm an autonomous agent gives you reason not just not to Φ but, in addition, gives you reason to aim to act in morally laudable ways. However, I don’t think we should be committed to this view. We should leave it open whether we ought to construe morality in minimal terms, for instance as a number of constraints on action. This minimal understanding of morality simply has nothing to say about what, positively, you should do, but merely rules out certain ways of acting.
Now consider reasons for demands. Suppose that you try to harm me. I thus have reason to demand that you refrain from doing so. This is a reason which may even be waivable by me. If I decide to relinquish my demand I may have no complaint against you in harming me. In other cases it may be true (a) that I have reason to demand that you refrain from Φ-ing and (b) that others have reason to demand that you refrain from Φ-ing. So the fact that it would harm me is both a strong reason not to do it and a strong reason for others to (legitimately) demand that you not do it.Footnote 22
On one plausible interpretation, reasons for are generally waivable, reasons against are not. But, further, an agent can only waive his own reasons, he cannot waive the reasons that others have. For example, that some act would cause you harm gives me strong reason not to do it, and reason for you to demand that I refrain from doing it, I cannot waive either reason: because (i) it is a reason against (and thus makes appropriate negative reactive attitudes) and (ii) because an agent cannot waive another agent’s reason. That is at least one plausible line that we could take in distinguishing moral from prudential requirements, in addition to a difference in the strengths and kinds of the grounding reasons.
If we appeal to intuition about what would count as appropriate criticism it seems plausible that you are not appropriately subject to negative reactive attitudes for failing to do what you had less-than-most reason to do (as long as you do what you had most reason to do).