Darwall defines the second-person standpoint as “the perspective you and I take up when we make and acknowledge claims on one another’s conduct and will” (Darwall 2006, p. 3); the perspective we take in the practices of holding each other accountable and responding to those claims. According to Darwall, these second-personal practices are relevant for morality because moral notions involve second-personal notions, and because the grounds of moral motivation lie in the second-personal relationship. Moral notions do not stand in a rational heaven, but presuppose those second-personal practices among moral subjects.
To account for the second-person standpoint, Darwall proposes the following situation as the paradigmatic instance of a second-personal interaction. The interaction starts when one person steps on another’s foot. Hereafter, the person who steps on the other’s foot will be the “transgressor”, and the person whose foot is stepped onto will be the “victim”. Being persons, and hence having equal dignity, they both have the authority to demand a certain treatment of each other. Furthermore, as their relation is governed by what Darwall calls “reciprocal recognition” (Darwall 2006, p. 48), they both recognize each other and can address demands to each other. Accordingly, the victim demands the transgressor to move his foot; and the transgressor knows and feels that they ought to accept and respect the victim’s claim. This feeling comes from the second-personal nature of the relationship at issue: it is a relationship of reciprocal accountability through which they address demands to each other, and hold one another responsible for compliance. At the same time, the victim reacts to the transgressor’s reaction, accepts their stepping behind, and the relationship is reestablished. In this way, the problem of moral motivation finds another, more promising answer: the purported authority of morality, i.e. its motivational power, derives from this recognition of others as sources of obligation.
Notice that Darwall’s account is analytical in the first place. It does not describe what is going on in cases of harming one another, but claims to unpack the content of the notions that characterize morality. In other words, morality constitutively requires that these patterns of mutual recognition, of addressing claims and honoring them, take place. In this way, the account also becomes normative in that at the same time it sets the standards for real world human interactions to count as properly moral. Mutual respect becomes mandatory for moral agents as long as it is implicit in the very notion of morality.
This analytical and normative stance entails that Darwall does not want to accept the consequence that moral obligation derives from mutual demands. According to him, stepping on the victim’s foot is wrong even if the victim does not protest. In fact, the transgressor’s feeling that they ought to respect their victim’s claim and move their foot comes from the transgressor’s knowing that they could justifiably be held accountable for incompliance, even by themselves in their own conscience, as if they adopted a second-person standpoint towards themselves. If the transgressor did not move their foot, they would be accountable to their victim’s claim for respect of their dignity as a person, even if the victim did not make it. Consequently, the transgressor accepts the victim’s right to claim, and reacts to it by moving their foot.
In this pattern of interaction, several assumptions and concepts are in play, according to Darwall. To make them clear, we will start with the assumptions; and move next to the concepts, which constitute an “interdefinable circle” (Darwall 2006, p. 12) where each one implies all the rest. Hence the analytical nature of the approach. Let us disentangle each assumption and concept one after the other, and see how they relate.
In the practice of holding accountable, i.e. of giving and asking for reasons, agents involved in an interaction assume that they both have: (1) a right to make claims, to demand respect for those claims, and to resist the demands of the other; (2) a second-personal authority to make demands or claims, and to hold the other accountable for non-compliance without excuse; and, (3) a dignity which must be respected and which cannot be violated by any claim. As this characterization makes clear, Darwall’s second-personal standpoint is normative, rather than descriptive. It specifies a desideratum, rather than describes how things always happen. The circle of concepts specifies the way in which particular interactions should take place to qualify as properly moral.
One of those concepts is second-personal authority. Second-personal authority is the authority that a moral subject has to address claims, and demands to other subjects. For the addressee, the claim creates a distinctive reason for compliance. In Darwall’s paradigmatic example, both the transgressor and the victim have authority to address demands to each other. Furthermore, the victim’s demand that the transgressor move their foot makes the transgressor responsible for complying, since the transgressor recognizes the practical authority of their victim. This practical authority is presupposed when an addresser claims or demands something of an addressee, and this addressee recognizes the addresser’s right to so claim. Therefore, the concept of authority is necessarily tied to other second-personal concepts. First, second-personal authority is second-personal because it assumes that it is addressed to particular subjects in interaction. Second, it entails second-personal competence, which means that “whenever second-personal address asserts or presupposes differential authority, it must assume also that this authority is acceptable to its addressee simply as a free and rational agent” (Darwall 2006, p. 22). Besides, the addresser must also assume the addressee’s capacity of free self-determination to accept internally the authoritative demand, and decide whether or not to respond to it. Finally, the notion of second-personal authority involves necessarily the notion of responsibility or accountability. The authority to demand implies not just a reason for the addressee to comply, but also their being responsible for doing so and their accepting the possibility of being held accountable for non-compliance without excuse.
As for second-personal responsibility, it “concerns how, in light of what someone has done, she is to be related to, that is, regarded and addressed (including herself) within the second-personal relationship we stand in as members of the moral community” (Darwall 2006, p. 69). We see this notion graphically illustrated in daily situations such as those in which a caretaker scolds a child for something they has just done. In most of these cases, the caretaker points at a drawing in the wall, or a messy table, and yells at the child “look what you have done”. Somehow, this caretaker is trying to make explicit the relation of the child to what they has done, and to hold them accountable for it. Indeed, Darwall understands responsibility as accountability; in other words, we are responsible for what a member of the moral community can hold us accountable for doing (again, even if nobody never does).
What invests agents with authority is the fact that they can address claims to each other. Such claims provide reasons both explicitly through speech acts, such as reproaches, excuses, or requests; or implicitly through reactive attitudes such as resentment, indignation or anger. For instance, the person whose foot is stepped onto can either verbally ask the transgressor to move their foot, and hence address explicitly a reason through a speech act; or make a gesture of protest showing their disapproval, expressing resentment at the transgressor’s action, and hence addressing the reason implicitly through a reactive attitude. These reactive attitudes are forms of address that directly appeal to the addressee’s goodwill and that hold him accountable for compliance.
In these dynamics of second-personal interaction, as spelled out by Darwall, what is given through a demand is a second-personal reason. The victim’s resentment at the transgressor’s stepping onto their foot counts as a reason for the transgressor to move their foot. This reason is second-personal because it has the following features. First, it is an agent-relative practical reason; that is, it is a reason for acting “whose validity depends on presupposed authority and accountability relations between persons and, therefore, on the possibility of the reason’s being addressed person-to-person” (Darwall 2006, p. 8). Second, it aims at motivating the other’s will through the agent’s own self-determining choice. Accordingly, it is not a kind of coercion, but an internal acceptance of an authoritative demand. In Darwall’s example, the victim seeks compliance after recognition, instead of mere obedience from the transgressor. Third, and as a result of being part of the dynamics of the second-person standpoint, second-personal reasons presuppose that both agents have equally second-personal authority, competence, and responsibility as free and rational agents, and that they can exchange their positions as addresser and addressee.
In summary, according to Darwall the validity of second-personal reasons depends on the authority and accountability relations between addressees and addressers, who can exchange their roles in their interaction; and on the ability of the participants to self-determine themselves freely by acknowledging the authority of the other agents they interact with. However, Darwall avoids the conclusion that claims are justified if they are addressed, or accepted. According to Darwall, the justification of those claims is established independently, in so far as they are universalizable, à la Kant. That is why he insists that the demands can be internally recognized, as if the second-person standpoint was internalized. On the contrary, a naturalistic approach assumes that the sort of impersonal point of view required to establish the universalizability of claims the analytical approach requires does not exist. As a consequence, the legitimacy of moral norms and practices of mutual recognition has to be viewed as grounded in the dynamics of intersubjective demands.