Introductory summary by Ted Honderich of T. M. Scanlon’s Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture
Tim Scanlon teaches at Harvard, having previously done so at Princeton. Before then he was a student of mathematical logic and in particular proof theory as well as philosophy at Princeton and Harvard and for a year in Oxford. He has principally been known as a successor to John Rawls and such different predecessors as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, but makes his own use of the shared idea of a hypothetical or imagined social contract, of which you heard in the previous lecture.
For Scanlon, to speak without qualification, an action is wrong if it would be disallowed by a set of principles that no one could reflect on together with others and then reject as a basis for general agreement. These principles are definitely not the general one of utilitarianism or the general one of humanity against lives of distress or suffering, nor fundamentally on account of inequality. Nor are the principles the political attitudes of liberalism or conservatism. It was indeed supposed, in my view with reason, that Rawls's method of deriving his own two principles of justice and of allowable socio-economic differences already presupposed those very principles. We are to accept that there is no such circularity in Scanlon's story.
His contract line of argument is bound up with the subject of reasons and their weights, his concern in this lecture. But this subject is taken forward on its own, without explicit reference to a social contract. Reasons in his wide sense include moral judgements such as your judgement the other evening that a man was treating his wife badly, didn't care about it, and was cruel and heartless. But reasons in the wide sense also include reasons for actions having to do with self-interest, and also reasons for beliefs, and reasons for anything else. They include reasons for what is to be done, where that final question comes after settling the questions of what ought to be done and what is in someone's or something's interest. So reasons have to do with all of what can be called the normative in a wide sense -- all of what has to do with standards or instructions or decisions.
Reasons are propositions we can come to know and whose general nature is explicable. Evidently we are to understand that we come to understand the species that is moral judgements only by understanding the genus of which they are a species. Reasons in this sense are not feelings, attitudes or inclinations. Reasons in this sense are not in the category of desires and cannot be reduced to desires. To see moral judgements as in the category of reasons is thus to leave behind the moral philosophy of some decades ago, in particular the metaethics that took moral judgements to be exactly of the order of desires -- or to be imperatival utterances owed to desires. We thus also leave behind a whole tradition including David Hume's curiously unrestrained declaration in the 18th Century that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions.
Reasons are indeed truths, a special category of truths somehow owed to thinking and living with others. They are owed to reflection that includes others and their views and is a process that like Rawls's issues in what can be called reflective equilibrium. Evidently they are not in either of the traditional two categories of truths of fact, spoken of in terms of correspondence to fact, and truths of logic or meaning, having to do with entailment, validity and so on. Further, that these reasons are truths rather than desires definitely doesn't stop them from their having some special grip on us, from their being motivating, moving us to action. If the nature of these reasons is puzzling, if their way of existing is a question, it can be dealt with or approached, as the matter of the existence of numbers can be dealt with but not in the same way.
This reasons fundamentalism necessarily also includes consideration of other matters listed near the beginning of the lecture, including the supervenience of reasons on ordinary facts, our way of knowing reasons, and their truth being a matter of common sense. What is said indeed brings to mind two other lecturers in this volume, Christine Korsgaard and Simon Blackburn. The first is, so to speak, in the same or a nearby world. The second, as you will be hearing, is not.
I find some of reasons fundamentalism elusive, as lesser propositions offered by me and other struggling philosophers are found elusive. Great philosophers also come to mind, including Kant, certainly not consistently pellucid. Clearly it is possible for us to be seized by ideas that may in fact be discoveries or necessary constructions but also be unable to fit the rest of the world around them clearly. Maybe great originality is always this way. In the present case there is help in a book edited by Wallace, Kumar and Freeman -- Reasons and Recognition: Essays in the Philosophy of T. M. Scanlon.
For other questions, and more than questions, proceed to the next lecture. And from it, to continue your inquiry, proceed back to this one.