The Reason Why Not

T. M. Scanlon
T. M. Scanlon; drawing by David Levine

Moral philosophy in English-speaking countries is an inquiry now pursued principally in universities. This is accidental rather than essential; the great reforming philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, were not professors. But still the present fact determines much of the style and form of contemporary moral philosophy, and determines specifically the very high standards of clear argument, apt for education in seminar and lecture rooms, which are imposed on moral philosophy. The sentimental seductions and unashamed fantasies of Rousseau and of other writers of his century, however influential within the discipline, are not now encouraged.

T.M. Scanlon is a scrupulous, astringent, relentlessly exact writer, without any of the fuss and flutter that come from the desire to please. His book is pure philosophy, unadorned. But from the beginning he faces an enormous difficulty. What is to be included under the heading of “morality”? On the one hand it seems that we must circumscribe and delimit some part of the vast area of human interest that might plausibly be categorized as moral concerns. On the other hand it seems that no decision on this question of what should be included can be morally neutral, because any decision must presuppose a particular moral outlook, which will exclude related interests as being other than moral, or less than moral.

If my failure or mistake on a particular occasion was a moral failure or mistake, it can scarcely have been a trivial failure or a trivial mistake. This much sense the word seems to carry with it through all its interpretations; and Scanlon has an interesting section on the concept of importance when we apply it to moral decisions. But does the word “moral” carry the further implication that if a failure or mistake is a moral failure or mistake, it is worse than any other kind of failure or mistake? If there is a moral argument against putting up a new building on a particular piece of land (for example, it tramples on individuals’ rights), does that argument necessarily override all other concerns in the matter (economic efficiency, aesthetic considerations, etc.)? The overridingness of morality is a crucial issue here, and I am not entirely clear where Scanlon stands. He seems to me to have good reasons within his own argument to be uncertain about it.

He is a strict circumscriber of morality, at least for the purposes of his book. By morality, as he proposes to expound it, he means the whole set of principles that govern, or should govern, an individual’s relations with other people within a community. When the search for a definition of justice begins in the early pages of Plato’s Republic, a definition of justice very similar to Scanlon’s notion of morality is suggested to Socrates by a high-minded, unphilosophical man: to be just is to repay what one owes. Scanlon claims that there is a “central…

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