Sunday, February 10, 2008

Inspired by Peter Railton...

Suppose there is a couple, a deeply devoted couple whom everyone agrees exemplifies the moral virtues of marriage. Each partner is steadfast, loyal and sensitive to the others needs. One day, the husband is asked about his commitment to his wife by his best bro over a glass of beer. His friend asks how is it they are so right for each other. He responds in kind, "I realize I have a duty to my wife to be sensitive to her needs and act so accordingly" Let us imagine that the wife came upon him, standing behind him for some odd reason. Maybe, she saw him in the window and walked this way from the store into the bar to surprise her husband. What would the wife respond to the husband's claim of simply recognizing he has a duty to his wife. It is rather cold, impersonal and from the outset seems to undermine the value of their respective commitment each has towards the other.

It is a conceptual feature of practical reasons given for justifying actions that to talk morally about situations is to abstract them in part from their situational content and to subsume them into general acts or rules of morality. This practice, though necessary for doing moral philosophy, undermines and alienates how each would feel towards the other. The wife may want her husband to act in the exemplary manner he does because he loves her. That should be "reason enough." From what the husband said, he has given the practical reasons why he is steadfast, loyal and sensitive to his wife neesds, yet it is insensitive, alienating the wife from her husband.

What is going on here? The moral point of view talks about agents and their reasons for acting as justifications for why they act. Is this moral point of view appeal to the intuition that morality is undermining, and alienates the wife from her husband. Is there a solution?

I think there is a solution. I want to claim that practical reasoning involves representational understanding, that is, the ability to represent the viewpoint of another. It is a conscious act of understanding to situate yourself in "someone else's shoes", and for that reason whenever someone claims a practical reason, a feature of that practical reasoning is its origin in terms of representing the viewpoint of others. This is, what I call, the subsumption of representation view in which particular people, the situation of being in a relationship with a husband and wife, and particular factual and situational understanding, are subsumed under a general principle. I borrow this from Kant's idea of a reflective judgment where the particular situation before us has its origin in a greater representation than the final judgment displays.

When the husband gives his justification for why it is that he is sensitive, a basic deontological answer of duty, the conceptual landscape that enables him to form that belief is enriched with the active attempt of representation and subsumption necessary for moral reasoning. I have yet to "flesh" this out into a coherent framework for what a practical reason is.

I am firmly a cognitivist (maybe enjoining to the label of internalism is in order as well), believing that the reason for not doing X is a motivation for not doing X. However, the ability to get to that determination involves the enriched landscape of emotions, sensitivity and representation characteristic of what it is to be moral. Being moral, I argue, is nothing more than having a greater ability of the imagination to represent the viewpoint of another.

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