The Moral Nexus

The Moral Nexus

by R. Jay Wallace


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The Moral Nexus develops and defends a new interpretation of morality—namely, as a set of requirements that connect agents normatively to other persons in a nexus of moral relations. According to this relational interpretation, moral demands are directed to other individuals, who have claims that the agent comply with these demands. Interpersonal morality, so conceived, is the domain of what we owe to each other, insofar as we are each persons with equal moral standing.

The book offers an interpretative argument for the relational approach. Specifically, it highlights neglected advantages of this way of understanding the moral domain; explores important theoretical and practical presuppositions of relational moral duties; and considers the normative implications of understanding morality in relational terms.

The book features a novel defense of the relational approach to morality, which emphasizes the special significance that moral requirements have, both for agents who are deliberating about what to do and for those who stand to be affected by their actions. The book argues that relational moral requirements can be understood to link us to all individuals whose interests render them vulnerable to our agency, regardless of whether they stand in any prior relationship to us. It also offers fresh accounts of some of the moral phenomena that have seemed to resist treatment in relational terms, showing that the relational interpretation is a viable framework for understanding our specific moral obligations to other people.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691172170
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/26/2019
Series: Carl G. Hempel Lecture Series , #9
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 1,085,396
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

R. Jay Wallace is the Judy Chandler Webb Distinguished Chair in the Department of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments, Normativity and the Will, and The View from Here: On Affirmation, Attachment, and the Limits of Regret.

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PEOPLE MEAN MANY DIFFERENT THINGS when they talk about morality. In a familiar modern sense, however, morality may be thought of as a set of normative constraints on attitudes and actions that stem from the fact that we inhabit a common world together with other agents. More specifically, and more controversially, it may be thought of as a normative nexus that links us individually with each of the persons who might potentially be affected by what we do. According to what I will call the relational interpretation of it, morality involves a set of requirements on action that are constitutively connected to claims that others have against us, just insofar as they are persons. Requirements that are connected to claims in this way have a built-in directionality, specifying things that we owe it to others to do. So on the relational interpretation, morality could be said to be fundamentally a matter of what we owe to each other.

This book offers a statement and defense of the idea that morality collects a set of fundamentally relational requirements. A leading idea of the discussion is that moral standards have some significant normative features that can be made sense of only if we interpret them in relational terms. They function to define practical requirements, which regulate the deliberations of agents in the distinctive manner of obligations; and they also have interpersonal significance, providing a normative basis for relations of moral accountability. I argue that the relational approach is better able than the alternatives to illuminate these significant aspects of the moral. In addition, I shall highlight and defend the major philosophical commitments and presuppositions of the relational interpretation, which have not been subjected to sustained critical investigation. I shall also discuss some of the first-order implications of the relational approach, for questions about what, specifically, we owe it to each other to do, and about the nature of the reasoning that goes into deciding issues of this kind.

The idea of relational requirements in the most general sense is implicit in talk of moral and legal rights. More specifically, it is familiar from discussions of claim rights, in the sense made familiar by Wesley Newcombe Hohfeld. These rights are commonly understood to be complexes of claims, privileges, and powers that are invested in agents, and that correspond to duties on the part of other agents. My right to a piece of property that has legitimately come into my possession, for instance, involves a claim against other people that they should not use it without my permission, where that claim defines a duty that others are under; it involves, furthermore, a permission to do with the piece of property as I wish, as well as a power to transfer my claims in it to others as I see fit. According to this way of thinking, those who make off with my property without my authorization will violate a claim I have against them, thereby transforming their relationships to me in a way they will not change their relationships to other parties. They will have not only have acted wrongly; they will also have wronged me in particular, providing me with what we might think of as a privileged ground for objecting to what they have done.

Hohfeldian rights of this general kind are a familiar part of our normative repertoire, deeply embedded in our thinking about (for instance) the structures of private law. Contracts, for instance, seem to generate a complex of directed duties and corresponding claims, and a similar structure of claim rights is arguably implicit in the law of torts. Whether there are similar claim rights at the most fundamental level of moral thought is a more controversial suggestion, one that has been questioned, in different ways, by consequentialists and proponents of certain virtue-theoretic views. Even those who are open to the idea that there are basic moral claim rights, however, naturally tend to think of them as constituting just a part of morality; the "realm of rights" that Judith Jarvis Thomson has written about, for instance, is seen by her as a sub-region within a larger moral territory. Thus, there are many moral duties that people seem to be under that do not correspond to any Hohfeldian claim rights in the familiar sense, including imperfect obligations of mutual aid, duties of gratitude, environmental imperatives, and sundry requirements of moral virtue.

I agree that morality cannot be understood exclusively in terms of moral rights in the narrow, Hohfeldian sense. But it nevertheless strikes me as promising to interpret morality in relational terms, as a set of requirements on agents that are like the obligations of the Hohfeldian domain in being constitutively connected to claims that other individuals have against us. Relational elements are pervasive in many significant features of modern, secular morality, and it is my belief that these elements can be brought together into a comprehensive interpretation of the moral realm. The account I defend is not a theory of moral rights, as these are conventionally understood; rather it extracts a relational core from ordinary talk about rights and directed duties, and proposes that this relational structure can be extended, in an illuminating way, into a general framework for understanding the nature and normative significance of moral requirements.

The extension of the relational model that I shall defend, however, is not meant to capture everything that might intuitively be understood to be a reason or requirement of morality. There is a broad conception of the moral according to which it collects all standards of deliberate human conduct, whatever their source. In this broad sense, it is a moral defect if someone acts with disregard for the beauty of the natural world, or attaches importance to an activity that is out of proportion to its significance and value, regardless of whether the behavior in question otherwise affects the interests or welfare of persons or other sentient individuals. Moral failings, in this very capacious usage, are to be contrasted with deficiencies that do not directly involve the will, such as chronic bodily illnesses or infirmities that interfere with an individual's biological good functioning. It is no part of my brief in this book to maintain that all moral standards, in this maximally capacious sense, are defined by relational requirements that are owed to individual claimholders. The relational account I shall develop is meant to capture a moral domain that is broader than the realm of moral rights, but narrower than the set of all standards that are applicable to the rational will. This is the intermediate domain, roughly speaking, that T. M. Scanlon has referred to as "the morality of right and wrong." I shall call it interpersonal morality, to emphasize the fact that the standards that are in question derive directly from the effects of an individual's actions on the interests and well-being of persons (where personhood is understood in a manner, still to be defined, that potentially diverges from membership in our biological species). Interpersonal morality, in this intermediate sense, might be thought of as a set of requirements that reflect the fundamental insight that we share a world with other individuals whose interests are in some sense neither more nor less important than our own.

Not everyone who accepts this way of dividing up normative standards needs to agree about the desiderata to which an account of interpersonal morality is answerable. Some philosophers favor pluralist interpretations of interpersonal morality, tracing its requirements to fundamentally distinct values rather than imputing to them any underlying substantive unity. There is room for disagreement, as well, about the precise boundaries of this intermediate domain (disagreements, that is, about some particular requirements on human agency, and whether they are to be included within the domain). The approach I favor starts from the observation that interpersonal morality intuitively exhibits more specific normative features that have been neglected in recent treatments, and that a relational conception of obligation captures the underlying unity of the interpersonal domain that exhibits these important features. A consequence of this approach is that there might be some standards of rational agency that derive from the effects of action on other persons, but that are not standards of interpersonal morality as I understand it. Standards of this kind are not obligations in the sense in which the core requirements of interpersonal morality can be understood to be, nor do they function to structure accountability relations with other persons. They define forms of what I shall call extra-moral concern for moral persons — taking "morality," as I shall do in what follows, to refer to the intermediate domain of interpersonal morality, rather than to the broad set of all standards that might apply to the rational will.

My discussion will at many points raise more questions than can be answered in the compass of a single volume; as will become plain in what follows, the relational interpretation touches on many large issues of both theory and practice that are worthy of extended treatment in their own right. But I write in the conviction that it is important to have a sense of the big picture before we get too bogged down in matters of fine detail and nuance. Writers on moral philosophy frequently fall into a relational idiom when they talk about particular normative and philosophical issues. They assume, for instance, that individuals are typically wronged by behavior that is morally impermissible, and proceed to reflect on the implications of being treated in this way for the attitudes and behavior of the person who is wronged. But the relational interpretation, even when it comes naturally to us, is also philosophically distinctive; it is fundamentally opposed by some of the most influential traditions of reflection about morality, which treat moral requirements in individualistic rather than relational terms. There is need for an overview of the relational approach to the moral that highlights its distinctive features, so that we may better appreciate both the philosophical and normative advantages of understanding morality in these terms and the obstacles that stand in the way of such an interpretation. My hope is that the discussion in the present volume will go some way toward addressing this need.

1.1. Elements of Relational Normativity

In the present section, I would like to flesh out my initial sketch of the relational conception of morality by saying a bit more about what I take to be its basic elements. For purposes of exposition, it will be helpful to take as an example a case of a moral requirement that it is natural to understand as having a relational structure: that of promissory obligation. There are three important features that appear distinctive of cases of this kind, which I shall call directed obligation, claim, and normative injury; let us consider these in turn.

(a) Directed Obligation

Relational norms, on an intuitive understanding of them, serve to ground obligations, specifying things that an individual agent must do. Thus, someone who makes a promise has undertaken an obligation, one that would not obtain in the absence of the promissory exchange. If the promise was to do X, then it seems, at a minimum, that the fact of the promise gives rise to a new reason for the agent to do X. That is, there is a consideration that speaks in favor of doing X that was not in place before the promise was made. But this understates the change in the normative situation that is effected by the promise. We normally think that promisors, in offering someone else promissory assurance about what they will do, are now under a duty to fulfill the promise they have made. Promisors exercise a normative power that is available to agents to create obligations where such were not antecedently in place, binding themselves to do what they have promised. Promises are indeed among the most salient and familiar examples of the phenomenon of moral obligation, even if they differ from many alleged obligations in being created through voluntary acts.

In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that it is always morally impermissible for promisors to fail to do the very thing that they have promised. Our understanding of the morality of promissory obligation implicitly acknowledges circumstances in which promisors do not have to follow the letter of their promises. Emergencies sometimes come up, for instance, that could not have been anticipated, even by a conscientious agent, at the time when the promise was made. Under these conditions, I think it would be natural to say that it is not wrong for the promisor to fail to perform the promised action. There may be some residual obligation that the promisor is under to provide compensation for losses that the promisee might have suffered in virtue of having relied on the promisor to do the thing that was promised; strictly speaking, however, the original promissory obligation (to do X, for example, if that is what was promised) no longer obtains under such circumstances. We might put this by saying that promissory obligation is not reasonably understood to be unconditional. It is, however, defeasible: so long as exceptional circumstances do not obtain, the promisor is under a moral obligation to do the thing that was promised, an obligation that was entered into through the promissory act.

It is further characteristic of these obligations that they have a built-in directionality. The promissory exchange brings into existence a normative nexus between the promisor and the promisee, whereby the former owes it to the latter to do the thing that was promised. Other people, who were not themselves parties to the promissory exchange, might well take an interest in whether the promisor fulfills the obligation. But this is not something that the promisor owes it specifically to them to do. The promise creates a special relationship between the promisor and the promisee, making it the case that the new obligation that obtains is directed specifically to the promisee. Indeed, as I shall argue more extensively in chapter 2, our sense that the promise creates an obligation is connected to the fact that it links the promisor and the promisee in a new normative nexus of this kind. A requirement that is owed to another individual in particular is not the exclusive property of the agent whose actions it governs; rather it is held in common by the two people whom it links. We are "bound" when we stand in a normative relationship of this kind, in the specific sense that the requirement that we are under, as agents, binds us to another party.

(b) Claim

A directed obligation corresponds, on the side of the person to whom it is directed, to the notion of a claim. The party to whom the agent owes compliance with the obligation is someone who has a claim to such compliant behavior. Indeed, the claim in question has a built-in directionality that mirrors that of the obligation to which it corresponds; it is a claim that the party has against the agent to the latter's compliance with the directed requirement. In the promising case, for example, it is the promisees who have a moral claim of this kind. We might understand this as an entitlement, held against the promisors, to their seeing to it that the promises are kept.

Like the directed obligation with which it is linked, the claim that is held by the other party is not necessarily unconditional. As we saw above, the promise to do X does not generate an obligation on the promisor to do X under any and all possible circumstances that might eventually come to obtain. The claim on the part of the promisee, insofar as it corresponds neatly to the promisor's obligation, is therefore likewise defeasible in character. It is a claim that the promisor should do X, barring unforeseeable conditions of the kind that would generally be understood to defeat the promisor's obligation so to act. Just as the promisor might well have various secondary obligations under such circumstances, for example to provide compensation for losses suffered, so too would the promisee have claims against the promisor to those secondary performances.

A claim, in the sense that dovetails with a directed obligation, should be distinguished carefully from the notion of an interest. To have a claim against another party or parties that they should do X is not the same as having an interest in whether they will so act. Suppose that A has promised B to do X, and that there is another person, C, whose professional projects will be furthered if A in fact does X. Under these circumstances, C has an interest in A's doing X (making C what is sometimes called a "third-party beneficiary" of A's X-ing); but it does not follow from this that C has a specific claim against A that A should do X. The directed claim, insofar as there is one in this case, resides in B, the promisee. Having an interest in someone else's doing something is thus not sufficient for having a claim against that individual, in the sense that is here at issue.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, ix,
1 Introduction, 1,
1.1. Elements of Relational Normativity, 5,
1.2. Overview of the Argument, 12,
2 The Problem of Moral Obligation, 24,
2.1. Practical Requirements: The Basic Challenge, 26,
2.2. Moral Obligation: The Specific Challenge, 34,
2.3. A Relational Approach to Moral Obligation, 47,
2.4. Refining the Picture, 54,
3 Morality as a Social Phenomenon, 66,
3.1. The Interpersonal Significance of Moral Right and Wrong, 67,
3.2. Individualistic and Relational Conceptions of the Moral Right, 76,
3.3. The Relational Structure of Interpersonal Accountability, 86,
3.4. The Relational Content of Blame, 95,
4 Relational Requirements without Relational Foundations, 105,
4.1. Obligations and Relationships, 107,
4.2. Self-Standing Relational Requirements, 115,
4.3. Anti-Individualism about the Normative, 125,
4.4. Agent-Relativity and Morality as an Ideal, 135,
5 From Interests to Claims, 146,
5.1. Defining the Manifold: Who Are the Claimholders?, 148,
5.2. Interests, Claims, and Moral Wrongs, 156,
5.3. Moral Justification and Moral Reasoning: From Interests to Claims, 165,
5.4. A Theory of Relational Morality?, 176,
6 Some Practical Consequences, 190,
6.1. Foreseeability, Claims, and Wrongs, 192,
6.2. Claims without Rights: Imperfect Moral Duties, 201,
6.3. Numbers and Non-Identity, 210,
6.4. Extramoral Concern for Moral Persons, 221,
Notes, 235,
Bibliography, 275,
Index, 285,

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The Moral Nexus impressively develops and defends a distinctive view of the essential nature of moral obligation. This ambitious and sophisticated book makes a novel and significant contribution.”—Sarah Stroud, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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