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01/08/2013

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Nick Smyth

Hi Kate,

This is a wonderful draft. Your paper is a breath of fresh air, not in the least because you note that there are several ways of analyzing words like "reasons" and "rationality", and that we should get clear on which method we are using before engaging in the usual fist-pounding. What follows are some rambling questions/concerns that I have.

First question, and given my past exchanges with you, I'm willing to bet you've thought about this already: in focusing on what reasons can achieve for us in conversation, isn't Williams flirting with a kind of pragmatism about the concept? I ask this because he rejected pragmatism as late as 2001, and yet it has always seemed to me that his focus is plainly pragmatist: it is a refusal to analyze the concept of a reason, and the choice to focus on what human beings are trying to do when they deploy the concept.

As for constructive criticism, my only major worry arises when you want to diagnose the general situation at the very end. You say that there is currently great confidence that "practical reasons are one thing rather than many, and that there are no fundamentally different questions within the sphere of what we have vaguely (and lately) called ‘practical normativity.'"

Now, you cite Williams' work as evidence that this view is new, but I find myself unable to pin down just what it is about Williams that makes him this kind of pluralist. First, the distinction between practical and moral "ought" vanished in 1984's ELP, where the latter was unmasked as a kind of social disease. As you no doubt know, the word 'moral' was, for Williams, constantly used in the inverted-commas sense, and so it's hard to see that this distinction can ground any kind of pluralist approach to reasons on his part.

In fact, in resolutely sticking to the advice-model of reasons, isn't Williams just the kind of monist that Parfit is when he insists that reasons are most fundamentally tied to criticism?

Finally, I completely agree with you whan you say that Williams' intuition is that "advising a grown man to take his medicine, when he really doesn’t want to do so, is to fail to give him advice – it is to browbeat him, or coerce him, or treat him like a child." I have been attracted to internalism for precisely this reason. Yet, a troubling question arises: the intuition is plainly an ethical one, and doesn't this mean that we have... reasons to not browbeat, coerce, etc? The theory teeters towards self-defeat by covertly drawing on claims about what we necessarily have reason to avoid doing. Can a person who likes browbeating reject internalism about reasons? The mind boggles. :)

Anyway, thanks again, and I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Kate Manne

Thanks so much for the mention, Marcus, and also for the kind words. And Nick, I'm very grateful both for the kind words and the excellent comments. It is so nice to have some encouragement!

Re: pragmatism, are you referring to Williams' "Truth and Truthfulness," and subsequent back-and-forth with Rorty? You raise very interesting issues about the connection with pragmatism, but I actually haven't thought about them as much as I'd like to. I suspect that the brand of pragmatism Williams dislikes, and the sense of pragmatism implied by having a conversational model of practical reasons, might be quite different. But that's just a hunch, and I'd be very happy to hear more.

Regarding the point about pluralism and moral obligation: you're absolutely right that "Morality, the Peculiar Institution" (1985) raises some exegetical wrinkles for me (wrinkles that are now going to get a long footnote), but I believe that they're just terminological in the end. For those of you who haven't read it: Williams famously argues in “Morality, the Peculiar Institution” that there is a special variety of ethical thought – which he dubs “the morality system” – which we would be “better off without.” But it is clear that he is now taking moral obligation to be different than in "'Ought' and Moral Obligation," (1981), because moral obligations are now taken to be exclusive (in direct contradiction to the quotation on p. 11). Williams also speaks of moral obligation as represented in the morality system as an “especially important kind of deliberative conclusion – a conclusion that is directed toward what to do, governed by moral reasons and concerned with a particular situation.” (1985, p. 175) Together with his subsequent claim that moral obligations imply possibility, this strongly suggests that Williams is now thinking of moral obligations as the all-in notion to which moral reasons claims correspond and contribute. Substantiating this reading, Williams then talks of “what a given person has reason to do, or more specifically is under an obligation to do,” and goes on to connect his remarks on moral obligation with his internalism about reasons. Most importantly, he now distinguishes an ‘ordinary’ sense of obligation, as well as ethical considerations and criticisms of very different kinds. “It is a mistake of morality to try to make everything [ethical] into obligations,” he writes. So the point is still that a certain kind of critical pluralism is crucial to maintain – with the implication being that reasons-talk will not capture everything critical which we might have to say.

It is also true that in MPI, Williams distinguishes between blame and “other kinds of ethically negative or hostile reaction to people’s doings (it [being] vital to remember how many others there are.” (1985, p. 193) (For example, “…some of the most monstrous proceedings, which lie beyond ordinary blame, involve violations of basic human rights.” (1985, p. 192)) The textual evidence suggests that this distinction maps onto the focused blame/rejecting blame distinction, which Williams later preferred (in IROB). In any case, it is misleading of Parfit to quote Williams’ remark “blame is best seen as involving a fiction” (1985, p. 192) without noting these important textual and conceptual complexities.

As for the intuition you call an ethical one, I actually think that it is a conceptual point. One arguably can't advise someone to do something which one can't get them motivated to do merely by continuing this conversation, without *breaching the boundaries* of merely having a conversation (as opposed to brow-beating them, coercing them, or treating them like a child). Does that make sense?

Again, thanks so much for the super-helpful remarks, and sorry to take up so much space with Williams exegesis!

Kate Manne

Oh, and regarding Williams' pluralism, I didn't mean to suggest (and should have been clearer about this) that Williams is a pluralist about reasons themselves. I just think that he thought that reasons-talk (in his sense) does not exhaust everything critical which we need to say. If we try to make reasons-talk cover everything normative-cum-evaluative, a la Parfit, we will be trying to say too much with too little.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Kate: a quick thought on your last point in response to Nick (your suggestion that the intuition in question is a conceptual one rather than an ethical one). What do you mean by "breaching the boundaries" of "merely having a conversation"? There are two relevant ways to understand this:

(A) Conceptual: browbeating someone/treating them like a child through words is not to engage in *conversation* at all.

(B) Moral: browbeating someone/treating them like a child through words is engaging in conversation, but it is *wrong*.

The first seems to me something of a stretch. People browbeat one another *in conversation* all the time. The latter seems much more plausible: one *can* browbeat someone in conversation, but it's wrong to do so.

Anyway, once again, I very much enjoyed your review!

Kate Manne

I think there's a *sense* in which collaborative conversation ends and something else begins - maybe something entirely proper and fitting - when we start ignoring someone's motivations. We're not talking to or with them anymore about what to do - we're talking at them (or yelling at them, maybe). Maybe that's a more helpful way of getting at the same distinction? But I do think there's an important conceptual distinction in the vicinity, whatever it's best to call it. And it's hard to see it as an ethical point, even a prima facie one, because sometimes it seems entirely fitting to leave off conversation (as I perhaps partly stipulatively understand it) and start doing something else with words.

Kate Manne

I'm very grateful for the helpful feedback, both of you. I've uploaded a slightly revised version now, which says more about ELP and also about conversation. Thanks! :)

Nick Smyth

Wow, I just posted a long comment which was deleted. The gist of the major question, Kate, was this: is the pluralism in question a pluralism about the concept of criticism (as you say in your long comment above) or pluralism about the concept of a reason (which you allude to in your final paragraph)? I was suggesting that both Williams and Parfit are monists about reasons (in your sense: i.e., there is just one way to analyze them), but you are now saying that the pluralism in question is about criticism. So, I'm still a little hazy on just what the pluralism in question is supposed to be. If it's pluralism about criticism, then your final paragraph might be a bit misleading.

I also suggested that you simply lose the stuff about brow-beating and about giving "helpful answers"... it invites the ethical reading. You can simply make reference to the conceptual requirements of advice.

Lots else to say, but I don't want it to get eaten by the internet again. Thanks so much for all of this!

Kate Manne

Sorry your comment got eaten! And, yes, I definitely meant the pluralism to be a pluralism about criticism. We can use reasons-talk to pick out one type of criticism, a la Williams, or use it to try to cover every type of criticism, a la Parfit, but at the risk (I believe) of eliding important distinctions between very different kinds of criticisms. I will change the conclusion to make this clearer now. I have also added a bit clarifying the "helpful answer" part, with probably more to come once I think about it some more. Thanks so much, again!

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