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Chapter 1 What is Philosophy - Department of Social Sciences | Emporia State University

Houston, TX Feb 11 - 13, Join us in Houston for these courses: Feb. Greater Boston, MA Oct 16 - 18, Join us for these courses: Oct. Rochester, NY Oct 24 - 25, Let's just start with something, promissory obligation. In exchange for your delivery of ten guns yesterday, I have promised to deliver ten pounds of butter tomorrow.

And so I now have a reason to bring you the butter, indeed, I must. My obligation does not simply consist in having good or sufficient reason to deliver but in your "authority to demand compliance" -- I am accountable to you and have a second-personal reason for butter delivery. Promissory obligation, Darwall claims, essentially involves a second-personal form of connection between rational agents. Chapter 8 includes an extended discussion of the topic.

Yet the bold thesis at the center of the book goes much further. The very idea of moral obligation must be understood through the second-person standpoint. Being under a moral obligation just is being morally accountable to another: "To understand moral obligation … we have to see it as involving demands that are 'in force' from the moral point of view, that is, from the first-person plural perspective of the moral community" 9. This passage is instructive.

It indicates that the link between the moral 'must' and accountability to another is not limited to obligation created by the performance of a particular act on a particular occasion -- some demands are simply "in force.

Great Ideas of Philosophy, 2nd Edition

This last point is crucial if Darwall is to claim that the second-person structure characterizes moral obligation in general, and is not only a thesis about, say, Hohfeldian claim rights. Indeed, in the fundamental case, moral obligation is tied to standing demands issuing from the moral community, or again, the moral point of view.

What exactly does the moral community demand? It demands compliance with "principles that are acceptable, or not reasonably rejectable, to each as free and rational agents … apt for second-personal address" The determinate content of these principles would be given through a "hypothetical, idealized process of agreement that situates the parties as equal persons" , though Darwall does not say much about this: his interest is primarily in the structure and foundation of morality, not the elaboration of its content. It is crucial, however, to Darwall's way of seeing things that the demands of the moral community are not the demands of an alien authority.

The moral point of view is intersubjective: "The second-person perspective of the moral community is as much one's own as it is anyone else's. One demands the conduct of oneself from a point of view one shares as a free and rational person" And so, according to morality as equal accountability , what one is morally obligated to do is ultimately what one demands of oneself as a member of a community of persons all of whom are equally in a position to make such demands of themselves and of others, and to recognize their membership in such a community of persons.

Even if morality were essentially second-personal in this way, a question would linger about why I or anyone should care. The practice of dueling in a culture of honor also seems to have a second-personal shape, and yet I make no error in thinking "Ungentlemanly, so what? And so one wants to know what, if anything, can vindicate the unconditional demands of the specifically moral sphere of life-in-the-second-person.

Perhaps the book's most intriguing thread tracks Darwall's attempt to show that commitment to morality as equal accountability is a condition of the possibility of occupying the second-person standpoint: when we make or acknowledge claims or demands of one another at all, we must presuppose that we share a common second-person authority and competence as free and rational agents.

So much is a bare bones sketch of the basic structure and ambition of the book. But how exactly are we supposed to make our way from the second-person standpoint all the way down the logical line to morality as equal accountability? The main argument is complicated, though it seems to proceed in three main steps. Chapters make the first by defending the conceptual thesis of morality as accountability. The ordinary concept of moral obligation is essentially second-personal: it is the concept of what those to whom we are morally accountable have the authority to demand that we do.

Darwall aligns himself with a line of thinkers who insist on a conceptual connection between moral obligation and warranted blame -- what one is obligated to do is what one can be blamed for not doing. After providing an analysis of holding someone morally responsible through blame, or other Strawsonian reactive attitudes, as a case of addressing a second-personal reason, Darwall then concludes that the concept of moral obligation is itself an irreducibly second-personal concept.

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Chapter 6 extends the second-personal analysis of moral concepts to dignity and respect, here understood as respectively the authority to make claims and demands, and proper recognition of this standing. As Darwall repeatedly emphasizes, the truth of the conceptual thesis of morality as accountability leaves open to whom God, family, nation, something else , on what terms equal or not , and in virtue of what sentience, the bare capacity to act for a reason, something else one is accountable. The second step of the main argument is meant to answer these questions and thereby to deliver Darwall's particular specification or conception of morality.

Darwall begins with a wholesale attack on "the Kantian Project": according to it, the moral law is a standard internal to the " first-person deliberative standpoint alone" In its ambitious form -- think Groundwork 3, Korsgaard and Wood -- the Kantian project is an attempt to derive the moral law from the bare idea of rational agency. Moreover, Darwall is equally doubtful of a more modest Kantian attempt to characterize what it is to be a rational agent who recognizes that it is subject to categorical 'oughts' whose validity is a posit which individual practical reason cannot prove to itself -- think second Critique and "fact of reason".

However, the main argument addresses the ambitious version of the Kantian project, and I will focus on that. In such a reasoner, desire is a mode of epistemic access to the values of objects and states of affairs, and the capacity to act for reasons just is the capacity to act on the basis of such considerations, or again, as Darwall says, to act on the basis of state-of-the-world-regarding, agent-neutral, reasons. Such an agent is conceivable and possible, Darwall insists, yet would not be autonomous in Kant's sense: the power to act is not itself a substantive principle of action.

The possibility of this form of rational agency would be a genuine barrier to holding that autonomy and thus the moral law is internal to the bare capacity to do things on the basis of thought about what to do. My own view is that Darwall is overreaching here: the discussion is best treated as an expression of skepticism about the Kantian project rather than as its refutation. But at any rate, this chapter will be of special interest to those working in the Kantian tradition of moral philosophy or on Kant himself. If one cannot look to consequences or to mere practical reason for the vindication of moral norms, the question becomes especially pressing where one can look.


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Much of the book is stage setting for Chapter 10, where Darwall attempts to pull the rabbit from the hat. Here he argues that you and I must presuppose the truth of morality as equal accountability in making and acknowledging demands on one another at all.

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Joachim, who, like all idealists, rejected the existence of mind-independent facts against which the truth of beliefs could be determined see also realism: realism and truth. Yet coherentism too seems inadequate, since it suggests that human beings are trapped in the sealed compartment of their own beliefs, unable to know anything of the world beyond. Moreover, as the English philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell pointed out, nothing seems to prevent there being many equally coherent but incompatible belief systems.

Yet at best only one of them can be true. Some theorists have suggested that belief systems can be compared in pragmatic or utilitarian terms. According to this idea, even if many different systems can be internally coherent, it is likely that some will be much more useful than others. Thus, one can expect that, in a process akin to Darwinian natural selection , the more useful systems will survive while the others gradually go extinct.

The replacement of Newtonian mechanics by relativity theory is an example of this process.

It was in this spirit that the 19th-century American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said:. The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. Although this approach may seem appealingly hard-headed, it has prompted worries about how a society, or humanity as a whole, could know at a given moment whether it is following the path toward such an ideal.

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In practice it has opened the door to varying degrees of skepticism about the notion of truth. In the late 20th century philosophers such as Richard Rorty advocated retiring the notion of truth in favour of a more open-minded and open-ended process of indefinite adjustment of beliefs. Such a process, it was felt, would have its own utility, even though it lacked any final or absolute endpoint.

The rise of formal logic the abstract study of assertions and deductive arguments and the growth of interest in formal systems formal or mathematical languages among many Anglo-American philosophers in the early 20th century led to new attempts to define truth in logically or scientifically acceptable terms. It also led to a renewed respect for the ancient liar paradox attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Epimenides , in which a sentence says of itself that it is false, thereby apparently being true if it is false and false if it is true.

Logicians set themselves the task of developing systems of mathematical reasoning that would be free of the kinds of self-reference that give rise to paradoxes such as that of the liar.