July 7th, 2012

An Interview with T. M. Scanlon

By Yascha Mounk.

"Philosophy is about deciding what to think, not about convincing other people what to think."

In his most extensive interview to date, Tim Scanlon talks about free will, choice, punishment, blame, tolerance, and the future of liberalism - as well as about his childhood and intellectual development.


This is a lightly edited and significantly shortened version of the interview. For the full version, which is likely to be of particular interest to philosophers, political theorists and intellectual historians, please click here.


T. M. Scanlon is one of the most highly regarded moral philosophers working today. Besides his masterwork, What We Owe to Each Other, he has written transformative treatises on topics ranging from the significance of choice to the nature of permissibility, meaning and blame.

It is natural to expect a certain amount of pomposity from philosophers, perhaps especially from moral philosophers. Scanlon’s stature – and those old-fashioned, impersonal initials he uses in publications – makes him a particularly promising object for such suspicions. But readers of his works are quickly disabused of any such expectations. His prose is elegant, straightforward and accessible. At times, it is easy to miss the true import of what he’s saying, so calmly does he state even his most far-reaching conclusions.

To his colleagues and students at Harvard, T. M. Scanlon is, in any case, simply Tim: always friendly, always jovial, he is a tall, lanky man in his early seventies, with a long face and huge hands. There is something distinctly folksy about him. In seminars and lectures, his winning ordinariness makes his account of the spring for our moral concern – not an austere categorical imperative, he argues, but a deeply human desire to stand in relations of mutual recognition with each other – appear all the more reasonable. The vision of a world in which, like Tim, every moral agent is unpretentiously concerned to do right by his fellow man really does sound eminently appealing.

We meet for this interview on the morning of the 19th of February 2012, a Sunday, on the steps to the philosophy department where Tim was a graduate student, and is now a faculty member. Walking into the building, we pass scores of students in ill-fitting suits who are nervously pacing around Emerson Hall. He scans the corridor with irritation before realizing that the philosophy department has been repurposed as the venue of a debate tournament for the weekend. Tim, his loud, mischievous laugh reverberating up and down the staircase, says that he disapproves of these would-be Sophists: instead of scoring points against each other, they should, he tells me, use their smarts to interrogate their own beliefs.

Finally, we arrive at Tim’s spacious third-floor office and settle down at a long table in the back of the room. We talk well into the afternoon, overlooking Harvard Yard as a dreary day quickly fades. All the while, we are watched over by the happy citizens of Siena featured in a reproduction of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegoria del Buon Governo.



I: Biography: Indianapolis, Princeton, Harvard


The Utopian:

You grew up in Indianapolis?

Tim Scanlon:

That’s right. 

The Utopian:

And you lived there until you went to college?

Tim Scanlon:

Yeah, I went to public grade school and high school in Indianapolis. I felt unhappy that I couldn’t play basketball so I thought I should leave for… (Laughs.)

The Utopian:

Did you play some basketball though?

Tim Scanlon:

I never made a team, no. I always tried out, and I was always the first person eliminated.

The Utopian:

You have big hands. I would have thought that you were good…

Tim Scanlon:

No, I used to stretch my hands so I’d be able to catch a basketball in a single hand. Which I can do – but it didn’t overcome the fact that I was very slow and couldn’t jump.

The Utopian:

So that was your main childhood trauma – that you weren’t good enough for basketball?

Tim Scanlon:

Well, I don’t know about the main… - “trauma” overdoes it. But, yeah, it was a source of disappointment, that’s right.

The Utopian:

What did your parents do?

Tim Scanlon:

My father was the son of an Irish immigrant family. The first generation to get an education. He put himself through college delivering a very large paper route. Became a lawyer and was very successful as a litigator and – loved, loved the American constitutional system. So an awful lot of the conversation at dinner was always about constitutional issues…

The Utopian:

…so you were being trained from a very young age…

Tim Scanlon:

…in that dimension, yes.

My mother was very sharp and smart, and had graduated from college – where, among other things, she’d studied philosophy. But she was a homemaker, as most women in that generation would have been.

But they certainly had a big impact on me. They encouraged me, as they say in Indiana, to go East to college.

The Utopian:

And you yourself started more in math and the sciences?

Tim Scanlon:

That’s right. I went to a very, very large public high school – about 2.000 students. A wonderful place, I loved it. It was like a little city: so much variety. When any given class was being given, you could choose between three or four different versions of it, with teachers who were known to be difficult or easy. So you really had a lot of choice.

It was very liberating as compared to the neighborhood grade school I’d gone to, which was much more indoctrination in Republican orthodoxy. But I was mainly interested in math. They had very good math teachers there and I just loved that. So I thought that I’d major in math, and I did take a certain amount of math in college, but I didn’t go on with it.

I started taking philosophy from the beginning partly just because it was something my parents had mentioned as interesting; that maybe I’d like it. And I did like it – although I never thought of it as a possible career until my very last year in Princeton, when I was writing my Senior Thesis on the philosophy of mathematics. My Senior Thesis advisor was Paul Benacerraf, a well-known philosopher of mathematics, who encouraged me to apply to graduate school.

I was very flattered at the suggestion, but it was such a departure from anything I’d ever considered doing that I could hardly summon up the courage to do it. But under his prodding and coaching I applied. I got in at various places, but I couldn’t quite make the break to do it.

I applied to go abroad to kind of get a break year, but I didn’t get in, so I signed up to go to Law School, here at Harvard. And then, at the last minute, I got an alternate Fulbright Fellowship to go to Oxford. And so I went to Oxford and worked mostly with Michael Dummett – which was really great.

But by that time I was beginning to get more interested in political philosophy. When I was a Senior, I’d been required to take some courses in moral and political philosophy. I’d thought that they were terrific. But now, during that year in Oxford, I decided that philosophy was something I just couldn’t give up.

So I came back to the US, and started my PhD Program here at Harvard – which, again, probably was a mistake. I probably should have finished the B.Phil at Oxford. But it seemed to me: why do two things, if I could just get going?

So I came here, and I was still interested in logic, so I wrote a thesis in logic with Burt Dreben. I wasn’t much influenced by his philosophy, but he was very kind and encouraging to me. And I became friendly with John Rawls. And then I left after three years and started teaching in Princeton.

Then, gradually, I kind of shifted over into moral and political philosophy, although I published a few things in logic. Because I enjoyed the techniques, I was good enough to learn them pretty quickly, but I didn’t have any originality. I didn’t have much instinct about what was the next thing to try to prove. (Laughs.)

Whereas I found that I had many more ideas in moral and political philosophy. The first things I published were on freedom of expression, which was, in a way, a continuation of the things I’d talked about with my father back in Indiana – which was no accident. So I gradually made that transition without ever saying: “I’m giving up this, I’m going to do that.” It just sort of happened.

The Utopian:

When did you first meet John Rawls?


Tim Scanlon:

He came and gave a talk at Princeton invited by Gregory Vlastos, who had known Rawls when he was a junior faculty person at Cornell. Vlastos was a classical philosopher, one of my first teachers in political philosophy when I was a Senior at Princeton. At the end of the semester, he invited Rawls to come down and give a talk in the speakers’ series, and encouraged all of us from the class to go. And Rawls gave this paper called “Justice as Reciprocity,” a later re-working of “Justice as Fairness,” which had come out the year before. So I saw him, and heard him. But I didn’t really meet him until I came here as a graduate student in the fall of 1963.


The Utopian:

What was your first impression from Rawls’ talk – was it obvious to you that this was something very important?

Tim Scanlon:

Well, we’d read “Justice as Fairness” in class. It was a lecture class in political philosophy. And at the end, once we’d read Locke and various other things along the way, it did strike me as a really good article – although this was my first class in the subject, so I didn’t really know what was great. But it was impressive, and I was also impressed with the esteem that my teachers obviously held for Rawls. But I didn’t immediately have the sense that this person was going to change the subject.

Then, when I came here, I had fellow graduate students who knew him, and had a real sense of excitement that this was an important person. And so his lectures – one did have the sense, not quite of the magnitude of what happened, but one did have the sense that this wasn’t just somebody else giving a lecture on political philosophy. You got the feeling that his way of describing how one ought to go, and its relation to other possibilities, was very appealing and eye-opening.

The Utopian:

And you grew a little closer to John Rawls when you were a graduate student here?


Tim Scanlon:

Yes, yes. I was in awe of him, but he was a very modest and welcoming person, so I had very good conversations with him, and liked him a lot.

I left here in 1966, and didn’t come back until 1984 – when Rawls offered me a job. He came down to Princeton. He said that he was going down to Princeton to talk to me about some stuff we’d been talking about. But what he really wanted to do is offer me a job. That was pretty moving.


The Utopian:

Difficult to say no to that!


Tim Scanlon:

No, you couldn’t. But I found it very hard to leave Princeton because I had very, very good friends there, and it was a very hard place to leave – although I was feeling a little bit on the fringe of what was happening there by that time.

But in the meantime we saw each other pretty regularly since, at least for part of the time, we used to belong to the same discussion group that met in New York and Cambridge, that a lot of us went to. So I guess my friendship with him, or acquaintanceship with him, developed and was kept alive because we would see each other there.


The Utopian:

Who else was part of that discussion group?


Tim Scanlon:

Oh, it was a wonderful group!

Tom Nagel, Marshall Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Frank Michaelman, Owen Fiss, Charles Fried, Michael Walzer, Bob Nozick in the beginning, then later Judy Thompson, Susan Wolf, Frances Kamm, Michael Sandel, Chris Korsgaard when she came here, and others. It lasted into the last years of the 1990s.

It was a shifting membership over those years – but never any larger than about ten or twelve people.


The Utopian:

And this would meet once a year?


Tim Scanlon:

Once a month. It was the most important thing in my philosophical development.


The Utopian:

It’s surprising that not more has been written about this group…


Tim Scanlon:

Well, because it was a private group, people knew about it, but you didn’t want to go on about it, or… it was a good thing.


The Utopian:

How was it decided who would be invited to join?


Tim Scanlon:

Well, you had to decide, and the question came up, and it was difficult. It was always awkward to decide about it. That’s a bad thing about a group like that. On the other hand, it only really worked because it was small – and all we did was talk about each other’s papers.

Every month somebody had to send out a paper and then we would read it in advance. We’d meet for lunch and gossip for an hour, or something, and then we’d start with the meeting at about 1.30 and the discussion would go solid until 5.30.

It used to be hard to get recognized. We debated about whether to have a chair who would recognize people, because it was such a hammer-and-tongs discussion. If it had been a larger group, it would have been impossible.

The Utopian:

In a lot of contemporary political philosophy, there’s this tension. On the one hand, philosophers want to react to political developments, to pick issues to study in part because they think they are important in the society around them – and, on the other hand, they’re sort of trying to write for eternity. And these two goals sometimes clash.


Tim Scanlon:

James Kloppenberg, in the History Department here, recently wrote this book, Reading Obama. The second chapter in the book is about Rawls. And he talks about Rawls because he is interested in the trajectory from Rawls’ discussion of issues of distributive justice in the 1960s, when he was writing A Theory of Justice, to mainly a focus on the problem of religious diversity and instability, in the 1990s, when he was writing Political Liberalism. Kloppenberg thinks that this trajectory has to do with the trajectory of the country which, in the 1960s, was more occupied with issues of distributive justice and civil rights and, since the 1990s, has become more occupied with culture wars.

That raises a question. Did Rawls make that shift because he felt that those were the issues of the day, and he needed to address them? Kloppenberg doesn’t say that, but the question is raised by his discussion. And I don’t think it’s true. I think it’s pretty clear that the internal logic of Rawls’ recognition of things that were flawed – flawed as he saw it, like his appeal to Immanuel Kant in Part III of A Theory of Justice – led him to look for some alternative.

You know, maybe there was some influence, but…


The Utopian:

But at times Rawls did quite openly say that he was responding to political developments.


Tim Scanlon:

Did he? That’s interesting.


The Utopian:

In Steve Pyke’s book with photographs of philosophers, Rawls says that he was set for a career in the seminary, but then, as a soldier in Europe after World War II, he started to ask himself political questions. How could this have happened? What are the moral and political conditions under which things go so wrong? And how can reflection about what is just avoid something like that happening again? So that makes it sound like a very immediate political impetus.


Tim Scanlon:

That’s certainly true. But in a little essay he wrote – a little autobiographical essay which hasn’t been published so far – Rawls describes his experiences when he was young. In a family that was well-to-do but that had a little bit fallen on hard times – not very hard times. And in fact he describes having a job carrying bags of flour in a big mill. That was in Baltimore in the summer, when it was very hot. He was working with a man who had done this all his life, and would do it all his life. And Jack’s father felt sorry for him working so hard, so he sent a car to pick him up after work. And Jack describes this feeling of – he says in this little essay this was in a certain sense the only job he ever had – but the thought that most of the world involves people who do that all the time. And how can we justify this?

So the question of social justice… - even before he went to college that sense of how you could have the kind of purity of heart that’s described in the moving final paragraph of A Theory of Justice, where he talks about the original position being a mode of thought you can enter at any time; that purity of heart would be to live by this… I think the idea of overcoming these class tensions was on his mind from an early time.

But of course, as that indicates, political philosophy has got to be about some experience of the political world and the problems that are raised by it. That’s certainly got to be part of any realistic engagement with the subject.

Although one can think that the way certain problems are being pitched at a particular time really is a distraction. Maybe what’s being presented now as the main problems we ought to be thinking about, or the main things we are debating in politics, aren’t really the important things. So you want to think about the things that are important.



II: Adversaries: On Utilitarianism, Libertarianism and The Nature of Rights


The Utopian:

We talked a bit about your companions and allies. What about your intellectual adversaries, or enemies?


Tim Scanlon:

Adversaries? Well, I suppose I spent a certain amount of time arguing against Robert Nozick. I didn’t particularly think of him as an adversary – maybe I did. And my original article about contractualism and utilitarianism was directed against consequentialism.

I tell students that, if possible, coming into a course of political philosophy one shouldn’t think of oneself as identified with some position, and try to think of some argument that is going to defeat your nasty opponents. You’ve got to write about something where, to some degree, you feel the plausibility of some other position – and the question is: why not that? And so if some position has no appeal to you at all, so there is no need for you to explain why not that, then in a certain way it’s not a philosophical question; it’s something else.

So particularly in the case of utilitarianism, or consequentialism, I wasn’t necessarily trying to defeat my opponents – although it does help to have somebody else there who represents the view you’re attacking effectively. So an early article of mine, “Rights, Goals and Fairness,” was certainly shaped by the fact that Peter Railton and Samuel Scheffler were graduate students in Princeton around 1975/1976, when I was working on it. And they kept saying: look, consequentialism can explain all those things. So that paper is, to some degree, styled as a kind of Mill-like defence of rights within a basically consequentialist framework.

I was also interested in the question of how I should think about something being a right because Nozick’s book and Judith Thompson’s articles were part of our common discussion. And I thought I wanted to believe in rights, but on the other hand this idea that one could just intuit what rights are didn’t seem right to me either – so I wound up writing this article, which was an attempt to resolve this question of how I could think about rights, and how that was related to consequences, and so on.


The Utopian:

What was your answer?


Tim Scanlon:

My answer was that to say something is a right is to say it’s a principle that is seen to be necessary in order to prevent some unacceptable loss of certain important values, and that it is a feasible way of doing that. That is, a right is a principle we ought to accept in part because it doesn’t unacceptably constrain other things we ought to do. Rights, I said, are limits on people’s discretion to act, which are justified by being necessary in order to promote or protect important values – but are also a feasible way of doing that.

I still sort of believe this. But back then I described rights from a kind of consequentialist perspective. And I remember I talked with Rawls about it, and Rawls said in his usual hesitant, quiet way: “Well, this seems right to me, but I don’t know why you call it consequentialism.”

I took that under advisement, but I didn’t quite know what to do with it.

By 1979 or 1980, when I began to work on contractualism, I began to see that there was another way – another framework – within which to place the kinds of arguments that I’d been giving there. A framework that worked better: I could handle all the same kinds of objections, and so on, but wasn’t actually a consequentialist.


The Utopian:

What about libertarianism? You just published a takedown of libertarianism in the Boston Review…


Tim Scanlon:

Yes, I certainly disagree with libertarianism, and it distresses me that it gets so much credibility. I didn’t write that piece just because I thought that libertarianism was getting a lot of attention in the academy, but because it was getting a lot of attention outside, with Ron Paul and so on. Not that I thought that all those people were going to read the Boston Review – but I wanted to say something about that.


The Utopian:

Your argument is that there’s confusion between different strands of libertarianism…


Tim Scanlon:

…my idea was that libertarianism appeals to people – or is marketed to people – on the grounds that they care a lot about their own liberty. So my question was: what’s the idea of liberty on which this appeal is based? And it seemed to me not easy to say what the idea was.

First, there is an argument for free markets based on their efficiency. But this gives individual liberty a purely instrumental value. And it might lead to policies that don’t particularly maximize people’s liberty in the sense of control over their lives.

Second, there is the idea of liberty in the sense of control over your life, but this isn’t something that most libertarians actually favour. In fact, Friedrich Hayek, for example, definitely says you shouldn’t identify liberty with power – that’s a very big mistake.

And then you might have a libertarianism that started off with the idea that it’s important for individuals to have certain kinds of control over certain parts of their lives. What sets of institutions could we design that would most serve that? That’s a really interesting question, but I don’t feel that that’s really being directly addressed.


The Utopian:

Because then you’d be arguing towards a regime of property rights, whereas libertarians take a pre-political regime of property rights as their starting point?


Tim Scanlon:

Yes, you’d be asking: what regime of property rights, and of other kinds of rights, would best fulfil this goal – among other things; you don’t want it to be too inefficient, so you have to balance – of giving people genuine forms of control over certain aspects of their lives. There is an equation there, somehow. There’s a problem to solve.

And then, third, I start from some pre-given idea of property, and I wanted to say that there wasn’t a pre-given idea of property. I should have mentioned that even Milton Freedman said that property is a social institution. There is a question of what form it should take.



III: Tolerance and The Future of Liberalism


The Utopian:

What about adversaries beyond philosophy? Liberalism certainly has won out the debate in political philosophy, by and large. Even in purely political terms, there aren’t any real alternatives to liberal democracy. And yet there is a sense that liberal ideals are losing the battle – not just in places like China, but even within Western societies themselves. Do you think that liberalism will continue to be as ascendant in the world as, for now, it is in philosophy?


Tim Scanlon:

That’s a good question, and of course I’m not well-equipped to answer it. I don’t have any data, only anecdotes. But peoples’ sense of what kind of general political outlooks – like liberalism – they can accept and live by is very heavily influenced by what they see as possible and feasible.

I think part of the problem of selling something like liberal values – which encompasses a wide variety of different things – rests on getting people to believe that living this way is actually feasible; that it’s not going to have some kind of unacceptable cost to them.

Religion is an example of that: insofar as people start thinking that making everybody live by my religion is overwhelmingly important, there’s a problem. If they think: in a society of free exchange, people are going to be led away from the true path, and my daughters are going to marry the wrong kind of people, and that’s not an acceptable cost – then they are also going to feel that these institutions are unfeasible.

That’s an important issue. The fate of liberalism – perhaps that’s a trivial thing to say – depends an awful lot on peoples’ being able to see it as something that would actually work without some kind of unacceptable cost.

That, I think, stands or falls among two sorts of dimensions: One is the dimension of political experience – of saying: “Well, other people have done it. It could work here. We’re not that different.”

The other dimension is a matter of relative evaluation: of coming to hold what Rawls calls a “reasonable comprehensive view.” Of coming to think: “Look, the justifiability of our institutions to others is important enough that we should be willing to cooperate with them on terms other than the ones that require them to accept the idea that all women have to cover their faces when they go out in public,” and so on.


The Utopian:

This is in part a question about psychological and sociological feasibility. When you talk about the “Difficulty of Tolerance,” the reason why you think that tolerance is hard is because it means having to look on as people transform your society into something you’re deeply uncomfortable with. But perhaps the only way of dealing with this difficulty of tolerance is to say: “At the coercive level, I understand that I have to tolerate them. But there is also the non-coercive level, at which I can spend all of my time trying to argue for why a society that resists their attempts to change it would be better.”


Tim Scanlon:

That’s absolutely right. That’s what I believe. It’s painful, and hard to accept. Looking in myself, I feel this difficulty.


The Utopian:

Do you find that, given the current political situation, tolerance is getting harder?


Tim Scanlon:

Ah… One’s intolerant feelings certainly rise up when one hears the speeches of Rick Santorum and people like this. But that’s not so new. In my article on toleration I was already quoting what people were saying at some Republican Convention – people saying this is a Christian nation, and so on. So it isn’t exactly new.

And, as I say there, it is not just the idea of religion being dominant that troubles me. I don’t like the level of concentration on sex and sexual attractiveness either. It seems awful to me.

The feeling that one’s society is going in ways one wishes it wouldn’t, and which, in some ways, one wishes one could do something about, has many different dimensions. So it’s not just that one feels threatened by religion – although of course we’re hearing a lot about that right now.


The Utopian:

Another area where liberalism is under attack is the question of who’s a member of your moral community. Especially in Europe, more and more people are saying: the condition of membership in our community is that you should live like we do, or even have the same ethnicity as us…


Tim Scanlon:

That is something I haven’t really written anything about, but I wish I had. It’s one of the things that I think was a main flaw in that article on the difficulty of tolerance, because it takes as given the idea of membership. It says: we want to have this relation of being fellow members of the community with our fellow citizens. And so it just takes citizenship as being the relevant boundary. If you just accept that, it gives you a reason to keep people out because to let them in as citizens would be to entitle them to a voice in where the society is going to go.

And I thought about that, and my thought is that if you try to trace back the claim that people have to be participants in shaping their environment, it comes down really to residency rather than citizenship. That is, if people are entitled to an expectation of continued residency in a place, then they’re entitled to their role in shaping what the environment in which they have to live is going to be like.

So that pushes it back to the prior question of what are the legitimate conditions for refusing not just citizenship, but residency. And then one idea is: well, look, if people are being brought in as guest workers, you can’t say that they aren’t entitled to live here. So that gives them the right I’m talking about, on my way of thinking about it.

My thought is that it’s a flaw in that article that it takes citizenship, or membership, as its starting point – whereas I think the fact is that one has an interest in what the world is like in the place where you reasonably have an intention to make your life. People have good reason to care about what kind of relations they can form with other people, what other shared interactions they’re going to have, and so on. So if I had to do it over, I would try to do it over on that foundation.


The Utopian:

I agree with all that. But, at least in the European context, the controversial question is not whether or not immigrants who came here decades ago should be granted residency rights – they already have those – or even whether they should become citizens. The real issue is that lots of people are saying: “these immigrants may now be citizens, but that doesn’t give them the same rights to decide what our social world is like because our social world is already set by history and tradition.” So immigrants only have the right to participate on our terms.


Tim Scanlon:

This is a different issue – but it’s one that I did discuss in that article. If people are there as citizens, then clearly to claim that “look, we’ve already decided what society we have and we’re not going to let you have any influence over what happens” – that seems to me indefensible for a lot of reasons.

Partly because it’s unfair to these people. But also because it’s a false representation of, for example, German nativism. It isn’t as if this somehow just fell out of the sky. People created it, by deciding: Which kind of beer mugs were they going to have? (Laughs.) Were they going to wear lederhosen or not? And to say: “This is it…” Well, there is a danger of reifying, or sanctifying, some particular historical, frozen moment in the evolution of this thing. It’s not just  that it’s unfair to these other people not to give them their share. It also misrepresents what the real social fact is.



IV: Free Will, Punishment, the Significance of Choice and the Nature of Morality


The Utopian:

One of philosophy’s oldest worries is causal determinism: the fear that, if what we do and think is determined by physical processes beyond our control, then we should abandon moral categories like praise and blame and choice. But I take it that you’re less worried about that than many of your colleagues?


Tim Scanlon:

I think there are three ways in which this problem arises – the problem being the possibility that a causal explanation of a reaction we give would undermine its significance in one way or another.

The most commonly discussed is the problem of so-called moral responsibility: the fact that there’s a physical or causal explanation for what we’re like would undermine the appropriateness of moral evaluations – of blame, in particular.

The second, the more political version, is the fact that if our choices were caused by factors outside of us, over which we have no control, then that would undermine them as factors that can legitimate outcomes. The fact that I consented to something could not make it the case that I can’t object to it. Or the fact that I entered into a contract wouldn’t mean that I have to fulfill it.

And the third, what I call the personal problem of free will, is that the causal explanations would undermine the significance for me. My sense of ownership, or whatever – that I’m the person who’s represented, as opposed to these just being things that happened for reasons that don’t have anything to do with me.

And I think that these three problems, what I call the moral problem, the political problem (although it’s not solely political, but I’ll put it that way), and the personal problem – those three problems have increasing degrees of difficulty as you go down that list.

I think the moral problem, which has received probably the most attention, is the least problematic, at least as far as moral blame and other reactive attitudes or reactions, whatever they are, are concerned. Because there I think what we’re doing is reacting to the way the person is. The person is defined by his or her psychology. Here David Hume was right. Factors that make an action not revealing of my actual psychology undermine responsibility because I’m not really like that. Stimulating my brain so that I say something that I never would have said means that it doesn’t reflect anything about how I feel toward you. Such factors undermine what Hume called the liberty of spontaneity. But the fact that there’s some explanation for how I am what I am doesn’t in general change the fact that I am that way.


The Utopian:

So we can judge people for being a particular way, even if it’s not under their control that they in fact are like that…


Tim Scanlon:

Yes, they’re like that.

Now, the degree to which that’s true of course depends on what kind of response blame involves. If blame is purely evaluative, if it just involves judging me to be a good or bad person, then the conclusion I just mentioned follows immediately. That’s essentially what was going on in Hume’s treatise. He had in mind an essentially evaluative idea, a feeling of approval or disapproval toward that type of character.

I think there’s a lot – I don’t want to call it confusion – a lot of uncertainty and unclarity out there as to what blame involves if it’s not purely evaluative. At any rate, I think that the sanction idea isn’t a very good interpretation of blame: when we’re blaming people, we’re not acting as enforcers. But I also think that the evaluative idea of blame is too thin and weak. We must be doing more than that. Otherwise, the idea of there being a problem about what we do not being under our control wouldn’t seem like an issue, except in the Humean way.

So I’ve tried in the last chapter of my book Moral Dimensions to say: what more could there be to blame that is in this space? And I offer this relationship-based idea that to blame somebody is to decide that what he’s done impairs your relation with him in a way that justifies you changing your intentions about how you’re going to behave toward him, and how you’re going to understand your relation with that person.

If you give that account of what blame involves in addition to a matter of evaluation, then there’s a first-order moral question about any particular way of revising my intentions about how I’m going to behave toward this person. It’s a first-order moral question whether that is justified, given what the person is like. And it may be that the free will problem will surface at that point, because it may be, with some particularly nasty ways of deciding how I’m going to treat this person, that they aren’t permissible unless the person had an opportunity to avoid running afoul of my deciding to treat him that way. But I think that, as I interpret blame, that first-order question doesn’t arise. It is a matter, as I say, of pure desert: that simply the fact that a person is like this can justify my withdrawing intentions to become his friend, to trust him to enter cooperative activities, to help him in certain ways, to care a lot about what happens to him, and so on.


The Utopian:

Part of the reason why the free will problem doesn’t arise in the case of blame is that the burden imposed on other people is not that heavy. But what about cases where the burden is heavy – in punishment, for example?


Tim Scanlon:

Right. Punishment is much tougher. Punishment involves not only, in the characteristic case, some kind of expressive judgment but also, as they say, some kind of hard treatment. And then it’s a real question. I think there the permissibility of inflicting most of the kinds of hard treatment that are involved depends heavily on whether people have had an opportunity to avoid, of the relevant kind.

That brings us to the second kind of problem with free will. That has to do with the licensing effect of somebody’s having made a certain kind of choice. There is a value of deterability for the person who is deterred: it’s a good thing for us if the prospect of having certain bad things happen is something we’re warned about under circumstances in which that’s likely to deter us. And if we haven’t been warned in situations in which we’re likely to be deterred, then we haven’t been given sufficient protection against having that bad thing happen to us.

So I have this basic theory: the so-called Value of Choice view. If certain bad things are going to happen to us, or if there’s a possibility of bad things happening to us, we have less of a complaint against that possibility if it’s set up so that we could avoid them if we so choose. Now, the value of that protection is very sensitive to the conditions under which that happens, and if a lot of people are raised under conditions in which it’s predictable and understandable that the threat of the law is not going to have any effect on them, that makes it much more difficult – or even impossible – to justify punishing them. So I think that opening for an objection to a system of punishment is clearly recognized on my view.


The Utopian:

So if causal determinism were true, and if a person’s genes predetermined that they were going to commit a certain crime, then you’d be very worried about whether or not it would be legitimate to punish them? It would, perhaps, be legitimate to blame them, but not to punish them?


Tim Scanlon:

Well, you know, that’s what I was about to say, because the free will problem does come back. So I want to say: no matter how good we make the conditions under which a person has the choice to avoid crime – he’s not destitute, he’s been given a good education, and so on – nonetheless some people are maybe psychologically born in such a way that they’re going to commit crimes even if they’re not deficient in other ways. Perhaps. Who knows. So you could imagine that person saying: “Okay, so you’re saying that you offered me a valuable protection against the possibility of getting punished by offering me the choice, under any of these good conditions, to live right. It may have been valuable for some people. But it didn’t do any good for me.”

And I sort of think that’s like vaccination. Vaccination doesn’t work for everybody. But one of the things we’ve got to do to protect people against being sick is to give them the chance to get vaccinated. There’s a limit to how far we’ve got to go. It doesn’t work for everybody, but if you haven’t done it then you haven’t done it. If you’ve done enough, then you’ve done enough.

It’s a question of how much you’ve got to do. That seems sort of hard-hearted, but that’s the place where I bite the bullet.


The Utopian:

So the starting point is that there’s a social need for a system of punishment?


Tim Scanlon:

You’ve got to have a social need, right. You’ve got to have a social need. It’s got to be an important need. This has to be a justifiable way of addressing that need, so there can’t be other less destructive ways of serving that need. And given our present penal system, it seems to me rather doubtful that there aren’t ways of reducing crime that don’t involve this monumental cost to individual people who are incarcerated, and to the communities from which they’re taken.

Mark Kleiman’s work in sociology and criminology is a good example of other strategies for trying to reduce crime. And there are other things out there that are trying to do that. So I think it’s just a horrible thing, the institution of criminal punishment that we have now, but obviously we can’t simply abandon it. In particular, we’d be abandoning the communities in which there’s high crime and leaving people vulnerable to being preyed upon more, perhaps. So you’ve got to do something. But I think most people simply aren’t aware of how bad the thing that we’re doing is. So that’s a serious problem.


The Utopian:

What about the third problem – what you call the “personal problem of free will”?


Tim Scanlon:

I think it’s a tougher problem. To explain how I can continue to think of my reactions as mine, as reflecting me, if I know that there is a physical story which leads to my saying the things I’m going to say, my being like this, and so on. That seems to be the most perplexing of the three problems. How can I think of myself as a person if I also think of myself as somebody who’s caused to act the way I do?

And I think that is a puzzle, one that’s not going to go away. But, at the end of the day, I think I feel about it sort of the way I feel about the first one: that is, when I think about myself, what I’m thinking about is my present psychology. And an awful lot of that is just spontaneous.

I mean, it’s not only true that we do some things on impulse, or whatever. Some of those things maybe we don’t think of as really being us, as being uncharacteristic and anomalous. But much of what happens in conversation is un-premeditated. You asked me a question and an answer comes out. So: that’s me. (Laughs.)Sometimes I find out who I am by seeing what I say.

So I’m prepared to accept that, and I think: what alternative is there? It’s not as if there’s some other ectoplasm in there that’s really me – to me, that idea doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. So I think I have to be comfortable with that. But I can see why it’s a continuing, perplexing problem.


The Utopian:

In the “Significance of Choice,” you gave an account of the different kinds of choice that retain their value even if causal determinism were true. With some of them, it’s obvious why that should be the case: the instrumental value of choice, for example. When you go to lunch in a restaurant, what food you get served should depend on your choice even if causal determinism is true. But what you call the “expressive” dimension of choice seems more problematic: that’s the idea that, rather than getting someone else to do it, it’s important that you choose the present you give to your wife. But you might think that if it’s causally predetermined that you were going to choose the present for your wife that undermines the significance of the gesture. She might say: well, it’s nice that you took the time but, after all, that you chose to take the time was just causally predetermined as well.


Tim Scanlon:

Well, that shows the interaction between these different forms of the problem, I think.

That is, my first response is to say that it’s more meaningful to my wife or my friend or my retiring colleague, or whatever, if I choose a present for them myself.  Now, it’s partly because my going to the trouble of choosing it shows a level of concern. But also it’s that this being the thing that I thought of gives it an extra meaning – a meaning over and above the way in which my taking the trouble to think about it is evidence of a certain kind of concern. And I don’t think that that kind of significance is undermined by the fact that my exercising originality and insight in thinking of the appropriate gift is produced by a causal process.

That’s partly because, as I said in talking about the justifiability of blame, our relations with other people are our relations with psychologically embedded people. Who they are to us is defined by the way they typically respond. What’s meaningful to me in relation to my friends is the way they actually are – not the way that something independent of what they actually are determines how they are. What they are as psychologically embodied and characterized creatures is what matters to me. So as for the significance for others of my exercising originality – that seems to me to go with the kind of story that I was telling about blame.

Another version of the significance of choice is the significance to me of my apartment’s decorations reflecting my taste and originality and personality and thought about it, and so on. Now, that depends essentially on the third problem there of how the fact that if I go into a store and choose this sofa rather than that sofa – or this kind of Corbusier-style furniture rather than a lava lamp (laughs)– why that should be significant. How can it be significant for me that it expresses me,given that it’s just like my conversation: there’s some causal mechanism that’s ticking in a way that leads to my saying one thing rather than another when you ask me a question, and it also leads me toward picking out one kind of furniture rather than another.

So these three problems are interrelated. The reasons that lie behind our concern with choice in the case of moral reaction and in the case of personal expression in a way presuppose something like the significance for a person of the third type, personal significance. So if you really couldn’t solve that problem at all – if you felt that the idea of a causal explanation of my response simply destroyed personal significance – then it would tend to destroy the significance of choice in those other cases as well.

Apart perhaps from the purely instrumental version. Of the three versions of the value of choice the instrumental would be the one that is most robust against that kind of undermining. But also it seems the most superficial in some ways. All in all not unimportant – I don’t want to find liver on my plate… (Laughs.)


The Utopian:

I was very struck by the last sentences of “The Significance of Choice.” There, you say:

“moral and, if there is such a thing, legal indignation towards lawbreakers is entirely in order and the suffering we inflict upon them may be justified. But in justifying these sufferings and inflicting them we have to say not: ‘You asked for this.’ But: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”

What does this mean for somebody who has broken the law? Do they say, not, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but rather something like: “There for the lack of grace of God, I go?”


Tim Scanlon:

Well, as somebody who doesn’t take the idea of God very seriously – or finds it hard to understand in a way – I just sort of tossed off that line, and I wished afterwards that I’d just said: we have to see this as a matter of luck. Because if you take it literally, the idea of God’s grace isn’t what I would say. So I felt a little uncomfortable about that line.

But I think there’s an important thing right about Ronald Dworkin’s discussion of this in Justice for Hedgehogs. He says, essentially, that the person who’s actually punished can’t disown what he’s done completely. He can’t say: “Well, it’s just the cosmos acting through me; it’s got nothing to do with me.” He can’t do that without undermining his relation to everything he’s ever done and his relation to everybody else.  It would be a kind of personal nihilism. It’s not just that it would be impossible to hold, but that it would be unattractive.

If the only intelligible conception of the self were this kind of dualist conception in which there’s this kind of acausal me that is intervening in the universe and thinking these thoughts as the result of a self-caused entity coming up with these thoughts that then change the direction of the causal world – if that was the only thing that makes sense of our caring about these things, then we’d have to give it all up, right? But why think that’s how it is? Why not say something like what we said earlier: what makes it seem like us is the fact, a), that it comes from us and, b), that it comes from us in a way that’s enmeshed with all these other things – and reflects those things, on the whole.

So I think that something like the answer I was giving to the moral problems is relevant here: what we are to ourselves as well as to others just is this complicated set of psychological phenomena. There’s no reason to say that that’s something we have no reason to care about.


The Utopian:

You say that, in order to figure out under what circumstances we can legitimately blame people, we first have to figure out what blame actually is. Are we similarly confused about what it is for something to be morally right, or morally wrong?


Tim Scanlon:

I’ve increasingly come to believe that people outside of philosophy, certainly – and even within philosophy – talk about morality without having a very clear idea of what it is that they’re claiming when they say that something is morally wrong, or that people are morally obligated to do something. What does that word, “morally,” do?

And I wish that there was more discussion of that question. I think the answer is that people are a) very unclear about it – even people who aren’t moral skeptics are relatively unclear about it; and b) there’s probably a lot of variety in what people basically have in mind, and it would be good to bring that variety to light.

So one way of addressing this question the way I conceive it, of what morality involves, is to just focus on cases where we think we’ve done something morally wrong. And I ask: “Well, what is it that seems morally bad about it? Other than the factors that make it morally wrong – why do those factors matter?” And I think that people maybe come up with different answers to that question, I don’t know.

Answering that question is kind of a matter of self-description or self-psychoanalysis: When I say that something is morally right, what do I have in mind, beyond just saying that I broke a promise, or whatever? Why does promise-breaking matter and why is there something in common to the way promise-breaking matters and the way torturing matters, or the way not giving aid to people in distant lands matters? What is it that’s common about the way those things are objectionable?

The Utopian:

So if somebody said, look, I’m not going to act morally, I’ll just do whatever is in my own self-interest, what would they lose?

Tim Scanlon:

Well, it gives a different understanding of all of our relations with other people. As you know, I’ve spent a whole chapter of a book and more trying to argue that the idea that actions are wrong because they involve treating other people merely as a means is overrated. (Laughs.)

But there is an interpretation of that which seems to me to be right. What’s right about people reaching for this idea of treating other people merely as a means as a moral starting point is that there’s something unattractive about thinking that my relations with everybody – my children, my friends, and everybody – are of an instrumental character. “What’s in it for me, and who cares what they have any reason to think? Maybe I need them to cooperate with me, but if I can deceive them, that, provided that it really works, is just as good as anything else.” There is a certain way in which you can’t offer a person who says this a reason that they would accept. But I would say: they are missing something. That is, there’s something that they have reason to want in their life that they aren’t seeing.

This is what we were talking about earlier with debate. A lot of people, at least a lot of students, tell you that if you can’t come up with an argument that some imagined opponent would have to accept on pain of some kind of contradiction, then who’s to say what’s right? And I think that’s the sort of thing that debate encourages. It belies the fact that the question, at the end of the day, isn’t: is this person actually going to accept it? The question is: do they actually have good reason to accept it, or not? And that’s a judgment that you yourself have got to make. That’s unavoidable. But I think people lose sight of the fact that philosophy is mostly about deciding what to think, rather than about trying to convince other people what to think.


Yascha Mounk, a PhD Candidate in political theory at Harvard University, is the Founding Editor of The Utopian.

A version of this interview is being cross-posted by our partner site, Books and Ideas.

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