Matters of Moral Taste

I am reading Fernando Rudy’s very clear and interesting recent paper “It’s (Almost) All About Desert: On the Source of Disagreements in Responsibility Studies“.

According to Rudy, unless I have severely misconstrued him, responsibility is an ambiguous normative notion about what we expect from each other used sometimes to talk about our relation to each other as equals and other times to talk about our relation to authorities, and not distinguish between them has resulted in a lot of philosophical confusion. 

Rudy calls the former the “Strawsonian” sense of responsibility, while he calls the later the “retributive” sense of responsibility, and identifies as the main difference between them that our evaluative reactions to each others as equals do not need to be deserved in order to be legitimate, bu the evaluative reactions from authorities do, because they involve institutional acts of punishment and the like.

The main difficulty I find in trying to distinguish between these two sorts of normative theoretical realms is that in order for the Strawsonian perspective to be genuinely independent from the retributive one the evaluative aspect must be severely weakened, so that it need not involve anything like punishment, sanctions or anything that requires desert. I agree with Rudy that the notion of moral responsibility has as central function make sense of the fact that we do in fact react to what people do in a broad specter of EVALUATIVE ways “as different as judgments of moral worth, judgments that one no longer stands in relations of mutual regard with another person, aretaic appraisals, requests for justification and recognition of fault, emotional responses, attempts at moral address, interpersonal dynamics that are not sanctions such as withdrawals of trust and friendly attitudes, sanctions properly, and punishment.” So punishment is just one of the ways we evalutively react to what others do, but the others are somehow similar, but also different. They have to be similar enough so that Rudy can still say that they are all evaluative and therefore that there is still something about the two senses of ‘responsibility” that would explain, at least, why it has been so difficult to notice the ambiguity he has identifies. But they also have to be different enough that – no small difference at all – some sort of reactions need to be justified and/or to be deserved, while others not. This difficult tight rope act is just the sort of challenge any philosophical pluralism faces, as I identified it in my recent article on conciliatory strategies in philosophy.

So what we need is a clearer account of what makes a reaction evaluative so that it is at least conceivable for a reaction to be evaluative without requiring desert. The natural model is predicates of taste so that one can say that, according to Rudy’s  Strawsonian model of responsibility, there are matters of moral and political TASTE, so that just as it does not make sense to ask whether pistachio deserved my distaste for it (even though my distaste for Pistachio might indeed be grounded on its objective properties), so it is nonsense to ask whether someone deserves indignation or resentment (even when these reactions are targeted by intensional and free actions that infringe upon us). Indignation, resentment and the like are matters of moral taste.

This way of drawing the distinction also commits Rudy to some strange positions. For example, in a footnote, Rudy promises that in a future paper he will defend the claim that

“…people do not have an unconditional right to expect good will from others; rather, they can demand good will on the condition that they show it themselves. When they do not, they lack grounds for complaining about the withdrawal of good will the reactive attitudes entail (which includes the suffering such withdrawal often causes to their targets), irrespectively of whether the wrongdoing in question was freely willed or not.”

Rudy 2021: 394 n. 11

Perhaps we should wait for that paper; otherwise, I do not see easily how claiming that we “can demand good will on the condition that [we] show it” ourselves does not introduce desert back into the Strawsonian conception of responsibility.

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