The Good Fight
🎧 T. M. Scanlon on What We Owe to Each Other

🎧 T. M. Scanlon on What We Owe to Each Other

T. M. Scanlon and Yascha Mounk discuss how philosophical liberals should think about the nature of our moral obligations.

T. M. Scanlon, one of the world's preeminent moral philosophers, was Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity at Harvard University until his retirement. In his seminal work, What We Owe to Each Other, Scanlon gives a liberal account of how to reason through what it takes to act justly in matters of morality as well as politics.

In this week’s conversation, T. M. Scanlon and Yascha Mounk discuss the true meaning of tolerance, how to decide whether an action is morally right or wrong, and why the question of free will isn’t as important as you might think.

The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Your most famous book is called What We Owe to Each Other. It's so famous, in fact, that it was heavily featured in a television show that many people will have seen called The Good Place

As a moral philosopher, how do you think about what we owe to each other, and why is that question important for us to ask?

T.M. Scanlon: One of the oldest questions in moral philosophy is, “Why be moral?” Going all the way back to Socrates in Plato's early dialogues, he's trying to answer the question, “Why should you not tell a lie or contribute to the imprisonment of an innocent person, if you can get some great advantage or avoid some awful thing from it?” Almost all of us think that morality is important. 

But there are two questions about it. One is, I think people aren't very clear about how to think about exactly which things are right and wrong. We have some fixed ideas. But when we get into uncertain territory it’s critical to ask, “What kind of thinking am I engaging in?” Maybe that's not a problem that worries most people. But that's the kind of problem that worries a philosopher. The other question is, “Why is it important?” There are different answers out there, obviously. I got the idea of “contractualism” back in 1979 or 1980, when I was visiting Oxford as a guest of the philosopher Derek Parfit: that when we're thinking about right and wrong, what we're thinking about is what kind of conduct would be permitted by principles that I'd actually defend to other people, and that they would actually have reason to accept. That seemed to me to be a gateway to approaching both of these problems. That is, it's a gateway to thinking about the kind of reasoning that we're involved in when we're trying to settle a question of right and wrong; and it's also a gateway into the question of why the answer is something we should care about

It's something we should care about because we care about being in a kind of relation with other people where we're treating them in ways they couldn't reasonably complain of. This is in opposition to, “Yeah, they could complain about this, but I'm going to turn a deaf ear to that, or I'm going to force them to accept it”—I don't think people want to stand in that relation. And I wrote a paper called “Contractualism and Utilitarianism'' which elaborated this. It is not just justice, because it doesn't have to do simply with political institutions. But it has a lot to do with our relations with each other. And it didn’t have a name, it seemed to me. “What we owe to each other” was a phrase that came to my mind as the name for this. Although this idea of morality being founded on what we can justify to other people, isn't the whole of what's normally called morality. Even for me, it isn't the whole of it. It's a sub-part.

Mounk: The question you’re specifically interested in here is, “When I engage with somebody else in the world, what is it that they can reasonably expect of me?” And the traditional challenge to this or any moral philosophy is that of the proud egotist who is just going to do everything that's in their interest. But you're saying that most people just don't actually want to live like that. Most people don't want to go and stand in conflict with each other. And so if you get going with a moral enterprise, if you don't want to treat others in ways that are unjustified, then what should you do? 

Scanlon: It would be naïve to deny that there are people like the egoist you mentioned. In the extreme, it's a kind of sociopath. But I think that the largest number of people really do care about the aspect of morality that I'm talking about: that is, the ability to justify their actions to others. And I think this is illustrated by my analysis of our contemporary politics. There was a symposium on my book at the American Philosophical Association. One of the commentators was David Gauthier, a philosopher who wrote a book that was similar, but defended a much more right-wing, libertarian view. He's a friend, and he loves exaggerating. When he started, he said, “Everything in this book is mistaken. Even the title is false; we don't owe anybody anything.” That might seem to be an expression of the view that you mentioned. 

But in fact, it seems to me, people do sense that they owe other people something, although they're very sensitive about it. They don't want to be accused of behaving wrongly. If you look at a lot of the controversies that are out there today having to do with global warming, Black Lives Matter, wearing masks and getting vaccinated—there's a lot of passion there. And it seems to me we have one party that is basically being very successful by taking Gauthier’s remark as their party platform: We don't owe anybody anything. At some level, they recognize that they do owe people something. They really don't think that it's okay to have unarmed young men shot in the back when they're not violently attacking the policeman. They feel vulnerable to criticism on this point, but they really don't want to accept it. They don't want to accept that they ought to be doing something about global warming or the police, or that they need to be paying higher taxes. Their very sensitivity to criticism reveals that they aren't like the person you mentioned, who really sincerely all the way down thought, “I don't owe anybody anything.” They wouldn't be bothered by that criticism. 

Mounk: How do we actually think about what we owe to people in concrete situations? I agree with you that this question animates people a lot. One of my favorite pieces of reading when I'm, you know, on public transport with 10 minutes to kill is to read “Am I the Asshole?” which is a community on Reddit, where people really are trying to figure out, “hey, in this situation, I did something, I think it's okay. But people around me are telling me I'm being an asshole”... which is colloquial for acting immorally. How should people go about answering those questions according to the substantive views you've developed in your work?

Scanlon: I want to analyze everything down to the idea of “a reason” at the most basic level. If I want to say something that any person on the receiving end of my conduct would reasonably reject, I have to ask, “What reason do they have to object to what I'm doing, and what's my counter?” That's familiar to the old golden rule, but it’s just not what the person actually likes, or would enjoy. It’s also: “What reason do they really have (given how they would be affected) to object to what I'm doing?” And what reason do I have? There's a crucial difference there between how I feel while I would like to be treated, on the one hand, and the question of what reasons I have to not want to be treated that way, on the other. That's the kind of thinking that we should engage in and (it seems to me) we often do engage in, although I may be kidding myself.

Mounk: The basic framework is very intuitive to people: if you do something and somebody objects to it, they have to have a reason for why they object and you have the ability to respond; if it feels like their objection cannot be properly responded to, then what you've done is probably wrong. There is a word that's key to your philosophy but that's also often used by John Rawls in a more political context, which is “reasonably” right—is it something they can reasonably reject? 

But sometimes they say, “Well, hang on a second, what do you mean by ‘reasonably?’ Doesn't that just refer to what our norms are?” How do you respond to that?

Scanlon: One of the problems with the idea of “reasonableness,” like a lot of other heavy words, is that it's subject to a number of different interpretations, and some of them have quite a lot of moral content built into them. This moral content comes not via the idea of reasonableness itself, but via the way you define what the relevant set of considerations for what is “reasonable” are.

So I could have said, we need to talk about what you had sufficient reason to do, taking into account the reasons that a person in your position has, and also the reasons that a different person may have, and maybe also the idea that there's good reason to try to find something that neither one could object to.

Mounk: Let's say that there's a particular bookstore that you value in your neighborhood. You've been a customer there for a long time. The books are a little bit more expensive than they are on Amazon, and it's a bit more hassle to walk down to the bookstore and pick up the book than it is to click on something on your phone. And eventually you decide, “I'm glad to have it in my neighborhood, but actually, I'm just going to buy my books on Amazon.” How would you puzzle through whether or not the person who does this is failing to observe what he owes to the owner of a bookstore or the wider community in which he lives?

Scanlon: That's a great example. It gets to the core of what we were talking about earlier, when we were talking about mask wearing and so on. That is, here's a principle: if a pattern of acting is one that we all need to accept in order to prevent something very bad from happening to us—e.g. to prevent the floodwaters from destroying our town, we need to build up the dikes; or we need to all wear masks in order to prevent our economy from being ground to a halt by the fact that everybody's getting sick—and if a way of doing that is proposed and is being generally complied with (and it isn't unfair, and doesn't require a sacrifice that's too great in relation to the to the harm in question), then it's wrong not to go along with it. 

If an institution doesn't serve a sufficiently important purpose to justify what they're imposing on you, then you don't have an obligation to go behind it.

Mounk: We sometimes seem to demand from our moral concepts that they allow us to look at the world and always have one very straightforward and obvious answer. That, of course, is not the case, and what we should ask for moral theories such as yours, is not whether it makes all things easy. It's wherever we feel like it allows us to express the nature of moral conflict in ways that are coherent. 

Let's say I'm going to cheat on my taxes, because who cares? And then you say, “Well, hang on a second, actually, we're using this tax money for really important things like flood defenses, and if a lot of people cheat on their taxes then the city will get flooded, and that's really bad.” I respond by saying, “Well, but not everybody is going to cheat on their taxes. Me cheating on my taxes won’t stop the floodwalls from going up. So who cares?” Why is it that, there, you would say their objection is more reasonable than my response to it?

Scanlon: Well, let's see—two things, which will probably sound evasive: one is that it's common to put all these things in terms of a scene in which I'm trying to convince somebody else of what to do. What if that person just refuses to accept it? That's kind of a mug's game, although it's not totally unimportant, because what we're trying to do is to make up our own mind about what we ought to do, and how we're going to react to people who aren't also doing it. How should we think of them? I think that always putting things in terms of what so-and-so says and how I could respond to that… Well, I think they don't have a sufficient reason to do that! That's why it's wrong for them to do that. I would say, “You're right—one person helping or not helping is not going to make or break, but let's think about the principle.” It's okay not to do it. If it's okay not to do it, a lot of people are going to get to not do it. The question isn't, “Are they going to opt out?” The question is, “Do they have sufficient reason not to opt out?” And here is a reason. That is, if you opt out, the principle allowing you to opt out is one that we couldn't reasonably accept, and which we have reason to reject. How important is this threat? Is some collective action really necessary to remedy it, and how burdensome is it? And is it fair? Those are the three things I mentioned. I think that's very common-sensical. But it divides some of the questions that come up in the case of the COVID epidemic: mask wearing and vaccinating are obviously not unfair, and so on. But lockdowns are another matter, right? The lockdown doesn't really bother me—I'm retired, I get my check no matter what I do, I can have groceries delivered, and so on. But the people who've got to deliver the groceries are in a different situation. They're taking risks. And also people whose businesses are interrupted may lose their business. If you look at it that way, in terms of the formula that I mentioned, you might be thinking, “Well, we’ve got to fight this pandemic, and then later, we'll have an economic stimulus program, which will try to rebuild the economy.” But those are two different things, because rebuilding the economy is part of making this way of combating the pandemic fair. It would be like having a system of rebuilding the dikes that said, “People who are capable of heavy lifting will do all this uncompensated work, and the rest of us will benefit.” You'd have to have some kind of compensation in order to make that not unfair. 

Mounk: And so, just to bring it full circle, I'll say, “Look, I like the existence of this bookstore. But I'm lazy, so I'm going to buy this book on Amazon.” And the bookstore owner’s objection goes something like “Well hang on a second, you get some benefits from this bookstore, and you'd be sad if it didn't exist, and it’s good for the community; how can you not do your part to help keep it up?” 

The response to the objection is something like, “Sure, it's nice to have a bookstore, but it's not that important. And there's an important principle of being able to purchase things on the market, and that actually might help us produce goods more cheaply, and actually might allow people to read more books and have all kinds of other benefits. I'd be very sad if this bookstore ceased to exist, but I don't think that's enough for me to somehow be morally under duress not to buy goods wherever I choose as our economic system allows.”

Scanlon: But that leaves out one important distinction which was very appropriately built into the example. There are actually two different ways of looking at this: one way you could look at it is in terms of moral philosophy—is it wrong for people to not support the bookstore? And you might put that in terms of how good a thing it is that there'd be a bookstore in town, and how much more I would have to pay to go to the bookstore rather than go on Amazon, and so on. But that wouldn't say anything about whether I actually read any books, because the importance of the bookstore existing doesn't depend on whether I actually ever buy any books at all. But it really is important that there be a bookstore. 

But there's another subjective reading: If you yourself want there to be a bookstore (you'd actually like it, and you benefit from it), that short-circuits the question of how important is it objectively, as compared to, “Are you being consistent if you want there to be this, but you're not willing to do what's necessary in order for it to continue to exist?”

I think that there's an ambiguity between the more objective reading (which is what I was getting at in terms of the floodwaters example, and indeed, COVID) versus the more subjective “Are you being inconsistent if you want to take advantage of something, but you don't want to behave in a way that is necessary to have that thing be available?”

Mounk: Another thing that people often grapple with when we think about the role of moral philosophy is the problem of free will. There's an objection to this whole enterprise, which says, roughly speaking, “how we act is determined by a set of physical processes, and that means that any attempt to judge people morally or to reflect on what we do is actually besides the point. We're going to do what we're going to do anyway. We can't judge somebody to be morally good or bad, because they're just a result of a particular way in which molecules bump into each other in the brain, which are all things that were determined well before they came to be alive.” Why is it that we should care about morality, despite this objection from the causal determinist?

Scanlon: In one sense, I agree with that view. That is, I think there's no such thing as free will. But I also think that the fact that we don't have free will doesn't really matter.

There are two points of view from which it might matter. One that you mentioned has to do with morally judging other people. My moral reactions to other people depend on not just what they're doing, but why they're doing it; I care if a person only gives me correct change because he's afraid of the police or something. He's got a bad attitude toward me and I judge him negatively. That he has that attitude and it's expressed in his actions is a fact, whatever the cause of it might be. It might be determined by the Big Bang or by what he ate for breakfast. But nonetheless, he's like that, and that has a significance for how I can understand our relationship.

But maybe I shouldn't even think about deciding what to do, because it's all determined? Well, but what I do is going to depend on what I decide to do, right? So the process of thinking is there. You might say you can't get out of it. But from your point of view, there's also the question of whether the fact that I agreed to something (made a promise or something like that) could have any binding effect, given that I was caused to do it. Well, one of the things that we want is to have the option of opting out of obligations. That can be important to us. If we avoid an obligation because we don't like it, the fact that we don't like it is going to be true of us, even if we were caused not to like it. The fact that I would be happier if I didn't have that obligation is still going to be true. 

So the case of the shopkeeper and the case of the person wanting to avoid the obligation are alike in this respect—that is, in both cases, how they act is significant. In one case, it is significant for the other person (that is, for me: it matters to me whether he's acting out of conscientiousness or just being sly); but also, from my point of view, it matters to me that my obligations reflect my preferences, because they're my preferences. And so in each case, my preferences are important to me, and I want them reflected in how my life goes. And my preferences are important to you because they determine what kind of guy I am and what meaning my actions have when I'm interacting with you. So in each case, my preferences or my feelings are important, despite the fact that they're pre-caused, both for me and for the person who's judging me morally.

Mounk: You’re primarily a moral philosopher, but you of course write about more strictly political philosophy as well. There's two topics in particular I want to cover before we close the conversation. One is how we can deal with increasingly ethnically, religiously, and to some extent culturally diverse societies—why they can be so difficult, and how to keep those societies functioning. You have some reflections on the difficulty of tolerance. How can that help us think through how to make a country like the United States work at a moment in which we're dealing with much more diversity than we've had throughout much of our history, and where we’re attempting for the first time to actually treat all of the members of our society as equals?

Scanlon: If I had words that would make that problem less difficult, I'd be a magician. But I’m just a philosopher. I wrote a paper called “The Difficulty of Tolerance,” and the kind of tolerance I had in mind wasn't just being tolerant in the sense of not being prejudiced, or being tolerant in the sense of not trying to control other people's private lives in the way Mill talked about—it was being tolerant in the sense of allowing the public expression of these different attitudes and not trying to curb it in order to keep the society the way I like it. People on the religious right at the moment are saying, for example, “We feel that allowing gay people to hold hands in public is changing the norms of society in a way we don't like, so we're losing on the cultural front.” But the reason I called tolerance difficult is that it’s not just that they're losing, but that a free society is a society in which we are all at risk of losing in all kinds of different ways. 

There are many things about society that I don't like. Maybe I would agree with some of the people on the Christian right, that our society is obsessed with sex in a way that seems to be excessive. It's not to do with the kind of sex (I don't care at all about that), but just the fact that being sexually attractive and successful is treated as so vastly important. Like being overly ambitious, I think that's a mistake about what's valuable in life, and it leads you to mistreat other people, to cheat your competitors and your employees in the case of ambition, and to mistreat your sexual partners in the case of an excessive concern with being sexually attractive and in control. So we all have things that are at stake. 

The question is: “Why should we be tolerant in this sense, given that we have something important at stake?” You have to think about what it is that's at stake. And I think what's at stake is a public culture, that we are all affected by in the same way, and that we collectively produce. Some of us have more influence than others. But it's a matter of how we are all behaving, what we're buying, what we're doing, and so on. So if you focus on it as a collective product, it's something that we are all entitled to try to contribute to. It isn't owned by anybody. And so it's part of what we owe to each other, that we should allow other people to express their religious views in public, to express their identity and other forms in public. I think that's a different way of basing tolerance than what John Stuart Mill said—that we should be tolerant because being tolerant of individual differences is going to lead to the greatest happiness. I've no idea whether it would or not. That seems unrealistic to me. 

Sometimes people on the right say that liberals favor individual liberty and tolerance only because they see that they're winning the culture wars under those rules; “That's just a cynical opportunistic thing, so we should be cynical and opportunistic in the other direction.” I think the second is very dangerously mistaken, and the first unrealistic. The alternative is to ask how we think about what's at stake and the reasons we have for caring about it in a way that takes everybody's reasons into account. That's what we need to have in order to have a functioning society. We have to see it as something that everybody has reason to participate in, under the rules that we lay down. And so in order to be justifiable, those rules have to be ones that could be justified when everybody's reasons are taken into account. That is to say, my reasons for wanting to express my values and your reasons for wanting to express your values. What we take into account there is not the correctness of my view and the correctness of your view, but rather, your reason (given that you have to live here), and my reason (given that I have to live here), to want to be able to have an effect on what things are. 

Mounk: I'm trying to think through how this argument for toleration would hold up to some of the objections to it, which I see not just from the religious right but also, for example, on campuses these days. Some people might say, “Look, you're talking about the interests of us as citizens to be able to express our views and participate in public debate and so on. But what about the expressions of opinion which are actually so hurtful or so harmful (on some really broad conception of harm) that they should be forbidden?” I can see how something like Mill's conception of tolerance, and particularly Mill’s worries about us potentially being wrong about what is true or false—that even if a point of view is wrong, it actually helping us understand why what we believe is right, because we have formulated a response—I can see how all of those are effective responses to this worry about some diffused form of harm. I wonder how you would respond to it from within your framework about why tolerance matters?

Scanlon: Let’s take a step back to what I said about tolerance and then I'll zero in on this question. I said that it's important to see what we're concerned about, namely, the nature of our society and what reason we have to care about it. I think I have an important reason to care that there are at least some other people out there who share my outlook, my religion or whatever. I have much less reason to want my outlook to be the one that you must have in order to be an American. In fact, I think I have no good reason to do that. So I don't have a good reason to want my outlook to be the norm in that sense, and I think that's something you really have to ask people to back off from, and to focus on it in order to see that they don't have a strong reason to want that. 

But on the other hand, we want tolerance to be a norm. We want the idea that all people are equal to be somehow a norm. Are we being inconsistent about that? I've historically been a kind of a free speech hardliner, and therefore not very sympathetic to arguments for restricting hate speech, although I think it's a difficult empirical question, whether laws restricting hate speech actually do good. My view about free speech makes it heavily dependent on these empirical questions, but I think that the best argument I know in favor of hate speech laws is the one put forward by Jeremy Waldron in his book The Harm in Hate Speech. He said that you have to have a society in which everybody has dignity, and having dignity means two things: one is being generally recognized as a full member of society with equal rights; and second, having justified confidence that you are so recognized. He argues persuasively that it's a terrifically important thing in a society that everybody should have what he calls dignity, and he thinks that the main argument for restricting hate speech is that it undermines people's dignity. That seems to be the most powerful argument. 

But I only accept it up to a point. I think that that justifies laws restricting things like direct insult, going up to people and saying, “Why don't you go back where you belong?” and other kinds of direct insult of this kind. But on the other hand, if a norm of dignity is really going to be widely accepted, it has to be something people can argue about! It's not going to have that status unless people can argue about it. I think you have to allow people to question it. I think that the articles written defending a less diverse society and arguing against immigration and so on—I think people have to be able to make those arguments, because those are fundamental questions that have to be open for discussion. So how do we preserve dignity? I think the answer is that the idea of preserving dignity by having laws banning expressions is a kind of attempt to outsource to the government the job of maintaining dignity, whereas it's really a job that belongs to all of us. We all have to speak up against this. 

Because in order to have dignity, people need to have assurance that they are so regarded by most people, and they're more likely to have that assurance if most people take that line. I think the task of doing it really fundamentally belongs to us. I do think that some restrictions are certainly justified, but on the other hand, I think some kinds of debate about these things has to be allowed. What we have to do is to answer that debate. People need to be given good reasons by all of us to believe that they are regarded as full and equal members of society.

Mounk: As a final question: What does it mean to be equal, why is it that a form of equality matters, and what are its implications?

Scanlon: Well, the book I wrote on that is very short. But the kind of equality that's at stake here is being seen by most people as someone who is worth associating with; a person you would want to live next door to, or work in the same workplace with, or go to school with. I think that that kind of acceptance (as well as political rights, which of course should go without saying) is what’s most directly at issue. That's a very consistent question in our society, unfortunately.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

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The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.