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What is Wrong Between Us?: On the problem of circularity in Scanlon's contractualism
Linköping University, Department of Culture and Communication. Linköping University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
2013 (English)Independent thesis Basic level (degree of Bachelor), 10 credits / 15 HE creditsStudent thesis
Abstract [en]

In this essay, the Scanlonian contractualist formula will be understood as follows: Within the domain of morality of what we owe to each other, an action is morally wrong if it follows principles that similarly motivated people can reasonably reject. Consequently, the concept of ‘reasonable rejection’ is the operative element in moral valuation, thus begging the question of what it is for a rejection to be reasonable. The problem of circularity in Scanlon’s contractualism builds upon a reading according to which Scanlon’s explanation of what it is to be ‘reasonably rejected’ seems to be understood as ‘when the action is morally wrong’. If this is the case, then Scanlon’s contractualism refers to its own thesis when performing moral valuations: that is wrong which can be reasonably rejected, and for an action to be reasonably rejected it must be morally wrong. The problem of circularity apparently renders Scanlon’s contractualism ‘empty’ as it cannot explain what it is for an action to be morally wrong without referring to its own thesis.

In this essay I will try to clarify the difference between welfarist and structural charges of circularity. I will argue that the structural charges of circularity are due to a fallacious constructivist reading of What We Owe to Each Other. As I understand Scanlon, the constructivist reading places Scanlon’s theory too close to the contractualist tradition. I will also argue that critics holding Scanlon’s contractualism to be circular have failed to note that his theory only claims to cover a narrow domain of morality. Where critics hold Scanlon’s contractualism to refer to its own thesis when performing moral valuations I will argue that the theory refers to moral domains outside that of what we owe to each other. Hopefully my discussion on constructivism and circularity will shed some light on the simple brilliance and practical applicability of Scanlon’s contractualism.

I will give a brief overview of What We Owe to Each Other before I present the critique put forth by Onora O’Neill, Mark Timmons and Joseph Raz. Then I will show how Scanlon treats the problem of circularity in his book, and how his defense targets substantial and not structural charges of circularity. I will then show that the structural critique is fallacious by analyzing the domain of morality that Scanlon’s contractualism targets. Finally I will try to apply Scanlon’s formula on personal relationships and on environmental issues. As of this point I will refer to Scanlon’s thesis as ‘contractualism’ while other theories following the contractualist tradition will be referred to as ‘contractarian’.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2013. , 23 p.
Keyword [en]
Contractualism, Scanlon, circularity, moral pluralism
National Category
URN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-89122ISRN: LiU-IKK/PF-G-12/004-SEOAI: diva2:606890
Subject / course
Practical Philosophy
Humanities, Theology
Available from: 2013-02-21 Created: 2013-02-21 Last updated: 2013-03-04Bibliographically approved

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