A recent issue of the New Yorker has Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of the recent book Why? by Columbia sociologist Charles Tilly. Since I’ve not read the book, I can only comment based on the discussion, but Tilly’s book might have implications for how we understand the actual process of exchanging reasons. Tilly argues that when we express reasons for action, either to recommend courses of action to others or to justify our actions to them, these reasons will fall into four general categories:
1. CONVENTIONS: An example might be "no one likes a sore loser."
2. NARRATIVES: Stories "circumscribe time and space, limit the number of actors and actions,
situate all causes ‘in the consciousness of the actors,’ and elevate
the personal over the institutional."
3. CODES: Similar to conventions, but that invoke procedural rules and categories: "If a loan officer turns you
down for a mortgage, the reason he gives has to do with your inability
to conform to a prescribed standard of creditworthiness."
4. TECHNICAL ACCOUNTS: These are explanations "informed by specialized knowledge and
authority" that aim to be exhaustively detailed.
(Gladwell — and maybe Tilly hmself — are not too careful with the justificatory/explanatory distinction among reasons, but it seems like the claims apply to the justificatory kind.)
Tilly suggests that none of these reason kinds is the best; instead, reasons are more or less suited to play different roles, depending on the relationship that the person describing the reason has to her audience and others involved. So here’s Gladwell’s example of how different reasons could be used to discuss one and the same phenomena:
"Here are four kinds of reasons, all relational in nature. If you like
Cheney and are eager to relieve him of responsibility, you want the
disengagement offered by a convention. For a beleaguered P.R. agent,
the first line of defense in any burgeoning scandal is, inevitably, There is no story here.
When, in Cheney’s case, this failed, the Vice-President had to convey
his concern and regret while not admitting that he had done anything
procedurally wrong. Only a story can accomplish that. Anything else—to
shrug and say that accidents happen, for instance—would have been
perceived as unpardonably callous. Cheney’s critics, for their part,
wanted the finality and precision of a code: he acted improperly. And
hunting experts wanted to display their authority and educate the
public about how to hunt safely, so they retold the story of Cheney’s
accident with the benefit of their specialized knowledge."
In sum, "effective reason-giving, then, involves matching the kind of reason we
give to the particular role that we happen to be playing at the time a
reason is necessary."
I think there’s a good deal for the moral philosopher here. Just a few issues that came to my mind:
One way to understand disagreement about normative moral theories is to see them as disagreements about the weight, relative or absolute, to be assigned to various reasons: The Kantian and the utilitarian subscribe to different "codes" in Tilly’s sense, whereas perhaps some feminists, virtue ethicists, and care ethicists may favor narrative as the principal kind of moral reason. There might be an intriguing research project to investigate which of these reasons people provide when they engage in moral reasoning or dialogue (and perhaps which, if any, they recognize as explicitly moral reasons.) This work might also shed light on what a rational moral agent is: Is it someone who is responsive to certain of these reason kinds, or is the rational moral agent the one who understands that no one of these kinds says all we need to say about moral reasons?