Something has always bothered me about Parfit’s treatment of Scanlon’s contractualism both in his "Justifiability to Each Other" and in the new Climbing the Mountain. Finally after years of being troubled by this I think I’m starting to be able to put my finger on it.
Parfit starts from various life-saving cases and the principles designed to deal with them. He says that ‘If we think about morality in Scanlon’s way, we cannot appeal to … intuitive beliefs’ about rightness and wrongness of different actions in deciding which of these principles are acceptable and which rejectable.
He continues: ‘According to what we call this [sic] moral beliefs restriction, when we apply Scanlon’s formula, we cannot reject moral principles by appealing to our beliefs about which actions are wrong’
This feature of Scanlon’s view has wide implications’.
Then he goes on to say how the contractualist cannot reject the act-consequentialist principle as we normally do (well, we don’t but let that go) by saying that it is against our moral intuitions.
I think this is quite confused in many ways. First, there is a good reason why contractualist say that moral principles cannot be rejected by appealing to our beliefs about which actions are wrong. This is because beliefs are rarely good reasons to do anything let alone reject principles. Parfit, if anyone, should know this. And, Scanlon of course knows this. Here is how Scanlon formulates the restriction:
‘It would be circular for contractualism to cite, as the reason that people have for objecting to such principles, the fact that they are wrong according to some noncontractualist standard’ (Scanlon 1998, 216, my emphasis).
That is better. Facts seem at least like good candidates for reasons to reject principles. I’m not sure that Scanlon needs the according to some standard addition though. But, what is restricted here is that facts about wrongness of actions cannot be reasons for rejection. Nothing is said or implied about beliefs about wrongness. I’m not sure how Parfit can get this repeatedly wrong.
But, maybe Parfit had something else in mind. Scanlon lists different generic, agent-relative reasons as good reasons for rejection. These include bodily injuries, ability to rely on the assurances of others, and to have control over their lives (p. 204). Maybe Parfit thinks that contractualist should reject the idea that our moral beliefs can have an influence on what we should think about how strong these considerations are as reasons for rejecting different principles.
But, I’m not sure why contractualist should reject that idea. I don’t know why their situation is any different from that of the consequentialists’. They often see that their view initially has some implications that are against our moral intuitions. What they do is they go back to fix their views about well-being, other values, the priority of the first off and then come back with refined principles that better fit our moral judgments. This does not make the view empty if they still hang on to some improved substantial value theory. When they get that right, they can use their view to generate substantial implications and solutions to new cases.
Why can’t the contractualist do the same? If the initial non-rejectable principles do not fit our moral convictions, why can’t she go back and check whether she had the strengths of the personal, agent-relative reasons right and even fix them in the light of the our moral convictions and the aim of getting the normative outcomes of contractualism to fit them. Nothing in this implies that the contractualist starts to take facts about wrongness to be reasons for rejecting moral principles against Scanlon’s (and not Parfit’s restriction). If the consequentialist (even Parfit seems to do this on occasion) is allowed to use the reflective equilibrium to formulate the best version of her view, then so should the contractualist be allowed to do too.
Furthermore, if contractualism and act-consequentialism are normative theories on a par it still seems like an open game to compare both of them (after we have the fixed versions of them from the initial reflective equilibrium) to our moral convictions about right and wrong. So, I don’t see why the contractualist cannot challenge act-consequentialism because it fits our moral intuitions worse than contractualism (if it does) just like Parfit wants.