The Social Dimension of Ethics: A Comparative Analysis


How do we reach a conclusion that an act is morally right? Do we take other people into account when performing a morally right act? And what does this imply about our relations with other people? Moral philosophy addresses this interrelated array of questions concerning the social implications of ethics. Here I shall employ Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other in order to outline their account of these matters, thereafter highlighting certain points of affinity and divergence between these two theories.

I. Kant: the social features of autonomy

It is reason alone that prescribes, according to Kant, moral demands of different kinds. Taken together, these demands form a comprehensive moral code, a system of duties.1 The elaboration of this system is provided by the Categorical Imperative (CI). Since each person is bound only by his or her personal ideas of right and wrong, how does the Kantian formulation avoid the anti-social implications of certain kinds of individualism? In this part, I will try to answer this question by sketching the social aspects of the CI formula and more precisely the form of interpersonal relations it envisions.

There is only one CI but there are three alternative formulations of it. According to the first, an individual must never act except in such a way that he could also will that the maxim of his action should be a universal law.2 This formulation assumes that what defines the rational moral will is its ability to legislate for itself. Hence it foregrounds the idea that freedom, in the sense of autonomy is the very basis of morality.

The autonomy of each moral agent is restrained from rampant individualism by a social or universal perspective, and thus it is necessary to adopt principles which he or she thinks it possible for others to follow.3 Positively, this requirement mandates the elaboration of rules of conduct to which any rational agent would consent to in the interests of a community of like agents. Negatively, it operates to disqualify any subjective maxim that would enable us to satisfy only our personal needs and wants. Although a contractualist view is latent in this first formulation,4 it fails to address the kind of ethical association that we should strive for in our personal relations with others. It is the two other formulations of the CI that shed more light on the social dimension of Kantian morality.

The second formulation of the CI -namely, ‘act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, never merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end in itself’5-, draws attention to those affected by the acts of the agent and sets three distinct types of requirements. First, the proposition ‘‘always treat persons (or humanity) as an end in itself’’ is a comprehensive requirement. ‘‘Never treat them merely as a means’’, on the other hand, is narrower, amounting to ‘‘when treating persons as means, also treat them as ends in themselves.’’ By remaining callously indifferent, Kant says, we can fail to treat persons as ends in themselves even when we are not using them as means at all.6 An even narrower requirement, which lies at the heart of this proposition is the derivative duty to respect human beings simply because they are rational persons.7 Like Confucius, for Kant the solution to the problem of human relations revolves around the seminal concept of respect as the sine qua non of moral practice.8

Apart from compelling us to respect others, morality serves as the foundation of the exemplary human community, what Kant calls the Kingdom of Ends.9 Here we are told to think of ourselves as members of a society of beings with a collective destiny whose permissible ends are to be respected. Hence, our maxims are to be tested by asking whether, supposing the maxims were natural laws, there would be a society of that kind.10

To Kant’s ideal of rational self-determination is attached a set of social precepts which guarantee that his ethical theory will not degenerate into an ideology of subjective or egotistic arbitrariness. Thus, a Kantian agent is rational because she takes into account the ends of others when legislating universal laws, she respects the innate dignity of others and her acts harmonize with an ideal political community. These imperatives are integral elements of the rationality inherent in every Kantian agent and only when conforming to them can a human being be truly autonomous.

II. The Leitmotiv of Scanlonian Contractualism.

Kant’s moral theory treats morality indivisibly, irrespective of the distinct normative bases on which it relies. Hence, the CI applies equally to our duties towards the self, towards others and to duties directly related to impersonal values. Scanlon, on the other hand, does not intend to propose a moral theory which covers the whole of morality understood in this broad way. His system of duties revolves around the aspect of morality that concerns interpersonal relations. That is the morality of what we owe to each other.11 The permissibility test he proposes as an alternative to the CI reflects societal demands since it rests on the concept of justifiability.

Scanlon calls his account “contractualist”, thereby evoking the social contract tradition of Rousseau.12 According to Scanlon’s ‘forbidden by unrejectable principles’ formulation, deciding whether doing an act (Y) in certain circumstances (X) is wrong, is deciding whether doing Y in X is forbidden by principles that no one could reasonably reject.13 The philosophical question then is: what is the essence of the property of wrongness and why do we resent it so strongly when others perform impermissible acts? Scanlon’s answer is illuminating: “The reason to act morally, and what can motivate us to act in this way, is not just the bad or good our action would bring about. Rather, all wrong actions have an unappealing aspect: performing them estranges us from others, since we cannot reasonably justify ourselves to them.”14

The fact that an act is unjustifiable –ergo wrong- seems itself to provide us with a reason not to do it.15 Therefore, to justify an action is to offer reasons supporting it and to claim that they are sufficient to defeat any objections that others may have. The concept of a reason is then taken to be the most fundamental normative category, not as a psychological state or intuition but as a normative proposition.16 Permissibility therefore, depends on the efficacy of such reasons in attaining justifiability, and it prevents individualistic and hence anti-social decision-making .17

The role confined to justifiability is dual. It permeates the agent’s decision making, defining its motivation and content. First and foremost, being able to justify our behavior to others is the central reason for our concern with the morality of our actions. It constitutes the distinctive reason-giving force of judgments of what is right and wrong, hence the basic condition that motivates an agent to do the right thing. Secondly, it is the key to understanding the content of moral judgments and the kind of reasoning through which we arrive at them. The part of morality that concerns what we owe to each other is to be understood in terms of the idea of what we can justify to one another as a basis for informed, unforced general agreement.18

Justifiability brings together the Rawlsian and the Kantian elements in Scanlon, which form -in an ingenious synthesis- the quintessence of the “Scanlonian Contractualism”. On the one hand, the idea of a shared willingness to modify our private demands in order to find a basis of justification that others also have reason(s) to accept, is a central element in the social contract tradition. On the other, what moves an agent to do the right thing involves respecting the value of other human lives, but this respect is in fact intrinsic to the ideal of mutual justification. This idea indicates a reason of a distinctive kind that has its origins in the Kantian notion of respect, expressed in Scanlonian terms by the value of “mutual recognition”.19 A proper respect for the distinctive value of human beings involves treating them only in ways that they could, by proper exercise of this capacity, understand as justifiable.20

Invoking the concept of justifiability, Scanlon provides plausible answers to two fundamental moral questions; a) why be moral? and b) what is the essence of interpersonal relations? There is a manifest social orientation in Scanlonian contractualism. It focuses on what individuals have reason(s) to agree to if stripped off from intuition or psychological inclination. Through this procedure, the morality of right and wrong induces societal demands within individual decision-making and guides interpersonal relations towards the formation of a moral community.

III. The limits of contractualism in ethics

Though academic consensus characterizes his approach as lato sensu Kantian, Scanlon himself rejects such a categorization.21 Though there exists an indisputable affinity, one should hesitate to put a Kantian label on Scanlon’s theory for two distinctive reasons. Firstly, there is an ongoing debate among philosophers on the contractualist nature of Kant’s own moral philosophy and secondly, Scanlon does not share Kant’s perception of autonomy.

Scanlon’s contractualism has Kantian elements, as it seeks a free agreement that elucidates both freedom and equality. The liberal aspect is social rationality of some kind, inherent in every individual and determining our duties towards others. The egalitarian aspect can be found in the construction of the moral community they both envision to be the ultimate goal of interpersonal relations. This is, as noted above, the mutual recognition or respect owed to each individual qua rational agent. Although this notion of respect is according to some the foundation of every contractualist theory, a utilitarian reading of Kant’s account has been proposed.

It would be safe to say that, because the motivational basis of his theory is duty imposed on the individual by himself, Kant was somewhat constrained in developing a theory based upon agreement. At first reading, the counter-utilitarian nature of Kant’s ethical writings may be obvious,22 but what he meant by the idea of ‘a member giving universal laws for a merely possible Kingdom of Ends’ is far from clear. Further, the examples of the operation of the CI that he gives in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals rely on assessing the predictable consequences of universal adherence to certain maxims.23 So, some commentators have suggested that latent within his theory is adumbrated a model of quasi-utilitarianism. This version of Kantianism is, on the one hand, a form of contractualism, since it appeals to principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will.24 But, on the other, it turns out that the principles of conduct that everyone can be reasonably expected to will and accept in idealized conditions are consequentialist ones.25 This latent utilitarianism in Kant’s moral theory -strongly opposed by some-26 runs counter to Scanlon’s open rejection of any consequentialist formula.

Scanlon also notes that his theory is a departure from standard Kantian deontology, which assumes that our “self-legislation” according to the moral law is autonomous.27 Kant thinks that autonomy, as a self-imposition of the moral law, has basic social and political implications. Although no one can lose the autonomy that is a part of the nature of rational agents, social arrangements and the actions of others can encourage lapses into governance by our desires, or heteronomy.28 But Scanlon’s account of right and wrong bears exactly on these social arrangements, i.e. on the exchange of reasons in which agents engage in order to morally justify their actions. Inevitably, the result is a conception of moral rightness that is, in Kantian terms, avowedly heteronomous. No matter which reading of Kant’s agent-based theory -contractualist or consequentialist- one chooses to adopt, the moral autarky of the Kantian agent and his independence from anything contingent, dissociate his theory from the features of our moral lives upon which Scanlonian contractualism rests.


Whilst Kant sought to explain the special authority of moral requirements by showing how they are grounded in conditions of our rational agency, Scanlon describes the distinctive importance and authority of justifiability both subjectively and in relation to others. In a nutshell, autonomy and justifiability seem to point in two different directions: the latter towards the social aspect of contractualism and the former to the noumenal freedom of the will. Despite their inherent difference, they both capture the social dimension of ethics from distinct perspectives.

Nikolaos Voulgaris

King’s College London 2012

1 Kant I. (1996), The Metaphysics of Morals, Gregor M. (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Ak 6: 242.

2 Kant I. (2008), Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals, Gregor M. (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,.Ak 4: 421. Two different tests are relevant in determining what kinds of maxims conform to the Categorical Imperative: the contradiction in conception test [what you can think of as a universal law without contradiction] and the contradiction in the will test [what it is possible to will to be a universal law without contradiction]. See, Voorhoeve A. (2001),“Kant on the cheap: Thomas Scanlon interviewed.”, 16 The philosophers’ magazine, p. 30 (hereinafter: Scanlon Interviewed)

3 For Onora O’ Neill, accessibility to others, in the Kantian sense, is the first standard structuring thought and action have to meet in order to count as reasoned. See, O’ Neill O., (2000), Bounds of Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 24

4 I shall return to this point -whether Kant’s point of view can be characterized as contractualist- later on.

5 Kant I., Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak 4: 229.

6 Kant I., The Metaphysics of Morals, Ak.6:395. Scanlon’s example is failing to make a call to rescue a stranger in trouble

7 Ibid, Ak.6:395.But, this duty emanates from the autonomy inhering in every person and that is why some commentators have emphasized the unity of the above mentioned formulations. See Penner, J. E. & Schiff D. & Nobles R., (eds.) (2002), Introduction to jurisprudence and legal theory: commentary and materials. London: Oxford University Press, p. 1051.

8 Wawrytko S. (1982), “Confucius and Kant: The Ethics of Respect”, 32-3 Philosophy East and West, p.237.

9 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak 4: 436.

10 Schneewind J. B. (2010), Essays on the History of Moral Philosophy, Oxford:Oxford University Press, p. 263.

11 This is the title of Scanlon’s book on which my analysis of Scanlon’s moral philosophy will rely. Scanlon T.M.

(1998), What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University

Press (hereinafter WWO).

12 Stratton-Lake Ph., (Introduction) (2004), On What We Owe to Each Other, Stratton-Lake Ph.(ed.), Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, p.7.

13 WWO, p. 153.

14 Scanlon Interviewed, p.33.

15 At p. 11 of WWO Scanlon avows that his main aim is to “characterize wrongness in a way that makes clear what reasons wrongness provides, and this goes beyond saying ‘what makes acts wrong’”.

16 Henceforth, “reasons” in the Scanlonian context, shall be only normative reasons.

17 Hill T. (2011), “Scanlon on Moral Dimensions”, 83-2 Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, p.482.

18 Scanlon does not ground justification in a de facto contingent agreement but rather in claims about what individuals have reason to agree to. This has led some commentators to argue that his view is better understood as constructivist, See, O. O’neill, (“Constructivism vs, Contractualism”) (2004), in Stratton Lake Ph.(ed.), On What We Owe to EachOther, Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing Ltd , p.24.

19 Watson G. (2002), “Contractualism and the Boundaries of Morality”, 28-1 Social Theory and Practice 221. p.221.

20 WWO p. 103-107, 169.

21 WWO p. 5-6

22 A phrase quoted by Kant, which is used by many commentators to summarize the counterutilitarian nature of his moral philosophy, is “Fiat justitia, pereat mundus” [(“Let justice be done, though the world perish”), Kant I. (2010), Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay, Campbell Smith (ed.), New York: Cosimo Inc, Appendix 1], but it would be naïve to draw conclusions from the quotation.

23 Kupperman J. J. (2007), Ethics and Qualities of Life, New York: Oxford University Press. p.99

24 Gideon Rosen “Might Kantian Contractualism be the Supreme Principle of Morality?”, Ratio, 22, 2009, vol.1, p.79

25 For a thorough and convincing analysis of this argument see: Parfit D. (2011), On What Matters, Samuel Schefler (ed.) Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. Part 3.

26 For example S. Morgan argues that “Kant’s moral philosophy has been inappropriately characterised by Parfit” and that contractualism is the only possible outcome of an analysis of Kant’s theory. Morgan S. (2009), “Can There Be a Kantian Consequentialism?”, 22-1 Ratio p.22.

27 WWO p. 5

28 Schneewind J. B. (2010), Essays on the History of Moral Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press p.249.

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