What we owe to each other by T. M. Scanlon

S. Matthew Liao
New York University
Scanlon’s book aims to offer us a moral theory of right and wrong and of our obligations to one another. The theory is called contractualism and its central claim is that an act is right or wrong if and only if it could or could not be justified to others on grounds that they could not reasonably reject (p. 4). Scanlon recognizes that so stated, his contractualism might seem empty in the sense that one might think that the aim of offering grounds that others could not reasonably reject is an aim to which all plausible moral theories would aspire (p. 4). For example, as Scanlon himself acknowledges, utilitarians, who hold the view that an act is right only if it would produce the greatest happiness, presumably would believe that their view is one that no reasonable person could possibly reject (p. 189). However, Scanlon believes that his contractualism is in fact substantive. According to Scanlon, his contractualism holds the process of justifying to others to be ‘basic’ (p. 5). In other words, Scanlon believes that simply by thinking about what could be justified to others on grounds that they could not reasonably reject, we can ‘determine the shape of more specific moral notions such as murder or betrayal (p. 5).’ As Scanlon explains, even though utilitarians may also accept that an act is right if and only if it can be justified to others, what makes an action right for utilitarians is that the action has the best consequences; ‘justifiability is merely a consequence of this’ (p. 189); whereas for Scanlon’s contractualism, justifiability is what makes an action right or wrong. The aim of Scanlon’s book is to elaborate and explicate this account of contractualism.
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