T.M. Scanlon on Polarization and the Want to Feel Justified

There’s a wonderful, very long interview with philosopher T.M. Scanlon posted recently at The Utopian. Scanlon is one of the most respected living philosophers, and has lots to say, but one thing that struck me in particular was his discussion about how, at times, our desire to feel like our actions are justifiable to others doesn’t make us act better, but instead makes us revise our ideas of “right” and “wrong” to be more in line with our actions:

The Utopian:

In What We Owe To Each Other you write at one point:

“The combined blows of the civil rights movement and the movement that arose in reaction to the war in Vietnam shattered these illusions beyond repair. Different people reacted to this in different ways, some by protesting against the war and working for civil rights, others by vehemently denying that the charges of injustice at home and criminality abroad had any foundation. What these reactions had in common was a deep sense of shock and loss; both testify, I believe, to the value people set on the belief that their lives and institutions are justifiable to others”.

When I read that I wondered to what degree that was autobiographical. But I guess it actually wasn’t?

Tim Scanlon:

No, no. It’s entirely a piece of armchair social science. I guess I should be ashamed of it. But nonetheless it seemed to me to make sense of what was happening around me. And I put it in there because I was trying to say that I thought a lot of people really do care about the thing that I’m identifying as central to morality – even though they don’t think of it that way.

Look: this is an explanation for why people react. If people care about justifiability to others, this doesn’t necessarily operate only as something that motivates them to do better, morally speaking. In a certain way, caring about morality can be a reason for doing things that are in some way worse. It’s a version – but not the same thing – as what you were saying earlier about wanting to minimize the cases in which you’re doing something wrong. This isn’t doing that by choosing a different style of action; it’s doing that by changing your view about what is right and wrong.

That’s a very familiar kind of denial. But it seems to me, as an observer of the country, that that’s a lot of what’s going on. That people want to believe that they got what they got honestly and fairly. That somehow they’re particularly, distinctively entitled to what they have, and that their institutions are just. This means a lot to people. And people who want to deny this seem to them to be people who, as they say, hate America.

There are plenty of political points to be made about polarization here (and also about the claims Scanlon makes in that last paragraph), but I mostly think it’s a cautionary tale for—well, everyone. Sometimes rationalizing is easier than doing what’s right, and the impulse to think about right and wrong can make that easier.

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