Sunday, August 05, 2018

Praise and Condemnation 03: Pro Tanto Reasons

A "pro tanto reason" has nothing to do with favoring the Lone Ranger's partner (slightly misspelled).

I have a pro tanto reason to take the money that I know my co-worker keeps in her desk drawer. (Actually, I have no co-worker who keeps money in her desk drawer that I know of, but just play along. Okay?)

It is a fact that I could use that money to fulfill desires that I have. If somebody were to hand me a comparable amount of money, I would not shrug with indifference. I have a reason to take the money.

However, I also have pro tanto reasons not to take the money. I have an aversion to taking other people's property without their consent. I have reasons to avoid many of the likely consequences that would follow upon getting caught. However, one must be careful when considering that set of reasons. If I can get the money without being caught, then those reasons - the reasons associated with the consequence of being caught - do not exist. Those reasons only exist if I can get caught.

Many moral philosophers argue for a type of pro tanto reason that I do not defend. Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder describe it in Chapter 7 of In Praise of Desire.

[M]any moral philosophers hold that there is a pro tanto reason to relieve any given person’s suffering, though they disagree about the defeaters for such reasons (and their ultimate origins). Many moral philosophers hold that there are defeasible pro tanto reasons to tell the truth, to keep promises, to distribute goods equally, to help people achieve their life projects, and so on.

Notice that, in my discussion, I wrote about the reasons that people had. I have a pro tanto reason to take the money my co-worker has in her desk. Arpaly and Schroeder are concerned about moral reasons. There exists a moral reason to refrain from taking money from a co-workers desk. We are not talking about the same thing. I hold that there are desires that people generally have reason to promote universally, and that these desires include such thing as a desire to tell the truth, an aversion to breaking promises, and a desire to see goods distributed equally. Because they are desires, they have a weight. Because they have a weight, they can be outweighed by more and greater concerns piled up against them.

The question to answer is whether an aversion to breaking promises that can be outweighed by more and greater concerns - that exists because people generally have reasons to promote universally such aversions - counts the same as a pro tanto reason as Arpaly and Schroeder discuss the term.

They assert that a utilitarian may need to deny the existence of a pro tanto reason not to lie because it is at least possible that a given act of lying might not bring any unhappiness to anybody.

Desirism does not allow for exceptions like this. If there are reasons have more an aversion to lying, then there a good person always has a reason not to lie. However, it is possible with respect to any one person that he may not have a reason not to lie. He should have a reason not to lie, but he may not have the reasons he should have. This is the way desirism defines an evil person - or at least a less good person. It is a person who does not have the desires he should have, or has desires he should not have. More specifically, he does not have desires that people generally have reason to promote universally, or has reasons that people generally have reason for it to be the case that nobody has.

So, my final verdict is that pro tanto reasons as Arpaly and Schroeder have been using the term do not exist. They refer to a type of intrinsic value reason always exists, though it can be outweighed. Desirism does not say that such a reason does exist, but that it should exist. That's not the same thing.

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