Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Natural roles

I've been thinking about roles such as being married, being a parent, being a sibling, being a second cousin, being a firefighter, being a president or being a monarch. These roles come along with moral duties, permissions and rights. Each role has entry conditions, such that when one satisfies the entry condition, one falls under the role, and some of the roles have exit conditions. In some roles the entry conditions involve one's agreeing to enter the role—marriage, firefighting, presidency and monarchy are like that—but in some the entry conditions may have nothing to do with one. On the other hand, one need not do anything to become a sibling.

Here's what I am inclined to think about such roles. Our human nature specifies what one might call natural roles. Some of our natural roles directly give us roles. Thus, I think being married and being a parent are natural roles. I am not sure about being a sibling, and I quite doubt that being a second cousin, being a firefighter and being a president are natural roles.

Roles can have sub-roles which have more specific duties, permissions and rights. These sub-roles derive all their normative force from the full role and other conditions. For instance, the role of parent has sub-roles such as: parent of a small child and parent of an adult child. The moral duties, permissions and rights associated with the sub-role derive from the moral duties, permissions and rights associated with the full role together with the fact of the satisfaction of the condition.

My big conjecture is that all roles that are not natural are sub-roles of natural roles. Thus, there is no natural role of second cousin, but there is a natural role of distant relative, perhaps. The duties, permissions and rights of being a distant relative depend on multiple conditions, including the closeness of the relationship and the operative social conventions. So there may be such a thing as the role of second cousin in mid-twentieth century rural Pennsylvania. All the moral normative oomph in this sub-role comes from the moral normative oomph of the natural role of distant relative. It does this by means of the natural role having requirements that are conditional, in this case on closeness of relationship and the social conventions in place. For instance, the natural role of distant cousin may say: "Fulfill those non-immoral conventional duties associated with your degree d of relationship whose fulfillment does not exceed degree of onerousness c(d)", where c(d) is some function setting a cap for how onerous a conventional duty one is required to fulfill in the case of a degree d of relationship (presumably the closer d is, the higher the cap). In this way, conventional duties (which on my view are no more duties in themselves than rubber ducks are ducks) become moral duties when the natural role makes them so. Thus, a conventional duty to come to second cousins' weddings yields a moral rule that one should come to second cousins' weddings, when the onerousness does not exceed c(d), where d is the degree of relationship involved in being a second cousin.

We could have cases of non-natural roles whose moral normative oomph derives from two or more natural roles. In this case, we can say that the non-natural role is a sub-role of an aggregate of natural roles (we may or may not want to say that it is a sub-role of each natural role in the aggregate). Thus, while monarchy may simply be a sub-role of public authority, which is a natural role, being a fire-fighter and being a president may be sub-roles of public authority and being an employee.

There may also be merely conventional roles. Merely conventional roles are of no interest to me here. They do not role-ishly result in moral duties, permissions and rights, and non-moral duties, permissions and rights are of little more interest to me than rubber ducks are to ornithologists. :-)

6 comments:

awatkins69 said...

Are natural roles like natural properties? It seems so, in the sense that natural roles are more fundamental in some way. I bet David Lewis would like your theory.

Also, this reminds me of a natural law view: "All the moral normative oomph in this sub-role comes from the moral normative oomph of the natural role of distant relative." So just as the natural law is objective and applies universally, though it may need to be applied differently when particularized to circumstances, so it is with the natural roles. Thus there may be at least two senses in which your theory is natural.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes and yes. :-)

Jay Quigley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Quigley said...

I'm having trouble making sense of the term 'natural'. By what criteria can we determine whether or not a role is natural? Of course, that goes beyond your post, but I think it's a natural reaction.

Also, you seem to want to attach a lot of 'moral normative oomph' to natural roles. I'd try to think of a natural role without such oomph, if I had a better idea of what a natural role was.

"All the moral normative oomph in this sub-role comes from the moral normative oomph of the natural role of distant relative."

Are you implying that *only* natural roles have 'moral normative oomph'? That seems false. Suppose I sign a contract with an intelligent being artificially designed by alien life forms. Surely I don't have a natural role with respect to that being, nor it with me. But our contract surely still has 'moral normative oomph', right?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, the question of epistemic criteria for naturalness is somewhat different from the question of what I mean by "natural".

The context for this post is the presupposition of something like a natural law view of human beings, on which human beings have a metaphysical component, a nature, which defines what is normal and abnormal for them, for their telè are, etc. (I should note that I am not actually committed to natural law theory myself, but I think it is at least a good approximation to the truth.)

How do we know what is natural? That's hard. I suppose it can be an inference from our best moral judgments. But it's not going to be easy.


The alien case is really interesting. I think the question comes down to whether the natural role of promiser (assuming that counts as a role--I do not know whether I want all contingent obligations, such as those of promises, to count as coming from roles) specifies that the promisee has to be a fellow human. I don't think so.

I think we cannot make promises to all humans, but only to those humans who have a concept of promises. So we can't make promises to very small children (we can use the words, in order to train them in this, but these are no more promises than their toy cars are cars). I don't know if understanding promises as promises is sufficient for being a fit promisee. I just had a fun discussion with the kids whether we would be obligated to fulfill a promise to a parrot that understood language. The kids thought we would.

Anyway, the role of promiser will include in its entry conditions something about the promisee's understanding. I don't know if the role entry conditions includes the humanity of the promisee, but I doubt it. We can, after all, make promises to God as well as to humans.

Leroy Lamar III said...

I'd like to hear your thoughts on Sally Haslanger’s “Philosophical Analysis and Social Kinds” in which she deals with issues like these. For her, natural roles are merely social kinds akin to Kripke's natural kinds. For example, a parent falls under the social kind of "primary caregiver."