Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Commands and requests

One way to help out a sceptic about something is by arguing that what she is sceptical about is way more widespread than she thinks. Of course, that's a risky strategy, since instead of her scepticism disappearing, she might just widen its scope. Here's one example of this risky strategy.

Authority sceptics are sceptical that another person's commands can generate obligations for us, except in certain unproblematic ways (a command from someone trustworthy might provide epistemic reason to think that the commanded action is independently obligatory; when one has reason to believe that others will follow the command, there might be reasons to coordinate one's activity with theirs; etc.). There is something seemingly magical about generating obligations for another just by commanding.

But isn't it equally magical that we can generate non-obligating reasons for another just by requesting, or obligating reasons for self just by promising? Yet it seems quite absurd to be a request or promise sceptic.


Heath White said...

Well, here is a semi-skeptical response.

Requests and promises seem to have their reason-giving role by way of coordinating expectations, so we can solve coordination/collective-action problems. For example, if we can make binding promises then we can avoid Prisoner’s Dilemmas by promising to cooperate.

Requests and promises also have the feature of being voluntary. So, roughly, I do not enter into any collective-action arrangements unless I choose to do so. If we take “I choose X” as a rough proxy for “X is in my best interest, broadly conceived” then the reasons provided by commands and requests are going to be reasons that are, so to speak, reasons FOR ME, reasons I can and should be on board with.

Commands are generally non-voluntary. Since I don’t get to choose what I am commanded to do, there is no special reason that what I am commanded to do will be in my best interest, no matter how broadly we conceive it. Thus there is the much greater likelihood that I will be alienated from the reasons provided by commands. (I am making up the terminology as I go here.)

I think authority structures often do have the function of facilitating collective action for a common good. (Maybe that is not everything, but it is a good chunk.) The military is a good example. The trouble seems to come when the allegedly “common” good and one’s own good diverge. (E.g. you are ordered on a suicide mission.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Unless something like virtue itself is in my own best interest (and then we can just say that obeying commands of authentic authority is virtue) there will be cases where keeping a promise won't be in my own best interest. Likewise, there will be cases where fulfilling requests won't be in my own best interest.