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Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame [Hardcover]

T. M. Scanlon
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

October 30, 2008 0674031784 978-0674031784 First Edition

In a clear and elegant style, T. M. Scanlon reframes current philosophical debates as he explores the moral permissibility of an action. Permissibility may seem to depend on the agent’s reasons for performing an action. For example, there seems to be an important moral difference between tactical bombing and a campaign by terrorists—even if the same number of non-combatants are killed—and this difference may seem to lie in the agents’ respective aims. However, Scanlon argues that the apparent dependence of permissibility on the agent’s reasons in such cases is merely a failure to distinguish between two kinds of moral assessment: assessment of the permissibility of an action and assessment of the way an agent decided what to do.

Distinguishing between these two forms of assessment leads Scanlon to an important distinction between the permissibility of an action and its meaning: the significance for others of the agent’s willingness to act in this way. An action’s meaning depends on the agent’s reasons for performing it in a way that its permissibility does not. Blame, he argues, is a response to the meaning of an action rather than its permissibility. This analysis leads to a novel account of the conditions of moral responsibility and to important conclusions about the ethics of blame.

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Editorial Reviews


Scanlon offers a detailed account of a new analysis of key distinctions in theoretical ethics. These distinctions have very real consequences in a wide variety of practical issues, including debates regarding justified acts of war, the effort to justify terror or campaigns against terror, and seemingly intractable debates in biomedical ethics. Scanlon examines the permissibility of actions and the evaluations of actors, with a new account of both the initial--and as he sees it, illusory--attraction of the "doctrine of double effect." He argues that the illusion stems from confusion between two types of moral judgment, which apply principles in what Scanlon terms either "critical" or "deliberative" uses. Scanlon uses this difference to make an important new distinction between the permissibility of actions and their meaning, and to develop accounts of blame (linked to the meaning of an action) and moral responsibility that bear close attention. (J. H. Barker Choice 2009-03-01)

The first half of the book, on permissibility and meaning, amounts to masterful and insightful philosophical housekeeping. The second half is revolutionary in the ways it tells us to think about blame. (Allan Gibbard London Review of Books 2009-05-28)

Moral Dimensions is a penetrating study that forces--and enables--us to see the moral landscape in a fresh and nuanced way...Moral Dimensions culminates in a masterly exploration of blame, understood as a distinctive response to meaning. (Gary Watson Times Literary Supplement 2011-02-11)

About the Author

T. M. Scanlon is Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity at Harvard University.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; First Edition edition (October 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674031784
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674031784
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.7 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,584,151 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Moral Relationship March 12, 2012
I'd like to start this review by considering some comments which others have made in regard to this book. Some either find (1) the first two or three chapters to be unclear, but find the chapter on blame to be extremely illuminating and redeeming, or (2) find the chapter on blame somewhat superficial and the treatment of the Doctrine of the Double Effect in the first section to be well examined.

I think there is a clear reason for both of these attitudes, which will be brought out throughout this review. First, I'll examine (1). The criticism here seems to be mainly about the writing and exposition of the topics. I agree, when I first started to read Moral Dimensions I found myself frequently lost and rereading bits. Part of this can be a result of Scanlon's writing, but I'm not sure that this is really where the difficulty lies. The real issue is just how difficult it is to talk about the Doctrine of the Double Effect (DDE). Scanlon's criticism is clear and concise, the issue is when he rejects DDE, he still accepts the intuitions of the cases which DDE is supposed to explain. As a result, his solution is much more muddled and less parsimonious.

Scanlon does not see how an agents intentions can have any influence on the permissibility of an action. DDE claims that intentions do influence permissibility. I agree with Scanlon on this point, it is extremely puzzling for an agent's reasons for acting can have any effect on whether the action is impermissible. But to make sense of the permissibility of problem cases without appealing to an agent's reasons for acting is difficult. Scanlon achieves this end by making a distinction between two means of employing principles; critical and deliberative. The critical employment of a principle is what reasons an agent is moved by.
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