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Moral Obligation, Mutual Recognition, and Our Reasons to be Moral

  • Author(s): French, Nicholas Ian
  • Advisor(s): Wallace, R. Jay
  • Kolodny, Niko
  • et al.


Moral Obligation, Mutual Recognition, and Our Reasons to be Moral


Nicholas I. French

Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy

University of California, Berkeley

Professor R. Jay Wallace, Co-Chair

Professor Niko Kolodny, Co-Chair

Most of us recognize that some ways of treating other people are wrong. It is generally wrong to make a promise to someone with no intention of keeping it; to steal from others; to do physical harm to them. These things are not “wrong” in the sense of being socially disapproved of or legally prohibited — they are morally wrong. To put it another way, we acknowledge moral prohibitions against these sorts of actions, or moral obligations or requirements to avoid such actions. And we typically think that we should respect these requirements; that an action’s being wrong means we have significant reason to avoid it.

My aim in this dissertation is to articulate our reasons to comply with these demands, which belong to the domain of interpersonal morality. I develop a view, the Attitudinal Relationship View, which grounds our reasons to comply with the demands of interpersonal morality in the value of a particular sort of relationship, which (following T.M. Scanlon) I call mutual recognition . We stand in relations of mutual recognition insofar as we treat facts about what is morally required or forbidden, as we see them, as decisive reasons for action and other attitudes. This thesis represents a development of Scanlon’s view that compliance with moral requirements is constitutive of relations of mutual recognition. But, pace Scanlon, I hold that this relationship is constituted by our attitudes toward one another, not by actual compliance with moral requirements. In holding the attitudes constitutive of mutual recognition, we respect one another as fellow rational creatures, capable of giving, asking for, and acting in the light of reasons. Relating to one another on terms of mutual recognition, I argue, makes our own lives go better. The value of mutual recognition does not explain only why we ought to comply with moral requirements. It also sheds light on the point and value of blame and associated practices of interpersonal accountability. In addition, we can understand the value of mutual recognition as animating many emancipatory social struggles, making the notion essential for a recognition-based critical theory of the sort developed by Axel Honneth.

Chapter 1 sets out the animating question of the dissertation, the question of morality’s reason-giving force, and outlines constraints on an adequate answer. I present the Attitudinal Recognition View in detail, and clarify the view by responding to a number of potential objections.

Chapter 2 further clarifies the Attitudinal Recognition View in response to another objection, the Problem of Moral Reciprocity. The objection is: if mutual recognition involves my having certain attitudes toward you and your having certain attitudes toward me, then it seems that I will not have reasons to comply with my obligations if you do not manifest the appropriate attitudes. But that result is intuitively unacceptable. I argue that this objection is misplaced. My response relies crucially on the view that the general moral obligations which the Attitudinal Relationship View is supposed to explain should be understood as bipolar obligations.

Given the connection between bipolar obligations and mutual recognition, on the one hand, and between bipolar obligations and resentment, on the other, we should expect theoretically interesting connections between resentment and mutual recognition. Chapter 3 explores these connections, arguing that the value of mutual recognition sheds light on our practices of moral accountability. My main thesis is that blame should be understood as an emotional response to deficiencies or failures in our relationships which aims at correcting such deficiencies. Blame in response to moral violations, in particular, should be understood as an emotional response to the absence of relations of mutual recognition, a response which aims at establishing or restoring such relations. An upshot of the discussion is that our reasons to blame others for moral failures are not really distinct from our reasons to care about fulfilling our moral obligations, as articulated by the Attitudinal Relationship View.

In chapter 4 I turn to a discussion of social theory. The notion of mutual recognition plays a fundamental role in the critical social theory of Axel Honneth, who has developed an account of emancipatory social movements as struggles to achieve mutual recognition. I explore the connections between Honneth’s recognition-based social theory and the notion of mutual recognition I have developed in earlier chapters. I argue for a modified version of Honneth’s theory on which the desire for mutual recognition, as construed by the Attitudinal Relationship View—the relationship in which persons properly acknowledge their (bipolar) moral obligations to one another in deliberation—plays a fundamental role in explaining emancipatory social struggles. Locating the role of mutual recognition in emancipatory social movements in turn illuminates important connections between mutual recognition, blame, and self-respect.

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