Fred's tips and other debates

Justice and Punishment
May 25, 2001

The contractarian philosopher David Gauthier famously takes as his starting point the unsettling prophecy of Nietzsche: "As the will to truth... gains self-consciousness... morality will gradually perish." Gauthier declares that the fundamental problem for moral philosophy is to show that Nietzsche is wrong: that morality is not an irrational fetish, not a confidence trick by which the weak impose on the strong, but a set of constraints that each of us, consulting only his or her own interests, can rationally accept. Matt Matravers's book is a brave and original attempt to solve this problem.

Matravers approaches the problem by asking by what right some people punish others. He argues that core cases of punishment must be seen as responses to the wrongness of the acts that are punished. Thus, a theory of punishment requires a public theory of morality, whose constraints have "imperatival force" on individuals. Matravers's central example of a punishable act is the case of Fred, one of a group of waiters in a restaurant who have agreed to pool their tips. Fred is found to have kept some of his tips for himself. Matravers wants the other waiters to be able to say more than that a system of penalties is necessary to prevent free-riding (which would imply that Fred has merely been unlucky to be found out). He wants them to be disappointed in Fred, to think that he has not shown a proper appreciation of their mutual relationship. But then we face Nietzsche's challenge: what is the imperatival force behind the waiters' norms?

Matravers argues, contrary to Gauthier, that it is not possible to prove that prudential rationality requires an egoist to accept moral constraints. This argument, I think, is brave and correct. Matravers then makes his crucial move: Gauthier is wrong to think that such proofs are needed in response to Nietzsche's challenge. If, in fact, human beings are normally embedded in social relations, what is needed is that each person can "stand back" from his moral engagements and endorse them as serving what, as an already socialised being, he perceives to be his own good. Building on the ideas of John Charvet, Matravers represents an individual's entering into cooperative relationships with others as an "existential commitment", made jointly with those others, to conceive of their interests as aligned.

Unusually for a philosopher, Matravers appeals to the psychological evidence about subjective wellbeing. He claims this shows we typically achieve subjective wellbeing through making choices that are congruent with our settled beliefs, emotions and values. But our beliefs, emotions and values are in large part socially constituted. As social animals, we depend on other people to validate our ideas of what is worthwhile. Thus, there are sources of wellbeing that we cannot access without making the existential commitments that underpin social relationships. Reason cannot tell us that we must make these commitments, but it can "partially underwrite" them by showing how they allow us to achieve wellbeing. In making these commitments, we create a common good and accept the imperatival force of the norms that sustain it.

In Matravers's attempt to reconcile sociality and rationality, to find a viewpoint on social relations that is neither internal nor external but somewhere in between, there are parallels with Martin Hollis's enigmatic final book, Trust within Reason . It is difficult to be sure how these finely nuanced arguments will stand up to philosophical scrutiny; but they certainly deserve attention. If Nietzsche's challenge can be met at all, this is perhaps as promising an approach as we are likely to find.

Robert Sugden is professor of economics, University of East Anglia.

Justice and Punishment: The Rationale of Coercion

Author - Matt Matravers
ISBN - 0 19 829573 1
Publisher - None
Price - £40.00
Pages - 286

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