What I said to Alex Betts

Here are my comments on Alex Betts’s paper, “The Sources of Normativity in World Politics: Rethinking States’ Obligations Towards Refugees,” which I am giving at the Workshop on the Ethics and Politics of the Global Refugee Regime, organized by Robert Keohane, Luara Ferracioli, and Lami Abdelaaty at Princeton.  As readers of the blog will realize, this is a topic well outside my domain of comfort and expertise….


I’d like to thank Alex Betts for crossing the pond to join us here, and Luara Ferracioli for inviting me to comment on his paper.  My comments today will focus on one extension of and one problem for the Korsgaardian view that Betts develops in his paper.  Briefly, the extension of the view is the idea that certain acts of both individual agents and political states are best understood (in the language of speech act theory) not as representatives but as commissives: though they may seem to represent the agent or the state as already being a certain way, they are in fact better construed as commitments by the relevant actor to live up to certain norms.


The problem is this: the analogy between the practical identity of an individual and the practical identity of a polity might be too weak to support the argument that Betts makes.  If the bonds that hold together an individual person are much stronger than those that hold together a political state, then the threatened loss of identity that – on Korsgaard’s view – impels the individual to normatively appropriate action may not appear as such a great threat to the state.  In that case, the normative force of identity does not transfer up from the individual level to the political level.


First, the extension: as Betts explained, according to Korsgaard, “autonomous moral behavior comes from identifying the relevant practical identity (‘X’) under which we are acting and identifying what it would be (universally) to be a good ‘X’.”  Moreover, only by acting from the perspective of an X does one become an X.  So, for example, when I was on the train here from New York City yesterday, a fellow passenger was gabbing away on his cell phone in the quiet car.  This is a grave offense.  I considered what to do.  I decided that a good commuter would shush him.  So I shushed him.  On the Korsgaard model, this sequence of events involved my partially constituting myself as a good commuter.  Not only did I do what a good commuter does, but also I did so because I was acting for what I recognized to be the reason a good commuter would act.


Here’s a question: when I decided that a good commuter would shush the cell phone terrorist, and so I would shush the cell phone terrorist, what was the force of my thinking, “I’m a good commuter”?  Thoughts that would be expressed in the indicative mood invite us to read them as representatives, as committing their thinkers to the truth of their contents.  Thus, for example, if I think, “It’s still too damn cold out,” I’m committed to its being the case that it’s too damn cold out.


I want to suggest that when someone thinks of himself as having a particular practical identity (e.g., a good commuter), the force of the thought is not representative, but commissive.  A characteristic commissive utterance is a promise: if I say, “I promise to pay you five dollars tomorrow,” I’m not making a prediction or expressing my foreknowledge.  Instead, I’m giving you the right to hold me responsible; I’m committing myself to acting in a particular way.  Similarly, I think, when I think, “I’m a good commuter,” I’m not making a prediction about how I will behave or expressing my knowledge of how I will behave.  Characteristically, at least, I’m committing myself to acting in a particular way – to living up to the standards that govern good commuterhood, which includes shushing people who talk on their cell phones in the quiet car.


If Betts’s analogy between individual agents and political agents holds up (a point I am about to question), then when a state says or thinks of itself, “This is a good asylum state,” the force of that utterance or thought would be not representative, but commissive.  The state would be giving others the right to hold it responsible for acting as a good asylum state acts.  This, I think, might help to further explain how Korsgaarding normativity gets off the ground – both for individual agents and (if it works) for state actors.


The second point I want to make is more critical.  The analogy between an individual agent and a state is of course just that: an analogy.  Every analogy breaks down at some point; the question is which point.  What I want to suggest now is that the analogy between an individual and state breaks down before the threat of loss of identity sets in for the state.  Here are what I take to be uncontroversial differences between individuals and states: while individuals and states both characteristically harbor mental attitudes such as beliefs and desires, only individuals characteristically harbor mental attitudes such as pains, pleasures, and emotions.  There is some (though not univocal) support for this view in the experimental philosophy literature, and at the least I hope that it is not entirely implausible.  It makes sense to say of both Janet and China that they think that Taiwan is East of the Chinese mainland.  It makes sense to say of both Italy and Silvio Berlusconi that they want Italy to be a prominent member of the European Union.  What feels odd is the attribution of hedonic or affective conditions to collective actors.  While Janet might fear that Taiwan faces a military threat, Taiwan itself does not fear that it faces a military threat.  To drive home this point, Janet might be disgusted by beef carpaccio, but it seems odd, at least, to say that Taiwan is disgusted by beef carpaccio.


It’s for this reason that I worry that Betts’s analogy between the Korsgaardian individual and the polity holds up.  What’s supposed to provide the normative oomph that motivates an individual is fear of the loss of a treasured practical identity.  If I do THAT I wouldn’t be able to think of myself as a good commuter (or a good friend, or a good spouse) anymore.  Does it make sense for states to experience such fear, and to the same degree?  I’m open to the idea that it does, at least for some of them, but this seems to be a point of doubt.




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