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Buck-Passing Accounts
Jonas Olson
It is a common view that there is an intimate tie between evaluative properties like
goodness, badness, and betterness and appropriate responses to bearers of such
properties. For instance, if an object is good there are reasons to favor it, or as some
say, a favorable response would be fitting. Similarly, many people take there to be a
close tie between deontic properties like rightness and wrongness and appropriate
responses: if an action is wrong, there are reasons to respond disfavorably, e.g., to
blame agents for performing actions of that type. According to buck-passing accounts
(henceforth BPA), evaluative and deontic properties do not themselves provide
reasons for responses. Rather, reasons to respond in various ways are provided by
good-, bad-, better-, right-, and wrong-making properties.
To illustrate, suppose that George takes pleasure in something innocent, such as
reading Principia Ethica or watching a Seinfeld episode. This is a good state of affairs,
we may assume, but its goodness does not provide a further reason to favor it, in
addition to  the  reason provided already by George’s property of feeling pleasure.
Similarly, suppose Dick  tortures a captive for fun. This action is wrong, we may
assume, but its wrongness does  not provide a further reason to blame Dick, in
addition to the reason already provided by the captive’s property of feeling pain and
Dick’s property of taking pleasure in his pain. In other words, buck-passers pass the
normative buck on to the properties on which evaluative and deontic properties
supervene (see supervenience, moral).
Many buck-passers make the further claim that evaluative and deontic concepts can
be analyzed in terms of reasons to respond. For an object to have an evaluative or deontic
property just is for that object to have properties that provide reasons to respond favorably or disfavorably. It is sometimes said that BPA reduce the evaluative to the deontic.
This presupposes that the concept of a reason, and that of fittingness, belong in the category of deontic concepts (see evaluative vs. deontic concepts). One might query
whether these concepts are clearly deontic, but the essential idea at this point is that
evaluative concepts like goodness and badness and deontic concepts like rightness and
wrongness are analyzable in terms of more primitive normative concepts like fittingness,
or that of a reason. How to categorize these concepts is not of immediate importance but,
as we shall see below, it might have implications for certain challenges to BPA.
The general appeal of BPA is the promise to enhance our understanding of the
evaluative and the deontic; whereas some accounts take the concepts of goodness
and wrongness to be primitive and unanalyzable, BPA offer illuminating analyses. In
addition BPA give an intuitively compelling picture of the reason-providing relation
and demystify the normative “compellingness” of evaluative and deontic properties.
BPA also possess the virtue of theoretical parsimony. These features will be further
The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Edited by Hugh LaFollette, print pages 625–636.
© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/ 9781444367072.wbiee083

Ewing argued in a series of writings that to say that an object is good is to say that it is a fitting object of a pro-attitude. Evaluative properties provide no such reasons. emphases added). and that is all there is to it” (1947: 172). factual characteristics of what we pronounce good. desire. one of which concerns the reason-providing relation (RR) and one of which concerns analysis of the concept of value (A): RR A Reasons to favor good objects and disfavor bad objects are provided by goodand bad-making properties. Scanlon (1998: 97). Henry Sidgwick took “ultimate good on the whole” to mean “what … a rational being … should desire and seek to realize. approval. “the ground [for a pro-attitude] lies not in … goodness. and then the second section discusses briefly the scope of BPA. [such as] choice. c. It should be noted that BPA have mostly been discussed as accounts of the evaluative. The renewed interest in the FA approach is largely due to T. For an object to be good (bad) is not for that object to possess an unanalyzable property of goodness (badness). What has since become known as the buck-passing account is a conjunction of the following two theses. Certain characteristics are such that the fitting response to what possesses them is a pro-attitude. 1947. in particular final and instrumental value (see below). According to Ewing. if one accepts buck-passing about the evaluative it is fairly natural to accept buck-passing about the deontic too. but as has already been indicated. An important advocate of the FA approach is A.). Before we get there a brief background along with a more detailed outline of BPA is given. The fourth section describes five main challenges BPA face. which considers and assesses five main arguments for BPA. M. liking. ought. but in the concrete. assuming [such a being] to have an equal concern for all existence” (1981: 112. C.2 discussed in the third section. admiration” (1947: 149). Brief Historical Background and Outline of BPA The idea that the evaluative can be analyzed in terms of a normative component – such as reasons. should – and a psychological component – such as favorable and disfavorable responses – is sometimes called the fitting attitude (FA) approach (Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen 2004. who invented the label “buck-passing” for his analysis of value. The history of the FA approach goes back at least to Franz Brentano. Ewing was also a precursor of BPA. fittingness. emphases added). Ewing (1939. but to possess other properties that provide reasons to favor (disfavor) that object. but the latter are commonly taken to be variants of the former. In the literature there is no universal agreement on how the FA approach relates to BPA. see value. a. For ease of exposition we shall mostly talk about the evaluative. pursuit. who analyzed the good as “that which can be loved with a love that is correct” (Brentano 1969: 18. see ewing. but it should be clear that most of the virtues and vices of evaluative BPA are equally virtues and vices of deontic BPA. fitting-attitude account of). . where “pro-attitude” is an umbrella term covering “any favourable attitude to something.

non-cognitivism. First. Third. ethical). etc.) and to thick concepts (such as kindness. Second. cruelty. but admits certain paraphrases. fairness. etc. BPA are noncommittal with respect to the main metaethical views. We have already noted that if one accepts buck-passing about the evaluative it is rather natural to accept buck-passing about the deontic. it is a popular view that a reason for adopting some attitude or performing some action is a consideration that counts in favor of adopting that attitude or performing that action (Scanlon 1998. ethical. the kind of reasons buck-passers have in mind are normative or justifying. Many buck-passers hold that the notion of a (normative) reason is conceptually primitive. Skorupski 2010). rightness. Scanlon (1998: 11) rejects buck-passing about wrongness. we should accept the corresponding deontic analogues of RR and A. since the notions of a reason. In particular. The Scope of BPA There are several questions about the scope of BPA. and that of fittingness. naturalism. one could accept A while maintaining that an object’s property of having other properties that provide reasons to favor or disfavor the object itself provides a reason. thus rejecting RR. thus rejecting A.3 (According to BPA about the deontic.) (see thick and thin concepts). as opposed to motivating or explanatory. 1947). badness. An early attempt at deontic buck-passing is found in Ewing (1939. but more ambitious buck-passers set out to analyze both the thinly and the thickly evaluative and deontic (Schroeder 2010. Distinctions between thick concepts are sometimes subtle and a challenge for ambitious buck-passers is consequently to identify the right kinds of distinct attitudes and responses to enable discrimination between distinct thick concepts (Crisp 2005). Another question about scope concerns whether BPA apply both to thin evaluative and deontic concepts (such as goodness. Buck-passers about the evaluative also need to say whether they aim to analyze both predicative goodness (as in “Pleasure is good”) and attributive goodness (as in . One could accept RR while maintaining that goodness is unanalyzable. Not everyone agrees. see reasons). betterness. analyses (see cognitivism. Even error theorists can accept BPA about evaluative and deontic concepts (see error theory). In understanding and assessing the arguments for BPA it is helpful to keep in mind that RR and A are logically independent. as well as naturalist and nonnaturalist. while Dancy (2000) takes buck-passing about rightness and wrongness to be more plausible than buck-passing about goodness. We will get back to this in the third section below. allow for cognitivist and non-cognitivist. reasons (see reasons. In the tradition going back to Brentano through Ewing and onward the main concern has been to analyze thin concepts. nonnaturalism. RR and A are logically independent. though. Some authors call such reasons derivative and maintain that such reasons have no weight of their own. Parfit 2001. Conversely. motivating and normative). wrongness.) Note three things about BPA thus formulated.

Note finally that BPA about the evaluative aim to analyze various types of value. On the other hand. an object. But we can turn the matter around and explain the open feel of questions like “x is pleasant but are there reasons to favor it?” by assuming that asking whether there is reason to favor some object is asking the evaluative question whether the object is good or whether the favorable attitude would be good. or signals. such as instrumental. According to BPA. x is intrinsically valuable just in case there are reasons to favor x on account of its intrinsic properties. these buck-passers can respond that this restriction gains theoretical support from the intuitive difference between predicative and attributive goodness. 1 The open question argument Scanlon says that he was led to buck-passing about goodness by reflecting on Moore’s open question argument (Scanlon 1998: 96f. Arguments for BPA This section considers five prominent arguments for BPA: (1).4 “George is a good philosopher”) (see goodness. varieties of). x. And this in turn explains the intuitive difference between the two. prevents. x is finally valuable just in case there are reasons to favor x as an end or for its own sake. intrinsic value). Hence there is no immediate route from the open question argument to BPA. the focus has been on predicative goodness only. but not the latter. But most buck-passers about the evaluative agree that BPA cover at least the thin concepts of final and instrumental goodness and badness. intrinsic. and (4) support thesis A. (3). (2) supports RR. but intuitively we can at least say that it is an attitude of favoring an object on account of properties that have nothing to do with what the object brings about.. but more ambitious buck-passers extend the view to attributive goodness (Skorupski 2010). Traditionally. although buck-passers can perhaps maintain that their account gives the better explanation of the “open feel” of the relevant kinds of questions. It might be suggested that the former. and final value (see instrumental value. and (5) supports both A and RR. We can explain the “open feel” of questions like “x is pleasant but is it good?” by assuming that asking whether some object is good is asking the normative question whether it has properties that provide reasons to favor it. most buck-passers about the deontic agree that BPA cover at least the thin concepts of moral rightness and wrongness. see open question argument). Buck-passers who restrict the view to predicative goodness might be accused of infusing an unwarranted heterogeneity into the concept of goodness. is instrumentally valuable just in case there are reasons to favor x on account of what x brings about or prevents. is normative in the sense that it entails reasons for responses. It might be difficult to pin down exactly the attitude of favoring something as an end or for its own sake. there is not much consensus among buck-passers concerning the exact scope of BPA. Similarly. . In sum.

It is generally taken to have considerable intuitive force. Stratton-Lake and Hooker (2006) argue that BPA allay worries about queerness and supervenience. and the fact that a discovery casts light on the causes of cancer is a reason to applaud it and to support further research of that kind. natural properties do all the work and it puts the onus on critics of BPA to explain what further normative work evaluative and deontic properties do. Analogously. but see Olson (2009) for a critique (see queerness.). These natural properties … provide the reasons we have for reacting in these ways to things that are good or valuable. It is not clear what further work could be done by special reason-providing properties of goodness and value. Lest the demystification argument be misunderstood. and even less clear how these properties could provide reasons. So what was formerly a plurality of categories of contested and supposedly interrelated notions . argument from). BPA readily explain and thereby demystify this normative “compellingness” of value (Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen 2004: 391f. including reasons. since BPA hold that for an action to be wrong just is for that action to have properties that provide reasons not to perform it and to blame agents for performing it. g. BPA about the deontic demystify the normative compellingness of deontic properties like wrongness. e.5 2 The redundancy argument Scanlon also says: The fact that a resort is pleasant is a reason to visit it or to recommend it to a friend. An alternative to BPA is the view propounded by G. according to which all normative notions. A normative skeptic can still object that goodness and wrongness are queer properties because normative reasons are metaphysically queer.) since BPA hold that for an object to be valuable just is for that object to have properties that provide reasons to favor it. (1998: 97) This has become known as the redundancy argument for BPA (Crisp 2005).  Moore in Principia Ethica (1903: 1). 3 The demystification argument Recall that we said in the opening section that it is a common view that there is an intimate link between evaluative properties and appropriate responses to bearers of such properties. 4 The parsimony argument An obvious attraction of BPA is that they reduce the metaphysically and epistemically contested notions of goodness and wrongness to the notion of a reason. Note also that the demystification argument does not lend exclusive support to BPA.  E. are reducible to goodness (see moore. note that the thought is that BPA demystify the link between on the one hand evaluative and deontic properties and on the other hand reasons to respond. The thought is not that BPA demystify evaluative and deontic properties. It highlights that when it comes to providing reasons. This view too can appeal to the demystification argument.

the theory other than naturalism which admits least in the way of non-natural concepts” (Ewing 1939: 14. Pluralist accounts of wrongness take wrong actions to be similarly disparate. This irreducible heterogeneity fits well with BPA: value and wrongness turn out as heterogeneous as the various responses there are reasons to take up vis-à-vis objects and actions and the properties that provide such reasons (Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen 2004: 401f.). (c). Stratton-Lake and Hooker 2006: 157). value pluralism). Ewing 1947: 174). i. (b). viz. Like the previous argument. In other words. and (e) challenge A. Good objects need have nothing more in common than their goodness. Irreducible heterogeneity might be taken to support fundamental incomparability between kinds of values and perhaps between kinds of wrong actions. Many will agree that it is a lot more plausible to deny that goodness and wrongness are reason-providing properties than to deny that kindness and cruelty are. a person’s cruelty provide reasons to shun and condemn that person for being cruel. This ties in with one of the questions about the scope of BPA that we considered above. Problems for BPA This section considers five main problems facing BPA: (a) challenges RR. Hence Ewing prided himself on having suggested “the minimum non-naturalistic theory of ethics..6 are reduced to only one.e. Scanlon (2002: 513) has in fact declared that he intended his version of buck-passing to be an analysis of the thinly evaluative only.. (d). cf. wrong actions need have nothing more in common than being wrong. (a) Reason-providing evaluative properties The claim that evaluative and deontic properties provide no reasons for responses may seem obviously mistaken. Moore’s Principia view is equally parsimonious as BPA. Such incomparability might sit uneasily with a view à la Moore. Buck-passers might respond that reflection reveals that an unanalyzable notion of goodness is intuitively more far-fetched than an unanalyzable notion of a reason (cf. the parsimony argument does not lend exclusive support to BPA. however. These arguments for BPA of course presuppose that irreducible heterogeneity and fundamental incomparability about goodness and wrongness are plausible in the first place (see incommensurability [and incomparability]. . But whether this is so is a contested issue. 5 The heterogeneity argument It is a popular view that values are irreducibly heterogeneous. whether BPA extend to the thickly evaluative and deontic. it seems plausible that thick evaluative and deontic properties do provide reasons. It is highly plausible that a person’s kindness provide reasons to like that person and respond to her with kindness. according to which goodness is a homogeneous unanalyzable property.

Whether BPA are biased against deontology clearly depends on how the disputed distinction between consequentialism and deontology is drawn. Ewing noted that his analysis of goodness in terms of the ought of fittingness resolves the debate between Rossian deontology (see ross. To allay Dancy’s worry. individuals. buck-passers could attempt to identify being of value not with having reason-providing properties generally.g. An alternative view. for “to give a list of our different prima facie duties will be to give a list of the different kinds of things (including actions) which are intrinsically good” (Ewing 1947: 188). The polyadicity problem does not seem insurmountable. buck-passers can grant that goodness is less polyadic than the reason relation.” BPA rule this possibility out at the conceptual level since they identify being of value with having reasonproviding properties.7 (b) Consequentialism/deontology distinction Jonathan Dancy (2000) worries that BPA threaten to resolve prematurely the debate between consequentialism and deontology (see consequentialism. however. Dancy thinks that this is especially worrisome for BPA about goodness since even granted that goodness is a many-place relation. consequentialist and deontological intuitions). In contrast to Dancy. For recall that BPA analyze goodness in terms of reason-providing properties: for an object to be good is for that object to have the . At  issue here is the methodological question whether an adequate analysis of value should be normatively neutral (e. deontology) in favor of the former.g. are for. w. is that it is a virtue of BPA that they reconcile intuitively plausible but apparently incompatible moral intuitions (e.) and consequentialism in the sense that it dissolves the distinction between the two views..… [G]oodness is less polyadic than reasons [since] reasons belong to. There are no reasons hanging around waiting for someone to have them” (2000: 170). (c) The polyadicity problem The reason relation is a many-place relation. The worry is that this throws doubt on the buck-passing project of analyzing goodness and wrongness in terms of reasons. a reason is always a reason for some agent to do something. On the common and plausible assumption that reasons are facts it makes no sense to say that they are polyadic or monadic. but only with having properties that provide reasons for particular “value-related” responses. is that it is an adequacy constraint on formal accounts of value like BPA that they be normatively neutral. This is because Dancy takes it to be a distinctive deontological thesis that there are reasons that are not “value-involving. with respect to the debate between consequentialism and deontology). Now. which is well in line with Ewing’s.. This remains a contested issue. In any event. “it has fewer places than … reasons do. One view. d. Note first that Dancy presumably means that the reason relation is polyadic. But it is unclear whether this restriction can be spelled out in a plausible and noncircular way. which accentuates Dancy’s worry. Ewing considered this an advantage of his account. it is not obvious that Dancy has identified a vice in BPA. It is less clear that goodness and wrongness are many-place relations.

FA analyses of value. It seems false that there are reasons to bring about S since bringing about S would be logically impossible (and since just as ought implies can. things get trickier if there could be no agents who can take up the allegedly appropriate responses. BPA. spatially. or desire S. or future agents (i. reasons imply can. beings who can intentionally bring something about) (Bykvist 2009: 5). say – that would provide reasons to admire it for its own sake. present. This raises many issues too complex to be resolved here. vis-à-vis S. First. and modally near rather than distant. see ought implies can). Let us make two brief concluding points. But it is far from clear that there are such reasons. turn out to be circular. Bykvist considers a number of other possible kinds of responses but finds no plausible candidate. (As we shall see in the next subsection.8 higher-order property of having other properties that provide reasons to favor the object (Scanlon 1998: 97).. while the solitary-goods problem seems a hard nut to crack for evaluative BPA there seems to be no analogous problem for deontic BPA. therefore. e. Remember that we use “favor” as an umbrella term covering various kinds of positive responses. although this has no bearing on the value of these objects (Bykvist 2009: 13–23). for it would still have properties – vivacity. Buck-passers might suggest that S’s value can be analyzed in terms of reasons for some kind of positive emotions.) (d) The solitary-goods problem Consider the following state of affairs. that are temporally. since that would rule out by conceptual fiat too many substantive theories of value. such as standard versions of hedonism [see hedonism]. see the next subsection) to pursue or desire something that would be logically impossible to bring about (Bykvist 2009: 5–7)..) Bykvist concludes that the only remaining option is to take judgments about reasons to respond to be evaluative.e. for any agent who could so admire it. But Bykvist argues that this does not help for it is plausible that agents have stronger reasons to love or hate things. S: there being happy egrets but no past. Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Da Vinci’s The Last Supper is finally valuable and let us also suppose that all agents were suddenly to disappear from the universe. This higher-order property is monadic (nonrelational). This would not mean that The Last Supper would thereby cease to be finally valuable. So it seems false that S’s value can be analyzed in terms of reasons to bring about. (Denying that S is good would not be a wise tactic for buck-passers to take.. etc. e. But this means that BPA. states of affairs. The reason-providing properties can be polyadic or monadic and their normative reason-providing status is independent of whether there are in fact any agents around.g. Is there a kind of response that there is reason to take up vis-à-vis S? Krister Bykvist (2009) argues that there is not and that.) According to BPA this means that there are reasons to favor S. fail. and FA analyses more generally. This is because it cannot be right or wrong to perform actions that are logically impossible . some kind of love. Let us assume that S is a good state of affairs. (This leads into the problem to be considered in the next subsection. pursue. It seems almost as doubtful that there can be reasons (of the right kind. persons.g. however.

Second. Ewing 1939. In other words.. the demon’s threat is a reason for action whereas value-implying reasons are reasons for attitudes (Skorupski 2010). One might think for instance that in a scenario in which an evil demon threatens to torture your family unless you admire him.(or attitude-)given. 1947. Here we shall briefly look at some proposed solutions that help reveal the nature and magnitude of the problem. such as fittingness. To illustrate. notion would avoid the solitary-goods problem and the circularity problem. imagine that an evil demon threatens to torture your family unless you admire him. On this view.e. the demon’s threat only gives you reason to try to admire him. or a more fundamental notion of a reason (e. But others take a different tack and suggest that the evaluative as well as the deontic are analyzable in terms of some more fundamental and primitive normative notion. Such a primitive normative. Brentano 1969. or to bring about that you admire him.9 to perform. it seems odd to maintain that there is reason for you to try to be. So even if the solitary-goods problem lacks a satisfactory solution. This is well in line with the approach many buck-passers about value take. Danielsson and Olson 2007).). BPA about rightness and wrongness survive intact. Most of the extensive recent debate about WKR has concerned evaluative BPA and this will also be the focus of the remainder of this subsection. i. correctness. This is the notorious wrong kind of reasons (WKR) problem (see wrong kind of reasons problem). Similarly. Danielsson and Olson 2007: 513f. But there is no agreement on whether this is a promising strategy. it is well known that one philosopher’s primitive is another philosopher’s mystery (2009: 24).g. 3). but neither evaluative nor deontic. Second.e. the solitary-goods problem is premised on the idea that BPA about value reduce the evaluative to the deontic (Bykvist 2009: 3 n. Several proposed solutions trade in one way or other on the idea that right reasons must be object-given rather than state. there is only . your family is spared from torture only if you actually admire the demon – that you try to admire him is not enough.. in a state you have no reason to be in and perhaps even have reason not to be in (Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen 2004: 412. But it is difficult to find a rationale for this view that does not seem ad hoc. A radical response to the demon scenario is to deny that there is reason to admire the demon. (e) The wrong kind of reasons problem It seems obvious that there can be reasons to favor an object although this has no bearing on the value of that object. such as donating to Oxfam. First.. as Bykvist points out. The problem is to distinguish the right kind of reasons (i. or unless you blame a person for performing some laudable act. there can be reasons to blame or praise agents for performing some action without this having any bearing on the deontic status of that action. or bring about that you are. the reason must be provided by properties of the object of the attitude rather than by properties of the attitude itself (Parfit 2001). reasons that do bear on the evaluative or deontic status of objects) from the wrong kind of reasons. This presents a challenge both for evaluative and deontic BPA (in this respect it is wider than the solitary-goods problem).

nonnaturalism. Buck-passers about the deontic agree at least that BPA apply to thin deontic concepts like wrongness and rightness. In the scenario under consideration this means that the reason to admire the demon is also provided by a property of the demon. According to Stratton-Lake. badness. since it is this state of admiration that will save your family from being tortured. ewing. The reason to admire the demon is the fact that admiring him would save your family from being tortured. viz.10 a state-given reason to admire the demon. his property of being such that he will torture your family unless you admire him. Finally.. goodness. since that would “distort the debate about how many reasons there are” (Stratton-Lake 2005: 793). intrinsic value. deontic concepts. varieties of. naturalism. error theory. g. Proponents of BPA take different views about its scope. Philip Stratton-Lake (2005: 792–4) has responded that this reasoning involves an objectionable “ontological profligacy” of reasons. This reason is provided by more than one property. so while Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen’s reasoning involves an unobjectionable profligacy of reason-providing properties. a. one concerning the reasonproviding relation (RR) and one concerning analysis of evaluative and deontic concepts and properties (A). But as Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen (2004: 406) explain. Much of the attraction of BPA probably stems from the thought that the notion of a reason is in various respects less problematic than unanalyzable notions of goodness and wrongness. we have seen that there are outstanding challenges for BPA. But whether this thought is ultimately tenable is debatable. This approach promises to solve both the WKR and the solitary-goods problems. The solitary-goods problem and the WKR problem are particularly forceful. if we think that this reason is one and the same. open question argument. The debate is still very much alive and a fair guess is that the WKR problem will remain the most serious challenge to both evaluative and deontic BPA for some time to come. instrumental value. moore. But we can indeed think that there is a state-given reason and an object-given reason to admire the demon. consequentialism. But as already observed. e. but buck-passers about the evaluative agree at least that BPA apply to thin evaluative concepts like goodness. noncognitivism. Summary BPA comprise two logically independent theses.. ethical. and betterness. hedonism. critics will object that this only trades one mystery for another. Other proposals for how to solve the WKR problem invoke the aforementioned idea of a fundamental and primitive normative notion of correctness or fittingness (see preceding subsection). there corresponds to every state-given reason for some response an object-given reason. See also: cognitivism. incommensurability (and incomparability). evaluative vs. ought .. c. ethical. it invites no ontological profligacy of reasons. deontology. if we think that there is a state-given reason to admire the demon we cannot also think there is an object-given reason to do so.

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