PHIL 2120: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday September 1, 2010


[3.2.] Wasserstrom on Role-Defined Reasoning.


Our second reading by Wasserstrom is his 1984 article “Roles and Morality.”[1]


Here Wasserstrom continues to address the differences between what is morally appropriate for human beings in general, qua moral agents, and what is appropriate for people qua occupants of certain roles. In particular, he is examining why these differences are potentially morally problematic.


In this later article, he focuses not on role-defined behavior but instead on role-defined reasoning.



[3.2.1.] Two Ways of Reasoning about Obligations.


Wasserstrom describes two ways of reasoning about what one should and should not do:


role-defined reasoning [RDR]: “places weight upon the role that the person occupies and locates concerns about how one ought to behave within a context of what is required, expected, or otherwise appropriate of persons occupying that role.” (25-26)


moral reasoning [MR]: this is more universalistic and less particularistic than RDR, in that it “has to do with an overriding concern for the welfare or happiness, broadly understood, of individual persons.” (28)[2]


By calling the second sort of reasoning “moral,” Wasserstrom does not mean to imply that RDR is immoral or that it is bad in any other way. (Were he to do that, he would be begging the question—assuming in advance the truth of some claim that one should really be arguing for.) In fact, he calls RDR “a kind of moral reasoning.” (25) One of the aims of this article is to examine whether or not specific instances of RDR are morally permissible.



[3.2.2.] Role-Defined Reasoning.


Wasserstrom considers a number of different examples of RDR:


1.      parents: [Wasserstrom used this same example in his earlier article.] “If parents were ever pressed to justify, as they seldom are, why it is right that they do and should prefer the interests of their children over those of any or all of the other children in the world, it would surely be on the ground that their role as the parents of these children requires (or at a minimum allows) them to prefer their welfare and their interests over those of all other children.” (26)


2.      lawyers: “It is thought to be certainly permissible and probably obligatory ... for the lawyer to do any number of things that otherwise might very well be morally criticizable.” (27) There are two sorts of case that illustrate this:


(A) Cases having to do with “indifference to the client’s ends.”

·         [see the landlord example, p.27]

·         [see the example of setting aside one’s beliefs about a criminal defendant’s guilt or innocence, p.27]


(B) Cases having “to do with the means employed by the lawyer” to achieve the client’s ends.

·         Defending a man accused of rape and cross-examining his accuser about her sexual history, even though you know it will be degrading and humiliating to her and realize that ultimately it has no relevance to whether the rape occurred.


3.      military officers (e.g., a general) strategizing in wartime [see p.27][3]



[3.2.3.] A Tension Between Moral Reasoning and Role-Defined Reasoning.


RDR seems to be in tension with the type of reasoning that we typically think about as moral.


This “more universal, less particularistic” way of reasoning involves the following ideas (28-29, emphases added):

·         a “concern for individual autonomy, for the importance of making available to each person the real opportunity to fashion a life that he or she will find genuinely satisfying.”

·         “the respect that is due to all persons because they are persons, and the ... wrongness in viewing or using members of the moral community solely as means to some further end, as things to be used as one might utilize artifacts or other objects.”

·         “each person who is affected [by one’s actions] is to count equally, as one ... [there is] a strong presumption of equality among all the members of the moral community.”[4]


In sum, MR requires that we


regard each person’s interests and fundamental concerns and needs as presumptively of the same worth and importance. When the needs, interests, and concerns are of the same kind, there is presumptively, if not conclusively, no moral reason to prefer one person’s interests over those of any others. When the individuals are all of the same kind, when they are all persons, there is presumptively, if not conclusively, no moral reason to accord them different status within the moral community. (29, emphasis added)


PROBLEM: There is a seeming tension between RDR and MR, because the former involves treating the interests and well-being of some people (your own children, your clients, your soldiers) as more important than those of others.


If there really is this conflict between the two sorts of reasoning, then it seems that the professional obligations of a lawyer demand that she behave in conflict with what moral reasoning would require.



[3.2.4.] Benefits of Role-Defined Reasoning.


On way of defending RDR against the charge that it conflicts with MR is to point out that there are at least two benefits that RDR has over MR:


·         BENEFIT 1: moral simplification: thinking in terms of the role one occupies provides more specific guidelines for what one ought to do and thus makes it easier to know what one’s obligations are. It “reduce[s] enormously the moral ambiguity and uncertainty that would otherwise prevail in trying to sort out and establish the right and wrong ways of behaving. Psychologically, roles give a great power and security because they make moral life much simpler, less complex, and less vexing than it would be without them.” (29)


·         BENEFIT 2: a low risk that one will rationalize to benefit oneself: “the appeal to one’s role seldom, if ever, creates the kind of moral conflict that we so often worry about, namely, the conflict between self-interest and ... doing the right thing.” (29)[5]


These benefits can help explain why so many people are attracted to role-defined reasoning.


More to the point, they may serve to justify this sort of reasoning. [This is especially true of the second benefit: if RDR does minimize the probability that an individual who uses it will behave self-interestedly, then that counts as a moral reason in its favor.]


But they cannot serve as a blanket justification for all instances of RDR. It may turn out that, even though role-defined reasoning is justified to some degree, it is not completely justified and on occasion still turns out to be wrong.


So simply pointing out these benefits is not a sufficient defense. Wasserstrom goes on to consider three possible ways to justify role-defined reasoning and thereby resolving the tension between it and moral reasoning…



Stopping point for Wednesday September 1. For next time, finish reading the second article by Wasserstrom, “Roles and Morality” (pp.33-37).


[1] In David Luban, ed., The Good Lawyer: Lawyers' Roles and Lawyers' Ethics.. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984, 25-37.


[2] This sounds like consequentialism, but we’ll see below that it’s not—Wasserstrom’s notion of welfare or happiness includes considerations like autonomy and respect for persons as persons. So the normative standard he assumes in describing MR blurs the line between consequentialism and deontology.

[3] My own example: the role of game-player, e.g., in round-the-clock games like Survivor and Big Brother. But note what Wasserstrom says at p.29, that role-defined reasoning is rarely used to “justify[] personal gain.” Players of Survivor-type games who engage in RDR are an exception to this claim.


[4] We can see now that Wasserstrom is not assuming that utilitarianism is true and that a deontological theory of normative ethics is false. His broad concept of “welfare and happiness” involves both utility and deontological concerns like autonomy and respect.

[5] This point does not apply to my example of role-defined reasoning in the context of Survivor-type games, in which a player might appeal to his role as a player in order to justify deceiving someone with whom he has established a genuine friendship during the course of the game. But on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to apply to many cases of legal practice outside of criminal defense, e.g., where in order to satisfy a corporate client, one must write incorporation documents for a company that will manufacture and market a legal but harmful product (an example that Wasserstrom himself used in the earlier article).


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