Thomas Michael "Tim" Scanlon (/ˈskænlən/; born June 28,1940),
usually cited as T. M. Scanlon, is an American philosopher. He was the
Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil
Polity in Harvard University's Department of
Philosophy until his
retirement at the end of the 2015–16 academic year.
1 Life and career
3 In Popular Culture
4 Selected works
4.2 Chapters in books
7 External links
Life and career
Scanlon grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana; obtained his undergraduate
Princeton University in 1962; earned his
philosophy from Harvard under Burton Dreben; studied for a year at
Oxford University on a Fulbright Scholarship; and returned to
Princeton University, where he taught from 1966 until 1984.
His dissertation and some of his first papers were in mathematical
logic, where his main concern was in proof theory, but he soon made
his name in ethics and political philosophy, where he developed a
version of contractualism in the line of John Rawls, Immanuel Kant,
and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Scanlon has also published important work
on freedom of speech, equality, tolerance, foundations of contract
law, human rights, conceptions of welfare, theories of justice, as
well as on foundational questions in moral theory.
His teaching in the department has included courses on theories of
justice, equality, and recent ethical theory. His book, What We Owe to
Each Other, was published by
Harvard University Press in 1998; a
collection of papers on political theory, The Difficulty of Tolerance,
was published by
Cambridge University Press
Cambridge University Press in 2003.
Scanlon is the father-in-law of philosopher and scholar of African
American studies Tommie Shelby.
Contractualism is an attempt at providing a unified account of the
subject matter of a central part of morality which Scanlon calls
‘what we owe to each other’. The normative domain of what we owe
to each other is meant to encompass those duties to other people which
we bear in virtue of their standing as rational creatures. A broader
conception of morality includes whatever else we may owe to specific
people, such as the special obligations we bear in relations with
friends and family, or whatever else morality may require of us, such
as the way in which we treat ourselves or nature. Scanlon believes
that what we owe to each other, or what we could loosely call ‘the
morality of right and wrong’, is distinct from this broader
conception of morality in that contractualism provides a unified
account of its content 
We can begin our description of Scanlon’s contractualism by noting
that judgements about right and wrong, unlike empirical judgements,
are not theoretical claims about the nature of the spatiotemporal
world but rather practical claims about what we have reason to do.
Further, they are a particularly important class of practical claims
in that the judgement that an action is wrong is taken to provide
reasons to not do that action which are most often considered to be
decisive against competing reasons. Following this point, Scanlon
takes questions about the reason-giving force of moral judgements to
be prior to questions about the subject matter of the morality of
right and wrong. More explicitly, he thinks that if we provide an
account of the extraordinary reason-giving force of moral judgements
then this account could largely form the basis for a characterisation
of the subject matter of what we owe to each other.
Scanlon grounds the reason-giving force of judgements about right and
wrong in ‘the positive value of a way of living with others’. A
way of living with others which is typified by an ideal of mutual
recognition between rational agents, where mutual recognition demands
that moral agents acknowledge the value of human life and respond to
this value in the right ways.
How ought we to value human, or rational, life? Scanlon argues
persuasively that different valuable things require different ways of
valuing. In contrast to teleological accounts of value, often to take
something to be of value is not only to see reason to bring about a
maximal amount of that thing. This is especially true when we come
to consider the value of human life. When we value human life we do
not see this as a reason to create as much human life as we can.
Rather, we tend to see reason to respect other human beings, to
protect them from death and other forms of harm and, in general, to
want their lives to go well. More important for Scanlon, to value
rational life is to recognise the features which distinguish rational
life from other valuable things, specifically, the ability of rational
creatures to assess reasons and judgements, and to govern their lives
in accordance with these assessments. Scanlon asserts that the proper
response to the recognition of these distinctive features is to treat
rational creatures in terms of principles which they could not
From this point, Scanlon’s account of the value of rational life
provides a locus around which his account of the reason-giving force
of moral judgements dovetails quite neatly with a characterisation of
the method of reasoning which we use to arrive at judgements of right
and wrong, a method, moreover, which seems to be phenomenologically
plausible. The reason-giving force of moral judgements is grounded in
an ideal of mutual recognition which requires treating others in
accordance with principles that they could not reasonably reject.
Because mutual recognition requires that these other people are also
appropriately motivated, this entails Scanlon’s formulation of
wrongness: ‘An act is wrong if and only if any principle that
permitted it would be one that could reasonably be rejected by people
moved to find principles for the general regulation of behaviour that
others, similarly motivated, could not reasonably reject’. I
will call this the contractualist formulation. An act is right, quite
simply, if a principle permitting it could not reasonably be rejected
in terms of the aforementioned formulation.
A few, rather discordant, summary comments are needed regarding how
moral principles are derived from the contractualist formulation. When
considering whether a principle can be rejected we must take into
account the consequences, in general, of its being accepted, not only
the consequences of the particular actions that it allows. Because
we cannot be sure about who will be affected by a principle, and how
they will be affected, we must draw on our experience of life and
consider the ‘generic reasons’ which individuals are likely to
have, as a result of their general circumstances, to reject a
principle. In order to determine whether a principle is reasonably
rejectable, we must impartially weigh these generic reasons against
each other, and exercising our judgement, draw a conclusion about
what the weight of reasons support. Given the motivation of
finding principles for the general regulation of society that no-one
could reasonably reject, if the weight of reasons support a certain
conclusion then it would be unreasonable to reject that
conclusion. Importantly, principles can only be rejected by
individuals; aggregation of reasons across individuals is not
allowed. So if the generic reasons of an individual carry more
weight then any other individual’s generic reasons then his generic
reasons are (for the most part)decisive in determining principles.
The generic reasons which are open to consideration under the
contractualist formulation are any reasons which we judge as relevant
to reasonable rejectability. This requires that we exercise our
judgement in determining whether such reasons would be suitable
grounds for mutual recognition. Therefore, that a principle would
negatively affect a person’s well-being is not the only kind of
reason which may be brought against a principle. Other considerations,
such as how a burden would be imposed by a principle, can serve as
reasonable grounds for rejection.
Finally, while contractualism only provides an account of that central
part of morality which deals with what we owe to each other, Scanlon
observes that this part of morality is related to the broader realm of
morality in complex ways. There is pressure for the morality of what
we owe to each other to acknowledge the values included in the broader
realm of morality insofar as principles which don’t make room for
these values could be reasonably rejected. In turn, these values must
accommodate the dictates of what we owe to each other to the extent
that they involve relations with others, who have separate moral
In Popular Culture
Scanlon's What We Owe to Each Other is referenced multiple times in
the American television series The Good Place, serving as the initial
text used to instruct a woman who has apparently ended up in a Heaven
by mistake. The phrase "what we owe to each other" is used as the
title of an episode in the first season, and said episode features a
summary of Scanlon's ideas, as does the season two finale.
Scanlon, T.M. (1998). What we owe to each other. Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press.
Scanlon, T.M. (2003). The difficulty of tolerance: essays in political
philosophy. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press.
Scanlon, T.M. (2008). Moral dimensions: permissibility, meaning,
blame. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University
Press. ISBN 9780674043145.
Scanlon, T.M. (2014). Being realistic about reasons. Oxford: Oxford
University Press. ISBN 9780199678488.
Chapters in books
Scanlon, T.M. (1977), "Due process", in Pennock, J. Roland; Chapman,
John W., Due process, Nomos Series no. 18, New York: New York
University Press, pp. 93–125, ISBN 9780814765692.
Scanlon, Thomas M. (1977), "Liberty, contract, and contribution", in
Dworkin, Gerald; Bermant, Gordon; Brown, Peter G., Markets and morals,
Washington New York: Hemisphere Pub. Corp. Distributed solely by
Halsted Press, pp. 43–67, ISBN 9780470991695.
Scanlon, Thomas M. (1979), "
Human rights as a neutral concern", in
Brown, Peter; McLean, Douglas,
Human rights and U.S. foreign policy:
principles and applications, Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington
Books, pp. 83–92, ISBN 9780669028072.
Scanlon, Thomas M. (1981), "
Ethics and the control of research", in
Gaylin, Willard; Macklin, Ruth; Powledge, Tabitha M., Violence and the
politics of research, New York: Plenum Press, pp. 225–256,
Scanlon, T.M. (1982), "
Contractualism and utilitarianism", in Sen,
Amartya; Williams, Bernard, Utilitarianism and beyond, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, pp. 103–128,
Scanlon, T.M. (1988), "The significance of choice", in Sen, Amartya;
McMurrin, Sterling M., The Tanner lectures on human values VIII, Salt
Lake City: University of Utah Press, pp. 149–216,
ISBN 9780874803020. Pdf.
Scanlon, T.M. (1991), "The moral basis of interpersonal comparisons",
in Elster, Jon; Roemer, John E., Interpersonal comparisons of
well-being, Cambridge England New York: Cambridge University Press,
pp. 17–44, ISBN 9780521457224.
Scanlon, T.M. (1997). The diversity of objections to inequality. The
Lindley Lecture, 1996. Lawrence, Kansas: Dept. of Philosophy,
University of Kansas. Pdf.
Reprinted as: Scanlon, T.M. (2000), "The diversity of objections to
inequality", in Clayton, Matthew; Williams, Andrew, The ideal of
equality, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire New York: Macmillan Press
St. Martin's Press, pp. 41–59, ISBN 9780333686980.
Also available as: Scanlon, T.M. (1996). "La varietà delle obiezioni
alla disegualianza". Filosofia e Questioni Pubbliche (
Public Issues) (in Italian). Roma Luiss Management. 2 (2):
Scanlon, T.M. (1999), "Punishment and the rule of law", in Koh, Harold
Hongju; Slye, Ronald, Deliberative democracy and human rights, New
Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, pp. 257–271,
Scanlon, T.M. (2001), "Promises and contracts", in Benson, Peter, The
theory of contract law: new essays, Cambridge Studies in Philosophy
and Law Series, Cambridge England New York: Cambridge University
Press, pp. 86–117, ISBN 9780521041324.
Scanlon, T.M. (2002), "Reasons and passions", in Buss, Sarah; Overton,
Lee, Contours of agency: essays on themes from Harry Frankfurt,
Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp. 165–188,
Scanlon, T.M. (2004), "Reasons: a puzzling duality?", in Wallace, R.
Jay; Pettit, Philip; Scheffler, Samuel; Smith, Michael, Reason and
value: themes from the moral philosophy of Joseph Raz, New York:
Oxford University Press, pp. 231–246,
Scanlon, T.M. (2006), "Justice, responsibility, and the demands of
equality", in Sypnowich, Christine, The egalitarian conscience: essays
in honour of G.A. Cohen, New York:
Oxford University Press,
pp. 70–87, ISBN 9780199281688.
Scanlon, T.M. (2009), "Rights and interests", in Kanbur, Ravi; Basu,
Kaushik, Arguments for a better world: essays in honor of Amartya Sen
Volume I: Ethics, welfare, and measurement, Oxford New York: Oxford
University Press, pp. 68–79, ISBN 9780199239115.
Scanlon, T.M. (2011), "How I am not a Kantian", in Parfit, Derek;
Scheffler, Samuel, On what matters (volume 2), Oxford: Oxford
University Press, pp. 116–139, ISBN 9781283160179.
Scanlon, T.M. (2012), "The appeal and limits of constructivism", in
Lenman, James; Shemmer, Yonatan, Constructivism in practical
Oxford University Press, pp. 226–242,
Scanlon, T.M. (2013), "Interpreting blame", in Coates, D. Justin;
Tognazzini, Neal A., Blame: its nature and norms, Oxford New York:
Oxford University Press, pp. 84–100,
Scanlon, Thomas (Winter 1972). "A theory of freedom of expression".
Philosophy & Public Affairs. Wiley. 1 (2): 204–226.
Scanlon, Thomas (Summer 1975). "Thomson on privacy".
Public Affairs. Wiley. 4 (4): 315–322. JSTOR 2265076.
Scanlon, T.M. (November 1975). "Preference and urgency". The Journal
of Philosophy, special issue: Seventy-Second Annual Meeting American
Philosophical Association, Eastern Division. Journal of Philosophy,
Inc. 72 (19): 655–669. doi:10.2307/2024630.
Scanlon, Thomas (Autumn 1976). "Nozick on rights, liberty, and
Philosophy & Public Affairs. Wiley. 6 (2): 3–25.
Scanlon, T.M. (1977). "Due process". Nomos. American Society for
Political and Legal Philosophy, special issue: Due Process. 18:
93–125. JSTOR 24219202.
Scanlon, T.M. (May 1977). "Rights, goals, and fairness". Erkenntnis,
special issue: Social Ethics, Part 1. Springer. 11 (1): 81–95.
doi:10.1007/BF00169845. JSTOR 20010534.
Scanlon, T.M. (October 1986). "Equality of resources and equality of
welfare: a forced marriage?". Ethics, special issue: Symposium on
Explanation and Justification in Social Theory. Chicago Journals. 97
(1): 111–118. doi:10.1086/292820. JSTOR 2381409. Pdf.
Scanlon, Thomas (Summer 1990). "Promises and practices". Philosophy
& Public Affairs. Wiley. 19 (3): 199–226.
Scanlon, T.M. (Spring 1992). "The aims and authority of moral theory".
Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. Oxford Journals. 12 (1): 1–23.
doi:10.1093/ojls/12.1.1. JSTOR 764567.
Scanlon, T.M. (June 1995). "Moral theory: understanding and
disagreement: Reviewed work: The Viability of Moral Theory by Allan
Gibbard, Alasdair MacIntyre".
Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research. Wiley. 55 (2): 343–356. doi:10.2307/2108551.
Scanlon, Thomas (Spring 1997). "The status of well-being". Michigan
Quarterly Review. University of Michigan. XXXVI (2): 290–310.
See also Tanner lecture pdf.
Scanlon, T.M. (July 2000). "Intention and permissibility: T. M.
Scanlon". Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume. 74 (1):
301–317. doi:10.1111/1467-8349.00073. Pdf.
See also: Dancy, Jonathan (July 2000). "Intention and permissibility:
Jonathan Dancy". Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume. 74 (1):
Scanlon, T.M. (2003). "Individualism, equality, and rights".
University of Miami Law Review. University of Miami School of Law. 58
(1): 359–368. Pdf.
Scanlon, T.M. (January 2003). "Reply to Gauthier and Gibbard: Précis
of What We Owe to Each Other".
Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research. Wiley. 66 (1): 176–189.
doi:10.1111/j.1933-1592.2003.tb00249.x. JSTOR 20140523.
See also: Gauthier, David (January 2003). "Are we moral debtors?:
Reviewed work: What We Owe to Each Other by T. M. Scanlon". Philosophy
and Phenomenological Research. Wiley. 66 (1): 162–168.
doi:10.1111/j.1933-1592.2003.tb00250.x. JSTOR 20140521.
See also: Gibbard, Allan (January 2003). "Reasons to reject allowing:
Reviewed work: What We Owe to Each Other by T. M. Scanlon". Philosophy
and Phenomenological Research. Wiley. 66 (1): 169–175.
doi:10.1111/j.1933-1592.2003.tb00251.x. JSTOR 20140522.
Scanlon, T.M. (November 2003). "Metaphysics and morals". Proceedings
and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association. American
Philosophical Association. 77 (2): 7–22. doi:10.2307/3219738.
Scanlon, T.M. (December 2003). "Replies". Ratio. Wiley. 16 (4):
See also: O'Neill, Onora (December 2003). "Constructivism vs.
contractualism". Ratio. Wiley. 16 (4): 319–331.
See also: Wolff, Jonathan (December 2003). "Scanlon on well-being".
Ratio. Wiley. 16 (4): 332–345.
See also: Raz, Joseph (December 2003). "Numbers, with and without
contractualism". Ratio. Wiley. 16 (4): 346–367.
See also: Parfit, Derek (December 2003). "Justifiability to each
person". Ratio. Wiley. 16 (4): 368–390.
See also: Timmons, Mark (December 2003). "The limits of moral
constructivism". Ratio. Wiley. 16 (4): 391–423.
Scanlon, T.M. (May 2011). "Why not base free speech on autonomy or
democracy?". Virginia Law Review. The
Virginia Law Review Association
via JSTOR. 97 (3): 541–548. JSTOR 41261520. Pdf.
Scanlon, T.M. (October 2011). "Forum: libertarianism and liberty".
Boston Review. Boston Critic, Inc.
Scanlon, T.M. (June 2012). "Provocation: everyone is a philosopher!".
Harvard Law Review Forum. The Harvard Law Review Association. 125:
Scanlon, T.M. (Spring 2013). "Responsibility and the value of choice".
Think. Cambridge Journals. 12 (33): 9–16.
Scanlon, Thomas M. (June 2013). "Giving desert its due". Philosophical
Explorations, special issue: Basic Desert, Reactive Attitudes and Free
Will. Taylor and Francis. 16 (2): 101–116.
Scanlon, T.M. (June 2015). "Kamm on the disvalue of death". Journal of
Medical Ethics. BMJ Group. 41 (6): 490.
See also: Kamm, Frances (June 2015). "Summary of Bioethical
Prescriptions". Journal of Medical Ethics. BMJ Group. 41 (6):
^ Scanlon, T. M., 1998, What We Owe to Each Other, pp. 6-7
^ Scanlon 2
^ Scanlon 1
^ Scanlon 3
^ Scanlon 162
^ Scanlon 78-100
^ Scanlon 105-106
^ Scanlon 4
^ Scanlon 203-204
^ Scanlon 204-205
^ Scanlon 195
^ Scanlon 218
^ Scanlon 192
^ Scanlon 229-230
^ Scanlon 194
^ Scanlon 174
^ Nussbaum, Emily. ""Dystopia in 'The Good Place'"". The New Yorker.
Retrieved 5 February 2018.
Interviews with Scanlon
'The Kingdom of Ends on the Cheap' in Alex Voorhoeve Conversations on
Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-921537-9
Ethics of Blame"
An Interview with
T. M. Scanlon by Yascha Mounk, 2012-07-07.
The Department of
Philosophy at Harvard
ISNI: 0000 0001 0882 2592
BNF: cb134861072 (data)