Function and Continuity

Humans are paragons of evolutionary success, completely conquering the world that once oppressed us. But why must we still enforce morality in this conquered world? We have left our huts and hunting parties, so why must we still feel indignant and dishonoured in response to the slights of anonymous peers as we shuffle between skyscrapers to our immoral occupations from our bountiful homes? This is the question that Nicholas Smyth raises. Let us call this the discontinuity objection to moral functionalism. Where moral functionalism seeks to thread together the genealogy of morality with the present state of moral behaviour, Smyth seeks to show why that thread will always eventually fray and break as the conditions that explain both stretch and pull away from one another.

The discontinuity objection gets its force from the complexity of functional explanation, a matter to which few moral functionalists pay serious heed. Smyth begins by articulating what functions are and what they require. His main concern here is the etiology of some functional object. If some object A does x, we know that x is the function of A because of A's etiology. That is, A exists because it did x reliably in the past and x is an effect that was selected for. Unlike Larry Wright, however, Smyth doesn't want to say that this is all there is to functions for fear of falling prey to easy objections. Functions also have normative and dispositional dimensions that must be accounted for. Despite this, Smyth asserts a decisively Wrightian claim. "[N]othing," he says, "has an intrinsic function," which is to say "a role that it plays irrespective of the properties of [the] larger system of which it is a part." (Smyth, 1132) Instead, the function of an object rests upon conditions extrinsic to the object itself. These Smyth calls enabling conditions.

A chair has a function depending upon the enabling conditions that are met in its environment. In normal conditions, a chair functions to support people's bottoms. A broken chair, however, loses this function because it cannot perform it. This difference between the normal and broken chair represents a lack of continuity: the enabling conditions present in the case of the normal chair aren't present for the broken chair. Were I to stack books on a chair, it would likewise lose its function not because it cannot support people's bottoms any longer but because the system of which the chair is a part no longer demands that it support bottoms. Instead, it demands that the chair support books, becoming a rather ineffective and awkward bookshelf. This too is a loss of continuity. Of course, we ordinarily reject this kind of thought. A chair is a chair. If it is used to hold books, this is a deviation from its function. But if the chair has no intrinsic function, the function literally does change as its use changes. Non-intrinsic functions concern what objects do, and not what they are. Hence any etiology need only concern some explanation of what objects do. And if any such explanation can be given for some difference in action, continuity fails to obtain.

To his credit, Smyth seems to recognise how radical and implausible this view might seem and attempts to walk it back: "failure of continuity does not entail the loss of a function, but it does decisively weaken . . . the functional-genealogical inference." (Smyth, 1134) This is a fine line to walk. Functions are individuated by their etiology, which typically takes the form of a functional-genealogical inference. So what Smyth is arguing here isn't that the chair has lost its function when it is used to hold a stack of books. He is arguing only that we can't know that a chair holding a stack of books is actually for supporting bottoms. For the orthodox philosophers of science for whom what is can be reduced to what can be known or explained, this is a distinction without a difference. The interruption of the functional-genealogical inference just is the loss of the function. But let us be kind to Smyth here, for there is a much greater problem to which we must attend: the possibility of functional plurality versus functional unity.

We typically think that chairs have only one function. They are functionally unitary. Chairs may be able to hold stacks of books or allow us to stand upon them to reach high shelves, but these capacities are accidental to the chair's singular function of supporting people's bottoms. In the natural world, however, functional unity is the exception, not the rule. The parts of living things are complicated and interrelated. Consider Smyth's own example of polar bear fur. Suppose a population of polar bears were relocated to the Amazon rain forest. In the rain forest, their white fur clearly can't serve as camouflage. Yet suppose also that this population of polar bears retains its white fur for a hundred generations. By that time, we need some other explanation for the bears' fur colour than that it's camouflage. Smyth's point here is that after a hundred generations, the camouflage function of the polar bears' fur cannot reasonably explain its persistence. Instead, their fur has gained some other function that does reasonably explain its persistence in the much darker and greener environment. If polar bears' fur has only this one function, Smyth's analysis is correct. But it does not and cannot have only one function. Biological traits are elements of complex biological systems and therefore interact with any number of other elements. In each interaction, a trait will have a unique function determined by an independently successful etiology at the level of development, gene transcription, or what have you.

So the polar bear may lose out on one enabling condition, the white snow of the Arctic, but there remain uncountably many other enabling conditions that explain the persistence of the polar bears' white fur. As such, while the fur may no longer be able to express one function, there is no explanatory gap that arises necessarily from that loss. This remains especially true in the case of human morality. Human societies may be large and wealthy today, but humans still persist within relatively small social circles and compete amongst each other for finite resources. And in this we must remember that morality evolved in the context of competition for status in addition to and much more than mere resources. So we have lost some fairly central enabling conditions for morality, but we retain even more fundamental enabling conditions. And this is not even to mention whatever genetic or developmental processes morality might impact at the cellular or system levels. Smyth's discontinuity objection is therefore not sufficiently sensitive to address moral functionalism. At best, he can say that some of the many functions of human morality remain unexpressed in modern human societies. This is a fairly uncontroversial opinion.

We should not, however, merely dismiss Smyth's contribution in this way. The discontinuity objection at its introduction looks like an impressive coup de grace of moral functionalism. And in truth, it is an incredibly powerful objection to the accounts of most moral functionalists. Smyth has merely mistaken what it is about functions that typically grants them their explanatory force. That thing is narrativity. The structure, use, and validity of narrative explanation are serially underexplored in the philosophy of science, but it is nearly ubiquitous when it comes to ascriptions of functions. And it is this that is problematic.

When we describe the etiology of a given function, we do so by telling a story. In the case of the polar bear, the brown bear migrated north and discovered seals and other fairly nimble swimming prey. Catching these animals was difficult, and many bears failed to find sufficient food. This halted brown bear migration into the north. However, at some point, some bears began to display a white colouration. This colouration allowed the bears to escape the notice of the seals, and hence they were more proficient at catching them. This success allowed bears to survive and reproduce in the Arctic, and hence we have polar bears as they exist today. In this story, the bears' white fur becomes a character distinct from the bears themselves. And more than that, it becomes the hero that swoops in to save the day for the starving brown bears. But in this narrative, the details surrounding the hero are obscured. Where does it come from? How does it have this power? Who really is White Fur?

And here we have a jump cut. The bears are introduced to the Amazon, accompanied by our hero. But the change in perspective reveals something to us. White Fur had no power of its own. It has the power of camouflage only in the presence of the ice and snow of the Arctic. Without that ice and snow, we might then expect the demise of White Fur. But no: after a hundred generations, our hero remains. But Nature writes nothing badly. For White Fur to remain relevant in the story, it must have discovered some other power, one better suited to the demands of the Amazon. That is, the function of the bears' white fur has changed.

As an objection to typical accounts of moral functionalism, discontinuity of this sort is powerful. The weaknesses of the hero in our own story, Morality, have been shown to us by our own jump cut. The narrative must change, and in so doing, the function must change with it or perish. This is an eventuality that standard accounts of moral functionalism simply can't admit. But beyond this, we are made aware of the deficits of narrative as a form of explanation. Details are forgotten because nature isn't linear. We don't really know where Morality came from. We only know that it one day swooped in and saved the day. But Morality has a source, a body that we can examine for its strengths and weaknesses. It has friends and family. It has enemies and obstacles. It has fears and curiosities. But an itemised list of all of these is irrelevant for the sort of narrative employed by those who seek to vindicate Morality as the hero of our story. And all of this comes from this singular commitment: that Nature writes nothing badly. But in truth, Nature neither writes anything well. Nature does not write. But this means nothing about the functions of traits. It means only that our justifications for these functions are in need of revision. This is the importance of the discontinuity objection. If we are to maintain moral functionalism, or any sort of functionalism, the etiologies to which we appeal must attend to the minutia, to the gritty details that situate a trait within its multifaceted biological systems.

Works Cited

Smyth, Nicholas. "The Function of Morality." Philosophical Studies 174(5), 2017, pp. 1127-1144

Free Will, Agent Causation, and Metaphysical Naturalism

It’s no longer uncommon for free will to be met with suspicion. This suspicion is even greater when it comes to libertarian free will, and overwhelming regarding agent causation. This belief is largely arrived at via the notion that agent causation or even free will in general is inconsistent with Metaphysical Naturalism. This attitude is mistaken. Here I propose to show that even an agent causal account of action is consistent with Naturalism, which implies that free will in general is. Finally, I’ll close by arguing that at least some people are justified in believing in free will.

1. Naturalism

Metaphysical Naturalism (MN) is a meta-philosophical position regarding the fundamental nature of Being, the world, etc. What it entails is largely debated, but I will be using two definitions that are generally accepted.

MN1: Everything that exists is natural. There are no supernatural entities or forces.

MN2: Reality is exhausted by space-time and its contents, or an ensemble of space-time manifolds.

MN1 is the most common version, but it’s largely uninformative because “natural” is left unaddressed. We’re merely left with picking out paradigmatic supernatural entities/forces such as ghosts, gods, magic, and the like, and asserting that nothing of the sort obtains. I prefer M2, but I think assuming the truth of either one of them is sufficient for what I hope to demonstrate.

2. Free Will

To understand why people assume agent causation is inconsistent with MN, we have to clarify what free will is. First, the will is the capacity to deliberate, make decisions, and translate those decisions into action (Franklin, 2015). I take the folk conception of free will to mean that persons are sometimes able to exercise their will such that they could have done otherwise. That is, at least some decisions aren’t necessitated by their nature and/or environment

More clearly, an action is free only if it satisfies the following conditions:

Sourcehood: The agent is the actual source of ones action (e.g. no manipulation).

Intelligibility: The agent performs actions for reasons that are understood by the agent (e.g. a spontaneous jerk isn’t a free action).

Leeway: The agent is able to refrain from performing the action.

It’s often assumed that naturalism entails determinism, and that determinism is in conflict with the leeway condition, and by this very fact naturalism is in conflict with free will. But this entailment does not hold. There’s nothing about naturalism itself that implies that all causal relations are determinate (necessitated by the relevant antecedent conditions). All that’s required of causality on MN is that nature is causally continuous. Which means that there is only one metaphysical causal kind within the world (i.e. Dualism is false), and that there aren’t external non-natural causal forces affecting the natural world. For these would almost be by definition supernatural. Further, contemporary physics already admits indeterminism in at least six interpretations of quantum mechanics (three remain agnostic, and four are explicitly deterministic). So if one is going to reject free will in virtue of MN, it can’t be because of MN entailing determinism. One might object that indeterministic events don’t take place in higher-level settings, such as the firing of a neuron, so a naturalistic interpretation of human behavior will be deterministic. First, there’s nothing about naturalism in itself that requires this. Second, whether some events in the brain operate indeterministically is an empirical thesis that remains to be settled, and there are already models of how this might work (Tse, 2014; Franklin, 2013; Weber, 2005)

Given what has been outlined above, we can make sense of an event causal libertarian account of free will fitting within MN. In these sorts of instances, one’s mental states cause one to act but in such a way that you could have done otherwise. That is, the features of yourself that cause the action wouldn’t necessitate the action. You could have refrained or performed an altogether different action. It’s also helpful to note that this model fits nicely with the reductive account of mind, where any token mental state is identical to a particular brain state. Most philosophers specializing in free will recognize event causal libertarianism as a possibility worth considering, even if they remain skeptical of its reality (Balauger, 2004, 2010).

3. Agent Causation & Substance Causation

This charitable tone tends to drop once agent causation is proposed. This is typically followed by accusations of anti-scientific and “spooky” metaphysics. This is primarily grounded in the assumption that agent causation implies substance dualism. They can’t imagine what this agent could be besides a disembodied mind that interacts with the body. I think the agent causal picture people have in mind is much like how Kant thought freedom of the will worked. Essentially, the physical world that we experience is fully deterministic. Everything runs like clockwork with the exception of human action. In addition to bodies, persons are also noumenal selves that transcend the empirical world, making sovereign unconstrained choices each time they deliberate and act. So on this picture, the world consists of two different sorts of causes, natural events and agents. Given this sort of description, it’s of little surprise that so few philosophers take agent causation seriously.

Before we contrast the previous description with how agent causation has been recently updated, it will be useful to offer a brief description of what event causation is supposed to be. Event causation essentially involves some complex state of affairs or process causing another. For example, a heart pumping causes the movement of blood or a brick being thrown causes the window’s shattering. Further, the way these events unfold are explained by whatever laws of nature happen to obtain, be they deterministic or probabilistic. Causation cashed out as event relations can either be understood as ontologically primitive or reducible to something more basic such as facts concerning the global spatiotemporal arrangement of fundamental natural properties or sequential regularity.

Timothy O’Conner offers two similar, but philosophically distinct analyses of causation which clearly sketch the relevant difference between event and agent causation (O'Conner, 2014):

Event causal analysis: “The having of a power P by object O1 at time t produces effect E in object O2.”

Agent Causal analysis: “Object O1 produces effect E, doing so in virtue of having power P at time t.”

In the first case it is the “possessing a power”, an event, which is the cause of the effect; in the second it is the object. What’s of crucial importance here is that the agent causal analysis isn’t actually just one of agent causation, but is of the more general theory of substance causation. Substance causation is just the theory that substances or objects are what cause effects. So on this account, it’s not the throwing of the brick that causes the window to shatter; properly speaking, it’s the brick. Now this might sound absurd; how could the throwing of the brick not be a cause of the windows breaking? The absurdity drops once we consider the thrower. Really, the thrower and the brick jointly cause the windows shattering, where the throwing is a manifestation of a power possessed by the thrower. Powers theory is crucial to any plausible theory of substance causation. It’s not merely the object in itself that causes the effect, but the nature of the object that is constituted by the powers it possesses.

Most of the mysteriousness of agent causation disappears once we understand it as a species of substance causation. So take any ordinary substance, a rock, an electron, a water molecule, etc; any time any substance causes an effect on another substance, we have an instance of substance causation. What distinguishes agent causation from ordinary instances of substance causation is that there is an intention behind it. This entails that agent causation is fairly common place within the animal kingdom, which itself is good reason to believe that agent causation is consistent with naturalism.

A robust defense of substance causation is beyond the scope of this paper, but I can briefly sketch some reasons for accepting it. One is the numerous problems with alternative theories of causation. The constant conjunction or sequential regularity theory is currently one of the most popular and has been since Hume proposed it. On this account, for x to cause y is just for it to be the case that every time x occurs, y occurs. So on this view there is no intrinsic or necessary connection between the fire and the smoke that follows; this is just the way the universe happens to unfold. A contentious assumption on this theory is that all instances of causality are temporarily ordered. But we can make sense of non-temporal causation such as two cards propping each other up or a ball making an impression on a pillow that it’s been resting on for eternity(i.e. there was no prior time where ball was not affecting the pillow).

The other popular account reduces causation to counterfactual dependence, which is something like this,

“1) If A had not occurred, B would not have occurred.

2) If A had occurred, B would have occurred.

3) A and B both occurred. “ (Scholastic Metaphysics, pg. 60).

So the throwing of the brick causes the window breaking because if you remove the throwing of the brick then the breaking would not have happened. One problem with counterfactual dependence is the infinite number acts of omission that are involved in any causal sequence. So my successfully walking across the street was dependent on not being crushed by an elephant, not being transported, the earth not blowing up, etc. Another issue that’s applicable to both theories is that both of them seem to get the dependence relation wrong. It’s because of causation that there is constant conjunction and counter factual dependence. They are symptomatic of causation.

Next, here is a simple argument in favor of substance causation: (Whittle, 2016)

1. Some actual substances possess causal powers.

2. If a substance possesses a causal power, then it is efficacious.

3. If a substance is efficacious, then it can be a cause.

4. Some actual substances’ causal powers are manifested.

5. Therefore, some actual substances are causes.

The only premise I can imagine being rejected is (1). On the face of it, this might sound absurd; as if it means that nothing has the power to do anything. Though really the individual who rejects causal powers would have alternative explanations for why things do what they do. A not uncommon answer is that we only need appeal to the laws of nature to understand and explain how events unfold. This is problematic. On one hand, if you take the laws of nature just to be descriptions of regularity, then the laws themselves don’t do any explanatory work. On the other hand, if you take the laws of nature to be something that dictates and enforces the activity of things from the outside, then you’ve committed yourself to a form of platonism, where naturalism must be rejected. Finally, you can take the laws themselves to be the causal implications of the intrinsic natures that the substances possess, and in that case we’re back to powers theory.

4. Metaphysical Irreducibility

One might object to my earlier claim that agent causation is fairly common place because in reality there are no agents, merely matter in motion or atoms in the void.This is where the possible reducibility of macro-level objects becomes an issue. So a largely reductionist metaphysics will hold that much of what we consider ordinary objects are nothing over and above their parts. So what they are is wholly reducible to a set of fundamental constituents and relations. Another way to think of about this is that if we were to take an inventory of everything that really exists, much of what we take to exist would turn out to not. At its most extreme, the reductionist thesis holds that there’s nothing over above quarks, bosons, or whatever a complete theoretical physics takes to be fundamental. Ordinary objects will be described as simples (indivisible physical objects) arranged in a particular way. So to be a cat is just to be simples arranged cat-wise.

If one were both a reductionist and a substance causation theorist, then one could rightfully reject agent causation because there would be no agents in the relevant sense. In order for agent causation to obtain, the agent has to be a unique substance that’s not merely the sum of its parts. If agent causation were true, then agents would be irreducible substances whose persistence conditions are picked out by their higher-level causal powers(e.g. Purposiveness, narrativity, & self-reflection). That is, we are unique irreducible substances because we possess capacities that aren’t exemplified by our constituents. The constituents have come together in the right way; they are not merely a collection of them. A unique form is exemplified that puts constraints on the activity of its lower-level constituents. Which is an example of top-down causation if anything is. On reductionist substance causation, the lower level substances do all of the causal work.

A possible strategy for motivating a non-reductionist account mirrors the demystifying of agent-causation. That is, if irreducible objects aren’t special cases that are essentially restricted to persons, then there’s less reason to be suspicious of irreducibility in general. This does not mean that I think that all ordinary objects are irreducible substances. I take objects of artifice to be clearly reducible to their chemical constituents. So houses, cars, computers, tools, etc are reducible to their constituent parts. Edward Feser offers a clear description of the distinction I have in mind,

The basic idea is that a natural object is one whose characteristic behavior – the ways in which it manifests either stability or changes of various sorts – derives from something intrinsic to it. A nonnatural object is one which does not have such an intrinsic principle of its characteristic behavior; only the natural objects out of which it is made have such a principle. We can illustrate the distinction with a simple example. A liana vine – the kind of vine Tarzan likes to swing on – is a natural object. A hammock that Tarzan might construct from living liana vines is a kind of artifact, and not a natural object. The parts of the liana vine have an inherent tendency to function together to allow the liana to exhibit the growth patterns it does, to take in water and nutrients, and so forth. By contrast, the parts of the hammock – the liana vines themselves – have no inherent tendency to function together as a hammock. Rather, they must be arranged by Tarzan to do so, and left to their own devices – that is to say, without pruning, occasional rearrangement, and the like they will tend to grow the way they otherwise would have had Tarzan not interfered with them, including in ways that will impede their performance as a hammock. Their natural tendency is to be liana-like and not hammock-like; the hammock-like function they perform after Tarzan ties them together is extrinsic or imposed from outside, while the liana-like functions are intrinsic to them” (Scholastic Metaphysics, pg. 182)

I don’t commit myself to the idea that all natural particulars are irreducible or simple (without parts) or that only objects of human construction are reducible. For example, a rock made of limestone would reduce to a collection calcium carbonate, that may or may not have an irreducible intrinsic nature. The correct account of reduction/non-reduction relation is a severely under-explored issue in metaphysics. The hope here is merely that this example is useful in communicating an idea of what an irreducible relation/substance is supposed to be.

5. Final Arguments

Before summing up the arguments, it’ll be useful to explain what sort of advantage an agent causal account of freedom has over an event causal one. It stems from what’s called the “disappearing agent” objection to event causal libertarianism. The idea is that on the event causal analysis the agent-involving events (the particular mental states, preferences, reasons, etc) that non-deterministically cause the decision don’t actually settle which option is selected. The leeway condition is satisfied in that we could roll back the event and you could have otherwise but you, yourself don’t actually choose it. Your agent-involving states merely constrain which options are possible for you. Where it goes from there is a matter of luck. This can be thought of as claiming that an event causal view doesn’t satisfy the sourcehood condition for free will. The events, which do the work, merely flow through you, but you don’t really settle which option occurs. Agent causal theories have the advantage of saying that you certainly do play an explanatory role.

With this work behind us, we can abridge the essential story into a few brief arguments.

1. Substance Causation is consistent Naturalism.

2. The metaphysical irreducibility of certain substances (persons among them) is consistent with Naturalism.

3. If (1 & 2), then agent-causation is consistent with Naturalism.

4. Therefore, Agent Causation is consistent with Naturalism.

I think 1 and 2 are fairly straightforward in that nothing about my description of them implied that they transcend space and time, and 3 isn’t much more than the definition of agent causation.


1. The leeway condition is consistent with Naturalism (i.e. Nothing about naturalism implies that all causation is deterministic or that all causally relevant neural sequences are deterministic).

2. The sourcehood condition is consistent with Naturalism (since the most demanding form of satisfying it (agent causation) is consistent with Naturalism).

3. The intelligibility condition is consistent with Naturalism (I can’t say much more than I’d be completely puzzled if someone denied this, beyond maybe saying that all of our reasons for action are post hoc confabulations).

4. If (1,2 & 3), then Free Will is consistent with Naturalism (A priori true).

5. Therefore, Free Will is consistent with Naturalism.


1. Substance causation is a plausible theory of causation.

2. The irreducibility of certain biological substances is not implausible.

3. Indeterminism is plausible.

4. If (1,2, & 3), then free will is plausible.

5. We’re justified in holding independently plausible positions if they cohere with our background beliefs*.

6. Therefore, at least some people are justified in believing in free will.

Plausible: A position is plausible just in case it is coherent, contains sophisticated arguments or evidence in favor of it (ones that are aware of and address the relevant issues and objections that might undermine it) and is void of any obvious insurmountable objections.

*Epistemic axiom: We’re justified in believing what seems to be true unless we have sufficient reason to think it’s false.

*Phenomenological claim: Some of our decisions seem to be free, to at least some of us.

Without question, this is the weakest of the arguments I’ve offered. Plausibility is context dependent, which means many will find this unconvincing. Some of the most obvious candidates are committed reductionists, scientismists, eliminativists, determinists, and event causal theorists. Though this is not my target audience. My hope is that fence sitters, or anyone who’s just generally skeptical yet open to free will and agent causation might be persuaded to take the position seriously. No one should be moved to believe in free will merely based on what I’ve offered here, but it might be sufficient to motivate some to re-assess their position.

Works Cited:

Balaguer, Mark. Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem. MIT Press, 2010

Balaguer, Mark. A Coherent, Naturalistic, and Plausible Formulation of Libertarian Free Will. Noûs, Vol. 38, No.3 (Sep., 2004), pp. 379-406

Feser, Edward, “Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction”, Editiones Scholasticae, 2014

Franklin, Christopher Evan, “Agent-Causation, Explanation, and Akrasia: A Reply to Levy’s Hard Luck”, Criminal Law and Philosophy 9:4, (2015): 753-770.

Franklin, Christopher Evan, The Scientific Plausibility of Libertarianism’, Free Will and Moral Responsibility, eds. Ishtiyaque Haji and Justin Caouette. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2013): 123-141.

 O’Conner, Timothy. “Free Will and Metaphysics,” in David Palmer, ed., in Libertarian Free Will (ed. D. Palmer, Oxford), 2014

Tse, Peter Ulric, Neural Basis of Free Will: Criterial Causation, MIT Press, 2013, 456pp.

Webber, Marcel. Indeterminism in Neurobiology. Philosophy of Science, Vol. 72, No. 5, Proceedings of the 2004 Biennial Meeting of The Philosophy of Science AssociationPart I: Contributed PapersEdited by Miriam Solomon (December 2005), pp. 663-674

Whittle, A. (2016). A Defence of Substance Causation. Journal of the American Philosophical Association , 2(1), 1-20. DOI: 10.1017/apa.2016.1

Tyrannical Reasons

In a previous post I outlined what I think it is for a moral theory to be tyrannical. One kind of tyrannical moral theory takes the class of our moral reasons to be identical to the class of our all things considered reasons.

When we act, we do so for reasons. Reasons are things that count in favor of acting one way or another, or refraining from acting. I have a reason to eat breakfast in the morning because I feel hungry. My feeling of hunger is a reason to eat breakfast, which is to say that it counts in favor of acting in a certain way. However, I may be running late to a very important meeting, and I cannot make and eat breakfast in the small amount of time I have to myself this morning. So, my hunger may not count as an all things considered reason (ATC reason) to eat breakfast. There are overriding reasons not to eat breakfast that are grounded in the fact that the outcome of my meeting is more valuable than satiating my hunger for a few hours. In other words, I have an ATC reason not to eat breakfast, but rather to attend my meeting.

Some moral theories classify moral reasons as ATC reasons. One example is hedonistic maximizing act consequentialism. On such a view, all of our moral reasons are grounded in the maximization of pleasure among sentient beings, and if a person acts in a situation such that she fails to maximize pleasure to the best of her ability, then she is morally blameworthy in some way. The reason she is morally blameworthy is because she did not act according to her ATC reason, which is to maximize pleasure. This sort of theory entails that if you can maximize pleasure when you can act a certain way, then you ought to maximize pleasure by acting that way, which is to say that maximizing pleasure is our ATC reason. So, on hedonistic maximizing consequentialism, the class of ATC reasons is identical to the class of moral reasons; they are one and the same.

Theories of this kind are tyrannical because they moralize everything. Our actions, when rational, are done because of our ATC reasons, which means that all of our rational actions are based on all things considered reasons. ATC reasons are themselves grounded in values, so to have an ATC reason to do something is to have a reason to do something because it is valuable in some way and its value overrides other considerations. If all of our ATC reasons are moral reasons, then not only are all of our rational actions necessarily moral actions, actions that are morally evaluable, but all of the values in which our ATC reasons are grounded must be moral values. So, the view that all ATC reasons are moral reasons is tyrannical.

Another way to bring out this entailment is by considering Henry Bemis, the protagonist of the Twilight Zone episode called Time Enough at Last. To cut to the chase, Henry finds himself emerging from a bank vault after a nuclear attack. He notices that there is nobody around to stop him from spending all of his time reading books, so that’s what he does, until he unfortunately breaks his glasses.

Henry seems to have an ATC reason to spend all of his free time reading books, and to devote the rest of his time to maintaining his health so he can keep reading. But this does not seem like a moral reason. Before his post nuclear war life, Henry did not have ATC reasons to spend all of his time reading, because he had a job that imposed duties onto him that prevented him from being able to justifiably read all the time, not to mention his wife who was unhappy with how he spent his free time. It seems odd to say that once those duties vanish he is now morally evaluable as bad or as having done something wrong if he spends a bit of time not reading or maintaining his existence to keep reading. He may be acting irrationally because he has an ATC reason to read as much as possible, but he is not acting immorally. So, it seems wrong to say that Henry’s ATC reasons are identical to his moral reasons.

Those who disagree with me about tyrannical moral theories will probably not have the same intuitions as I do when considering cases like Henry Bemis, or if they do, they will have stronger intuitions supporting some particular (kind of) theory or other which override the intuitions about these cases. However, for those who think there is a distinct realm of non-moral value, or that our ATC reasons are not necessarily moral reasons, cases like Henry’s will reveal the implausibility of tyrannical moral theories.


Why Veganism isn't Obligatory

I’ve written a bit about animal ethics on this blog, and most of it has been about animal rights. The sorts of rights that seem most plausible to ascribe to animals are negative rights, such as the right not to be unjustly harmed. If animals have rights, they probably have positive rights as well. For example, if you’re cruising around on your new boat with your dog, and you see that your dog fell overboard, it seems like your dog has the right to be rescued by you, assuming that you’re capable without endangering yourself or others. You’re obligated to rescue your dog, assuming that he has rights that can generate obligations for you. So, animals can have both positive and negative rights.

An interesting question that arises when we consider animal rights is if they generate obligations for us to become vegans. I take veganism to be a set of dietary habits that exclude almost all animal products. On my view, vegans can consume animal products in very specific situations. For example, if a vegan comes across a deer that has just died by being hit by a car, it is permissible for her to consume the deer and use its parts for whatever purposes she sees fit. However, circumstances like the dead deer are very rare and it’s doubtful that most vegans can survive off of those sorts of animal products, so most vegans will not consume any animal products. The sorts of vegans who hunt for the sorts of opportunities to consume animal products like in the case of roadkill are called, “freegans”. Other instances of vegan-friendly animal products are things found in the trash and things that have been stolen.

Most vegans would agree that purchasing chickens for your backyard and consuming the eggs they produce is impermissible. If they think animals have rights, then having backyard chickens might seem akin to owning slaves. In both instances, beings with rights are considered the property of people. So, owning chickens is a form of slavery according to this view. I want to challenge this view by using some arguments developed in a recent paper called, “In Defense of Backyard Chickens” by Bob Fischer and Josh Milburn.

Imagine that a person, call her Alice, studied chicken cognition and psychology such that she understood the best way to house chickens according to their needs. She builds the right sort of housing for chickens, she purchases high quality, nutritious feed for her chickens, and she makes sure they are safe from predators and the elements. Alice really cares about animal welfare, so her project is done in the interests of the chickens she plans to buy. She sees herself as giving the chickens a life they deserve in an environment best suited for their welfare. She then goes and buys some chickens and lets them loose in their new home. She tends to their needs and makes sure they’re comfortable. She then collects their eggs they lay and consumes them in various ways. I don’t think Alice done anything wrong, but some vegans may disagree.

To some vegans, it may seem like Alice has built slave quarters for her new egg-producing slaves. However, it seems to me that Alice has liberated the chickens in a way that’s analogous to an abolitionist buying the freedom of an enslaved human. If it’s permissible to buy the freedom of a slave by paying into an unjust institution like the slave-trade, then it seems like the same holds for buying the freedom of chickens. But, you may object, the chickens aren’t free! They’re still enclosed in Alice’s backyard, unable to leave. If you bought the freedom of a human and then put them in a backyard enclosure, we could hardly praise you as a liberator! Well, in the case of humans it’s wrong to force them into backyard enclosures. But that’s because the interests of humans are such that we make humans worse off by forcing them into enclosures in backyards. Humans aren’t the sorts of beings that need restrictions on their movement to guarantee their well-being. If anything, humans need free movement to have a high level of well-being. One of the reasons human slavery is so bad is because of the restriction on the freedom of movement of humans. Humans enjoy being able to go where they want; preventing that is to harm them.

When it comes to chickens, restricting their movement is actually in their interests. If we bought chickens and then just let them loose, they would probably die pretty quickly. Depending on where you release them and what time of the year it is, they could die of exposure or from predation. They could also walk into traffic and die, or they might end up starving because they won’t be able to find adequate nutrition. So, it seems like chicken interests don’t include complete freedom of movement, but rather some level of confinement for protection. Obviously not the level of confinement found in factory farms or even smaller commercial farms, but something that keeps predators and the elements out. So, the analogy between confining chickens and confining humans doesn’t hold, because it is in the interests of chickens and not humans to be confined to some extent.

One objection that might arise is that by buying chickens, Alice feeds into an unjust system that will only be perpetuated by your actions. Fair enough I guess, but it seems like the act of purchasing a few chickens is causally impotent with respect to furthering the unjust system of selling chickens for profit. If Alice didn’t buy those chickens, I doubt the store would have felt it, and the industry at large definitely wouldn’t feel it. The chickens probably would’ve been bought by somebody else, anyway, and they probably wouldn’t have been treated nearly as well as if Alice had bought them. But leaving that aside, this seems like a consequentialist objection. However, we’re in the land of the deontic with all of this rights talk, and it seems like chickens have a right to be rescued from their circumstances. So even if Alice somehow feeds into an unjust system by buying her chickens, that badness is outweighed or overridden by the right to rescue that those chickens have. If anything, Alice has an obligation to buy those chickens, given her ability to provide them with the lives to which they are entitled.

Another objection is that by purchasing chickens, Alice is treating them as property. Even if that’s true, it still seems better for the chickens that they are treated like property by Alice than by somebody less interested in their welfare. The chickens may have a right not to be owned, and perhaps Alice’s relationship to them is one of an owner, but it may still be in their interests to be owned by Alice. Their right not to be owned is outweighed by the potential harm they will experience if they’re bought by anybody else. Alice is their best bet. However, it is unclear that Alice is treating them as property. Another way of looking at this is Alice is buying the freedom of the chickens. They will no longer be the property of others. Instead, they get to live out their lives in the best conditions chickens can have. Now, you might respond by saying that living in Alice’s backyard isn’t true freedom because the chickens’ movement is restricted, but I already dealt with that objection above.

One last objection is that by obtaining and consuming eggs, Alice is illegitimately benefiting from something she’s allowed to do. This objection concedes that Alice can keep backyard chickens as long as she tends to their well-being sufficiently. But, the objection goes, Alice is illegitimately benefiting from her chickens. Perhaps the chickens also have a right to raise families, and by consuming their eggs Alice is depriving them of families. However, Alice could allow the chickens to procreate within limits. Obviously they cannot overpopulate the land they inhabit, because that would cause an overall decrease in well-being. In light of these considerations, Alice cannot allow every egg to result in a new chicken, so it seems like she can remove excess eggs from the chickens’ homes.

Maybe the chickens have property rights over their eggs. By taking the eggs, Alice is effectively stealing from her chickens. It isn’t clear to me that animals have property rights, but maybe they do. Even if the chickens own their eggs, it seems like Alice can collect some of them as a form of rent. There is, then, mutual benefit between Alice and the chickens. Alice gives the chickens a place to live and food, and in return Alice gets some of their eggs. The relationship between Alice and her chickens is closer to people renting a place to live and their landlord than it is to a thief and her victims, or squatters and a landowner.

Could the eggs be used for something more noble than as Alice’s food? Maybe, but it still seems permissible for Alice to eat the eggs. Sure, she could donate them or use them to feed other animals, but it seems like a stretch to say that Alice has an obligation not to consume the eggs and instead give them away. Even if it’s better that she gives them away, she’s still allowed to consume them. There are actions that are permissible even if they aren’t optimal, and Alice consuming the eggs seems to qualify.

If I’m right, and Alice is allowed to consume the eggs she collects, then Alice is not obligated to be a vegan. Eggs are animal products and pretty much every vegan would say that you shouldn’t eat them. So, it seems like veganism is not obligatory. Consuming animal products can sometimes be permissible if they’re obtained in the right way.

This post has been heavily influenced by a recent paper by Bob Fischer and Josh Milburn. Their paper articulated a lot of the thoughts I’ve had about veganism and moral obligations better than I could. Pretty much all of the arguments, objections, and responses draw from their paper. I wrote this post to summarize some of their arguments, and to draw attention to their paper. Bob Fischer is my favorite philosopher working on animal ethics. I recommend all of his stuff.

Check out their paper here.
Check out Bob Fischer’s work here.

Contractarianism and Animal Rights

Contractarianism is probably the family of moral theories most commonly appealed to by opponents of animal rights. Animal rights opponents believe that these theories seem to disqualify non-human animals from being bearers of rights. Contractarianism and the direct moral status of non-human animals seem to be incompatible [1]. In this post, I will explore the contractarian case against animal rights and then develop a response on behalf of the claim that animals possess direct moral status. In section one, I unpack the fundamentals of the contractarianism based on the early work of John Rawls. In section two, I lay out the prima facie case against animal rights from Rawlsian contractarianism. In section three, I develop a response to the prima facie case. In section four, I respond to criticisms of attempts at making the direct moral status of non-human animals and contractarianism consistent from Peter Carruthers.

1. The Fundamentals of Contractarianism

Contractarianism in its moral form is a theory that takes the direct moral status of individuals to be determined by their membership in the community of beings that are capable of agreeing to certain rules and standards of conduct that structure their interactions with each other and with the rest of the world. Any beings who are not contractors only possess indirect moral status by virtue of standing in morally relevant relations to contractors. As Mark Rowlands explains,

“According to contractarianism or contractualism, the legitimacy of moral and political rules and systems must ultimately be grounded in the existence of a hypothetical contract, to which rational, self-interested agents would assent if they were familiar with its conditions” (Garrett 147).

The contractors do not need to be actual beings; they can be hypothetical rational agents acting in their own self-interest. These hypothetical, rational, and self-interested agents will agree to principles that structure society such that the arrangement reaches a pareto-optimal equilibrium for all contractors (Gauthier 2013) [2].

The most famous version of contractarianism comes from the early work of John Rawls (cf. Rawls 1999). While Rawls intended to develop a theory of justice for politics, his theory can be modified into a more general thesis about the nature of morality. As a moral theory, Rawlsian contractarianism takes moral facts to be the outputs of a decision procedure among hypothetical contractors who are behind a veil of ignorance, meaning that they lack knowledge of their position within society, as well as of their abilities and identities like ethnicity, gender, sex, and socioeconomic status. The rationale behind this epistemic limitation is to remove any systematic bias from influencing the outputs of the decision procedure. If none of the agents are aware of their position in society, then they will select moral and political systems that do not favor any particular demographic over others, because they cannot be sure if they will be in that favored demographic. In other words, contractors behind the veil of ignorance would not be willing to gamble when determining the rules structuring society, because the gamble may not pay off, and it may even backfire if they end up in a group that is marginalized by biased outputs. So it is not a moral reason why the agents avoid bigoted and biased rules, but rather it is because it is in their self-interest to pick rules that are impartial with respect to contingent identities like gender and ethnicity. The Rawlsian contractors, then, are not employing moral concepts or principles when deliberating and determining the rules that structure society and the moral domain [3].

So, contractarianism is the view that morality is the output of a morally neutral decision procedure among hypothetical, rational and self-interested agents. John Rawls intended contractarianism to be a method of arriving at the structure of an ideally just political order. In this paper, I focus on the moral version of Rawlsian contractarianism. Rather than restricting the decision procedure to the political order, it will also determine morality. In the next section, I unpack the prima facie case against animal rights from Rawlsian contractarianism.

2. The Prima Facie Case Against Animal Rights

Rawlsian contractarianism seems to entail that non-human animals lack direct moral status [4]. According to Peter Carruthers,

“Morality is here pictured as a system of rules to govern the interaction of rational agents within society. It, therefore, seems inevitably, on the face of it, that only rational agents will be assigned direct rights on this approach. Since it is only rational agents who will have their position protected under the rules. There seems no reason why rights should be assigned to non-rational agents. Animals will, therefore, have no moral standing under Rawlsian contractualism, in so far as they do not count as rational agents” (Carruthers 98-99).

Carruthers summarizes the prima facie case against the direct moral status of non-human animals concisely. Since morality is about rational agents within a society, rational agents will be the bearers of direct moral status. Any non-rational animals cannot have direct moral status because they cannot participate in the decision procedure that determines morality. At best, such animals can gain indirect moral status by being objects of concern to rational agents (Carruthers 146-169).

The challenge is not completely clear. What is the connection between direct moral status and being a contractor [5]? It can’t be that bearing rights requires that the bearer be capable of having duties and obligations to others or herself. Such a move is a non-sequitur. Although rights logically presuppose duties and obligations, that does not entail that rights bearers are also the bearers of those duties and obligations [6]. Even if non-human animals cannot be bearers of duties and obligations, that does not mean that they lack rights; they may have rights without duties, which seems perfectly plausible. After all, most of us would grant that non-rational humans possess rights even though they cannot have any duties or obligations. Babies and some severely disabled people lack duties and obligations, but we would be hard-pressed to explain why those humans lack rights if others have them [7].

Perhaps it is just a feature of contractarianism that direct moral status is the same thing as being a contractor. This seems to be the most plausible move available to proponents of the claim that contractarianism excludes non-human animals from having direct moral status. If non-human animals are not rational agents that are capable of participating in the decision procedure behind the veil of ignorance, then they aren’t the sorts of beings that can have direct moral status, since direct moral status just is the property of being a contractor. Since this is a stipulated definition of direct moral status, failing to track ordinary use or use among philosophers is not necessarily a strike against it, but a residual worry for me is that it seems unmotivated [8].

Setting that worry aside, the prima facie case against animal rights is complete. Direct moral status requires the capacity to engage in the deliberative procedure that determines morality, which is to say that direct moral status is the capacity for rational agency. Since non-human animals lack the sort of rational agency required to engage in the deliberative procedure behind the veil of ignorance, they lack direct moral status. Non-human animals only morally matter insofar as rational agents care about them. Since non-human animals lack direct moral status, and many of them do not stand in morally relevant relations to rational agents, humans are justified in using them for their benefit (cf. Carruthers ch. 7). Factory farms and animal experimentation are therefore morally permissible [9].

3. Why Animals Can Have Direct Moral Status Under Contractarianism

Despite the prima facie case, contractarianism has conceptual space for animal rights. There are two routes from the Rawlsian procedure to the direct moral status of animals. First, it seems possible to consider whether or not you as a contractor would end up as a member of a different species that has significant interactions with human beings. Second, direct moral status being identical to being a contractor is not obvious; it seems that direct moral status should instead be a function of being the direct object of the moral rules that are determined behind the veil of ignorance. I will describe each of these routes in turn [10].

Within human societies there are a lot of cross-species interactions. Non-human animals play many roles in human lives. It seems plausible to assume that the question of animal moral status will arise during deliberations behind the veil of ignorance. It also seems plausible to assume that the deliberators will have at least a basic level of knowledge about the non-human animals that they are likely to encounter or affect through their actions. Such background knowledge includes the fact that such animals are subjects of conscious experiences and have interests (Regan 2004). It also seems plausible that contractors behind the veil of ignorance can make inferences from facts about non-human animal interests to facts about what such animals would prefer, if they had the relevant knowledge to consciously entertain such preferences.

With such background knowledge and inferences in place, the next step is to consider whether the contractors could plausibly consider what they would prefer if they had to occupy the roles of those non-human animals. We have to be careful here, though. I do not mean to consider what the contractors with their human traits and preferences would prefer if they were those animals, but rather what they with those animal preferences and interests would prefer. Would they prefer to be vivisected for the dubious epistemic benefit of humans? Would they prefer to be the equivalent of chattel slaves who meet the chopping block after a short and brutish life? Would they prefer to be forced to perform for the pleasure of gawking humans? Given the fact that the contractors would have access to a sufficient amount of knowledge about those non-human animals to be able to determine their interests, it seems like they can infer that those animals would prefer to be in the situations that I described above. It seems that the contractors can consider whether they would be willing to live in a society where they would be fine with living the life of a forced performer, a potential meal, or as a forced test-subject in a lab if they ended up in the position of those animals. I can’t think of a good reason why anybody would be willing to live in a society where such things could happen, and I doubt that the contractors behind the veil could either.

We now have the pieces in place to overcome the prima facie case against animal rights. Given uncontroversial and non-moral background knowledge about the lives and interests of non-human animals that are a part of human society in various capacities, it is reasonable to conclude that the contractors would take those animals’ interests into account during their deliberations. We can conceive of what our interests would be if we ended up as those species that are part of human society, and that ability is available to contractors behind the veil of ignorance [11]. Since such an ability is available to contractors, it is also reasonable to conclude that they would take animals’ interests into account when determining a moral system. It follows that animals have direct moral status, since their interests would be taken into account by contractors behind the veil of ignorance.

The second route to direct animal moral status under Rawlsian contractarianism is to question why being a contractor is necessary for possessing direct moral status [12]. One assumption of my exposition of Rawlsian contractarianism is that a necessary condition for direct moral status is being a contractor. However, as I mentioned in section two, there is no good reason to think that the capacity to be a contractor is a necessary condition of bearing direct moral status. At best, it is entailed by a stipulated definition of, “direct moral status” that only contractors can have direct moral status under contractarianism. But it is not a requirement of Rawlsian contractarianism that we stipulate such a definition, so if there is a version of the theory that does not include such a stipulation, but retains the plausibility of the theory with the stipulation, then that version is worth investigating. Furthermore, if that version without the stipulated definition retains more intuitive judgments when considering the question of non-human animal moral status, then in the battle of plausibility points, the version that allows for direct animal moral status scores higher [13].

The prima facie case against animal rights depends on the stipulation that having direct moral status is identical to being a contractor. Since this is a stipulation, there is no reason to believe it beyond the other virtues of the theory in which it is embedded. But if the stipulation delivers counterintuitive results , and the theory in which it is embedded can do fine without it, then we ought to keep the virtuous parts of the theory and abandon the rest. Before moving on, we should determine if the stipulation has counterintuitive results.

The easiest way to determine if the stipulation that direct moral status is identical to to being a contractor has counterintuitive results is to test it against marginal cases. The capacity to be a contractor requires the ability to be aware of one’s own interests and make rational decisions about them, both in the present and projected into the future. These capacities are not present in non-human animals, so according to the stipulation, animals lack direct moral status. However, those capacities are also not present in many human beings, but it seems wrong to claim that those humans lack direct moral status (Norcross 2004). If we imagine a human infant stripped of all of the relations that would confer indirect moral status, it still seems like that infant has direct moral status. An orphan with no social ties morally counts no less than the children of Donald Trump. There must be something that distinguishes humans from non-human animals who lack such a capacity if only the marginal humans are to possess direct moral status. Given the stipulation, though, this is not possible. If having direct moral status is identical to having the capacity to be a contractor behind the veil of ignorance, then infants lack direct moral status. There is no way around this without arbitrarily stipulating that humans as such have direct moral status. Such a move would be entirely ad hoc, so the contractarian who embraces the claim that direct moral status just is the capacity to be a contractor should bite the bullet and say that infants lack direct moral status.  

Since the contractarian is biting a bullet in accepting that infants lack direct moral status, a version of the theory that does not have that entailment is preferable. I propose that the connection between direct moral status and the contractarian procedure is found in the contents of the moral rules that constitute the moral system resulting from deliberation among contractors. On this view, animals can have direct moral status by virtue of being the direct objects of moral rules agreed to by contractors behind the veil of ignorance. The contractors could agree that when non-human animals meet certain criteria such as sentience, having interests, or being the subject of a life, they possess direct moral status according to the ethical system to which they all rationally agree [14]. There are no conceptual connections between direct moral status and being a contractor within Rawlsian contractarianism. My account has the added benefit of not implying that infants and other humans who aren’t contractors lack direct moral status.

One may worry that the contractors will need prior moral concepts or knowledge to conclude that animals with certain properties possess direct moral status. However, since contractors are not detecting a property in the mind-independent world called direct moral status that supervenes on some intrinsic properties of animals, but rather the contractors are constructing direct moral status through their deliberative process. Non-human animals possess direct moral status by virtue of being the direct object of the moral rules that are the output of the deliberative process. The contractors need not possess any moral concepts or make any moral judgments in the deliberative process; they may consider facts about how animals can suffer or enjoy their lives and then they feel sympathy for them, and conclude that any society in which animals lack direct moral status is one they would not want to live in.

Once we resolve the worry, it seems like there are no obstacles between contractarianism and animal rights [15]. The two routes that lead to direct moral status for animals are in the spirit of Rawlsian contractarianism. However, Peter Carruthers has raised some objections to these kinds of attempts at making animal rights and contractarianism consistent. I will now move on to his criticisms.

4. Responding to Carruthers’ Objection

Peter Carruthers takes issue with attempts at making contractarianism consistent with the direct moral status of non-human animals (Carruthers 101-105). He has produced several criticisms of arguments like mine. Carruthers sums up his doubts about the compatibility of the direct moral status of animals and contractarianism in the following passage,

“Morality is here pictured as a system of rules to govern the interaction of rational agents within society. It therefore seems inevitable, on the face of it, that only rational agents will be assigned direct rights on this approach. Since it is rational agents who are to choose the system of rules, and choose self-interestedly, it is only rational agents who will have their position protected under the rules. There seems no reason why rights should be assigned to non-rational agents. Animal will, therefore, have no moral standing under Rawlsian contractarianism, in so far as they do not count as rational agents” (Carruthers 98-99).

This seems to be an attempt at connecting the property of rational agency to direct moral status. However, all that Carruthers has done is articulate the stipulation from section two. Even if the rational agents choose in their own self-interest, they choose from behind a veil of ignorance that withholds their status in and relation to the moral community, so it is not clear that the deliberative procedure will result in rights only for rational, self-interested agents.

Carruthers goes on to argue that attempts at making Rawlsian contractarianism consistent with the direct status of animals lead to incoherence,

“As Rawls has it, morality is, in fact, a human construction . . . Morality is viewed as constructed by human beings, in order to facilitate interactions between human beings, and to make possible a life of co-operative community. This is, indeed, a central part of the governing conception of contractarianism. It is crucial to the explanation of how moral notions can arise, avoiding the excesses of intuitionism and strong objectivism. It is also presupposed by contractualist accounts of the source of moral motivation, whether in the Rawlsian version (to make peaceful human community possible in conditions of modernity) or in my own, where the basic contractualist concept (as well as the desire to comply with it) is held to be innate, selected for in evolution because of its value in promoting the survival of our species. To suggest, now, that contractualism should be so construed as to accord equal moral standing to animals would be to lose our grip on where moral notions are supposed to come from, or why we should care about them when they arrive” (Carruthers 1994, 102-103).

There are several issues with this passage that I will deal with in turn. First, Carruthers frames his objection in terms of avoiding the excesses of intuitionism and strong objectivism. Second, he claims that allowing animals to have direct moral status goes against the view of moral motivation that is presupposed by contractarianism. Finally, he argues that allowing animals to have direct moral status on contractarianism would be to lose our grip on where morality comes from and why we ought to care about it. I will address Carruthers’ claims in order.

First, Carruthers claims that framing the subject matter of morality in terms of what rationally acting human beings would agree to avoids the excesses of intuitionism and strong objectivism. Intuitionism is the view that moral knowledge is based on moral intuitions. Carruthers takes strong objectivism to be the claim that moral properties or facts are part of the fabric of the world (Carruthers 14). Strong objectivism is contrasted with weak objectivism, which is the thesis that moral concepts have determinate conditions of application, similar to concepts about artifacts like tables and chairs (Carruthers 15-16). Whether or not an object is a chair is not dependent on any particular person’s attitudes, beliefs, or desires, even though the property of being a chair is not mind independent in the same way as the physical constitution of water by H2O molecules is. Weak objectivism takes moral properties and facts to be closer to facts about chairs than facts about the physical constitution of water.

It is unclear to me why Carruthers believes that the only way to avoid the excesses of intuitionism and strong objectivism is by framing the subject matter of morality in terms of what humans would rationally agree to. Intuitionism and strong objectivism are second order theories about morality rather than substantive moral claims, so it is not obvious that they entail or are conceptually connected to the thesis that only rational actors can have direct moral status. That rational actors are the only bearers of direct moral status seems to me to be a substantive moral claim, and it is commonly thought that substantive moral claims do not directly follow from second order claims about morality (Streumer ch. 4). It seems like weak objectivism is compatible with many first order substantive moral claims, so Carruthers needs to provide an argument that connects the first order moral claim that only humans and other rational actors can have direct moral status and the second order moral theory of weak objectivism.

Carruthers claims that  animals having direct moral status under contractarianism robs the view of its source of moral motivation. However, like the previous claim, Carruthers is attempting to argue for a first order moral claim by employing second order moral considerations. Moral motivation is a second order moral issue, so it is unclear how it entails first order moral claims about which beings possess direct moral status. Furthermore, there are theories of moral motivation that are compatible with contractarianism that do not obviously exclude animals from having direct moral status, such as motivational internalism (van Roojen 55-70). On most forms of motivation internalism, a moral agent who sincerely makes a moral judgment is necessarily motivated, absent practical irrationality or some other factor like akrasia, to act on that judgment. Internalism is compatible with contractarianism and it does not exclude animals from having direct moral status because it is a thesis about moral agents, not moral patients [16]. So it is not the case that animals having direct moral status robs contractarianism of its resources regarding moral motivation.

Lastly, Carruthers claims that animals having direct moral status under contractarianism loosens our grip on where morality comes from and why we should care about it. In my discussion about animals having direct moral status under contractarianism, I haven’t lost my grip on where morality comes from, because I have acknowledged that rationally acting human beings are the contractors entering into agreements behind the veil of ignorance. Claiming that animals have direct moral status has not made me forget where morality comes from. All that I have done is expand the circle of direct moral status, which is compatible with the contractarian view about where morality comes from, because non-rational animals do not participate in the decision procedure. I have also included reasons about why we should care about morality, which cannot be moral reasons, since contractarianism does not allow for moral considerations to play a role in the decision procedure. Two possible sources of non-moral reasons to care about morality are self-interest and sentiment. Carruthers only allows for self-interest, but he provides no arguments against allowing sentiments to count as reasons to care about morality. He may argue that sentiments are moral considerations, but as a cognitivist contractarian, it is unclear how or why sentiments are morally relevant. Sentiments can be construed as non-cognitive attitudes towards states of affairs, and on that conception they can play a role in motivating us to care about moral states of affairs without themselves having moral content. So Carruthers has not provided compelling reasons to doubt that animals can have direct moral status under contractarianism.

5. Conclusion

In this post, I have explored how Rawlsian contractarianism has the conceptual resources for direct animal moral status. I have argued that rational contractors behind the veil of ignorance can also allow their species to be indeterminate during the decision procedure, which opens up the possibility of contractors assigning direct moral status to non-human animals. I have also argued that contractarianism does not entail that contractors are the only bearers of direct moral status. Simply being the direct object of moral considerations determined behind the veil of ignorance is sufficient for direct moral status, and that includes non-human animals. So there is no barrier to the direct moral status of animals from contractarianism.


[1] The typical understanding of direct moral status is for a being to matter morally by virtue of some properties of that being. To have indirect moral status is to count morally by virtue of standing in certain relations to beings with direct moral status. I use direct moral status and rights interchangeably because rights bearing is typically taken to be direct moral status on deontological theories such as contractarianism.

[2] This assumes that rational, self-interested agents would be trying to maximize the benefits they gain from the arrangements to which they agree. See (Wedgwood 2017) for reasons to doubt that rational intentions aim at maximizing utility.

[3] If the procedure is intended to only determine political norms like justice, as Rawls develops it in A Theory of Justice, then the contractors can deploy moral concepts and principles in their deliberations, but if the procedure is meant to determine morality, then it would be circular to allow a conception of morality to play a role in the contractors’ decision procedures. For the purposes of this paper, I am dealing with the broader, moral version of contractarianism rather than the political one, so the procedure must be morally neutral.

[4] From now on I will refer to Rawlsian contractarianism as, “contractarianism” because repeatedly typing, “Rawlsian contractarianism” is as tedious as it must be to read.  

[5]  I use “contractor” and “rational, self-interested agent” interchangeably.

[6]  I am grateful to Alasdair Norcross for pointing this out in an illuminating discussion.

[7] Here I shifted from using rights talk as equivalent to direct moral status talk to rights talk in a more narrow sense, but that was for the purposes of exploring this possible inference from rights bearing to obligation bearing to excluding non-human animals. I will now shift back to the broader usage.

[8]  Another challenge to this move is to use a different word for the more common sense use of, “direct moral status” and then ask how contractarianism accounts for that. One possible reply is to say that such a concept does not play into contractarianism as a moral system, so it need not be accounted for. The theoretical cost of this avoidance must be made up for by contractarianism displaying other theoretical virtues. I will not pursue this line of thought any further as it is tangential to the purpose of this paper.

[9] Assuming that animal experimentation is beneficial for humans. For a dissenting view, see (Garrett ch. 13).

[10] These routes are compatible with each other, but they can also stand on their own.

[11]  It has no moral content and it’s relevant to the structure of society, so it is available to them.

[12] This does not affect whether it is sufficient.

[13] See (Enoch 2011) for a discussion of plausibility points in ethical theory assessment.

[14] See (Singer 2011) for the view that having interests is sufficient for moral status, see (Norcross 2004) for the view that sentience is sufficient, and see (Regan 2004) for the view that being the subject of a life is sufficient for possessing moral status.

[15] You may wonder why I am assuming that contractarianism is a constructivist theory and not a realist one. If we take it to be a realist theory, then the procedure is such that it discovers independent moral facts, but this undermines any motivation for the prima facie case in section two. If direct moral status is based on the supervenience or grounding relation between the intrinsic properties of a being and moral facts about it, then the stipulation in section two is entirely unmotivated. The theory would have stipulated something about reality independent of us. But why assume that our stipulated definitions track the nature of stance-independent moral facts? It would be as if I stipulated that rocks are reducible to clusters of atoms arranged rock-wise when there is a stance-independent fact about the nature of rocks. So it seems like on a realist interpretation of contractualism, the prima facie case cannot be motivated.

[16] I take it that only moral agents are capable of making moral judgments and acting on them, so internalism about moral judgments can only apply to them. Animals are not moral agents, but on my view they are moral patients, which means that they still have direct moral status.

Works Cited:

Carruthers, Peter. The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice. Cambridge University Press. 1992. Print.

Enoch, David. Taking Morality Seriously: A Defense of Robust Realism. Oxford University Press. 2011. Print.

Garrett, Jeremy R. The Ethics of Animal Research: Exploring the Controversy. MIT Press. 2012. Print.

Gauthier, David. “Achieving Pareto-Optimality: Invisible Hands, Social Contracts, and Rational Deliberation.” RMM, vol. 4, 2013, pp. 191-204. Print.

Norcross, Alastair. “Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases.” Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 18, no. 1, Jan. 2004, pp. 229-245. Print.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. Belknap Press, 1999. Print.

Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. University of California Press, 2004. Print.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.

Streumer, Bart. Unbelievable Errors: An Error Theory About All Normative Judgments. Oxford University Press, 2017. Print.

Wedgwood, Ralph. “Must Rational Intentions Maximize Utility?” Philosophical Explorations, vol. 20, no. 2, 2017, pp. 73-92. Print.

van Roojen, Mark. Metaethics: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge, 2015. Print.


Plato's Criticisms of Socrates

Plato offers a number of subtle criticisms of Socrates throughout his corpus. Most of these consist in fairly minor challenges to how Socrates carries out his elenchtic project. The Gorgias, for instance, demonstrates Socrates' lack of rhetorical success. The Protagoras and Parmenides might suggest issues with Socrates' metaphysical and ethical theory. The Republic probably challenges Socrates' anti-democratic political ideology. All of these criticisms ̶ if they are criticisms at all ̶ are subtle and gentle. But there is one dialogue that is much crueler and much more fundamental in this respect. Plato's Cleitophon is a vicious attack on Socrates' elenchtic project as a whole. It shows Plato wrestling with his mentor's example and inadequacy while also overcoming these difficulties. It is in response to the criticisms laid out in the Cleitophon that Plato has crafted not only his philosophy but Philosophy per se. Understanding Plato's criticisms of Socrates, and especially the Cleitophon, is therefore a metaphilosophical exercise as well as a historical one.

The Cleitophon begins with an insulted and betrayed Socrates confronting his student:

"Cleitophon, son of Aristonymos, we have been told recently that while having relations with Lysias, you have been criticising the time you've spent discussing with Socrates and fawning over your intercourse with Thrasymachus" (406a).

Don't let the sexual language be lost on you. Socrates really is accusing Cleitophon of cheating on him. And Cleitophon doesn't take this lightly: he spends the remainder of the dialogue breaking up with his old mentor, praising him for what he does well and criticising him for his shortcomings.

But Cleitophon is also doing something else. He is giving his own apology, much like that of Socrates. This is the reason for Socrates' use of his own name in the third person and the first person plural in his accusation despite being alone with Cleitophon. He is charging Cleitophon not only with cheating on him as a teacher but with a crime against the state. Recall what Socrates claims about his own activities in his Apology:

"This is certainly what the god has commanded of me, and my service to the god is, I believe, the greatest blessing that can be bestowed upon a city, for I make it my business to do nothing but exhort the young and old amongst you to care for the optimal state of your soul as much as or more than your body or wealth" (30a-b).

He repeats this sentiment later on:

"Men of Athens, I am certainly not making a defense of my own accord, which could be thought: I am making a defense on yours. By condemning me, you are mistreating a gift from the god. It is this error that I want to prevent . . . For I believe that the god attached me to the city for some purpose, I will never fail to provoke and inspire you, to persuade and challenge each and every one of you in whose presence I find myself at any time and in any place" (30d-e).

The idea is simple: by denying Socrates, Cleitophon is likewise denying his service to the city. And here there are a few autobiographical details to mention that count against Cleitophon. We of course don't know whether Cleitophon really ever followed Socrates. But we do know that he was an influential politician during the political tumult at the end of the Peloponnesian War. He was an ally of Anytus, first in favour of the oligarchic rule of four hundred but later against this, leading to Aristophanes' description of him as an opportunist, "more clever than wise" (Nails 285). This all culminates in Cleitophon's role in the Republic as a thoroughgoing normative relativist. None of this would endear him to much of Plato's democratic or philosophical audience. Yet Cleitophon attempts to defend himself.

He begins by denying the charges. He says that he did criticise Socrates for some things, but he also praised him. He wants to avoid hurting Socrates, who is pretending not to feel hurt, by telling him himself what he said in order to improve his now former mentor. His subsequent speech can then be broken into two parts. The first half praises Socrates and the second half criticises him. The structure is the same structure employed consistently by Socrates in his hortatory speeches, and the overall themes are thoroughly Socratic despite concluding in a very anti-Socratic manner.

For my purposes here, the first half of the speech is uninteresting. It details Socrates' commitment to exhorting others to care about justice and the state of their soul. But for Cleitophon, this isn't good enough. He relays to Socrates questions he asked of Socrates' other followers and of Socrates himself:

"Men of highest esteem, I ask: what should we think about Socrates' exhorting us to virtue?  Should we think that there is nothing else than this exhortation and that it is impossible to pursue the matter further and understand it fully? Should this be our life-long purpose, simply to exhort men who have not been exhorted so that they themselves can exhort others? We may agree that this is what we should do, should we also ask Socrates and each other what comes next? How do we say we should begin to learn about justice" (408d-e)?

The answers that Cleitophon received to this question were unsatisfactory, both from Socrates' followers and from Socrates himself. Socrates, as it happens, gave Cleitophon the answer that Polemarchus will give him in the Republic, possibly suggesting their closer connection. But that answer is there and here found to be inadequate for the same reason, and it says nothing in the Cleitophon itself that Socrates knows what justice really is, especially since we do not know whether what Socrates says in the Republic is what the real Socrates believed (and likewise what he says in the Cleitophon).

Cleitophon says that he endured this ultimate vacuity "for quite some time," and was thereafter forced to one of two conclusions: either Socrates is capable of praising justice without knowing what justice is, or he knows justice but does not wish to share his knowledge of it. It is here that most commentators jump off the train. The usual response is that Plato cannot be criticising Socrates, so there must be an implicit answer to Cleitophon in the dialogue. Usually that answer consists in Socrates embodying justice by exhorting others to justice. Justice, on this view, just consists in making others care about justice. Another response is to suggest that the Cleitophon is unfinished, with Plato intending Socrates to answer Cleitophon's criticism. And another further is to deny that Plato was the author of the Cleitophon at all. All of these responses are inadequate. Committing to justice being no more than exhorting others to justice is obviously inadequate and inconsistent with Plato's life and corpus. The dialogue concludes naturally given how it began. A defense of this sort need not beg a response, after all, just as Socrates' defense does not receive a response in the Apology. And finally, the stylistic and thematic evidence strongly suggests that Plato was the author of the dialogue, even if it seems odd for him to be criticising his mentor. We need a better reason to deny authorship than that our cherished view of a philosopher is inconsistent with the evidence of his writings. On those grounds, Lakatos must not have been a spy who destroyed the careers of many of his peers and Frege must not have written about Jewish conspiracies.

So we must conclude that the Cleitophon is an authentic criticism of Socrates by Plato. But Plato's criticism is more than just what Cleitophon says. Here the sexual language returns. One does not break up with a person after praising him so greatly. One breaks up with someone because one has found another who provides one with what was missing in the preceding relationship. And with Cleitophon, he found that in Thrasymachus. For Plato's audience, this is a dangerous and detestable eventuality. Most Athenians do not end up in Thrasymachus's influence, but Socrates' exhortation to virtue and lack of follow-through drove Cleitophon there.

Cleitophon offers Socrates a way to change that, a way to get Cleitophon back: "If you were willing to refrain from exhorting me, but instead, willing to do what follows exhortation . . . do that now" (410d-e). Socrates can say nothing. And hence Socrates is not merely an impediment to virtue, as Cleitophon concludes: He is actively harmful to it. Ultimately, Cleitophon gets his revenge on Socrates through his political allies: he was executed for corrupting the youth just like he corrupted him. Plato must have believed this to be a great evil, and Socrates was not blameless in this. He did not take care to keep the end in mind when he conversed, and that is something that philosophy must do. Philosophy must take care to identify what precisely virtue is while it inspires concern in others for it.

Works Cited

Plato, CleitophonAll translations are my own.

Plato, Apology.

Nails, Debra. The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics. Hackett Publishing Company (Indianapolis, IN). 2002: 285. Print.


Śrīharṣa’s Master Argument Against Difference

The Advaita Vedānta tradition is one of the most popular and influential Indian philosophical systems. The best translation of the Sanskrit word advaita is “non-dual.” The thesis of Advaita is that reality is at bottom non-dual, that is, devoid of multiplicity. Advaita recognizes that our everyday experience presents us with of a plurality of objects, but maintains that the belief that plurality and difference are fundamental features of the world is mistaken. The ultimate nature of reality is undifferentiated Being. Not being something, but Being itself – Pure Being. The phenomenal world, in which we experience Being as separate beings is not ultimately real. It is constructed by avidya – ignorance of the true nature of reality. We are beings alienated from Being, and true liberation lies in ending this alienation.

One of the reasons offered by Advaitins for accepting these claims is that they form the most plausible and coherent interpretation of the Upanishads – scriptures accepted as being a reliable source of knowledge. But this will hardly convince someone who does not already acknowledge the authority of the Upanishads. Here, the strategy of Advaita philosophers has typically been to go on the offensive and argue that the very notion of “difference” or “separateness” is in some sense conceptually incoherent. The arguments for this claim were first formally compiled by the 5th century philosopher Maṇḍana Miśra. Subsequent philosophers in the Advaita tradition further developed, defended and extended these arguments. In this essay, I will briefly go over the master argument against difference presented by the twelfth century philosopher Śrīharṣa in his magnum opus, Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya (“The Sweets of Refutation”).

Śrīharṣa begins his inquiry by asking what “difference” really is. He identifies four possible answers to this question:

  1. Difference is the intrinsic nature of objects.
  2. Difference consists in the presence of distinct properties in objects.
  3. Difference consists in the mutual non-existence of properties in objects.
  4. Difference is a special property of objects.

Śrīharṣa considers each option in turn, and finds them all untenable.

The claim that difference is the intrinsic nature of objects is rejected because difference is necessarily relational. To state that bare difference is the nature of X is to utter something meaningless. At best, we can say that difference-from-Y is the intrinsic nature of X. However, this raises another problem. To describe the intrinsic nature of X is to describe what X is in and of itself, independent of anything else.  In contrast, the very notion “difference-from-Y” indicates a dependence on Y. We have arrived at a contradiction: if X has an intrinsic nature that is parasitic on the nature of Y, then it follows that X doesn’t really have an intrinsic nature.

Śrīharṣa offers a subsidiary argument to drive home the implausibility of the view that that difference is the intrinsic nature of an object. Consider a blue object and a yellow object. An object that is blue by its very nature does not depend on the yellowness of the other object. Even if all the yellow objects in the world were to disappear, the blue object would still be blue. But this could not be the case if difference-from-yellow-objects was the intrinsic nature of the blue object.

According to the second definition of difference, X is different Y if distinct properties are present in X and Y. X and Y can be any two objects, but we may use Śrīharṣa’s example: A pot is different from a cloth because the property potness is present in the pot, while the property clothness is present in the cloth. But this raises an obvious question: what makes potness different from clothness? The answer cannot be (1) – that is, that difference is the very nature of potness and clothness – because that view has already been refuted. If we answered the question with (2), then we would end up saying that what makes potness different from clothness is that potness is itself possesses a property that clothness does not. We would have to maintain that potness-ness is present in potness, and clothness-ness is present in cloth-ness. Even if we ignore the oddness of properties being present in other properties, we can raise another question: What makes potness-ness different from clothness-ness? This series of questions could go on indefinitely, generating an infinite regress. Hence, this option is unsatisfactory. 

Śrīharṣa considers the possibility that difference consists in the mutual non-existence of properties in objects. According to this view, what makes a pot different from a cloth is the absence of potness in the cloth, and the absence of clothness in the pot. But much like before, this raises the question of what makes potness different from clothness. It cannot be (1) or (2), because they have already been refuted. If we bring up (3) here, we would have to say that what makes potness different from clothness is the absence of potness-ness in clothness, and the absence of clothness-ness in potness. At this point, much like before, we could ask what makes potness-ness different from clothness-ness. Once again, we are left with an infinite regress.

This brings us to the final option: that difference is a special property of an object. According to this view, difference-from-Y is itself an attribute of X. But if difference-from-Y is an attribute of X, then difference-from-Y is not X itself, but something different from X. This entitles us to ask what makes the attribute difference-from-Y different from X. It cannot be (1), (2) or (3), so it must be (4). This would mean that it must be another attribute that makes difference-from-Y different from X. But then this attribute itself would be different from both X and difference-from-Y, which simply raises the same question. One more, we see an infinite regress looming.

Having rejected all four possibilities, Śrīharṣa concludes that the very notion of difference is incoherent, and so it cannot be a true feature of the world. A typical reaction to Śrīharṣa’s arguments is that there must be something wrong with them – indeed, something obviously wrong with them. But it isn’t necessarily straightforward to identify what exactly it is. One could question whether Śrīharṣa really has considered all the possible options, whether some of these options really lead to an infinite regress, and finally, whether an infinite regress is something to be worried about. Philosophers from rival traditions adopted all these approaches. Śrīharṣa and his successors anticipated and responded to a number of these objections. They also modified and extended the arguments against difference to more specific cases, to show that differentiating cause and effect, moments in time, and subject and object, were all impossible. For a thorough examination of Śrīharṣa’s critique of difference, Phyllis Granoff’s Philosophy and Argument in Late Vedānta is a good place to start.  

Remembrance in the Menexenus

Plato was not a member of the Greatest Generation, the generation that fought two great wars, the generation of Pericles and Themistocles, Thucydides and Nicias, and even of Socrates. But he's old enough to remember them. He knows from his youth what Athens was like at its peak, fortified and overflowing with wealth and prestige. But by the time he reached adulthood, the Delian league had evaporated, Sparta had torn down the long walls, and dismantled Athens' ships. Athens was a mere shadow of what it once was. And Athenians paid the price, including wealthy aristocrats like Plato. By all accounts, they were a lesser generation. They weren't as bold or just or wealthy. They didn't have the prestige that their fathers commanded. They were sorely lacking in resources and in opportunity. And they had to struggle with all this in the shadow of the Greatest Generation that preceded them.

In short, Plato was a millennial. We too, as I write, are faced with the same situation that Plato was. And today [Nov. 11th] we are asked to Remember. We are asked to remember the sacrifices of that Greatest Generation in its battle against tyrannical forces abroad so that we might grow and live in free and prosperous nations. But they were ultimately unsuccessful. And so too were Plato's forefathers.

So how shall we Remember? What, truly, do we owe to the Greatest Generation? In Plato's Menexenus, he gives us an answer.

The Menexenus consists of three major sections: an introduction to Aspasia's speech, the first part of Aspasia's speech, and the second part of Aspasia's speech. That Aspasia's speech has these two parts is important in understanding its point and to a greater extent also Plato's. It is the ironic contrast between them that gives the speech its force.

Aspasia's speech begins with a history of Athens from the Persian Wars through the Peloponnesian War to the war against Corinth that the speech is memorialising. The major thread is easy to see: Athens was a powerful and noble polis who fought for the freedom of the Greeks not only against barbarians but also against other Greeks. This would not be an uncommon theme in these kinds of memorial speeches in honour of Athenian war dead. What makes this speech unique and valuable is the second part.

The speech ends with a report of what the war dead themselves should like to say to the audience were they able to speak. These war dead are of Plato's generation. They live in the shadow of their fathers who fought in the Peloponnesian War, but they are making the best of what they have. They begin by addressing their sons: "Sons," they say, "our present condition shows that you are born of courageous fathers" (246d). This is no hyperbole. These men were victims of hard terrain and treason in battles that they ultimately won. This virtue gives them some clout with regards with what they go on to say. Specifically, the war dead attempt to exhort their sons, fathers, and their city to virtue. They say that they "believe that no one who brings disrepute on his own family truly lives at all and that he has no friends, man or god, on Earth or below it" (246d).They continue:

"You must remember our words and do everything in partnership with valor, without which all possessions and all actions are shameful and base . . . When sundered from the noble and just, even knowledge most certainly cannot be wisdom but seems rogue and villainous. Endeavour, therefore, for all time from the first to the last to surpass–most fervently, in merit and in worth–we who came before. And if you fail, if we stand above you, ennobled and great, our victory is truly our most shameful defeat. But if you overcome, this defeat is then our joyous victory (246d-247a)."

This is the condition of success, but also the consequence of failure. If one fails to make one's progeny better off than he was, he is no friend of man or god either while one lives or after one has died. This sentiment is repeated in Plato with some frequency, such as in the Lysis with regards to friendship, and the Gorgias on the responsibilities of political leaders. But here, it takes a different, more sombre tone. For as the war dead go on to say while consoling their fathers and mothers still living, "That mortal man has everything in his life turn out as he wishes is no easy feat (247d)." One may have friends among men or gods due to matters ultimately beyond his control. For all his best efforts, he may never accomplish anything of any real value.

And as Plato's generation makes clear, exactly this happened in the history of Athens. The Greatest Generation of Athens was powerless to stop the decline of their city and the welfare of their children. And so too was the fate of these men being memorialised by Aspasia's speech. The decline and fall of Athens was imminent and unavoidable. The present condition of Athens reveals something quite different than that Athenians were sons of courageous men. The war dead themselves must believe themselves to be shameful. They have not improved their city; they have been conquered by it and left it debased and wicked. Athens' great heroes have all been failures.

So we return once again: what, truly, do we owe those men who fought and sacrificed for our city? What is the purpose of our Remembrance? Now we return to the first part of Aspasia's speech. The Greatest Generation may have been misguided and inadequate, but they truly tried, and they did accomplish something. If it weren't for their sacrifice, they would have been enslaved by the Persians or by the Spartans. There may even have been no Athens at all. But for their courage and their wisdom, the Greatest Generation did preserve a home for their children, even if that home was ultimately worse for wear. And indeed, our own Greatest Generation, that who fought the Nazis and who stood ready against the incursions of other tyrannical forces, mirrors the old. Our own Greatest Generation preserved our homes, even if they are more precarious and more vulnerable than they ever were before.

So what do we owe to the Greatest Generation?  We of course owe them thanks. But even more importantly, we owe them forgiveness for their vices and their inadequacies. We owe them the knowledge that despite their failures, they still have friends amongst gods and men.

[This post was originally published Nov. 11, 2017]

Works Cited:

Plato, Menexenus, all translations are my own.

Is Plato a Platonist?

Plato is obviously best known for the metaphysical view that bears his name. Are we wrong to make this association? What if Plato isn't actually a Platonist? How could we make this determination? And what affect might this have on our interpretation of the dialogues?

Before I get into the meat and potatoes, I have to mention one small issue. Platonism, specifically capital P Platonism, is a squirrely position. It's inherently linked to Plato as a character; Platonism is what Plato actually believed. There is a Platonism in metaphysics. There is a Platonism in aesthetics. There is a Platonism in ethics. There is a Platonism in pretty well every philosophical discipline. But in general, we aren't certain what that might be and if we ask whether Plato is a Platonist in this sense, the answer is trivial. That doesn't help matters, so we should try a different strategy.

So what's at stake? Why does it matter whether Plato is a Platonist or not? Of course, most people might think that it wouldn't. I want to believe that. But I'm afraid that Plato's own position is importantly central to how we interpret the dialogues and hence understand Plato's project. If we as readers are supposed to get something out of a given dialogue, we should try to figure out what Plato actually wants to give us, and that thing might differ quite substantially if we begin the dialogue thinking that Plato is committed to Platonism or otherwise.

Consider the Republic. It's the typical source for Plato's Platonism. It contains some of the basic arguments and analogies, all in the context of a largely anti-democratic political conversation. Given that Plato wrote this dialogue, we might immediately be justified in thinking that Plato is in fact a Platonist. To hold this view, however, is to be committed to some questionable interpretations of Plato's life and of the setting and plot of the dialogue itself. Josiah Ober, for instance, claims that Plato cowered away from the difficult life of Socrates and retreated to the Academy to practice philosophy in isolation (Ober 1998). He grew and maintained his household alone, free from the fetters of democratic politics. But none of this is strictly true. Plato certainly did spend a large amount of time teaching and discussing philosophy at the Academy, but he also engaged life as a fairly normal Athenian, but for being one known for his wisdom and his justice. He served in several Athenian military expeditions. He chastised his fellow citizens for gambling and for drinking excessively. He sponsored dramas in the public theatres. He defended friends in court, even at the threat of peril. As Diogenes Laertius tells us, when Plato was threatened that "the hemlock of Socrates awaits [him]," he replied: "As I faced dangers when serving in the cause of my country, so I will face them now in the cause of duty for a friend" (Diogenes Laertius).

Ober's interpretation of the Republic's setting and plot is likewise mistaken. The dialogue begins with Socrates and Glaucon returning to Athens from the Piraeus before being accosted by a group led by Polemarchus, who demand that they accompany them to a new festival in the Piraeus. Socrates initially resists, but is met with a democratic injunction that he and Glaucon must join them for Polemarchus's group is larger and hence stronger. Socrates contends that the larger group can be persuaded, but Polemarchus responds that persuasion cannot be effective if he refuses to listen.

So far so good. But from here on, Ober errs quite significantly. He recalls that this was the same difficulty that Socrates faced in the Gorgias. Socrates, despite having the stronger argument, could not convince Callicles to renounce his love of the demos because Gorgias refused to listen. So the Republic was playing on that parallel. Here was Socrates once again threatened by the strength of the many who refused to be persuaded towards justice. On Ober's accounting, Socrates responds with a kind of treachery. While debating with Thrasymachus, he objects to the latter's rhetorical style, saying that if he were to proceed with long speeches, they would require dikastai, or jurors, to adjudicate the victor. Instead, Socrates supposes, the victor shall be decided internally. And hence Cephalus's house becomes a sealed, hermetic society free from the influence of the democratic polis.

This is all wrong. Socrates was not escaping the democratic polis in Cephalus's house: he was embracing it. Cephalus was a good democrat, an opponent of the Thirty Tyrants, who lived in the Piraeus, a democratic stronghold. If Socrates means to escape the democrats, he has ventured to the wrong place. Socrates has willingly ventured into the lion's den. For what reason? To improve the democrats, to make them listen. And he did this with democratic ideals in mind. The elenchtic style of Socrates' questioning is democratic, and so too are the principles that he uses to refute Thrasymachus. Indeed, the sheer act of building a city in speech is democratic.[1] The Republic was not a counter to the democracy but a realisation of its highest ideals. It's just that to the democrat, this eventuality is ghastly and vile. No good democrat would support Socrates' city. It is antithetical to democracy itself.

And this is perhaps Plato's point here: the Republic is not an alternative to the democracy but a reductio of it just as Socrates refuted Callicles in the Gorgias by proposing the kinnaidos as a reductio of his view. This strategy occurs again and again in Plato's corpus, but we don't think that Plato really supported the kinnaidos's insatiety, so why do we think that Plato supported the polis built on words in the Republic? Indeed, it was Plato's commitment to the democracy that forced him to improve the minds and the virtues of its democrats by means of writing. After all, Plato was widely published and more widely read by his Athenian counterparts, and one might think that these democrats would scarcely hold such an anti-democratic elitist in such high esteem. Yet they did.

So what does that mean for Plato's Platonism? Simple: we cannot be sure if Plato's arguments for his Platonism are made sincerely or ironically. If the Republic really is a reductio, how can we know whether Plato thinks that Platonism isn't just instrumental in shaping the democratic ideology? One answer could be that Plato elsewhere discusses Platonic metaphysics. But similar reinterpretations can be made in those places as well. We must then recite the common refrain: we simply cannot know what Plato believed. His dialogues actively prevent this. And maybe this was the point all along.


[1] There is a fairly significant tradition in Athenian drama of creating ideal cities. Aristophanes' Birds is probably the best example of this outside of the Republic. All of the extant examples are quite explicitly founded upon democratic principles, including the Republic.

Works Cited:

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers III.24.3-5

Ober, Josiah. Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1998: 214-240. Web.

How to Interpret Plato

Interpreting Plato is difficult work. It is made even more difficult with the strategy championed by Gregory Vlastos and commonly employed by Analytic philosophers. This strategy has three main commitments: (1) Plato's views are distinguished from those of Socrates, (2) both views are constructed on the basis of the arguments presented in Plato's dialogues, and (3) those arguments are interpreted with an eye to constructing a cohesive view for both philosophers. All three of these strategic commitments are problematic and hold us back from rightly understanding Plato's corpus.[1] And all three commitments are derived from the same basic oversight: Plato wrote dialogues to be read.[2]

Plato begot the tradition of Socratic dialogues as a medium for public debate. Artistic works such as tragedy and comedy were an important element of Athenian democracy. Poets were divinely inspired: the moral dilemmas presented in their works were given by the gods, and their lessons were taken seriously by the demos as a result. But by the end of the fifth century, Athens was declining. Devastating civil wars ravaged the city amid the Spartan victory in the Peloponnesian War and the subsequent dissolution of the Delian League, which provided Athens its wealth and its power.  The demos was hungry for change, and Plato, among others, was willing to bring it. He positioned philosophy as an alternative to tragedy and comedy. This is well known. But he also positioned it as continuous with these more dominant genres. It is this continuity that often goes ignored and is really at issue when we consider (1), (2), and (3). Let us turn to these commitments themselves, beginning with (1).

Plato is often denigrated as something of a scribe, someone who merely recorded the conversations of Socrates for posterity. This is what other Socratic dialogue writers purport to do. Xenophon, for instance, explicitly claims to present the conversations of Socrates as they really took place, according to what he and his sources could remember. Plato, however, was criticised for putting words in Socrates' mouth that he did not say.[3] This should be historically unsurprising since there was at least a decade between Socrates' death and the publication of Plato's first dialogue. Surely Plato would have forgotten the precise wording of Socrates' conversations. But so too would have Xenophon and the other writers of Socratic dialogues. What seems more likely is that the critique is not merely pedantic but principled. It is known that Socrates didn't say what Plato wrote because Socrates couldn't have said those things. Socrates' opinion differed from what Plato presented in a way that would have been well known to Socrates' followers. So what, then, is going on? The answer is pretty simple given the history of Athenian poetry more generally. Socrates was a caricature in Plato's dialogues just as he was in Aristophanes' Clouds. Everyone knew who he was and some general features of his personality and his life. But more importantly, Socrates was well known to have been sentenced to death in 399, and by the time of Plato's writing, this was a matter of severe public guilt. Plato was no doubt inspired by his teacher, but he also capitalised on the facts surrounding his life and his death for his own ends. And hence the picture that Plato gives of Socrates may not be a faithful one. It need only be close enough for his audience to recognise the character as Socrates the wandering questioner. So how then can we on the basis of Plato's dialogues distinguish between Plato's view and Socrates'? Quite obviously, we cannot.

The method that Vlastos and others appeal to to make that distinction is to evaluate the arguments presented in the dialogue and all of their various entailments. This method generates two significant questions, one of which we shall leave until we discuss (3). Nowhere does Plato come out and say "I, Plato, will argue for such and such in the following way." It is left up to the audience to interpret what Plato means by presenting any given dialogue in the way that he has, and in many cases, it is precisely what is not said and not argued that is important for understanding a given dialogue. Perhaps the best example of this is the Meno. The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates "Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way?" Here we have four possible sources of virtue: teaching, practice, nature, or something else. In the succeeding discussion, Socrates and Meno consider three possibilities: teaching, nature, and the gods. They end up with a hesitant commitment to the gods as the source of virtue. Yet throughout there are allusions to tasks commonly learned by practice, and its absence among consideration is conspicuous, especially given the orthodoxy of the period. This of course does not mean that Plato believed that practice is the source of virtue. It means only that Plato is clear on the inadequacy of the discussion and is pointing it out to his audience. Focusing only on the arguments of the Meno, however, would miss this possibility entirely. It would lead one to believe that Plato truly did believe that knowledge is recollection and that virtue is given by the gods. That may be the case, but it is far from certain, and Vlastos's method doesn't clear up the matter.

One way that Vlastos tries to clear up various ambiguities in Plato's arguments is by committing himself to demonstrating that a given argument is consistent with other arguments elsewhere. He constructs Socrates' and Plato's positions as coherent wholes that manifest themselves in the arguments of Plato's dialogues. Each dialogue then gives a piece of the overall whole that Plato's audience must then hold together to understand what Plato seeks to show them. The difficulty of doing so should be sufficient to demonstrate the ridiculousness of this commitment. Holding all of Plato's works in one's head is difficult enough for specialists, let alone for Plato's Athenian audience reading a dialogue before all of them had even been written. There of course may be some relationship between some dialogues. There was some speculation by Hellenistic commentators, for instance, that Plato presented his dialogues as tetrologies like the tragedians did.[4] But aside from that, no one of Plato's audience would be expected to understand how the dialogue he is reading fits into Plato's broader view. This might be expected of Plato's students, but the dialogues were published beyond the academy, and purposely so. As Steven Robinson points out, if Plato was simply writing for his students, he would have no reason to do so (Robinson 2013). These students are philosophers themselves, and they know better that philosophy is no threat to the polis. What matters, on the other hand, is the opinion of the demos, and it is that which Plato seeks to change. And he can't do that if the demos must first read and comment on everything that Plato has written and will write. (3) completely misses the point of Plato's writing. Maybe we can find something common amongst Plato's corpus as a whole, but this would be no help at all in understanding the point of any single dialogue. The really important interpretative work demands that we understand the individual dialogues, not Plato personally. And to this end, there is no reason why there can't be ten Platos or ten Socrateses in ten different dialogues.

So how do we interpret Plato? Ultimately, I don't know. But I do know that we can't do it like we tend to do now. We have to treat Plato's dialogues as dialogues. They are not essays in analytic philosophy: we cannot mine them for their arguments and be sated by those alone. We have to consider the traditions that influenced Plato. We have to understand his audience. We have to weigh what has been said against what has not. We have to admit the possibility of irony and satire and other dramatic tropes. All this is what makes Plato so difficult, but also so engaging and persistently rewarding.


[1] This is important for more than merely historical interest. I shall save a full demonstration of this for another time. Briefly, however, when we ask about how to rightly do philosophy, what philosophical methods are appropriate or otherwise, we must defer to what philosophy itself is for. This kind of functional demand can only be decided by looking to the foundations of philosophy and to the problems that it was established to solve. Plato happens to be the centrepiece of those foundations.

[2] There is some dispute about whether Plato's dialogues were performed. There is good reason to believe that they were, at least in some respect, but they need not have been in order to support the general appeal to the public upon which my account relies.

[3] This criticism is specifically about the Lysis, an early dialogue of peripheral import.

[4] Diogenes Laertius considers this rather plausible but attributes the hypothesis to earlier commentators.

Works Cited:

Robinson, Steve. "Plato in the Crito" in Jonathon Lavery, Louis Groarke, and William Sweet [eds.], Ideas Under Fire: Historical Studies of Philosophy and Science in Adversity, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Madison, WI), 2013: 37-65. Print. 

What Makes Teleology Immanent?

There are two broad ways to conceive of the metaphysics of teleology. Teleology may be dispositional or it may be axiological. These two kinds of teleology are distinguished by the source of the teleological relation. If teleology is dispositional, some item i has some end e in virtue of some metaphysical or explanatory relationship between i and e. This is the kind of teleology that philosophers of science such as Hempel, Braithwaite, Wiener, and Wright had in mind.[1] If teleology is axiological, on the other hand, i has e in virtue of some value that e instantiates. Axiological teleology is far more common in the literature, stretching through history from the Ancients to contemporary metaethics, epistemology, et cetera.

For e to be immanent in i, e must be in some way contained in or determined solely by i. That is, i must be autotelic. This means different things for dispositional teleology than it does for axiological teleology, however. Let's begin with the former. If i has some immanent disposition to realise e, two conditions must obtain: (1) there must be something about i that reliably picks out e, and (2) e explains i. If only (1) obtains, there is no teleology. It is at best efficient or formal causation. Essentially, this means that for any instance of immanent teleology, e makes i reliably pick out e. While this may sound crazy, there is no shortage of accounts that attempt to make this intelligible. The most common is Wright's account of teleology as causation by consequence, or what he calls consequence etiology. Wright's (explanatory) schema is as follows:

i is an element of some system s for the sake of e if and only if both s is disposed to satisfy e in virtue of i given some normal condition c and s was disposed to satisfy e in virtue of i given c in the past.

Both (1) and (2) above have representatives in Wright's schema. (2) here is self-consciously framed in terms of evolutionary adaptation. This need not be strictly biological, but biological evolution is the core of the account. Insofar as this is the case, however, there is a clear bait and switch. e here is not the end of i (ei) but the end of s (es). ei is not properly explanatory in any adaptation; i may be disposed to realise ei, but ei alone gives no reason for why i should be an element of s. For instance, it might be nice for spiders to have wings so they can fly. But they have no need for flight given the niche they occupy. The ability to fly is not sufficient for explanation. Rather, ei must contribute to es and hence the latter bears the explanatory and metaphysical significance. And this means that i is not autotelic. Rather, e is transcendent of i.[2] The same pattern occurs for every known account of immanent dispositional teleology and seems to follow immediately from (2).

Axiological immanent teleology faces the same fate, though in a much more interesting way. If e is immanent in i then three conditions must be met: (3) e is valuable with respect to i, (4) i has some duty to obtain the value that e provides because e is valuable for i, and (5) e explains i. (5) here is of course familiar to us as the problematic condition in dispositional teleology, and one might think that it would be problematic here too. But this is not necessarily the case. It is common in the history of philosophy to suggest that existence is more valuable than non-existence. If this is the case, then the value that e provides might be sufficient to explain i, even if the value is value for i alone. I suspect that the ultimate fate of this strategy is no better than that of dispositional teleology, but there is at least a tradition here to give prima facie support. Rather, the fundamental problem arises here from (4). For (4) to obtain, i must in some way give itself a duty to obtain the value that e provides. But objects cannot have duties to themselves.[3] In a manner similar to Wittgenstein's private language argument and his comments concerning the standard metre, there is no distinction between the definition of a duty and the performance of it. Objects do not hold themselves accountable or even evaluate themselves in the performance of some duty. They merely act. To insist otherwise is to add some extra element to i that serves as the locus for evaluation. In this case, though, the value no longer belongs to i per se but to this evaluating part. The value of e loses its explanatory power in this way. So either axiological immanent teleology misses out on (4) (and subsequently also (3)) or it misses out on (5). In either case, axiological teleology cannot be immanent.

When we ask what makes teleology immanent, two options present themselves. But when neither can possibly obtain, we are forced to admit that immanent teleology does not obtain. This leaves us with only two options. Either there is no teleology at all or teleology is transcendent. I think that we should lean towards the latter.


[1] In practice, both Wiener and Wright ended up with accounts of axiological teleology despite their attempts to restrict themselves to bare dispositions. In the long run, this probably counts as evidence against a purely dispositional account of teleology. It seems that any moderately successful account of teleology has to import axiological considerations.

[2] Some philosophers have taken this to be sufficient to be a refutation of inflationary accounts of teleology per se and propose a deflationary account in their place: the teleology we see is an appearance generated by an objects causal role in a system and nothing more. In essence, this is the foundation of the dispute between causal role and selected effect accounts of functions in the philosophy of biology. Both types of accounts are confused about the relevant metaphysics.

[3] One might suggest the counterexample that people at least sometimes have duties to themselves. This is only possible because people are self-distinct. It is possible that one's definition of a duty is distinct from the performance of it. That is, people are not metaphysical simples. But this entails transcendence, not immanence.

The Tyranny of Morality

There are values, and they come in morally relevant and morally irrelevant varieties. The value of the tastiness of my espresso seems to be morally irrelevant. Promoting such a value is not to do something moral. Otherwise, sipping my coffee in the morning constitutes a moral act. However, some moral theories do not allow for this natural line of reasoning.

Any theory that takes the maximization of value to be a moral imperative will deny that there are morally irrelevant values. For example, a hedonistic act utilitarian will take the only intrinsic value to be pleasure. Everything else is valuable insofar as it promotes pleasure. Since the only duty we have on this form of utilitarianism is to maximize pleasure, that means that sipping my coffee this morning constituted a moral act. It was morally good that I drank coffee instead of water this morning, because the coffee was more pleasurable. In fact, I had a duty to drink coffee instead of water, as long as I was in a position to know that the former would be more pleasurable.

The problem I have with such a view is that it moralizes everything. We act in relation to perceived value or disvalue. When I engage in an action, I do it because I have some reason to, and that reason is typically because the action or consequence is valuable in some way. The same goes for avoiding actions because of their disvalue. But if our one moral duty is to maximize value, like pleasure, then all of our actions are moralized. Nearly every action we engage in can be criticized on moral grounds because it could have promoted more value than it did. Call this the tyranny of morality.

A moral theory is tyrannical when it moralizes everything. All of our actions ought to be in the service of the good, despite any of our plans, interests, or desires. So our actions are all morally relevant or have some moral weight to them, because they are all related to value in some way. I take this to be the real source of the common objection to forms of consequentialism that require value maximization. Such theories are far too demanding, as the objection goes. But the reason they are too demanding isn’t usually articulated, besides attempts at eliciting intuitions about demandingness. The reason these theories are too demanding is because they are tyrannical. They moralize all of our actions, because we are the sorts of creatures who act for reasons, and reasons are intimately related to values.

Non-Moral Values can Override Moral Values

There seem to be states of affairs in which an agent ought to act immorally to secure non-moral goods. Here is one example of such a state of affairs:

Suppose that Michelangelo had to steal the marble that he used to form David. There was no other way to secure the materials to construct his sculpture. Michelangelo noticed that there was a marble dealer who had excess marble that he planned on selling for a massive discount. It was obvious to Michelangelo that the marble dealer would not miss the excess marble, since it would not impact his profit margins in a significant way. However, that excess marble belongs to the dealer; he has property rights over the marble. So by taking the marble without paying, Michelangelo has violated the dealer’s property rights. In other words, he did something immoral. But by virtue of crafting David, Michelangelo has instantiated aesthetic value that seems to excuse or maybe even justify his theft.

It seems like Michelangelo ought to have stolen that excess marble in this situation. The aesthetic values instantiated by David seem to override the moral requirement not to steal from the marble dealer.

Potential responses that occur to me are:

1. Those aesthetic values are actually moral values as well.

2. Michelangelo ought not to have stolen the marble.

3. The aesthetic considerations don’t override the moral considerations because they are not comparable.

The first response is to affirm that morality is tyrannical, which I will discuss in a future post. In short, morality is tyrannical in this context if it does not allow for non-moral values, which are values that do not always have moral weight in decision making. The second response just denies that Michelangelo ought to have stolen from the marble dealer. Since this thought experiment is intended to elicit intuitions from people, it does not constitute an argument in favor of the thesis that Michelangelo ought to have stolen the marble. However, for those who find the thought experiment convincing, they will need an argument for why their elicited intuitions are mistaken. So proponents of the second response need an argument for why the property rights of the marble dealer override the concerns of Michelangelo.

The third response is the most promising, and I will discuss comparability of values in later posts. For now, I will say that it seems like you can compare courses of action that would either instantiate moral values or aesthetic values in terms of whether or not the outcomes are on par. If two outcomes are on par, then it seems to me that the agent making the decision is free to go in either direction. So there seems to be at least some sense in which different kinds of values can be compared (which is not to deny that there are other senses as well).

Let me know what you think of the thought experiment and if I missed any promising responses to it in the comments below.

An Introduction to Moral Internalism

When somebody recognizes that some action is morally wrong, then that person is usually motivated to avoid engaging in that action. The same thing seems to go for people recognizing that something is morally obligatory and being motivated to pursue it. It’s a phenomenon that we are probably all familiar with: Morality and motivation to act or avoid acting are closely connected. In contemporary metaethics, the nature of the connection between morality and motivation is a hotly debated subject. Internalists view it as necessary, while externalists view it as contingent. What’s even more interesting, however, is that this same debate strongly resembles other debates in meta-ethics; and because of this, all of those debates can rightfully be lumped together under the label of “internalism vs. externalism.” In this post, I will explore these various debates, and give examples of views that fall under various internalist labels.

Relevant Definitions:

The internalism vs. externalism debates in contemporary metaethics concern the nature of the connection between reasons, motivation, moral truths and/or facts, and moral judgment [1]. Internalism in meta-ethics, broadly construed, takes the nature of the connection between these various things to be necessary. As we’ll see, however, when we combine these things, very different kinds of connections emerge. Before creating the taxonomy, then, we should define the various relata.

Motivation in meta-ethics concerns being moved to act or avoid. On one hand, a person is motivated to avoid X if that person is usually moved to act in a way that is not X. Being motivated to avoid cigarette smoking is to usually be moved to do something other than smoking cigarettes in situations where one has the opportunity to smoke cigarettes. On the other hand, one is motivated to do something just if one usually does it. It’s best to add the “usually” clause, because sometimes I can be motivated to do something yet not do it due to weakness of the will [2]. I may be motivated to quit smoking cigarettes, but other factors outweigh the motivating force of quitting such that I don’t actually quit. So, at least in some standard cases that don’t involve morality, motivation is what’s called defeasible [3]. To be defeasibly motivated is to be moved to act in normal circumstances, and abnormal circumstances like akrasia defeat the motivational force.

Reasons can be understood as things that explain intentional action, and subsequently makes it rational. To say that I intentionally went to my car and started it up is to commit one to the claim that I had some reason(s) to go to my car and start it up. Another way of understanding this is by examining unintentional results of action. If I intentionally reach my arm across the table to grab the salt, and in the process I knock my wine glass over, I did not intentionally knock over my wine glass. My unintentional knocking over of the wine glass does not require reasons to explain it; instead, it can be explained by my clumsiness. Like motivation, reasons can be defeasible or indefeasible. A defeasible reason for action may be defeated by other reasons. So, I may have a reason to buy cigarettes, but it’s defeasible insofar as I have a better reason not to smoke.

Moral truth can be understood as truth-bearers with moral content having obtaining truth conditions. Propositions about moral facts, for instance, corresponding to actual states of affairs involving obtaining moral facts would constitute moral truth. Moral facts, then, are obtaining states of affairs involving moral properties like goodness, badness, rightness, and wrongness [4].

Judgment is fairly straightforward. To judge that something is the case is to sincerely commit oneself to some state of affairs obtaining by virtue of expressing a proposition that represents that state of affairs. So, to judge that it’s raining outside is to sincerely assert that it’s raining outside. It’s a bit more tricky in moral cases. If I said that moral judgment is just sincerely asserting that something obtains, then I would be committed to non-cognitivism entailing that one doesn’t make moral judgments. Since that seems false, a more neutral definition should be developed. Let’s just say that a moral judgment is some sort of psychological state that either commits one to some obtaining moral state of affairs or expresses some pro or con attitude towards some state of affairs, or expresses a commitment to some plan of action or set of norms. While that’s a cumbersome and unwieldy sentence, it characterizes moral judgment such that it begs no questions against various forms of non-cognitivism.

Judgment Internalism:

So, with our terminology in hand, let’s explore judgment internalism. Since internalism in meta-ethics involves a necessary connection between various relata, Judgment Internalism will be a thesis about the necessary connection between moral judgment and reasons or motivation.

Motivational Judgment Internalism (MJI) locates the connection between moral judgment and motivation. MJI asserts that sincere moral judgment is necessarily connected to motivation. A sincere moral judgment entails that the person making it is motivated in some sense.

There are two kinds of MJI: defeasible and indefeasible. Indefeasible MJI says that for all X, if X makes a sincere moral judgment that P, then X is motivated to do P [5]. On this formulation, any person who sincerely judges that they ought to do something, or that something is good, bad, right, or wrong, then that person is either motivated to pursue it or avoid it. Unlike the cigarettes example, though, Indefeasible MJI says that if one makes a moral judgment, then one is necessarily moved to act or avoid.

An example of Indefeasible MJI is any version of simple subjectivism that identifies moral properties with approval or disapproval of a particular agent. An agent S will sincerely judge that X is morally obligatory just if S approves of X, and if S approves of X then S is motivated to do X [6]. This is a form of Indefeasible MJI because any time that S judges that X is obligatory, that is the same as S approving of X. There is no clause that limits the set of sincere judgments that are necessarily connected to motivation like defeasible versions of judgment internalism.

Other examples of Indefeasible MJI are versions of non-cognitivism that analyze moral judgments as utterances that express certain pro or con attitudes towards certain actions and/or states of affairs. On those versions of non-cognitivism, for all X, if X makes a sincere moral judgment that P, then X has expressed a pro or con attitude towards P. Pro or con attitudes are just attitudes of approval or disapproval, so any person who sincerely expresses such an attitude is going to be motivated to avoid or pursue some state of affairs. Again, there is no defeasibility clause, so this is a form of Indefeasible MJI.

Defeasible MJI asserts that for all X, if X makes a sincere moral judgment that P, then X is usually motivated to do P. This version of MJI includes the “usually” clause found in the cigarettes example. The “usually” clause in this definition typically encodes a condition that requires X to be rational at the time of judging that P to be motivated to do P. The defeasibility of Defeasible MJI involves the possibility of sincere moral judgment without motivation, but they qualify cases like that with some sort of non-moral evaluative concept like rationality. So a person who makes such a judgment but isn’t moved to act is irrational; if she were rational, she would’ve been moved.

An example of Defeasible MJI is a form of group subjectivism that identifies moral properties with what a particular society or culture approves or disapproves of [7]. Since a particular member of a society may make a sincere moral judgment that doesn’t actually reflect what her society approves or disapproves of, she may not be motivated to act or avoid. The defeasibility is due to the possibility of any particular person being wrong about what her society approves or disapproves of. Any person can be misinformed about their society’s moral beliefs due to irrationality, bias, or just ignorance. So, on this view, an agent S will sincerely judge that X is morally obligatory just if S believes that her society approves of X. However, since S can be wrong about what her society approves of, it generates Defeasible MJI: If an agent S sincerely judges that P is morally wrong, and S knows that her society disapproves of P, then S is motivated to avoid P [8].

Reasons Judgment Internalism (RJI) is a less well explored topic. The position seems to be that if a person makes a sincere moral judgment that X is morally obligatory, then that person must have a reason to do X. So, if some particular person S has no reason to do X, then S cannot sincerely judge that X is morally obligatory. RJI could be motivated by adopting a narrow Humean view of reasons, where a person has a reason to do X just if she desires to do X. Combine narrow Humeanism about reasons with simple subjectivism, and you get Indefeasible RJI. S sincerely judges that X is morally obligatory just if S has a reason to do X. S desires to X, so S has a reason to do X. So, S sincerely judges that X is morally obligatory. Simple subjectivism combined with narrow Humeanism about reasons is just to identify moral properties with reasons. Since moral properties are constituted by what a particular person approves or disapproves of, and approval and disapproval can be thought of as constituted by desire to pursue or avoid, then it follows that moral properties are constituted by a particular person’s desire to avoid or pursue some action or state of affairs. Narrow Humeanism about reasons caps it off by identifying desires with reasons, creating a position that entails Indefeasible RJI. To generate a version of Defeasible RJI, replace “simple subjectivism” with “group subjectivism,” and mention that a particular member of a group could be wrong about what a group collectively desires.

Existence Internalism:

Existence Internalism (EI) concerns the necessary connection between the existence of moral facts/truths and reasons, motivation. Combining these relata generates three connections: moral facts/truths are connected to reasons, moral facts/truths are connected to motivation, and reasons are connected to motivation.

EI about moral facts/truths and reasons says that the existence of moral facts/truths entails facts about reasons. So, for instance, if X is a moral fact, then X is also a reason for action. A version of this view is entailed by simple subjectivism combined with narrow Humeanism about reasons. In short, if moral facts are constituted by a particular person’s attitudes towards certain states of affairs, and those relevant attitudes are constituted by desires, then moral facts are constituted by desires. Combine that with Humeanism to generate EI about moral facts and reasons, since moral facts are constituted by desires, and reasons are desires. You get a view that entails moral facts just are reasons. Indefeasible EI about moral facts/truths and reasons adds the proviso that moral facts always entail facts about reasons. So, if X is a moral fact, then X is a reason for S, no matter what. Defeasible EI, on the other hand, entails that X may fail or cease to be a reason for S, even if X is a moral fact.

EI about moral facts/truths and motivation says that the existence of moral facts/truths entails facts about motivation. If X is a moral fact, and S recognizes it as such, then S is motivated to do X. Indefeasible EI about moral facts/truths and motivation adds that whenever S recognizes X as a moral fact, S is motivated to do X. Defeasible EI, on the other hand, says that if S recognizes X as a moral fact, S is usually motivated to do X. The “usually” clause could be related to the rationality of S. So, if S is rational, S will do X is S recognizes it as a moral fact. The kinds of properties that this view would postulate are the ones targeted in one of Mackie’s Arguments from Queerness. In the spirit of Mackie, then, let’s use one of his examples: Plato’s Forms. The Good is the highest of all the forms in Plato’s system. The philosopher who recognizes The Good through the use of reason will necessarily be motivated to act in accordance with it. In short, the philosopher will be motivated to bring about states of affairs in the world that participate or partake in The Good.

Whether or not the defeasible/indefeasible distinction makes sense given Platonism is complicated. Since the philosopher is using reason to recognize The Good, she is going to be rational insofar as she recognizes it, so it seems as though it’s a form of indefeasible EI, since one cannot recognize The Good and fail to be motivated. Perhaps a defeasible form of EI could be some kind of moral non-naturalism that takes moral properties to be sui generis, motivating properties. If a person recognizes a moral fact, given that form of non-naturalism, she would be motivated to act just if she is rational. So, a person could recognize a moral fact yet fail to be motivated due to some sort of irrationality.

The last kind of externalism we’ll discuss is EI about reasons and motivation. This version of EI says that facts about reasons entail facts about motivation. If S has a reason to do X, then S is motivated to do X [9]. A classic form of this kind of EI is narrow Humeanism about reasons. Narrow Humeans identify reasons with some subclass of psychological states, such as desires. If somebody desires to do X, then that person has a reason to do X. Further, if one desires to do X, then one is motivated to do X. But if reasons just are desires, then if S has a reason to do X, S is motivated to do X. Identifying reasons with conative states is a simple way to generate EI about reasons and motivation. To generate an indefeasible version, one would need to add the clause that S’s conative states are transparent to her. To make it defeasible EI about reasons and motivation, eschew the transparency clause and allow for the possibility of irrationality. Perhaps S is unaware of her true desires, and is fooling herself about what she really wants. Maybe she thinks what she really wants out of life is to be rich, due to social pressures from her family. But what she really wants is to alleviate as much human suffering as she can. So, she may think she has good reasons to pursue a career in entertainment law or investment banking, but she really desires to do as much good as possible, so she actually has good reasons to become a civil rights attorney [10].


We’ve examined several versions of internalism in meta-ethics. Some may be wondering why externalism wasn’t explained in this post. My reasons for not going into externalism here are i) I didn’t want to make an unwieldy post, and ii) externalism is the negation of internalism, so it’s just versions of everything I listed, plus the claim that the connections are contingent. There are more specific theses explaining the nature and reliability of the contingent connections, and perhaps those could be good material for future posts, but since they are conceptually connected to various, sophisticated positions in meta-ethics, going into them here would lead us too far astray.

Further Reading:

  1. SEP Entry on Moral Motivation

  2. Alex Miller (Intro): Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction

  3. William Frankena (History of the distinction): Obligation and Motivation in Recent Moral Philosophy

  4. W. D. Falk (History of the distinction): Obligation and Rightness

  5. W. D. Falk (History of the distinction): “Ought” and Motivation

  6. Philippa Foot (Classic statement of externalism): Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives

  7. Michael Smith (Contemporary internalism): The Moral Problem

  8. David O. Brink (Contemporary externalism): Moral Realism and the Foundations of Philosophy. 

  9. Mark van Roojen (Intro): Metaethics: A Contemporary Introduction. 


[1]. Facts and truth are different things, but for the purposes of this post the conflation is innocent. For those interested, an easy way to see the distinction is between ontology and semantics; facts are things that can appear in an ontology, whereas truth is a semantic notion about sentences and/or propositions.

[2]. The same holds for motivation to avoid something. Sometimes, in a situation where one has the opportunity to smoke a cigarette, one gives in to the temptation to smoke.

[3]. To assume that moral motivation is defeasible like motivation to quit smoking is to beg the question against various forms of indefeasible motivational internalism. So let’s stick to non-moral examples to illustrate the defeasible/indefeasible distinction.

[4]. Those properties could be non-moral yet still normative in other contexts, but for lack of a good shorthand, just imagine that when I speak of moral properties I mean something like moral goodness, moral badness, moral rightness, and moral wrongness.

[5]. Let P represent a generic “ought” claim like, “you ought to do X, and doing X won’t instantiate any moral badness that outweighs X’s goodness.”

[6]. As long as you add a clause that states that the relevant mental states are transparent to S.

[7]. Societies or cultures can’t approve or disapprove of anything; the people that constitute the societies or cultures do the approving and disapproving.

[8]. And condemn P, and condemn people that engage in P, etc.

[9]. If S recognizes that reason to do X.

[10]. Assuming she knows the best career path for her that could alleviate as much suffering as possible. Maybe she researched websites about altruistic career choice.

A Problem for Rights Absolutism

Rights absolutism is the view that rights violations are never morally permissible. There is no circumstance in which an agent can be morally justified in violating another agent’s rights. Rights absolutism contrasts with any view that allows for rights that can be overridden by other considerations. For example, we might have prima facie rights that can be outweighed by extreme consequences. On such a view it is permissible to steal my neighbor’s car to get my dying friend to a hospital to save her life if an ambulance cannot reach us in time. In doing so, I have violated my neighbor’s property rights over his car, but my action was permissible because my friend’s life is more important than my neighbor’s property rights over his car.

Rights absolutists cannot allow for such car theft to ever be morally permissible. So, there are no circumstances in which it is morally permissible to violate the rights of another agent. There is a problem with this view, though. If we grant rights absolutism, how do we justify the justice system? We are flawed, finite creatures who are not particularly good at figuring out the truth. That fact is reflected by our justice system. The innocence project has freed many innocent people. These people had their rights violated by our justice system. They were wrongfully imprisoned. However, this is an inevitability given our epistemic capabilities and the nature of institutionalized justice-seeking. So, a justice system run by us is going to inevitably violate some people’s rights. There is no way around it.

But it seems like we need a justice system. We cannot do without institutionalized justice-seeking. How does the rights absolutist reconcile this with the fact that any justice system we come up with will violate some people’s rights? The obvious way out is to argue that the benefits of our justice system outweigh the costs of the inevitable rights violations. But to claim that is to abandon rights absolutism. It seems like she must either explain how we could have a justice system in which nobody’s rights are violated, or argue that we do not need institutionalized justice-seeking. I’m unsure about the plausibility of either move.

Why Verificationism isn't Self-Refuting

In the early to mid Twentieth Century, there was a philosophical movement stemming from Austria that aimed to do away with metaphysics. The movement has come to be called Logical Positivism or Logical Empiricism, and it is widely seen as a discredited research program in philosophy (among other fields). One of the often repeated reasons that Logical Empiricism is untenable is that the criterion the positivists employed to demarcate the meaningful from the meaningless, when applied to itself, is meaningless, and therefore it refutes itself. In this post, I aim to show that the positivists’ criterion does not result in self-refutation.

Doing away with metaphysics is a rather ambiguous aim. One can take it to mean that we ought to rid universities of metaphysicians, encourage people to cease writing and publishing books and papers on the topic, and adjust our natural language such that it does not commit us to metaphysical claims. Another method of doing away with metaphysics is by discrediting it as an area of study. Logical Positivists saw the former interpretation of their aim as an eventual outgrowth of the latter interpretation. The positivists generally took their immediate goal to be discrediting metaphysics as a field of study, and probably hoped that the latter goal of removing metaphysics from the academy would follow.

Discrediting metaphysics can be a difficult task. The positivists’ strategy was to target the language used in expressing metaphysical theses. If the language that metaphysicians employed was only apparently meaningful, but underneath the surface it was cognitively meaningless, then the language of metaphysics would consist of meaningless utterances. Cognitive meaning consists of a statement being truth-apt, or having truth conditions. If a statement isn’t truth-apt, then it is cognitively meaningless, but it can serve other linguistic functions besides assertion (e.g. ordering somebody to do something isn’t truth-apt, but it has a linguistic function).

If metaphysics is a discourse that purports to be in the business of assertion, yet it consists entirely of cognitively meaningless statements, then it is a failure as a field of study. But how did the positivists aim to demonstrate that metaphysics is a cognitively meaningless enterprise? The answer is by providing a criterion to demarcate cognitively meaningful statements from cognitively meaningless statements.

The positivists were enamored with Hume’s fork, which is the distinction between relations of ideas and matters of fact, or, in Kant’s terminology, the analytic and the synthetic. The distinction was applied to all cognitively meaningful statements. So, for any cognitively meaningful statement, it is necessarily the case that it is either analytic or synthetic (but not both). The positivists took the criterion of analyticity to be a statement’s negation entailing a contradiction. Anything whose negation does not entail a contradiction would be synthetic. Analytic statements, for the positivists, were not about extra-linguistic reality, but instead were about concepts and definitions (and maybe rules). Any claim about extra-linguistic reality was synthetic, and any synthetic claim was about extra-linguistic reality.

Synthetic statements were taken to be cognitively meaningful just if they could be empirically confirmed. The only other cognitively meaningful statements for the positivists were analytic statements and contradictions. This is an informal statement of the verificationist criterion for meaningfulness. Verificationism was the way that the positivists discredited metaphysics as a cognitively meaningless discipline. If metaphysics consisted of synthetic statements that could not be empirically confirmed (e.g. the nature of possible worlds), then metaphysics consisted of cognitively meaningless statements. In short, the positivists took a non-cognitivist interpretation of the language used in metaphysics.    

Conventional wisdom says that verificationism, when applied to itself, results in self-refutation, which means that the positivists’ project is an utter failure. But why does it result in self-refutation? One reason is that it is either analytic or synthetic, but it doesn’t appear to be analytic, so it must be synthetic. But if the verificationist criterion is synthetic, then it must be empirically confirmable. Unfortunately, verificationism is not empirically confirmable, so it is cognitively meaningless. Verificationism, then, is in the same boat with metaphysics.

Fortunately for the positivists, the argument above fails. First off, there are ways to interpret verificationism such that it is subject to empirical confirmation. Verificationism could express a thesis that aims to capture or explicate the ordinary concept of meaning (Surovell 2013). If it aims to capture the ordinary concept of meaning, then it could be confirmed by studying how users of the concept MEANING could employ it in discourse. If such concept users employ the concept in the way the verificationist criterion says it does, then it is confirmed. So, given that understanding of verificationism, it is cognitively meaningful. If verificationism aims to explicate the ordinary concept of meaning, then it would be allowed more leeway when it deviates from standard usage of ordinary concept in light of its advantages within a comprehensive theory (Surovell 2013). Verificationism construed as an explication of the ordinary concept of meaning, then, would be subject to empirical confirmation if the overall theory it contributes to is confirmed.

Secondly, if one takes the position traditionally attributed to Carnap, then one can say that the verificationist criterion is not internal to a language, but external. It is a recommendation to use language in a particular way that admits of only empirically confirmable, analytic, and contradictory statements. Recommendations are not truth-apt, yet they serve important linguistic functions. So, verificationism may be construed non-cognitively, as a recommendation motivated by pragmatic reasons. There’s nothing self-refuting about that.  

Lastly, one could take verificationism to be internal to a language, in Carnap’s sense, and analytic. However, the criterion would not aim to capture the ordinary notion of meaning, but instead it would be a replacement of that notion. Carnap appears to endorse this way of construing verificationism in the following passage,

“It would be advisable to avoid the terms ‘meaningful’ and ‘meaningless’ in this and in similar discussions . . . and to replace them with an expression of the form “a . . . sentence of L”; expressions of this form will then refer to a specified language and will contain at the place ‘. . .’ an adjective which indicates the methodological character of the sentence, e.g. whether or not that sentence (and its negation) is verifiable or completely or incompletely confirmable or completely or incompletely testable and the like, according to what is intended by ‘meaningful’” (Carnap 1936).

Rather than documenting the way ordinary users of language deploy the concept MEANING, Carnap appears to be proposing a replacement for the ordinary concept of meaning. The statement of verificationism is internal to the language in which expressions of meaning are replaced with “a . . . sentence of L” where ‘. . .’ is an adjective that indicates whether or not the sentence is verifiable, and thus is analytic in that language. The motivation for adopting verificationism thus construed would then be dependent on the theoretical and pragmatic advantages of using that language.

So, verificationism can be construed as synthetic, analytic, or cognitively meaningless. It could be considered a recommendation to use language in a certain way, and that recommendation is then motivated by pragmatic reasons (or other reasons), which makes it cognitively meaningless but linguistically useful, which does not result in self-refutation. Or, it could be considered a conventional definition aimed to capture or explicate the ordinary concept of meaning. It would then be verifiable because it could be confirmed by an empirical investigation into the way people use the ordinary notion of meaning, or by its overall theoretical merits. Lastly, it could be internal to a language, and thus analytic, but not an attempt at capturing the ordinary notion of meaning. Instead, it would be a replacement that served a particular function within a particular language that is itself chosen for pragmatic (non-cognitive) reasons. In any of these construals, verificationism is not self-refuting.

Works Cited:

Carnap, Rudolf. "Testability and Meaning - Continued." Philosophy of Science. 1936. Web.

Surovell, Jonathan. "Carnap’s Response to the Charge that Verificationism is Self-Undermining." 2013. Web.


An Introduction to Morality and Emotions

When doing moral theory, the question of emotion will inevitably arise. Some theorists think that emotions should not play any role because they are antithetical to reliable moral reasoning. Others doubt that emotions are a wholly distorting influence. In this post, I’m going to lay out some ways in which emotions may feature in our theorizing about morality.

A popular view of emotion is to take them as intentional states that present their objects in an evaluative light. For instance, being happy about graduating from college is to have the state of affairs of graduating from college being presented to a subject such that she has certain positive feelings towards it. The way in which this view of emotion can be relevant to moral theorizing is when the object of emotion is a moral state of affairs. Your emotions get moralized in this sense when they are about moral states of affairs.

Another way in which emotions are relevant to morality is if they provide us access to moral facts. If emotions are our means of epistemic contact with moral reality, then emotions are epistemically relevant to morality. Emotions may then be ways of representing states of affairs with a certain sensitivity to morally salient features of what’s being represented. One simplistic possibility is that our emotional reaction to the idea of pushing a man off a bridge to stop a train that is headed for five people tied to the track provides us with epistemic access to the separateness of persons, which explains why it’s wrong to push the man to his death.

However, there may be a flip-side to the epistemic view of emotions. Emotions could also distort our sensitivity to morally salient features of states of affairs. Peter Singer has defended a view similar to this when he argued that deontological intuitions are subject to distorting influences rooted in our evolutionary development.

Emotions can also be the ways in which we are motivated to act morally. It could be the case that we need emotions to move us to act morally, which would make emotions necessary for moral action. On this view, a robot with the set of true moral beliefs would be unmoved to act on them if it is incapable of experiencing emotions. Mere belief is insufficient on this account of moral emotions.

We may also be subject to evaluation based on the emotions we experience. There are clearly good and bad ways to behave at a funeral. If somebody began laughing uncontrollably, we would probably consider that to be inappropriate, whereas we would be tolerant of grieving in the form of loud crying. A similar view is defended by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson.

One last way that emotions can be relevant to moral theorizing is if they are integral to our moral development. Perhaps eliciting certain emotions is a necessary means of moral education. Making developing moral agents experience things like guilt over wrongdoing by pointing out how they’ve let a loved one down could be formative for them. In this sense, emotions are part of the development of moral agents.

There are probably other ways in which emotions are morally relevant that I’ve missed. If you are aware of any more, let me know in the comments section below.

A Problem for the New Consequentialism

In a previous post, I outlined a non-deontic form of consequentialism that was supposed to avoid what I called the extension problem. The extension problem plagues deontic consequentialism, which is the view that the rightness, wrongness, permissibility, and impermissibility of actions are determined by their consequences. So, a simple hedonistic act utilitarian will say that there is one categorically binding duty, and that is to maximize pleasure when we act. But such a view suffers from intuitively compelling counterexamples. So it seems like hedonistic act utilitarianism gets the extension of our deontic concepts wrong.

Non-deontic consequentialism is designed to avoid the extension problem, because it defers how those concepts are applied by a society at a given time. By doing so, the theory allows for the extensions of our deontic concepts to pick out what our society takes them to be, which seems to preserve our intuitions about particular cases, like the drifter being killed by a surgeon for his organs. Hedonistic act utilitarianism requires that, if the surgeon is in the epistemic situation where he can rule out negative consequences, and he knows that he can use these organs to save five patients, then he is duty-bound to kill the drifter and harvest the organs. Non-deontic consequentialism avoids this because your typical person who is not a thoroughly committed act utilitarian would not agree that the extension of DUTY covers the surgeon’s organ harvesting endeavor.

An alternative that avoids the extension problem is scalar utilitarianism, which does without deontic concepts like RIGHT and WRONG. Instead, we judge actions as better or worse than available alternatives. The problem with this view is that it just seems obvious that it is wrong to torture puppies for fun. But a scalar utilitarian cannot give an adequate account of what makes that act wrong, so she must explain why it seems so obvious to say that it is wrong to torture puppies, even though it’s false.

Setting aside both of these forms of consequentialism, I want to discuss the non-deontic consequentialism I outlined in my other post. On the view I described, the rightness and wrongness, along with other deontic properties, of actions are a function of the social conventions that obtain at a given time in a given society. The consequentialism comes in at the level of critiquing and improving those social conventions.

Moral progress occurs when we adopt social conventions that are better by consequentialist standards. So, for instance, it used to be a social convention in the United States that we could have property rights over other human beings, and transfer those rights for currency. Those conventions are no longer in place in the United States, and at the time they were, they could have been critiqued by consequentialist standards. Those conventions were not better than available alternatives at the time, so it would have been better not to have the institution of chattel slavery. But these facts about betterness do not determine what is right or wrong. Rather, they should guide efforts to improve social conventions, and thereby change the extensions of our deontic concepts.

This seems all well and good, but I am a bit worried. This view entails that social conventions have normative force, no matter what. So, just because something is a social convention, we thereby have at least some moral reason to abide by it. Take slavery again; such an institution was once enshrined in many social conventions. Does it follow that at the time, everybody had at least some moral reason to abide by the conventions that said we ought to return escaped slaves to their so-called owners? It seems to me that slavery is and always was wrong. There was never a time at which it was right to own another human being. I think that the basis of my concern is that deontic judgments, especially when applied to important things like slavery, are not indexed to times and places. Just because a human being is sold in a marketplace in 1790 Virginia does not change the deontic status of the situation. What exactly is the morally relevant difference between that time period and today? Why is it wrong now to sell another human being but it was not in 1790s Virginia?

One potential response to my worries is to point out that I’m making these judgments from a particular time period when the extension of our deontic concepts rules out slavery being permissible. So, perhaps I find the entailment of this theory appalling because my intuitions are shaped by the extension of the deontic concepts I use. Since 1790s Virginia, we have undergone moral progress, and now it is wrong to own slaves because of the shift in social conventions. It could even be that according to our deontic concepts’ extensions now, it was wrong in the 1790s to buy and sell slaves.

I think these considerations certainly make my concerns less worrisome. But I’m experiencing a residual anxiety. It still seems counterintuitive to say that, if we had grown up in 1790s Virginia, our claims about the rightness and wrongness would be flipped. We would have an inverted moral spectrum when it comes to deontic judgments about slavery. That is what I find counterintuitive. The theory was developed to explicitly address the extension problem, which was that deontic consequentialists seem to get the extensions of our deontic concepts wrong. The reason I think that they get those extensions wrong is because their theories entail counterintuitive results. They end up having to bite a lot of bullets, such as the organ harvesting surgeon. But if non-deontic consequentialism also generates counterintuitive entailments, like slavery being permissible in 1790s Virginia for people at that time, then is it any better than its deontic consequentialist competitors?


Why is the Capacity for Rationality Necessary for Rights?

One typical reason cited in favor of the claim that animals lack rights or any sort of direct moral status is that a necessary condition for having rights or direct moral status is having the capacity for rationality. I say, ‘capacity’ because I want to include so-called marginal cases like infants, although there are still some cases that still won’t be covered. Let’s leave that complication aside. What I want to do in this post is draw attention to a counter-intuitive implication of the capacity for rationality view that I originally encountered when reading some stuff by Mylan Engel.

My question for proponents of this view is this: Why is it the capacity for rationality instead of the capacity to suffer than makes it a rights violation (or some other sort of moral violation) to drip bleach into the eyes of somebody? If there was a human infant and a dog, both strapped onto tables with mechanisms that dripped bleach into their eyes, on this view, there is only one rights violation occurring. I grant for the sake of argument that the dog lacks the capacity for rationality, but surely it and the human infant can both suffer. So, why is it that the capacity for rationality is what makes it wrong to drip bleach into the infant’s eyes?

It doesn’t seem to me that the capacity for rationality is doing any morally salient work in this example. What appears to be doing the work is the fact that dripping bleach into an infant’s eyes causes it immense pain and irreparable damage. But if that’s what’s doing the intuitive heavy-lifting for the infant, then why not for the dog? The dog suffers from the bleach too, and its eyes can be permanently damaged just as the infant’s. In both cases, it seems like the capacity to suffer is what makes it a moral violation to drip bleach into their eyes.

However, if the capacity for rationality is indeed necessary for direct moral status, then there is a morally relevant difference between the dog and the infant. It is morally wrong to drip bleach into the eyes of the infant because it has the capacity for rationality, but since the dog lacks that capacity, it is not morally wrong when done to it. Maybe it is indirectly wrong by virtue of harming an animal that people with direct moral status care  about. After all, people generally care about dogs. But what if this a dog that nobody is aware exists? It’s easy enough to imagine a realistic scenario in which a dog lacks any connections to people who care about it. So, the question remains. Why is it the capacity for rationality that makes it wrong to drip bleach into the eyes of an infant?

Buddhist Apoha Nominalism

The Problem of Universals is one the oldest subjects of debate in Indian philosophy. Realists about universals believe that universals exist in addition to concrete particulars, while nominalists deny the existence of universals. The Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā schools were vocal defenders of realism. Nyāya philosophers believed in universals for a number of reasons:

  • Universals explain how different objects share common characteristics. Cow A and Cow B differ from each other in various ways, and yet we recognize that they’re both cows. The Nyāya explanation for this is that what Cow A and Cow B have in common is the universal “cowness” that inheres in both.
  • Universals fix the meanings of words. The word “cow” doesn’t just refer to a particular cow, but cows in general. How can a word refer to many different objects at once? The Nyāya solution is that the word “cow” refers to a particular qualified by the universal cowness, which is present in all individual cows.
  • Universals are a solution to the Problem of Induction, first raised by the Cārvāka empiricists. Nyāya philosophers viewed the laws of nature as relations between universals. Our knowledge of these universals and the relations between them justifies inductive generalizations, and consequently, inferences such as the presence of fire from the presence of smoke.

Buddhists were the best-known nominalists in the Indian philosophical tradition. The Buddhist hostility towards universals is perhaps best expressed by Paṇḍita Aśoka (9th century): “One can clearly see five fingers in one’s own hand. One who commits himself to a sixth general entity fingerhood, side by side with the five fingers, might as well postulate horns on top of his head.”¹

In this post, I will briefly go over how Buddhists responded to the first two reasons for believing in universals provided by the Nyāya school. The Buddhist defense of induction will have to be the subject of a separate essay.

The form of nominalism Buddhists advocated is called apoha, the Sanskrit word for “exclusion.” The first precise statement of apoha nominalism can be found in the works of Dignāga (6th century). Dignāga claimed that the word “cow” simply means “not non-cow.” Since there is obviously no universal “not cow-ness” present in every object that is not a cow, this semantic view doesn’t commit us to the existence of universals. Every cow is a unique particular distinct from all other objects. We simply overlook the mutual differences between cows and group them together based on how they’re different from non-cows.  Thus, it’s not because cows share something in common that we call them by the same name. Rather, we think all cows share something in common because we have learned to call them by the same name.

There are some objections that immediately spring to mind, and Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā philosophers brought them up repeatedly in their criticisms of apoha nominalism. First, how does saying that “cow” means “not non-cow” provide a solution to the problem of universals? “Not non-cow” involves a double negation, so to say “cow” means “not non-cow” is just to say “cow” means “cow.” This leads us right back to where we started, and just as before, it seems that we need to posit a universal cowness. Second, how can we focus on cows’ common differences from non-cows unless we already know how to tell what a cow is in the first place? Once again, we seem to have gone in a circle, and apoha seems to presuppose precisely what it was supposed to explain.

Dignāga’s successors responded to the first objection by drawing distinctions between different kinds of negation. Consider the statement: “This is not impolite.” Now, at first glance it might seem like this just translates to “This is polite,” because of the double negation involved in “not impolite.” But this is not necessarily the case. The statement could be about something to which the very category of politeness does not apply, in which case “not impolite” is distinct from “polite.” Thus, “not non-cow” can mean something genuinely different from “cow.”

To understand how Buddhists responded to the second charge of circularity, it helps to look at another Buddhist view. Buddhists were mereological reductionists: they did not believe that wholes were anything over and above their parts. So, a table, for instance, is nothing more than its parts arranged table-wise. The “table” is just a conceptual fiction: a convenient designator we use because of our shared interests and social conventions. It is conceivable, for instance, that someone who has never seen or heard of tables before will not see a table, just pieces of wood put together in seemingly random fashion. The idea that the table is ultimately real arises when we project our interests on to the world. How is any of this relevant to the question of universals? Buddhist philosophers argued that something similar goes on when we fall under the impression that all cows share a common cowness. We overlook the differences between individual cows because they satisfy some of our desires – for example, the desire for milk – that non-cows don’t. We then project our interests on to the world, mistakenly concluding that cowness is a real thing.

This may not seem like a very satisfactory response. It just pushes the problem back a step. How do all these particulars satisfy the same desire if they don’t share something in common? In this case, it seems like the cows really do share something: the ability to satisfy our desire for milk. Dharmakīrti (7th century) responded to this by using the example of fever-reducing herbs. He pointed out that there are many different herbs that reduce fevers. But it would be foolish to conclude from this that there exists a universal “fever-reducing-ness.” Each of these herbs is different, and they don’t reduce fevers in the same way, or use the same mechanisms to do so. We group them together under a single category only because of our subjective interest in reducing fevers. Dharmakīrti’s claim is that the same is true of everything. Each particular serves our interests in a manner that’s utterly distinct from everything else in the world. And so once again, there is no need to posit universals.

But there are still some lingering worries here. While we may accept that in the case of the herbs there is no universal fever-reducing-ness, does the same response work for simple substances such as elementary particles? Assuming for the sake of argument that an electron is an elementary particle, surely all electrons share something in common. Doesn’t the ability to bring about similar effects require a shared capacity – in this case, the same set of causal powers? One possible response to this line of argument, formulated by the philosopher Kamalaśīla (8th century), is to adopt what we would recognize as a Humean view of causation. Kamalaśīla rejected the notion of causal powers entirely, and like Hume, stated that there is nothing more to causation than constant conjunctions of events. Once again, talk of “causal powers” is just a convenient way of speaking about certain correlations that we never fail to observe.

This is obviously a very brief sketch of apoha nominalism. There is much more to say, particularly on the subtle differences between different versions of apoha defended by different Buddhist philosophers. This is a good place to start for further reading.


[1] From the translation in Apoha: Buddhist Nominalism and Human Cognition, edited by Mark Siderits, Tom Tillemans and Arindam Chakrabarti (2011).