Are Facts Socially Constructed?

I enjoy watching YouTube videos. The sorts of videos I usually enjoy discuss academic topics I’m interested in, like philosophy. I’m especially fond of videos that put forward ideas that are commonly regarded as radical, or even indefensible. I like the debates that those videos engender among the video-makers who discuss those topics. In the vein of being a fan of YouTube debates, I want to add my two cents to a topic that has been gaining traction within certain communities. The topic is social construction. In particular, I want to discuss a thesis put forward by Dr. Kristi Winters in several videos. Her thesis is that facts qua facts are socially constructed entities. I will put the links to the videos I reference below this post, and I will add links to the end notes that direct to the times I reference.

What are facts? There is a lot of debate in analytic philosophy about facts, such as their internal structure, their nature, and how we should represent them formally. Typical, contemporary views take facts to be true truth-bearers, obtaining states of affairs, or some kind of entity in which individual objects exemplify properties and stand in relations.[1] While there is a lot of debate going on in the literature, one thing that isn’t hotly debated is whether all facts are socially constructed. Save for various kinds of idealism,[2] most mainstream views don’t take all facts to be dependent on minds.[3] So, facts can be either mind-dependent or mind-independent.

I’ll throw out a particular view about the ontology of facts to get things rolling. What this view is meant to do is show that there are quite intuitive points of view on the nature of facts which don’t take them to be essentially socially constructed, despite Dr. Winters’ implication to the contrary.[4] I will take facts to be obtaining states of affairs. To obtain is just to be the case, or to be actual.[5] A state of affairs is a distribution of properties over individuals that (can) stand in relations to other individuals. There can be states of affairs with just one individual that exemplifies some properties, and there can be states of affairs where several individuals exemplify properties and stand in certain kinds of relations to each other.

Dr. Winters likes the example of Pluto being reclassified as a dwarf planet. She believes that this demonstrates that facts about planets are socially constructed, because whether or not something is a planet is partly dependent on the classificatory conventions adopted by astronomers, and those conventions are products of social interactions among astronomers. If they changed the classificatory conventions, facts about the number of planets would change. So, facts about the number of planets are socially constructed. I hope I am not misrepresenting Dr. Winters with this reconstruction of her argument. I will now respond to this reconstruction.

If we are going to be scientific realists, then we should think that astronomers produce theories about things that exist independently of mental activity of any sort.[6] In other words, as realists, we should think of astronomy as developing an ontology of a certain aspect of the world we inhabit, namely the realm of celestial bodies and events. What their theorizing aims to do is reveal astronomical facts, which are constituted by properties distributed over individuals.

That astronomers changed the classification convention for planets such that it now excludes Pluto is one thing. That Pluto has the properties that qualify it as a dwarf planet rather than a planet within the classification convention is not socially constructed, but rather it is a mind-independent fact. The fact that Pluto has properties (p1…pn) is not dependent on the theories that astronomers believe, or any theories at all.

Furthermore, the fact that astronomers have such classification conventions is itself not socially constructed. That fact is just the distribution of properties over individual astronomers, wherein that distribution determines or grounds those naming conventions. That astronomers accept a classification convention is a fact about astronomers, and not the content of the classification convention. So, that fact is not constructed by the social processes that determined the contents of the classification convention.

If Dr. Winters objects at this point, I must ask, if the fact that astronomers accept some classification convention is mind-dependent, then what about the fact that that fact is mind-dependent? Is that fact also mind-dependent? If so, we end up with an ascending order of mind-dependency that either terminates in some super-mind, or keeps going to infinity. Think about it, if the second-order fact about the distribution of properties over astronomers is itself mind-dependent, on whose mind does it depend? The individual astronomers taken as a collective? What about the third-order fact that the second-order fact is mind-dependent? This process can repeat to infinity, and the minds of astronomers are not capable of housing this many facts. Unless we want to formulate this as some weird argument for the existence of God based on the social construction of facts, something’s gotta give. As far as I’m concerned, what’s gotta give is the implausible idea that all facts are socially constructed.

Now, I could just be misinterpreting Dr. Winters by imputing onto her ontological commitments about facts when she’s just making claims about epistemology.[7] However, she also claims that knowledge is constructed via social processes. Knowledge decomposes on analysis into various conditions, and any mainstream analysis includes truth as a necessary condition.[8] If knowledge is constructed, then presumably what that knowledge is about must also be constructed, otherwise there isn’t much to the claim that (some) knowledge is socially constructed.

Dr. Winters also talks about Kant’s noumenal/phenomenal distinction. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to help make sense of the social construction of facts. Perhaps she is adopting transcendental idealism, and she thinks that humans have a conceptual manifold along with pure intuitions of space and time, and these shape our experience of the world. Our experience of the world expresses itself within the conceptual boundaries allowed for by our constitution. The phenomenal realm is just what we experience as it is shaped by our mental constitution, and the noumenal realm is beyond our conceptual grasp. My worry here is that this is probably false. Even if it isn’t false, there are interpretations of the phenomenal/noumenal distinction that aren’t purely epistemic. Dual aspect views and two worlds views allow for metaphysical understandings of the phenomenal realm.[9] So, it isn’t obvious that Dr. Winters, if she is embracing transcendental idealism, is skirting by any ontological commitments when she says that facts are socially constructed.

Another worry is we would need an argument for why intersubjectivity determined by shared conceptual manifolds and pure intuitions of space/time entails that we ought to embrace a social constructionist ontology of facts. Up to now, we haven’t been provided with one.

So, if some truths are constructed, we’re back into the territory of metaphysics rather than epistemology. Whether or not truth-bearers are true or false must be sensitive to how the truth-bearer-independent world is at a given time.[10] Whatever aspect of the world that true truth-bearers must be sensitive to will be socially constructed, if knowledge of those truths is itself constructed. So, this isn’t just about epistemology if we take knowledge to be socially constructed. Dr. Winters could have stayed in the realm of epistemology by constraining talk of social construction to issues of justification and warrant in various social spheres. Perhaps standards of testimony are based on social norms, and those norms bias those standards in ways that are conducive to testimonial injustices against marginalized groups. However, she did not restrict herself to the realm of justification and warrant, so she does take on ontological commitments.

What Dr. Winters ought to do is check out the literature on the ontology of facts. She can then adopt a position that allows for some facts being socially constructed, such as facts about gender and race, perhaps. I actually recommend thinking about social construction in terms of grounding and dropping talk of facts entirely. So, to be socially constructed is to be grounded in distinctive social patterns.[11] The trick, then, is uncovering which social patterns are salient when considering particular social constructs such as gender or borders.


[1] Mulligan and Correia 2013.

[2] Some forms of idealism may allow for facts that are mind-independent, such as transcendental idealism. Transcendental idealism will come up again in this post.

[3] Mind-dependence is a necessary (albeit probably not sufficient) condition for something being socially constructed.

[4] Cf. 16:43-17:06. The way she states it implies that it’s quite obvious, given a certain amount of reflection on the nature of science, that facts are constructed by the social processes embedded within the institution of science.

[5] I’m leaving questions of modality aside. Assume that I’m talking facts as things that obtain in the actual world.

[6] Dr. Winters may not accept realism, especially if she has sympathies for transcendental idealism.

[7] Cf. 21:06-23:16 for her clarification about ontology and epistemology.

[8] Setting aside the knowledge-first theorists, who presumably also take knowledge to be factive, just not subject to analysis into other concepts.

[9] Cf. Stang 2016.

[10] Besides claims about truth-bearers, but let’s set that complication aside.

[11] Schaffer 2016.

Works Cited

Mulligan, Kevin and Correia, Fabrice, “Facts”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL <>.

Schaffer, Jonathan. “Social Construction as Grounding; Or: Fundamentality for Feminists, a Reply to Barnes and Mikkola.” Philosophical Studies (2016). Web.

Stang, Nicholas F., “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<>.

Dr. Winters’ Videos I Address

What Sargon of Akkad Doesn’t Know About Social Constructs
A Chat With Prof. Philip Moriarty on YouTube Atheism

Why The Presentation Argument for Property Dualism Fails

In my post, The Presentation Argument for Property Dualism, I examined an argument that targets property reduction and attempts to conclude that for any purported reduction of one property to another, there is a residual appearance left over. The residual appearance requires some property to which it corresponds, so any attempt at property reduction actually generates more properties.

One objection is that this argument relies on property intensionalism.[1] What this means is that we individuate properties by how we think of them rather than by extension. The argument for property dualism seems to require this principle of individuation:

(PI) If it’s not a priori that <F> and <G> are coextensive, then F and G are not identical.[2]

The principle says that if it isn’t a priori knowable that the concepts <F> and <G> have the same extensions, then the properties F and G are not identical. PI is at home with the view that the epistemology of properties is wholly a priori.[3] In essence, if we have two concepts that on reflection seem not to have (necessarily) identical extensions, then they pick out distinct properties. We can know which properties exist by analyzing our concepts of them.

The problem with PI is that it just seems like a form of property intensionalism. After all, why think that our a priori reflection on the extensions of our concepts reliably yields facts about properties that exist independently of those concepts? It seems like a massive coincidence without some dependence between properties and our concepts of them. But any dependence between concepts and properties that allows one to derive PI runs the risk of making properties unacceptably mind-dependent.[4] By unacceptably mind-dependent, I mean there must be some metaphysical dependency between properties and concepts such that it is more than just a coincidence that a priori reflection on concepts produces knowledge about properties in a reliable manner. Such metaphysical dependency is either a God-given pre-established harmony between concept and property, or some kind of idealism about properties, which ultimately amounts to idealism about almost everything.

The proponent of the presentation argument could respond by saying that PI and property intensional are conceptually distinct. One could maintain PI without embracing the anti-realist sounding doctrine of property intensionalism, as is possible in my example of pre-established harmony. Perhaps proponents of the presentation argument could just say that our concepts reliably pick out properties that are not themselves individuated by those concepts.[5]

For the view that concepts reliably pick out properties that aren’t individuated by those very concepts to work in the presentation argument, the appearance properties must not be individuated epistemically, but rather metaphysically.[6] However, appearance properties seem to be individuated epistemically. After all, appearances are the wheelhouse of the internalist epistemologist, and as such they seem to be subject to intensional individuation if anything is. So, even if we grant that PI is compatible with an extensionalist individuation scheme for properties, the presentation argument still seems to rely on things whose very nature entails intensional individuation conditions.[7]

Given that the presentation argument’s reliance on PI is part and parcel with intensional individuation conditions for (at least) appearance properties, there is another problem proponents of the argument must face. An extensionalist about property individuation holds to objective individuation conditions for properties. For example, the dispositional properties revealed by modern physics are individuated objectively; they are not individuated by something like PI. The property intensionalist is going to accept the same properties as the extensionalist, since the extensionalist typically endorses a scientific methodology for discovering properties. That scientific methodology will yield results that both the intensionalist and extensionalist have independent reasons to accept.[8] But the extensionalist has an advantage here, since all the properties both she and the intensionalist can agree to are those properties that we consider causally efficacious. All the causal work in the world can be done in virtue of the properties that a pure extensionalist individuation scheme is committed to. The intensionalist is going to have additional properties, and those properties are either causally inert or causally efficacious. If they are causally efficacious then they causally overdetermine the events they enter into alongside the extensionally individuated properties. If they are causally inert, then they are committed to epiphenomenal properties.

The first horn of the dilemma assumes that causal overdetermination is theoretically vicious, but there are reasons to doubt this.[9] If the intensionalist has independent reasons to think that causal overdetermination is ok, or a good thing to believe in, embracing the first horn shouldn’t bother her. The second horn is more problematic, though. We have good reasons to think that mental states are able to enter into causal relations. The appearances cited in the presentation argument seem to cause proponents of the argument to advance it, and they cause me to reflect on it, as well as property individuation. If those appearances weren’t there, theorists would lack motivation to formulate the presentation argument. Even less plausibly, embracing the second horn would entail that appearances are not among the things that cause us to discuss appearances. I, for one, am not brave enough to accept such a result.

So, the proponent of the presentation argument must accept PI, and thereby is either committed to pre-established harmony between concepts and properties, a massive coincidence, or idealism (anti-realism) about properties. If the proponent attempts to disavow property intensionalism yet hold to PI, she will find herself lapsing back into property intensionalism once she introduces appearance properties into the mix. The proponent is also committed to the same properties as the extensionalist, as well as many more properties individuated intensionally. But, there are plausible reasons to think that the causal work in the world is done by the properties we individuate extensionally. So, the proponent of the argument must either embrace causal overdetermination, or epiphenomenalism about appearances. I argued that the latter is less plausible than the former, so the proponent must adopt overdetermination. At this point in the dialectic, the proponent must give us good, independent reasons to think overdetermination obtains in the causal order. Until then, we remain at liberty to deny the conclusion of the presentation argument, and remain physicalists.

End Notes

[1] Howell 104-105.

[2] Ibid 105.

[3] Ibid 106

[4] Ibid 106-107

[5] Ibid 107-108.

[6] Ibid 108.

[7] Ibid 108-109.

[8] There’s a strong case to be made for science as the most reliable way for detecting many if not all properties that are instantiated, and that case can be made independently of the individuation debate.

[9] Cf. Sider 2003.

Works Cited

Howell, Robert J. Consciousness and the Limits of Objectivity: The Case for Subjective Physicalism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

Sider, Theodore. “What’s So Bad About Overdetermination?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 67.3 (2003): 719-26. Web.

Some Random Thoughts About Naturalized Moral Epistemology

Naturalized Epistemology (NE) is a movement in modern philosophy which aims to situate theorizing about knowledge, justification, warrant, and various other epistemic concepts within the realm of the empirical, alongside the natural sciences (Quine 1969). In what sense our theorizing about epistemic concepts and their application ought to be situated alongside the natural sciences is what divides various naturalized epistemologists (cf. Haack 1993). One theme that can be found among many NE theorists is the rejection of purely a priori methods in epistemology (Rysiew 2016).

In moral epistemology, some NE theorists have taken a more liberal view of the sense in which epistemology ought to be naturalized. For example, Tobin and Jaggar have developed a methodology based on case studies, which is not embedded within any particular scientific field (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a & 2013b). Rather, their methodology is broadly a posteriori and takes various lines of empirical evidence into account from many different sources (Tobin 2007 & Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). Tobin and Jaggar’s methodology is developed with the explicit aim of providing a means for resolving ethical disputes across cultures, and it deploys a set of conditions which forms of moral reasoning must meet (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a). One worry for their methodology is the possibility of higher order disagreement about both the conditions themselves and interpreting their application to particular instances of moral reasoning.

The set of conditions which Tobin and Jaggar provide for assessing forms of cross-cultural moral reasoning are: plausibility to the disputants, usability by the disputants, nonabuse of power and vulnerability by any disputant, and practical feasibility for the disputants (Tobin and Jaggar 387-389). In short, the plausibility condition has it that justified normative conclusions ought to be intelligible to disputants, the usability condition has it that disputants ought to be able to participate in utilized reasoning practices, the nonabuse condition has it that no disputant can abuse positions of power or positions of vulnerability to gain an upper hand in the dispute, and the feasibility condition has it that proposals ought to represent real possibilities for disputants (Tobin and Jaggar 387-389). Tobin and Jaggar provide reasons to believe that these adequacy conditions provide a normatively significant means for assessing forms of moral reasoning deployed in cross-cultural disputes.[1] For instance, a conclusion of an argument cannot have normative significance if it is based on reasoning biased against disputants (Tobin and Jaggar 389). Plausibility is a condition because there cannot be moral force for conclusions which disputants cannot recognize (Tobin and Jaggar 389-390). Usability is a condition because moral claims cannot be justified for those who cannot participate in the reasoning used to support them (Tobin and Jaggar 390). The nonabuse is a condition because rationality is contrasted with abuse of power (Tobin and Jaggar 390). Lastly, feasibility is based on “ought implies can.” because rationality requires that courses of prescribed action ought to represent realistic possibilities (Tobin and Jaggar 390).

A worry about disagreement arises when considering these four adequacy conditions. The conditions are not purely descriptive; they are laden with normative content. Where there is normative content, there is the possibility of disagreement about the content itself, and how the content should be interpreted and its dictates applied in various contexts. For example, the plausibility condition can be applied in ways that involve idealization or in ways that do not. If it is applied in ways that involve idealization, certain real people will be excluded from the application of the condition. Some people will be seen as too unreasonable to fall within the scope of who ought to be considered with respect to the plausibility of moral reasoning. After all, the point of idealization is to reach a consensus or convergence where it wouldn’t be feasible to do so without it. The reason it wouldn’t be feasible is there are some people who just won’t be able to see that good moral reasoning reaches conclusions with normative force that applies to them. Furthermore, idealizing the plausibility condition will probably exclude some of the other adequacy conditions, such as usability; if the reasoning process involves idealization, some disputants probably will be unable to deploy that reasoning process. If the plausibility condition is applied in a non-idealized way, on the other hand, then it seems like the problems that drive theorists to idealization will crop up. Some disputants may never see why a conclusion has the normative force it does, and they may be unable to follow the reasoning that got there.

For the feasibility condition, there will inevitably be disputes over what constitutes a real possibility, and those disputes will involve substantive moral claims about how people ought to (be able to) live their lives. Those who accept a more conservative conception of the good life will inevitably disagree with those whose conception of the good life conflicts with theirs, and those disputants will subsequently disagree over whose conception represents a real possibility. Real possibilities are those that are livable, but livability is itself open to substantive disagreement, as it concerns how we can live our lives given certain things we value.[2]

Lastly, the nonabuse condition will introduce a level of disagreement. In the case study employed in Tobin and Jagger 2013b, those at the top of the Maasai hierarchy will probably view their exercise of power in the case of coercing women and girls to partake in FGC not as abuse but as mere use. The issue is not whether they have a plausible claim to use of power in this context, but rather what constitutes abuse of power. Judgments of abuse of power are substantive normative judgments about how people ought not to exercise their power over others. There will be disagreement between disputants in these very cases over what constitutes abuse, which introduces a higher order level of moral disagreement.

Tobin and Jaggar provide an interesting and fruitful methodology for investigating forms of moral reasoning used in cross-cultural disputes, among others. A worry arises when assessing the adequacy conditions provided by Tobin and Jaggar, as these conditions are themselves value-laden, and therefore have the potential to introduce moral disagreement at the level of method. There may be ways to alleviate the possibility of higher order disagreement, however. For example, there could be paradigm cases of good moral reasoning that serve to cement proper interpretations and applications for the adequacy conditions. There could be cases where reasonable[3] people would agree that a certain course of action ought to be taken given a certain form of moral reasoning. Those cases could be instances of real world dispute resolution, which retains the spirit of naturalized epistemology, as it avoids lapsing into an a prioristic method of examining thought experiments.

End Notes

[1] Among other kinds of disputes.

[2] Most people will agree that we all value basic things such as survival and all that requires. But there will inevitably be disputes once the basic requirements for survival are met.

[3] Reasonable in the non-technical sense of being sensitive to relevant reasons in discussions.

Works Cited

Haack, Susan. “The Two Faces of Quine’s Naturalism.” Synthese 94.3 (1993): 335-56. Web.

Jaggar, Alison M., and Theresa W. Tobin. “Naturalizing Moral Justification: Rethinking the Method of Moral Epistemology.” Metaphilosophy 44.4 (2013b): 409-39. Web.

Jaggar, Alison M., and Theresa W. Tobin. “Situating Moral Justification: Rethinking the Mission of Moral Epistemology.” Metaphilosophy 44.4 (2013a): 383-408. Web.

Rysiew, Patrick, “Naturalism in Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Tobin, Theresa W. “On Their Own Ground: Strategies of Resistance for Sunni Muslim Women.” Hypatia 22.3 (2007): 152-74. Web.

Quine, W. V. Ontological Relativity, and Other Essays. New York: Columbia UP, 1969. Print.


The Presentation Argument for Property Dualism

In this post I am going to lay out an argument for property dualism called The Presentation Argument (TPA). TPA is no longer a prevalent argument for property dualism used by philosophers. Max Black originally formulated it, J.J.C. Smart dealt with it,  and Stephen White has recently defended it (Howell 103; cf. White 2010 & Smart 1971).

According to Smart,

“. . . it may be possible to get out of asserting irreducible psychic processes, but not out of asserting the existence the existence of irreducible psychic properties. For suppose we identify the Morning Star with the Evening star. Then there must be some properties which logically imply that of being the Morning Star, and quite distinct properties which entail that of being the Evening Star. Again, there must be some properties (for example, that of being a yellow flash) which are logically distinct from those in the physicalist story.

Indeed, it might be thought that the objection succeeds at one jump. For consider the property of “being a yellow flash.” It might be seem that this property lies inevitably outside the physicalist framework . . .” (Smart 63).

The point being made is that reduction works for two seemingly distinct things or objects, but when it comes to properties, it seems problematic. Smart’s example shows that reduction works when discussing the Morning and Evening Stars, since they are both Venus. But there are distinct properties of Venus which serve as the truth conditions for propositions about the Morning Star, and those are not the same properties which serve as the truth conditions for propositions about the Evening Star. So there has been no reduction of properties, but only things. Smart makes the point in terms of psychic properties and processes, where “processes” seemingly denotes types of things.

When applied to the case of reducing the mind to something more fundamental, such as the physical, TPA becomes more salient. Consider reducing some token instance of a mental property to a token instance of a physical property of the brain. The property token of pain would be reduced to the property token of c-fiber firing. But there is still the appearance of pain, the qualitative feel, which seems quite distinct from the property token of c-fiber firing, or any of its properties. In other words, the appearance of multiple properties is explained by the existence of multiple properties that account for those appearances (Howell 104). In the case of informative property identity statements, it appears as if the number of properties increases (Howell 104).

So, attempting to reduce mental properties to physical properties will leave an appearance residue that must be accounted for by more properties. If those properties are construed as physical, then there will still be more appearances left unaccounted for. Reducing the appearance of pain to some property of c-fiber firing will leave the appearance of the appearance of pain which itself must be reduced to something physical, or be accounted for by properties that do not appear to be physical. If they’re reduced to something physical, you get another iteration of the problem, thus adding more physical properties to your ontology without fully explaining the appearances.

TPA has it that any attempt at property reduction produces more properties. In the case of the mental, there will either be unexplained appearances along with a very large (infinite?) number of physical properties of the brain, or appearances that have non-physical properties as their grounding. So, physicalists who attempt to reduce seemingly mental properties to something more fundamental actually bloat their ontology with appearance properties which are fundamentally mental, or with physical properties and unexplained appearances.

What should be noted is that this is not a unique problem for physicalism about mental properties. Rather, it is a problem for any attempt at property reduction, although what generates it seems to be closely tied to considerations about phenomenal states (Howell 2013). In the case of the Morning Star and the Evening Star, reducing the properties determining the truth conditions for propositions about the Morning Star to those determining the truth conditions about the Evening Star (or vice versa) leaves an appearance residue which will need to be explained. There is nothing overtly mental about this iteration of the problem, and it can generate its own version of TPA. However, note that it still relies on appearances as that which needs to be explained. So, it seems fundamentally tied to considerations about phenomenology.

In a future post, I will present an objection to TPA in all its forms. In the meantime, let me know what you think about this argument in the comments section, or tell me if I’ve been unclear in my presentation of the argument.

Works Cited

Howell, Robert J. (2013) Consciousness and the Limits of Objectivity: The Case for Subjective Physicalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smart, J.J.C. (1971) “Sensations and Brain Processes,” in David M. Rosenthal (ed.), Materialism and the Mind Body Problem. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

White, Stephen. (2010) “The Property Dualism Argument,” in George Bealer and Robert Koons (eds), The Waning of Materialism: New Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Capabilities, Justice, and The Thick and Thin Problem

Amartya Sen has developed an approach towards theorizing about justice that takes capabilities and functions as its primary data points. Functions are the abilities people have to do things, such as travelling abroad, eating nutritious food, and spending time with people one cares for. Capabilities are the opportunities to achieve functions, such as the opportunity to spend time with one’s friends/family, and the opportunity to eat nutritious food (Robeyns 2016). Those opportunities manifest themselves in various forms, such as access to healthy and affordable food, and the lack of legal, economic, and social barriers to free movement across nation-state borders. These data points allow for interpersonal comparisons, such as determining the resources certain people need to function such that they have lives worth living (Robeyns 2016).

The approach also provides a way of determining the conversion factor of resources. For instance, if a disabled person and an able bodied person both receive a basic income of two thousand dollars a month, but the disabled person must spend over half of that on medical supplies, then the value of that basic income is diminished relative to the able bodied person’s. The able bodied person is benefiting from lucky circumstance. So, given the capabilities approach, we could determine that both parties get a basic income, but it is fashioned to each person’s circumstances. The disabled person would probably get a larger amount of money, since the extra amount has to cover necessities to get her to the functional level of the able bodied person, which would then be the threshold that makes both their two thousand dollar checks worth the same in terms of their ability to open up avenues for both parties to live good lives by exercising capabilities.

The capabilities approach is meant to provide the concrete means by which policies may be structured in a just fashion. A problematic aspect of the approach is that it falls into the thick and thin trap. The thinner the content of the capabilities, the more room for intractable disagreement, and thus more problems for using the approach as a way of reasoning about justice. The thicker the content of the capabilities, the more room for possible ethnocentric and other power-related biases to come into play at the level of developing a determinate list.

If the theory takes the thin approach, then the content of the capabilities will not be spelled out in a robust way. The thinner the content, the more room for disagreement, as the capabilities may be described in radically different ways among different people. For example, the freedom to access nutritious food may be described in terms of animal flesh or not, which would generate a disagreement between those of the view that it’s permissible to kill and consume animals, and those who think it’s impermissible. The problem isn’t that capabilities will be multiply realized by different cultures such that one culture’s idea of travel doesn’t exactly match ours. For example, being a cosmopolitan world traveler vs. having the freedom to travel to Mecca of to visit one’s nearby but difficult to access relatives due to civil war. The former could correspond to a more Western view of freedom of travel while the latter could pick out various other conceptions from around the non-Western world & the global south. These don’t contradict each other, but are just different conceptions of the same capacity. The problem is that there will be a clash between conceptions of those capabilities. Jainists will not see themselves as realizing a culturally-variant version of the capability of access to nutritious food, because they will see the practice of killing and consuming animals as impermissible rather than just as a different way of realizing that capability. In other words, they won’t see cultural-variance as normatively relevant to cashing out conceptions of capabilities.

The thick approach probably has more promise in answering the objections above. Martha Nussbaum has provided a list of capabilities which constitute the threshold needed for the possibility of living a good life (Nussbaum 1995). By providing a determinate, revisable list, Nussbaum has the resources to avoid the objection from disagreement that plagues the thin conception of capabilities. If some group disagrees with the content of the list, that’s evidence that they’re wrong; although they could provide reasons to revise the list. Allowing for revisability shows that Nussbaum considers her perspective to be limited, and fallible. The problem with the thick approach of Nussbaum’s is not with the contents of her list per se. Rather, the problem is with her approach to determining what ought to make it onto the list (cf. Jaggar 2006 and Okin 2003). Nussbaum relies on an intuitionist method which allows for a refined selection process of intuitions and desires based on reflective equilibrium (Jaggar 315-316). The worry is that there are biases that are invisible to the moral philosopher by virtue of her privileged position, and those biases, because of their invisibility, could infect the process of selecting intuitions. If that is the case, it is also possible that the method itself could be misused and abused, in ways both visible and invisible to those in power. The list of capabilities could be subtly shaped in ways amenable to a Western conception of flourishing, leaving out important perspectives.

Another worry related to the one above is that in leaving out important perspectives, the thick version of the capabilities approach lacks moral justification. The reason for thinking this is that Nussbaum relies on overlapping consensus as a means of justifying the approach and the capabilities necessary for the threshold needed for a good life (Jaggar 312). If there are morally relevant perspectives being left out, then it is questionable whether there is a consensus in any sense that bestows justification onto the approach. Leaving irrelevant points of view out of the discussion is fine, as we would not want fascists at the table discussing the good life, but there are potential points of view that are not obviously irrelevant. Would it be permissible to leave out a perspective that allows for tradeoffs among the basic capabilities that Nussbaum takes to be incommensurable (cf. Nussbaum 1995)? That perspective would allow for a broader range of just societies, corresponding to various possible tradeoffs among the capabilities Nussbaum finds necessary for flourishing. Other possible perspectives exist that many of us would admit are reasonable enough to consider alongside our own, and thus leaving them out would be morally shameful, even if they contradict some core features of our own positions, while remaining in the spirit of liberal democratic theorizing.


Works Cited

Jaggar, Alison M. “Reasoning About Well-Being: Nussbaum’s Methods of Justifying the

Capabilities*.” Journal of Political Philosophy 14.3 (2006): 301-22. Web.

Nussbaum, Martha Craven, and Jonathan Glover. Women, Culture, and Development: A Study of

Human Capabilities. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995. Print.

Okin, Susan Moller. “Poverty, Well-Being, and Gender: What Counts, Who’s Heard?”

Philosophy Public Affairs 31.3 (2003): 280-316. Web.

Robeyns, Ingrid, “The Capability Approach”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter

2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <>.

Why I’m Skeptical of Liberalism Part 1

Public reason demands that the structure and actions of political institutions be justifiable to those affected by them. Overlapping Consensus (OC) is one way by which public reason is articulated. OC is the idea that those affected by the structure and actions of political institutions employ their own substantive conceptions of the good life such that they can converge on a set of rules governing those political institutions (Rawls 1997, 1985, 2005). Public reason then becomes the convergence onto a set of rules, where convergence itself need not presuppose any particular conception of the good, but rather it could occur via various different conceptions that overlap in terms of the rules they would agree to be governed by.

There are several worries one could have about OC. One could take issue with the egalitarian constraint on public reason due to an alleged conflation between the content expressed and the judgment about the content (Enoch 2015). Moral disputes are about the content of morality, and not judgments about morality, and the reasons people have for insisting that others do as they say are not because they are the ones who provided them (Gaus 15-16). However, this worry can be dealt with. People insist that others ought to do things because they think that they have correctly judged that those things are what others ought to do. There is still room for reasonable egalitarian constraints based on the burdens of judgment, given the fact that the normative authority to command others to do things derives (at least partly) from thinking that one has superior judgment about the situation at hand than others judging otherwise (Gaus 15-16). However, in a reasonably pluralist society, one ought to exercise more epistemic humility than those commanding others to act based on the commander’s substantive conception of the good life, which is just to say that some egalitarian constraint is a plausible measure given the burdens of judgment in modern society. So, worries about egalitarianism seem misplaced.

A more important worry comes from people who disagree with OC. In our current socio-economic and political climates, one would be hard pressed to find actual convergence among the myriad viewpoints in the realm of public discourse. But if no actual convergence occurs, then our political institutions are not based upon principles justifiable to all affected, and anarchism follows. The proponent of OC can either exclude the group of people whose views would not be amenable to convergence, or use a hypothetical pool of people affected by political institutions. Let’s take these options one at a time.

The group which is typically excluded is labeled as “unreasonable”, which is a technical term that is distinct from rationality, which is just means-ends reasoning without any constraints on the content of the ends. Reasonableness is taken to include recognition of the burdens of judgment, and willingness to propose and accept fair terms of cooperation (Friedman 2003). Unfortunately, the examples of unreasonable people are either caricatures, or extremists of various political persuasions, such as the KKK and Nazis (Enoch 121). However, unreasonableness has a scope that covers those who reject public reason constraints on justification of political coercion (Enoch 121). What this means is any theorist who disagrees with public reason liberalism is unreasonable, and therefore their consent is not necessary for political legitimacy (Enoch 121). So, people like philosophical anarchists, Marxists, Perfectionist Liberals, and anybody who rejects the notion of the burdens of judgment will be deemed unreasonable. Alongside those theorists, people from cultures that allow different considerations into the public sphere of justification will also be considered unreasonable (cf. Wingo 2005). People from Islamic cultures may see various religious considerations as properly within the scope of public reason justification, which would set them against the Western liberal tradition of restricting the scope of public reason to exclude religious reasons. So, muslims who subscribe to an Islamic conception of public reason will probably be excluded (Wingo 2005). The problem here is it seems quite plausible that academics who disagree with public reason, as well as large groups of muslims from the Middle East ought to be included when considering whose consent is necessary for political legitimacy.

Creating a hypothetical pool of people whose consent is relevant to political legitimacy probably won’t avoid the problems noted above. The problem comes in when we consider what ought to be bracketed or abstracted away when considering the hypothetical pool of people. If we abstract away the considerations those people have that could count against public reason justification, then we face the problem noted above. We’ve merely used a thought experiment to exclude the people deemed unreasonable according to the previous method. But if we do not abstract those considerations away, then convergence may not be as easy as people want it to be. If we allow, say, anarchists into the pool, they aren’t going to be alright with political coercion in any context, because they doubt that there is such a thing as content-neutral political authority (cf. Huemer 2012). So, this way of avoiding the problem of disagreement also seems to fail.

One last worry that I’ll briefly touch upon involves the usefulness of OC to actual political reality. If individual citizens of a modern (existing & actual) nation state will not voluntarily agree to their political lives being governed by rules generated by OC, then it seems that the only way to implement rules generated by OC will be through the state (Mang 8). However, if the use of state coercion is itself only justifiable given OC, then the fact that there are people who reasonably disagree creates an issue. Any rules enforced by the state onto people who reasonably disagree with OC and the subsequent rules generated will themselves be unjustified by the very standards of public reason, and therefore engaging in such an enterprise as forcing people to abide by OC is itself self-defeating (Mang 8-9).

Works Cited

Enoch, David. “Against Public Reason.” Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy, Volume 1 (2015): 112-42. Web.

Friedman, Marilyn. “John Rawls and the Political Coercion of Unreasonable People.” Autonomy,Gender, Politics (2003): 163-78. Web.

Gaus, Gerald. “On Dissing Public Reason: A Reply to Enoch.” Ethics 125.4 (2015): 1078-095. Web.

Huemer, Michael. The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Mang, Franz. “Public Reason Can Be Reasonably Rejected.” Forthcoming in Social Theory and Practice 43:2 (2017). Web.

Rawls, John. “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical.” Equality and Liberty (1991): 145-73. Web.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism: Expanded Edition. Columbia UP, 2005. Web.

Rawls, John. “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” The University of Chicago Law Review 64.3 (1997): 765. Web.

Wingo, Ajume. “Modes of Public Reasoning in the Islamic/West Debate.” Unpublished. (2005). Web.


Some Thoughts on Discourse Ethics and Criminal Justice

Discourse Ethics is a proceduralist theory of ethical reasoning that is in the tradition of critical theory and the Frankfurt School. Jürgen Habermas is perhaps the most famous proponent of Discourse Ethics (DE) in the literature. Habermas aims to provide a procedure by which participants in moral discourse can come to an agreement as to what ought to be done in situations of moral disagreement. While DE has noble intentions, it fails to provide a sufficient procedure for moral discourse due to a faulty distinction made by Habermas between the ethical and moral realms (Jaggar and Tobin 2013). DE also fails to take into account the heterogeneity of experiences rooted in oppression (Thomas 1998).

The deficiencies of DE are well explored with respect to cultural differences and similarities (Jaggar and Tobin 2013). However, an unexplored area of deficiency is within particular cultures, rather than intercultural. There are institutions within which the actors in various roles cannot enter into anything resembling an ideal speech situation without losing their respective statuses as actors in those roles. I will explore the institution of penitentiaries in relation to DE, and see if it can provide a framework for viable moral interactions between staff (officers etc.) and inmates. The strength of this approach lies in the fact that it can grant Habermas’ distinction between the ethical and the moral realms, since issues of criminal justice fall squarely on the side of universal principles of justice, rather than questions about the good life.

Habermas’ variant of DE will encounter a dilemma when it is applied to issues of criminal justice, particularly those issues about relations between corrections officers and inmates. The dilemma is: (i) if the ideal speech situation abstracts away from the fact that a participant is an inmate (or corrections officer), then issues of justice for criminals (and the accused) cannot arise on Habermas’s view, or (ii) if the ideal speech situation does not abstract away the fact that a participant is an inmate (and/or corrections officer), then an ineliminable element of power and domination arises, which violates the spirit of the ideal speech situation.

The first horn (i) of the dilemma is problematic for Habermas, because questions of how we ought to treat inmates and the accused  are quite obviously questions of justice, and not of the good life. So, if we abstract away from the fact that some of the participants in moral argumentation are in the role of inmates, then we remove the perspective of those who are necessarily powerless in relation to officers and staff. It could be argued that by removing that perspective, we not only remove the needs and interests of a distinct class of powerless people from the discussion, but we also violate epistemic norms by virtue of assuming that the perspective of an inmate is a mere contingency that does not determine their identity, and as such it can be removed from the discussion when assessing our criminal justice system (Thomas 1998). If, as advocates of DE maintain, the procedure must be applied in real world situations, rather than as a thought experiment, then abstracting away from facts about the situated identities of inmates would not be feasible if moral discourse ought to include issues of criminal justice and how inmates and the accused are treated within penitentiaries (cf. Jaggar and Tobin 392; Habermas 1990).

The second horn (ii) is probably worse for DE, as it would introduce an element of power and domination that isn’t easily eliminated. Power disparities between disputants in an argument can be exploited in ways that those in positions of power may not even be fully aware of (Jaggar and Tobin 388). An inmate, whether guilty or presumed innocent, is in a position of subordination to a class of employees of the institution in which she is housed. Corrections officers have certain powers over inmates, such as the ability to employ pain as a means of control when an inmate refuses to follow orders. Powers such as the ability to coerce through pain (along with legal justification & various signifiers of authority) constitute the role of a corrections officer in the context of a penitentiary. Various obligations generated by one’s position within the institution (along with signifiers of subordination) constitute the role of an inmate within that same context. One cannot abstract away facts about power and subordination without abstracting away the roles themselves. So, an ineliminable element of power and domination/subordination remains in any interaction between inmates and corrections officers. There is no way to escape the power disparity unless one removes the roles entirely, which would be to embrace the first horn (i).

The problematic aspect of (ii) is made more salient by considering what it means to be in custody. A common-sense analysis of this notion involves a certain class of people (corrections officers) having absolute authority over you in certain respects, such as determining where and when you can move, (in some cases) when you can speak and eat, and with whom you can communicate. Inmates have no ability to legally override this authority, and any attempt at insubordination is grounds for (allegedly) legitimate punishment. The very power disparity here between two class of people, whose lives are so intimately bound together, seems to present a problem for attempts at even coming close to an ideal speech situation.

So, it appears as if Habermas’ DE is caught in a dilemma. One horn ends up neglecting a class of persons and their needs/interests, as well as doing epistemic violence to them by virtue of ignoring their unique perspective on social reality. The other horn does not neglect anybody, but it allows a problematic element of power and domination/subordination into a situation that is supposed to replicate (as closely as possible) a situation in which parties to a dispute are on an equal playing field. As far as I can tell, the only way out is to embrace the second horn and hope for a convincing story about possible mechanisms by which we could minimize the impact of the power disparity between inmates and their jailers. However, even such mechanisms can probably never completely eliminate or sufficiently minimize the impact of such disparities. So, we ought to be skeptical about DE’s applicability to real world ethical problems.


Works Cited

Habermas, Jürgen. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1990. Web.

Jaggar, Alison M., and Theresa W. Tobin. “Situating Moral Justification: Rethinking the Mission of Moral Epistemology.” Metaphilosophy 44.4 (2013): 383-408. Web.

Thomas, Laurence (1993). Moral deference. Philosophical Forum 24 (1-3): 232-250. Web.