Why I’m Skeptical of the Horseshoe Theory

Are you a liberal? Are you a conservative? A libertarian? Left or right? Are you an anarcho-capitalist? Are you an anarcho-communist? An anarcho-syndicalist? Do you think government ought to be structured as a republic or as a direct democracy? These are all questions about people’s political ideologies. We typically individuate or distinguish between these ideologies according to a system of two independent axes that aims to pick out spectra of independent ideological positions, one economic and the other having to do with authority. There are problems with this view. For example, ideologies about political economies and the use/abuse of political authority are not neatly separable into independent spectra. Obviously, your views about if and when the state can justifiably use force to extract money from its citizenry to finance its policies will be influenced by your economic views and your views about political morality.

Opposed to this view of the political landscape is the horseshoe theory, which was developed by Jean-Pierre Faye. Horseshoe theorists view the political landscape as a single spectrum which bends like a horseshoe. As one reaches either end of the horseshoe, one approaches the extremist versions of left or right wing political ideologies. The point of this is that the left and right wings, as they go further left or right, end up converging such that the political spectrum becomes a horseshoe. While they don’t completely touch, they resemble each other enough to be more like their left or right wing extremist rivals than the centrists occupying the curved portion of the shoe. So, in essence, as left wingers and right wingers get more left wing and right wing, respectively, they end up resembling their ideological opposition on the opposite end more and more.

The problem I see with this view is that it conflates the contents of a political ideology with the tactics for implementing those contents that are seen as permissible by the proponents of those ideologies. So, a defender of horseshoe theory will point to how extremist right wingers and extremist left wingers are both willing to use violence as a means to the end of implementing their political ideologies into the social order. This is problematic, because we should individuate political ideologies based on their contents rather than the tactics contingently endorsed by their proponents. There are proponents of political ideologies who would typically not be classified as extremist who would be willing to use violence or tactics usually ascribed to extremists. The question is what the morally salient conditions are for justified uses of violence, and that is a question answered by the contents of particular political ideologies. So, ultimately we need to look to the contents rather than the tactics when individuating political ideologies.

Now, the horseshoe theorist may push back and claim that when we consider the so-called extremist left and right, their ideologies have quite similar standards by which violence or other extreme tactics are morally justified. The problem with this reply is that it’s outright false. It takes just a few minutes to look up so-called extremist left and right wing ideologies’ views about the justified and unjustified use of extreme tactics, and once you do that you’ll see that they differ significantly with respect to the reasons that they deploy to justify the use of tactics that the horseshoe theorist thinks makes them so similar.

So, while I don’t endorse the dual axis view of the political landscape, it’s clearly better as a tool for individuating contemporary political ideologies than the horseshoe theory.

Plato’s Proof of God’s Existence (Book X of The Laws)


In Book X of The Laws, the Athenian provides an argument for the existence of god. Unholy acts are committed by those who suffer from three kinds of misconception, which are that gods do not exist, or they exist but do not care about human affairs, or that they can be bribed with sacrifices (Jirsa 239; Laws Book X 885e). The Athenian believes that the atheist ought to be provided with proof of the existence of gods before any punishment is imposed on them for impiety (885c-e).[1]  The Athenian aims to provide a proof that soul is fundamental (892c-d).[2] The proof that the Athenian provides is an argument from motion (Stalley 169-170). In short, a thing can have one of two properties: (a) the property of moving other things without moving itself, and (b) the property of moving other things as well as itself (894b-c). All motion has an absolute origin, which cannot be type (a), because things of that type can only transmit motions to other things by virtue of themselves being moved by something external to them (894e). To be the originator of motion, a thing must be of type (b), because it must have the potential to originate motion within itself, as there is nothing but itself to transmit motion to other things at the beginning of the sequence of moving things. Things of type (b) are said to be alive, or ensouled (895c). So, the originator of motion is soul, which makes soul more fundamental than physical things (892c-d; 896b-c). Since soul is more fundamental than physical things, the properties of soul are more fundamental than the properties of material things (896c-d). Soul, being fundamental, is the source of everything less fundamental, which includes values like good and bad (896d).

Soul controls the heavens and the earth because they are also in motion (896d-e). The goodness or virtue and rationality of the originator of motion is inferred from the fact that the motion of the heavens is orderly and rational, which means that the originator of that motion must also be virtuous, orderly, and rational (896e-898c). This paper will be structured as follows. In section one, I will explain the doctrine against which the Athenian is arguing. In section two, I will lay out the argument’s premises, and explain the rationale behind them. Finally, in section three, I will assess the validity and soundness of the argument.

  1. Physicalism

The Athenian’s opponent is the physicalist. Physicalism is responsible for the attractiveness of atheism (887b-c). In the context of the Laws, physicalism is the doctrine that all things that come into being do so by virtue of nature, change, or art (888e).[3] The physicalist believes that the basic elements (earth, air, water, and fire) exist by nature, and they combine in various ways by chance to produce everything else that exists (889a). Things that exist by virtue of art are secondary to those that exist by chance or nature (889c). Examples of things that exist by virtue of art are things crafted by humans and human conventions (889c). When it comes to crafts that involve mixing labor with the natural world, the products such as fresh produce and meat are considered natural (Jirsa 242-243). The secondary, or less fundamental (derivative) entities are those that do not involve outright mixing of human labor with the natural world. Statesmanship, for example, seems not to involve the natural world, so it is secondary to the natural by virtue of the object of its inquiry (the state) being a product of art (889c-e). Furthermore, on the physicalist view, the gods are the products of human activity, and therefore are not ontologically primary (889e). Clearly, this threatens the notion that the laws which structure Magnesia are from the gods, so it is important for the Athenian to refute the doctrine of physicalism (886e-888e). So, the Athenian, encouraged by Clinias, sets out to formulate an argument against physicalism, which establishes the existence of god.

  1. The Argument

The Athenian begins his exposition of the argument by laying out a taxonomy of motion, which seems to be ordered according to ontological priority (Jirsa 244). The motion I classified as type (a) is identified with that which can move other things but cannot move itself, and the motion I classified as type (b) is identified with that which can move other things and itself (894b-c). Types (a) and (b) motion are considered to be the most basic kinds of motion in the Athenian’s taxonomy (Jirsa 244). Since the Athenian aims to refute the doctrine of physicalism, which says that earth, air, water, and fire are natural, or fundamental, which is to say that they are ontologically primary, and everything else derives its being from them (Jirsa 243; Laws Book X 889a). So, the Athenian must find the fundamental kind(s) of motion, and he must show that it does not fall within the set of things considered natural (fundamental) by the physicalist.

The Athenian proceeds by showing that type (b) motion is more fundamental than type (a) motion. Since all motion must have an absolute origin, there must be an originator of motion (894e). The originator cannot be of type (a), because it would have no source for its ability to move other things. If there is no prior motion to move the originator, then the motion that the originator transfers to other entities in motion must come from within the originator, which is to say that the originator is of type (b). So, the originator of motion must be self-moving and capable of moving other things. Self-motion, therefore, is the fundamental kind of motion (895b). The first premise of the argument is:

  1. Self-motion is prior to all other motion.[4]

The Athenian bolsters the first premise by considering a thought experiment. If all things in motion stopped moving and were stationary, which would be identifiable as the first motion? Type (b) must be the first, because if it were type (a), it would require a prior transfer of motion to enable the first motion to move other things, which, ex hypothesi, cannot exist (895b).

The Athenian then aims to show that soul is identical to self-motion. When we examine the world around us, those things we consider self-movers are what we classify as alive (895c). Things that are alive are also ensouled (895c). So, self-movers are ensouled, since self-movers are alive, and the set of living things is a proper subset of ensouled things (Jirsa 246). The second premise of the argument is:

  1. Soul is self-motion.[5]

The Athenian backs up the second premise by mentioning that we can see three aspects of something, namely its being, its name, and its definition (895d). The Athenian’s definition for the entities picked out by the name “soul” is just, “that which is self-moving” (895e-896a). So, the thing denoted by the name “soul” is the same thing as is defined as, “that which is self-moving.” So, to say that something has a soul is to say that it is capable of self-motion (Jirsa 246). From premises one and two, the Athenian infers that soul is prior to all other motions and entities that are or could be in motion (Jirsa 253; Laws Book X 896b-c). So, the first conclusion is:

3. Soul is prior to all other motion.[6]

The notion of priority that the Athenian employs seems to be both temporal and ontological (895b). So, soul is temporally and ontologically prior to all other motions, including the motions of the elements that the physicalist posits as fundamental. The Athenian has shown so far that soul is ontologically and temporally prior to the physical, which means that soul, rather than the elements (earth, air, water, and fire) falls in the category of natural that the physicalist employs (892c).

At this point in the argument, the Athenian suggests that it could be two souls that govern the heavens and the earth, one good and the other one bad (896e-897c). The Athenian aims to show that it is a good soul that governs the heavens and the earth, which would entail that the world we presently inhabit is ordered rationally and virtuously.[7] He points out that the products of soul guided by virtue and reason are different than those of soul not guided by reason (897b). The products of soul guided by virtue and reason are better than those produced by a soul not guided by virtue and reason. Because the heavens move in a way that resembles reason, the soul which orders the heavens must be guided by virtue and reason. But if the heavens were ordered by an irrational soul, the motions of the heavenly bodies would not be as they actually are (897b-898b). From this we get the next steps in the Athenian’s argument:

  1. If the heavens move rationally and virtuously, then soul guided by virtue and reason orders the heavens.
  2. The heavens move rationally and virtuously.[8]
  3. Soul guided by virtue and reason orders the heavens.

The second conclusion of the Athenian’s argument, then, is that the heavens are ordered by a rational and virtuous soul, because to be guided in action by virtue and reason is to be virtuous and rational. Finally, to get to god, the Athenian points out that the soul guiding the sun must be regarded by anybody as a god (899a). Since the other heavenly bodies move in ways resembling the sun in relevant respects, it follows that the souls guiding those bodies must also be regarded as gods (899b-c).

Now, to complete his case, the Athenian must show that the gods care about human affairs, and are not capable of being bribed. Since the gods are all powerful, all knowing, and all good, they cannot disregard human affairs, because doing so would call into question their power, knowledge, and goodness (901d-e). For the gods to disregard human affairs would be for them to succumb to indolence and idleness, but given their attributes, they cannot succumb to such things. Furthermore, to take bribes would be to succumb to self-indulgence, which would call their goodness into question (901e). So, the gods concern themselves with human affairs and are not susceptible to bribery.

  1. Evaluation

The Athenian’s argument seems valid. The first conclusion (3) follows from the first two premises (1 & 2) by virtue of substituting co-referring expressions (soul and self-motion). The second conclusion (6) follows from premises four and five by modus ponens. Finally, the Athenian’s conclusion that the gods concern themselves with human affairs and cannot be bribed follows from the properties he ascribes to the gods. If those properties logically exclude disregarding human affairs and being bribed, then it is a valid form of argument to move from some set of properties being possessed by some entities to the negation of the proposition that the properties logically excluded by that set are possessed by those same entities.

The Athenian’s argument is quite ingenious, but it is susceptible to various criticisms which call its soundness into question. First, the notion of ontological priority employed by the Athenian to justify his first premise can be questioned. If one embraces the (contemporary) orthodox way of doing ontology, the notion of levels of being will become unintelligible. It is only given the idea that some things are more fundamental than others such that they form more basic levels of being that the justification given for the first premise can work. Second, the reasons given to think that there must be a first motion were insufficient. Merely thinking of a hypothetical situation in which motion is stopped, and we are free to judge which motions are more fundamental than others is not enough to justify the claim that there was a first motion. The defender of the view that there is an infinite series of motion-transference that stretches backwards eternally will not see that, given a stoppage of all motion, there must be a first motion. Furthermore, Parmenides doubted the reality of motion (Stalley 170).

The fourth and fifth premises of the Athenian’s argument are also questionable. Setting aside anachronistic reasons such as the falsity of the Athenian’s thesis that the heavenly bodies move in perfectly circular orbits, there are still other reasons to doubt his premises. First, premise four is a conditional, and it seems not to be true. There are possible states of affairs where the heavenly bodies happen to move in virtuous and rational ways merely by virtue of chance, or by virtue of the nature of the elements composing them. In other words, the physicalist thesis examined in section one seems to have the resources to account for the appearance of the virtuous and rational guidance of the heavens. Perhaps the intrinsic properties of each kind of element constrains the range of possible combinations of those elements, and the possible motions of those composite objects such that they inevitably would move in apparently virtuous and rational ways. The Athenian does not address this possibility at all. So, on the physicalist view, the fourth premise is questionable because the consequent of the conditional has not been shown to be a consequence of the antecedent obtaining.

Finally, moving from the claim that the soul which guides the heavens is rational and virtuous to the claim that that soul is all powerful, all good, and all knowing seems to be a non sequitur.[9] The soul which guides the heavens may be only capable of moving the heavens and nothing else, perhaps by virtue of a limitation on its power, or on its knowledge. Maybe all such a soul can do is move the heavenly bodies in a circular fashion, forever. That soul could not concern itself with human affairs, because it would be outside of the scope of its power or knowledge to do so. Even if we grant the Athenian’s claim that the soul has the properties of maximal power, knowledge, and goodness, it may not follow that the soul could not be bribed. It could be the case that we humans are so limited in our moral knowledge, that the soul could allow the wicked to prosper by bribing it with sacrifices because doing so allows for some greater good which we cannot currently comprehend. So, even granting the set of properties that the Athenian ascribes to the soul he calls god, it does not obviously follow that that set logically excludes the ability to be bribed.


I have examined the argument in Book X of The Laws presented by the Athenian. The argument’s premises are all questionable, which means that it is within the physicalist’s rational rights to doubt the conclusions. The Athenian aimed to provide reasons to believe in gods which would be provided to atheists before punishing them for impiety (885c-e). The gods, given the Athenian’s argument, concern themselves with human affairs and cannot be bribed. They are not fictions created by humans, as the physicalist maintains (889e). However, the Athenian underestimates the resources available to the physicalist. The physicalist can resist the Athenian’s argument while remaining within her own ontological framework. So, the Athenian has failed to supply the atheist with reasons to believe in gods.


[1] Whether or not the proof is supposed to be rationally compelling or just sufficient for rational acceptance is an open interpretive question (Jirsa 241).

[2] Plato seems to use the term “natural” in the same way as “fundamental” is used by Jonathan Schaffer, which is to denote ontological priority (Chalmers 2009; Jirsa 243).

[3] I am using “physicalism” to characterize the Athenian’s opponent because his opponent holds to the view that the elements (earth, air, water, and fire) are fundamental or primary, and those elements seem paradigmatically physical entities (Jirsa 2008).

[4] See (Jirsa 253).

[5] See (Ibid 253).

[6] See (Ibid 253).

[7] By virtue of being ordered by a rational and virtuous soul.

[8] See (Book VII 822a-b) for a description of the moon, sun, and stars following a circular path, and compare with what is said at (Book X 897d-898b). Both the moon, sun, and stars and the image chosen to represent reason are circular (Jirsa 252). So, the motions of the heavenly bodies and of reason are the same.

[9] I am using the singular instead of “souls” for stylistic purposes. The Athenian’s argument actually entails that there are multiple souls that are virtuous and rational. But this does not affect my criticisms.

Works Cited

Chalmers, David John, David Manley, and Ryan Wasserman. “On What Grounds What.” Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford: Clarendon, 2009. 347-83. Print.

Jirsa, Jakub (2008). Plato on characteristics of god: Laws X. 887c5-899d3. Rhizai. A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 5:265-285.

Plato, Malcolm Schofield, and Tom Griffith. Plato the Laws. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. Print.

Stalley, R. F., and Plato. An Introduction to Plato’s Laws. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1983. Print.

Two Arguments for Hedonism

In value theory, or axiology, there are two kinds of theory: monistic and pluralistic. Monistic theories posit one kind of intrinsic value, whereas pluralistic theories posit more than one. Hedonism is a monistic theory of value which posits pleasure as the single kind of intrinsic value.

There are two interesting ways of arguing for hedonism that I want to explore. First, there is the argument from moral disagreement. The second one is the evolutionary debunking argument. Both strategies trade on an alleged fact about pleasure, which makes them variants on a more general kind of argumentative strategy. The alleged fact that both trade on is that we are directly acquainted with pleasurable mental states. Pleasure, on this view, is a property of mental states (I won’t go into what sort of property here). Since we are directly acquainted with at least the phenomenal qualities of our occurrent mental states, and pleasure is a phenomenal quality of mental states, we are directly acquainted with pleasure.

Direct acquaintance can be spelled out in various ways, but for now let’s just take it as a factive relation between a subject and some property. The relation is factive because the property must actually exist and be accessible to the subject for that property to be a member of an acquaintance relation. You can’t be acquainted with something that doesn’t exist. Similarly, you can’t know something that isn’t true. To be directly acquainted with some property is to have a special epistemic perspective on that property. For example, being in pain is an acquaintance relation because subjects are in pain, and a particular subject’s pain is had by that subject, which means that no other subject can have that same pain.[1] The subject in pain has a privileged epistemic perspective with respect to her pain. She is directly acquainted with her pain, which means she does not need to make an inference to know that she is in pain, having it is sufficient. Others cannot have this privileged perspective on her pains, but rather they must infer that she is in pain from her behavior.

Before unpacking the first argument for hedonism, we need to consider the argument from moral disagreement:

  1. In any moral disagreement, at least one party must be in error.
  2. There is widespread moral disagreement.
  3. If there is widespread error about a topic, we should retain only those beliefs about it formed through reliable processes.
  4. If there is widespread error about morality, there are no reliable processes for forming moral beliefs.
  5. There is widespread error about morality (from 1 and 2).
  6. We should retain only those moral beliefs formed through reliable processes (from 3 and 5).
  7. There are no reliable processes for forming moral beliefs (from 4 and 5).
  8. We should give up all of our moral beliefs (from 6 and 7).[2]

The hedonist responds to this argument by denying 4. There is a reliable process of forming moral beliefs, which is the process of phenomenal introspection. Engaging in phenomenal introspection reveals that we are directly acquainted with certain phenomenal properties, such as pleasure. Since we are directly acquainted with pleasure, we can see that pleasure is good. According to Neil Sinhababu, “Just as one can look inward at one’s experience of lemon yellow and appreciate its brightness, one can look inward at one’s experience of pleasure and appreciate its goodness.”[3] There is a link between the goodness of pleasure and badness of pain, and the reasons why we morally praise and blame people. When somebody tortures an innocent person, a main reason we consider the torturer bad is because we know that pain is bad, and inflicting it for no reason is also bad. We morally blame the torture for inflicting gratuitous pain, which means that there is moral disvalue in pain (and ipso facto, moral value in pleasure). So, hedonism about moral value is true.

The second argument goes like this. Our moral judgment and belief formation processes evolved under conditions which did not select for their reliability. We should not believe things produced by unreliable processes. So, we should suspend our moral beliefs and refrain from moral judgments. However, we are directly acquainted with pain and pleasure, and by virtue of that acquaintance we know that pain is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. The origins of those beliefs do not undermine their reliability. So, pain is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. Assuming no other kind of moral belief can be saved from debunking this way, it follows that we should be hedonists.

Peter Singer and Katarzyna De Lazari-Radek provide a thought experiment to back up the argument:

Thalia Wheatley and Jonathan Haidt hypnotized subjects to feel disgust when they read an arbitrarily chosen word – in this case, the word ‘often’. The students then read the following,

‘Dan is a student council representative at his school. This semester he is in charge of scheduling discussions about academic issues. He often picks topics that appeal to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion.’

Students who had been primed under hypnosis to feel disgust at the word ‘often’ were then asked to judge whether Dan had done something wrong. A third of them said that he had. The negative moral judgment was, of course, an illusion, created by hypnosis, and it gives us no reason at all to believe that Dan’s conduct was wrong. Presumably once the experiment was over, and the students had been debriefed, they would agree that Dan had done nothing wrong. Now suppose that the students had been hypnotized to believe that when they read the word ‘often’ they would develop a blinding headache. Soon after being given information containing the headache triggering word, they held their heads, moaned, asked for analgesics, and tried to find somewhere quiet to rest. Asked to rate how they are now feeling on a scale rating from ‘very bad’ to ‘very good’, they rated the experience as ‘very bad’. After the experience was over and they had been debriefed, would they change their judgment that they had a very bad experience because the judgment was induced by hypnosis? Presumably not.[4]

The point is that they were directly acquainted with the bad experience (headache pain), and regardless of the origins of the judgments made about the badness of their experiences, they were justified in believing that their experiences were very bad. Direct acquaintance is still doing the heavy lifting here, because it is by virtue of it that the students are still justified in maintaining that their judgments were reliable. In the first experiment, the students were not directly acquainted with the alleged badness of Dan’s actions, so there was nothing there to defeat the genetic defeater of their judgments (that being that they were formed by hypnosis). In the case of pain, direct acquaintance becomes a defeater-defeater, which means that it undermines the unreliable origins of judgments formed on its basis. Presumably, we can run a similar thought experiment about pleasurable experiences as well. So, the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain are not undermined by evolutionary considerations, whereas other evaluative judgments are. So, hedonism is true.

Both of these arguments are interesting in their own right. But what I find most interesting is that they rely on direct acquaintance as a means of arguing for hedonism. It seems like arguments for hedonism will typically take this form: Judgments about the value of things with which we are not acquainted are subject to epistemically unacceptable doubt. Judgments about the value of things with which we are acquainted are not subject to epistemically unacceptable doubt. Judgments that are subject to unacceptable doubt are not justified. Hedonistic judgments are judgments about the value of things with which we are acquainted. So, hedonistic judgments are justified.[5] The way I would suggest challenging this kind of argument is by questioning whether direct acquaintance is the only way to mitigate skeptical doubt. Perhaps intuitions could do the job as well, which would open up the possibility of intuitionist ethics (which tends not to be hedonistic).


[1] Sameness being numerical identity in this case.

[2] Cf. Sinhababu, The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism.

[3] Ibid.

[4] (Singer and Lazari-Radek 267-268).

[5] Presumably, the hedonist’s definition of ‘pleasure’ will cover other phenomenal states, like aesthetic appreciation, otherwise there could be other phenomenal states that seem to have intrinsic value that are not hedonic.

Works Cited

Lazari-Radek, Katarzyna De., and Peter Singer. The point of view of the universe: Sidgwick and contemporary ethics. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2014. Print.

Sinhababu, Neil, The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism.


A Thought About Arguing Against Moral Realism


Could there be a moral argument against moral realism? I’ve been thinking about that question a lot since encountering the work of Melis Erdur. If we consider meta-ethical theses like moral realism to be substantive moral claims which carry potential moral implications, then it seems like a moral argument against moral realism is a real possibility. Admitting this would call into question the (increasingly less) common assumption that meta-ethical theories don’t have moral implications. However, it seems like this assumption is false. For instance, moral realism being true would mean that we have moral reasons to act or refrain from certain actions. That we have moral reasons to act seems like a moral implication. If error theory was true, we wouldn’t have any moral reasons to act, so the truth of realism over error theory would entail moral implications.

If we admit that the boundary between ethics and meta-ethics is fuzzy, then we may have room to think about a moral argument against moral realism. For example, moral realism entails that the moral wrongness of an act is conditional on there being a human-independent moral reality which makes that act wrong (Erdur forthcoming). But is the existence of a human-independent moral reality morally relevant to the wrongness of the act? Is the realist going to admit that if we were to discover that there is no human-independent moral reality, we should drop our commitment to the moral wrongness of a certain class of actions?[1] Remember that we are assessing moral realism, and not whether or not there is an anti-realist theory which lets us admit that an act is wrong even if there is no human-independent moral reality. The realist is going to think that a commitment to realism, and nothing less, is needed to put our moral practices onto secure foundations. So, she probably won’t immediately turn to a form of anti-realism as a form of moral palliative care.

It seems like we have the makings of a moral argument against moral realism. I won’t try to provide anything more than a brief sketch in this post, but I hope to explore this notion in more depth soon. In short, if we eschew a hard and fast distinction between meta-ethics and ethics, there opens up the possibility of considering meta-ethical theories as substantively moral, and as such evaluable by first-order moral standards. For instance, we could assess moral theories by the adequacy conditions provided by Theresa Tobin and Alison Jaggar (Tobin and Jaggar 2013). If moral realism fails to live up to our evaluative standards, then it would constitute a substantive moral mistake (Erdur forthcoming). The same could go for various forms of anti-realism, like expressivism and error theory.


[1] I am unsure if this question ought to be answered by a survey of self-proclaimed moral realists. I can think of good reasons for and against doing so.

Works Cited

Erdur, Melis (forthcoming). A Moral Argument Against Moral Realism. _Ethical Theory and Moral Practice_:1-12.

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

Higher Order Disagreement and Naturalized Moral Epistemology


An adequate moral epistemology ought to have the resources to address intercultural moral disagreement. A promising way of doing moral epistemology in light of intercultural disagreement is represented in the work of Theresa Tobin and Alison Jaggar. Naturalized Moral Epistemology (NME) in the form advocated for by Tobin and Jaggar has the potential to address intercultural moral disputes in a fruitful way, because it is designed to evaluate patterns of moral reasoning (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a). Tobin and Jaggar introduce adequacy conditions that patterns of moral reasoning must meet in order to bestow moral justification onto their outputs (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b).[1] While Tobin and Jaggar’s NME is designed to address disagreement, the evaluative standards by which they assess patterns of moral reasoning reintroduce the possibility of intractable moral disagreement. The adequacy conditions which inform Tobin and Jaggar’s evaluative standards introduce the possibility of higher order disagreement about their application to particular patterns of moral reasoning.[2] The possibility of higher order disagreement is problematic for Tobin and Jaggar’s NME because their project is designed to address intracultural and intercultural disagreement, and if their evaluative standards reintroduce the possibility of such moral disagreement, their methodology fails to fulfill its purpose. If NME is designed to address a certain class of problems, but those problems are reintroduced at the level of the evaluative standards of NME, then that epistemology is problematic. In this paper, I will present a challenge to Tobin and Jaggar’s NME by showing that their evaluative standards can lead to higher order disagreement. Then I will show how the challenge of higher order disagreement can be met. In section one, I will explain Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy conditions. In section two, I will present the challenge of higher order disagreement. Finally, in section three, I will suggest some strategies dealing with those problems while remaining within the the spirit of Tobin and Jaggar’s research program.

  1. Adequacy Conditions in NME

NME is a method of determining which patterns of moral reasoning can bestow moral justification onto their outputs. The method proceeds by isolating an actual moral dispute, examining the patterns of reasoning employed in that dispute, and assessing those patterns of reasoning in light of four adequacy conditions (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a). The adequacy conditions are, plausibility to the disputants, usability by the disputants, non abuse of power and vulnerability by any disputant, and practical feasibility for the disputants The plausibility condition is that justified normative conclusions ought to be intelligible to disputants. The usability condition is that disputants ought to be able to participate in utilized reasoning practices. The non abuse condition is that no disputant can abuse positions of power or positions of vulnerability to gain an upper hand in the dispute. Lastly, the feasibility condition is that proposals ought to represent real possibilities for disputants (Tobin and Jaggar 387-389).

The plausibility condition is based on the idea that moral justification is at least partially a social phenomenon. To justify something morally is to justify something to another. So, for a pattern of moral reasoning to produce justified outputs, morally salient reasons must be understandable by those involved in the social process of justification (Tobin and Jaggar 387). The usability condition is based on the idea that those involved in the social process of justification must be able to fully participate as moral agents, which requires the ability to engage with the patterns of moral reasoning being examined (Tobin and Jaggar 387). The non abuse condition trades on the fact that coercion to do or believe something cannot constitute rational persuasion, so moral reasoning that involves abuse of power over others fails to produce justified outputs (Tobin and Jaggar 388). Finally, the feasibility condition is based on the idea that ought implies can, which means that moral reasoning ought to be action guiding, and for some form of reasoning to be action guiding, it needs to present a plan of action for the relevant situation (Tobin and Jaggar 389).

  1. Higher Order Disagreement

First order moral disagreements are disagreements about moral claims such as, “We ought to redistribute wealth according to the maximin principle” and “We ought not to redistribute wealth according to the maximin principle.” Second or higher order moral disagreements are about the moral reasoning, principles, and values involved in the process of moral justification. For example, “The maximin principle represents a just structure of wealth distribution” and “The maximin principle represents an unjust structure of wealth distribution.” So, higher order disagreement concerns standards of moral justification, the scope and applicability of moral principles, and the factors which are morally salient when assessing first order disagreements.

Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy conditions are evaluative standards by which we should assess if patterns of moral reasoning confer moral justification onto their outputs. Evaluative standards are normative, since they tell us how something ought to be, based on some paradigmatic instance of that thing or set of threshold (upper or lower) conditions. In this case, the adequacy conditions set standards that moral reasoning ought to meet if it is to confer moral justification onto its outputs. Disagreement over Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy conditions is, therefore, disagreement over moral principles, which is higher order moral disagreement.

Parties to moral disagreements can challenge the moral salience of the features picked out by the naturalized moral epistemologist if that party’s pattern of moral reasoning is judged to produce unjustified outputs. The naturalized moral epistemologist will pick out what she believes to be morally salient features of patterns of moral reasoning that either count for or against that form of reasoning according to the adequacy conditions (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). Whether or not those features are morally salient will be the crux of higher order moral disagreement.

We can also reframe the worry in terms of the plausibility condition. When the naturalized moral epistemologist claims that some pattern of moral reasoning fails to live up to her evaluative standards, the reasoning the epistemologist uses is a kind of moral reasoning. Since it is a form of moral reasoning, but the rules of the research program of NME, it ought to be vetted according to the adequacy conditions. The worry is that it will never pass the plausibility condition, since the opposing party will dispute the plausibility of the reasoning used by the naturalized moral epistemologist. How can the proponent of NME respond to the disagreement about the plausibility of her own moral reasoning? It seems wrongheaded to just reapply her adequacy conditions to her opponent’s reasoning, since that reasoning is used to dispute the applicability of the adequacy conditions to her opponent’s view. The naturalized epistemologist would be arguing in a circle. So, the challenge is to figure out a way to deal with disagreement at the level of evaluating moral reasoning, while preserving the spirit of the research program proposed by Tobin and Jaggar.

2.1. Feasibility

The challenge of higher order disagreement can be generalized to each of Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy condition. The feasibility condition will be informed by a person’s prior normative commitments, both moral and nonmoral.[3] Feasibility has to do with being able to live according to the outputs of some pattern(s) of moral reasoning, which means that the outputs must represent real possibilities (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). Whether or not something is a genuine possibility for people is not an entirely non-normative question. Human action is informed by reasons, which are normative considerations that count for or against decisions and courses of action. So, people must have reasons to adopt a way of life or some course of action. With respect to feasibility, things will count as reasons against the background of a person’s prior normative and non-normative commitments. If somebody has no reason to believe that he or she should act a certain way or adopt a certain way of life, that action or way of life cannot represent a real possibility for that person.[4] For instance, some would consider donating thirty percent of one’s income a real possibility, while others would find it unthinkable. Some people find going vegan a real possibility, while others find it to not only be economically untenable within certain areas, but also antithetical to their own ways of life. For example, in Judaism, eating meat is sanctioned by God in Genesis 3:9, “Every moving thing that liveth shall be food for you.” The reasons informing the feasibility condition would be subject to disagreement by those who interpret the feasibility condition against the background of their own prior commitments.

The Maasai hierarchs will consider their traditions and other institutions, beliefs, and practices that constitute their conception of the good life when assessing whether or not FGC as practiced within their society is morally justified. The hierarchs’ pattern of moral reasoning will be informed by a certain conception of how people in their society, and perhaps in others, ought to live their lives. Those who criticize Maasai society’s FGC practices will presumably find some or all of the hierarchs’ prior commitments implausible. The lifestyle(s) recommended by the hierarchs’ conception of the good life will pick out features of human life that their critics will not consider morally salient with respect to patterns of reasoning aimed at justifying FGC. So, the hierarchs and their critics will find themselves disagreeing at the level of the feasibility condition.

2.2. Non Abuse

Abuse of power is the unjustified use of power. So, the non abuse condition is normative, which means that it can be construed as a moral principle for moral reasoning. The non abuse condition thus introduces the possibility of higher order disagreement as well. The example provided by Tobin and Jaggar for their case study is FGC within the Maasai society (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a). The Maasai hierarchs probably believe that the patterns of moral reasoning that they employ in justifying the FGC arrangements for their society do not exploit and abuse the power they have within their society. While the hierarchs’ reasoning may involve claims about their authority over others within their society, and claims about justified coercion grounded in their authority, they would challenge claims that their reasoning involves abuse of their authority and power. So, the hierarchs will not agree that their patterns of reasoning fail the non abuse condition, because they do not think that those with whom they disagree have managed to point out morally salient features of their reasoning that cause it to fail to meet the non abuse condition.

If opponents of the hierarchs argue from feminist grounds that their patterns of moral reasoning assume that gender differences are morally salient such that they provide the means for justifying the current state of affairs with respect to FGC, then the hierarchs will object to the normative principle(s) informing the feminist grounds of their opponents’ critique. The debate becomes a dispute about the normative principle(s) informing feminist critique of their patterns of reasoning. So, we have higher order disagreement about the non abuse condition. In this case, it is a dispute about the morally salient features of the patterns of reasoning employed by the Maasai hierarchs that involve power and authority. If power and authority inform the hierarchs’ patterns of moral reasoning in ways that lack moral salience, the non abuse condition does not apply. But, if their patterns of moral reasoning do involve power and authority in morally salient ways, then they have met the abuse condition, and their moral reasoning fails to produce morally justified outputs.

2.3. Plausibility

While Tobin and Jaggar regard justification as the social activity of giving and requesting relevant reasons for claims, the possibility of higher order disagreement about the plausibility condition remains (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). The Maasai hierarchs’ patterns of moral reasoning will be met with claims of implausibility from their opponents. Those critical of FGC as practiced by the Maasai society will not find the arguments and reasoning given by the hierarchs to be plausible justifications for the practices being defended. However, the reasons put forward by the critics of FGC will not be found to be plausible by the Maasai hierarchs. The disagreement between the hierarchs and their critics will then be about the standards each side employs in assessing the plausibility of the other’s patterns of moral reasoning.

2.4. Usability

The usability condition will face higher order moral disagreement as well. The Maasai hierarchs’ patterns of moral reasoning will not be seen as authoritative by their critics (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). One reason to think that the challenge of higher order disagreement generalizes to the usability condition is that the authoritative clause of the condition seems to collapse into the plausibility condition, insofar as authoritative reasoning is reasoning that generates morally justified outputs. It seems like “authoritative” is being used by Tobin and Jaggar to mean something like, “able to produce morally justified outputs” where outputs are morally justified only if they can be shown to be justified to those affected by them, which is just the plausibility condition (Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). If I am on the right track, then there is overlap between the usability condition and the plausibility condition, and the potential for higher order disagreement can be found in that overlap.

  1. Strategies for Avoiding Higher Order Disagreement

Tobin and Jaggar have developed a promising way of evaluating moral reasoning. The potential for disagreement about the evaluative standards by which they assess moral reasoning is not sufficient to cast doubt on the fruitfulness of their research program. In this section, I will develop some strategies for dealing with higher order disagreement about the adequacy conditions advocated for by Tobin and Jaggar (2013b).

First, when engaging in Tobin and Jaggar’s form of NME, the potential for intractable disagreement is lessened if those assessing the forms of reasoning are embedded within the culture whose practices are ultimately being critiqued, such as the Maasai society and FGC. Not only does this avoid the possibility of hermeneutic injustice, since those embedded within the Maasai culture share the same language and conceptual repertoire with the Maasai hierarchs, but it also avoids the potential for ethnocentric bias (Fricker 2014).[5] Furthermore, we should privilege the testimony of those affected by the culture’s practices and institutions which are the subject of moral critique. Moral deference is owed to victims of injustice, because they have a special insight into what it’s like to suffer the particular injustice that they are victims of. Epistemic acquaintance with properties, individuals, and states of affairs provides insight into those properties, individuals, and states of affairs that those who lack acquaintance with them cannot have (Howell 2013; Russell 1912). Those subject to injustice in the Maasai society will provide valuable testimony that can be used to assess the patterns of moral reasoning that are intended to justify FGC, because they are acquainted with the injustices they suffer, along with the consequences of those injustices (Thomas 1993).[6]

A worry now arises about how to distinguish those within Maasai society who are affected by FGC in morally salient ways from those who may be affected by it, but not in morally salient ways.[7] What is needed is a way to pick out those in the Maasai society who suffer  injustice by virtue of permitting or prohibiting FGC. I propose that we have some kind of faculty of moral perception, which includes the ability to detect moral properties instantiated by certain states of affairs (McBrayer 2009). Our moral sense is analogous to perception insofar as it, like perceptual modalities, provide us with non-inferentially justified beliefs about the (moral) world (McBrayer 2009; Audi 2013).[8] Our moral sense differs from our other perceptual modalities insofar as some emotions can be forms of moral seeing, whereas emotions tend not to be as highly regarded in the epistemology of sense perception (Srinivasan 2014; Jaggar 1989).

We have not yet avoided the potential for moral disagreement at the level of judgments caused by the moral sense. What is needed is a model of moral education, which is a method of finely tuning the moral sense so that it can help us detect the morally salient features of states of affairs, such as injustices being inflicted upon people. Elizabeth Anderson in “The Lindley Lecture” provides a model of moral progress which can be utilized for the purpose of moral education (Anderson 2014). Anderson shows how moral progress is possible by examining the patterns of moral reasoning employed by the abolitionist movement in Britain. Social movements prove to be one of the most effective vehicles of moral progress on Anderson’s analysis (Anderson 2014). My suggestion is that those engaged in Tobin and Jaggar’s form of NME ought to study cases of moral progress such as the one Anderson examines. By studying those cases, one can finely tune one’s moral sense so that it is sensitive to the morally salient features of those situations, and situations resembling them in relevant ways.

Now the naturalized moral epistemologist has some background moral knowledge about the morally salient features of certain contexts, against which she can examine other situations that resemble the ones she has studied. She will be able to pick out the morally salient features of new situations insofar as they relevantly resemble those she has examined. Those suffering from various injustices can now be identified by virtue of a moral sense tuned to the morally salient features of situations which resemble the one currently being examined. Once the victims of injustice are identified, they can provide the naturalized moral epistemologist with vital testimony about the moral status of the cultural institution or practice being critiqued (Thomas 1993).[9]

Once the naturalized moral epistemologist is able to reliably identify victims of injustice, she can overcome the possibility of disagreement about the non abuse condition. Victims of the abuse of power will be identifiable because the epistemologist has examined situations in which people are victims of similar kinds of abuses of power. She can then figure out which pattern of moral reasoning involves an abuse of power in the case she examines. For the feasibility condition, disagreement about people’s prior commitments will persist, but the epistemologist can now see who is victimized by the influence of those commitments on patterns of moral reasoning. She can then determine whether or not some pattern of moral reasoning involves commitments which will victimize some parties to the disagreement being examined. The usability condition presents similar problems as the plausibility condition. Regarding the plausibility condition, the potential for disagreement can be avoided since the epistemologist can pick out victims of epistemic injustices that are the product of the pattern of moral reasoning being examined. If the Maasai hierarchs claim that their critics are employing standards of evidence with which they disagree, this raises a meta-epistemological issue which I will address in the next section.

3.1. A Meta-Epistemological Worry Addressed

One worry regarding the plausibility condition, which can also be rephrased as a problem for the entire strategy that I suggested for dealing with higher order disagreement, is that the disputants will claim that their critics are using standards of evidence with which they disagree. This is a challenge to the naturalized moral epistemologist to provide non-question-begging reasons to think that the moral judgments she makes, based on a finely tuned moral sense, are reliable. In other words, why would my strategy for finely tuning the moral sense of the naturalized moral epistemologist produce reliable judgments about who is and who is not the victim of injustice in particular situations?

There are two ways for the proponent of NME to address this worry. First, what is being asked is strikingly similar to the sorts of questions asked by traditional epistemologists who concern themselves with refuting the skeptic. One way of motivating skepticism is by presenting cases of somebody who is unmoved by any dialectical considerations for some common-sense position, such as the mind-independent reality of the external world, or the reliability of our senses. The meta-epistemological challenge resembles the structure of this sort of project, insofar as it asks for some reasons that are external to the set of judgments produced by the procedure being evaluated to believe that the procedure produces reliable judgments. In this case, the challenge assumes that the naturalized moral epistemologist who undergoes moral education according to the guidelines I lay out must provide a non-moral reason to believe that her moral sense is a reliable way of forming moral beliefs, detecting morally salient properties, such as somebody being the victim of an injustice, and correct moral judgments. However, this assumption is akin to asking the naturalized epistemologist who studies perception to provide a priori justification for the claim that perception is a reliable means of forming perceptual beliefs and judgments. Since the naturalized epistemologist eschews the structure of theorizing assumed by this meta-epistemological challenge, and because that eschewal is built into the very research project of both naturalized moral epistemology and naturalized epistemology of perception, the person pressing this challenge is begging the question in favor of a more traditional conception of epistemology.[10] The naturalized epistemologist who studies perception eschews a priori theorizing about the epistemic credentials of perceptual modalities, and analogously, the naturalized moral epistemologist should eschew the demand for a wholly non-moral means of evaluating moral judgments.

The second way to address the challenge is by questioning the assumption that we need non-question-begging reasons to think that the naturalized moral epistemologist can pick out instances of injustice. When it comes to moral epistemology, some questions just need to be begged. We must rely on moral reasons to assess our patterns of moral reasoning, but while this begs the question, it does not do so in an epistemically damaging way (Setiya 76-84). Similarly, when assessing observational beliefs or judgments, we must rely on previous observations that we take to be reliable perceptions, and determine those reliable perceptions resemble the observational beliefs or judgments in epistemically salient ways.[11] For NME, we must rely on past moral judgments that we take to be reliable to assess moral reasoning and moral judgments or beliefs in an analogous way. By utilizing my strategy for finely tuning one’s moral sense, the naturalized moral epistemologist can produce reliable moral judgments which not only aid in dealing with disagreement, but also serve as paradigmatic moral judgments, against which moral reasoning can be assessed. Those paradigmatic moral judgments constitute the basis for the applying Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy conditions to particular cases.


I have examined the naturalized framework for doing moral epistemology proposed by Tobin and Jaggar, and found the potential for a problem that is left unaddressed. I presented a challenge to the adequacy conditions by which Tobin and Jaggar assess particular instances or patterns of moral reasoning. If the adequacy conditions are normative, they aim to pick out morally salient features of moral reasoning that either tells for or against the ability of that reasoning to produce justified outputs. However, parties to moral disagreements will challenge the moral salience of the features that the NME proponent picks out. So, Tobin and Jaggar’s framework must include a way to address this higher order disagreement about their evaluative standards. I presented the sketch of a method of moral education for the naturalized moral epistemologist that finely tunes her faculty of moral sense in a way that allows her to reliably identify victims of injustice(s). She can then use the testimony of those victims to aid her in identifying the morally salient aspects of the patterns of moral reasoning which she is examining. I then examined a meta-epistemological challenge to my framework for moral education, and concluded that it either begged the question against NME, or assumes that some questions ought not to be begged when doing moral epistemology. Tobin and Jaggar’s adequacy conditions remain fruitful ways of evaluating patterns of moral reasoning.


[1] Many things are the bearers of moral justification, such as judgments, beliefs, idea, thoughts, and behaviors. I use “outputs” to cover the set of bearers of moral justification.

[2] The thick/thin difference is irrelevant here, since on the thick reading, the contents of the conditions will be loaded with the normative contents believed by the disagreeing parties, and on the thin reading the conditions will have standards of applicability informed by the moral standards held by the disagreeing parties. Higher order disagreement obtains regardless of whether it’s within the contents of the conditions themselves, or their applicability conditions.

[3] Normative commitments that are not moral include aesthetic, cultural, epistemic, and prudential commitments, among others.

[4] This also follows from the plausibility condition, since a pattern of moral reasoning cannot generate moral justification for people who have no reason to adopt that pattern of reasoning. However, feasibility also includes prudential reasons.

[5] Assuming the readers of this paper are not from the Maasai society. Assessing a very different society from our own introduces the potential for bias.

[6] The testimony must be relevant to FGC in this case, so those who are affected by FGC are those whose testimony is most relevant.

[7] For example, girls and women who are cut vs. men who find the end result of FGC aesthetically pleasing and desirable in a potential spouse.

[8] See Huemer 2008 for a critique of the idea of moral perception and a defense of an intuitionist epistemology. I suspect that talk of moral perception or sense vs. moral intuition is superfluous to the point I am making about moral education as a means of picking out instances of injustice. Both epistemologies seem compatible with the view of moral education that I advocate for in this paper.

[9] They can also engage in the process of NME alongside or in place of the naturalized moral epistemologist, assuming they themselves are not a practitioner of NME.

[10] Enoch and Schechter in their paper, “How are Belief-Forming Methods Justified?” defend a similar view which takes basic sources of evidence to be justified by virtue of their role in a project in which thinkers are rationally required to engage.

[11] I use “we” to pick out anybody engaged in the process of naturalized moral or non-moral epistemology.

Works Cited

Anderson, Elizabeth. “Social Movements, Experiments in Living, and Moral Progress: Case Studies from Britain’s Abolition of Slavery.” The Lindley Lecture. The University of Kansas. February 11th, 2014.

Audi, Robert. Moral Perception. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.

Enoch, David, and Joshua Schechter. “How Are Basic Belief-Forming Methods Justified?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 76.3 (2008): 547-79. Web.

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

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

Huemer, Michael. Ethical Intuitionism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Jaggar, Alison. “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology.” Inquiry 32.2 (1989): 151-76. Web.

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

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

Mcbrayer, Justin P. “A Limited Defense of Moral Perception.” Philosophical Studies 149.3 (2009): 305-20. Web.

Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy. New York: H. Holt, 1912. Print.

Setiya, Kieran. Knowing Right from Wrong. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Srinivasan, Amia. In Defense of Anger. Aired on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought, 27th August 2014.

The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments. Trenton: I. Collins, 1791. Print.

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

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 <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/facts/>.

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 =<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/kant-transcendental-idealism/>.

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 = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/epistemology-naturalized/>.

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.