Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why it matters that we support gay marriage

Anne Russell is a personal friend of mine. She has recently published an opinion piece where she has admitted being confused and maddened by how stridently LBGT people argue for equal recognition of gay marriage, an institution she believes everybody would be better off without. I found her case to be deeply unconvincing, and here is my piece in response.

Anne Russell has recently argued that gay people, and others who don’t fall in the mainstream of heterosexual monogamy, shouldn’t feel compelled to campaign for gay marriage, and that we are all better off without the institution, gay, straight or otherwise. There are serious problems with the case she makes: a number of simple matters of fact on which she is mistaken which undermines many of the points she is trying to make, and, more importantly, it is very unclear how the various things she says are supposed to come together. It is unclear in the extreme why anything about the sexual orientation of Russell or her intended audience is supposed to matter if the point is that marriage in its own right is undesirable. That whole issue is simply a monstrous red herring, one with very serious consequences discussed later in the piece.
First-off, there are a number of claims Russell makes with great confidence but that nobody should believe. She claims that most New Zealanders have come to acknowledge that life-long monogamy is neither practical nor desirable. For Russell’s point to go through, she needs the latter, more striking claim. And there is simply no evidence for that. While the marriage rate is steadily decreasing (and about a third of marriages end before the 25th anniversary, more than half of those before 13 years), that doesn’t mean people are giving up on long-term monogamy. It is estimated that around two in five people in long-term partnerships are so de facto, without legally formalising their relationship. Pointedly, about a third of all marriages being entered into today have at least one of the couple be a divorcee. If anybody would be clear on why long-term monogamy might be a bad idea, it would be these people, yet there is one divorcee willing to give the institution another go for every two wide-eyed newcomers to the altar (all of these figures are from Statistics NZ). This is not a decisive case against Russell’s point, but it is far stronger than the case she can make for it. We must conclude that her claim that marriage is now largely seen as undesirable is pure obiter dictum on her part, and she doesn’t have the standing to make it.
She goes on to say that marriage is soiled by its history as a capitalist institution which began in order to trade women as property, and should be abandoned accordingly. This is false in every detail. Marriage and its analogues (long-term monogamous relationships which are the foundations of households) exist throughout all of human history, whereas capitalism began at the earliest in late 18th century Britain. Nor does marriage depend on private property. Russell needn’t have looked far for an example, since traditional Māori society held property in common but had, for the most part, marriages like described above. Marriage doesn’t treat spouses as property in any strict sense, and never has: marriage partners have never been bought on the open market, nor does one resell them, nor are they a fungible commodity – that is, one spouse cannot be replaced by another the way you would pints of milk. (There have been societies where you buy concubines, but in I don't know of nor have succeeded in finding any where this trade in domestic sex slaves was done to the exclusion of marriage between people of the same social status, which is what is at issue).
What happens instead is that a marriage changes a person from belonging to one household to belonging to another (or, in more recent times where people don’t live with their family till they marry, officially recognises such a move). This has often historically lead to some fiercely restrictive circumstances for women given that men were the lords of the household and had considerable power in that role, often to the great harm of the women. But that relationship isn’t an ownership relationship. Russell has made the mistake of thinking that all such transactions are property transactions, and has accordingly missed the most deep-seated and important aspects of the culture she is critiquing. Reasons of space stop me from giving similar attention to other claims Russell makes, but the errors discussed here critically undermines her case as a whole. In conclusion, there might be serious reasons to question the institution, but not the ones she gives.
The purpose of Russell’s piece seems to me muddled in the extreme, something exacerbated by her later acknowledgement that if she were to vote on the issue she would do so in support of gay marriage. If the point was to have us reconsider the institution, she has failed – her case is misinformed and ill-conceived, and she doesn’t seem to herself understand marriage or its place in wider society. And we need to carefully consider the role marriage plays to do justice to the issue. Russell points out that many of the benefits attached to marriage –commitment, children, family ties – are not its exclusive province. But that goes both ways: when she complains that marriage also engenders jealousy, dissatisfaction, and prompts infidelity, we shouldn't confusedly identify them with marriage either. In both cases what Russell is talking about is simply the consequence of long-term intimate relations people have – whatever their sexuality, whatever the institutions in the background. 
What is at stake is LBGT people's ability to at all participate in our way of life (one, thankfully, which New Zealand secures through its legislation on same-sex civil unions and de facto relationships). That is why Russell's endorsement of the pernicious nonsense that gay people shouldn't try to be too much like straight couples is misguided and can only be harmful. LBGT people also have commitments, family ties, and the prosaic concerns of hearth and home. The fight for gay marriage is a fight in order to not close to these people the avenues our culture allows for the maintenance of their home affairs – if you're LBGT, not allowing gay marriage is to undermine your ability to look after you and yours. For that reason Russell's comments show a remarkable lack of sensitivity for other people's struggles, and can only make mischief. Accordingly, she should instead be content to live and let live.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rest in Peace - Peter Goldie

Today I received sad news about the passing of Peter Goldie, a philosopher who specialised in the emotions, personality and aesthetics. I quote the short announcement by some of his colleagues that they sent out:

Peter Goldie 1946-2011

We are very sad to report that Peter Goldie died of cancer last night after a brief illness.

Philosophy was Peter Goldie’s second career. Before training as a philosopher he had a twenty-five year career in the City of London, culminating as the Chief Executive Officer of a public company listed in the FTSE 100. In 1990 he switched direction, studying for a BA at University College London, and then a BPhil and DPhil in Oxford. After that he was a Lecturer and then Reader at King’s College London, before moving to Manchester in 2005 to take up the Samuel Hall Chair in Philosophy.

He first became well-known for his monograph The Emotions 2000. On Personality followed in 2004, as well as a number of edited works in ethics, aesthetics and the philosophy of mind. Shortly before he died he sent his publishers the final typescript of his book The Mess Inside: Narrative, Emotion and the Mind. He was also pleased last week to see an advance copy of a collection he edited with Elisabeth Schellekens, The Aesthetic Mind.

Peter had a distinctive philosophical voice and range of interests. His death is a great loss to philosophy and his friends.

Matthew Kieran
David Papineau
Elisabeth Schellekens
Goildie's book on the emotions  (The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration) is my favourite on that topic - with its precision and clarity mixed with a broad scope and sensitive eye to the issues, I believe it is the best book on the subject by an embarrasing margin. I had the good fortune to meet with Goldie a number of times when he was an academic visitor to the University of Auckland. He was gracious and tremendously pleasant in conversation, drawing on a fine wit and a deep appreciation of literature. He took great care to spend a lot of time with the graduate community here, offering us lots of feedback and encouragement. Here is a video of the public lecture he gave for the occasion, and here is a radio interview he gave, for those of you unfamiliar with his work. This is a large loss to the philosophy community, and I offer my sincere condolences to his friends and family.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The problems of the problems of philosophy

Very often in philosophy getting clear on what the question is is one of the hardest parts of answering it. I set out to write something on the way I do philosophy, because the question of how we should approach it is one of the most difficult and bitterly fought of all philosophic debates. So, it should have been no surprise to find that I got stuck doing so. In the spirit of better blogging – making shorter posts more often – and in order to do these issues justice, I'm splitting the discussion into a sequence of posts. Here is the first one, on why philosophy problems are especially difficult.

Philosophy is a strange and often frustrating field of study. One of the more amusing examples of this is the observation that the quickest way to get two philosophers to disagree is to ask them what philosophy is. The podcast PhilosophyBites, where they have philosophers do short interviews introducing their research, has an episode where they play back all the answers they've received to the question 'what is philosophy?', and a surprising number of the responses are simply laughter. Faced with how large and far-ranging the scope of that question is, and how little traction you have to begin to answer it even after a lifetime as a professional philosopher, laughter is one of the few responses available. How could you begin to answer it?

A professional philsopher has a great deal of experience to fall back on, but that is exactly the problem – all of the experience of a career in philosophy points towards how difficult answering that question is. This is because there does not seem to be any stable position to build from, and the longer you are in the game, the more levels of uncertainty become apparent. To put it bluntly, everything is controversial. It is not clear what philosophy is about – traditionally, it's about the big, ultimate questions like 'what is the meaning of life?', but nobody seems to be able to say what those questions are about, or what would count as an answer. Also, it is not obvious how philosophy should be done – much of the most bitter fighting in the field is about that very question, and the most spectacular examples of where things have gone wrong is where a movement arises who tries to impose a certain method to philosophy, and then crashes and burns.

This drives many observers up the wall with frustration, and more than one person, after exposure to philosophic argument, concludes that the field is hopeless – a bunch of highly educated people spinning their wheels in the mud, going nowhere. If there is nothing which philosophers can agree on, after all of that talk, then it is easy to wonder what the point of the exercise is. Even if we take as read that all the issues above are not going to be solved soon, there are at least two answers to the worry that philosophy is pointless. The first two puts the issue into perspective, and the third is what I base my own approach on, and is the focus of this series of posts.

The first response, which is not to be underestimated, is that something we have learnt from philosophy, and learnt in spades, is what doesn't work. This doesn't seem like much comfort. We certainly aren't going to come to any interesting discoveries by a process of elimination, since we aren't choosing among a restricted set of options. But many approaches which we have discovered to be wrong have turned out to be mistaken for deep and far-reaching reasons. This is especially important since a large amount of classic philosophic problems are attempts to make sense of where it seems our common sense provides contradictory answers. Finding out which approaches lead to inconsistencies in one of these cases is a warning about the extent to which we can take commonsense answers for granted. Knowing what doesn't work might not help us to grasp the truth, perhaps, but it does allow us to avoid error. There are mistakes we can avoid simply by thinking about matters carefully enough, and we'd be doing something wrong to blunder on regardless.

This observation leads us to the second answer to the worry that, in the face of widespread disagreement, it isn't the case that each answer is as good as another. Not everything is up in the air all at once. Each approach might have its problems, but they are specific problems – they also have things which they handle well. Philosophy might not have provide all the answers, but it does give us a tremendously fine-grained understanding of the problems. This is the motivation behind something philosophers are apt to say – one of the most annoying utterances in a supremely annoying field- that 'this might be wrong, but not for that reason'. And, again, this gives us the tools to avoid errors we would otherwise be vulnerable to. This is something which becomes clear when we look at the failures of philosophic research programmes, when people propose a new way of doing philosophy, and why they have come undone. There were the successes of that programme which got people excited about them, or at least which motivated the attempt, and how many of them survived the failure of the programme is very instructive.

Finally, what I take to be the most important observation – but also the most controversial – is that philosophical issues are exactly the most difficult, uncertain ones. Philosophy is the 'too hard basket' for human knowledge. Normally, people aren't as fastiduous about how they try to answer questions as we are in philosophy. They pass the buck, as it were, on what the exact answer is to certain fundamental questions – what the limits of their methodology are, for instance, or whether certain fundamental assumptions are warranted. These issues which are passed on to someone else still need to be addressed. And philosophers are at the end of the chain – they will get stuck into the problems other people would rather avoid. But there is no quicker way to make grievious errors than to make commitments which turn out to be mistaken.

If I am right on this last point, then we should expect also that once an issue really does get settled, philosophers will stop being interested in them. And I believe this is the case. A lot of this can be explained psychologically – it takes a certain type of person to be attracted to philosophy, the type who is not afraid of getting into nitty-gritty which other people find difficult and boring, and correspondingly finds easier-going fare less interesting. That is undoubtedly true of many people in the field, though I hesitate to generalise too much. But I believe this goes deeper than that. If I am right about that, then we can say something substantive about how philosophy gets done.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Media Failures Surrounding the England Riots

On Wednesday 17/8 Scoop Independent News ran a piece I wrote about the dramatic but uninformative coverage of the riots in London and elsewhere in England earlier this month. Since it has now gone to pasture in their archives, I'm posting the piece here as well, making use of the occasion to embed a bunch of links to stories where appropriate, and make a small correction.

In the aftermath of the riots in London and elsewhere in the UK a little over a week ago we have been subjected to no end of bellyaching, hand-wringing, and a torrent of misguided comment and analysis. The news coverage has all-too-often failed its audience. The BBC has had to apologise twice in the past week for ill-conceived broadcasts, first for its offensive interview where a news anchor thought it necessary to accuse a black broadcaster in his seventies of condoning and participating in the riots, and then for a radio feature which asked "Is there a problem with young black men?" The problematic reporting has spilt over into New Zealand, as can be seen in a wire-story run in the New Zealand Herald which pointed to Operation Trident as a success story in reducing tensions between police and the communities involves – the same police operation during which the shooting and killing of Mark Duggan took place, and which sparked the riots.

As for the analyses offered, the views on display have been depressingly predictable. Many on the left were quick to point out the possible effects of widespread disillusionment with the system. They cite the wildly different fortunes of the working poor and the unemployed, compared to the glittering fortunes of their neighbours in the financial districts, as well as the bad and worsening employment situation alongside the weighty cuts to social services. Be this as it may, the characters in this story aren’t really the ones participating in the riots, who came from a wide range of demographics and most of whom certainly had nothing more in mind than having a riot. The loudest voices of the right have seen no use for such compassion and want all involved pilloried, each commentator having their own list of whom they would see vengeance visited on. In perhaps the most confused example, Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail has given a long and single-minded account of why this is all the fault of feminists. One wonders why, if the cause for the riots has to do with feminist influence on the Labour government, the riots happened well into David Cameron’s very masculine administration, and after they started to form the social services in their mould. The most common line of explanation, also taken by the UK government, is that this is an outburst of criminality. This is a classic and unfortunate example of trying to pass off the statement of the problem as an explanation, and we are left no wiser. These responses, and most of the other pieces foisted on the public, read like they were written some time ago and stored in a file for the right occasion. Or perhaps they are simply ramblings off of the top of a correspondent’s head. In neither case is there a link drawn between the stories they have to tell, nor the events they are supposed to be commenting on. We in New Zealand have fared no better, as Paul Holmes has in the Herald wondered whether the rioters should have been shot in the street. This casual bloodthirstiness is voiced in a sentence tossed off carelessly at the end, after paragraphs of first detailing a book about Winston Churchill he was reading, then admitting he had no idea why any of this happened (or, we might add, what the architecture of Churchill’s home has to do with it).

This type of media failing can benefit nobody, as confusion is responded to with more confusion, in a display which wavers between self-absorbed grandstanding and gawking uselessness. In aiming for a better treatment of events, any worthwhile discussion of the riots would have to acknowledge that there is no single body of people who count as the rioters. There are going to be different groups of people with different aims, motivations, and actions, each needing to be treated in their own right. Different commentators have told different stories which might work for some of these groups, but we have not been treated to a comprehensive and satisfactory overview. There are going to be the looters and arsonists, the criminal element who have attracted all of the attention. An appropriate response to their involvement would need to account not only for what allowed such a reaction to get going, but also how it was allowed to continue – the lack of compassion or restraint needs to be addressed, as well as the feeling of impunity with which many of them displayed. There are also those who joined with the riots but not with the looting and arson, who may very well have acted out of a frustration at a system they might conclude takes little account of them, except as a nuisance. These protests might have lead to the heated atmosphere which the looters opportunistically made use of, but by no means must we take these groups to be the same – one can easily be disaffected without being a thug. Any account of what motivated these groups must also explain why the riots had such a wide uptake across England, quickly spreading to other disaffected communities not linked by the Mark Duggan shooting. Also something to take account of is why the anti-government protestors, who have been at the forefront of other recent show-offs with police, were nowhere to be found. There are also going to be the members of the affected communities who protested against systematic police mistreatment, a longstanding and difficult problem. Since 1990 in the UK there have been over 1400 deaths after contact with the police, and not a single conviction for murder or manslaughter for any of them (New Zealand fares better, with proportionally far less deaths and more convictions of police wrongdoing, though only for lesser offences than murder or manslaughter). To put this into perspective, whereas about a 1000 people have been charged in the aftermath of the riots, a crowd of somewhere between 2000 and 5000 in Birmingham have come together in solidarity after the violence. These vigils for peace have received scarcely any mention. And these people, who would be the same ones who were hiding in their homes during the fires and looting, will also be the people the police will spread-eagle against the walls of Hackney and Tottenham in the crackdown to follow. This selective attention, ignoring the everyday troubles of those at the centre of the issues in favour of the spectacle of the looters, tarring everybody with the same brush, is a deep failure of our understanding of the issues. The resentment that will follow can only make matters worse. We owe it to those caught up in these troubles to make a measured response, or risk having the same thing happen again and again.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Limited conventionalism and the law

For the past few years I've had an on-going research project of trying to use the framework David Lewis developed for analysing conventions in the interesting meta-ethical case where whatever basic principles we might have (for this purpose it doesn't matter what they are - one problem at a time!) don't give us enough guidance and we end up with equally attractive but mutually exclusive options and no principled way to choose between them. By now I've polished my approach down quite a bit, so here is a short sketch of it I've written today applied to a few examples from the literature and a sketch to how it might account for at least some instances of the origins and authority of the law.

Limited Conventionalism and the Law


In this essay I introduce my ‘limited conventionalism’ as a naturalistic model for the derivation of moral obligations. Limited conventionalism is the application of David Lewis’s analysis of conventions applied to the ethical case where our moral code fails to give us clear guidance. The problem is that almost any moral standard, and all of those putatively derived from natural facts about human beings, lack the detail to specify unique best responses to every situation, but instead leave us with a set of equally attractive but mutually exclusive options and no way to choose between them. Limited conventionalism is the claim that in such cases we can establish a convention recommending one of these best candidates over the others, that we would be justified in doing what the convention recommends and morally unjustified in not following it. Those features of human beings on which naturalists hope to construct an account of ethics would, on limited conventionalism, be the criteria by which the best candidates get picked out would be. In this manner we are able, I argue, to derive an adequate moral system from purely naturalistic grounds.
As an illustration of this point, I apply my model to the ‘pluralistic relativism’ of David Wong, whereby there are natural constraints on the type of society in which humans could flourish, but that these limitations radically underdetermine the type of moral code people can follow, leaving room for incompatible but equally good moral codes specific to a society. I also sketch out how limited conventionalism would do with other approaches, like the more thoroughgoing anti-realism of John Mackie or more modest views where what conventions offer aren’t new principles but only responses to particular problem situations.

Lewisian Conventions and Limited Conventionalism

A convention is a structure of expectations about a recurring co-ordination problem such that people in such-and-such situations do this rather than that. Because you have justified expectations of how others will act, and they of you, you can reason towards mutually satisfactory ends. The set of best candidates come from comparing the preferences of everybody in the situation and choosing the alternatives where everybody can do no better if all other parties act as expected. For instance, in the prisoner’s dilemma the two prisoner’s both confessing or both staying silent are the two best candidates, while one confessing and the other not isn’t, and if two of us are trying to arrange a meeting, us both being at some particular place is a best candidate while one of us being at one place and the other somewhere else isn’t. For a convention to arise, these best candidates need to be more attractive to those involved than having the co-ordination problem continue. An interesting feature about Lewisian conventions, which carries over to limited conventionalism, is that if you end up choosing one of the best candidate options, it makes no difference how that choice is made. What matters is that it is common knowledge which course of action gets recommended. Two other pertinent features of Lewisian conventions is that none can arise which aren’t mutually beneficial, and once a convention exists, you are obligated to follow it.
To apply Lewisian conventions to the moral underdetermination case, we first arrange the available options based on how well they conform to some shared moral standard. Then we separate off a class of best candidate options which perform no worse than any other options in light of that shared standard. The convention then gets established to recommend one of these candidates rather than the others. Once again, the manner in which one gets chosen doesn’t matter, as long as it is one of the best candidates and the recommendation becomes common knowledge. Thus, limited conventionalism is a way to extend the set of shared moral obligations within a community.
Drawing up a convention is thus a two stage process: first at least some of the best candidate options are identified, and then (through whatever method) one of them is chosen and that choice is made common knowledge. This leads to an epistemic structure which allows individuals to navigate the underdetermination problem case: given that the chosen option is so as a matter of common knowledge, everybody expects everybody else to follow it, everybody knows that everybody has that expectation and that they are also expected to conform, and so on. Following the conventional option is thus something which can be done as a matter of course, thus avoiding the uncertainty which threatens underdetermination problem cases.

Why we are obligated to follow these conventions

The normative force of these moral conventions come from the fact that they are benign in light of the existing obligations, no individual can have a moral reason to go against the convention, and by going against the convention you would undermine other people’s depending on your co-operation in order to reason towards their desired ends. Conventions are benign respective to the existing moral standard because the candidates among which get chosen are themselves the most attractive in light of that that standard. This means that we can’t arrive at a convention which goes against our existing moral standard. Furthermore, nothing moral is to be gained by disregarding the convention, because no other option can appear more attractive respective to the moral standard. Finally, since the conventions are common knowledge, every party has the well-established expectation that everybody else will conform to the convention, and reason accordingly. To go against the convention would be to undermine others’ ability to reason to their desired ends, dumping everybody back in the less preferable, pre-convention co-ordination problem. In this respect the harm to others is very much like that which follows from lying, and not conforming is similarly unjustified, whatever the content of the convention (if it is a genuine Lewisian convention).

Applying limited conventionalism to examples in the literature

A position in the literature favourable to such an analysis is David Wong’s pluralistic relativism. Wong holds that there are certain natural constraints on the type of societies we could live in, with concomitant constraints on moral standards. However, these constraints radically underdetermine the content of morality. To model Wong’s relativism as an example of limited conventionalism, take the shared moral standard of some community to track those natural constraints. There are now a range of best candidate options corresponding to all the moral codes which fit within those constraints. The choice of any such a code counts as a Lewisian convention. Considering the case where there are many societies each facing the same underdetermination problem, which Wong plausibly argues is the actual case, the possibility of different codes being chosen by different societies cements the possibility of relativism. Notice that it is possible that single convention could establish an entire moral code in one go, but that it is far more likely that the code is constructed piecemeal, each new obligation derived conventionally limiting the ones that follow.
We can model more radical theories like J.L. Mackie’s and others wherein all moral obligations are conventionally determined by considering the case where there are no pre-existing moral obligations. Then the set of best candidates would be all the possible candidates. We could establish a moral code by choosing a starting point on some indeterminate standard of salience, most likely something basic and immediately useful like a limitation on killing, and then choose a best candidate limited by that one obligation, and then one by the set of two conventionally established obligations, and so on. We can also account for less thoroughgoing conventionality by considering the case not where we use conventions to choose new general principles, but rather responses to particular co-ordination problems. An example might be the choice between an adversarial or inquisitorial court system. It is in this weaker application, addressing examples of underdetermination case-by-case, that I believe conventions might be the most prevalent and useful.

Conventional Law

We can perhaps extend limited conventionalism informatively to cover some instances of law-making. Examples of underdetermination abound in legal scenarios, and there exists a range of mechanism to try and cut down their scope, like guidance for judging the intent of legislation when the letter of the law allows ambiguities. Nonetheless, it seems clear that there are vast arrays of cases where there is genuine uncertainty about what the appropriate judgement would be, whether it be a verdict, a judgement on some point of law, or passing sentence. Given the weighty reasons we have to the law be applied consistently, legal judgements have a dimension wherein they are co-ordination problems. The system of widely publicising court judgements and ensuring that practicioners of law are expected to know of relevant precedents does as much to establish common knowledge as could be in any such technical and contingent domain. As discussed above, given the shared interest in avoiding co-ordination problems (here, manifest in the inconsistent application of the law) and the fact that only conventions could prevent them (since any effort at co-ordination would necessitate the strcture of expectations which constitutes a Lewisian convention) the laws would have the necessary normative force to not be dead letters, as long as all the preconditions are met (especially that the option chosen is genuinely one of the best candidates and thus as consistent with the principles as any other). Correspondingly, in at least some significant cases, the law could be conventional in the Lewisian sense, and thus be examples of limited conventionalism in my sense.


Limited conventionalism provides a robust and informative model for the forming of moral obligations. Many significant applications of the model can be made to positions in the literature and in actual life. This mechanism carries the necessary normative weight to give us the reasonable expectation

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Robert Paul Wolff replies re: the prisonder's dilemma.

A couple of days ago I posted a criticism of Robert Paul Wolff's dismissal of the prisoner's dilemma . Wolff has now posted a reply on his blog (quoting the version of my post I had emailed to him). He is pressing the fact that game theory is only properly-speaking a study of decision under certainty, while the problem I identify (which is hardly original on my part!) is to do with decision theory, etc, regarding  decisions under uncertainty. He thinks I'm not really addressing decision theory head-on, and in turn I think he's not really addressing the concern head-on (as I have said in my response there). That's how philosophy works: round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows. But every iteration hopefully we know more than at the beginning: I certainly find exchanges like my current one with Prof. Wolff to be very helpful.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What to make of the prisoner's dilemma

About a year ago, when I was making my first serious inroads into the technical underbelly of my field, following my utilitarian opponents into a futurist landscape of backwards Es and upside-down As, Robert Paul Wolff (who seems to be entirely incapable of stopping writing, bless his soul) ran a tutorial on formal methods in political philosophy which I found very useful, especially its introduction to Arrow's Impossibility Theorem concerning social choice theory. (The tutorial is archived along with his autobiography, which I heartily recommend, and some other bits and pieces here.) However, I thought that Wolff was rather harsh on the prospects of the prisoner's dilemma as a topic for serious philosophy, largely because the suppositions behind the case are harshly disconnected from the conditions of the actual world. Contrary to Wolff's harsh evaluation, I think there is something to be said for the prisoner's dilemma as an analytic tool. Heaven knows a lot of people make ridiculous claims regarding it (for instance, I was told once that it shows that ethics is impossible), but there are at least two reasons to take it seriously, if only as an analytical device. The prisoner's dilemma might be a good tool for cutting to the heart of various hypotheses, even if we agree with what Wolff has said about its limitations (as we should).

If I may remind the reader of what the prisoner's dilemma (hereafter, PD), I'll quote the description from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry:
Tanya and Cinque have been arrested for robbing the Hibernia Savings Bank and placed in separate isolation cells. Both care much more about their personal freedom than about the welfare of their accomplice. A clever prosecutor makes the following offer to each. “You may choose to confess or remain silent. If you confess and your accomplice remains silent I will drop all charges against you and use your testimony to ensure that your accomplice does serious time. Likewise, if your accomplice confesses while you remain silent, they will go free while you do the time. If you both confess I get two convictions, but I'll see to it that you both get early parole. If you both remain silent, I'll have to settle for token sentences on firearms possession charges. If you wish to confess, you must leave a note with the jailer before my return tomorrow morning.”

We can represent the options in a little pay-off matrix, mapping out all the possibilities:

Cinque stays silent
Cinque confesses
Tanya stays silent
Tanya is jailed very briefly / Cinque is jailed very briefly
Tanya is jailed for a long time / Cinque goes free
Tanya confesses
Tanya goes free / Cinque is jailed for a long time /
Tanya is is jailed for a short time/ Cinque is jailed for a short time
Each of the pair can see that, whatever the other does, they get less time in jail if they confess and hang the other prisoner out to dry. But, that would lead both of them confessing, leading to a situation that is worse for both than if they had stayed silent. That is the prisoner's dilemma.

Wolff complains that discussing the PD in terms of this story distorts our understanding of the picture, because there are a number of assumptions about how players in such a game would act which maps very badly indeed with how actual people in real situations act. For instance, it is very hard indeed to imagine someone only caring about how little time they spend in jail, with no regard for the other's welfare, and any other concern. Wolff's point is well-taken, but I want to say that even if we accept what he says, we can mine some interesting results from using this scenario as an analytic tool: in particular, in seeing what it tells us about the types of reasoning decision-theorists and the like would like us to do (Perhaps I am better disposed towards the PD than Wolff is because I didn't need to wade through the thousand-odd journal articles written on this subject in the 60s and 70s, when nobody could shut up about this thing). To that end, it is useful to consider the in its most general and useful form the PD as game described by the following pay-off matrix (one agent choosing a row, the other choosing a column, like Tanya and Cinque had above) where the options are either to co-operate with the other agent (staying silent, in the prisoner's case) or defecting (confessing to the crime and selling the other prisoner up the river):
Good / Good
Worst / Best
Best / Worst
Bad / Bad

Any situation which has a pay-off matrix like this in it can be analysed in terms of the prisoner's dilemma.

Having done the throat-clearing, let me now present the two reasons why I think we should pay attention to the PD. The second is far and away the most important, but the first helps to lead us there.

The first reason is that there are simply so many theoretically interesting cases which can be modelled as some variation of the PD, that is, where situations arise with the payout matrix I described above. There are traveller's dilemmas, the centipede game, the ultimatum game, etc. I'll leave it up to the reader to investigate these cases, and their link to the PD, on their own. But note that understanding any situation which can be modelled in this way is going to necessitate understanding the implications of the PD (which includes, as Wolff stresses, knowing what it doesn't entail).

Secondly, the most important reason to look at the PD (which I was surprised to see get no mention at all in the tutorial) is that it gives a very embarrassing and problematic result for the mass of people who believe that decision theory, etc., provide the gold standard for human reasoning. That is, the PD shows that utility maximisation doesn't lead to Pareto-optimal situations (which was a bit of a surprise, since under similar suppositions the free market, which is driven entirely by utility-maximisation, does lead to Pareto-optimal distributions of resources – a bit more on that later in this paragraph). Utility maximisation is the procedure whereby at each point you need to make a procedure you take whatever course of action has the best prospects for getting you what you want (after taking into consideration all the likely future effects of your actions), and Pareto-optimality is the idea that one situation is preferable to another if every person involved finds the first one to be at least as good as the latter. In non-wonk terms, the PD demonstrates that if everybody tries at every step to take the action with consequences they'd most prefer, they are quite likely to end up in a situation they find less preferable than one they would have reached had they acted differently. It in fact does even more, in that the situation of the two prisoners if both defect is worse for both of them, whereas it's Pareto-suboptimal if only one person reaches a situation they don't prefer. This is embarrassing and problematic to the decision theorist, because Pareto-optimality is a very low bar indeed. There are a range of terrible situations that are Pareto-optimal – for instance, a fiefdom with its range of landlords and impoverished serfs is a Pareto-optimal distribution of land, since to give any land to a serf you need to take it away from a landlord, which means that changing the distribution of land would always be against the preferences of at least one person. If utility-maximisation can't even ensure reaching situations with that low level of goodness, then the decision theorist has reason to worry.

It's this feature of the PD which gives force to the tragedy of the commons (as Garrett Hardin described it in 1968, though only later was this analysed as a PD). Each member of a community who tends sheep and has access to the common pasture always has the incentive to put one more sheep in the field: though this lowers the total productivity of the commons through being overloaded, the individual's gains of having the extra sheep outweigh the marginal loss to each sheep. But if everybody follows this incentive (as utility-maximisation demands) then the commons will soon be exhausted and every farmer will be worse off in the end. The lesson to be learn here isn't that co-operation in such situations is impossible (as some people bizarrely claim, showing off a staggering confusion about the structure of human purposive action) but that utility-maximisation – the hard-nosed pragmatism which makes the prisoner defect every time – is untenable as a general guide to action. In scenarios with PD pay-offs (and the insights of the countless writers on this topic indicate just how many there might be) utility-maximisation turns out to lead us by the nose to our downfall. And that is what we should learn from the prisoner's dilemma.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Today's Entry in the Annals of Unresponsive Academic Journals

I received the following sardonic comment on one of the philosophic mailing lists I'm subscribed to which caters to the academic community:

List members,

Tomorrow will mark the first anniversary of one of my papers being submitted to the Journal of Global Ethics. As I have not received any feedback on the content of my paper as yet, I have been prompted to mark the occasion with a lunchtime discussion of the question:

'What are the responsibilities of editors in relation to peer review?'

Findings will be fed back to the lead editor of the journal in question.

I hope that some of you will be able to join us.

Year-long waits for responses regarding articles submitted for review are, unfortunately, not unheard of, though normally they're from more prestigious journals who perhaps feel more like they could afford to string authors along. What I'm saying is that the Journal of Global Ethics isn't quite the Journal of Philosophy. It's not like JPhil have an excuse, it's more that you wouldn't expect the same thoughtless neglect from a journal without the same air of exclusivity.

Today that post received this reply:

List members,
A propos of the delay in responding to a submitted manuscript as remarked by colleague from Newcastle, on 9th September 2010 I sent a bank draft to the Journal of Global Ethics in response to their prompting for me to renew my subscriptons, and I received no acknowledgement of receipt of the bank draft up through seven months later in April 2011.  Meanwhile I have not received any of the issues of the journal in 2010 for the period of the paid-for renewal, so I couldn't send manuscripts for peer-review on the current topics in the first instance.
Can anyone give me contact numbers or addresses for people currently responsible for JGE's admin and management, to see what can I can do?  In this part of the world 70 dollars plus the cost of the bank draft, 25 dollars, is a great deal of money. Such negligence is ironic given the title of the journal, eh what?

That list member is posting from the University of Ghana. Global Ethics, indeed.

UPDATE: One of the ex-editors of the journal has stepped in and done her best to address the issues named above, which is commendable both because it isn't her job anymore and also because she actually is on vacation. As encouraging as that is, I note that she is the one doing what she can to raise the journal's name out of the mud, and not any of the current editors.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Langton - Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts

As I occasionally do, I'll use this blog as a place to keep a store something I wrote for a conversation somewhere else: in this case (as with the Swanton piece I did last year) it's a summary of a favourite paper of mine: Rae Langton - 'Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts'.

Langton sets out to to defend a claim by MacKinnon's that pornography constitutes a harm to women, in particular that it represents acts of subordination and thereby is an act of subordination. MacKinnon says lots of other things as well, but that is the only claim Langton is engaging with here. The problem with MacKinnon's claim is that something isn't automatically an act of subordination merely in virtue of portraying subordination (which is a fair point). Langton sets out to see whether portrayals could also constitute harms to women, and she comes up with two ways in which it could.

The first, more familiar, way is that, if pornography were to be an authoritative voice in sexual matters, then it would spread and validate an image of sexual relations wherein women are demeaned and degraded. Langton doesn't try to prove that pornography doesn't have such authority -- she admits that it is often taken not to by wider society -- but she suggests that in certain audiences, especially among adolescent men, it very well might. If that were the case, that would mean that people in that audience would follow the example that pornography sets them, with harmful effects.

The second, very original, analysis of how pornography might constitute a harm to women Langton presents is that an environment infused with pornography is one wherein certain speech acts would be unperformable. In such an environment, if a woman would attempt, amongst other things, certain refusals or protests, she couldn't make herself be understood as doing so. The outward signs of refusals and protests (Langton's examples) are understood in such an environment as part of the role women play in normal sexual activity ('when she says no she means yes' is the most familiar example of this thought), so while a women could say exactly the things which would count as a refusal or protest normally, they couldn't count as such in that environment. This is the most important contribution of the paper.

I especially admire how carefully Langton lays out the scope of her analysis: the first part succeeds if pornography is authoritative in its portrayals of sex (at least among some audiences), the second part succeeds if pornographic portrayals of sex don't allow scope for women to do certain things, like refuse advances or sincerely protest them (and be taken seriously). It is worth quoting Langton on what here analysis is supposed to establish (from right near the end of here essay):
The claims that pornography subordinates and silences women make perfect  sense; they are not sleight of hand, not philosophically indefensible, not confused. Moreover, if pornographic speech is indeed authoritative, the claims may well be true. The premise about pornography's authority is an empirical one. If you think it is false, you  will disagree with the conclusion about the truth of the claims, but not, I hope, with the conclusion about their coherence.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The difference democratic challenge: why the communicative challenge fails

Today we move onto the meaty part of this project, where I lay out my case against what I have called the communicative challenge. That interpretation of what the difference democratic complaint is claims that the problem with deliberative democracy is that it neglects the different ways different cultures advance and discuss claims. Because the deliberative process is the product of one culture rather than another, this official culture is benefited to the disadvantage of all the unofficial cultures that might be part of the society. The problem with this claim is that, ultimately, the manner in which claims are discussed is just window-dressing, as I endeavour to show.

I take the follow quote from Iris Marion Young to state the communicative challenge: “Understanding the role of rhetoric in political communication is important precisely because the meaning of a discourse, its pragmatic operation in a situation of communicative interaction, depends as much on its rhetorical as its assertoric aspects.” This would mean that we are missing something of importance if we take deliberations to just be the weighing of reasons that are given in the forms of assertions or propositions. But this can't be right. The 'communicative interaction' at issue here is collectively coming to a decision, and the 'pragmatic operation' here must be something that brings the participants towards an agreement on what the right course of action is. The pragmatic operation must be something which picks our right rather than wrong courses of action, if it is to have any pragmatic value at all. But rhetoric is incapable of pointing out anything at all, if it is going to be understood as communication which isn't assertoric. There is nothing which is signified by an utterance's rhetoric. Because it performs no signification, it can't point anybody in any direction, never mind the right one. Thus, it can't play the role Young is claiming for it here.

Here is an argument to the effect that rhetoric and non-assertoric features of communication feature beside the substantive parts of deliberation, rather than playing a part in it. Let us suppose that there is some communicative act C which displays rhetorical feature R, and that C presents significant and important reason that needs to be considered in the deliberation. Is C's importance dependent on R? That is, would C be any less weighty if R was different? The answer is no. There is a dilemma here: either R has to the power to make some C more important than it would be otherwise; or C's importance is independent of R. You can't take the first option, because then R itself would confer importance in its own right: some C would be more weighty just for displaying R. This is wrong, because there are constraints on when some R can count as a good feature: even if some R is appropriate in one context, that same rhetorical aspect might confer no importance at all in another. For instance, Young points to the case of Carol Mosley Braun's impassioned address to the US senate urging her colleagues not to renew the patent on, and therefore endorse, the Confederate flag insignia. Young claims that Mosley's “extreme and even disruptive speech contributed positively to a deliberative process by motivating officials to discuss an important issue.” But, of course, those exact same rhetorical features which ignited a debate could have been used to draw attention to any topic. And it is clear that Mosley's actions wouldn't attract the praise it has if she had done if she has protested similarly against, say, the continued acknowledgement of a day to commemorate Martin Luther King Jnr. My point is that there are constraints on when such rhetorical features are appropriate, and they are appropriate or not in light of the substantive claims that they are attached to. But it is the content and status of the substantive claims, of the assertoric (propositional) content of C, in virtue of which some rhetorical feature R is appropriate or not. The dependency works the wrong way round for R to be an importance-conferring feature of C: for some C, the importance of R is dependent on the importance of that C. Thus, in the dilemma, we must take the second option: C's importance is independent of R. Thus, while rhetoric might accompany deliberation, the deliberation carries the weight and importance it has independently of that rhetoric.

My claim is that the rhetoric with which a point is advanced plays no part in whether that point is something we need to take seriously. Rhetoric paradigmatically plays a role in what we as a matter of fact do pay attention to, but, as I argue, it has no power to determine what we should pay attention to. It simple isn't a substantive enough part of communication to do so. Nor can Young and other difference democrats claim that rhetoric still carries weight in accompanying assertoric claims, for the following reasons. Young rightly goes to great pains to stress that rhetoric can't replace argumentation, and points out that the predominant views on how communication work allows a space for non-assertoric communication in all speech acts. But we can divvy up quite neatly the relevant work that the speech acts do, as my argument above has: whether a piece of rhetoric is worthy of attention or not is based upon the importance of the assertoric claims that it accompanies. Rhetoric might accompany all statements, but, for our purposes at least, as a passenger rather than a driver. There is a practical goal which our political deliberation works towards, surveying the range of possible courses of action and choosing the right rather than wrong ones, and rhetoric can only play an incidental part in that task.

I believe that trying to find a substantive deliberative role for non-assertoric communication in political deliberation rests on a confusion. It is true and worth noting that actual presentation of a position inside a deliberation is going to come in a package with rhetoric – as Young and others have stressed, 'dispassionate' is a rhetorical mode as well. But it is not true that the rhetoric in some way constitutes the argument. I am not targeting just the very strong claim that all (political) communication is strategic, where all the force the statement of a position might have is supposed to be rhetorical. I am pointing towards the weaker claim that the argument isn't whole without the rhetoric. The argument I gave earlier targets just this second claim, and criticises it for placing an independent value to the rhetoric of a statement which simply isn't there. Non-assertoric features of communication piggyback on the assertoric significance of the issues they are attached to. The clear and level-headed statement of assertions and propositions which so many deliberative democrats take as their paradigm comes with rhetorical, non-assertoric aspects, but those aspects also piggyback on the significance of the claims they accompany, just like all rhetoric does.

Young makes a further claim about the role of the non-assertoric aspects of communication: “Rhetoric always accompanies argument, by situating the argument for a particular audience and giving it embodied style and tone.” I deny that either of these aspects is as substantive as Young claims. Firstly, while messages might indeed be catered to their audiences, they are still meaningful and significant for people outside of the audiences, because the propositional content of statements respect no in-group/out-group boundaries. If the claim is that those outside of the target audience somehow can't make sense of the communication, then counterexamples abound: the fact that we not only can make sense of but also take great interest in the private correspondents of people we have never met, though they never intended to say those things to us; the fact that a book like Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics was squarely aimed at a certain audience (well-off young men of ancient Athens) and is awash with idiosyncrasies of its time, but still garners prime attention in our current debates on its issues; people from one group being chilled to hear the  members on another group among each other inciting violence against them; and so on. There simply is no deeper significance to whom a statement is directed: it still means what it means. The same goes for how those points are stated: by now I hope to have convincingly shown that the importance of our deliberation is not hostage to how we phrase it. Again, I conclude, it isn't the idiom that is at issue, but rather what the things we say mean.

I have done my best to show during political deliberation there is a point that is being worked to, and that only the assertoric content of the discussion on that point can play a substantial part in determining its weight. Rhetoric is unable to affect the importance of an issue, because it doesn't have any substance of it own, instead, rhetoric can at best come attached to matters of substance. What this amounts to is saying that the difference democratic challenge is not a verbal issue: if it is going to be deserving of our attention, that challenge must turn out to be squarely addressing substantive political states of affairs. To provide an account of how that would go, we need to evaluate the representative, as opposed to the communicative, challenge to deliberative democracy.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The difference democratic challenge: introduction

What follows is one of the more significant pieces of research I did in the past year, as part of my MA in applied ethics. I'm revisiting it currently, and in the process of doing so will post it up (in edited form) over three blog posts (three for reasons of length). It was an attempt to make sense of one of the more prominent challenges to the delibrative model of democracy, that of the difference democrats. Deliberative democrats, like Rawls and Habermas and other figures in the current mainstream in democratic theory, believes that the characteristic and good-making feature of democracy is that it involves the constituents of government to be involved in the procedures in whichs the laws and institutions of a society are made. So, democracy is good because it allows everybody to have their say, which in turn allows people to have their interests advanced. The fairer the way different people are heard, the fairer the government. Difference democrats aren't convinced, however. They believe that the above account leaves out a very important element of the make up of actual political societies, and that is that they often have more than one culture represented in them. Difference democrats point to this fact as something which the model of deliberative democracy struggles to accomodate: different cultures leads to different political cultures, with their own political procedures (conventional structures, ways of dispute resolution, traditional concerns, etc.). Since the deliberative procedures of a society are always going to be placed within one political culture rather than another, the difference democrat advances the challenge that the deliberative model is a de facto disempowerment of anybody who is a member of a political culture which isn't the official culture of the society.

The deliberative democratic idea is that we can create a just society by giving all the constituents of that society a worthwhile chance to contribute to its decision-making process. Because everybody has an opportunity to have their say when a matter is under discussion, any perceived injustices can be addressed and dealt with. On this theory, the justice of the society is predicated upon the justice of the decision-making process. What exactly the process is and how the constituents play a part in it differs from theory to theory, but I take the following parts of John Rawls's two principles of justice to be a good representative: 'each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all'; and, 'social and economic inequalities are to are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity' (Rawls also adds the famous minimax distributive principle to these principles). That is to say, under deliberative democracy the powers of any office of government is constrained by certain inalienable considerations of the government's constituents, like basic rights and liberties (to be spelt out by the theory), and those offices must in principle be open to every member of society.

In trying to make sense of the difference democratic challenge, I distinguish between two different claims that it could be making, which I call the 'communicative' and the 'representative' challenges. According to the communicative challenge, there is a shortcoming in deliberative democracy in its reliance upon a single type of discourse. This allows for the possibility that the members of some political cultures rather than others are advantaged in virtue of having the decision-making process cast in their political idiom. The representative challenge is that the substance of the claims of the unofficial cultures isn't afforded the appropriate attention by the decision-making process, in virtue of that process being a product of one political culture rather than another. So, in the communicative challenge it is supposed to be the way people present and discuss views among each other which unfairly advantages the official culture, whereas in the representative challenge it is only the claims that fall within the remit of the official culture that gets given full attention, while the claims distinctive of unofficial cultures get short shrift. The linchpin of my account is that independently of what cultural idiom one uses in political deliberation, there is always a fact of the matter of what is at issue. The upshot is that the weight of a political claim is independent of the manner in which it is made. Accordingly, I argue here that the communicative challenge fails. That will be the second post in this series. In the final post, I will discuss why the representative challenge can't easily be dismissed. My conclusion is, if we are to do justice to the difference democratic challenge, we must understand it in terms of the representative challenge.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Resilience to counterfactuals

One project that I have been pottering away at recently is an attempt to cash out what could be meant with something like Phillip Pettit's theory of 'freedom as non-domination' (meaning that we are free to the extent in that we can do what we go about our affairs without the arbitrary intervention of another party). To do so I develop a framework for highlighting some important modal considerations that are involved in our political deliberation. One of the dimensions on which we evaluate courses of action is on how likely they are to achieve their aims. I believe that we could provide a framework, perhaps even a semantics, of this evaluative dimension. My proposal is to discriminate amongst courses of action according to their 'resilience to counterfactuals' (as I call it), meaning the range of contingencies wherein they would succeed. One course of action is more resilient to counterfactuals than another if there are more possible worlds (within some specified degree of similarity to the actual world) where that course could successfully be pursued. The idea is that this might be a useful way to articulate how we distinguish between secure state of affairs and precarious ones – in the secure state of affairs, there are more contingencies in which we can accomplish what we might set out to do. Secure state of affairs lead to plans with greater resilience to counterfactuals.

An application of the project, a straightforward and I hope informative one, is that it would allow us to discriminate between the status of different political rights based on how secure those rights are (meaning, how resilient to counterfactuals they are). I also think, and am willing to defend, that considerations of this type is one of the reasons why political rights are such a central feature of our social lives (and would be even if there were no natural rights): legal protections of those kind cut down the range of contingencies that you need to secure yourself against, and thus gives you a greater safety margin within which to deliberate towards your chosen end.

This approach has important advantages over the decision-theoretic approach for judging among possible courses of action. Attempts to do feasibility studies in the usual decision-theoretic way -- looking at the probability that certain situations would arise, assigning outcomes to the situations and deriving their expected utilities -- run into serious problems, given that the result of such studies depends on what people intend to do, but that people very often radically change their courses of action given the circumstances. This means that you have to redo the feasibility study for each change in plan of anybody in the environment, leading to a combinatorial explosion of things to consider (if re-doing the sums is even possible at all), very quickly making the results of such a study intractable. The resilience-to-counterfactuals approach handles this feature of situations much better, since the fact that there are a number of different ways someone could try to achieve their goals is a premise of the analysis.

There is more to be said here, like how a formal semantics for such a framework might look -- a possible-worlds semantics is very suggestive here, but there are kinks to work out. I also want to see how this compares to other approaches in the literature. I have a decent idea of how it relates to Pettit's proposal, but given the influence of the 'freedom as non-domination' theory, there is a lot of different ways this gets cached out in the literature. One development in particular I want to take a closer look at is Dowding and Van Hees on 'counterfactual success', which seems similar but importantly different. There is also the question of how much we can conclude about some particular plan's resilience to counterfactuals. If A has a plan to acquire X that is relatively resilient to counterfactuals, does this have significance beyond just that particular plan? Does it tell us something about all A's possible X-involving plans? (I would hope so.) Does it tell us something about A's security in general? Or, perhaps only of A's security in his or her X-involving domains. (What is an X-involving domain, then?) These questions are so suggestive to me that I've proposed this as a possible PhD project. However it might turn out, this is something I've spent some time thinking on in the past, and I'm likely to keep coming back to this issue for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Distinguishing Moral Theory and Anti-Theory Through Intuitionistic Logic

My purpose here is to present a formal framework for the relationship between intuitions and concrete particular judgements in moral cases and the general theories which are supposed to capture them. This framework is to give that relationship a suitable interpretation in intuitionistic (or constructivist) logic, with which I hope to give an interesting way to articulate the difference between theoretical and anti-theoretical approaches to ethics. On this interpretation, the propositions to be evaluated are particular moral judgements, and they are evaluated in terms of whether they are endorsed by the general theory in question. What the particular judgements or the theory are is unimportant for my present purposes, since what I am after here is to make a general point about the way these things might relate.

The feature of intuitionistic logic which interests me here is that it gives a way to articulate how theories might only imperfectly account for the particular cases they are supposed to address. On intuitionistic logic, a theory is gradually constructed over successive stages of reasoning, where there are conclusions you can reach at later stages which would be unwarranted at earlier ones. In the paradigmatic interpretation, concerning mathematical reasoning, propositions stand for mathematical theorems are mathematical propositions, and to assert a proposition is to claim that there is a mathematical proof of it (and asserting a negation means that there is a proof that the theorem proposition can't be true). The theorems proved at stage n can then be used to prove further theorems at stage n+1 which could not be proved or disproved with the resources of stage n-1. Of particular interest here is that intuitionistic logic allows for a final stage of reasoning, where there exists either a proof or disproof for every theorem. At this final stage intuitionistic logic is equivalent to classical logic (for instance, the law of excluded middle then holds, and, more importantly, the logic becomes complete, but only at the final stage).

My claim here is that theoretical approaches to ethics are ones where, if we give a suitable a intuitionistic interpretation to the field of particular judgements and the general theory, the approach asserts that there is some (actual or possible) final stage of theory construction where every particular judgement is comprehensively captured in the theory. Anti-theoretical approaches deny this. The interpretation would be as follows: there is some theory T at stage s which validate inferences to certain moral judgements (A,B,C, etc.) – this is meant as a straightforward analogy to the mathematical case. This allows for an interesting contrast between approaches which allow for a final stage of theory construction, and ones that don't. If we were at the final stage of our theory T (let's call it TΩ), then the content and import of every particular judgement would be accounted for by T. In contrast, if we aren't (and might never be) at TΩ, then there remains some particular judgement on the strength of which T can be modified, and needs to be if T is to be a comprehensive guide to our moral lives. This seems to me to be equivalent to the anti-theoretical claim in ethics: that there is no systematisation of our ethical practice which can hope to capture the variety and complexity of that practice, but that there will always be a remainder which is not accounted for in the theory.

My claim is very limited – I am not proposing something like a logic in which to couch our moral reasoning. But, even in the limited role as a way to make an important distinction, my proposal here has its virtues. Casting the developing of an ethical theory as a series of constructive stages matches very well with the view, for instance, of our understanding of ethics as an expanding circle of moral concern, where as we develop our moral sensibilities we see duties to things we hadn't considered important earlier. It also is a natural ally of something like the reflective equilibrium to approach to moral reasoning, where we have a to-and-fro between general theories and particular moral judgements, each being revised on the strength of the other. But intuitionistic logic is not the same as reflective equilibrium: for one thing, the latter isn't a logic; another, more troubling point is that intuitionistic logic doesn't allow for the type of oscillation between different versions of particular claims that reflective equilibrium requires.

What I mean is that, once we reach some stage Tn where moral claims A, B and C are validated (given comprehensive and convincing support by T), then at no T after Tn will A, B and C fail to be validated. Reflective equilibrium isn't like that: up until the final equilibrium is reached, everything is up for modification. This leads to what I see as the greatest problem for my proposal: interpreting particular moral claims in the way we do theorems in mathematics might not be very convincing, especially because we are often very willing to give up particular judgements or intuitions which seemed certain to us earlier.

I have two replies to this worry, one ambitious and another more modest. The ambitious reply would try to dodge this problem by being very careful about what the scope of the particular moral claims are. Instead of having a proposition A like 'intentionally killing another human being is always wrong', which we might believe to a greater or lesser extent given variations in our background theories and our moral theory as a whole, we can see the pronouncements at earlier stages of T to be on propositions like B = 'intentionally killing of a human being without special societal sanction is always wrong' and C = 'there is some appropriate societal sanction which would allow for the intentional killing of another human being', where T1 might validate B but not C, whereas T2 might also validate C's negation (if our moral theory ended up being a pacifist one, for instance). Having finer-grained judgements of this type makes it far more believable that we can at some stage of the reasoning set some of them in stone (at least regarding the further development of T). The more modest reply, in contrast, would be to point out that the distinction I'm trying to make between theory and anti-theory holds even if there are just two or three stages of reasoning, where when we go to TΩ we settle almost every moral question in one bound. This is not a fantastic state of affairs, since if we take many defenders of various theories at their word, when we carefully and conscientiously apply the theory in question, we at least have a procedure for answering any moral question (difficult to apply as it might be).

There is a further worry, about whether the claim that a theoretical approach to ethics would entail asserting that there is some final stage for the theory in question is too strong a claim – it at least seems to assert the existence of a complete decision procedure which either asserts or denies any possible particular moral judgement, which many people who see themselves as opposing moral anti-theory would also deny. But I will leave that question unanswered at the moment.