Category Archives: Ethics

The Silent Brilliance of Bernard Williams

To the thunder of applause the musicians take their positions. The applause trails off into silence as anticipation begins to build. There is art in this. One must hesitate long enough to build excitement and not so long to lose it, to allow anticipation to bubble over into boredom and restlessness.

An old wooden door loudly creaks and excitement breaks, sending sparks into the sky. Once again thunder roars. Musicians stand. There is life here despite the formalism of the stage. There is excitement and tension. The thunder trails off once again as people in the audience anxiously flip through their brochures and latecomers panic to find their seats.

This period, a period of great anticipation, a period of wonder and expectation, this is the best period of a concert. You never know quite how the experience will go—everything is all so contingent, all so risky. And yet you know nevertheless that your experience will be worthy of this grand temple to the wonders of artistic skill and explosions of creative brilliance.

The conductor bows and turns to face his orchestra. He raises his arms drawing the tension along with him. He pauses. He holds his position. Tension builds. And with a flick of his wrist, his arms drop.


There is silence.

Someone coughs. Another rustles her brochure. A child asks his mother when the music will begin. The sound of his small voice resonates off the stone walls of the hall. Another cough. Someone sniffles. More rustling, more tension, more restlessness. This is music.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds later the conductor lifts his arms. The musicians bow. The applause breaks the silence. You see, there is art in silence. There are lessons there and wisdom. Writing is like this. Philosophy is like this. Quite often the most brilliant thing that can be said is nothing. It is to allow the reader to fill the void, to populate the silence with their own life-sounds, with their own wills and interests and activities, in short with nature. Very often this is when philosophy speaks the loudest. And this—this quiescent deference to the lives of his readers—this is what makes Bernard Williams so powerful, so complete, so compelling as a writer and philosopher.

Williams stands against the predominant pretension of philosophers that they can redesign nature more effectively, more efficiently, better. And in doing so they create great and magnificent gardens in which to live. But if Williams shows us anything, it is that these Victorian gardens are diseased and pathological, that their beauty hides an ugly truth which harms those unlucky enough to have roots in their soil. Williams has come to smash the garden gnomes of philosophical ethics and their paving stones and fences. The result may be an eyesore to the “cultured”—so be it. Let our communities be ugly and healthy before beautiful and diseased.

Williams threatens theory. This is his main target. And not just any theory: his target is theory as theory. For theory attempts to rewrite nature, to upend it and improve upon it, which Williams takes to be a mistaken enterprise. His approach to this is deconstructive. He examines these heavily circumscribed theories and teases out tensions within them between their foundational assumptions and the worldview that they otherwise recommend—for as Williams reminds us, ethical theory is too an ethical activity. And this all means that Williams’s approach is foundationally anti-foundationalist. He rejects basic principles. He rejects the kind of philosophy which builds so high that it must dig downward. And this rejection is his own animating principle, which permeates and activates his own work.

There is great value in this. Williams reasserts the primacy of ethical life, of activity before the account. There is no mystery where the ethical agent fits in his philosophy; our own reflective capacities are placed front and centre flanked by the real, embodied demands of our own ethical environment. This is no garden. This is no vast expanse of agricultural cropland. This is nature. Williams sees no surplus in our ecosystem—and indeed who exists to pick the fruits and reap our souls? No: ethical lives exist for ethical lives, all together. All value is recycled within it, animating the whole. This is not typically the concern of ethical theory, which actively seeks to upset our natural embeddedness.

There is no greater picture for ethical philosophy: Williams stands guard as a park ranger, eliminating threats to the pristine condition of our ethical environment. He does not seek to order our ethical lives. He seeks only to preserve them. To this end, he gives no positive ethical recommendation. He does not destroy theory only to rebuild it. He speaks only to silence the chatter and noise of ethical theory.

But this is not to say that he locks his reader in a silent Cage. He provides harsh but quiet melodies to inspire and provoke. Williams too lives in the ethical environment. He too engages in ethical reflection. He is merely careful in what kind of reflection he promotes. For as he says, there are many sorts of reflection, some which foster flourishing and some which destroy the health of an ecosystem. Reflection which leads to theory is this sort. This kind of reflection concerns much more than individual and collective interest, value, self-conception and the like. “It is,” he says, “a different kind of critical reflection that leads to ethical theory, one that seeks justificatory reasons. ‘There cannot any one moral rule propos’d, whereof Man may not justly demand a Reason,’ Locke said, and this maxim, understood in a certain way, naturally leads to theory.” (ELP, 112) If we can avoid this, if only we can silence these foundational questions, he thinks, we can promote and preserve the kinds of ethical ecosystems we would be proud to call home.

This method I think is the only one which respects those ethical communities which are not irreparably broken, which have undergone many iterations of productive dialogue to settle on a stable whole. And there was a time when we could think that these communities existed, that our ethical ecosystems were not plagued by invasive species and climactic revolution. But we live in the 21st century. We have lived through centuries of colonialism and imperialism; we have lived through decades of globalism and technological revolution. Our ethical lives are entirely conditioned by the consequences of these tragedies. The lives we lead are bound to the values of those who could not even conceive of our world. Our ethical ecosystems are deeply and profoundly corrupted—and uprooting ethical theory will never solve these problems.

When my life is crumbling down around me, when my family is drowning in debt, when my brother is murdered by a drone pilot ten thousand kilometres away, when my farmland has dried up from drought, when my mother has been beaten and raped, when my sister is denied appropriate medical care, when my father is denied employment for the colour of his skin, should I climb the mountain to visit the silent sage? What can he possibly tell me?

In Defence of Tom Nagel

This is something I must do. I didn’t intend it. I never wished for my life to turn out this way. Life is a tragedy and a farce; my concerns and my views, my position and my stature, my principles, all of these command me to this end. So here I am, defending the detestable, the corrupt, the deeply mistaken. So here I am defending Thomas Nagel.

Nagel’s concern is a problem, a singular problem, that lies at the heart of philosophical naturalism. This sort of naturalism aspired to a complete, objective description and explanation of natural phenomena. It failed. It failed in dozens of ways. Philosophers were swept up in the atomic age, that period of time where science had made inconceivable advancements in understanding the physical world, alongside a similar advancement in technology that stood in testament to the power of science. Science became the model for good philosophy, heralding in a flurry of novel philosophical problems and tensions. Philosophers simply weren’t prepared for this. They faced down problem after problem, from theory-ladenness to confirmation, explanation, and so on. And to escape these, they once again roused the traditional philosophical problems they originally sought to escape. By the 1980s, naturalism was on its deathbed. And Nagel could explain all of this.

In Nagel’s view, the naturalist project was doomed from the beginning: there will always be a lacuna that plagues the objective view. The scientific enterprise, despite its aspirations, always begins from some perspective. Though the objective view can be abstracted away from that perspective, it can only do so by negating that whence it began. That is, the subjective view, the engaged view, will always plague the naturalist project. There will always be this conspicuous discrepancy. There will always be this absurdity. Naturalism fails because it attempts to elide this inconsistency.

Where this inconsistency lies Nagel never makes clear. What stops the objective view from subsuming the subjective into its body? Is it simply incapable of representing those kinds of indexed relational facts? Nagel thinks it is. No matter how it attempts to do that, the objective view can never represent the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view. It can only accomplish this by imaginatively transposing our own subjective view onto others. And this works sometimes. I can imagine what it is like for Barack Obama to eat an apple, for example, only because I know what it’s like myself to eat an apple. But I cannot imaginatively transpose my subjectivity to creatures with very different faculties than my own. Human echolocation is rudimentary and insensitive: I cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat. Human taste receptors are very different than insect taste receptors: I cannot imagine what it’s like for a cockroach to eat scrambled eggs. There is a tension here, but there is no inconsistency. Two conceptual schemes butt up against each other, but inconsistency is not the kind of relation that can hold between conceptual schemes, except trivially. What matters is whether a single conceptual scheme can coherently represent the basic phenomena the other represents. That is, what matters is whether the conceptual schemes are translatable. And Nagel has not given any reason why they are not.

Instead of arguments to these ends, Nagel gestures. He asserts. He plants his heels in the sand and denies that the naturalist can account for the subjective view. And if Nagel stopped here, there would be nothing terribly wrong. Highlighting a tension is a good thing to do in philosophy, even if there is nothing deeper to be said. But he doesn’t stop there. Nagel wants to make substantive positive claims about consciousness and about life and about metaphysics. He reifies the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view into some kind of irreducible metaphysical thing so powerful that it can topple one of our most well-supported and well-conceived scientific theories: Darwinian evolution. This is absurd! Evolutionary theory has a number of conceptual problems—all large and diverse theories will. But this massive, well-supported theory cannot be overturned by a hunch about conceptual schemes. That’s just not the way philosophy works. David defeats Goliath not because he is the underdog; he defeats him because he is more capable, more resourceful, because he capitalises on Goliath’s weakness and fragility. And so it is in philosophy. Nagel doesn’t do this. Nagel highlights a tension that naturalists must take seriously—and that some have!—but makes no substantive moves to demonstrate that there is any fundamental, unavoidable inconsistency. This is bad philosophy. Thomas Nagel does bad philosophy. He is a bad philosopher.

But here’s the kicker: bad philosophers are a much greater, much more pernicious threat than bad philosophers. For while the bad philosopher promotes a bad argument, bad philosophers promote a toxic community. That is, there are two ways to be a bad philosopher. There are those who argue poorly and make no great headway on philosophical problems, or who highlight problems that are no great difficulty. Most philosophers, possibly all philosophers, are bad philosophers in this way. There is no shame in that. Philosophy is difficult. But there are also those who demean and belittle their philosophical opponents. They are those who in their hubris command that the dissenters be ridiculed and thrown from the windows of our great ivory tower.

This is what I mean to defend Nagel from. He receives a great deal more abuse than he warrants. Just read the reviews of Mind and Cosmos. Philosophers ask “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” and move to much harsher statements about his intellect and abilities. Some say that “[Nagel is] a self-contradictory idiot.” Others go even farther: “Thomas Nagel is not smarter than we are. In fact, he seems to me to be distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware.” And this is not just a phenomenon present in book reviews. It is a communal activity. As Andrew Ferguson relates, at a conference in the Berkshires entitled “Moving Naturalism Forward,” Dan Dennett was “appalled to how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang . . . They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.” Dennett did not specify who these philosophers were. Alex Rosenberg obliged: “And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever. And it’s by Tom Nagel.” This… this is disgusting. All of it. Every last insult. Every last word. This is not how good philosophy is done. This is not how good philosophers comport themselves. These men—and they are all men—are a stain on philosophy.

If philosophy is worth doing, if philosophy is worth anything, we must root out this kind of bad philosophy. We must foster a healthy community, one in which philosophers are free to explore their varied interests and methods. Thomas Nagel should be free to do philosophy as he wishes; if they do not like it, these mean-spirited naturalists are free to respond. But in the present case, this I think is the major crux of the issue. The Rosenbergs and Dennetts and so on of philosophy, these bad philosophers have no substantive response to Nagel. Nagel employs an established method—a bad method, but an established method nevertheless—that naturalism disavows. Naturalists are doing the same thing. They promote naturalism as a viable philosophical method, one which is distinct from Nagel’s intuitionism. But in their position, they are not warranted to hurl insults across the divide. They must first puncture holes in Nagel’s hull before they can tell him he’s sinking. They must first take seriously Nagel’s method and show that he cannot address the central problems of philosophy before they can insult him. And good luck with that.

Until then, let Nagel prosper. Let Nagel write what he wishes to write. Let Nagel teach what he wishes to teach. Let the light of reason bleach away his errors and ours. Our students deserve this. We deserve this. Philosophy deserves this.

Is ‘Zwarte Piet’ Racist? Yes. Yes, very much

The conclusion already spelled out in the title, hopefully, shouldn’t come to a surprise to basically any person that doesn’t live in a place that has Dutch as an officially recognized language. As a Dutchman though, it’d be an understatement to say that voicing said conclusion over here would be met with serious skepticism and resistance.

As it’s December the 5th and people in the Netherlands, followed by Belgium, will be celebrating Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), and the Zwarte Piet “debate” has been in full swing, I found it timely to touch on this topic myself and hopefully also inform people wanting to get to grips with the issue.

Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet

From the picture book ‘Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht’ (‘Saint Nicholas and his knave’), 1850

Who is Zwarte Piet?

Zwarte Piet (Also known as ‘Black Pete’ or ‘Black Peter’ in English) is in the lowlands generally known as the personal servant(s) of Saint Nicholas, whom assist him in providing gifts to good children (and, slightly earlier on, punish bad children) in a celebration that’s not dissimilar from Christmas in other places. Though originally the Saint only had a single servant, today there is no one ‘Zwarte Piet’. There are dozens of Pieten, often identified by their designated functions; you have your navigation Piet, gift-wrapping Piet, singing Piet, and so forth. The Piet characters often are clownish in demeanor & don bright colourful renaissance era-like attire, and are quite commonly depicted in popular media as being acrobatic.

But the most important thing to note is how the character is portrayed physically. Aside from the aforementioned attire, people playing the character(s) do/did so by covering their entire face in black face-paint, and donning red lipstick, big golden earrings, and a black curly wig. Again I hope that no-one from the outside world has trouble understanding what’d be the issue with that, but in case there is any confusion let it be known that this practice is a particularly egregious modern-day example of blackface. Blackface (to grossly simplify here) roughly refers to the practice mostly done by fair-skinned people, where they among other things cover their face in black makeup in order to physically depict black people, which historically is done with the intent of or at minimum has the effect of denigrating mainly people of African descent by playing an offensive caricature. It is usually on these grounds one can find someone objecting to the practice of playing Zwarte Piet.

Pointing out that the practice is an instance of blackface is often met with resistance and counter-objections. I hope to address a few common ones here, and especially one I have seen not-too-infrequently from at least my late childhood on.

The Childhood Story

To my experience the most popular way of explaining away Zwarte Pieten having black faces goes something like this: Though not naturally dark-skinned, the faces of Zwarte Pieten are black as they are covered with soot, for they climb through chimneys all day to deliver children presents, similar to Santa Claus. I’ve been told this tale as a kid, and though I tentatively accepted the explanation given at the time I think even 7-8 year old me had some lingering questions, such as ‘What’s with the red lipstick?’ or ‘What about the black curly hair?’. Even upon only a moment’s reflection the story told doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny.

It’s worth noting that this kind of explanation when aimed at kids wasn’t actually an attempt at a real factual explanation of why things are that way, rather it seeks to explain things in the way the just-so stories told by parents to children asking questions like ‘Where does the Easter Bunny keep all their eggs?’ seek to explain. And yet, I know of instances where people in order to soothe concerns about racial sensitivity will use the childhood story to explain away the questionable aspects of the practice of playing Zwarte Piet. But as I already just suggested, the childhood story is merely a post-hoc explanation of the character’s appearance and isn’t a genuine account of the actual evolution of the practice; the story is to the best of my knowledge completely ahistorical.

Nevertheless, if the pro-Piet person genuinely believes that is the actual explanation behind the current-day practice, they should surely be amendable to getting rid of the lipstick, earrings and wigs, and rather than cleanly covering the entire face in black paint make them appear more like how real people working with chimneys looked like. Surely that’d be more in line with the story told, and this is also exactly what a significant number of people protesting Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands propose as an alternative. And yet even this extremely moderate attempt at reforming the character is strangely enough far from met with acceptance from those inclined to preserve it. It is rather met with mockery and sentiments along the lines of the proposal being ‘political correctness run amok’, which leads me to investigating the next popular retort.

‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?’

Another common reply is that kids don’t care about whether the character is considered offensive or not; it’s just uppity adults that make a ruckus. But it’s hard to see how that’s an effective response that thoroughly engages with the implications of the criticism that playing the Zwarte Piet character is racially insensitive, which if true presumably gives us good reason in favour of either altering or abolishing the practice altogether. Also note that counter-objection cuts both ways; if children don’t care either way, what’d be the trouble in altering or doing away with the practice? I sure wouldn’t have cared that much as a kid, and I also doubt kids today have that much of a passionate commitment to keeping the Piet the way it is like many of their parents do. Assuming we did away with the practice entirely starting the next Sinterklaasfeest, I’m going to bet that even 5 years from now the kids of then will care approximately 0% about the fact that we abandoned some old dated tradition. It is in fact the parents, not the children, that make a big deal about preserving Zwarte Piet.

A related yet mutually contradictory reply is that anti-Zwarte Piet protesters are in fact ‘Ruining Sinterklaas for kids’ by opposing Zwarte Piet. Now they can mean two different things by this: Sometimes it refers to the way how opponents of the practice of playing Zwarte Piet go about protesting the practice, but sometimes proponents also seem to just mean the fact that the current Piet will be in some way altered itself constitutes ‘ruining the magic’ for children. I will first focus on the latter as it’s the easiest to dispense with, mainly as we’ve already established kids probably don’t intensely care about the status of Zwarte Piet. Those who are of the age that they still believe in the Saint and the like might get curious as to the sudden change were it to be implemented, but I seriously question whether they’d be inconsolable over it. I suspect there is a degree of projection going on on the side of pro-Zwarte Piet parents and other guardian figures when it comes to the question of the plight of the children.

As to the former, it depends. I’ve heard proponents allege that they’ve seen protesters go around shaming even children who are indifferent about the controversy to their faces. Now I have no idea if that is actually true or a gross exaggeration, but if it’s true then yes, such people are obviously misguided in doing so. Children from age 3-11 who passively accept the practice inculcated by their guardian figures can hardly be seen as morally culpable for said acceptance to any significant degree. The target of rebuke should obviously be the guardian figures and other people who themselves actively are trying to hold on to the practice, and who have an effect on what children will see as appropriate and participate in.

But generally speaking, those marginal exceptions of reprehensible conduct aside, I think common ways of opposing Zwarte Piet are very much acceptable. Online rebuke, plastering ‘Zwarte Piet is racisme’ stickers and posters, public protests, even ones that might be perceived as “disruptive” protests (As all protests that are in any way effective will invariably be regarded as) are completely legitimate and permissible tactics. As the argument discussed in the paragraph directly above targets unacceptable means, it evidently doesn’t apply to the means I’ve sketched out here. If one is inclined to say that even the tactics I described (Even if they target the right people in terms of rebuke, and even though the methods of protest ostensibly don’t involve any sort of serious rights-violations) are somehow impermissible as well, I very much invite them to explain why they feel that way, for I do not see it. On that note I’ll be moving on to the last common argument that I think is prominent and serious enough to dignify with a thorough response.

‘Traditions are Sacred’

The last resort for the proponent to make the practice beyond reproach is to appeal to the fact that it’s a long-running tradition. They’ll seemingly selectively adopt a naive kind of cultural relativism where we need to accept any and every cultural practice and to criticize certain customs constitutes an unacceptable level of disrespect for a given group’s traditions, regardless of the contents of the tradition in question. I have even in one instance heard a person bite the bullet and give the example of bull fighting in Spain as a tradition that we should respect in spite of our own attitudes. This I repeat is a very naive way of looking at things, and treats our “dislike” of in this case bull fighting as something akin to personal tastes without cognitive content, rather than serious ethical objections to what’s to my mind an obvious case of needless animal cruelty.

Let’s do a little thought experiment: Let’s say it were to be found out that every leap year for the past century people in Canada secretly have had a tradition where they ritually killed off and cooked up all their first-born. Evidently it’d be a long-standing tradition that’s been practiced for generations, and it might well be significant to the participants and part of their culture, and yet I think it’s fair to say that any even remotely plausible moral theory would allow for at the very least serious repudiation of the practice. Of course that’s a very extreme example, but it’s just to demonstrate that something being labeled a “tradition” doesn’t by that fact make it beyond criticism. And at any rate, even though the practice of playing Zwarte Piet doesn’t involve infanticide, I think it’s also fair to say that it’s problematic enough to also be subject to criticism. Again people are free to respond if they disagree with the last sentence, but as it stands I’m pretty confident in my claim that a tradition being racist (even if it doesn’t involve murder) is sufficient grounds for objecting to said tradition.

Lastly, in the Netherlands at least there’s been a substantial increase in xenophobic sentiment in recent years, in particular directed toward Turkish and Moroccan citizens. And I know from firsthand experience that at least some of the people inclined to make the tradition argument above also love to call the cultures and traditions of Turks and Moroccans “backwards, barbaric, and misogynistic” compared to ‘our’ “enlightened, secular, and tolerant” society. And of course that’s just a load of xenophobic rubbish, but it does show that at least a number of the people making the tradition argument actually in some scenarios agree with my assessment that “tradition” isn’t necessarily above criticism (Though for all the wrong reasons), so this means those people either are being inconsistent or are being dishonest in arguing that.

Anyhow, in concluding thoughts: I believe it’s fair to say the idea that the practice of playing Zwarte Piet is racially insensitive holds, and that none of the popular counter-arguments assessed here serve as much in the way of powerful objections to people imploring to abandon the practice.

A Plain Jane Theory of Sex Differances, Or: Jonesing for Some Sexy Oppression

In this scene, Jane Clare Jones, our star bigot, our astro-TERF attempts to Clarefy sex and sex-based oppression. I, a brainless rube, become confused, certainly on account of my brainlessness, and ask for further Clarefication. Jones obliges, to little effect. Our brainless rube is just too brainless.

Roll cameras! Action!

Skip the dinner and small talk: Jones wants to begin with sex. A little forward for my liking, but let’s role with it. Sex is not just “a very complex mix of chromosomes, hormones, and genitals.”[1] It has much more to do with “gametes and reproductive function.” It’s true! Sex is the system of categorisation we use to understand whether two individuals can productively copulate to produce viable offspring. XY/XX, testosterone/estradiol, penis/vagina, sperm/egg, nurturing mother/deadbeat dad. Sex is a binary. It is . . . wait, Sex isn’t a binary? “THAT IS NOT A FUCKING BINARY,” says Jones.

Okay, so what’s a binary? “A binary,” she says, “is a conceptual hierarchy which is formed by taking a term with a dominant positive value and creating a subordinate value by negating the privileged qualities of the dominant term.” Male/female (sex, that is) is not a binary. Masculine/Feminine (sex(?), that is) is a binary. Glad we Clared that up. Oh no, wait, I sexed it. Masculine/Feminine is gender. Okay, got it. Gender is the “ur-binary, to the extent that ALL of the binary pairs which structure Western thought . . . are gendered.” Sex, on the other hand, is not a binary because it is a “natural difference.” Apparently we in the West didn’t realise this at first because our thought “is so thoroughly gendered that [we] are incapable of thinking the difference ‘male/female’ without thinking it’s (sic) cultural hierarchisation . . .”

Good, good. Now that we know that sex is just a difference between individuals on account of their reproductive function and that there is no hierarchy granted on those grounds, we know what the cause of women’s oppression is: it is the cultural hierarchy of masculine over feminine, of man over woman. So trans women, as women, are oppressed just like cis women, for both are tokens of the same cultural type. They wear their hair long, care needlessly about their figure, read romance novels instead of build motors, and all the other things that women do that are not predicated on their reproductive function. To solve this oppression, then, we need  . . . Huh? What? Oh no: I’ve gone and gendered it up again. “You are committed to an ideology,” she says, “that means you can’t recognise . . . that female people are oppressed qua female people—that is, on the basis of their sex.” Now I’m confused.

I’m Jonesing for a Clarefication here! She obliges: “Male people commit violence . . . because of the structure of patriarchal gender.” Yeah, so men think women are weak and passive and emotional and irrational, and that these characteristics are worse, so they abuse and rape them, they pay them less, they don’t grant them political power, and so on. I got that. So when do we get to the sex? Jones says that “women are oppressed on the basis of their sex.” Okay . . . I realise that reproductive function sets women back in their careers because of child-bearing, and financially in other ways because feminine hygiene products cost money, but what about all the more heinous stuff? Women are raped. Women are catcalled and harassed. These are truly terrible. Trans women get raped too. Quite frequently. They get catcalled and harassed. But they can’t bear children. Rape and harassment have little to do with reproductive function. They are cultural signifiers of power. Cis women don’t have that power. Neither do trans women. Both are oppressed. Now, there are certainly avenues of oppression that cis women face that trans women don’t. Absolutely. But there are likewise avenues of oppression that trans women face that cis women don’t. Trans women face much higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. They live shorter lives. They have more difficulty accessing medical care and have higher rates of disease as a result.

“Stop it with your baseless hierarchy of suffering lady!” Oh no, I’ve made her angry! “You think playing people’s wounds off against each other is going to get us somewhere good, you dangerous idiot???” Wow, okay, rude. I didn’t know I was being dangerous. All suffering is important. I just wanted to know, Dr. Jones, how cis women are oppressed on account of their sex when all of the major threats arise from their gender. I mean, trans men, though female, often don’t face the same threats that cis women, or even trans women, do. So please, Clarefy. Please.

Here we go: Trans women, she says, “are male people who are performing femininity in a way that violates the first rule of patriarchal masculinity.” Uh, sure. But I’m a fairly gracile man. I wear nail polish and sew. I’ve never been catcalled. Not even once. Nor raped. That’s not even a common thing for more effeminate men than me, or at least not nearly as common as it is for cis women or trans women. And why do these two explanations, that trans women don’t live up to the masculine standard, and that cis women have a female reproductive role, happen to explain the same phenomena? What are the chances of that?! Especially since many men don’t have x-ray vision and can’t see that trans women happen to have testes and a Y-chromosome. Like, I know men are attentive and discerning, but I didn’t know we could see hidden, invisible things!

So is that all? Is there nothing else? No? Okay. OKAY!!

Gender and sex are inextricably bound. They are not coextensive; they vary. But they are nevertheless joined like weights by a string, one heavier and one lighter. They shift around with time but at different rates. And yet no one can control either. They both stand independent of us to a large extent. Neither can just be wished away.

But what that means then is that trans women are women. They may differ from cis women in some ways of course: this, after all, is what the “trans” signifies. But their oppression is women’s oppression. Their oppression can be ameliorated by abolishing gender. And what that means is that we don’t demonise them, we don’t add further avenues to their intersection. We accept them and listen to them and support them as we ought to accept and listen and support cis women. But as our support for black women differs from white, disabled women differs from abled, lesbian women differs from straight, so too must our support for trans women differ from cis. Jones, in her infinite smugness, just doesn’t get that.


(Do I get a Prince?)

That’s a wrap! Good job, everyone; let’s get this to the cutting room.



[1] All quotations are from Jane Clare Jones,

Remembrance in the Menexenus

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

We too, as I write, are faced with the same. And today we are asked to Remember. We are asked to remember the sacrifices of that Greatest Generation in its battle against tyrannical forces abroad so that we might grow and live in free and prosperous nations. Our forefathers failed. Plato’s forefathers so too.

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

The Menexenus consists of two major sections: an introductory conversation between Socrates and Menexenus, then Aspasia’s speech. Aspasia’s speech takes up the bulk of the dialogue and can itself be broken into two, separated by the words of the war dead themselves. That Aspasia’s speech has these two parts is important for understanding its point and Plato’s. It is the ironic contrast between them that gives the speech its force.

Socrates begins the dialogue thus: “Whence comes Menexenus?” Menexenus gives an answer—the Council Chamber—but this is not all whence Menexenus comes. He comes also from Athens, and from Athens’ brave ancestors. The first part of Aspasia’s speech concerns the former; the second part the latter. She begins with a history of Athens from the Persian Wars through the Peloponnesian War to the war against Corinth that the speech is memorialising. The major thread is easy to see: Athens was a powerful and noble polis who fought for the freedom of the Greeks first against barbarians, second against Greeks. Freedom is the object, no matter the enemy. Sometimes the tree of Liberty need be watered and all that. But so far so passé. Plato means to provoke with Aspasia’s speech. He does that in the second part, with the speech of the war dead.

These war dead are of Plato’s generation. They live in the shadow of their fathers who fought in the Peloponnesian War, and their gradfathers who fought the Persians. They begin by addressing their sons: “Sons,” they say, “our present condition shows that you are born of courageous fathers.”[1] This is no hyperbole. But their virtue has a reason. It is from their own virtue that they mean to exhort their sons, their fathers, and their city to virtue. They say that they “believe that no one who brings disrepute on his own family truly lives at all,” for “he has no friends, man or god, on Earth or below it.”[2] They continue:

You must remember our words and do everything in partnership with valor, without which all possessions and all actions are shameful and base . . . When sundered from the noble and just, even knowledge most certainly cannot be wisdom but seems rogue and villainous. Endeavour, therefore, for all time from the first to the last to surpass–most fervently, in merit and in worth–we who came before. And if you fail, if we stand above you, ennobled and great, our victory is truly our most shameful defeat. But if you overcome, this defeat is then our joyous victory.[3]

The condition for virtue, for success in the universe, is to make one’s progeny better, to hand off the reins of one’s country and one’s name to someone better, stronger, smarter. Failure is disaster: it is profound, universal loneliness, lacking friends among man and god while one lives or after one has died. This sentiment is repeated in Plato with some frequency, such as in the Lysis with regards to friendship, and the Gorgias on the responsibilities of political leaders. But here, it takes a different, more sombre tone. For as the war dead go on to say while consoling their fathers and mothers still living, “That mortal man has everything in his life turn out as he wishes is no easy feat.”[4] One’s success is all but beyond effect. For all a man’s best efforts, for all his toil and his pain, he may never accomplish anything of any value whatever.

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

So we return once again: what, truly, do we owe those men who fought and sacrificed for our city? What is the purpose of our Remembrance? Now we return to the first part of Aspasia’s speech. For as it stands, Aspasia has demonstrated the courage of the Athenian war dead and revoked it at once. We stand then at a crossroads. Is the Greatest Generation truly great, virtuous, courageous, or are they debased and corrupt? Truly, they are both. As Aspasia makes clear at the beginning, the Greatest Generation fought, and died, for what was right. Mistakes they may have made, but for everything to turn out is no easy feat. What makes courage, what makes virtue, is not to succeed: it is to know when and for what to fight. The Athenian Greatest Generation fought the Persians and the Spartans. Our own fought the Nazis. The Corinthian war dead too fought for freedom. And what will we do—will we fight Republicans?

So what do we owe to the Greatest Generation, these brave men who fought but failed to preserve our freedom? What do we owe them?  Forgiveness. We owe them forgiveness for their vices and their inadequacies. We owe them the knowledge that despite their failures, they still have friends amongst gods and men.


Works Cited

[1] Plato, Menexenus, 246d. All translations are my own.

[2] Ibidem

[3] Ibidem, 246d-247a

[4] Ibidem, 247d

Free Will Part 3: Moral Responsibility and Luck

Taking into account what I’ve said about Harris on free will, I want to look at what I take to be a credible threat not to free will, but to moral responsibility; this is the problem of luck. I will try to offer some reasons for why moral responsibility can be preserved even while taking into account the extent to which luck undermines control and moral responsibility.

Aside from the belief that libertarian free will entails mind/body dualism and contra-causal powers, the most pervasive confusion gripping this area is the conflation of free will and moral responsibility. To Harris’s credit, he does see how they come apart, and offers us a consequentialist based notion of moral responsibility that he claims is sufficient to preserve a criminal justice system and holding each other accountable. Although seeming to contradict his whole book, this tension resolves once we understand that there are a plurality of justifications for incarceration. Most frequently appealed to and understood is retribution. Retribution is the practice of bringing about an intrinsic good by harming another to the extent that they are responsible for a proportional harm. Less commonly, we restrict the freedom of or directly harm others for reasons such as rehabilitation or protection of the public. I agree with Harris that this is all we really need to preserve our norms of quarantining and penalizing the more dangerous and less trustworthy members of society. This shouldn’t be foreign to anyone, given that this is exactly how we justify the harm parents and educators bring on young children, and to a lesser extent, teenagers and young adults. It’s only at a particular, but indeterminate stage of development that the robust sense of retribution seems appropriate, where you are punished precisely because you deserve it.

Theories of moral responsibility can broadly be distinguished as forward-looking and backward-looking. The former justifies both holding people accountable and society’s response (the enhancing  and restricting of the population’s freedom) based on their ability to avoid harms and produce goods. A desert based form of moral responsibility is committed to the idea that were justified in holding people responsible because they’ve demonstrated themselves as good or bad in a way that is under their control and exemplifies their genuine character. Harris doesn’t think anyone really is deserving of reactive attitudes (e.g. praise and blame)  because he takes desert to require the sort of control he thinks is impossible.

I share some of Harris’s skepticism over our capacity to exemplify a desert based notion of moral responsibility. There is a something inarguably true that our character/nature is not of our own making. We don’t have control over our parents, genes, culture, history, upbringing; all of which shape and constrain our mental and moral capacities. This is the problem of luck. Luck being just whatever is causally and morally relevant to your behavior that you don’t have control over. Almost all of the causal conditions behind our capacities and dispositions are outside of our control, and given that these are the principal sources of our action, how can we be held responsible for them?

I can see four strategies for reconciling constitutive luck and desert:

1. Argue that there are control-compensating features intrinsic to human agency  

2. Reject moral responsibility altogether

3. Revise moral responsibility by substituting desert with an alternative justification

4. Qualify our notion of desert

(1) is the route of most free will affirmers, be they compatiblists and incompatiblists, (2) is endorsed by free will skeptics and hard determinists, (3) is accepted by  Harris, Pereboom, and Vargas,(4) is my own proposal.

The qualification I have in mind consists of making explicit what one is responsible for and what one is deserving of, but first I’d like to clarify the folk conception of desert. The basic conditions for desert are free will and moral competence. Roughly speaking, moral competence consists in an agents capacity to understand and react to reasons (moral and otherwise). Moral competence explains how we respond differently to agents that interfere with our desires. We typically don’t react to a violent dog the same way we do to a violent person, or a drunk bar attendant, or an overly critical coworker. We expect these different classes of agents to be more or less (or not at all) understanding of why their behavior is unacceptable. This is grounded in their ability to understand moral reasons plus the availability of such reasons. For example, this is exactly what is expressed when someone says “they should have known better” in justifying their indignation at another’s behavior.

The central problem with desert is that we can only be justifiably blamed for what we can control, but much of our behavior is a result of our character, which we don’t control. We are born with a set of genetic dispositions, some of which are inexorably expressed, others can be nurtured or stifled. The extent and direction of these latter dispositions is largely dependent on our environment. We have little to no control over these influences, but especially as a child; and this is exactly when the majority of our character development takes place. For the most part, these factors are going to determine whether we’re hot-headed or easy going, depressive or cheerful, ambitious or content, curious or uninterested, stoic or sensitive, prone to addiction or not, etc; all of which can influence our moral competence  

The challenge is whether it even makes sense to blame someone in light of these facts. I think the majority of this problem resolves itself once we understand desert as being explicitly restricted to the aspects of behavior that morally competent agents have control over. This sounds obvious, but most of our retributive practices ignore this, leaving its justification  under-articulated. The result is the fusion of metaphysical freedom and moral competence, leading to the incoherent notion of having metaphysical freedom over one’s moral competence. This seems to be what is going on in the variety of retribution behind our criminal justice system. The attitude behind sentencing is often that the guilty individual choose to become the sort of person who is disposed to steal, kill, abuse, lie, etc. Their behavior expresses who they really are, which they alone determined.  

While acknowledging this as impossible, I think we can preserve a desert based conception of moral responsibility. Praise or blame being justifiable in instances where a morally competent, metaphysically free agent is caught in a torn condition and chooses to act either in pursuit of what is just or what is merely prudent. Consider the following example. Dave is selling his truck out of desperation. He recently accrued severe gambling losses and will suffer worse if he doesn’t immediately settle his debt. A friend of his informed him of an especially credulous, undiscerning, and moderately wealthy coworker that’s been looking for a similar truck. He’s told that he is nearly guaranteed a sale, even while exaggerating the vehicles worth up to 50%. Also of note is that Dave was raised by gambling addicts that actively encouraged him to gamble. He started young and continued to do so until he fell into a set of drug habits. Eventually his health was in danger to the extent that he was desperate to do anything he could to distract himself from drugs. Finding gambling especially effective, he spent most of his free time at the casino, but having an addictive personality, was unable to stop himself. Finally, when showing the truck to his friends coworker, he’s met with enthusiastic response he expected. As tempted as Dave is to sell the truck at an exaggerated price, this is in conflict with his central desire to do what is right. He finds himself in the torn condition of being equally motivated to what is right and what is expedient. In the end, he sells his truck for far more than it’s worth.

I think it’s fair to say that Dave is blameworthy for his action because he choose to pursue what was convenient while knowing it was wrong and having the capacity to do otherwise. Though as we saw, Dave’s nature was largely shaped by features outside of his control. There were elements of luck involved in his nature, his circumstances, and the success of his actions. Since you can only be justifiably held responsible for what you can control, this severely limits the extent of his blameworthiness. There was constitutive luck involved in his genes and upbringing, circumstantial luck in the opportunity to sell his truck, and consequential luck in his loses and buyers acceptance. If any of these features would have been otherwise, he would very likely never scammed the man. Knowledge of these facts should incline us to restrict the extent of our reproach. In the same way we restrain our blame when dealing with children and the mentally impaired, we ought to modify our reactive attitudes in light of the way luck functions in life of all moral agents.

Blameworthiness can be undermined in a variety of ways. Luck is just one. It will be useful to situate luck within the general structure of limiting blame (1). Take some seemingly blameworthy act: out of nowhere, Mac pushes Jack. We naturally ask why he did it. There’s three strategies available to get Mac off the hook. That is, he can be justified, exempted, or excused, all of which can be mitigating or exculpatory. Justification means Mac had morally compensating reasons for pushing Jack. Perhaps if Mac hadn’t pushed Jack, he would have been hit by a brick. Alternatively, Mac could be criminally insane. Mac sometimes lashes out in a way that he can’t control. This would render Mac exempt from blame because he is not equipped with sufficient moral competence and self-control to function as the proper target of praise and blame. Finally, maybe Mac was pushed by Zach, so he couldn’t help but push Jack. In this case, Mac is excused from blame because didn’t have the opportunity control his action in this precise circumstance. These three are examples of exculpatory pleas. They are sufficient to wholly relieve one of blame.

However it doesn’t always work this way. Often when investigating a harm, we’ll discover  context that partially relieves one of blame. For example, if Mac was being intentionally intimidated and threatened by Jack, we’ll find Mac not quite as at fault for pushing him. Since Jack hadn’t yet physically harmed him, Mac wasn’t fully justified in pushing, but perhaps he was to some degree. Next, assume that Mac has a severe anger problem. It doesn’t take much to upset him, and he only has so much control over this. Mac’s limited emotional stability ought to limit the degree to which we hold him responsible. This doesn’t mean he’s not sufficiently morally competent; it just entails that is somewhat diminished in self-control. So when Mac pushes Jack as the result of Jack teasing Mac, we might be not so severe in our condemnation of him. Finally, assume Mac is typically good-natured and exhibits self control, although recently he has been working two jobs (both of which he might lose), getting little sleep, as well as having severe marriage and financial problems. Jack tells a tasteless joke at Mac’s expense. Upon hearing the joke, Mac pushes Jack. Though it’s difficult to hold Mac entirely responsible given the number stressors, he has an excuse for his behavior (to an extent). In these three cases we have instances of discovering information that partially diminishes the extent of Mac’s blameworthiness. A partial justification, a mitigating exemption, or a mitigating excuse.

To review, one’s blame can either be exonerated or mitigated. This can either happen by way of having sufficient warrant to harm (justification), lacking the capacity to grasp and apply moral reasons and to govern one’s behavior in light of such reasons (exemption), or being deprived of the opportunity to properly exercise one’s capacities (excuse).. Whereas Harris seems to think of constitutive luck as exonerating, I take it to function as a universal mitigating exemption. Assuming we sometimes have the opportunity to do otherwise and possess the requisite moral competence, we can still be blameworthy for our actions, but this must be measured against the degree to which we lack control.

This mitigation applies as much to praise as it does to blame, but that’s not nearly as significant. What’s important is proportioning the extent to which we hold people blameworthy to the degree that they exercise control. On any plausible theory of free will and moral responsibility, whether it entails basic desert or not, the current criminal justice system is unjustified. This simply follows from the fact that we don’t include all of the possible mitigating and exonerating features in our assessments. In order to do so, one would have to have perfect moral knowledge as well as access to all of the facts relevant to the how control and luck have factored into anyone’s behavior. This is impossible. For this reason we can’t structure our criminal justice system around people possessing free will in the sense required for basic desert. This doesn’t mean we won’t have one. We simply must appeal to alternative justifications when dealing with those who harm (i.e. protection of the public, rehabilitation), which if performed consistently will inevitably lead to more humane treatment of the incarcerated.

The upshot of all this is that we can still make sense of basic desert in light of the ubiquity of luck, but just not without qualification. No one is praiseworthy or blameworthy simplictor , but this remains consistent with being praiseworthy or blameworthy in the deontic sense. This conception of desert has the advantage of preserving the notion that we exemplify the control necessary for moral responsibility, as well as making us sensitive to the relevant factors that are not in our control.  However this case is dependent on us sometimes being able to make metaphysically free decisions. If Harris turns out to be right that we don’t have this capacity, then I think we would have sufficient reason to conclude that humans are never morally responsible in the basic desert sense.

  1. Franklin, Christopher Evan. ‘A Theory of the Normative Force of Pleas’Philosophical Studies 163:2, (2013): 479-502.

Hedonism and Cardinal Utility

Recently, I have decided to embrace preference-based theories of welfare over hedonism. I had two reasons for doing so. First, due to the difficulty of assigning cardinal utilities to mental states. Second, because I no longer feel as though there are any grounds for claiming that preferences that do not supervene over mental states are irrational—and if they are not irrational, then we ought to respect them when it comes to moral decisions. In this post, I will expand upon the first point.

Before talking about ethics, it would be beneficial to briefly review the decision theory necessary for understanding the notion of cardinal utility. For more detailed discussions of these topics, see Schwarz or Peterson (do note that the former is open source). Put simply, according to orthodox decision theory, every individual has a utility function, which intuitively measures “how good” outcomes are for that individual (according to their preferences—we’re not yet concerned with making any substantive claims on what those preferences should be). Formally, the utility function is a function from the set of possible outcomes to the real numbers; outcomes with higher numbers assigned to them are preferred by the agent. The utility function does not just describe the individual’s preference ordering; it also captures the magnitudes of their preferences. Let’s say A, B, and C are outcomes, and say A has utility 0 and C has utility 1.  Suppose further that I prefer C to B and B to A. Then the utility of B should be somewhere between 0 and 1. But it matters where between 0 and 1 the utility of B is—the mere ordering of these numbers is not all that matters. If the utility of B is, say, 0.6, then in some sense my preference for B over A is “stronger” than my preference for C over B. If the utility of B were 0.4, this would not be so. Because relative magnitudes between preferences matter, we call the assigned utilities cardinal utilities. This is distinct from mere ordinal utilities, which only capture the order of one’s preferences.

According to expected utility theory, if an agent is faced with a choice between two gambles, she should choose the one with a higher expected utility. A gamble is an assignment of probabilities to possible outcomes. If the possible outcomes of a gamble G are o_1, o_2, ..., o_n, each of which will yield with respective probabilities p_1, p_2, ..., p_n, then the expected utility of G is given by \mathrm{EU}(G) = \sum_{i=1}^n u(o_i)\cdot p_i, where u is the utility function assigning real numbers to outcomes. As an example, consider the above situation with outcomes A, B, and C which have respective utilities 0, 0.6, and 1. Let the gamble G1 denote getting outcome B with certainty, and let G2 denote the gamble which gives A with 70% probability and C otherwise. G1 has expected utility equal to 0.6. G2 has expected utility 0*0.7+1*0.3 = 0.3. G1 has a higher expected utility, so I should choose G1. Expected utility can be thought of as the average yield of a gamble; if I were to partake in G2 over and over, on average I would get 0.3 utility. Notice that the assigned cardinal utilities are crucial to what decision I make: if the utility of B were 0.2, my preference ordering of outcomes would be the same, but I would have to choose G2. So, knowing how my preferences order the outcomes isn’t enough to tell me how I should make choices under conditions of uncertainty.

So far, I have only described cardinal utilities as representing the “strength” of a preference. However, this is quite a weak basis for expected utility theory. For sure, people do often have some sense of the relative magnitudes of their preferences (this used to be a standard way of defining cardinal utility—see Harsanyi 1955). But basing cardinal utilities on this intuitive sense would not be anywhere near precise enough to serve as a foundation for expected utility theory. One would not be blamed for concluding that there is no fact of the matter regarding the relative magnitudes of preferences—that the only real facts are about one’s preference ordering of outcomes. In fact, this position, called ordinalism, was argued for in the beginning of the 20th century (Schwarz). Schwarz calls this the “ordinalist challenge”: to give a basis for assigning cardinal utilities to preferences.

How, then, can the expected utility theorist respond? On what basis can we actually compare the relative strengths of preferences, in a way that doesn’t just rely on some vague intuition? The answer is to look at the agent’s preferences under conditions of uncertainty, and to try to use these preferences to define their utility function. Here’s a rough example: as above, I prefer B to A and C to B. Let Gp denote the gamble which yields A with probability p and C otherwise. I thus prefer G0 to B and B to G1, since G0 just always yields C and G1 always yields A. Moreover, in some sense, the “value” of the gamble Gp seems to increase continuously with p. It stands to reason, then, that there must be a unique value of p such that I’m indifferent between B and Gp—if I start at Gp where p = 0 and increase p, eventually the value of Gp will have to “cross” that of B. Let’s say this value for p ends up being 0.6. The expected utility of Gp is just p; since I’m indifferent between B and Gp where p=0.6, we should take the utility of B to be 0.6. This method can be used to assign cardinal utilities to all outcomes.

Two things should be addressed. First, the fact that I was only able to assign a utility to B because I had already assigned utilities to A and C. How, then, am I supposed to get these utilities? As it turns out, you can just choose them arbitrarily. Choosing the utilities of A and C just specifies my choice of the units with which we measure utility. This is similar to measuring temperature, for example. It doesn’t matter what number you assign to any particular temperature; what matters is how these numbers relate to one another. I can choose any numbers I like for two temperatures—say, the freezing and boiling points of water—and I get a valid way to measure temperature just as long as all other temperatures are consistent with the first two. Likewise, I may arbitrarily choose A to have utility 0 and C to have utility 1, just as long as all other utilities are consistent with this choice.

The second thing to address is that the above reasoning likely seems circular. The original challenge was to assign numbers to outcomes so that we can tell agents that they should maximize expected utility. I showed a method for assigning such numbers by reasoning backwards, and assigning the numbers which would make the agent’s preferences consistent with expected utility theory. Is this not circular? A utility function is said to represent an agent’s preferences provided that she prefers a gamble G1 to G2 iff the expected utility of G1 is greater than that of G2, with respect to that utility function. The expected utility theorist merely wants to say that there exists some utility function that represents a given agent’s preferences—if the agent has rational preferences. A representation theorem is a theorem which guarantees the existence of a utility function representing an agent’s preferences, provided that her preferences satisfy certain axioms. Arguing that agents should be expected utility maximizers, then, comes down to arguing that their preferences should satisfy the axioms of some representation theorem. This eliminates any circularity. One example of such an axiom is transitivity: if you prefer G1 to G2 and G2 to G3, then you should prefer G1 to G3. Another example is continuity: if you prefer the outcome A to B and B to C, then there should be some probability p such that you’re indifferent between B and a gamble that yields A with probability p and C otherwise. These two axioms are found in von Neumann and Morgenstern’s representation theorem, which defines cardinal utility by looking at preferences between gambles. Another is Savage’s representation theorem, which not only provides a utility function but also a probability function assigning probabilities to events.


Preference utilitarianism holds that total (or average, but that’s beside the point) utility should be maximized, where an agent’s utility function is just constructed from their preferences as above—or, from what their preferences would be if they were rational (see Railton 1986 for a discussion how this notion of welfare can work). It should be noted that although decision theory generally does not place substantive constraints upon agents’ preferences (merely formal constraints, given by axioms such as transitivity and continuity), preference utilitarians may hold that there are reasonableness constraints which should be taken into account (Harsanyi 1977). These may take the form of substantive constraints on the content of preferences.

Hedonistic utilitarianism disagrees with preference utilitarianism in how it defines an individual’s welfare. According to preference utilitarianism (as I have described it), an individual’s welfare is measured by the utility function that represents an idealized version of that individual. According to hedonism, cardinal utility is an objective property of mental states—some mental states just are intrinsically better to experience than others, and by a certain amount. In referring to the utilities of mental states as objective, I mean this: whether a mental state in better than another, and by how much, only depends on properties of the two mental states, and not explicitly on any other factors, such as the individual’s desires. In particular, these utilities are the same for different individuals. An individual’s welfare at a certain time, according to hedonism, is thus given by the utility of the mental state they are experiencing at that time. Hedonistic utilitarians seek to maximize the sum (or average) of these utilities over all sentient beings.

The fact that for the hedonist cardinal utility is taken to be an objective property of mental states, and not a mere result of an individual’s subjective preferences between those mental states, is crucial. This is also the aspect of hedonism which, in my view, makes it untenable. There are no such facts intrinsic to mental states, and even if there were, they would be in principle impossible to know, even approximately. Any attempt to define the cardinal utility of mental states in terms of something knowable (whether observed from the outside or by introspection) inevitably leads to a notion of utility too subjective to be suitable for hedonism.

Effectively, I am making the claim that hedonists do not have any way to meet the ordinalist challenge described above, whereas preference utilitarians do. A natural proposal is for the hedonist to respond to this challenge the same way expected utility theorists do. Recall that in decision theory, an individual’s utility function is determined by their preferences under uncertainty. A hedonist may likewise attempt to base the cardinal utility function on an individual’s preferences between mental states under uncertainty—call this the “preference approach”. As a matter of fact, I think this is the only option for hedonists. The older approach, in which agents simply judge the relative strengths of preferences of mental states, is basically equivalent to this approach (although it is less precise). This is because, if the individual in question is rational and therefore cognizant of the fact that they should be an expected utility maximizer, judgements about the relative size of utility increments are equivalent to preferences between gambles whose outcomes are mental states. Thus it suffices to focus on the preference approach in judging whether hedonism can meet the ordinalist challenge.

There are two natural ways hedonists can use the preference approach as a basis for assigning cardinal utilities to mental states. First, they can define the utility of mental states according to agents’ preferences between mental states under uncertainty. Second, they can claim that utility is a more fundamental property of mental states, of which preferences are an approximate expression. The first does not seem to work, because different agents may disagree about which gambles are better than others, even if they agree on how they order mental states. Since utility is just defined using preferences, we have no basis by which to resolve this disagreement1. It follows that cardinal utility would not end up being an objective property of mental states. Thus, I imagine most hedonistic utilitarians would prefer the second strategy, and that’s what I’ll focus on for most of the rest of this post. My problem with this position is that, if it is true, then it is in principle impossible to measure the posited properties of mental states, even approximately. This is because there would be no reason to think that preferences between mental states track the actual goodness of those mental states. Thus, the utilities of mental states can vary while one’s preferences between mental states change to “cancel out” the changes in utilities, thus causing these changes to be unobservable. I hope my argument will also motivate the stronger claim that there are no such facts about mental states, but as we will see, this stronger claim is not necessary to refute hedonism.

If hedonists want to claim that our preferences track the objective utilities of mental states (at least approximately), they need to provide some explanation as to why this is so. For example, they can argue that having preferences track the value of our mental states is evolutionarily beneficial. Put very simplistically, the reason why some mental states are preferable to others is to motivate us to act in ways that are beneficial for our survival—the good mental states result from beneficial behaviors, thus incentivizing us to behave that way. For example, getting punched is more painful than getting poked because it’s more important to avoid the former than the latter, since it causes more damage to one’s body. But this can be achieved just as well if an individual’s preferences are “out of sync” with the objective value of that individual’s mental states. This is because any “error” in how objectively good or bad a mental state is can be corrected by another “error” in the agent’s preferences between mental states. We, then, cannot expect the utilities of mental states to be tracked by anything observable, or anything available to introspection.

Here’s an explicit example to illustrate the above point. Let’s say that it’s “twice as important” to avoid getting punched than it is to avoid getting poked (relative to the status quo), in the sense that it is optimal that we are indifferent between getting poked and a 50% chance of getting punched. How is it that our biology makes us exhibit this behavior? According to the hedonist’s story, this is accomplished by having some resulting mental states feel better or worse than others. Say M1 is the mental state had after getting pinched, and M2 after getting punched. Assuming the status quo has utility 0, agents will exhibit the desired behavior if i) the utility of M2 is twice that of M1 (with both being negative), and ii) agents’ preferences are represented by the utilities of these mental states. Thus, we have an explanation for why our preferences should track the objective utilities of mental states: if they didn’t, then in situations like the above, agents would not exhibit optimal behavior.

But there’s a flaw in the above explanation. There are many ways we can get agents to have the “right” behavior when it comes to getting punched and poked. For one, we could do as above, and assign M1 and M2 utilities of, say, -1 and -2, and have agents’ preferences represented by these utilities. But we could also do the following: assign M1 and M2 utilities of, say, -1 and -4, and have agents’ preferences fail to reflect these utilities, and instead acting as though M2 had utility -2. Agents like these can be thought of as experiencing more pain when punched than those in the first case (or perhaps less pain when poked, or some combination of these), but also dispreferring larger amounts of pain to a lesser degree, so that their behavior is the same.

More generally, say Smith is rational according to hedonism, so that the utilities of her mental states represent her preferences. Let M be the set of possible mental states, and f: M \to \mathbb R the function which assigns the correct utilities to mental states. Now suppose Jones differs from Smith in the following two ways. First, in situations where Smith would experience a mental state with utility u, Jones experiences a mental state with utility u^3. Second, Jones’ preferences are not represented by f, but rather by f^{1/3}. Jones is irrational, according to hedonism: she doesn’t take more “extreme” outcomes as seriously as she should. But outcomes are in general more extreme for her than for Smith, so that the two end up having the same behavior.

Given that Smith and Jones will exhibit the same behavior in any given situation, why would evolution make us like Smith (as is required for hedonists) instead of making us like Jones? It seems that the only causal role played by the utility of mental states is acting in conjunction with one’s preferences in order to produce certain behaviors. But as we saw above, one’s utilities and preferences between utilities are underdetermined by behavior. In other words: if I observe that someone prefers a state A to a state B by a factor of two (relative to the status quo), this can be explained in two ways. First, by saying that the mental state associated with A is actually twice as good as that associated with B and that the intrinsic goodness of these mental states are reflected by her preferences. Second, by assigning arbitrary utilities to the mental states associated with A and B and stipulating that the agent’s preferences are not represented by these utilities. We have no reason to think the former is happening instead of the latter.

Obviously the above evolutionary story is simplistic, but it illustrates my point. Moreover, I think the same reasoning can be used to undermine any story the hedonist tries to give for why our preferences track objective utilities.

I would go so far as to say that this sort of underdetermination shows that mental states have no such properties. No doubt, this sort of argument will remind some of arguments made against phenomenal properties of consciousness more generally, such as Dennett’s attacks on the concept of qualia using the considerations like inverted spectrum thought experiment (Dennett 1988)2. The idea is that, assuming color qualia exist, there is in principle no way to tell whether yours are different from mine—that is, no way to tell whether you actually see what I call “blueness” when we look at something green, and vice versa. Dennett uses considerations like that to argue that the concept of qualia doesn’t refer to anything real. I’m basically telling a similar story about utility, replacing the inverted color spectrum with an “inversion” of preference and utility.

I happen to agree with Dennett’s conclusion, but no doubt many people find this too counter-intuitive, and still assert that there is a fact of the matter about whether your color spectrum looks the same as mine, even if it is in principle impossible to find out. Should these individuals reject my argument here on a similar basis? I think there’s good reason to accept my argument as damaging to hedonism, even if one isn’t convinced by eliminativism about qualia. Because even if one still wants to assert that mental states have objective utilities, I have shown that these utilities are unsuitable to serve as the basis for a normative theory. If hedonism is to be nontrivial, it has to tell us what to do in some situations where ordinal values of outcomes are not sufficient to make a decision. Hedonism tells us to base these decisions off objective cardinal utilities of mental states. But, as I have shown, there is no basis by which to resolve disagreements about these objective utilities—thus, agents do not have access to the information required to make (even approximately) correct decisions according to hedonism. In other words: even if one wants to assert that mental states have objective utilities, one must admit that it is impossible to use them as a basis for decision making. Thus hedonism fails to be actionable in any cases which require comparisons of cardinal utilities. Imagine I had a normative theory which treated as absolutely crucial interpersonal comparisons of color qualia—the theory says you should do one thing if our color qualia are the same, and another thing if our spectra are inverted with respect to one another. Even if you’re committed to believing in color qualia and that there is a fact of the matter as to whether our spectra are inverted, such a theory should nevertheless be seen as defective, as it requires us to act according to information that we in principle cannot have access to. But hedonism is just as bad. It is in principle impossible to know whether we are like Jones or like Smith, but hedonism prescribes different actions in each case.

To summarize the above point: in order to assign cardinal utilities to mental states, hedonists appeal to our intuition that some preferences between mental states are stronger in magnitude than others. But all that is immediately apparent is that these preferences track a subjective attitude towards gambles between mental states, not recognition of some objective property of them. Hedonists have to provide some justification for the claim that these objective properties exist, and why our attitudes track them. I have shown that even if they do exist, they are causally inert (because any change in objective utility can be “cancelled out” by a change in preferences between objective utilities, keeping everything observable constant), so there is no reason to expect our preferences to track them, even approximately. This undermines any story the hedonist provides for why our preferences track objective utilities of mental states.

There’s one more point I should address. Above, I stipulated changes in mental states without corresponding changes in agents’ preferences. That is, I assumed that it is possible for individuals’ preferences between mental states to not be represented by the utilities of those mental states. Could the hedonist then claim that it is in principle impossible for this to happen? Lazari-Radek and Singer in passing make the ordinal version of this claim in their book when discussing future-Tuesday-indifference. When considering the rationality of someone who doesn’t care about anything taking place on future Tuesdays, they stress the importance that this only applies to future Tuesdays by saying “If I am now experiencing a sensation that I have no desire to stop, then what I am feeling could not be agony” (p. 46) So, they’re basically claiming that it is in principle impossible to be wrong about whether agony is worse than the status quo—if someone thinks a feeling is better than the status quo, then it wasn’t agony to begin with.

Could hedonists make the same claim, but about cardinal utilities? That is, could hedonists claim that it is impossible for agents to really disagree (to a large extent) about the values of gambles between mental states, and argue that there would have to be some difference between the mental states in questions to account for any disagreement? This view is really problematic. Say I’m trying to figure out my preferences between gambles G1 and G2. At a first pass, my choice as to which I prefer will depend on three variables: properties of G1, properties of G2, and the properties of myself when I am making this decision. To use this defense, then, the hedonist needs to claim that the outcome of this decision process actually doesn’t actually vary with the third variable. This is a substantive claim which would need justification. Moreover, it seems to be clearly false. One cannot just magically output their preferences given G1 and G2; the brain has to have some process by which the outcome is determined given the necessary information about G1 and G2. But then a person could just be re-wired so that this process works differently, and the outcome is reversed even when G1 and G2 stay the same. Maybe such a re-wired individual would necessarily be irrational, but they would still be a counterexample to the claim that preferences in principle must reflect objective properties of mental states.


All of the points I’ve made warrant further elaboration, but this is getting a bit long for a blog post, so I’ll conclude here. To summarize, I disagree with hedonism on the basis that there isn’t any suitable basis for assigning cardinal utilities to mental states, even granted the existence of objective ordinal values of mental states. Any attempt to define the utilities of mental states in terms of preferences (or, equivalently, introspection about those mental states) leads to a notion of utility too subjective to be suitable as a basis for hedonism. Any attempt to claim cardinal utility as an objective property of mental states leads to skepticism about utility, because there is no way to derive the utilities of mental states unless we assume our preferences between them are (at least approximately) rational, and there is no basis for making such an assumption.

I welcome any feedback. I’m not horribly well-read, so it’s not unlikely that someone has made arguments similar to the above. If they have, let me know.



  1. When talking about disagreements about gambles whose outcomes are mental states, I rely on the assumption that interpersonal comparisons of mental states are possible. This assumption is innocent here, since hedonistic utilitarians assume such comparisons are possible anyway.
  2. In fact, Dennett briefly argued against the idea of pleasure and suffering as intrinsic qualities of mental states in Consciousness Explained.



Schwarz, Wolfgang. “Belief, Desire, and Rational Choice”, 2017.

Peterson, Martin. “An Introduction to Decision Theory”, 2009.

Harsanyi, John. “Cardinal Welfare, Individualist Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility.” 1955

Dennett, Daniel. “Quining Qualia”, 1988

Lazari-Radek and Singer. “The Point of View of the Universe”, 2016.

Railton, Peter. “Facts and Values”, 1986

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