It appears that light may be thrown on the nature of moral principles if they are construed as moral laws analogous to ceteris-paribus laws of nature. Luke Robinson objects that the analogy either cannot explain how moral principles are necessary or cannot explain how obligations can be pro-tanto; and that a dispositional account of moral obligation has explanatory superiority over one in terms of moral laws. I explain the analogy, construing laws of nature as necessary relationships after the fashion of (...) William Kneale and Karl Popper. I then show that Robinson’s objections are mistaken and that if the difference between a dispositional account and a law account is not merely verbal, then it is the law account that is superior. I also dispel the common confusion between the necessity of laws and the existence of forces. (shrink)
Determinism seems incompatible with free will. However, even indeterminism seems incompatible with free will, since it seems to make free actions random. Popper contends that free agents are not bound by physical laws, even indeterministic ones, and that undetermined actions are not random if they are influenced by abstract entities. I argue that Popper could strengthen his account by drawing upon his theories of propensities and of limited rationality; but that even then his account would not fully explain why free (...) actions are not random. I offer a solution to this problem which draws on Hornsby’s analysis of action. I then borrow an idea of Kant about self-consciousness to distinguish free agents from sub-human animals. I make a brief evaluation of Popper ’s contribution. (shrink)
In ‘The Open Society and its Enemies,’ Karl Popper contrasts closed and open societies. He evaluates irrationalism and the different kinds of rationalism and he argues that critical rationalism is superior. Living in an open society bestows great benefits but involves a strain that may in some people engender a longing to return to a closed society of tribal submission and an attraction for irrationalism. Attempts to recreate a closed society lead to totalitarianism. In the light of Popper’s arguments I (...) criticise contemporary identity politics and I show that identity politics is irrationalist and tends to totalitarianism. (shrink)
Edmund Gettier’s three-page article is generally regarded as a classic of epistemology. I argue that Gettier cases depend upon three false assumptions and are irrelevant to the theory of knowledge. I suggest that we follow Karl Popper in abandoning subject-centred epistemologies in favour of theories of objective knowledge.
Strawson offers three accounts of singular predication: a grammatical, a category and a mediating account. I argue that the grammatical and mediating accounts are refuted by a host of counter-examples and that the latter is worse than useless. In later works Strawson defends only the category account. This account entails that singular terms cannot be predicates; it excludes non-denoting singular terms from being logical subjects, except by means of an ad hoc analogy; it depends upon a notion of identification that (...) is too vague; and it is unnecessarily complicated, relying on analogies where a more uniform explanation should be possible. But I show how the account can be corrected to avoid all these difficulties and to provide an accurate account of singular predication. (shrink)
Niko Kolodny and John MacFarlane claim that a situation involving some trapped miners involves a deontic paradox the resolution of which requires rejecting the logical law of modus ponens. I show that the appearance of paradox results from confusion and that the miners case supplies no cogent reason for impugning modus ponens.
In opposition to the tenet of contemporary action theory that an intentional action must be done for a reason, I argue that some intentional actions are unmotivated. I provide examples of arbitrary and habitual actions that are done for no reason at all. I consider and rebut an objection to the examples of unmotivated habitual action. I explain how my contention differs from recent challenges to the tenet by Hursthouse, Stocker and Pollard.
Theft is win-lose: the thief gains benefits at the expense of the victim. War is lose-lose: no-one comes out better off. Trade is win-win: both parties gain. Altercations are lose-lose. When a person talks about ‘winning the argument,’ she is talking about winning a debate and she sees debate as win-lose. But if we partake of debates with an open mind, they can be win-win: even without agreeing, each party may learn. Unfortunately, contemporary philosophers seem to see debate as win-lose (...) in which a ‘justified’ dogmatist triumphs. (shrink)
It is commonly claimed that the conclusion of a valid deductive argument is contained in its premises and says nothing new. In 'Deduction and Novelty,' in The Reasoner 5 (4), pp. 56-57, I refuted that claim. In The Reasoner, 8 (3), pp. 24-25, David McBride criticised my refutation. I show that McBride’s arguments are unsound.
Social science employs teleological explanations which depend upon the rationality principle, according to which people exhibit instrumental rationality. Popper points out that people also exhibit critical rationality, the tendency to stand back from, and to question or criticise, their views. I explain how our critical rationality impugns the explanatory value of the rationality principle and thereby threatens the very possibility of social science. I discuss the relationship between instrumental and critical rationality and show how we can reconcile our critical rationality (...) with the possibility of social science if we invoke Popper’s conception of limited rationality and his indeterminism. (shrink)
Frege proposed his doctrine of unsaturatedness as a solution to the problems of the unity of the proposition and the unity of the sentence. I show that Frege’s theory is mystical, ad hoc, ineffective, paradoxical and entails that singular terms cannot be predicates. I explain the traditional solution to the problem of the unity of the sentence, as expounded by Mill, which invokes a syncategorematic sign of predication and the connotation and denotation of terms. I streamline this solution, bring it (...) up to date and contrast the resulting conventionalist account with Frege’s unsaturatedness account. I argue that the conventionalist account provides a clear and intelligible solution to the problem of the unity of the sentence which is free of the defects of Frege’s account. I suggest that the problem of the unity of the proposition is spurious. I recommend that the notion of unsaturatedness be extruded from serious debate. (shrink)
Karl Popper champions an open society in which all institutions, principles and values are open to criticism. Anthony O’Hear contends that Popper’s vision is utopian because an open society can survive only if some non-liberal values are assumed, including the prohibition of criticism of fundamental liberal principles and values. I correct O’Hear’s interpretation of Popper and I rebut most of his criticisms, arguing that an open society is stronger if it permits criticism of all views. However, I accept and strengthen (...) O’Hear’s rejection of Popper’s assimilation of an open society to a scientific community. I also suggest that the survival of open societies may require limits on immigration from societies permeated by Islamic fundamentalism or similar ideologies. (shrink)
The dominant tradition in Western philosophy sees rationality as dictating. Thus rationality may require that we believe the best explanation and simple conceptual truths and that we infer in accordance with evident rules of inference. I argue that, given what we know about the growth of knowledge, this authoritarian concept of rationality leads to absurdities and should be abandoned. I then outline a libertarian concept of rationality, derived from Popper, which eschews the dictates and which sees a rational agent as (...) one who questions, criticises, conjectures and experiments. I argue that, while the libertarian approach escapes the absurdities of the authoritarian, it requires two significant developments and an important clarification to be made fully consistent with itself. (shrink)
I offer consequentialist and deontological arguments for a competitive market in human organs, from live as well as dead donors. I consider the objections that a market in organs will frustrate altruism, coerce the desperate, expose under-informed agents to unacceptable risks, exacerbate inequality, degrade those who participate in it, involve a kind of slavery, impose invidious costs, and impair third-party choice sets. I show that each of these objections is without merit and that, in consequence, the opposition to markets in (...) organs is an untenable endorsement of death, suffering and the suppression of freedom. (shrink)
It is often claimed that the conclusion of a deductively valid argument is contained in its premises. Popper refuted this claim when he showed that an empirical theory can be expected always to have logical consequences that transcend the current understanding of the theory. This implies that no formalisation of an empirical theory will enable the derivation of all its logical consequences. I call this result ‘Popper-incompleteness.’ This result appears to be consistent with the view of deductive reasoning as a (...) process of unfurling the content of the premises; but I suggest that the result about validity impugns this theory of reasoning. (shrink)
In ‘Aeon’ magazine (2 August 2017), Professor Paul Russell claims that tolerance demands that criticism of ideologies be permitted; but it also demands that criticism of natural identities be suppressed. He says that the Left’s failure to distinguish ideological from non-ideological identities has led identity politics into intolerance. I argue that Russell’s position is self-contradictory, implying that his (ideological) liberal identity both should and should not be open to criticism. Tolerance must be extended to criticism of non-ideological identities. Laws against (...) ‘hate speech’ are incompatible with tolerance. (shrink)
I argue that, because of scarcity, the right to life cannot imply an obligation on others to save the life of the right-holder, and that collectivising resources for health care not only ensures that resources are used inefficiently and inappropriately but also removes from people the authority to make decisions for themselves about matters of health, life and death.
In ‘Aeon’ magazine, 2 August 2017, Professor Paul Russell maintains that identities such as race, gender and sexual orientation have equal ethical standing because they cannot be discarded and they are not constituted by beliefs, values or practices. We should, he says, resist attempts to present those who identify as gay as making a choice and affirming certain values and practices that they are capable of shedding. However, such identities can be discarded and they are in part constituted by beliefs, (...) values or practices. Russell’s defence of homosexual equality, because it focuses on the inclination to homosexuality, is pointless and useless. A proper defence of homosexual equality focuses on homosexual lifestyles and argues that the choice of such lifestyles is not wrong. Whether people who choose homosexual lifestyles do so because of a natural and unchangeable inclination, or whether environment or choice plays a part in bringing about that inclination, is an interesting question for science but of no concern for politics. (shrink)
The existence of natural laws, whether deterministic or indeterministic, and whether exceptionless or ceteris paribus, seems puzzling because it implies that mindless bits of matter behave in a consistent and co-ordinated way. I explain this puzzle by showing that a number of attempted solutions fail. The puzzle could be resolved if it were assumed that natural laws are a manifestation of God’s activity. This argument from natural law to God’s existence differs from its traditional counterparts in that, whereas the latter (...) seek to explain the fact of natural laws, the former seeks to explain their possibility. The customary objections to the traditional arguments cannot be successfully adapted to counter this new argument, with one exception which has only limited effect. I rebut four claims that the theistic solution to the puzzle about natural laws is paradoxical, though I concede that one of these claims has merit. I consider four objections to the new argument but find three of them more or less unsatisfactory. The fourth, if successful, would undermine our claims to know the truth about the world. (shrink)
The permissibility of actions depends upon facts about the flourishing and separateness of persons. Persons differ from other creatures in having the task of discovering for themselves, by conjecture and refutation, what sort of life will fulfil them. Compulsory slavery impermissibly prevents some persons from pursuing this task. However, many people may conjecture that they are natural slaves. Some of these conjectures may turn out to be correct. In consequence, voluntary slavery, in which one person welcomes the duty to fulfil (...) all the commands of another, is permissible. Life-long voluntary slavery contracts are impermissible because of human fallibility; but fixed-term slavery contracts should be legally enforceable. Each person has the temporarily alienable moral right to direct her own life. (shrink)
The chance objection to incompatibilist accounts of free action maintains that undetermined actions are not under the agent's control. Some attempts to circumvent this objection locate chance in events posterior to the action. Indeterministic-causation theories locate chance in events prior to the action. However, neither type of response gives an account of free action which avoids the chance objection. Chance must be located at the act of will if actions are to be both undetermined and under the agent's control. This (...) dissolves the apparent paradox of Frankfurt-type cases as well as the chance objection to incompatibilist free will. (shrink)
Ethical intuitionists regard moral knowledge as deriving from moral intuition, moral observation, moral emotion and inference. However, moral intuitions, observations and emotions are cultural artefacts which often differ starkly between cultures. Intuitionists attribute uncongenial moral intuitions, observations or emotions to bias or to intellectual or moral failings; but that leads to sectarian ad hominen attacks. Intuitionists try to avoid that by restricting epistemically genuine intuitions, observations or emotions to those which are widely agreed. That does not avoid the problem. It (...) also limits epistemically genuine intuitions, observations or emotions to those with meagre content, and the intuitionists offer no plausible explanation for how inference from such insubstantial propositions can engender substantial moral knowledge. Instead of moral knowledge, intuitionism offers the prospect of mutual name-calling between intellectually stagnant groups. I criticise and reject the principle of phenomenal conservatism, to which intuitionists sometimes appeal. (shrink)
In contrast to eminent historical philosophers, almost all contemporary philosophers maintain that slavery is impermissible. In the enthusiasm of the Enlightenment, a number of arguments gained currency which were intended to show that contractual slavery is not merely impermissible but impossible. Those arguments are influential today in moral, legal and political philosophy, even in discussions that go beyond the issue of contractual slavery. I explain what slavery is, giving historical and other illustrations. I examine the arguments for the impossibility of (...) contractual slavery propounded in the Enlightenment and their offspring expounded in recent writings, including those by Barnett, Cassirer, Ellerman, Rawls, Roberts-Thomson, Satz and Steiner. I show that they involve confusions between abilities and rights, free will and freedom, directing and doing, what may be true sequentially and what may be true simultaneously, default rights and universal rights, impermissibility and impossibility, and metaphorical and literal uses of language. (shrink)
Cranston argued that scarcity makes universal welfare rights impossible. After showing that this argument cannot be avoided by denying scarcity, I consider four challenges to the argument which accept the possibility of conflicts between the duties implied by rights. The first denies the agglomeration principle; the second embraces conflicts of duties; the third affirms the violability of all rights-based duties; and the fourth denies that duties to compensate are overriding. I argue that all four challenges to the scarcity argument are (...) unsuccessful. I then discuss Eddy’s recent challenge, which makes welfare rights context dependent, but I argue that this also fails because it makes rights unknowable. I conclude that the scarcity argument, restated in the light of the discussion, shows that universal welfare rights, as ordinarily understood, are impossible and I explain the philosophical and practical significance of this conclusion. (shrink)
How could a state have the moral authority to promulgate and enforce laws that citizens are thereby obliged to obey? That is the problem of political authority. The Consequentialist Explanation of Political Authority contends that great social benefits depend upon there being a state with political authority. In his book, The Problem of Political Authority, Michael Huemer considers different types of explanation of political authority and he rejects them all. I show that the objections he raises to consequentialist accounts are (...) confused and that they fail to connect with the Consequentialist Explanation of Political Authority. Huemer argues that anarchy of a particular kind would be better than the states that exist in current Western societies. I explain why that argument, if it were successful, would be an effective objection to the Consequentialist Explanation of Political Authority. (shrink)
I defend pornography as an important aspect of freedom of expression, which is essential for autonomy, self-development, the growth of knowledge and human flourishing. I rebut the allegations that pornography depraves and corrupts, degrades women, is harmful to children, exposes third parties to risk of offence or assault, and violates women ’s civil rights and liberties. I contend that suppressing pornography would have a range of unintended evil consequences, including loss of beneficial technology, creeping censorship, black markets, corruption and extensive (...) social costs. (shrink)
In Chapter 2 of Escape from Leviathan, Jan Lester defends two hypotheses: that instrumental rationality requires agents to maximise the satisfaction of their wants and that all agents actually meet this requirement. In addition, he argues that all agents are self-interested (though not necessarily egoistic) and he offers an account of categorical moral desires which entails that no agent ever does what he genuinely feels to be morally wrong. I show that Lester’s two hypotheses are false because they cannot accommodate (...) weakness of will, because they are inconsistent with agency, which requires free will, because ends, obligations and values cannot be reduced to desires, and because maximisation is often not possible. Further, Lester’s claim that agents are self-interested is vacuous, his attempted reduction of moral behaviour to want-satisfaction fails, and his contention, that agents always do what they genuinely think to be morally required, seems untenable. A defence of freedom that depends on homo economicus is far from promising. (shrink)
I argue that social-contract theory cannot succeed because reasonable people may always disagree, and that social-contract theory is irrelevant to the problem of the legitimacy of a form of government or of a system of moral rules. I note the weakness of the appeal to implicit agreement, the conflation of legitimacy with stability, the undesirability of “public justification” and the apparent blindness to the evolutionary critical-rationalist approach of Hayek and Popper. I employ that approach to sketch answers to the theoretical, (...) historical and practical questions about the legitimacy of government or of systems of moral rules. (shrink)
Judith Jarvis Thomson and others contend that rights are pro-tanto rather than absolute, that is, that rights may permissibly be infringed in some circumstances. Alan Gewirth maintains that there are some rights that are absolute because infringing them would amount to unspeakable evil. However, there seem to be possible circumstances in which it would be permissible to infringe even those rights. Specificationists, such as Gerald Gaus, Russ Shafer-Landau, Hillel Steiner and Kit Wellman, argue that all rights are absolute because they (...) have implicit exceptions, the exceptions being either right-voiding or right-compatible. Specificationists have charged pro-tantoism with preventing rights from being action-guiding, and pro-tantoists have levelled the same charge against specificationism. I show that both charges are mistaken. Pro-tantoists claim that specificationists cannot account for the moral remainder that we recognise in some circumstances and which can be explained by reference to a permissible right-infringement. Specificationists retort that the moral remainder can be explained by invoking compensation-rights. I show that the pro-tantoist claim is true and that the specificationist retort is false on two counts: explanation in terms of compensation-rights is not applicable to all cases; and it fails to account for the moral dynamic in the cases to which it is applicable. The contention that rights are pro-tanto does not conflict with the substance of the contention that rights are trumps, despite claims of specificationists to the contrary. (shrink)
Doxastic voluntarism maintains that we have voluntary control over our beliefs. It is generally denied by contemporary philosophers. I argue that doxastic voluntarism is true: normally, and insofar as we are rational, we are able to suspend belief and, provided we have a natural inclination to believe, we are able to rescind that suspension, and thus to choose to believe. I show that the arguments that have been offered against doxastic voluntarism fail; and that, if the denial of doxastic voluntarism (...) is part of a strategy to defeat scepticism, it is inept, because knowledge presupposes doubt. (shrink)
I argue that the conception of reflective equilibrium that is generally accepted in contemporary philosophy is defective and should be replaced with a conception of fruitful reflective disequilibrium which prohibits ad hoc manoeuvres, encourages new approaches, and eschews all justification in favour of continuous improvement. I suggest how the conception of fruitful disequilibrium can be applied more effectively to moral enquiry, to encourage genuine progress in moral knowledge, if we make moral theory empirically testable by adopting a meta-ethical postulate which (...) is independently plausible. (shrink)
Karl Popper lamented the prevalence of dogmatic argument in philosophy and commended the kind of critical argument that is found in the sciences. David Miller criticises the uncritical nature of so-called critical thinking because of its attachment to dogmatic arguments. I expound and clarify Popper’s distinction between critical and dogmatic arguments and the background to it. I criticise some errors in Miller’s discussion. I reaffirm the need for philosophers to eschew dogmatic arguments in favour of critical ones.
I consider cases in which risk or ignorance create barriers to our discovery of what we ought to do. I argue that neither expected utility theory, nor the maximin principle, nor a timid gambling temperament, is relevant to discovering what we ought to do in one-off or infrequently recurring types of decisions involving risk, or to decisions involving ignorance. I argue, contra Kolodny and MacFarlane, that the miners case does not require us to give up any classical logical principle in (...) order to avoid contradiction. I reject Graham’s claim that the appearance of contradiction depends upon a confusion between acting rightly and not being blameworthy. In the cases of risk and ignorance discussed, we cannot know what we ought to do; and any way of deciding what we shall do is objectively arbitrary even if it reflects our gambling temperament. Subjective probability and the subjective ought should be repudiated. (shrink)
I summarize a conception of morality as containing a set of rules which hold ceteris paribus and which impose pro-tanto obligations. I explain two ways in which moral rules are ceteris-paribus, according to whether an exception is duty-voiding or duty-overriding. I defend the claim that moral rules are ceteris-paribus against two qualms suggested by Luke Robinson’s discussion of moral rules and against the worry that such rules are uninformative. I show that Robinson’s argument that moral rules cannot ground pro-tanto obligations (...) is unsound, because it confuses an absolute reason for an obligation with a reason for an absolute obligation, and because it overlooks the possibility that priority rules may be rules for ordering pro-tanto obligations rather than rules for eliminating contenders for the status of absolute obligation. (shrink)
Martha Nussbaum attempts to improve the clarity of the obscure talk of feminists and conservatives about objectification in connection with sexual matters. Her discussion is a substantial improvement. However, it is inconsistent and opaque, and she continues to apply the pejorative term ‘objectification’ to activities which she herself admits are morally unproblematic and which may even be a joyous part of life. I explain the deficiencies in Nussbaum’s discussion, including the fact that she does not notice the one way of (...) objectification that seems inherently problematic, and I show that casual sex, prostitution and pornography are normally not morally problematic even while they exhibit some of Nussbaum’s ways of objectification. The term ‘objectification’ should be eschewed because it is a barrier to clear thinking. (shrink)
I summarise Robert Audi's 'Moral Perception.' I concede that there is such a thing as moral perception. However, moral perceptions are culturally-relative, which refutes Audi’s claims that moral perception may ground moral knowledge and that it provides inter-subjectively accessible grounds which make ethical objectivity possible. Audi's attempt to avoid the refutation tends to convert rational disputes into ad hominem ones. I illustrate that with the example of the ethics of prostitution.
I apply Karl Popper’s conception of critical rationality to the question of personal fulfilment. I show that such fulfilment normally depends upon the person achieving positive freedom, and that positive freedom requires negative freedom, including freedom of expression. If the state has legitimacy, its central duty must be the enforcement of those rules that provide the best prospects for personal fulfilment for the people under its jurisdiction. The state is therefore morally debarred from suppressing freedom of expression. I consider and (...) rebut arguments from falsity, harm, offence, and democratic principles, which are intended to show that the state should prohibit the expression of some types of content. I go on to argue that typical university speech codes are incompatible with the aims of an institution of higher education. (shrink)
Contemporary orthodoxy affirms that singular terms cannot be predicates and that, therefore, ‘is’ is ambiguous as between predication and identity. Recent attempts to treat names as predicates do not challenge this orthodoxy. The orthodoxy was built into the structure of modern formal logic by Frege. It is defended by arguments which I show to be unsound. I provide a semantical account of atomic sentences which draws upon Mill's account of predication, connotation and denotation. I show that singular terms may be (...) predicates, that it is highly implausible that there is an ‘is’ of identity in natural languages, and that modern formal logic is deficient in that it cannot recognize sentences, including singular existentials, in which singular terms are predicates, or inferences which depend upon the logical role rather than the logical category of expressions. (shrink)
It is often contended that the special sciences, and even fundamental physics, make use of ceteris-paribus law-statements. Yet there are general concerns that such law-statements are vacuous or untestable or unscientific. I consider two main kinds of ceteris-paribus law-statement. I argue that neither kind is vacuous, that one of the kinds is untestable, that both kinds may count as scientific to the extent that they form parts of conjunctions that imply novel falsifiable statements which survive testing, but that one kind (...) has an affinity with ad hoc manoeuvres that are unsatisfactory from a scientific point of view. I show that the contemporary debate about ceteris-paribus law-statements is afflicted with error and confusion because of a general failure to disentangle the notions: non-vacuous, testable, scientific, verifiable, falsifiable, and ad hoc. (shrink)