Saturday, April 30, 2005

Pornography and Censorship

[Here's another of my old first-year essays from phil 139. Not my best, but it's a fun topic, at least. Comments are welcome as always.]

Does the value of free speech mean that pornography should not be censored?

The issue of censorship is a complex one, which requires some clarification before any useful discussion can begin. To precisely define ‘pornography’ is no easy matter, but for the sake of this essay I will take it to mean “sexually orientated material of a graphic nature designed for recreation rather than education”.[1] It is important to note that this refers only to legal acts between consenting adults – that any sort of abuse (including child abuse) would be covered by existing laws prohibiting the acts themselves, so need not be further considered here. Rather, we must ask whether acts which are acceptable when conducted in private, become criminal or immoral when publicised. Assuming the value of free speech applies by default, what must be considered is whether or not pornography causes sufficient harm to override this liberty.

An obvious objection to pornography is that many people find it offensive. Such appeals to community standards of taste or morality are typical of ‘conservative’ arguments. Yet this sort of complaint is precisely what free speech protects against. The aversion needs to be justified – its mere presence is no justification. One could feel offended by another practicing a religion different to their own, or at persons of a different race using the same public facilities as them. Distaste founded in intolerance is merely bigotry, and cannot justify restricting others’ freedom. Lord Justice Devlin tries to do so by arguing that if the community’s common values were not upheld, “society would disintegrate”,[2] but while this undoubtedly holds true for many criminal laws, it seems rather implausible to apply it to pornography. To Mill, appealing to the preferences of others “is still only many people’s liking instead of one”.[3]

Whilst being offended by others’ actions is clearly no reason to outlaw those actions, being offended by the consequences to oneself is a slightly different matter. One can sympathise with Mackinnon when she insists: “pornography should never be imposed on a viewer who does not choose… to be exposed to it”.[4] It might be reasonable to place some restrictions on pornography, so that it is accessible to those who want it, but others are still free to avoid it. I would suggest however, that such legislation would be unnecessary, for anything which is sufficiently offensive to enough people, could generally be kept distant by the power of social stigmatisation. One would be unlikely to come across public displays of pornography in family-frequented areas, since the intense social disapproval which would otherwise result, could only serve to embarrass customers and disrupt business.

One way of overcoming the arbitrariness of the conservative objection is to appeal to ‘family values’, complaining that pornography fundamentally undermines these. Yet Simons argues that pornography is beneficial for providing “sex by proxy”, quoting Tynan’s example of a geographically separated couple, for whom pornography succeeds in “relieving tension without involving disloyalty”.[5] Such an effect could conceivably strengthen the family unit.

A common ‘feminist’ argument for censorship claims that “pornography is an act of subordination”[6], degrading to women just in itself, rather than due to its consequences. A problem with such gender based objections, is that they clearly do not extend to gay porn. One would assume that both types are of identical moral character, and that any interpretation which contradicts this cannot be entirely complete. Perhaps they could generalise, by saying that pornography is ‘degrading to humanity’. But this is such an abstract and subjective matter, it runs into the same problems as the first conservative objection. Some may feel that it is degrading for students to work at a supermarket for minimum wage, yet it is surely their choice to do so. Similarly for pornography, the judgements of others cannot supplant the judgement of those involved.

It could be argued that pornography misrepresents reality and human nature, thus causing its consumers to have false beliefs. Langton argues that pornography “may simply leave no space for the refusal move in its depictions of sex… ‘Yes’ is one (form of consent). ‘No’ is just another”.[7] Feminists commonly argue that such misrepresentations can cause sexual discrimination or even rape (though there is no conclusive evidence to support this).[8] Another consequence may be that it restricts the free speech of women.[9] Langton identifies a more subtle form of ‘silence’ called illocutionary disablement, where one says all the right words, but they fail to perform the intended illocutionary act. Consider The boy who cried ‘Wolf’: words are spoken, but are not listened to. Langton suggests a similar silencing of women is behind date rape; “something about her, something about the role she occupies, prevents her from voicing refusal”.[10] The word ‘No’ may be said, but its meaning is lost. Whilst such an abstract problem may not fall under the typical scope of ‘free speech’, one might reasonably assert that the spirit of free speech would ideally defend people from such ‘silencing’. Whether pornography actually causes such silencing, however, is rather more doubtful.

Even if pornography was proven to adversely affect its consumers’ behaviour, the aspect of free speech protecting autonomy, would (if truly valued) still prevent any form of censorship. The ‘Millian principle’, argued by Scanlon, states that harm due to an act of expression causing people to have false beliefs, cannot justifiably be prevented by restricting the expression itself. The key behind his reasoning is that the causal contribution of the expression (pornography) is “superseded by the agent’s own judgement”.[11] To prevent the harm, the state would have to prevent any individual from hearing the false beliefs (about women) advocated (by pornography) in the first place; in which case one’s right to judge for oneself is precluded. Autonomy has been lost because “the right to decide that certain views were false” has been ceded to the state, and individuals cannot hear alternative views advocated even if they wanted to.[12]

Many arguments for censorship eventually hinge on the right of a select group of people to impose their moral beliefs or aesthetic preferences on others. A more practical approach is to claim that the consequences of pornography are too harmful for society to allow, or even that the harms themselves contradict free speech by preventing women from being ‘heard’. There is no conclusive evidence of such harms being caused by pornography, but even if there was, to prevent them by censoring pornography would nevertheless be a breach of free speech. If the harms were shown to be real, and serious enough, then this may well be something society would be willing to do. But the fact remains that the value of free speech does maintain that pornography not be censored.


Devon, P., ‘The Enforcement of Morals’ in Rosen, M. & Wolff, J. (eds.), Political Thought, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Dines G., Jensen R. & Russo A., Pornography: the production and consumption of inequality, New York, Routledge, 1998.

Langton, R., ‘Pornography, Speech Acts, and Silence’[13]

Mackinnon, C., ‘Only Words’ in Rosen, M. & Wolff, J. (eds.), Political Thought, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

McNair, B., Mediated Sex: Pornography & Postmodern Culture, London, Arnold, 1996.

Mill, J., On Liberty, London, Routledge, 1910.

Scanlon, T., ‘Free Expression and the Authority of the State’ in Rosen, M. & Wolff, J. (eds.), Political Thought, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Simons, G., Pornography without Prejudice: a reply to objectors, London, Abelard-Schuman, 1972.

Wolff, J., An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996.

[1] This definition is found in B. McNair, Mediated Sex: Pornography & Postmodern Culture, p.47. It is a relatively ‘neutral’ definition, which I consider to be a prerequisite for inferring any sort of objective conclusions. Many alternative definitions involve such emotive words as “dehumanising” or “degrading”, which present an initial bias before reasoned discussion has even begun.

[2] P. Devon, ‘The Enforcement of Morals’, p.139.

[3] J. Mill, On Liberty, p.8. It is interesting that Mill himself later says that “offences against decency” (which one could assume includes pornography) “may rightfully be prohibited” (p.146). This is in stark contradiction to his earlier arguments, as J. Wolff (An Introduction to Political Philosophy, p.140) points out, “Here Mill…seems to allow customary morality to override his adherence to the Liberty Principle”.

[4] C. Mackinnon, ‘Only Words’, p.153.

[5] G. Simons, Pornography without Prejudice: a reply to objectors, p.90.

[6] R. Langton, ‘Pornography, Speech Acts, and Silence’, p.339.

[7] Ibid., p.346. Note that Jensen’s analysis of pornographic novels (Dines, Jensen & Russo, Pornography: the production and consumption of inequality, p.90-91) provides the empirical evidence to support this claim: no female characters rejected sex from any man – though many resisted at first but were “overcome by lust” as the man began to force her.

[8] So concluded the (UK) Williams report, and the (US) Johnson commission suggested that it may (if anything) cause a slight decline in sexual crime – in Germany the incidence of rape decreased after pornography became more accessible, leading Kutchinsky to conclude that “these developments leave hardly any doubt that pornography does not cause rape” (McNair, p.62).

[9] Langton, pp.343-8.

[10] Langton, p.345.

[11] T. Scanlon, ‘Free Expression and the Authority of the State’, p.145.

[12] Ibid., p.147.

[13] from Photocopy R6554 in the University of Canterbury library. Other title is Free speech, chapter 33, but no further bibliographical information was available.

Left-wing Ideology

What are, or should be, the core values of left-wing thought? Equality is often thought to be fundamental, as when Stephen Cooper remarks that "Closing the gaps is an integral part of what the left stands for." But if he's right, that's bad news, because egalitarianism is a truly terrible ideology. Those who self-identify as "egalitarian" are more likely prioritists, and think that benefitting people matters more the worse off those people are. Making everyone equally miserable is not a good thing, so simply 'closing the gaps' cannot be our core value. Rather, we should care about people's absolute (rather than relative) level of welfare, and try to benefit everybody as much as possible.

Stephen also hints at the idea that people deserve reward in proportion to how hard they try. My previous post criticizes this notion. While I'm on the topic of what Leftism shouldn't be, another bad habit is to be concerned about the welfare of (minority) groups rather than individuals. The "favouritism" which results from this is inconsistent with showing equal concern for all people -- and it's little wonder that we suffer at the polls in result.

There is still much that sets us apart from the Right. For one thing, we should care about well-being and quality of life, not merely economic prosperity. Utilitarians want to maximize happiness, not GDP. And the evidence suggests that, above a certain point, having more money doesn't make people happier at all. It just makes everyone else more miserable. So we might end up embracing some degree of economic egalitarianism, but we should be clear that the motivation for doing so is to benefit people's well-being, not merely equalize it. This is a much more admirable end.

A similar conclusion could be reached through taking autonomy as our core value, as I wrote last year:

Anyone who truly values individual freedom and independence is committed to the necessity of some degree of wealth redistribution. Without this, less fortunate citizens could find themselves forced to submit to the will of (richer) others in order to satisfy their material needs. Rousseau's answer was that "no citizen should be so opulent as to be able to buy another, and none so poor as to be constrained to sell himself."

This too, I think, sounds more admirable than brute "bring everyone down to the same level" egalitarianism. We should distance ourselves from such envy-driven rhetoric -- it makes far too easy a target for our right-wing opponents! I recently suggested that differing interpretations of freedom might underlie the left/right divide:

Those on the right have a thin or 'formal' conception of freedom as the absence of external constraints. Hence the lower taxes. Those of us on the Left, by contrast, value something rather more substantive: the ability to achieve one's goals in life. "Freedom as capability", you might say. Hence the higher taxes, to pay for public goods and welfare that supports people in pursuing their conception of the good life, whatever it may be.

Naturally, I see this as a huge advantage for the Left, and one that we really should be doing more to highlight. After all, given a choice between thin and substantive freedom - mere absence of obstruction, or actual positive help - which are you going to choose?

Friday, April 29, 2005

Talent, Effort and Desert

There's this awful strain in left-wing thought which suggests that people only deserve to be rewarded for the effort they put in, as their natural endowments are taken to be morally arbitrary. This thesis is particularly dominant in some primary schools, where kids are more likely to get awards for effort than actual achievement. It's quite ridiculous.

As a personal anecdote: when I was about 11 or 12 years old, my teacher gave me a 'B' for maths on my report card. Since I was top of the school, I found this rather puzzling. So I politely asked my teacher, "Why did I only get a B? I got everything right, didn't I?" She answered, "Well, sure, but you didn't exactly try very hard, did you?"

The underlying motivation for such try-hardism comes from the 'consequence' argument for the incompatibilism of determinism and free will / moral responsibility. In short, it says that if you are not responsible for X, then you are not responsible for the consequences of X. Applied to the present case: We aren't responsible for being born with various natural talents, therefore we're not responsible for the fruits of our talents.

This sort of reasoning might be appealed to in support of Roemer's 'equality of opportunity', according to which a retarded child must be able to become a rocket scientist just as easily (i.e. with the same degree of effort) as anyone else. (And so much the worse for rocket science, I suppose.)

This is just crazy. It's crazy in practical terms, of course. But it's also bad theory. After all, the inclination to expend effort is itself a natural character trait which has its origin outside of our control. Roemer partially concedes this, but assumes that we still have some control over our effort levels. He thus takes 'degress of effort' as being relative to the baseline for someone in our (genetic and environmental) "circumstances". A natural slacker who puts in some slight effort is held to be more deserving of reward than someone who is naturally hard-working.

But if he's allowed to say that we're responsible for our degree of effort, despite it being ultimately caused by events beyond our control (if determinism is true), then why not say the same of the fruits of our natural talents? Just because we did not choose our talents, it does not follow that we are not responsible for our use of them. At least, no compatibilist should be willing to grant such an inference.

People are just as responsible for the fruits of their talents as they are for the fruits of their effort. Both are character traits of the person, and there is no justification for treating them differently. We are responsible for both or for neither - take your pick.

I should clarify that my aim here is simply to argue against the notion that fairness, or giving people what they deserve, requires strict egalitarianism. Some might argue the extreme opposite: that people deserve what they earn, so taxation for redistributive purposes is wrong. I disagree with that position just as strongly.

Perhaps what I should do is deny desert altogether (or else, perhaps more plausibly, deny that market income reflects desert). You do not deserve your income, but nobody else deserves your income either! Everyone is on equal footing, so we should simply distribute resources in whatever way is best on independent grounds: Utilitarianism, in other words.

God and Morality

[This is my old Phil 139 ethics essay. It's the first philosophy essay I ever wrote. It probably shows.]

To insist: “If God is dead, everything is permitted”, is a rather extreme view, and one which has difficulty holding up under rational scrutiny. The implication is clear; that morality is utterly dependent upon religion, and cannot be justified in any other way. For morality to require God in such a way, there must a direct link joining the two, i.e. that morality is defined by God. This approach, whereby “morally right” is exactly identical in meaning to “commanded by God”, is commonly called the Divine Command theory.

The most important implication of the Divine Command theory is that immoral actions are wrong solely because God forbids them (and similarly that the ‘rightness’ of moral actions is only that God has commanded them). This seems counter-intuitive to basic human ethical insight – surely there is something in the nature of actions which makes them moral or immoral, not merely that God commands or forbids them? Darwall uses the torture of innocents as such an example[1], which we feel is wrong, whether God forbids it or not! We would expect that there is something immoral about the nature of torture itself, and that this immoral aspect of it is the underlying cause of it’s ‘wrongness’, rather than the fact that God forbids it. Darwall generalises, “it seems implausible to disconnect moral qualities from the natures of things that have them.”[2]

The core of this challenge is asking why something is moral or immoral, what the underlying cause of morality is. Ironically, here Darwall plays to religion’s greatest strength – for what “reason” could there be for anything, without God? The world of science seems harsh and pointless by comparison. To merely complain that the theory runs against intuition is not a solid refutation – one could simply argue that human intuition is misguided, or that we have an innate understanding of God’s commands, and it is this which makes us feel this way. In this case, the Divine Command theory can conceivably stand up to the previous objection.

Surprisingly, the Divine Command theory depends on there being no justification for the question “But why ought we obey God’s commands?”. The theory has a set way to answer any such ‘ought’ question: “because God commands it.” This is clearly an inadequate answer. Note, however, that this is (according to the theory) exactly equivalent to saying “because it is right”, which seems a slightly more acceptable response, though it raises the question “But why is it right?”. The Divine Command theory cannot answer this, it just assumes it to be the case. To try and justify it, inevitably results in departing from the stated theory.

Attempts at answering this may appeal to God’s superiority, or that he created us so therefore we should be grateful. Yet such answers require a moral fact (eg “it is wrong not to show gratitude”) to be true independently of whatever God commands. This is because the justification itself becomes the most fundamental element; it must be true as a precursor to the Divine Command Theory, as it is used to justify the theory. Another common answer is to say that God is “Ethically Omniscient”, yet to say that God knows all which is right and wrong surely means more than just that he knows what he commands (a trivial statement, which assigns little value to God’s ethical omniscience). But to have any greater meaning would imply an independent standard of morality (contradicting the divine command theory), as it requires that there be more to morality than just whatever God commands. Lastly, to justify it by saying that God is a perfect judge is really just a variation of the ideal observer theory. Morality would exist regardless of whether God actually did or not, we would only have to ask what a hypothetical ideal judge (i.e. God) would want.[3] So the Divine Theorist must conclude not only that it is solely God’s commands which make things right, but that this being so, it becomes a self-evident truth that we should obey them – no external justification is necessary, or indeed possible.

A greater problem is that God could conceivably command something new, thereby changing the rules.[4] Hypothetically, if he were to suddenly decree that all that was right is now wrong, and vice versa, then this would become so. If God were to tomorrow command us to perform yesterday’s sins, then they would, by definition, now be ‘morally right’. This seems preposterous. However, this objection becomes irrelevant if God is eternal and unchanging, as he would then be incapable of contradicting past commands.

A slight modification of this objection is all that is needed to raise a new challenge. One could ask “What if God had originally commanded things differently?” Herein lies the true challenge to the theory, as its arbitrary nature becomes clear. God could have just as easily forbidden love and commanded that we torture babies. If his command is all that decides morality, then this is unacceptably arbitrary. A common defence is to insist that God wouldn’t command evil things – yet the simple fact of God commanding something supposedly makes it good, not evil, even if that command is to torture babies. Similarly, one might argue that he is “inherently good”. Yet this again assumes an independent standard of goodness[5], one different from what the Divine Command theory defines. For Divine Command theorists to call God “good” is meaningless – they are effectively saying “God does as God commands”, a logical triviality. If he were different, he would still be just as praiseworthy to the theorists. For such praise to have any meaning, there must be an independent standard of “goodness” (morality) against which we can favourably compare God. To compare him to himself will achieve nothing.

There is only one way to avoid this problem of arbitrariness without discarding the entire theory, and that is to re-interpret the equivalence of “X is good” and “God commands X”. Rather than saying that God’s command causes something to be moral, rather, it must be the other way around. It is the goodness of an action’s nature which God recognises and causes him to command it.[6] This is drastically different from the original meaning of the Divine Command theory though. God’s commands are no less true, but they are no longer necessary. There is an inherent morality to actions which is decided independently of God or any other authority. If God is dead, then exactly the same things are permitted as if he were alive – for the independent standard lives on.


Arthur, J., ‘Morality Without God’ in Timmons, Mark (ed.), Conduct and Character, 3rd ed., Belmont, Wadsworth, 1999.

Darwall, S., Philosophical Ethics, Boulder, Westview, 1998.

Rachels, J., The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 3rd ed., New York, McGraw-Hill, 1999.

[1] S. Darwall, Philosophical Ethics, p.46.

[2] Ibid., p.46.

[3] The “answers” listed in this paragraph and their rebuttals are explored in Darwall, pp.42-46.

[4] J. Arthur, ‘Morality Without God’ in Mark Timmons (ed.), Conduct and Character, p.60.

[5] J. Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, p.57.

[6] Ibid., p.57.

The Veil of Ignorance

Here are a few more thoughts on how best to interpret 'equal concern'. I think this might best be understood as a matter of procedural fairness. We establish a fair process, and accept whatever results it yields. ('Substantive' fairness, by contrast, requires a particular result.)

So what would a fair procedure be? It needs to take everybody's interests into account, and treat them equally, i.e. without favouritism. The Rawlsian 'Veil of Ignorance' springs to mind. Imagine that everyone affected is put behind the VoI, where they no longer know any of their own personal details (e.g. wealth, age, sex, education or talents). They then get to deliberate together and choose the basic structure of society -- a decision that aims at self-interest, but will be untainted by personal bias, since for all they know, they might end up as anybody in that society.

Now, suppose they had two choices:
1) Everyone has mediocre well-being
2) A small proportion of people are moderately poorly off, but everyone else flourishes.

Surely the rational thing to do is choose #2? But if this is so, and if the VoI - as described - really is a fair procedure, then this establishes that utilitarianism, not egalitarianism, is the theory which treats all people with equal concern.

Note that Rawls only manages to get his 'maximin' principle out of the VoI procedure by insisting that the relative sizes of various social groups are hidden behind the veil. In other words, the choices would be:
1a) Everyone has mediocre well-being
2a) There is a group of moderately poorly off people, and a group of flourishing people.

Here it may indeed be rational to choose #1a, simply because one cannot accurately assess the risks involved in #2a. But what justification is there for hiding this information? I think the process is fairer when the relative probabilities are made known. If we do not know how many people are in each group, how can we weigh their interests fairly and appropriately?

If done properly, it seems to me that the VoI becomes equivalent to the 'ideal observer' theory. That is, we imagine an omniscient, benevolent, impartial spectator, and ask them which option would be best. It seems likely that such a procedure would favour utilitarian over egalitarian outcomes. So that's what equal concern requires.

Smoking Bans

Despite being vaguely supportive of our government's ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, I'm not certain that this imposition on individual liberty is justified. Frogblog happily point out that a majority of kiwis now support the ban, but that's hardly relevant -- a tyranny of the majority is a tyranny all the same.

Mind you, our right-wing MPs are spouting some ridiculous rhetoric on the subject:
I don’t smoke, so I like smoke-free environments. But I have watched the assault on smokers with a growing unease... My foreboding is based on a sense that discriminating against a group of fellow citizens just because they smoke, is morally wrong. Surely, it is no different to discriminating against people because of their race, gender, sexuality, or religion? Isn’t this the first step onto the slippery slide of apartheid?

Um, no. The individuals are still welcome everywhere, it's just their tobacco that isn't. Having said that, this response is somewhat reminiscent of that sometimes given by gay marriage opponents to rebut accusations of discrimination, you know the one: "Everyone is allowed to get married -- so long as they marry someone of the opposite sex." Even 'universal' laws can be discriminatory, if they unfairly impede a particular group's pursuit of the good life. If we want to claim that denying everybody the liberty to marry a partner of the same sex is discriminatory, then doesn't consistency require that we say the same of denying everybody the liberty to smoke in bars?

Perhaps we should concede this, but add that such "discrimination" is justified in the latter case only. Same-sex marriage harms no-one, so there's no reason to ban it. Smoking in enclosed places does harm other people, so there is at least some reason to ban it.

Is it a good enough reason? The free market argument against it seems quite strong. No-one is being forced to visit or work in a place which allows smoking. If the jobs really are hazardous, then workers' wages should reflect this, and by signing up for the job, they consent to the risks. So why intervene? Perhaps it makes for a nicer environment for the rest of us, but if it's really that big an improvement then owners have an incentive to institute their own private smoking bans.

Now, in reality the free market often fails. Perhaps that has happened in this case, in which case government intervention would be justified in order to bring about the optimal result. But proponents of the ban must explain: where, exactly, is the market failure? Have bar owners been mistaken about what would best satisfy their customers? Have the workers been misinformed about the job risks, or not adequately compensated for it? Perhaps some lack any reasonable alternatives and thus are effectively forced into accepting the hazards against their will? Some explanation is required, anyway...


[Yet another Phil 233 essay from last year, this time on epistemology. Note that the 'preamble' is just to explain why I deviated from our given essay question somewhat. Feel free to skip that section.]


The Skeptic’s Master Argument (as given):

1) I can see my two hands, and therefore I reasonably believe that I have two hands.

2) But if I were a brain in a vat (and didn’t have any hands), I could be having exactly the same perceptual experiences as I am now having.

3) Unless I can prove that I am not a brain in a vat, I cannot reasonably believe that I have two hands.

4) I cannot prove that I am not a brain in a vat.

5) Therefore, I cannot reasonably believe that I have two hands.

Proposed Revisions:

3’) Unless I know that I am not a (handless) BIV, I cannot know that I have two hands.

4’) I do not know that I am not a (handless) BIV.

5’) Therefore, I cannot know that I have two hands.

The reason for these revisions will be discussed in the essay (see especially footnotes 1 and 13, and the main text of section 1.2). The basic problem is that the given argument is weaker than it could be (due to the illogic of the 3rd premise), so we ought to strengthen it as much as possible in order to avoid attacking a ‘straw man’. The proposed revisions should be sufficient to achieve that end.

The purpose of this preamble is to give a brief analysis of the effect of these revisions, and so convince the reader that they are appropriate (i.e. the argument has indeed been strengthened).

There are two alterations: (a) changing the requirement in 3) from proof to knowledge, and (b) replacing talk of ‘reasonable belief’ with knowledge.

Alteration (b) is fairly trivial, and discussed in footnote 1.

Alteration (a) is more significant, and discussed in section 1.2 (and footnote 13) of the essay. But note that this alteration could not possibly weaken the argument: If the given argument is sound, then the revised argument will also necessarily be sound. This is because 3) implies that proof is necessary for justified belief (and thus knowledge), which in conjunction with 4) guarantees 4’). It should be clear that 3’) is a weaker claim than its original equivalent – because known to be proven propositions are a subset of known propositions, so 3’) has a wider scope than 3) – and will be true at least whenever 3) is.

So the revised argument is no weaker; at the very least my alterations do no harm. Do they help? Well, consider the possibility that although proof is not necessary for knowledge, nevertheless we still fail to know that we’re not BIVs. In this possibility, my revised argument will be sound, but the original argument will not be.

The revised argument is never worse, and indeed is sometimes better, than the original. It has the added advantage of being more consistent with the skeptical arguments commonly discussed in the literature. I have therefore concluded that this essay would benefit from focussing on the revised, rather than original, argument. I hope that after reading the essay to follow, the reader will share my judgement here.



The Skeptic argues that our beliefs about the world are unjustified. The first step is to note that our basic beliefs (e.g. that I have two hands) derive from our sense perceptions, and that it is precisely these perceptions that we appeal to in order to justify such beliefs. The Skeptic then points out that our perceptual experiences could be misrepresenting reality, much like the scenario depicted in The Matrix. I could be a brain-in-a-vat (henceforth, a BIV), being ‘fed’ experiences by a super-computer which electrically stimulates my brain, causing lucid hallucinations which I have mistaken for reality. It is crucial to note that a BIV’s conscious experiences would be entirely indistinguishable from reality. The Skeptic then reasons that: a) the validity of our basic beliefs depends upon the validity of our sense perceptions, and b) a BIV’s sense perceptions misrepresent reality; therefore, c) our beliefs are justified only if we can prove that we are not BIVs. I cannot prove this, so the Skeptic’s stunning conclusion follows: I do not know that I have two hands.[1]


The original third premise, looks initially plausible. The possibility that I might be a BIV implies that I might not have two hands. Thus, I cannot be assured of having two hands unless I can first demonstrate that I am not a BIV. It is further implied that I cannot know an unassured proposition.

However, this implication is blatantly invalid according to any form of epistemic externalism, according to which the strength of our epistemic position is determined primarily by external factors – which we may be unaware of and therefore unable to state as evidence. Rather than mere absence of proof, the Skeptic requires absence of knowledge – a different matter entirely.[2]

Let us instead turn to the defence of the revised premise (3’). Suppose we want to know P, but there is an alternative Q, such that Q implies ~P. If we do not know Q to be false, then for all we know it could be true – and thus (via the material implication), for all we know, P could be false.[3]

Applying this general principle to the present argument (using P = “I have two hands”, and Q = “I am a brain in a vat”) provides us with a powerful argument in support of the Skeptic’s third premise. The reasoning here is a variation of the ‘Closure Principle’: If S knows that P, and S knows that P implies ~Q, then S knows that ~Q.[4] Premise (3’) is simply the contrapositive of this: if we do not know that ~Q, then we do not know that P.

The Closure Principle strikes us as axiomatic. However, it will be denied if we conceive of knowledge as belief which ‘tracks’ the truth through close possible worlds. According to Nozick’s ‘Conditional Theory’, for S’s true belief-that-P to count as knowledge, requires two further conditions: S would believe P if it were true, and S would not believe P if it were false.[5] According to this definition, I can simultaneously know that I have two hands, but not know that I am not a (handless) BIV. This is because the close worlds relevant for tracking the truth of P, differ from the closest worlds necessary to track the truth of ~Q.[6] No facts about those close worlds could be expected to restrict possible outcomes in more distant worlds. This explains why knowledge that P does not imply knowledge that ~Q, even though we know P implies ~Q. Nozick can thus refute the skeptic, but at the cost of some highly counter-intuitive results.[7]


Proving that I am not a BIV – or even that it is unlikely – seems an impossible task. There is no possible evidence that could count against the skeptical hypothesis, because there is no possible real-world experience that could not be emulated exactly in the BIV world. Their empirical equivalence guarantees that there is no possible way, for a mind inside the system, to tell the two worlds apart. One could posit a priori reasons for preferring realism as the default hypothesis,[8] but these tend not to be very convincing.

I believe there is potential for a compelling a priori answer to the Skeptic, but from quite a different direction. It is unproductive to attempt proof that the world of our common experience is objectively real. Instead, we could embrace this hard fact, and clearly delineate between these two conceptual frameworks: the “Common World” (henceforth, CW), and the “Objective World” (OW).[9] It should be clear that truth will be relative to the ‘world’ being used as a frame of reference.[10] Furthermore, we have direct – though not infallible – perceptual access to the CW.[11] We can have knowledge about the CW, and the Skeptic’s present argument cannot deny this. The worst he can do is point out that we do not know whether our CW is identical with the OW. But this seems unimportant. I would suggest that in most contexts, people are seeking knowledge of the CW, not knowledge of the OW.[12]

Those whose intuitions clash with mine in this respect will be unsatisfied by this answer. So for the remainder of this essay I will suppose (contrary to my own inclinations) that we seek knowledge of the OW. Within this framework, we must accept the impossibility of disproving the skeptical hypothesis.

However, as noted in section 1.2, a lack of proof here is insufficient to meet the Skeptic’s needs. Instead, he needs to establish that I do not know that I am not a BIV – premise (4’). Our total lack of proof, or even evidence, provides the Skeptic with strong prima facie support for this premise. However, as previously mentioned, this conflation of proof with knowledge depends on epistemic internalism. Externalism does not necessarily require agents to have internal justification for their knowledge. In the case of Reliabilism, all that is necessary is that the true belief be caused by a reliable process. Most people believe that they are not BIVs. If this belief is true, and caused by a reliable process – even though we cannot prove it – then it follows that we truly do know that we are not BIVs.[13]


When confronted by skepticism, most of us are inclined to agree that, ultimately, we do not know whether we are BIVs. It may seem that externalist responses are simply dismissing the skeptical argument, rather than explaining it. This is where (epistemic) Contextualism comes in. The central thesis of Contextualism is that the epistemic standards required for knowledge vary according to context. The contextualist thus explains the apparent paradox of skepticism by conceding that all our intuitions are correct, but only within certain contexts. We cannot reach the high standards demanded by the Skeptic, but the lower standards required for everyday knowledge are attainable. Skepticism is true, but in a very non-threatening way.


Contextualism is a very plausible theory. We all recognise that the standards for knowledge required by the law courts, for example, differ from those in more casual settings. However, we must be careful not to equivocate between what is appropriate to say, and what is true.[14] And even if we grant contextualism about knowledge, we may still question whether this theory has anything useful to add to the skepticism debate.

Contextualism by itself is unable to respond to the Skeptic.[15] There is no possible evidence against the BIV hypothesis, so no matter how low the standards for knowledge are set, it seems that they cannot be met.[16] To beat this objection, the contextualist will need to appeal to some form of epistemic externalism.[17]

The anti-skeptical worth of contextualism will therefore depend on its ability to augment externalism, perhaps to explain why we find skepticism so convincing. As discussed in section 1.4, the contextualist explains this by suggesting that the skeptic is right – but only according to unusually high standards. But externalism alone can explain the plausibility of skeptical arguments simply by referring to the prevalence of (mistaken) internalist intuitions about knowledge.[18] Thus contextualism appears to be redundant.

Contextualism’s last hope is that it may be of indirect use. It may augment an externalist theory so that the externalist theory itself can better refute skepticism. DeRose’s adaptation of Nozick’s conditional theory achieves exactly that. Let’s say that S’s belief that P is stronger, the more remote are the closest possible worlds which fail the condition: S believes that P iff P is true (in that possible world).[19] DeRose then defines knowledge as (roughly) “strong enough true belief”.[20] Our belief that we are not BIVs is very ‘strong’, so we can truly know it (according to all but the most extreme standards) – thus preserving closure and avoiding ‘abominable conjunctions’. DeRose explains our reluctance to say that we know it, by positing the “Rule of Sensitivity”: discussing knowledge of a proposition P tends to raise epistemic standards to the level necessary to make S’s belief-that-P sensitive.[21] Of course we know next to nothing according to such excessive standards, but that poses no threat to our ordinary knowledge.


I have offered a brief outline of a semantic theory which may provide a compelling a priori solution to skepticism. Failing that, one will need to appeal to some form of epistemic externalism in order to overcome skeptical doubts. The counterintuitive results of denying closure (premise 3’) are too severe – the fourth premise is a much better target. Although contextualism has little to offer directly, it can help subjunctive conditional theories to preserve closure, and thus provide a much more plausible rebuttal of skepticism.


Chappell, R. Philosophy, et cetera [].

Cohen, S. ‘Contextualism and Skepticism’ Philosophical Issues vol. 10, pp.94-107.

Cohen, S. ‘Replies’ Philosophical Issues vol. 10, pp.132-139.

Comesana, J. Philosophy from the (617) [].

Dancy, J. An Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.

DeRose, K. ‘Solving the Skeptical Problem’ in K. DeRose & T. Warfield (eds.), Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

DeRose, K. ‘Sosa, Safety, Sensitivity, and Skeptical Hypotheses’ []

Dretske, F. ‘Epistemic Operators’ in K. DeRose & T. Warfield (eds.), Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hill, C. ‘Process Reliabilism and Cartesian Skepticism’ in K. DeRose & T. Warfield (eds.), Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kornblith, H. ‘The Contextualist Evasion of Epistemology’ Philosophical Issues vol. 10, pp.24-32.

Lehrer, K. ‘Sensitivity, Indiscernibility and Knowledge’ Philosophical Issues vol. 10, pp.33-37.

Nozick, R. ‘Philosophical Explanations (selections)’ in K. DeRose & T. Warfield (eds.), Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Putnam, H. ‘Brains in a Vat’ in K. DeRose & T. Warfield (eds.), Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Sosa, E. ‘Skepticism and Contextualism’ Philosophical Issues vol. 10, pp.1-18.

Stine, G. ‘Skepticism, Relevant Alternatives, and Deductive Closure’ in K. DeRose & T. Warfield (eds.), Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[1] I have taken the liberty of replacing “reasonably believe” with “justifiably believe” throughout the argument, primarily for the sake of clarity, and to avoid any possible equivocation between epistemic and instrumental rationality (note that it could be instrumentally “reasonable” to have a false belief, so long as holding this belief served to help the agent achieve his goals). Furthermore, to avoid begging the question against externalism (as will be discussed more subsequently) I take “justification” to simply refer to whatever criteria are necessary to turn true belief into knowledge (rather than limiting the term to mean the giving of reasons or evidence). “Know” and “justifiably believe” can thus be used interchangeably with regard to true beliefs.

[2] As C. Hill wrote, “The question of whether one is entitled to hold a belief is logically independent of whether one is in a position to convince others that one is so entitled.” (‘Process Reliabilism and Cartesian Skepticism’, p.124.)

[3] F. Dretske, ‘Epistemic Operators’, p.134.

[4] I have consistently substituted “~Q” for the usual “Q” throughout this formulation of the principle, in order to maintain consistency with my previously defined variables. Of course the logic is unchanged. This formulation has the added advantage of clarifying the Skeptic’s reasoning: If we knew P, then we would know ~Q. But we do not know ~Q (by premise 4), therefore we do not know P.

[5] R. Nozick, ‘Philosophical Explanations (selections)’ p.163. I think these subjunctive conditionals are best interpreted as being in terms of close possible worlds. That is, the odd-sounding “if P were true” asks us to consider the group of close possible worlds where P is true (in addition to the actual world!), and judge whether S would believe that P in all of these close worlds. (How close? Nozick suggests out to the closest not-P world.) Similarly for “if P were false” – we are not considering all possible worlds, but only the close ones.

[6] Ibid, pp.167-172. Note that to subjunctively assess P, the most distant worlds we consider are the closest ones where P is false. In close ~P worlds, I do not have two hands for a relatively mundane reason (perhaps I was in an unfortunate accident), certainly not because I’m a BIV (that is a much more distant world than those we are concerned with when evaluating P!). However, to assess ~Q we must consider those worlds where ~Q is false (so Q is true), i.e. worlds where I am a BIV.

[7] His denial of closure leads to some “abominable conjunctions”. It is bad enough that I can know I have two hands but not know that I’m not a (handless) BIV. But it gets worse. For I can also know that “I have two hands and I am not a BIV” (after all, the closest worlds where that is false are those worlds where ‘I have two hands’ is false, rather than worlds where I am a BIV!). Thus, according to Nozick’s theory, I can know that I have two hands and I am not a BIV, whilst not knowing that I am not a BIV. Quite bizarre, to say the least. Thanks to the Juan Comesana, Philosophy from the (617), [entry: Oct 12, 2003] for pointing this out.

[8] For example, S. Cohen, ‘Contextualism and Skepticism’ pp.104-6. His basic argument is that we think it rational to deny that we are BIVs, yet we have no evidence against it, so to call it a priori rational seems the only (internalist) option left.

[9] For a full argument in support of this distinction, see my weblog Philosophy, et cetera [entry: 1st April 04]. As a conceptual aid, consider the Matrix movies: In that scenario, the familiar world inside the Matrix would be the CW, whereas the outside world (ruled by machines) would be the OW.

Take care not to confuse this current talk of ‘worlds’ with the ‘possible worlds’ discussed elsewhere in this essay. The latter refers to various possible OWs, only one of which actually exists. In the current treatment, all the worlds under discussion are equally “real” – they are simply different ways of looking at a single reality, from a different ‘frame of reference’, if you will. The various non-objective worlds should all be reducible to the OW in some sense. For example, the world of a fictional story is reducible to the real-world text on a real-world page. In the BIV hypothesis, our CW is reducible to the rules of the computer program that determines the experiences fed to a BIV in any given situation.

[10] Something may be true within the world of a story that is blatantly false in real life. To preserve the truth value, one must reinterpret the semantics so that the proposition about the story-world becomes a proposition about its reduced equivalent (i.e. what text is written on a real-world page). I propose a similar sort of semantic revision to H. Putnam (‘Brains in a Vat’, p.37), who suggests that a BIV saying “there is a tree in front of me” likely speaks the truth, given what “tree” and “in front of” mean in Vat-English.

It should be noted that I disagree with Putnam’s suggestion that a BIV is incapable of referring to the OW. Such ‘semantic externalism’ strikes me as far less plausible and helpful than the ‘semantic contextualism’ I’ve outlined here. A BIV could refer to the OW if he wanted to, but within most contexts, it simply isn’t appropriate or useful to do so.

To get an intuitive feel for my semantic contextualism, consider the following example (which I owe to conversation with Patrick Kerr): Suppose I say to you “In my dream last night, I was walking down the street…”, it is clearly inappropriate to respond “Liar! You were in bed asleep!”. Instead, we implicitly recognise that the phrase “In my dream last night” alerts the listener to a shift of semantic context: the truth of the subsequent proposition is to be evaluated in terms of the dream world, not the real world.

[11] The sort of “anti-realism” discussed by J. Dancy, (An Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology, p.19) posits the useful concept of the “recognizable world”, i.e. the world of our perceptual experiences (let’s call it the PW), containing no gap between evidence and truth. (Of course, the anti-realist allows for no other worlds, but we need not follow him so far.) I must emphasise that the CW is distinct from the PW – though there is some overlap. The CW is simply that world which our perceptions are attuned to, what people normally refer to as “reality”, regardless of whether it is the ultimate reality of the OW. I hope my use of the word ‘direct’ is not misleading here.

[12] See my April 1st weblog post (Philosophy, et cetera) for further justification and examples.

[13] Note the big “if”. The Skeptic can respond by focussing on internalistic questions, e.g. “Can you provide any reasons to suggest that your belief is true and reliably formed?” The externalist has to concede this point (though no doubt accompanied by a brusque dismissal of its importance). Note then, that although externalism still poses a problem for the Skeptic, he is at least better off now than he was with the original Master Argument (which externalism instantly renders illogical).

[14] E. Sosa (‘Skepticism and Contextualism’, pp.1-4) makes a roughly similar point, which is then taken up more definitely by K. Lehrer, ‘Sensitivity, Indiscernibility and Knowledge’, pp.33-34. Cf K. DeRose (‘Solving the Skeptical Problem’, pp.213-4), who argues that accusing natural language speakers of “systematic falsehood” surely counts against a semantic theory. S. Cohen (‘Replies’, p.137), in discussing the strangeness of various cross-contextual conjuncts, argues that a) pragmatic implicatures are cancellable, b) the strangeness of cross-contextual conjuncts is not cancellable, therefore c) the strangeness is due to genuine semantic differences, rather than pragmatic factors.

[15] A popular contextualist response involves “relevant alternatives”, but it should be noted that any successfully anti-skeptical definition of ‘relevance’ will necessarily be externalist in nature – and need not be contextualist at all! For example, Dretske (‘Epistemic Operators’, p.142) anticipates Nozick’s subjunctive conditional theory when he suggests that a relevant alternative is one that “might have been realised in the existing circumstances if the actual state of affairs had not materialised”. He is clearly referring only to close possible worlds, rather than mere logical possibility. Dretske denies closure, but contextualists can avoid this if they take Stine’s approach (‘Skepticism, Relevant Alternatives, and Deductive Closure’, p.154) and insist that we “simply know” non-relevant alternatives to be false. See my paragraph on DeRose’s theory for a much more convincing explanation.

[16] Cohen, ‘Contextualism and Skepticism’, p.104.

[17] As H. Kornblith (‘The Contextualist Evasion of Epistemology’, p.27) put it, “the externalist part… is doing the work in combating Full-Blooded Skepticism. Contextualism does no work here”.

Of course, Cohen himself avoid externalism, which is why he is forced into positing implausible a priori reasons (see note 8).

[18] Kornblith, pp.29-30. See also Lehrer’s discussion (‘Sensitivity, Indiscernibility and Knowledge’, pp.35-36) of the “indiscernibility condition” and why it (falsely) leads us to doubt what is in fact reliable knowledge.

[19] DeRose, ‘Solving the Skeptical Problem’, p.204. This is a somewhat oversimplified outline of his position.

[20] DeRose, ‘Sosa, Safety, Sensitivity, and Skeptical Hypotheses’, p.20. Note that the “enough” is where Contextualism comes into the picture – this ‘threshold’ requirement will vary with context.

[21] DeRose, ‘Solving the Skeptical Problem’, pp.205-6. Sensitivity requires that if P were false, S would not believe it. That is, our epistemic position must be so strong that it extends all the way out to the closest not-P worlds. In the case of the BIV hypothesis, that is a very distant world indeed!

Thursday, April 28, 2005


Update: [moved to front from Apr 26.] The near total lack of submissions and nominations (other than ones I've made) so far is worrying. There are only a couple of days left, as entries should be in by Saturday. What are you waiting for?
The 13th Philosophers' Carnival is coming up next week, to be hosted at Mormon Metaphysics. Keep an eye out for posts to nominate (I do hope people will make use of the new system. It really is extremely quick and easy to use, and greater participation would make organizing quality carnivals so much easier.) And don't forget to submit a post of your own before the end of the week!

Speaking of, I like it so much I'll soon be using it in place of my sideblog. My list of links can be found here (RSS feed).

Also, for anyone using Blogger, note that it would be very easy to implement 'categories' for your posts using tags. Simply tag each of your blog posts with an appropriate tag(s), e.g. "cat_politics", and you're done. For example, here is my politics category -- though I've only added two posts so far. (I haven't yet decided whether to replace my current categorization system, though I probably will eventually, since using instead will save me much time in future.)

Equal Concern

Government should have equal concern for the interests of all citizens, rather than playing favourites. I assume we can all accept this much. The question is how to interpret it. What does equal consideration require? 

The obvious answer is provided by utilitarians: each person counts for one, and nobody counts for more than one. We should maximize utility without concern for its distribution. For suppose you preferred giving a slight benefit to the worst off over giving a larger benefit (in units of well-being, not merely resources, so never mind diminishing marginal utility) to someone already well-off. Then you are saying that the worse-off person counts for more. Even if they get a lesser benefit, that's somehow more important than a larger benefit for someone else. This is not giving equal consideration to all people. It is giving greater consideration to the worse-off. The name "prioritism" is apt indeed.

How might the egalitarian or prioritist respond? Egalitarians want everyone to be equally well-off. But that is quite different from giving equal consideration to the interests of all. It commits them to being quite unconcerned for the interests of the well-off. Improving the well-being of such people simply doesn't matter to them. Indeed, egalitarians (though not prioritists) might see such benefits as a positively bad thing, since it would increase the relative inequality. Egalitarianism asks that human well-being (utility) be diminished in the name of "fairness".

I guess that's the core difference then. Utilitarians see 'equal concern' as being a matter of avoiding bias, and of improving lives no matter whose life it is. Egalitarians, by contrast, see 'equal concern' in terms of fairness. Assuming that no-one is (initially) more deserving of well-being, the fact that some are already more well-off than others might suggest that the worse-off deserve to be compensated. This is a tricky issue which I hope to examine more in a future post. 

(I'm not sure about libertarians and conservatives. I suspect they see it as a matter of avoiding explicit favouritism. But of course mere non-interference is not good enough if it implictly endorses favouritism. Such "equal (lack of) concern" is as worthless as the 'thin formal freedom' I keep complaining about. As it happens, many conservatives fail to live up to even this mediocre ideal, seeming to explicitly favour the rich!)

We might rephrase the core question as: who matters most? Here are some answers...

Utilitarian: "No-one! Everyone's interests have equal weight, so we should do whatever would best help the most people overall, no matter the resultant distribution."  

Perfectionist: "The best! We should nurture excellence, so that humanity might achieve its potential. The import of this outweighs any suffering that may befall some along the way."

Prioritist: "The worst-off! The (negative) import of suffering outweighs the positive value of others' flourishing. We should focus on alleviating harm." 

Egalitarian: "The worst-off! It's not fair that they should suffer while others flourish. We should remedy this inequality." 

Libertarian: "Who cares? Just butt out and leave things as they are."

It's interesting to contrast the opposite weightings assigned by perfectionists and prioritists. I think that both are plausible to the extent that they conform, in practice, to utilitarianism. For example, due to Diminishing Marginal Utility, it is plausible that a more egalitarian distribution of resources would actually serve to maximize utility. But when considering, say, education, more good can be done by nurturing the growth of talented students than dull ones. (So giving priority to "special needs" students may not be what's best for society.)

Of course, it would be best if everyone could get all that they needed for a flourishing life. But sometimes we must make a choice, and are thus forced to ask "who matters most?" As you've no doubt noticed by now, I think that only utilitarianism genuinely shows equal concern for the interests of all. What do you think?

[P.S. I should note that this discussion relates to situations where no-one has any prior claim to special 'rights' or 'desert'. This helps us to avoid unnecessary complications.]

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Formal Systems and the Absolute

Many people seem to take as absolute, concepts that I think are inherently relational. I guess that's because I'm inclined to think that only physical reality, or what "is", is absolute. So other concepts we come up with, like "could", or "should", must be constructed in relation to some purely formal system. I can't make sense of them otherwise. A few examples:

1) Normativity. I find absolute oughts (and value) to be entirely incomprehensible, and discuss here how to understand them in a relational sense.

2) Modality. I just recently wrote about why I find absolute modality incomprehensible. (I would really appreciate some more criticism or other feedback there, since I'm feeling a bit perplexed about the whole topic.) I present a relational alternative here.

3) Maths and Logic. (The ultimate in formal systems.) We posit some axioms, and see what follows. But the laws of logic aren't themselves true or false -- rather, they are (useful, but in a sense 'arbitrary') rules that describe ways to manipulate symbols. We could adopt different rules if that would suit our purposes better, and indeed that's what various "alternative logics" are for. It just seems a mistake to think that there is one true logic, any more than there is one true geometry.

What do you think? Can these concepts be 'absolutized'? Can you think of any others that might be added to the list? Does anyone else get a headache thinking about this stuff?