Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Your task for today is to devise a procedure such that, for any two competing moral or political claims, it can determine which is the more justified without begging any questions.

(Partial credit will be given for imperfect solutions that come "close enough".)

Extra for experts: Implement your procedure in a society near you.


  1. It looks to me as though you might be the one begging the question.

    In order to determine whether a procedure gives the correct answers, you would need to already have such a procedure. At some point in history no such procedure existed, so by induction it is impossible to devise such a procedure and verify that it works.

    So I would be intrigued to see your marking schedule. I guess you could at least eliminate the ones that lead to contradictions.

    That aside, people could just ask me which claim is more justified and I will tell them. As for the extra part, implementing my suggestion in society would obviously be a disaster and should never be attempted.

  2. Ha, good point. Though my hope was that we could assess a procedure's likely reliability on abstract grounds, without having to look at its actual outputs. We need simply to make it appropriately responsive to reasons (and free of bias, etc.), and then this abstract appreciation of reliability should lead us to trust the concrete first-order results yielded by the procedure.

    (In other words, I assume that we can know how best to conduct inquiry, even if we don't know the facts themselves until after we inquire into them. Justified learning must be possible somehow, after all!)

  3. I'm surprised that no one has suggested a quasi-Rawlsian approach of seeking reflective equilibrium. That in fact is what most moral theorists use, and in many cases they are explicit in adopting this methodology. I wouldn't say it begs no questions (it is after all fairly conservative), but I might say that it is better than other methods that appeal to intuition.

  4. Funny you should say that Mike, because that was just what I was thinking...

    For any given situation, imagine that all the relevent beings could sit down to discuss and consider it without knowing who is in which position. Once they reach some kind of consensus implement that.

    Far from perfect, I know. It imagines that we can separate beings from their particular situations and interests in a way I am unsure can be done. Still, it will work in at least simple situations - the bully and the victim will probably both agree that none thinks the risk of being the victim outweighs the benefits of being the bully.

    I'm not sure it works for things like abortion though. It comes down to values so inherent to a person's nature that trying to separate them from these so as to leave a neutral position seems impossible. Can anyone think of a solution to this problem?

  5. I would go for ethical egoism! Rational self-interest although not easy to determine is an unambiguous aproach... [thats if "does not beg the question" means unambigious]

  6. "Does not beg the question" doesn't mean anything like unambiguous. It means it doesn't assume something the other side wouldn't grant. Ethical egoism as a foundation most surely does, as does anything Rawls might have said.

    I don't think there's any non-question-begging way to do this, but I suppose that should already have been clear from my recent post here about abortion.

  7. I'd add that there's nothing especially rational about self-interest in any case.

    (Just to nitpick: surely Rawls might have said some things that anyone could grant? Not the first-order stuff about maximin and liberal egalitarianism, granted, but the methodologies of reflective equilibrium and perhaps veil-of-ignorance type reasoning might reasonably secure broader support?)

  8. Actually, there are some strong critics of the veil of ignorance. Feminists and critical race theorists, for instance, argue that it's the particulars of our circumstances that should inform our ethical thinking.

  9. I think you're right, Richard. There are some aspects of the Rawlsian approach on which nearly all would concur. But the main problem, as I see it, is where Rawls intersects with Kant methodologically. As you know Kant and Rawls take seriously the pre-theoretical moral intuitions encoded in commonsense morality and (to simplify immensely) argue that moral theory should be tailored to these intuitions. This approach certainly seems to beg the question against revisionary moral theories (for instance, utilitarianism) that fit poorly with commonsense morality. But utilitarians are anxious to modify many of our intuitions about what morality requires (compare, for instance, utilitarian views on imperfect duties, beneficence and justice). So you can locate where the question is begged (or where at least one question is begged) in the epistemic assumption that pretheoretical moral intuitions are somehow evidential.


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