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Copyright 2002

CSLI Publications
Center for the Study of Language and Information
Leland Stanford Junior University
Printed in the United States
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wood, Allen W.
Unsettling obligations: essays on reason, reality and the ethics of belief /
Allen W. Wood.
p. em. - (CSLI lecture notes; no. 146)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 1-57586-394-4 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN 1-57586-393-6 (hardback: alk. paper)
1. Faith and reason. 2. Religion-Philosophy. 3. Ethics.
I. Title. II. Series.
BT50.W55 2002
190-dc21 2002007779
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Preface
The following nine essays were originally written on different occasions
and for different purposes. But there are common themes connecting
then1. The first four deal with topics relating to the ethics of belief, the
middle two of these dealing specifically with religious beliefs. The next
three essays are concerned with the reality that beliefs are about, the
last two of these especially with defending and exploring the reality of
values, especially moral values. The final two essays deal with philoso-
phy, the first with the way it relates to its own history, the second with
its worth and its limits. The connections run still deeper. In the sixth
essay, the objectivity of values is defended on the basis of a conception
of ourselves as active and self-regulating beings who communicate with
one another about our actions and the principles that govern them.
This is a conception also underlying the ethics of belief defended in the
first essay, and whose application is found explicitly in the second, and
may also be perceived in the three that follow.
The sixth essay also makes explicit a certain kind of argument that
can be given for some philosophical claims, one based on achieving
coherence between what we do, or commit ourselves to doing, in the
course of our thinking and acting, and our reflective representation of
ourselves as thinkers and agents. This kind of argument is distinctive
in that it does not directly establish the truth of the claims to which
it applies and its soundness is compatible with their falsehood. That
we cannot choose, or even decide the question whether there are ob-
jective values, except by committing ourselves to the proposition that
some values are objective, might be true even if it is false that there
are any objective values. But this point, however correct, is cold com-
fort to anyone who proposes to deny that there are objective values,
since it remains the case that this denial plunges that person into an
incoherence between what they are asserting and what they are com-
ix
x / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
mitting themselves to assert even in the act of asserting it. If there are
any truths from which we are cut off in this way, they are truths that
are inaccessible to any rational thinker. They are truths that could be
believed only by someone who falls into incoherence, and who therefore
we may be sure is cut off from many other truths, as well as from the
kind of thinking that is necessary if we are to represent the person as
able reliably to acquire any true beliefs at all. Propositions that might
be true in this way are therefore propositions that we cannot coherently
represent to ourselves as true; we have no choice but to regard them
as false. And our inability coherently to regard them as true is not a
weakness that some superior thinker might conceivably overcome; it
goes along with being any kind of being at all that has thoughts and
beliefs.
The need to maintain such a coherence was already part of the argu-
ment of the first four essays in defense of the claim that our intellectual
integrity requires us to proportion our beliefs to the evidence rather
than letting them service our wishes and fears. The sixth essay uses
an argun1ent of this kind to defend our commitn1ent to the reality and
objectivity of the reasons on the basis of which vve both believe and
act. Motivated failures to n1aintain this kind of coherence is used in
the fourth and fifth essays to give an account of what goes on when we
deceive ourselves. It also accounts for the ten1ptation to certain kinds
of relativism, whether in regard to ethics or in philosophy generally.
The gap between what we do and what we represent ourselves as doing
plays a role in the anti-moralistic theories discussed and explored in
the seventh essay.
The need for reflective understanding of our practices that coheres
with these practices is also fundan1ental to the conception of philosophy
presented in the ninth essay. The same conception underlies the eighth
essay's argument that the interpretations of past philosophers n1ust be
integrated into our present philosophical reflections if these interpreta-
tions are to remain a living part of philosophy and philosophy itself is
not to become impoverished and opaque to itself.
This last point about the relation between philosophy and its history
is also illustrated throughout virtually all the essays, which typically
take the critical interpretation of historical philosophers as the vehicle
for advancing philosophical claims and arguing for them or criticizing
them. The first essay proposes an ethics of belief based on an ethi-
cal principle formulated by the nineteenth century philosopher W. K.
Clifford, and it defends that principle on the basis of (a reinterpreta-
tion of) arguments given by Clifford, and also of the moral theories
of Kant, whose views about revealed religion are also en1ployed in the
PREFACE / xi
third essay. The second essay discusses various views about religious
belief by considering them in the historical fornl they take in thinkers
such as Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Locke, Kant and Kierkegaard. The
fourth essay investigates self-deception through a critical interpretation
of Sartre's famous discussion of the topic. In the seventh essay, anti-
moralism is discussed via the views of Nietzsche and others. And even
the account of philosophy itself in the ninth essay is presented via an
exposition of the apology for philosophy included in Diderot's Encyclo-
pedia.
I would never maintain that philosophy cannot be done well without
presenting and criticizing ideas and arguments in terms of their expres-
sion in historical representatives. There are simply too many obvious
counterexamples to that claim among important figures in the history
of philosophy themselves. But I do maintain that critically examining
the thoughts that belong to the history of philosophy is one perfectly
respectable way of doing philosophy, and that it has certain advantages
that non-historical approaches to the subject do not have. Historical
texts and positions are not useful merely for the sake of exhibiting eru-
dition. Still less should one appeal to the authority of famous names
by way of compensating for what might be lacking in philosophical
argument. The writings of past philosophers often earn the respect of
those who study them, and thereby create in us the well-founded ex-
pectation that we will learn more from them by patient exegesis than
by arrogantly looking for opportunities to dismiss what they say. But
that respect is earned only if we keep even the greatest historical texts
under close critical surveillance.
When we do this, we find that we learn from them by attaining
to the understanding they exhibit and the insights they afford, but
equally by exposing the mistakes they commit and the errors they con-
tain. Further, by engaging in a dialogue with these texts we not only to
learn from them about philosophical issues but we also come to under-
stand those issues by seeing how they are products of long traditions
of thinking to which all philosophers are always attuned (whether they
realize it or not). Dealing with philosophical ideas through their histor-
ical vehicles is perhaps the best way of making this inevitable aspect of
philosophical thinking fully explicit. So another theme running through
these essays, and especially culminating in the final pair, is the attempt
to articulate certain ideas about what philosophy itself is and what phi-
losophy as an activity is for. In certain respects, these ideas stand in
contrast to what a lot of the tradition says about philosophy, and to
much of what comes to most people's minds when they hear the word
"philosophy" .
xii / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
Perhaps the first thing people are likely to think about "philosophy"
is that it means the stating of grand opinions about the largest and most
controversial questions, such as whether life is worth living, whether we
can know anything or not, and whether God exists. Accordingly, to talk
about "philosophy" means to deliver a disquisition on one's own philos-
ophy, which is more or less assumed to be a set of baseless opinions to
which other "philosophies" (as other sets of equally baseless opinions)
may be contrasted. This view arises naturally from the obvious and
indisputable fact that philosophical questions are-and if we let expe-
rience be our guide, probably always will be-controversial questions.
Whatever one philosopher asserts, another can be expected to deny;
whatever one philosopher regards as settled and proven, another will
try to call into question. From this people infer that "philosophy" is
an arena in which anything at all may be claimed, without concern-
ing yourself overly much with whether your answers to the questions
might be right or wrong. In philosophy you can believe anything you
like without caring whether you have good reasons for it or not; if you
want what you believe to have some solid basis, then you should turn
to other questions (scientific ones, for instance), to which there are
(son1etin1es) right answers.
But the essays in this volume put these inferences themselves into
question. They argue that however endless (or even seen1ingly point-
less) philosophical controversies may be, you owe it to yourself and to
others, as a thinking person, not simply to state "your opinion" on the
basic issues of life but also to care about reasons for what you believe.
The obligation to have good grounds for our beliefs is perhaps n10st
urgent of all regarding questions about which there is probably going
to be endless disagreement. In matters on which all inforn1ed inquirers
agree, discharging this obligation is usually easy and comfortable. But
on questions where any answer you give is going to be challenged, dis-
charging it forces you into ever renewed inquiry, and probably also into
endless doubt. Whatever opinion you reach (even the opinion that you
must hold no opinion but must suspend all judgment), if it is reached in
the right way, is never going to be something settled or fixed. It is rather
something continually reachieved (and perhaps also subtly reshaped)
through time, rather like the apparently stable result of a homeostatic
equilibrium in nature.
We must resist, too, the appearance of consolation afforded by the
skeptical thought that philosophical questions are unanswerable, that
no decisive arguments regarding them are possible. For when they em-
brace that consolation, the skeptics then1selves are too dogmatic, since
the possibility of a decisive argument on one side or another of a philo-
PREFACE / xiii
sophical question is something they can never know to be impossible.
The ancient skeptic's ideal that we should, or even can, reach a per-
fect balance between opposed assertions on every question is at least as
inflexible and implausible as any dogmatic illusion ever taught by any
other school of philosophy.
This leads us to question a second common opinion about "philoso-
phy" (which would in any case be hard to reconcile with this first one).
This is that the "philosopher" is a special kind of person, distinguished
by "wisdom", and that this philosophical wisdom provides the philoso-
pher with a certain special tranquility in facing all the problems of life,
including the terrible riddle of death that stands at the end of it. For
the ancient skeptics, this was the ideal of ataraxia to be attained by the
philosopher through a perfect suspense of judgment; for the epicureans,
it was the calm of the one who lives modestly and accepts the human
being's limited place in nature; for the stoics, it was the en10tionless
resignation of the sage whose reason has comprehended the rational
order of the cosmos. In Western culture, Plato's portrait of Socrates is
perhaps the paradigm of this image of the philosopher. Like in1ages of
the philosophical sage are also a strong current running through ancient
Chinese philosophy, as represented by Confucius or Lao Tzu.
As these examples indicate, this conception of philosophy, and of the
philosopher, are products of a high culture, but also an essentially pre-
modern one. The idea that a final grasp of the profound truths about
life could be accessible of some lone individual is no longer sustainable
in light of the achievements of the collectively self-critical enterprise
of modern science, which has taught us to distrust all claims to final
truth of any kind, and has also led us to expect whatever truth we
achieve to come from the slow and patient labors of many more or
less ordinary individuals working in co-operation, not from the special
insights of some especially revered person. The ideal of the philosophical
sage seen1S to me long overdue for the same kind of fond but devastating
parody that Cervantes brilliantly gave to the equally outdated ideal of
the knight errant at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Although this conception of philosophy and the philosophical sage
unquestionably has had a kind of afterlife in modern European culture
(in Hegel, for instance, and even in the Enlightenment conception of the
philosopher represented by the "apology" discussed in the ninth essay
of this collection), it seems to presuppose the possibility of con1ing to
terms through thought with the fundamental questions of philosophy
in such a way as to achieve a kind of "final position" with regard to
them (whether of knowledge, conviction, doubt or dismissal), which
would afford a special sort of peace of mind fron1 which the ordinary
xiv / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
or unphilosophical mind is excluded. The intellectual elitism of this
conception seems to me not only unconvincing but even repugnant; any
final reckoning with philosophical issues, moreover, seems incompatible
with any honest assessment of where philosophical inquiry has led us
in the past or seems likely to lead us in the future.
Though Plato's image of Socrates may be in part responsible for
the ideal of philosophy against which I am arguing, the Socrates of
Plato's Apology also illustrates something rather close to the point I
am trying to make. When the oracle says that no human being is wiser
than Socrates, Socrates interprets this as meaning that whereas others
do not know and think they do, he alone has the truly human wisdom
of knowing that he does not know. My slightly different claim is that
the closest you can come to possessing a philosophical wisdom making
you superior to ordinary people is to realize that there is no such thing
as a philosophical wisdom that could n1ake you superior to ordinary
people.
If the task of philosophy is to reflect on our beliefs about large and
controversial questions and to demand good grounds for those beliefs,
then from what we know about the state of those questions and the
proposed answers to then1, the genuine philosopher will not turn out
to be a person essentially wiser or calmer than ordinary people. Still
less will a genuine philosopher be exempt from perplexity or anxiety
in the face of the troubling questions of human life, or able to adopt
an attitude of superior serenity in relation to those questions. On the
contrary, a philosopher should be fully aware of the obligation to take
these questions seriously, and the obligation to demand of oneself good
reasons for holding beliefs about them. These obligations leave hon-
est people to be eternal wanderers without any comfortable home as
regards our basic beliefs about life and its meaning.
Our duty as thinking beings involve frequently raising again the
deepest questions, worrying about them, looking for and at new argu-
ments (and revisiting the old arguments) that are relevant to them,
forming or re-forming one's views about them, which should never be
so firm or confident that they cannot be easily unsettled by such re-
flections. Perhaps no one lives up to these obligations perfectly, just as
no one does absolutely everything they can to make the world a better
place. No one is in a position to be entirely content with what they
have done, or what they are, or what they think and believe. No one is
ever entitled to the sublin1e tranquility that is supposed to belong to
the philosophical sage.
In this respect Martin Heidegger was quite right to think that mod-
ern science and the Enlightenn1ent have made modern human beings
PREFACE / xv
rootless and homeless. But he was deeply wrong in wanting to escape
this condition through some sort of meditative philosophical thinking
or mystical religious ekstasis. Still nlore repulsive is an escape through
"returning to one's roots" by identifying oneself with some national or
ethnic or religious tradition. Whenever people turn away from "ratio-
nalisnl" and "universalisnl", seeking to become "nlore human", they
actually make thenlselves less human, and often enough, they become
inhuman.
The world is a mysterious and frightening place in which to pass
our short lives beset in countless ways with contingencies and dis-
satisfactions. Pascal was right to look up into the heavens-as mod-
ern science was then beginning to reveStl thenl-and exclaim: "The
eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies nle." But it is the so-
cial world especially-the world for which human beings themselves
are responsible-that is a very bad home. That world cries out to be
changed, in some ways that ought to be quite clear to us, and also in
others, no less urgent, where no one can be very sure how to bring
about the changes that are needed. It is up to us to change this world,
to make it better, and where we do not know how to make it better, to
find out how. There is no guarantee, however, that we will ever find the
solution to some problems, and where we know what to do, no guaran-
tee that those struggling to do the right thing will win out over those
who want to keep things as they are or even to take the world in a back-
ward direction. When faced with such a deeply dissatisfying world, the
serenity and complacency of the traditional philosophical sage is not a
rational attitude-not even a morally decent one, especially for anyone
who benefits from its evils and injustices.
Of course these facts about human life are not our fault. It is no
single individual's fault that human beings generally are foolish, self-
ish, fearful, vengeful, shortsighted. Even less is it anyone's fault that
human life is delivered over to contingency and chaos, that the awful
riddles of life and death have no consoling solutions. Being weighed
down with anxiety and guilt is therefore no more reasonable than be-
ing totally complacent and serene. Guilt too can be a }<:ind of consol-
ing illusion when its psychological function is to make us think that
things make more sense in relation to ourselves than they really do.
Nietzsche was therefore quite right to attack the "spirit of gravity" in
philosophy, and to recommend light-heartedness in the face of life's ab-
surdity as one essential ingredient in a properly philosophical attitude
toward life. But if correctly understood, that too is compatible with
taking seriously our responsibilities as active, reflective, reason-giving
xvi / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
and reason-demanding beings, and trying to live up to the unsettling
obligations they impose on us.
Thanks are due first to my son, Stephen, who diligently and skillfully
copy-edited this book for CSLI Publications.
Because the essays collected here were composed over a number of
years and in a variety of contexts, the thanks owing to others for help-
ing to shape them is great, but the number of people deserving of it
is too large for me to list them all. My way of thanking them collec-
tively therefore has been to dedicate this book to my colleague of over
twenty-five years, David Lyons. His intellectual integrity, rigor, and
commitment to human equality and progressive social thinking make
him the best representative I have known in my life of the philosophical
spirit I have shared with all my colleagues and student's, and have tried
to express in these essays.
Since David is a modest person, and since we have not seen much of
each other since we both left Cornell University, I suspect that he will
be surprised by this dedication. But I hope the contents of the book
come close enough to meeting the standards of philosophical excellence
he has always represented to me.
A.W.W.
Acknowledgments
"Kant's Deism," was previously published in P. Rossi and M. Wreen
(eds.) Kant's Philosophy of Religion Re-examined (Bloomington: Indi-
ana University Press, 1991).
"Self-Deception and Bad Faith," was previously published in A. Rorty
and B. MacLaughlin (eds.), Perspectives on Self-Deception. Berkeley,
CA: University of California Press, 1988.
"The objectivity of value," was previously published in New Literary
History (Autumn, 2001).
"Attacking Morality: A Metaethical Project," was previously pub-
lished in Jocelyne Couture and Kai Nielsen (eds.) On the Relevance of
Metaethics: New Essays in Metaethics, (Canadian Journal of Philos-
ophy, Supplementary Volume XXI) (Vancouver: CalgarylUBe Press,
1996).
"What Dead Philosophers Mean" was previously published in D.
Schonecker and T. Zwenger (eds.) Kant-Interpretationen. Analysen-
Probleme-Kritik. Wiirzburg: Konigshausen & Neumann, 2001
"What is Philosophy? Enlightenment Apology, Enlightenment Cri-
tique," was previously published in S. Heidt and C. S. Ragland (eds.)
What is Philosophy? New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
The above essays have been newly revised in various ways for this
volume.
xvii
Abbreviations
References to most of the texts cited are given in the footnotes. In three
cases, it makes more sense to cite in a more standard way, using the
following abbreviations:
Writings of Plato will be cited by title and Stephanus number.
Writings of Aristotle will be cited by title and Becker number.
Writings of Kant will be cited according to the following abbreviations:
Ak Kants Bchriften, Ausgabe der preussischen Akademie der Wis-
senschaften (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1902-). All page references (ex-
cept to the Critique of Pure Reason) will be to volume:page num-
ber from this edition.
Ca The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel.Kant (New
York: Cambridge University Press). Cited below by Volume title
where the translation of this work is to be found.
A Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufkliirung? Ak 9
Ca Writings on Practical Philosophy
G Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Bitten, Ak 4
Ca Writings on Practical Philosophy
I Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbiirgerlicher Absicht
(1784), Ak 8
Ca Writings on Anthropology, History and Education
KpV Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788), Ak 5
Ca Writings on Practical Philosophy
KrV Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Cited according to standard AlB Pag-
ination from the first edition (1781) and second edition (1787)
Ca Critique of Pure Reason
KU Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790), Ak 5
Ca Critique of the Power of Judgment
xix
xx / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
MA Mutmasslicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte, Ak 8
Ca Writings on Anthropology, History and Education
MS Metaphysik der Sitten (1798), Ak 6
Ca Writings on Practical Philosophy
o Was heif1t: Sich im Denken orientieren? Ak 8
Ca Writings on Religion and Rational Theology
R Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (1793-1794),
Ak 6
Ca Writings on Religion and Rational Theology
SF Streit der Fakultiiten Ak 7
Ca Writings on Religion and Rational Theology
VpR Vorlesungen iiber die philosophische Religionslehre, Ak 28.
Ca Writings on Religion and Rational Theology
1
w. K. Clifford and
the Ethics of Belief
Most of us probably first learn of William Kingdon Clifford ("that
delicious enfant terrible") by reading William James's famous essay
"The Will to Believe" . But few of us ever investigate Clifford's writings
themselves. This is too bad, both because James's account of Clifford's
views is distorted, and because Clifford's views on the ethics of belief
are much more right-headed than James's more famous ones. Clifford is
most famous for stating and defending a principle regarding the ethics
of belief: "It is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone to believe any-
thing on insufficient evidence" (Clifford, 77).1 I will call this "Clifford's
Principle" .
2
1W. K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays (Amherst, NY:
Prometheus Books, 1999). Cited by page number as "Clifford."
2The view that we ought to have evidence for what we believe, hence any view
that holds something like Clifford's Principle, is also commonly called 'evidential-
ism.' This nan1e is more often used by opponents than by defenders, and sometimes
refers to a position that is not quite the same as Clifford's Principle. Thus Alvin
Plantinga distinguishes 'evidentialism', which he takes to be the view that belief
on insufficient evidence is unreasonable or irrational, from 'deontologism', which is
the view that it is morally wrong to hold such unreasonable or irrational beliefs.
Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.
81-88. Cited below by page number as "Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief."
This, however, suggests that Clifford's Principle must be defended by a certain
argument of the form:
1. It is irrational or unreasonable to believe on insufficient evidence. (Evidentialism)
2. It is morally wrong to hold irrational or unreasonable beliefs. (Deontologism)
Therefore,
3. It is morally wrong to believe on insufficient evidence. (Clifford's Principle)
Now I think this argument is valid and that there is a relevant sense in which both
premises are true. But the argument forces a defender of Clifford's Principle into a
detour which may involve more obfuscation than clarification. As Plantinga himself
insists (Warranted Christian Belief, 108ff), there are many notions of "rationality".
1
2 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
When it comes to Clifford's Principle, many people just don't seem
to get it. This is the way things used to be about other moral issues,
such as sn10king in public places or sexual harassn1ent on the job or
in the classroom. It used to be that nearly everyone thought that sub-
jecting others to the danger and annoyance of second-hand smoke, and
employees or students to unwanted sexual advances, raise no moral is-
sues at all, or at least none worth making a fuss over. They were in
moral denial about these matters.
The state of moral denial about Clifford's Principle may take a vari-
ety of forms. Some people don't think we are in any way responsible for
what we believe, or they think that what we believe is our own busi-
ness and not a matter for morality. Others sin1ply see nothing wrong
with believing whatever makes you feel good (or makes you feel bad,
if that's what you want), whether or not there is any evidence for it.
Or maybe they think that son1etin1es there could be something morally
objectionable about people's beliefs, but they think Clifford's Principle
picks out the wrong thing, or goes too far, or makes a big deal out
of something that should be no big deal. In this essay and the next, I
hope I can help at least son1e of these people to get it about Clifford's
Principle.
Perhaps too few people even know who Clifford was. Born in 1845,
he studied at Cambridge University and was appointed Professor of
Applied Mathematics at the University of London at age 26, a position
he held until his untimely death from tuberculosis at the early age of
33. Although a mathematician and physicist by profession, Clifford was
an individual of universal learning, a student not only of philosophy but
also of history and of classical languages and literature (he knew Arabic
and Sanskrit as well as Latin and Greek). He won prizes as an orator
as well as a scientist, and though his health was always fragile, he led
an active life. He was an accomplished gymnast, and he traveled exten-
sively (once surviving shipwreck on a scientific expedition). While he is
It is not clear that in all of them, belief on insufficient evidence is irrational, or
that every irrational belief is morally wrong to hold. Clifford may grant that it
could be be instrumentally rational, for instance, to hold a belief on insufficient
evidence. If one's end is to achieve a certain comfort and joy, Clifford adrnits that
holding unsupported religious beliefs is a good way to achieve this end. Further, it
is not clear that every irrational belief is morally wrong: Some beliefs unjustified by
evidence are called irrational because they are part of a psychosis or other serious
mental illness (for instance, the belief of a present day mental patient that he is
Jesus Christ). We might not consider such a belief morally wrong because we do not
think the mental patient is morally responsible at all, for his beliefs or his actions.
Clifford's Principle itself, however, is simply that it is wrong (of course for people
who are morally responsible) to hold beliefs on insufficient evidence (whether those
beliefs count as rational or irrational in some particular sense of 'rational').
w. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 3
best known for his attacks on the morality of religious belief, Clifford
was an ardent high church Anglican in his early years at Cambridge.
1.1 Clifford's Principle
Both Clifford and his critics have been chiefly interested in the appli-
cation of Clifford's Principle to religious beliefs. I will consider that
application in the next essay. But it is not only in religious n1atters
that people are prone to violate Clifford's Principle, and in any case it
is worth considering the Principle initially without focusing specifically
on any particular application of it.
The first thing to do is understand better what Clifford's Principle
means. Here I am going to offer an interpretation of it, which I think
is consistent with what Clifford says, and faithful to Clifford's basic
intentions (though I will express reservations about Clifford's way of
defending the Principle, and offer arguments on its behalf that Clifford
does not). The interpretation also results in a moral principle I believe
to be correct, and whose validity I am prepared to defend independently
of whether Clifford held it.
1.1.1 Epistemic Justification
Clifford's Principle is about the holding of beliefs, and about their jus-
tification. As I understand the Principle, it assumes that there are two
distinct ways in which we may regard our beliefs as justified or unjusti-
fied. First, we may regard beliefs as justified or unjustified epistemically,
in relation to the evidence we have for them. And second, we may re-
gard our beliefs as justified or unjustified morally, insofar as believing
is something which it can be morally right or wrong for us to do. In
this terminology, Clifford's Principle could be stated as follows: a belief
can be morally justified only if it is epistemically justified.
3
31 do not think a belief's being epistemically justified is a sufficient condition for
its being morally justified. For example, if there are certain matters about which we
have a moral obligation to think for ourselves rather than relying on the authority
of others, there might be beliefs that are epistemically justified because held on the
basis of a reliable authority, but nevertheless wrong because the believer should not
hold them on the basis of any authority, but only on the basis of her own independent
thinking. Susan Haack claims that both Clifford and James neglect the distinction
between epistemic justification and moral justification: Haack, "'The ethics of belief'
reconsidered," in Matthias Steup (ed.), Knowledge, Truth and Duty (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2001), pp. 27-29. Cited below by page number as 'Haack'. It is true
that neither draws the distinction explicitly, but clearly the positions of both, and
even the issue they are arguing about, is hard to make sense of without it, and no
charitable reading of either can fail to regard them as assuming it. Haack's attempts
to argue that James waffles between epistemic and moral justification seem to me
unconvincing, though he does sometimes want to argue from the pragmatic utility
4 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
The notion of epistemic justification is widely used among philoso-
phers, because it corresponds to something that all responsible people
must do constantly in managing their intellectual lives. In the con-
texts of ordinary life, people are not usually unclear about what these
standards are. But epistemic standards are also subject to some vague-
ness, and it can sometimes be a matter of controversy what epistemic
standards apply to a given belief. This is why notions like "reasonable
doubt" and "a reasonable person" (as used in the law) are sometimes
regarded as problematic. A bit later on we will have more to say about
the fact that the appropriate epistemic standards vary with context,
and also with the notion of strengths or degrees of belief, both of which
are relevant to applying epistemic standards.
As philosophers talk about it, however, the concept of epistemic jus-
tification is not entirely unambiguous. First, the notion of epistemic
justification we need in talking of Clifford's Principle is not necessarily
the same one used in accounts of knowledge that take knowledge to be
justified true belief. Some very plausible accounts of the latter kind em-
ploy notions of justification that are "externalist"-that is, they count
a belief as epistemically justified or unjustified on the basis of facts that
may not be cognitively accessible at all to the subject. For example,
some accounts hold that a true belief counts as knowledge whenever
it is produced by a normally functioning mechanism for producing be-
liefs, a mechanism that reliably produces true beliefs when functioning
normally under normal conditions. On these accounts, it is not in the
least necessary that the subject knows, or even could know, what sort
of belief-producing mechanism this is, whether it produces true beliefs
reliably, or whether it is now functioning normally and under normal
conditions. Thus a belief could be justified (in this "externalist" way)
without the subject knowing, or even being able to know, that it is
justified.
This notion of epistemic justification may work just fine in explicat-
ing the concept of knowledge (or at any rate one concept of knowledge).
But it is unsuitable for explicating Clifford's Principle. For the whole
point of Clifford's Principle is to tell us, as reflective cognitive beings,
when we are morally justified in believing sonlething. This principle
claims that we are morally justified in believing only when we have so
managed our cognitive life that we are epistemically justified in believ-
ing. Such a principle could be used to regulate our cognitive activities
only if we could be sufficiently aware whether a belief to which it is
of a belief to both its epistemic and its moral justification. I see such arguments as
carried on against an implicit background of a set of intellectualistic standards of
epistemic justification that James wants to reject in favor of pragmatic standards.
w. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 5
applied is epistemically justified that this awareness plays a role in our
voluntary conduct as cognizers. Thus it makes sense for us to apply this
principle only in terms of a conception of epistemic justification that
is to that extent "internalist" -a conception such that we are able to
specify conditions of epistemic justification we can employ as critical
norms in governing our conduct as cognizers.
The second point to make is that Clifford's Principle is not commit-
ted to any specific conception of (internalist) epistemic justification. In
particular, Clifford's Principle does not commit us, as Alvin Plantinga
has maintained it does, to a foundationalist conception of epistemic
justification-one that treats all epistemically justified beliefs either as
self-justifying or else as derived from other beliefs that are self-justifying
(Plantinga, Reason and Belief, pp. 47-63).4 On that basis, Plantinga
infers that "evidentialism" (regarded as the endorsement of Clifford's
Principle about what it is right or rational to believe) stands or falls (he
insists that it falls) with foundationalism (the epistemological position).
Plantinga's inference is obviously incorrect, as Norman Kretzmann and
others have pointed aut.
5
Clifford's Principle is not committed to any
particular theory of epistemic justification. It does not deny, or affirm,
that coherence among beliefs might be the final ground of their jus-
tification. It says only that given the correct standards for epistemic
justification (whatever they turn out to be), we are morally justified in
holding only beliefs that meet those standards.
6
To say that Clifford's Principle employs a conception of epistemic
justification that is internalist does not mean that it holds that we have
to be explicitly or reflectively aware of the epistemic justification for
our beliefs, still less that we must be able to articulate it to ourselves
or to others. We often correctly speak of people as following, and as
being justified by the fact that they follow, norms of which they are
not explicitly conscious and which they cannot articulate. For instance,
people form gramn1atically correct sentences in their native language,
4See Plantinga, "Reason and Belief in God," in A. Plantinga and N. Wolterstorff
(eds.) Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983),
pp. 16-94. Cited by page number as "Plantinga, Reason and Belief."
5 Kretzmann, in K. Clark (ed.), Our Knowledge of God: Essays on Natural and
Philosophical Theology (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1992).
6More recently Plantinga appears to have backed off this argument a bit, making
only the (quite correct) historical point that classical early modern evidentialists
(especially John Locke) were also foundationalists (Plantinga, Warranted Christian
Belief, 81-103). I think it is clear that Clifford too is a foundationalist (see Clifford,
pp. 79-96). Foundationalist epistemologies were no doubt more fashionable when
Clifford's Principle was first enunciated than they are now. But there is nothing in
Clifford's Principle itself that commits those who hold it to foundationalism, or to
any other specific theory of (internalist) epistemic justification.
6 / lTNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
and what makes the sentences grammatically correct is that they con-
form to certain norms, but native speakers probably cannot tell us
what those norms are, and it may take a quite sophisticated linguistic
theory to tell us that. It is not merely the case that the utterances of
competent speakers of the language can be justified by linguists (as
though we cannot ascribe to the speakers themselves the conformity
to the rules of grammar, but n1ust regard their performances as only
"externally" justified). Rather, we must say that competent speakers of
a language have in some way "internalized" those rules; their correctly
forming grammatical sentences is to be explained by the fact that they
are guided by them.
7
The same is often true of people who hold epis-
temically justified beliefs (in the sense relevant to Clifford' s Principle)
in relation to the epistemic norn1S they follow and the evidence they
have for their beliefs. Philosophical talent and philosophical training
frequently help people to articulate the grounds for their beliefs (even
of quite obvious comn1on sense beliefs, such as that there is an external
world). But Clifford's Principle can and should be followed by people
who lack this sort of talent and training.
To be sure, it is sometin1es important for us to be able to articulate
the epistemic grounds for our beliefs if we are to manage our intellectual
lives properly. That is one reason that philosophy is a valuable activity.
Skill in reflecting on the grounds for our beliefs and in articulating them
is often useful in criticizing and correcting beliefs, but the possession
and exercise of this skill is by no means necessary in all cases for the
holding of epistemically justified beliefs.
7Robert Adams says: "Children acquire a large body of beliefs about the mean-
ings of words long before they have either the intellectual capacity or adequate evi-
dence to justify those beliefs. Indeed it is doubtful that we can ever have adequate
evidence to justify large part of the beliefs that we rightly hold about other speak-
ers' meanings. Even among adults communication would be gravely impoverished if
we understood each other's verbal and nonverbal signs only so far as we could give
a compelling justification for our interpretation." Robert M. Adams, The Virtue of
Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1987), pp. 13-14 (cited below by page number as "Adams"). But it is one
thing to have adequate epistemic justification for what one takes a word to mean,
or for one's interpretation of what someone says, and another to be able to articu-
late it-to "justify" it in the sense of "giving a compelling justification (to someone
else) ." Adams' claims are correct if they refer to the latter, but the former is all
that Clifford's Principle claims we must have for the belief to be morally justified.
Having epistemic justification (in this internalist sense) must be distinguished both
from being able to give a justification and from "having" an epistemic justification
in some externalist sense in which one may not "have" (or even be able to "have")
it at all in the sense that it belongs to one's mental processes in a way that makes
it part of the conscious epistemic regulation to which Clifford's Principle says we
are required to subject our beliefs.
W. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 7
1.1.2 Belief and the Will
One way of disagreeing with Clifford is to deny that beliefs can be
objects of moral assessn1ent at all. According to this view, actions may
be morally justified or not, but beliefs cannot be. The usual reason
given for this view is that we can n10rally assess only what is subject
to people's voluntary control, and beliefs are not subject to voluntary
control. Some have used this argument to question whether it even
makes sense to consider beliefs epistemically justified.
8
First, it is not so clear that beliefs are not under our voluntary con-
trol (or in what senses they mayor may not be said to be). There is
a long and strong philosophical tradition (claiming members as diverse
as Aquinas, Descartes and Fichte) that parcels out cognitive tasks to
human faculties in such a way that belief is assigned to the will. I think
those who regard this whole tradition as wrongheaded badly underes-
timate both the difficulty of the problems it is trying to solve and the
sophistication of its solutions to them.
Second, even setting this tradition aside, beliefs do seem to be sub-
ject to the will at least indirectly. For people can try to cultivate beliefs
in themselves (as religious people sometimes speak of cultivating their
faith by doing certain things, such as praying, associating with people
who believe, acting as if they believe, and so on). These efforts have ugly
side-effects on the character of those who make them, but sometimes
they are successful in producing the wished-for belief.
Third, there are many things about people (character traits, desires,
habits, emotions) which are no more subject to voluntary control than
beliefs are, but which nevertheless fall under norms and are even ob-
jects of moral assessment. Anyone who thinks that people can be held
responsible for their rage, recklessness, cowardice, or thoughtlessness of
the needs of others should think that they can also be held responsible
for their beliefs.
Fourthly, and most decisively, this line of objection entirely misses
the point of Clifford's ethics of belief. What interests Clifford primarily
is not beliefs themselves, but the processes and procedures through
which we form them. Clifford admits that "sometimes a man's belief is
so fixed that he cannot think otherwise, [but] the question of right and
wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the n1atter of it; not
what it was, but how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true
or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was
before him" (Clifford, 71).
8For instance, William Alston, Perceiving God (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
1991), see especially p. 73.
8 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
I do not interpret Clifford's talk of the "origin" of a belief or "how
someone got it" as talk merely about the history of its acquisition
(though of course that is doubtless involved in some way). It is rather
talk about the agent's conduct in the course of forming and maintaining
the belief. Did the agent raise the right questions regarding the issue
the belief is about, inquire honestly and diligently enough in answering
them, and pay due attention to the evidence on all sides that arose dur-
ing these inquiries? Did the agent then judge freely, fairly and honestly
on the basis of that evidence? Does the agent's mind remain open and
receptive to new evidence, so that the belief not only was rightly formed
at the time, but is also maintained by intellectual processes that are
honest and free from bias, self-deception, wishful thinking, and other
forms of motivated irrationality? This set of queries is not meant to
be complete, but is meant to indicate the kinds of considerations, re-
garding the voluntary behavior of agents in managing their intellectual
lives, that are relevant to the question whether Clifford's Principle has
been followed.
If this is right, then Clifford calls a belief right or wrong according
to the rightness or wrongness of the process by which it is formed and
maintained, much as some might call an action right or wrong according
to the rightness or wrongness of the intention with which it is done,
or a distribution of property in society right or wrong according to the
justice or injustice of the institutions and transactions from which it
results. Perhaps a closer analogy is this: I would be to blame for killing
someone in a drunken rage even if in the drunken rage it were no longer
in my power to control my aggressive actions. This is because my act of
getting drunk while angry was voluntary and blamable. I should have
been aware of what I might be like if I drank to excess, and I should have
controlled my rage to the degree necessary to prevent myself from falling
into that state. Likewise, it might be true that if I allow my wishes,
biases or interests to influence my cognitive processes-for instance, by
letting myself attend only to the evidence supporting what I want to
believe and turn away from the much stronger evidence against it-then
I cannot help believing as I do, given the way my belief was formed. But
that would not show that I am not to blame for holding the unjustified
belief.
In order to use a criterion of voluntariness to show that beliefs are
not subject to the moral judgments Clifford wants to make about them,
critics would have to show that the processes and procedures through
which people form and maintain their beliefs are not subject to volun-
tary control. No doubt these processes often operate by habit and we
are often not aware of them. But this does not show that we cannot
w. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 9
come to be much more aware of (and in rational control of) these pro-
cesses than we are. It is precisely the thrust of Clifford's Principle to
claim that we have a moral duty to become aware of the manner in
which we form our beliefs, and to see to it that they are formed by due
consideration of the evidence and not by wishes, fears or other factors
that lead to epistemically unjustified beliefs.
Another version of this objection says that Clifford's Principle is
superfluous because genuine belief that p is nothing but an indication
of the strength of the evidence one takes there to be for p. Since the
strength of one's belief is no different from one's estimate of the strength
of the evidence, Clifford's Principle is not something it would be pos-
sible to violate. The closest approximation to violating it would have
to be misestimating the strength of the evidence one has for what one
believes.
This objection is correct in seeing a conceptual connection bet\veen
believing something and estimating the strength of the evidence for it.
But the objection overestin1ates the tightness of this connection, and
underestimates the hun1an tendency to exploit the slack there is here in
forming beliefs through fearful or wishful thinking, deliberately biased
readings of evidence, self-deception and other mechanisn1s of motivated
irrationality. Son1e thinkers who advocate the direct defiance of Clif-
ford's Principle like to pretend there is son1e sort of wonderful mirac-
ulous freedom to be had in consciously believing something when the
evidence is overwhelmingly against it (Kierkegaard's "knight of faith"
in Fear and Trembling is a striking illustration of this). I would con-
cede to the spirit of the present objection that beliefs of this kind are
unstable and that something like self-deception in relating the belief
to the perceived evidence regarding it is aln10st certainly necessary to
sustain them. But surely thinkers such as Kierkegaard are not entirely
mistaken in maintaining that there exist some beliefs that are reason-
able approximations to this "ideal". The point of Clifford's Principle is
to condemn the "ideal" itself, and show what is wrong with it.
We will see in the fourth essay that beliefs are ways of integrat-
ing our experience with a view to directing our responses to it. For the
same reason, many of our beliefs are (and should be) tentative and even
unstable, open to critical reflection and correction, and we are rightly
cautious about delivering our conduct over to them, even though we
have no choice but to do so. The complexity of our lives is often such
that beliefs do an imperfect job of integrating the evidence, and they
may also determine our practical responses only imperfectly or approx-
imately. It is precisely because beliefs are neither directly voluntary
acts nor entirely under our voluntary control-that is, because they
10 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
are states we to some extent undergo, and to which we are passive,
as we are to feelings, emotions and desires-that Clifford's Principle
is especially important. For in all these cases, it is important to us as
rational and self-directing beings, if we are to live as responsible adults,
that vve should take a critical stance toward states that must (and even
should) influence our conduct without being directly under our volun-
tary control. We take a responsible attitude toward our conduct only
if we gain a measure of self-knowledge about these states, and also cul-
tivate habits of mind and emotion that protect us from being in them
when we should not be, and especially from being carried away by them
when we should not be.
We never can refrain from having emotions or desires, or acting from
them, nor should we, nor should we have only weak states of this kind. A
person wholly lacking in strong desires and emotions would not be fully
human; certainly such a person could not be rational, since rationality
often requires reacting emotionally to what goes on. But when we are
moved by a strong desire or emotion, we should be aware of what is
happening to us, and we should be able to moderate the effects of such
states on our conduct when they threaten to be excessive. To the extent
that beliefs are not under our voluntary control, the very same thing is
true of them.
This sort of failure of self-knowledge and self-control (about desires,
emotions, and also about beliefs) is central to all forms of addictive
behavior. In extreme forms, it is more like a disease than an ordinary
moral failure. (There is probably no determinate answer in general to
the question at what point addictive behavior ceases to be conduct for
which the person can be blamed.) Clearly it is irresponsible to let oneself
be unaware of the desires or ernotions that control one's behavior or, if
one is aware of them, to omit to reflect on whether their influence on
our conduct should be as great as it is. Clifford's Principle says that
we have a similar responsibility regarding our beliefs, and that one
criterion (perhaps the chief criterion) that beliefs must meet if we are
to discharge this responsibility is that their presence and their strength
should be responsive to the evidence we have that pertains to them.
Unjustified beliefs can sometimes be held in a way that is involun-
tary and not the believer's fault. Sometimes people, when faced with a
complex set of evidence, make honest mistakes, good faith errors. They
inquire diligently, are guilty of no negligence in seeking or process-
ing evidence, do not deceive themselves, and are not swayed by such
self-manipulative mechanisms as wishful thinking. But they blunder,
miscalculate or misjudge in weighing the evidence. As a result, they
bold beliefs that are epistemically unjustified by the evidence, while
w. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 11
thinking, unculpably but mistakenly, that it is justified. Such people's
cognitive processes can be criticized epistemically, but they are not
morally at fault for holding an epistemically unjustified belief.
9
How-
ever, this kind of case provides no counterexan1ple to Clifford's Princi-
ple, any more than the moral commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is
invalidated by the fact that sometimes people cause the death of others
accidentally, through honest Inistakes in regard to which they are not
at fault. No moral principle is reasonably understood to condelun acts
that are involuntary, or the result of errors for which the agent is not
to blame, even if the acts are of the kind otherwise condemned by the
principle. Clifford's Principle is exactly the same as any other moral
principIe in this respect.
1.1.3 Belief and Other Propositional Attitudes
The point that beliefs are more like desires or emotions than like volun-
tary actions can be brought out by comparing belief with other propo-
sitional attitudes somewhat similar to it. Asserting a proposition, for
instance, is directly a voluntary action in a way that believing it is not.
There is also a difference between accepting or assuming a proposition
and believing it. I can, for instance, assume or accept something as a
9This kind of case is presented as falsifying Clifford's Principle, and support-
ing James's side of the "will to believe" controversy, by Susan Haack (Haack, p.
23). But of course it does no such thing, any more than blameless accidental deaths
would show that killing is not wrong, or justify murder for profit. Haack thinks there
can be both "personal cognitive inadequacy" and "cultural cognitive inadequacy",
the latter occurring where the believer relies on erroneous background beliefs that
are prevalent in the community. But the latter sort of case is very different from
the former. Often there are good grounds for me to rely on commonly accepted
background beliefs in my culture (e.g. the principles of the best existing scientific
theories), even if a later age or a different culture proves them to be wrong. In those
cases, the agent's belief, even if false (and known by others to be false), is epistemi-
cally justified relative to the believer's situation, and Clifford's Principle approves of
it. Of course sometimes a person ought to question the prevalent background beliefs
because they lack epistemic justification (as Clifford wants us to do with received
religious beliefs). In that case, the background beliefs are epistemically unjustified,
and Clifford's Principle condemns them (unless, once again, they are accepted as a
result of an honest mistake-as though we had to append this qualification to any
and every moral principle we enunciate). Haack also seems to think that Clifford's
Principle has to require us to "cultivate one's capacity to judge evidence to the
very best of which one is capable (a very demanding assumption)" (Haack, p. 25).
But the excessive demand here is purely Haack's invention. We obviously should
understand Clifford's Principle as saying that a belief is to be judged epistemically
justified or unjustified in relation to the normal human cognitive capacities for peo-
ple in the agent's situation, and by epistemic standards that are reasonable (neither
overly lax nor excessively demanding) under the agent's circumstances. (You might
as well say that the moral prohibition on killing is excessively demanding because
it requires everyone to become a trained paramedic.)
12 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
hypothesis to be tested, or in order to act as if it were true, to see what
follows from it. These too are voluntary actions, which we decide to do
for reasons. Accepting or assuming is often something I do only rela-
tively, for certain purposes, whereas believing is an attitude that is not
conditioned, restricted or qualified in such ways. Other propositional
attitudes that are like believing that p in this way, but different from it
in other ways, are guessing that p, hoping or fearing that p, and being
ready to bet that p. Betting is a voluntary action, and guessing is often
something like one, whereas hoping or fearing, though different from
believing, do not seem to be something one can simply choose to do at
will.
The special place of belief among propositional attitudes is related
to the fact that, as C. S. Peirce observed, belief is an end of inquiry. 10
Belief is a state we seek in order to have a stable basis for our actions,
our interpretation and integration of evidence, and in general for our
relation to the world our beliefs are about. It is partly for this reason
that belief is less subject to immediate choice than many other proposi-
tional attitudes. This is why the cognitive-and the nl0ral-stakes are
also higher in the case of belief. Ceteris paribus, it is a nlore serious
misstep, both cognitively and morally, to believe something for which
we lack epistemic justification than to adopt a provisional hypothesis
that it we have inadequate reasons to adopt.
1.1.4 Variation in Epistemic Standards
There are different epistemic standards for different propositional atti-
tudes. In general, we need a lot less evidence that p to justify provision-
ally assuming that p than to justify believing that p. Further, epistemic
standards for belief also vary with context and with the strength or de-
gree of the belief. In his own statements of his Principle, Clifford talks
as if belief is simply an all or nothing matter: One either believes p or
one does not. But it is in the spirit of Clifford's Principle to hold that
more or stronger evidence is required for a strong belief than a weak
one. 11 There is no reason why Clifford could not state his principle by
loPeirce, "The Fixation of Belief", in Collected Papers, ed. Hartshorne and Weiss
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), V:232. But Peirce seems to me
to exaggerate the claim that we seek belief and flee from doubt. Doubt may not be
as satisfying an end to inquiry as belief, but it is one end that inquiry may have. And
we do not always seek belief, or seek to fix our beliefs with greater certainty than
we have. Few people, for instance, would want to have a firm and well-grounded
belief about the exact day and time that they will die. For most of us, the longer
this remains a matter of uncertainty and doubt, the better.
11 We often use the notion of strong or weak belief, but some theorists have pro-
posed to analyze "degrees of belief" in terms of probability estimates. To believe p
W. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 13
saying, with David Hume, that "a wise man proportions his belief to
the evidence" (Hume, Enquiry 73).12
Different degrees of evidence may, moreover, be required in different
contexts. If someone on the street is taking a poll with the intent of
correlating political opinions with nationality, it might be perfectly all
right to simply to accept your word that you are an American citizen
without asking for further proof. But it would be irresponsible for the
person on duty at Passport Control to do this. I propose, then, that
we understand the notion of "sufficient evidence" as contextual in its
implications, varying both with the epistemic context and the degree
or strength of belief we are talking about. Clifford's Principle directs
you to look for the kind and strength evidence that is epistemically
appropriate to the context, and to require that kind and degree of evi-
dence before you believe. Further, in line with Hume's dictum, it also
says that you should not believe strongly on evidence that would justify
only weak belief-nor, for that matter, should you believe only weakly
on evidence that mandates strong belief. 13
more strongly is to assign p a higher probability of truth. This equivalence seems
to be motivated by the misguided intention to analyze strength or degree of belief
in terms of quasi-mathematical theories of probability. But the analysis will not
work in general. Suppose I am shown a coin and asked to estimate the probability
that its next flip will turn up heads. I estimate this probability at 0.5. I believe the
probability is 0.5. If I have reason to think the coin is a normal "fair" coin, this
belief may be quite strong. But now suppose someone suggests to me that the coin
may be weighted or "doctored", providing me with some (but not overwhelming)
evidence for the suspicion. My belief that the probability of heads on the next toss
is 0.5 will now become weaker than it was. I will have more doubts about it than
I did. But the probability estimate will not change at all, unless I am given some
information about how the coin might have been doctored.
12Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Eric Steinberg (Indi-
anapolis: Hackett, 1977). Cited by page number as "Hume, Enquiry".
13Sometimes people say that it is reasonable to believe a proposition when it
is reasonable to assign to it a probability of 0.5 or greater. This seems to me a
typical example of the tendency to offer illusory precision in a matter that does not
admit of any neat, easy technical formulation. Epistemic standards for believing
vary greatly with context, and with the strength of the belief we are talking about.
Believing that p is not the same as being willing to bet that p, and the epistemic
standards for the one are not the same as the other. Suppose I have been told on
good authority that for people in my demographic group, the probability that they
will die of heart disease is slightly greater than 0.5, and the probability that they
will die of some other cause is slightly less than 0.5. So (in the absence of other
information) it is reasonable for me to assign a probability slightly greater than
0.5 to the proposition that I will eventually die of heart disease. Perhaps if I am
compelled to bet on what I will die of, and given even odds or better on the chance
that I will die of heart disease, then it would be reasonable for me to bet that I
will die of heart disease (even though I would never be in a position to collect on
the bet). But is it reasonable for me to believe that I am destined to die of heart
14 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
Just as the appropriate standards for the accuracy of a n1easure-
ment depends on what the measuren1ent is of, and what it is for, so
too the kind and strength of the evidence required to justify belief will
vary with the nature and importance of the question. High standards of
evidence, for instance, are generally required to establish that a med-
ication is safe for public sale and use. In other matters, of n1uch less
vital importance to us, we often believe on much lower standards of
evidence. For instance, we accept newspaper reports that one corpora-
tion has made an offer to buy another, or that a certain politician has
been having an extramarital affair or was arrested for drunk driving.
14
Perhaps that is because these beliefs are not so in1portant to us, and
we never need to hold such beliefs as strongly, or with a high degree of
certainty, as we would need to if they mattered n10re.
In light of this, it is not clear how much variation there really is
in the standards that justify belief as contrasted with non-belief, once
we take into account two other ways in which we may consider varia-
tions not in epistemic standards themselves, but in their use. Scientists
sometimes establish looser or stricter standards of evidence, so that
they can determine the nurnber of cases in which a kind of event very
certainly occurred frorn cases in which it probably occurred, or may
have occurred.
15
Meeting a high standard of evidence justifies a strong
disease? On the contrary, on the basis of my present information, the right thing to
say is I simply do not know what I will die of and have at present no good reason
to form any belief whatever about this.
14In "The Will to Believe," Willian1. James n1.ight be read as claiming only that our
practical interests sometimes playa role in determining what are the contextually
appropriate epistemic standards for justified belief. George Mavrodes, "Intellectual
Morality in Clifford and James," tries to argue that James's defense of a "will to be-
lieve" is really not incompatible with Clifford's Principle. See Gerald D. McCarthy,
ed., The Ethics of Belief Debate (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986) pp. 205-220. But
this involves a serious misunderstanding of James's position, and of the disagreement
between him and Clifford. James's claim is that beliefs favored by our "passional
nature" may be morally justified irrespective of any evidence for them (if only they
are psychologically "live hypotheses" for us). He is not concerned with determining
the epistemic standards to be used in different contexts, but with defending an un-
conditional moral title to hold beliefs that fail to meet any epistemic standards at
all. The legitimate variation of epistemic standards, based (among other things) on
our practical interests, does not include lowering the standards of evidence required
for religious beliefs merely because we want to hold them, or wish them to be true,
just as little as it justifies raising the standards of evidence for the theory of evolu-
tion just because we hope it is not true, or fear that coming to believe it will make
people act more like monkeys than they do now.
15For instance, archaeologists, in examining evidence from bones, have established
such a scale in determining whether cannibalisn1. occurred at different sites where
traces of prehistoric hominids have been found. See Tim D. White, "Once Were
Cannibals," Scientific American, Volume 265, Number 2, pp. 58-65.
W. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 15
or quite certain belief, but perhaps meeting even a fairly low standard
of evidence justifies belief that the event occurred-but only a weak
belief, or a belief qualified by reservations or doubts. Or again, we
sometimes require the justification of a stronger belief for the taking of
SOlne practical decisions than for others. (In court, questions that must
be decided "beyond a reasonable doubt" are distinguished from those in
which all that is required is "a preponderance of the evidence.") These
cases do not, strictly speaking, involve different standards for belief,
but rather require different degrees of belief (perhaps using uniform
epistemic standards) to justify a given action (i.e. rendering a given
verdict) .16
1.2 Objections to Clifford's Principle
The real question about Clifford's Principle is: Why should our be-
liefs (via our belief-forming and -maintaining conduct) be held morally
accountable to the contextually appropriate standards of epistemic jus-
tification? Let us first consider some common objections to Clifford's
Principle, since responding to them may help us further clarify what the
principle means. Then we can turn to arguments in favor of Clifford's
Principle.
1.2.1 Skepticism and Common Sense
Some who reject Clifford's Principle maintain that we cannot hold our
beliefs to this standard because doing so would be utterly impractica-
ble. If Clifford's Principle were consistently followed, they say, it would
deprive us of many beliefs we need to get along in everyday life. William
James, for instance, threatens Clifford with the loss of all beliefs based
16This is the kind of case Mavrodes uses to illustrate contextual variation. "Imag-
ine that you have some meatloaf in the refrigerator for several days. It occurs to
you that it might have spoiled. Consider, then, the possible belief (or "Jamesian
option") that the meatloaf is still OK. And assume that if you have this belief, you
will eat the meatloaf, while if you do not have it, you will throw the meatloaf away.
Under these circumstances, we may say that this belief is valuationally asymmet-
rical [because the consequence of being wrong in believing the meatloaf is spoiled
is minor (the loss of a little leftover meatloaf), whereas the consequence of being
wrong in believing it is OK might be major (a serious illness)]" (Mavrodes, "Intel-
lectual Morality in Clifford and James," cited above, p. 213. But of course a much
more reasonable view of the situation is that you would be wise to avoid eating the
meatloaf even if you believe it is OK, if that belief is not strong or if there is some
substantial reason to doubt. The reason why this kind of case easily gets merged
into cases about the evidential standards required for belief where religion is in
question is the highly suspicious fact that many religions (especially Christianity)
do not distinguish belief from acting on belief, but regard belief itself as essential
to the state required for the practical consequences in question (namely, salvation
by faith).
16 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
on human testimony, of all moral beliefs, even with the loss of the belief
in truth, that there is such a thing and that our minds are capable of
attaining it (James 19-20) .17 On an even lower level, it is a tedious com-
monplace for religious apologists to assert that every view of the world,
even science itself, rests on an "act of faith." Science, they say, has faith
that there is an external world, that other minds exist, that nature is
uniform and the future will be like the past. Some such apologists are
fond of rehearsing familiar skeptical arguments on these points to show
that we cannot live at all without epistemically unjustified beliefs.
James seriously distorts Clifford's Principle by representing its mo-
tivation as an excessive fear of believing what is false, supposedly en-
tailing a deficient motivation for coming to believe what is true (James,
24-25). The point of Clifford's Principle, however, is simply we should
form our beliefs in accordance with the believing
what it does not support nor omitting to believe what it does support.
Christian fundamentalists are violating the spirit of Clifford's Principle
just as much when they withhold belief in the theory of evolution as
they do when they believe alternative "creationist" theories for which
there is little or no evidence and for which the arguments given are
pseudoscientific sophistries.
Clifford's Principle does demand that we be critical of our beliefs and
scrupulous about the grounds we have for them. But it does not propose
to raise the epistemic standards for our beliefs. For example, Clifford
allows (as every sane person must) that our beliefs may be epistemi-
cally justified by appeal to the testimony of others whenever we find
what they report plausible and have reason to trust their knowledge
and veracity (Clifford, 79). Clifford intends us to follow the appropriate
standards of science and common sense in deciding when our beliefs are
epistemically justified. What Clifford's Principle condemns is the hold-
ing of a belief without regard to whether or not it meets the appropriate
standards.
One cannot show that Clifford's Principle is paradoxical or has para-
doxical consequences merely by arguing that it has such consequences
when combined with some form of radical skepticism about the epis-
temic justifiability of common sense beliefs. For the paradoxical con-
clusion is all too evidently the result not of Clifford's Principle but of
the paradoxical (or anti-commonsense) view with which one is cornbin-
ing it. To try to discredit Clifford's Principle in this way is rather like
trying to argue against the moral principle that one should not cause
17William James, "The Will to Believe," The Will to Believe and Other Essays
in Popular Philosophy (Carnbridge: Harvard University Press, 1979). Cited by page
nurnber as "James".
W. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 17
unnecessary pain to others by employing solipsistic arguments to show
that others cannot feel pain.
The ancient skeptics regarded suspense of judgment as a desirable
condition, conducive to a philosophical calm (or ataraxia). They there-
fore saw their arguments not as threats to the tranquil state of belief
but as therapies, whose result was to be a mode of life free from dog-
matic belief but in accord with the spontaneous necessities of human
nature. It is still controversial whether the tranquil state they sought
was one of a total absence of belief or rather the holding of those beliefs
that come naturally to us when all philosophical dogmatism has been
removed r neutralized.
18
It is also unclear whether they thought of
their ilosophical goal of achieving an equal balance of arguments on
both sides of any question as justifying their suspense of judgment or
merely as causing it (as a drug might), simply in order to reach the
desired state of mental peace.
If the skeptics were uninterested in the whole question whether our
beliefs are justified or unjustified, then it is hard to see how their argu-
ments could bear on Clifford's Principle either way. The skeptics could
be seen as opponents of Clifford's Principle if they saw themselves as
removing all rational grounds for believing anything, but still approv-
ing the "natural" beliefs they thought people would have when these
grounds have been ren10ved. In either case, however, they were enemies
of any state of belief that would have to be sustained by a "will to
believe" that overcomes doubts produced by an absence of evidence for
what is believed (or by contrary evidence). So they make strange bedfel-
lows with the religious opponents of Clifford's Principle who sometimes
claim kinship with them.
It is far from clear what effect skeptical arguments ought to have on
those of us who do not share the goal of achieving skeptical ataraxia.
A proponent of Clifford's Principle might well think (as I do) that no
honest view of the hun1an condition as a whole is compatible with com-
plete peace of n1ind. One of the chief aims of philosophy, it seems to me,
is rather to unsettle complacent minds, to make them think critically
and restlessly, so that they can act in a world that calls constantly
for new ways of thinking and acting. The ancient skeptics were foes
of dogmatism, but if their aim was to manipulate themselves (by any
means available) into a more comfortable state than is compatible with
intellectual honesty, then they begin to look a lot like dogmatists and
we can't see their strivings as morally admirable.
18See M. Burnyeat and M. Frede (eds.) The Original Sceptics: A Controversy (In-
dianapolis: Hackett, 1997). Frede thinks the ancient skeptics did permit themselves
some beliefs, while Burnyeat thinks they sought a state free of any beliefs.
18 / lTNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
The constantly changing uncertainties of the human condition tend
to make life uncomfortable for an honest person, and this n1akes it easy
and tempting to flee from this condition by settling on some safe and
comforting system of beliefs to which one has resolved to comn1it oneself
irrespective of the evidence. In that way, it is possible to see certain
forms of religious faith as having the same goal as ancient skepticism-
the goal of achieving peace of mind in a confusing world. But it is
precisely the point of Clifford's Principle to raise a moral protest against
this tendency-to insist that comforts won in this way are something
to which a rational human being has no right.
Perhaps the most implausible skeptical contention of all is that it is
ever possible to reach an exact and stable balance of the evidence on any
question (much less on all questions). What frank inquiry often finds is
a confused welter of argument and evidence on both sides of a question,
with the relative strength of the evidence for our beliefs shifting and
changing as we consider them further. As Diderot says, "In all things
our real opinion is not the one from which we have never wavered,
but the one to which we have most regularly returned." 19 Skeptical
arguments play a valuable role in philosophical inquiry by making us
question received beliefs, even very fundan1ental common sense beliefs.
But we are challenged also to take the measure of these arguments
then1selves, to decide what a reasonable person should believe in the
face of then1. It is only people of very bad judgment (or unsound mind)
who can be brought by the arguments of philosophical skeptics to have
serious and persistent doubt about such things as the existence of the
external world or other minds or the continuing validity of laws of
nature.
Opponents of Clifford's Principle son1etimes cite Hume on behalf of
the proposition that many of our common sense beliefs really do fail to
meet the epistemic standards we norn1ally accept, hence that we should
not abandon common sense, but only learn to live with epistemically
unjustified beliefs. I think their view is incoherent and even directly
self-refuting. For (as Hume himself emphasizes) the use of evidential
standards in deciding what we are (epistemically) entitled to believe
is also a part of comn10n sense, as is the belief that common sense
beliefs meet the appropriate epistemic standards. These beliefs are as
much a part of common sense as are the other common sense beliefs
whose epistemic justification the skeptics want to call into question.
The skeptic who professes to hold to common sense, therefore, cannot
19Denis Diderot, "D'Alembert's Dream," in L. Tancock (ed. and tr.) Rameau's
Nephew / D'Alembert's Dream (London: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 164.
W. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 19
consistently say that common sense beliefs lack epistemic justification;
for that is to deny one of the beliefs of con1mon sense.
There is certainly some textual support for a reading of Hume that
takes him to be trying to undermine the force of all rational argu-
ment, with the aim of leaving us in a position where we will believe
what "nature" dictates (Hume, Enquiry 107-110, Treatise, 270).20 But
Hume also frequently expresses (and tries to evoke in his readers) the
sense of perplexity and confusion that an honest person must feel when
confronting skeptical arguments (Hume, Treatise, 268-269). One of his
chief aims is to unsettle dogmatists (especially religious ones) and en-
courage a spirit of critical reflection. Thus Hume holds something akin
to Clifford's Principle: We should proportion our belief to the evi-
dence.
21
His rejection of miracles is grounded firmly on this principle.
1.2.2 Beliefs and Practical Assumptions
It is noteworthy that Clifford himself regards both the uniformity of
nature and the existence of other minds as "assumptions" which it is
necessary for us to make in applying the scientific method, but which
are not directly confirmable by that method (Clifford, 95). Clifford
seems to think that these assumptions are epistemically justified (as
assumptions) by the indispensable role they play both in science and
in practical life. Clifford recognizes that we must sometimes act on the
20Hume, A Treatise On Human Nature, ed. Selby-Bigge. (Oxford: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 1967). Cited by page number as "Hume, Treatise". John Rawls applies
the term "fideism of nature" to Hume's supposed view that we ought to believe
as nature dictates, even if what we believe lacks epistemic justification because the
alleged reasons for it can be undermined by skeptical arguments (Rawls, Lectures
on the History of Moral Philosophy, edited by Barbara Herman. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 24, 51). There is no space here to defend an
alternative view of Hume, but I think a correct reading of Hume on belief must dis-
tinguish between a) what Hume says when his aim is to present a naturalistic theory
of hun1an nature, accounting for what people believe and the causes of belief, and b)
the norms of belief that he (usually implicitly) subscribes to as an investigator, as
a philosopher, critic and historian. We should not confuse his claim that few beliefs
are caused by "reason" (in a specifically philosophical sense of that term) with the
fideist view (which Hume did not hold) that it is permissible or even inevitable for
an inquirer to hold beliefs in the absence of good evidence for them. Hume as an
inquirer never condones the latter, and he often exposes to censure or ridicule those
who seem to him credulous or otherwise deficient in adhering to proper standards
of justified belief.
21 Admittedly, it is not clear that Hume regards this as a moral principle. He says
only that "a wise man" proportions his belief to the evidence. Hume also insists
that belief is an involuntary state, so he might have been persuaded by some of the
arguments (which we have already rejected) that beliefs are not proper objects of
moral assessment.
20 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
basis of hypotheses, guesses or assumptions for which the evidence is
insufficient to justify belief
"There are many cases in which it is our duty to act upon probabilities,
although the evidence is not such as to justify present belief; because it
is precisely by such action and by observation of its fruits that evidence
is got which may justify future belief. So that we have no reason to
fear lest a habit of conscientious inquiry should paralyze the actions of
our daily life" (Clifford, 79).
Perhaps someone will object here that to act on a hypothesis or a
piece of guesswork already is to believe it, that the distinction between
acting on a possibility or probability and believing it is a mere verbal
dodge on Clifford's part. But this is not so. We have already noted that
there is a significant difference between believing and other doxastic at-
titudes, such as guessing that p, being willing to bet that p, assun1ing
that p for the purposes of a certain practical aim or theoretical in-
quiry, and so on. Thus it is quite possible to act on a hypothesis while
positively disbelieving it. A doctor, for instance, n1ay treat a patient
for a very serious disease as a precaution, while regarding the possibil-
ity that the patient actually has the disease as very remote. If asked
whether she believes the patient has the serious disease, the doctor will
unhesitatingly reply that she does not. What justifies her action on the
hypothesis that the patient has the serious disease is her belief (which
ought to be epistemically justified) that the benefit of dealing with the
remote possibility that the patient has the serious disease outweighs
the risks and disadvantages involved in treating the patient for it.
1.2.3 Trust
Another s u r ~ of objections to Clifford's Principle is cases of personal
trust. It is alleged that trusting others and showing faith in them is
sometimes morally permissible, even praiseworthy, in cases where doing
so involves the holding of beliefs stronger than the evidence warrants. 22
22Robert Adams says: "Belief that goes beyond the evidence is as important
in trusting people as understanding them. Trust in other people is based on a
conviction of their honesty and good will. When this conviction is strong, it usually
outruns any evidence for it that we could specify" (Adams, p. 14.) It seems to
me, again, that Adams is uncharitably misinterpreting Clifford's Principle to say
not that one must have sufficient evidence but rather that one be able to state
or articulate clearly for others (to "specify") that evidence. The latter standard,
however, would be an unreasonably high one for any ethics of belief. If Adams'
claim is really that most of the time when people trust others they have no good
grounds to believe in their honesty and good will, then what he is saying is quite
extraordinary-and implies that most trust is as dangerous and irresponsible as the
trust of a young child when it gets into a car with a stranger. Perhaps Adams believes
that, but there is no reason why a defender of Clifford's Principle must agree. It is
w. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 21
There is room for considerable variety in such cases, and how a defender
of Clifford's Principle should respond to them depends on the details
of the case. Some examples involve trust between close friends or loved
ones, cases where long and intimate personal acquaintance gives the
trusting person quite good epistemic justification for believing in the
person trusted. In some cases it may be virtually impossible to put
any third person in possession of the justification, because it depends
in effect on a kind of special knowledge or expertise that no one else
may be in a position to acquire. But as we have already seen, Clifford's
Principle does not demand of me that I be able to provide others with
an epistemic justification of what I believe; it requires only that I have
this justification myself.
Nor does Clifford's Principle prevent us from being influenced in our
judgn1ents by our emotions, when emotions can play a positive role
in weighing the evidence rather than merely distorting our view of it.
Consider the following case, as described by Robert Adams:
"Suppose a close friend of mine is accused of a serious crime. I know
him well and can hardly believe he would do such a thing. He insists
he is innocent. But the evidence against him, though not conclusive,
is very strong. So far as I can judge the total evidence (including my
knowledge of his character), in a cool, detached way, I would have to
say it is evenly balanced. I want to believe in his innocence, and there
is reason to think that I ought, morally, to believe in it if I can. For
he may well be innocent. If he is, he will have a deep psychological
need for someone to believe him. If no one believes him, he will suffer
unjustly a loneliness perhaps greater than the loneliness of guilt ....
And who will believe him if I do not?" 23
Adams distinguishes between "viewing the evidence in a cool, de-
tached way" and viewing it in some other way that might result in my
believing in my friend's innocence. He seems to be taking it for granted
that Clifford's Principle would require me to abide by my considera-
tion of the evidence "in a cool, detached way." He is then insinuating
that the only alternatives to this would be to allow wishes, the bias of
friendship or moral pressure to influence what I believe. But neither
the assun1ption nor the insinuation is correct.
Emotions constituting a relation of intimacy with a person may
also dubious to appeal to the doxastic behavior of children in discussing Clifford's
Principle, since this is a moral principle, and it is inherently problematic how far
children should ever be held morally responsible for what they do. It is especially
doubtful that they are as responsible as adults are for the reflective regulation of
their beliefs by epistemic standards.
23 Adams, The Virtue of Faith, p. 154.
22 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
sonletinles distort our judgment, but they can also be an indispens-
able way of knowing such things as whether the person you are talking
to is being truthful with you. If viewing the evidence "in a cool and
detached way" means cutting yourself off from this kind of evidence,
then Clifford's Principle clearly does not tell you to view the evidence
in a "cool and detached" way. On the other hand, if the alternative
consists in letting my belief follow my wish that my friend should be
innocent, or giving in to a bias that won't let me question the truth of
whatever my friend says, or to my biased propensity to believe what-
ever my friend says, then Clifford's Principle would tell me not to do
that. If the alternative involves letting myself be swayed by the belief
that I ought, nl0rally, to believe in my friend's innocence if I can (irre-
spective of whether he is innocent or guilty), then too I should reject
it, since this moral belief is obviously false--it only elevates my bias to
the status of a moral principle.
Besides, what my friend would want of me here, to the extent that he
is being honest with me and not merely trying to exploit our friendship,
is not a belief in his innocence that results from wishful thinking, bias
or misguided feelings of guilt, but one in whose formation the decisive
role was played by my sympathetic perception of his truthfulness. It
may of course be very difficult for someone in this position to sepa-
rate the perceptions that depend on my emotional relationship to nlY
friend from the biases that may also proceed from it. But making those
distinctions would be precisely my moral task here-not only my task
as a rational knower who is being honest with himself, but even as a
genuine friend.
In short, Adams' conclusion about what I should do here might very
well be correct, but if it is, then it would be completely consistent with
Clifford's Principle. The example in no way supports the view that we
should let our wishes or other biases to influence our interpretation of
the evidence.
Other cases of trust do not necessarily turn on beliefs at all. Trusting
someone can sometimes consist simply in being willing to leave yourself
open to the risk of betrayal by the person trusted. This is something
you may choose to do without having to believe that you will not be
betrayed. Clifford's Principle does not forbid the generosity and pre-
paredness to take risks that would be displayed in this willingness.
Clifford's Principle does forbid us to trust others where trusting them
would indeed involve holding beliefs not supported by the evidence.
There are, after all, cases in which it is wrong to trust a person, cases
where it is an intolerable imposition to expect to be trusted and where it
is irresponsible to bestow one's trust. (If I try to get on an airplane with
w. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 23
an assault rifle, should I expect the airport security guard to trust me
not to misuse it?) Clifford's Principle is not discredited merely by the
fact that there are some cases of trusting of which it must disapprove.
1.2.4 Advantageous Belief
James's favorite objection to Clifford seems to be that it might some-
times happen that it would be advantageous for us to believe something
for which there is insufficient evidence, because such belief n1ight help
to create the fact believed in (James, 28-30).24 For instance, belief that
there is a God with whom we may enter into a saving relationship might
be necessary in order to create that relationship.
Clifford's Principle is not consequentialist in form. It tells us what
we ought and ought not to do in matters of believing, regardless of the
consequences. It is no objection to such a principle that violating it
might son1etin1es have better consequences than following it. Clifford's
Principle might, however, have a consequentialist justification: It might
be justified by the fact that following it consistently has the best con-
sequences on the whole. (Consequentialist justifications are sometimes
given for similar principles, such as those forbidding lying or enjoining
us always to keep our promises.) Even consequentialist moral theories
are not cornmitted to saying that an action is justified whenever it can
be shown to have some beneficial consequences. The fact that it would
benefit us to believe something never by itself provides us with a reason
for thinking the belief is true. (At most it is parasitic on one, since in
most circumstances true beliefs benefit us more than false ones.) Re-
flecting on the advantages of belief can never by themselves produce
the belief. Believing something advantageous that is not justified by the
evidence is possible only by means of some psychological process (such
as wishful thinking or self-deception) that subverts our rational pro-
cesses of deliberation and belief formation. In that sense, it can never
24Susan Haack says that if believing on insufficient evidence is sometimes "harm-
less or beneficial," then Clifford's Principle is clearly false (Haack, p. 14). But this is
obviously incorrect, or at least it depends on some extremely dubious ethical prin-
ciples that even a consequentialist need not endorse. From the fact that an action is
harmless, or even beneficial, it does not follow that it is morally permissible. There
are cases of lying, for instance, or interfering in the lives of other people, which
could be truly claimed to be either harmless or even beneficial, but which most
people would regard as wrong. We will see later that not all violations of Clifford's
Principle involve grave wrongdoing, but neither do all lies, or all meddling in the
lives of others. Sometimes we wink at "white lies" and tolerate busybodies, when
they do no harm and especially when the results are beneficial. Yet despite that,
it is correct to say that lying is wrong, meddling in other people's lives is wrong,
and-in the same spirit-believing on insufficient evidence is wrong.
24 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
be rational to do it, even if there is good evidence that it would benefit
us to hold the belief.
But we can also ask whether James himself thinks that there needs
to be such evidence. Indications are that he does not. Rather, James
seems ready to n1ake this claim part of what is to be believed without
epistemic justification: The first affirn1ation of religion, James says, is
that "the best things are the eternal things," and "the second affir-
mation of religion is that we are better off even now if we believe her
first affirmation to be true" (James, p. 30). But in a way, James is be-
ing quite consistent here. If we think it is all right to let our cognitive
processes be corrupted in the ways needed to form an advantageous
belief, why shouldn't we allow the same processes to produce the belief
that this first belief is advantageous? Having gone that far, however,
James n1ight just as well have dispensed with the pretense of rational
argument altogether, and made it directly a third affirmation of reli-
gion that we should believe whatever religion tells us, whether there is
evidence for it or not, whether believing is beneficial or not.
James writes: "A rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me
from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were
really there would be an irrational rule" (James 32). This may sound
like sweet reason itself, but a moment's reflection should convince us
that it is nothing of the kind. Any rule whatever that restricts belief in
any way might conceivably shut us off from some truths. A Cartesian
evil demon might have arranged things so that people believe what
is true only when they believe what, following all the evidence they
have, seems certainly false. In light of that merely notional possibility,
what James says above entails that it is irrational right now for us to
follow the rule that we should withhold belief from that which all the
evidence shows to be certainly false (assuming, of course, that believing
it remains psychologically a "live option" for us).
1.3 Arguments for Clifford's Principle
1.3.1 The Appeal to Intuitions
Having answered some common objections to Clifford's Principle, I turn
now to reasons for thinking it is correct. Moral epistemology is a notori-
ously murky subject, and there is no universally accepted procedure for
justifying even the most uncontroversial moral beliefs. There are even
some poor misguided souls who think that no moral belief can ever
be rationally justified, owing a reputedly unbridgeable metaphysical
chasm between facts and values. It is a common practice, however, and
perhaps even a respectable one, to appeal to what are euphemistically
w. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 25
called our "intuitions" about particular examples, real or imaginary, in
order to justify the moral beliefs evoked or engaged by these examples.
The strategy is to cite an example about which our spontaneous moral
convictions are strong and confident, and then to argue that the valid-
ity of a specific moral principle is the only, or at any rate, the best, way
of accounting for those convictions.
This is what Clifford himself does in the opening paragraph of The
Ethics of Belief
"A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant ship. He knew
that she was old, and not over-well built at the first; that she had
seen n1any seas and climes, and had often needed repairs. Doubts had
been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These
doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought
that perhaps he should have her overhauled and refitted, even though
this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however,
he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to
himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weath-
ered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come
safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence,
which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were
leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would
dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of
builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and com-
fortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy;
he watched her departure with a light heart and benevolent wishes for
the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and
he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told
no tales" (Clifford 25).
Clifford expects us to condemn this shipowner morally, and to con-
demn him because he nurtured in hin1self the epistemically unjustified
belief that his ship was seaworthy. Further, Clifford expects us to agree
that the sincerity of the man's belief is no mitigation of it. He expects
his example to evoke or engage in us the moral conviction that at least
part of what is wrong with the shipowner is that he formed and main-
tained a belief on insufficient evidence.
In me, at least, Clifford's expectations are fulfilled. His shipowner
may be guilty of things other than nurturing an epistemically unjusti-
fied belief, but it seems to me that that crime is central to the wrongdo-
ing depicted in the example. Further, the example shows how the crime
of holding a belief on insufficient evidence n1ay lead to terrible conse-
quences, and is not necessarily something to be taken lightly. It remains
to say why I think the example should lead us to this conclusion.
Clifford realizes that the example may not strike everyone in the
26 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
same way. No one, of course, is likely to react by saying that the
shipowner is justified; but Clifford considers the objection of someone
who says that it is only the shipowner's action (of sending the ship out
"\vithout overhauling or even adequately testing it) and not his belief
that is morally wrong. Unfortunately, Clifford's reply to this objection
is not very satisfying. "It is impossible," he says, "so to sever the belief
fron1 the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning
the other" (Clifford, 73). If we take this to mean that the shipowner's
belief "suggests" his immoral action in the sense that it is responsible
for the immorality of the action, then Clifford is just begging the ques-
tion; for to hold the belief responsible for the immorality of the action
is already to consider the belief immoral. On the other hand, if Clifford
means that we must morally condemn any belief that plays a role in
generating an immoral action, then what he says is obviously false. My
belief that you are about to take a sip out of your coffee cup may play
a vital role in generating my immoral action of poisoning your coffee.
But that belief may be a perfectly innocent one.
The objection still has no force, however, unless the objector can
specify something besides the shipowner's belief to which the immoral-
ity of his action could be attributed. Surely the bad consequences of
the action by themselves do not make it wrong. Nor is there anything
wrong in the two main desires that motivated the shipowner: namely,
that he should not be put to unnecessary expense and that the ship
should have a safe voyage. It seems only to be his belief that the ship
was seaworthy which, in light of these two desires, n1ade his course of
action possible. If that belief is also morally justified, then on what
grounds can he be morally criticized? For given that he was justified
in having that belief, it would be unreasonable to expect him to act
otherwise than he did. And is there any ground on which the belief
could be morally criticized except the fact that it was not epistemically
justified? For my own part, I cannot see that there is.
1.3.2 Role-specific Obligations
A more sensible worry about Clifford's example is whether it licenses
the generalization to Clifford' s Principle that sufficient evidence for be-
lief is required "always, everywhere and for anyone". Van Harvey argues
that the obligation to have sufficient evidence for our beliefs is always
a "role-specific" obligation (Harvey, pp. 189-203).25 The shipowner is
required to have good grounds for believing his ship is sound because,
as owner of the ship, he is charged with the responsibility of taking ap-
25Van A. Harvey, "The Ethics of Belief Reconsidered," in McCarthy (ed.), The
Ethics of Belief Debate, cited in Note 14 above. Cited by page number as "Harvey".
W. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 27
propriate steps to ensure the safety of the people and goods that travel
on his ship. Likewise, it is incumbent on a physician to keep informed
about new developn1ents in the treatments of disease, and on a professor
of ancient history not to express himself on controversial matters in his
field in disregard of recent developments in the relevant research. For
the forn1er to advise or treat patients, or the latter to make pronounce-
n1ents to his students or to the press, without being suitably informed,
is an act of professional irresponsibility, even a breach of ethics. But,
Harvey maintains, there is no general obligation of this kind incumbent
on all people. The passengers, on the ship, for instance, do not have
the same obligation as the shipowner. They need not have the same
evidence for their belief that it is seaworthy that he ought to have.
There is definitely something right in what Harvey says, but this
element of truth does not have the implications for Clifford's Principle
that Harvey thinks it does. Clearly there are role-specific obligations
pertaining to what specific people ought to know, or requiring them to
have beliefs (and well-grounded beliefs) about specific n1atters that fall
under their responsibility. Moreover, Clifford's own way of defending his
principIe theoretically (to which we will come next) even encourages
us to think that he regards his Principle as governing a role-specific
obligation. But that appearance may be misleading. Clifford's Principle
need not be seen as imposing only a role-specific obligation (unless the
"role" is simply that of being a rational adult human being).
I do not think Harvey really disagrees with this: "Tit/hat we n1ay
reasonably believe can only be contextually determined, seen against
the background of a fiduciary framework of a culture; but that we can
and must believe reasonably as a role-invariant virtue of our culture"
(Harvey, p. 200). The first clause of this sentence is entirely consistent
with Clifford's Principle; the second clause states something closely
allied to Clifford's Principle.
The shipowner's obligations regarding beliefs about the condition of
his ship are clearly more specific than most people's, and answerable
to different standards. To begin with, if he is going to send his ship
out with other people and their goods on board, he clearly ought to
have a belief about its seaworthiness. You or I, however, as tourists
walking along the waterfront and casually glancing at his ship, need
not have any belief about this at all. If we get curious enough to form a
belief about whether a particular ship is sound, the epistemic standards
of evidence to which we should hold ourselves would also be lower
than those to which the ship's owner, or son1e government inspector
employed to certify the soundness of ships, are answerable. This is
28 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
because nothing obliges us to be as certain of the ship's soundness as
the owner or the inspector are required to be.
Parents have role-specific obligations to make sure that their chil-
dren are fed, clothed, and do not freeze to death in the winter. They
son1etimes neglect these duties. Parents also sometimes physically abuse
their children, breaking their limbs, beating them into unconsciousness
or even killing them. There is something particularly heinous about
this because the parent is charged with a specific responsibility for the
child's welfare. A stranger does not have the same obligations regarding
the child's welfare that its parent does, but a stranger obviously has
some obligations. The stranger has no responsibility to know where my
child is spending the night, or whether it has had a good dinner. But
the stranger has an obligation not to kill or injure the child.
According to Clifford's Principle, something analogous is true of peo-
ple and beliefs: The shipowner, or physician, or professor, is responsible
for knowing certain things, or at least having beliefs about them that
are well-founded according to applicable epistemic standards. People
without a role-specific obligation to know those things have a lesser
responsibility, but there are still episten1ic standards to which they are
answerable. A flagrant disregard of episten1ic standards is wrong for
them too.
For example, Clifford holds that your having no professional exper-
tise in religious matters does not entitle you to believe or disbelieve
just as your fancy suits you. Nor does your lack of opportunity to in-
quire provide you with an excuse for believing whatever you feel like
believing. "'But,' says one, 'I an1 a busy man; I have no tin1e for the
long course of study which would be necessary to make me in any de-
gree a competent judge of certain questions, or even able to understand
the nature of the arguments.' Then he should have no tin1e to believe"
(Clifford, 78).
1.3.3 Moral Theories and Values
Besides appealing to moral intuitions, another way of justifying a moral
belief is to derive it from some moral value or principle or theory. Clif-
ford tries this too, using his own favored moral theory, which is a forn1
of social Darwinism with a highly collectivist bent (see "Right and
Wrong: The Scientific Ground of Their Distinction," Clifford, 28-69).
I will not discuss this defense in detail, because his Spencerian moral
theory is unlikely to appeal to very many today. But I think we can
find theoretical grounds for Clifford's Principle that are quite sufficient.
Some of these grounds are even present in Clifford's own defense of the
W. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 29
principle, even though they are obscured by his less plausible theoretical
commitments.
Before we consider theoretical defenses of Clifford's Principle, per-
haps a word should be said about what we should expect of them. A
well-founded moral belief seldom has just one ground. On the contrary,
most sound moral principles are based on a great many different consid-
erations, most of which are much more relevant to some circumstances
than they are to others, and relatively few of which apply under any
and all circumstances. (I think, by the way, that it is mainly this het-
erogeneity and complexity of the grounds we have for our moral beliefs,
and not the mythical fact/value distinction, which makes the justifica-
tion of these beliefs seem such a problematic thing.) Thus the point
that we need to forn1 our beliefs according to the evidence in order
to look out responsibly for others' welfare is very powerful in the case
of the shipowner due to his role-specific obligations, but it is virtually
irrelevant in n1any other situations. I am going to propose two theo-
retical considerations that seem to me to count in favor of Clifford's
Principle under virtually all circumstances, though each of them may
be far more compelling, or ground a far more serious moral claim, in
some situations than in others.
1.3.4 A Duty to Humanity
Clifford's idea that we have a duty to humanity to form our beliefs
according to the evidence, when it is abstracted from the social Dar-
winist context in which he placed it, seems to me to have a lot to be
said for it. As Clifford puts it: "No one man's belief is in any case a
private matter which concerns hin1self alone. Our words, our phrases
our forms and processes and n10des of thought, are common property,
fashioned and perfected from age to age." (Clifford 73). As an ideal, we
should try to view humanity collectively as a community of inquirers,
and also agents, striving to know the truth and to bring about, in con-
cert, what is right. Regarding inquiry, we should think of hun1an beings,
both in any given age and even throughout the ages, as engaging in a
dialogue (which might better be called a 'multilogue') or conversation,
in which each person tests the thoughts of others through their own
thoughts, and has their own thoughts tested in turn by the thoughts of
others, all with the ultimate aim of reaching agreement on that which
is humanity's best effort at knowing the truth.
26
26 An inspiring presentation of this idea of humanity as a community of inquir-
ers seeking both what is true and what is good is found in J. G. Fichte, Lectures
on the Scholar's Vocation, in Daniel Breazeale (tr. and ed.), Fichte: Early Philo-
sophical Writings (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1988), especially in Lectures 2
30 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
Each person's participation in the collective effort consists above all
in representing his or her own perspective-in space and time, in ex-
perience and cultural heritage, in needs, interests and values-in the
universal process of inquiry. The first duty of each person in this re-
gard is to represent that perspective worthily. This means, first, rep-
resenting it authentically. You should not permit your perspective to
be effaced or substituted for by the perspective of someone else, as
happens when oppressed people are browbeaten into accepting the ide-
ology of their oppressors, or unenlightened people are afraid to break
with old traditions (that might represent the perspective of their an-
cestors). It also means, second, representing your perspective critically,
thus transforming it into a contribution to the universal conversation
of humanity. This involves presenting your perspective the light of a
conception of universal standards of truthfulness and epistemic justi-
fication, rather than merely as an expression of your personal needs,
prejudices and self-conceit, or that of some culture or group from which
you con1e. The obligation to humanity imposed by Clifford's Principle
derives above all from this last condition for turning your thoughts into
a worthy contribution to humanity as a community of inquiry.27
and 4, pp, 153-161, 169-177. Fichte's vision is, I believe, quite close to Clifford's
at this point. I confess I find its theoretical background (in Kantian and German
idealist ethical theory) more congenial than Clifford's crude social Darwinism; but
equally I find Clifford's comn1itment to the values of empirical science more conge-
nial than Fichte's occasional tendencies to religious enthusiasm and the intellectual
compromises that involves.
27Harvey (pp. 199-200) thinks that Clifford's Principle is best understood against
the background of a Victorian assumption that there is a class of educated persons
who have a role-specific responsibility for maintaining the intellectual standards
of the community. Harvey doubts that we believe in this any longer. But Clifford
plainly does not limit the obligation imposed by his principle in this elitist way,
since he thinks belief on insufficient evidence violates a duty to humanity "always,
everywhere and for anyone". In that respect, Clifford seems to be quite free from
the Victorian idea to which Harvey wants to condescend as something no one be-
lieves anymore. Perhaps it is true that few people believe any longer (if they ever
did believe it) that everyone has a responsibility to the human community to think,
inquire and believe reasonably according to the appropriate epistemic standards.
But it may also be true that few people believe (if they ever did) that we have
responsibilities toward the welfare of people in distant nations, or to future gen-
erations, or to preserve what is valuable in our environment or in the intellectual
and aesthetic treasures that we have inherited from our ancestors. That few people
believe we have these obligations does not entail that we do not have them. So the
fact that few people believe they are morally obligated as Clifford's Principle says
they are does not entail that these obligations do not exist.
W. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 31
1.3.5 A Duty to Ourselves
There is another such universal consideration in favor of Clifford's Prin-
ciple, which is never mentioned explicitly by Clifford, probably because
his nloral theory is oriented exclusively to the collective good of soci-
ety. Clifford appears to acknowledge no duties to oneself, and he flatly
denies that there can be any self-regarding virtues (Clifford, 66). But
the consideration I have in mind involves regarding the duty imposed
by his Principle as a duty to oneself and the virtue of abiding by it as
a self-regarding virtue.
This argunlent for Clifford's Principle is based on the value of au-
tonomy or self-rule. Of course the value of autonomy is especially as-
sociated with the moral theory of Kant, who treated autonomy as the
foundation for all morality. But one does not have to be a Kantian
to think that it is an important human good that each person should
be fundamentally self-governing, should follow a plan of life which is
self-chosen through his or her own rational faculties of deliberation and
decision. The value of autonomy is closely allied to our sense of hu-
man dignity. We regard the life of an individual who lacks autonomy
as empty and degraded, however full of joy and satisfaction it may be
in other respects. We therefore value a social order which fosters the
autonomy of its members, and we deeply hate and fear one which stifles
autonomy, whether through force or through manipulation.
Autonomy is self-government. This is not at all the same as just
doing whatever we like. In fact, doing what we like is one thing that can
destroy autonomy when our likings are not arrived at in the right way.
Autonomy consists in taking possession of our lives by forming ourselves
and directing our actions through the proper exercise of our rational
faculties. The person who acts thoughtlessly, irrationally or through
aims and motives which are not self-understood and self-accepted is
no more autonomous than the person whose conduct is controlled by
external compulsion.
The value of autonomy imposes duties that may be regarded as
duties to myself in the sense that the chief point of fulfilling them is
to create and maintain a morally desirable state in my own self. Some
philosophers reject the idea of a duty to oneself, but their position seems
to make sense only if we assume that the whole point of moral duties is
to guarantee that an agent should bring about desirable states external
to that agent's own self. Such an assumption is clearly incompatible
with regarding autonomy as an important value on which moral duties
may be based, since autonomy is precisely a state of myself as an agent.
Kant of course does recognize duties to oneself. Among such duties
32 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
he classifies those that forbid lying, avarice, servility, and the pursuit
of sensual pleasure in ways that are degrading or debilitating to us.
The point of these duties seems to be to forbid acts that either deprive
me of the capacities I need in order to act autonomously or else ex-
press a disvalue or disrespect of myself as regards my capacity to act
autonomously.
Avarice, Kant says, slavishly subjects me to an excessive desire for
wealth, depriving me of the capacity to weigh my need for wealth ratio-
nally against other considerations (MS 6:432-433). Servile conduct is an
open denial of my own value as a free agent possessing a dignity beyond
all price (MS 6:434-435). To be autonomous we must exercise rational
control over our conduct. But in a deeper sense, autonomy means that
the factors in our psychic life on which our conduct depends must bear
the stamp of reason. It means, for example, that we must have rational
mastery over our desires, so that any desire powerful enough to affect
our conduct should be a desire we understand and rationally accept as
part of ourselves. I cannot be autonomous as long as I am subject to the
sway of desires I do not acknowledge or of desires I cannot accept as ex-
pressions of myself because I experience them as urges or compulsions
I cannot integrate into my image of myself as a rational agent. What
is true in this respect of desires is equally true of beliefs. Just as the
value of autonomy imposes on me the duty of knowing what I desire,
understanding why I desire it and regulating my desires by reason, so it
also imposes on me the duty of knowing what I believe, understanding
why I believe it and submitting my beliefs to my rational faculties for
forming, maintaining and correcting them.
I submit that when we reflect on the den1ands of autonomy as re-
gards belief, it becomes clear why we must violate a duty to ourselves
whenever we permit ourselves to believe anything on insufficient evi-
dence. For the faculties we possess for the rational regulation of beliefs
simply are our faculties for weighing evidence and proportioning belief
to it. There is no other way of forming and maintaining beliefs that
pern1its us to understand why we believe as we do and to know our be-
liefs as the results of rational self- government. Good evidence produces
belief irresistibly, and yet in a way I experience not as a constraint on
me but as the most evident exercise of my own freedom. When any-
thing except the evidence produces belief in us, we do not experience
the belief as an exercise of our freedom but as a process in which some
factor foreign to our faculties is needed to maintain the belief.
w. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 33
1.4 The Moral Point of Clifford's Principle
1.4.1 The Value of Integrity
If we want to sum up the moral claims that lie behind Clifford's Princi-
ple, we could not do better than to say that the duty it lays on us is the
duty of intellectual integrity.28 When we are unduly lax in regulating
our beliefs, when we believe what it is comfortable to believe rather
than what the evidence pern1its us to believe, when we deceive our-
selves in order to make things easier or more pleasant, or let ourselves
believe something because we wish it were true-in all these cases we
show contempt for ourselves as beings with faculties of perception and
reason, and we do a disservice to all those who might need our honest,
good faith judgment in helping them to form their own opinions. Vi-
olations of Clifford's Principle are not always cases of lying, either to
others or to ourselves, but they are shameful in something of the same
way that telling lies is shameful.
One significant disanalogy between lying and violating Clifford's
Principle is that we think it is justified to tell a person a falsehood
when they have no moral right to the truth from us (such as when their
inquiry constitutes an invasion of privacy, or a truthful answer would
give them inforn1ation they could use to do harm-as in the famous
case of the would-be murderer who asks us to tell us the whereabouts
of his intended victim). But there is no similar class of exceptions to
Clifford's Principle. There are no matters about which we do not owe it
both to ourselves and to others to maintain our intellectual integrity by
forming our beliefs according to the evidence. In the nineteenth century
Clifford still had to contend with the objection that regarding received
religious teachings it is sinful and presumptuous to question them or
inquire into their grounds. But even the worst religious dogn1atists are
unlikely to say that today, and if they did, Clifford's response to the
objection would still be right on point: "Where it is presun1ption to
28Susan Haack correctly sees that this is the real issue involved in Clifford's Prin"'"
ciple (Haack, p. 30). But despite this she chooses, like n1any who consider and reject
the Principle, to dwell on supposed exceptions to it, at the expense of theimpor-
tant value it represents. My diagnosis of this tendency is that moral philosophers
have become accustomed to viewing moral principles as something to be used like
mechanical devices (such as handmills or meat-grinders) to churn out conclusions
about what to do. Thus they reason as follows: If a principle has exceptions, then
some of what it churns out is false, and so it should be rejected. (People who think
this way may infer from the fact that I am prepared in principle to allow exceptions
to Clifford's Principle, that I do not really accept it at all. I regard that attitude
toward moral principles as showing not only bad moral judgment, but even a kind
of moral bankruptcy.)
34 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
doubt and investigate, there it is worse than presumption to believe"
(Clifford, 96).
1.4.2 Serious Wrongs and Minor Wrongs
One common reaction to Clifford's position, especially when it is ex-
pressed with his "robustious pathos," is to regard it as an exaggerated
view, perhaps even ridiculously so. It may seem absurd and even offen-
sive to level stern moral criticism, as Clifford evidently intends to do,
against all religious people who believe in miracles or religious dogmas
on insufficient evidence, even though many of them are widely believed
to be among the most saintly men and women who have ever lived.
Some may also consider Clifford's position offensively intolerant, and
wonder how he might propose to enforce the duty to believe only on
sufficient evidence-perhaps not an unfair worry, given the degree of
public and social in1portance he appears to attach to this duty.
First let's reply to this last objection. We do hold people accountable
for acting in light of a well-grounded assessment of the facts, especially
when they are specifically responsible for knowing the facts and the
interests of others are involved. (Thus we might very well think that
Clifford's shipowner ought to be sued, or even criminally prosecuted, for
sending people to their deaths in an unseaworthy vessel whose sound-
ness he did not even take the trouble to investigate.) But there is no
sign that Clifford intends that society should punish people simply for
holding beliefs he regards as insufficiently justified. Clearly the point
of the duty on which he lays such stress is that each of us is morally
accountable for forming our beliefs on the basis of an honest appraisal
of the evidence as it is presented to liS. Any attempt to enforce such
a duty through coercive sanctions would obviously be counterproduc-
tive to that end. Clifford's writings contain nothing to suggest that he
was unaware of this point. Clifford, simply as one rational individual
speaking to other rational individuals, is urging and exhorting each of
us to fulfill the duty of intellectual integrity. No one ever puts the value
of personal liberty at risk merely by doing that.
Violations of Clifford's Principle do vary greatly among themselves
in their degree of gravity. Believing on insufficient evidence may be
(as Clifford insists) always wrong and a vice, but it is not always a
serious vice, nor does it always involve a grave act of wrongdoing. 29 How
\
29 "My believing, on inadequate evidence, that the apples I just selected are the
best in the supermarket is, like many inconsequential beliefs, harmless" (Haack,
p. 24). Probably the compromise of Haack's intellectual integrity involved is also
Iso minor that it is a bit comical to dignify it with that phrase. (Frankly, I also
Idoubt that very many shoppers form precisely the belief Haack ascribes to herself
W. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 35
serious it is depends partly on what things are believed and partly on
other traits of the believer's character. If such belief binds a person to
doctrines that are dangerously unenlightened or perniciously false, and
leads the person to actions that are unjust or cruel, then believing in
this way may just as serious a crime as the one con1mitted by Clifford's
shipowner. If such belief is combined in a person's character with other
intellectual and moral vices, such as simple-mindedness, bigotry, willful
ignorance and intellectual dishonesty, then it can be a very serious vice
indeed, which can not only undermine the believer's autonon1y, but also
confirn1 the believer in conduct having highly pernicious effects on the
legitirnate interests of other people.
On the other hand, I might violate Clifford's Principle merely by
being somewhat negligent in exercising critical surveillance over the
processes through which my beliefs are formed and maintained. Clif-
ford's Principle does say that such conduct is always wrong. But if
I direct my beliefs to propositions that are epistemically justified any-
way, and if these beliefs keep company in n1Y character with intellectual
subtlety and integrity, open-mindedness, tolerance, and a liberal and
enlightened outlook, then a Cliffordian should take a permissive atti-
tude toward such beliefs rather than a strict one-as we should do with
all moral trespasses that are minor and harmless.
1.4.3 Why We Should Insist on Clifford's Principle
This is the element of truth in the common reaction to Clifford that
finds his ethics of belief either ridiculously or offensively misguided. To
people who don't get it about Clifford's Principle, the evils that result
directly from its violation do not usually seem serious. They usually
think of the kinds of religious beliefs that are mixed with such insipid
or saccharine sentiments that it seems hard to see how they could do
harm, forgetting about cases such as Clifford's shipowner, as well as
about the fact that many religious beliefs, when people get serious
about them, are not so nice. It n1ay also seem difficult to distinguish
here. More likely they form the epistemically justified belief that the apples they
have chosen are without blemish and are among the best available that day.) But
those, such as James, who seriously dispute Clifford's Principle, are not intending to
defend only beliefs they regard as inconsequential, such as Haack's reported belief
about the apples. It is one thing to point out that a moral principle may condemn
acts that are harmless and only trivially wrong, and another thing to reject the
principle itself on account of this fact, or to suggest that the principle is of no moral
importance because some acts it condemns are of no real importance. Lies too can
be either inconsequential, harmless peccadilloes, or they can be some of the most
profoundly evil acts a person can commit.
36 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
violations of Clifford's Principle from simple errors in judgment, which
are not culpable.
But our chief reason for caring about Clifford's Principle is not that
its violation sometimes results in individual acts that are horribly evil.
It is rather that the habit of disregarding Clifford's Principle is pro-
foundly corrupting, not only to individuals but even more to public
discourse. People come to feel that it is simply a legitimate part of
free thought and expression to hold whatever views they please, and to
employ all sorts of rhetorical manipulation to persuade others of these
views, without paying any regard to whether what you say has any
evidential support. If we do not see the profound evils all around us
for which this habit is to blame, then I think we are suffering from a
serious moral blindness.
When we consider Clifford's writings as a whole, we must be struck
by the extent to which he was inspired by a certain historical and
moral vision that he had derived from the progress of science. "Sci-
entific thought," he said, "is not an accompaniment or condition of
human progress, but human progress itself" (Clifford, "On the Aims
and Instruments of Scientific Thought", 26-27). Clifford belongs to
an intellectual tradition that began in the Enlightenment. It regarded
modern science as representing above all a certain moral commitment
to fearless and honest inquiry, and to governing our lives rationally on
the basis of a clearsighted appreciation of the truth as far as we are
capable of coming to know it. Clifford thinks of the spirit of science, in
this sense, as above all a spirit of human liberation from unenlightened
authority and tradition, and from the human traits that keep people
enslaved to them.
What Clifford rejects above all in religious faith is an attitude of com-
placency mixed with fear, a refusal to live in the condition of doubt and
restless inquiry that is the fate of all mature human beings in the mod-
ern world. He does not underestimate people's desire for consolation,
but he considers it a violation of our duty to humanity to give in to it.
The duty to believe only on sufficient evidence, he admits "is a hard
one, and the doubt which con1es out of it is often a very bitter thing"
(Clifford, 75). But Clifford entertains a historical hope that humanity
can eventually be transforn1ed by the spirit of scientific thinking, so
that human beings will become nobler creatures than they have been
up to now.
It is easy now for us to condescend to Clifford's vision of the n10ral
promise of the scientific spirit. We rightly doubt whether there ever
was anything at all that could be called "the scientific n1ethod"-much
less anything deserving of admiration as a model for imitation in all
W. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 37
spheres of human life.
3o
It is not hard for us to turn sour on science as
a social enterprise, given its history of co-optation and corruption in
the despoliation of nature, in evil social institutions, in war.
Yet this reaction itself is due at least as n1uch to the way we have
come to take for granted the obvious virtues of the enlightened sci-
entific spirit, and the benefits-intellectual, social and technological-
that it has brought us. But it is not those benefits that lead people like
Clifford to think of science as the chief model of human thought and
communication. Science is one department of human life in which being
responsible to the evidence is acknowledged as a condition for entering
into the community of discussion and inquiry. This is the spirit of sci-
ence as Clifford and the Enlightenment understood it. Thus it is all the
more important not to give up on that spirit, and to admit to ourselves
that the Enlightenment, and its radical followers in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, such as Clifford, were basically and importantly
right.
Above all, we must not blame science for depriving us of our comfort-
able beliefs and our peace of mind. In as complex and ambiguous world
as we live in, tranquility and complacency are bound to be disrupted
by all responsible thinking. We must learn to let them go, and learn to
live without them. Here Clifford's Principle, and the spirit behind it,
are just as right and just as important today as they were in his time.
Perhaps in the past the human race had to compromise its intellectual
integrity and to depend on credulous belief in miracles, mysteries and
an emotionally compelled attachment to dogmatic articles of faith in
order to sustain some things that were good and to reach for the moral
heights of sainthood. But we must face the hard fact that in the modern
world a different and more fearless spirit is necessary. If we do not, we
will inevitably forfeit our integrity and our sense of human dignity. Our
communication with one another will lose its honesty and its relentless
quest to ground our collective decisions on our rational agreement on
the truth. Once that is lost, there is no kind of evil in human affairs
that will not follow.
30 A thoughtful discussion of what does distinguish science is to be found in Philip
Kitcher, The Advancement of Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
The same author has provided valuable reflections on two popular and pernicious
pseudo-sciences in other books: Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982) and Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the
Quest for Human Nature (Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 1985).
38 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
1.4.4 Absolute Moral Rules
One final point that needs to be made is that Clifford's Principle should
be insisted upon simply because sets our n10ral compass in the right
direction. It states a correct moral rule with an absoluteness suited
to all moral rules that are correct and important. Clifford's Principle
provides a suitable occasion, in fact, to reflect for a moment on what
moral rules are, and what they are for.
The phrase in Clifford's Principle that is n10st vulnerable to attack is
"always, everywhere and for anyone." In morality there are virtually no
absolutes, probably nothing that is always wrong or never permissible.
(If this last sentence expresses 'relativism', then 'relativism' is a correct
and important doctrine.) A sensible person is therefore tempted to say
that there are no moral rules without exceptions-in that sense, that
nothing whatever is "wrong always, everywhere and for anyone." But
a sensible person would not say it, for the simple reason that that this
'nothing whatever' would be a flagrant example of the very inflexibility
the sensible person would be trying to avoid. And attacks on Clifford's
Principle based on its absoluteness are cheap and wrongheaded.
The point of a moral principle, against killing, or lying, or believing
on insufficient evidence, is not that there are never exceptions to in
the sense of acts it apparently forbids which one may, or ought, all
things considered, to do. Probably there are no principles (none that
are simple and general enough to be of use, anyway) to which there are
no justifiable exceptions. But there are principles representing certain
moral values (such as humanity, honesty or intellectual integrity) or
forbidding certain kinds of actions (such as killing, betraying a friend
or believing on insufficient evidence) that should move us to follow them
except under the most extreme circumstances, and to feel qualmish and
conflicted about actions that violate them even when we decide that
these actions are legitimate exceptions.
Philosophical discussions about whether exceptions may be made
to moral rules seldom acknowledge some important truths that ought
to affect the way we think about these issues. Probably there is no
significant moral rule-not even against killing or torture-to which
no legitimate exceptions could be found. But there is also a power-
ful human tendency to use such admissions to make exceptions that
should not be made. People in power are especially prone to make such
claims-that this war is just, that in this case deception, or torture, or
concealment of government misdeeds, or circumvention of law, is per-
missible. Surely much less harm and wrongdoing come from those who
follow moral rules inflexibly, acting on the false _
W. K. CLIFFORD AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF / 39
no exceptions to them, than from those who invoke the true belief that
all moral rules admit of exceptions to defend their doing things they
should not do. Thus in relation to particular circumstances, the speech
act of asserting the reasonable and true belief that there can be excep-
tions to moral rules is more likely to involve a wrong moral judgment
than the speech act of asserting the inflexible, false belief that there
cannot be.
This entails that although in abstract philosophical discussions,
those who insist that there are exceptions to moral rules are asserting
an important moral truth, those who invoke this truth in practical life
will most often be doing so in order not only to assert moral falsehoods,
but even to give a color of legitimacy to wrongful acts. Thus in 1780,
the soi-disant "Philosopher King" Frederick the Great proposed an
essay competition on the question whether it could ever be useful for a
ruler to deceive the people. No doubt he was supposing that the right
answer, even the only enlightened and reasonable answer, would have
to be that in sonle cases it could be. Just as certainly, the point of the
exercise was to provide a ruthless tyrant like himself with a ready-made
philosophical justification for telling any lie he found expedient. But
you don't need to be a king to take advantage of this particular royal
prerogative. All the tinle ordinary people abuse the flexibility of moral
standards to rationalize their misconduct.
This ought to color the way we look at issues about making excep-
tions to moral rules, even in philosophy. For a practical moralist, the
right thing to do regarding moral principles is just what Clifford does:
You should state, with due absoluteness, the right moral rules. If there
are significant classes of exceptions to them (as there seem to be in
the case of the prohibition on lying, but not in the case of Clifford's
Principle), they should be noted if they seem likely to apply to the case
in question. Beyond that, however, you should leave the exceptional
cases to be discovered ad hoc by experience, guided by the virtues of
tolerance, good sense and good judgment. Someone who lacks those
virtues won't acquire them by learning more rules, or by adding quali-
fying epicycles to the correct rules. The person who is most hopelessly
addicted to absolute rules is the moral philosopher who won't permit
exceptions to any rule unless there is an additional rule saying that
exceptions to that rule are permitted.
When it comes to moral rules, the main thing is to insist on the
right ones. In applying them, you should appreciate the complexities
of life and the need for tolerance and flexibility. But you should not
let people get away with watering down the right moral rules by cor-
rupt quibbling, or with perversely stating moral falsehoods whose only
40 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
appeal is the cheap sense of liberation afforded by any paradox. Some
people think they are courageous and open-minded when they do this.
They say they are only resisting 'political correctness'. But such peo-
ple are not admirable. Whether cynically or only credulously, they are
merely serving as apologists for evil and, in the process, n1aking them-
selves complicit in it.
For example, there are those who proclaim selfishness a virtue,31 or
try to sell us the slogan that "greed is good." Son1etimes people un-
dertake to defend "racial pride" , ethnic superiority, or flattering myths
about our nation's past on the ground that these are necessary for
a sense of identity or community. Even the most fundamentally evil
emotions, such as racial hatred, have their occasional defenders. The
much-admired Senator John McCain has been quoted as saying about
his combat experiences in Vietnan1: "I hated my enemies even before
they held me captive because hate sustained my in my devotion to their
complete destruction and helped me overcome the virtuous human im-
pulse to recoil in disgust from what had to be done by my hand." 32
But selfishness is not a virtue, greed is not good, and ethnic hatred
is evil. It is especially evil when it motivates soldiers to do things that
are repugnant to their humanity (and this was conspicuously true of
American soldiers in Vietnam). Those who try to represent the moral
facts otherwise ought to be challenged as often as they assert such
pernicious falsehoods. Likewise, it is wrong to hold beliefs on insufficient
evidence. Whenever people assert that there is something virtuous or
blessed in the disposition to hold such beliefs, we should follow Clifford
in contradicting them firmly and relentlessly.
31 Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, a new concept of egoism. With additional
articles by Nathaniel Brandon. New York: New American Library, 1964.
32Quoted by Richard Falk, "The Vietnam Syndrome," The Nation, Volume 273,
No.2 (July 9, 2001), p. 18. Someone might suggest that ethnic hate can't be what
is meant here. But I think it is. 'Gook' is a word Senator McCain still uses with
neither hesitation nor shame.
2
Clifford's Principle and Religious
Faith
Clifford's Principle is that it is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone
to believe anything on insufficient evidence. Clifford himself thought
that religious faith stands condemned by this principle. Apparently
many religious people agree with him, since attacks on Clifford's Prin-
ciple have most often come from those who see then1selves as defenders
of religious faith.
Obviously it is not only in religious matters that people are often
prone to violate Clifford's Principle. Yet it is mainly among religious
believers, chiefly among Christians, that the misconduct cited by Clif-
ford's Principle has had the impudence to parade openly as a distinc-
tive virtue. For this reason, in the following essay I want to consider
the relation of Clifford's Principle to religious belief, and in particular
to certain forms of Christianity. I do not doubt that Clifford's Princi-
ple has much to say about other religions-especially about religions
such as Judaism and Islam, which also stress a revealed faith involv-
ing belief. Some of the following discussion would doubtless carryover
to them. But in the Western philosophical tradition, issues about the
agreement or conflict between reason and religious faith have most of-
ten been aired in relation to Christianity, so that is the most natural
way to consider them.
Not all Christians would accept the claim that their faith is be-
lief on insufficient evidence. In the modern Western tradition, what I
am calling Clifford's Principle was first articulated by Christians who
maintained that true Christian faith must involve a reasonable belief,
grounded on good evidence.
It would also be quite false to the nature of faith and the religious
life to treat faith as nothing but a state of belief (justified or not) in
41
42 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
religious propositions. Belief that there is a God is far from sufficient
for faith in God. "The demons also believe, and they tremble" (James
2:19).
Faith need not be interpreted so that it is opposed to Clifford's
Principle. Some theologians have interpreted faith as an attitude of
courage in the face of our cosmic or existential predicament.! Others
treat faith as basically an attitude of trust toward God; for them, the sin
of unbelief is a willful, sometimes also a fearful, rejection of something
God has communicated to the sinner (and which the sinner, at some
level, is supposed to know to be true).
2
To the extent that faith involves
epistemically justified beliefs, Clifford's Principle must approve of it.
If faith is something like courage, a strength to persist and to fight
back fear, then it has something in common with Clifford's Principle.
That principle tells us to have the courage to face the truth and the
uncertainties of life, to form our beliefs according the evidence rather
than to hide from it by letting them be determined by our fears or
wishes. If faith consists at least partly in a steadfast willingness to live
up to one's beliefs, then it is like fidelity to a promise. It represents a
kind of integrity with affinities to the intellectual integrity that grounds
Clifford's Principle.
2.1 Fideism
It might be thought that the only questions about the relation of Clif-
ford's Principle to religious faith are simply epistemological questions
about whether the belief-components of faith are well supported by the-
oretical proofs or evidence.
3
But we can best appreciate the bearing of
Clifford's Principle on religious faith, at least as it has been conceived
by a wide range of Christian thinkers, if we see that it does not depend
directly on whether we think the evidence for Christian doctrines is
strong or weak.
We can see this if we consider a position within Christianity that
I will call "fideism". By "fideisn1" I mean the view that there are re-
ligious doctrines such that it is morally permissible, or even morally
meritorious, to believe then1 in the absence of sufficient evidence for
them, or at least to be disposed to such beliefs. A fideist is therefore
lSee Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952.
2See Robert M. Adams, "The Virtue of Faith," in The Virtue of Faith and Other
Essays in Philosophical Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
3 A very good (and refreshingly frank) discussion of the state of issues about
scriptural documents and their historical reliability is found in Van A. Harvey, The
Historian and the Believer: the morality of historical knowledge and Christian belief
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981).
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 43
committed to condoning, and even praising, conduct which Clifford's
Principle condemns. Fideism comes in different forms. It can be, and
is, held even by some who think there is strong evidence for the truth
of Christian doctrines. Even these more moderate fideists run afoul of
Clifford's Principle.
2.1.1 Christian Rationalism
Not all Christians are fideists. Some Christians, as I have already men-
tioned, were the earliest proponents of Clifford's Principle. The most
prominent of these is the great modern philosopher John Locke (though
a case can also be made for Rene Descartes as the first modern advocate
of Clifford's Principle).4 Locke's anticipation of Clifford's Principle is
especially explicit and pointed in relation to religious beliefs:
"However Faith be opposed to Reason, Faith is nothing but a firm
Assent of the Mind: which if it be regulated as is our Duty, cannot be
afforded to any thing, but upon good Reason; and so cannot be oppo-
site to it. He that believes, without having any Reason for believing,
may be in love with his own Fancies; but neither seeks Truth as he
4Locke takes the chief blame for 'evidentialism' in Alvin Plantinga, Warranted
Christian Belief, pp. 67-81. But Descartes says the following: "It is clear by the
natural light that perception of the intellect should precede the determination of
the will" (Meditation Four, Meditations on First Philosophy, Oeuvres de Descartes,
ed. Paul Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: Vrin, 1964-1976) VII: 60). In other words,
our intellect must clearly perceive the grounds for holding a belief before we exercise
the act of will in which (according to Descartes) an act of believing consists; and
it is a wrong use of our free will to perform this act prior to or in the absence
of that perception. Descartes muddies the waters, however, by including divine
grace as well as the perception of the intellect among those causes of belief that
do not diminish freedom (Meditations, VII: 58). But he never suggests that divine
grace should (or would) cause someone to believe something in defiance of the rule
just quoted, and never takes up the question what would (or should) happen if
divine grace gave us an impulse to believe something in violation of that rule. It
is hard to resist the temptation to think that Descartes' references to divine grace
were intended to mollify the theologians, but not intended to play any positive
role in his theory of the rules for conducting inquiry or forming beliefs. This last
remark is not intended to question the depth or sincerity of Descartes' adherence to
Christianity (as some have done). On the contrary, it is to suggest that Descartes
could have been (and was) both a sincere believing Christian and a consistent
adherent of Clifford's Principle. At the same time, however, he was well known to
be a philosopher who wanted to avoid theological controversy, and who was willing to
suppress writings (such as his treatise On the World, when he learned of Galileo's
condemnation) and to make modifications in stating his views (that he regarded
as philosophically inconsequential) in order to avoid offending religious authorities
or provoking criticism from theologians. It seems clear that Descartes thought his
remarks about beliefs caused by divine grace were consistent with the Cliffordian
principle quoted earlier in this note, even if he never explained clearly how they are
consistent.
44 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
ought, nor pays the Obedience due to his Maker, who would have him
use those discerning Faculties he has given him, to keep him out of
Mistake and Errour. He that does not this to the best of his Power,
however he sometimes lights on Truth, is in the right but by chance;
and I know not whether the luckiness of the Accident will excuse the
irregularity of his proceeding. This at least is certain, that he must
be accountable for whatever Mistakes he runs into: whereas he that
makes use of the Light and Faculties GOD has given hill1, and seeks
sincerely to discover Truth, by those Helps and Abilities he has, may
have this satisfaction in doing his Duty as a rational Creature, that
though he should miss the Truth, he will not miss the Reward of it.
For he governs his Assent right, and places it as he should, who in any
case or matter whatsoever, believes or disbelieves according as Reason
directs him" (Locke 687-688).5
Locke's view, in effect, is that because Clifford's Principle is correct,
God will surely reward those who believe according to the evidence be-
fore them, whatever the content of their beliefs turns out to be. Locke
is unsure what God will do to those who hold true beliefs without ade-
quate justification, but he is sure God will hold people responsible for
their errors whenever they believe without sufficient evidence. Locke is
also convinced that the evidence favors the truth of Christian belief,
as he argues in his treatise The Reasonableness of Christianity. So he
thinks there is no conflict between Christianity and Clifford's Princi-
ple. Let us give the name Christian rationalism to Locke's version of
Christian belief, one that holds Christian belief to be tenable because,
and only because, it can be supported by sufficient evidence and good
reasons.
Perhaps since Locke's time it has become nlore difficult to be a
Christian rationalist, because not only the metaphysics of theistic belief
but also the historical credibility of Christian scriptures has become
more doubtful. To the extent that this is so, there has been pressure,
on the one hand, for Christians to reinterpret their beliefs, in non-
traditional ways, with the hope of restricting them to what can be
epistemically justified. There has also been pressure for Christians to
adopt some form of fideisnl, and to dispute Clifford's Principle. It is for
Christians to decide anlong themselves whether either step is necessary,
and which (if either) represents "true Christianity". But no one who
accepts Clifford's Principle can regard the fideist alternative as morally
acceptable.
5John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Peter H.
Nidditch (Oxford, 1975). Cited by page number.
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 45
2.1.2 Some Examples of Fideism
Fideism seelns also to appeal to powerful impulses deep in the reli-
gious life itself-albeit impulses foreign to Christian rationalists such
as Locke. To some Christians it has seemed essential to the Christian
virtue of faith that it should be belief that is held consciously in the ab-
sence of sufficient evidence. For example, in a famous passage from the
Concluding Unscientific Postscript, S0ren Kierkegaard insists that "If I
am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely
because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself
in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast to the objective
uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand
fathoms of water, still preserving my faith" (Kierkegaard 182).6
Blaise Pascal is also a fideist. Christianity, he says, is a religion for
which no proofs can be given. Using a fan10us argument we will be
examining more closely later on, he contends that the risk of faith is
nevertheless an advantageous one, because no matter how improbable
Christianity may be, the infinite reward due to faith in case Christianity
is true outweighs any finite advantages the unbeliever may gain in case
Christianity is false. Pascal clearly realizes, however, that we cannot
produce belief in ourselves simply by reflecting on the advantages of
believing. Hence he recommends that we produce belief in ourselves by
using expedients other believers have found effective: acting as if we
believe, taking holy water and having masses said. This, he says, will
"deaden our acuteness," "stupefy" our stubborn reason, and remove
the intellectual scruples that stand in the way of belief (Pascal, Pensees
233, p. 68).7
Kierkegaard and Pascal are extremists. They approve of using rea-
son in thinking about religion chiefly with the purpose of revealing
the weakness, misery and sinfulness of reason itself, so as to open the
way to an essentially non-rational (or even irrational) religious faith.
But some Christian philosophers are disposed to fideism even though
they regard reason as capable of supporting many religious beliefs. St.
Thomas Aquinas defends the position that reasons in support of what
we believe do not lessen the merit of faith (Aquinas II-II Q.2, a.10).8
This is clearly an anti-Kierkegaardian position; it seems to be an anti-
fideist one. Yet Aquinas also holds that those who believe with reasons
can lay claim to the merit of faith only if they were disposed to believe
6S0ren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. Walter Lowrie
(Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1941). Cited by page number.
7Blaise Pascal, Pensees (New York: Dutton, 1958). Cited by aphorism number
and then by page number.
8St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, cited by part, question and article.
46 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
before having those reasons and would still be disposed to believe if
they did not have them. Reasons preceding and conditioning the voli-
tional act of assent to Christian doctrines do for Aquinas dilninish the
merit of faith. Thus Aquinas too seems to be a fideist: for he holds that
it is permissible, even meritorious, to be disposed to believe Christian
doctrines in the absence of reasons.
St. Augustine seems to be advocating an anti-fideist view when he
claims that to understand or know the truths of Christianity is superior
to merely believing them. According to Augustine, Our Lord Jesus
Christ did not say 'This is life eternal so that they nlay believe.' Instead
he said: "This is life eternal that they may know Thee, the one True God
and Him whom Thou didst send, Jesus Christ [In 17: 3] ... Then... He
said: 'Seek and ye shall find' [Matt. 7: 7]. For what is believed without
being known cannot be said to have been found" (Augustine, 39).9 Yet
Augustine's unmistakable view, expressed in the very same passage, is
that "no one can become fit for finding God unless he believes first what
he shall know afterward." Thus for Augustine it is only through faith,
that is, belief antecedent to reasons or evidence, that we can beconle
worthy of God's gift of understanding. That is a form of fideism.
Fideism is motivated by much more than the need to deal with the
problem of inadequate evidence for Christian doctrines. Its fundamen-
tal motivation seems rather to be the idea that it is morally merito-
rious to want to believe something and to try to believe it, sinlply on
account of its content, and irrespective of the evidence for it. Thus
for fideism, the virtue of faith consists not so much in believing what
Christianity teaches as in wanting and trying to believe it, irrespective
of the evidence for it. This means that fideist Christianity is involved
in a fundamental moral disagreement with Clifford (and equally with
Christian rationalists such as Locke). For to the fideist, the virtue of
faith consists precisely in wanting and trying to violate the very moral
obligation Clifford's Principle imposes on us. Fideist Christians count
themselves blessed when they find in themselves a faith strong enough
to enable them to violate this obligation as often as proves necessary
to sustain their belief in Christian teachings. 10
9St. Augustine, On the Free Choice of the Will (Indianapolis, 1964). Cited by
page number.
laThe Franciscan philosopher Adam Wodeham argues that those who are unable
to believe an article of faith cannot be faulted for unbelief, as long as they have
sincerely tried to believe it. Indeed, says Wodeham, the merit of such people may
even exceed that of those who believe the article if the latter have put forth less
effort to believe than the former. Adam Wodeham, Lectura Oxon IV, q. 10, - 14.
Edition in Rega Wood and Marilyn Adams, "Is to Will It as Bad as to Do It?"
Franciscan Studies 41 (1981), p. 58.
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 47
It follows that Clifford's Principle still represents a powerful attack
on jideist Christianity even if it should turn out that there is strong
rational evidence for the truth of Christian doctrines. For if Clifford's
Principle is correct, then it is morally wrong to have what fideist Chris-
tians esteem as the rnerit of faith, even if the evidence for Christian
doctrines is strong enough that it is not wrong to share the fideist
Christian's belief in these doctrines. Of course, if there is sufficient ev-
idence for Clifford's Principle, then there cannot also be sufficient evi-
dence for some fideist Christian doctrines which directly conflict with
the Principle, such as that faith is a virtue and that a morally good
God demands faith of his creatures.
It is therefore worth considering what religious motives might lead
a person to embrace fideism., either in its more radical or its more
moderate form, and also to see what an adherent of Clifford's Principle
might have to say about such n10tives. To this end, I want to consider
two peculiarities of Christian faith: its use of creeds, and its conviction
that salvation itself comes to us only through faith (of which belief is
an essential element).
2.1.3 Creeds
It is a peculiar feature of religious belief generally, and especially of
Christian faith, that it employs creeds. These are formulaic statements
in which, as part of a religious exercise, practitioners of the religion
declare that they believe certain things:
"I believe in one God, the father Almighty, maker of Heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible; in Jesus Christ, his only Son our
Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,
descended into Hell, rose on the third day according to the Scriptures;
and in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from
the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is
worshipped and glorified, in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion
of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the
life everlasting. Amen." 11
One function of creeds is clearly what we n1ight call a disciplinary
one. It is an attempt to impose on members of a religious community
a uniformity in what they say and think about certain things. This
enables the community to maintain its identity, but also gives to priests
and prelates a certain leverage they can use to control the souls that
are under their care. If a member of the community departs in words or
deeds from what the creed says or commits him to, he can be brought
11This is a fragn1ent of the Nicene Creed. Nearly all of it is also included in the
shorter Christian creed called the Apostles Creed.
48 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
back into line by being threatened with exclusion from it or with other
sanctions.
An even more interesting function of the creed, however, is that in-
dividual believers feel a need to say the creed in order to help define
and bolster their own faith. This purpose of the creed has an obvious
affinity to fideism. For it is hard to see how people could have a psycho-
logical need to recite a creed if they had good evidence for what they
believe and felt bound to their belief only by the intellectual respect
they owe that evidence. To a person who is painfully conscious that his
beliefs are lacking in evidential support, however, the ritual declaration
that you believe is an obvious expression of the wish to believe them,
and the intention to let that wish influence one's belief.
Fideists often try to conjure up our sympathies for a person of trou-
bled faith, so as to get us on the side of those who want to believe, hope
to believe, and are trying to make themselves believe by professing their
belief. It would ruin their sales pitch, however, if they attended to the
other side of the coin, that reciting a creed in such a spirit is really
only a way of deliberately undermining one's intellectual integrity. If
belief in the creed is supposed to lead to different (and better) actions
than unbelief, this strategy is also usually a conspicuously ineffective
way of altering one's conduct, and usually results only in a continua-
tion of the same conduct, now combining it with the additional vice
of hypocrisy, not only before others but even (or especially) in relation
to oneself. This characteristic of religious professions of faith becomes
more and more pronounced to the degree that a creed is recited warmly
and sincerely, with the passionate heart of one who is struggling to be-
lieve. The predictable result of this conduct is perceptively, and more
dispassionately, described by Hume:
We may observe that notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style
of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more
affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that
solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of
life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which
they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith,
and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest assev-
erations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their
endeavors, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in
those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by com-
mon sense and experience. The usual course of men's conduct belies
their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some un-
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 49
accountable operation of the mind between belief and conviction, but
approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter. 12
A creed or credal formula, when recited not to express what one
believes but rather in the hope of solidifying a belief of which one
is uncertain, also inevitably endangers the belief itself, by insidiously
sapping it of its content. What I believe gets reduced to what the creed
says I believe, and my believing itself degenerates into merely saying I
believe. If I say week after week that I believe "Jesus Christ was the Son
of God," or "the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son," or
that I believe in "the communion of saints," then those words become
what I believe. If I let myself seriously ask questions about what the
words mean, then I am in danger of finding out that I don't understand
what I say I believe. And if I don't understand it, how can I believe
it? Worse yet, if I were to read books about theology, or even ask my
pastor to explain it to me so that I do understand it, I would be in
danger of discovering that I don't believe it after all. Perhaps I would
not even see the point of believing it. It's safer just to say the words and
not worry too much about what they mean, or (therefore) about what
I really believe. Such thoughts, involving such dilemmas, dishonesties
and compromises, seem inevitable for anyone who holds beliefs in the
way that someone who recites a creed must hold them.
13
2.1.4 Salvation by Faith
A second peculiarity of Christian faith is that it places so much stress on
faith-in which belief is a central element-as an indispensable vehicle
of salvation. It is a central Christian doctrine that we can lay hold
of the gifts God is giving us through Christ's sacrifice on the cross
only through faith in Christ. This faith, though it may consist in much
more than belief, nevertheless centrally involves believing that Jesus did
certain things, that he allowed himself to be crucified, that he rose from
the dead. Christians believe that that his spiritual work, along with
12Hume, "The Natural History of Religion," in J. C. A. Gaskin (ed.) Dialogues
and Natural History of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 172.
13 "Let no one suppose that what I have said about the impossibility of proving
the truth of religious doctrines contains anything new. It has been felt at all times-
undoubtedly, too, by the ancestors who bequeathed us this legacy. Many of them
probably nourished the same doubts as ours, but the pressure imposed on them was
too strong for them to have dared to utter them. And since then countless people
have striven to suppress them, because they thought it was their duty to believe;
n1any brilliant intellects have broken down over this conflict, and many characters
have been impaired by the compromises with which they have tried to find a way
out of it." Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, translated by W. D. Robson-
Scott (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1964), pp. 41-42. Cited below as "Freud" by
page number.
50 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
the miraculous happenings attendant on it, have a spiritual efficacy in
saving us, but they have this efficacy only if we believe that they do.
It is as if believing in something we wish for would magically make the
wish come true.
On some theological accounts, the gift of God's grace is supposed to
work morally good effects in souls of Christians, making better people
of them and its effects playa vital role in achieving either salvation it-
self or else a state of soul that merits salvation. Insofar as 'faith' refers
to these effects, we can see how it might contribute to salvation. But
this makes it no easier for a Cliffordian to see how belief, especially be-
lief insufficiently supported by evidence, could constitute part of a good
state of soul, a state in virtue of which the believer is supposed to merit
salvation. The suspicion is that fideist Christians think there is moral
merit in the intellectual humiliation they perpetrate on themselves in
order to maintain a belief not supported by the evidence. Perhaps they
regard self-contempt and violence to their cognitive processes as a fit-
ting self-abasement before the Deity, or a sacrifice, like the offering up
of worldly goods. What they are slaughtering on the altar, however, is
not a goat or a lamb, but their own intellectual integrity. What sort of
God, we should ask, would accept this sort of sacrifice? Why, on this
view, would God not ask us to perform analogous sacrifices showing like
contempt for our faculties by committing theft, murder or other acts
that our reason tells us are wrong?14 Or perhaps more to the point,
what sort of person could think that God (a good God) would demand,
or even accept, sacrifices of this kind?
2.1.5 Sin and the Darkenin.g of the Mind
The most conlmon fideist response to these kinds of questions depends
on certain way of following out St. Paul's teaching that human sin in-
volves a "darkening of the mind" (Romans 1:21). God gave us faculties
for distinguishing truth from falsehood, including knowing God him-
self and his commandments to us. But sin involves a misuse of these
faculties. Sinners defy and dishonor God not only by defying his com-
mandments but also by suppressing their own knowledge of him, and
perverting even their power to know him. The only remedy for sin is
their recovery of that power, which they cannot achieve through their
own efforts but only through God's gift of faith through his act of grace.
14Was it in this vein that Kierkegaard wondered about the "teleological suspension
of the. ethical" involved in Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his innocent son in
obedience to an "absolute duty to God?" Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and
Repetition, translated by Howard V. and Edna H, Hong. (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1983), pp. 54-81.
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 51
Even apart from St. Paul or the Christian doctrine of sin, it is clear
enough that hun1an beings are highly inventive in devising ways of mis-
using their cognitive faculties, hiding the truth from themselves, deceiv-
ing themselves, engaging in many forms of what is sometimes called
"motivated irrationality". Adherence to Clifford's Principle therefore
requires us to be constantly alive to the possibility that our tendency
to believe son1ething (or our reluctance to believe it) might be due to
one of these devices. So we must take steps to make ourselves aware of
our propensities to self-deception, and avoid being influenced by them.
Given the kinds of beings we are, however, it is also clear that in many
matters we are never going to be in a position to be absolutely certain
that we have uncovered or corrected all the forms of motivated irra-
tionality we might have perpetrated on ourselves. Our best chance of
adhering successfully to Clifford's Principle comes in doing our best in
this regard, even though we can never be entirely certain of success.
Clearly St. Paul's conception of the "darkened mind" also refers to
self-deception or motivated irrationality. According to Paul, although
God's nature is invisible, his presence is shown clearly in the things
that he made (Romans 1:20), but people rejected him out of pride and
ingratitude, because they did not want to honor God or give thanks to
him. This is what led to the darkening of their minds (Romans 1:21).
"Unbelief" as Paul understands it, consists in a very deep-seated state
of denial or self-deception.
So far, however, Paul's account would seem to support Christian
rationalism more than fideism, and it looks better suited to illustrating
the truth and importance of Clifford's Principle than to providing any
rationale for ignoring or violating it. As Paul tells the story, the power
and deity of God are clearly attested by the evidence, and the failure
of people to believe in them is belief directly contrary to it. So he
would seem to be firmly on the side of Clifford's Principle. According to
Paul's story, however, sin changes everything. In our present condition,
all attempts to regulate our own beliefs or form them according to
the evidence will be futile without God's help. They can only result in
evasion, falsehood and wickedness. Yet if we think that God is good, we
will reasonably think that he is also generous, and therefore disposed to
help us. So we will still have good reason to use the faculties that God
has given us, both to weigh the evidence as it appears to us and to try
to determine how best to avail ourselves of the help he would be willing
to provide in correcting the errors that are due to our sinful choices.
Those who succeed, with God's help, in correcting their errors, perceive
the evidence in favor of Christianity and become believers, while those
who refuse God's help will continue in their sinful state, which involves
52 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
holding beliefs that are both false and contrary to the evidence that is
available to them.
Christians typically hold that God's help here involves supernatu-
ral revelation providing us with knowledge that goes beyond what our
natural faculties can afford. No doubt Clifford would reject the claim
that there is such knowledge, or at least deny that we have sufficient
evidence to believe in it. But that is not any part of Clifford's Prin-
ciple itself, or his ethics of belief proper. Clifford's Principle does not
say that we must restrict ourselves to only one kind of evidence (for
instance, to 'natural' as opposed to 'supernatural' evidence). A Chris-
tian rationalist, such as Locke, holds that if God has given us natural
faculties for the regulation of beliefs, he will provide us with this su-
pernatural aid in such a way that our reception of it will constitute
a confirmation rather than a violation of the principles governing the
proper use of those faculties. The natural faculties, even of sinners, used
as well as the sinners can still use them, will enable them to hold on
good evidence the beliefs they need to hold in order to open then1selves
to God's grace, and then that grace will enable them to hold on good
grounds any beliefs they need to hold in order to possess a saving faith.
God's supernatural grace will supplement rather than subvert reason-
or, in more traditional theological language, grace will perfect rather
than destroy nature. Thus Locke holds that it is reasonable to believe
in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and the revelations they con-
tain. Whether he is right or wrong about this depends not on Clifford's
Principle but on the state of the evidence for the claims of scriptural
revelation. 15
151f we distinguish natural evidence from supernatural (or revealed) evidence, then
we might be able to interpret the views Aquinas and Augustine in a way that puts
them more in the Christian rationalist than the fideist camp, and reconciles their
views with Clifford's Principle. Suppose they held the following: there is sufficient
natural evidence for some beliefs, such as that there is a God and that the biblical
scriptures are credible authorities regarding what God has revealed to us. Faith, as
distinct from reason, is a disposition to believe what God reveals independently of
any natural evidence for it (though not independently of the natural evidence that
there is a God and that the Bible is a credible authority regarding supernatural di-
vine revelation). A Christian would then believe, for example, that Jesus Christ died
to save us, even though there is insufficient natural evidence for it, because there
is sufficient supernatural or revealed evidence for that belief, while this revealed
evidence is in turn is credible on the basis of natural evidence. On that interpre-
tation, 'faith'-as a disposition to believe certain revealed doctrines independently
of natural evidence-would not be a violation of Clifford's Principle. This is an in-
terpretation of Augustine and Aquinas that was defended to me in conversation on
several occasions by Norman Kretzmann (though he should not be held responsible
for the above presentation of it). I must confess that I am still doubtful that this
gives us the right interpretation of either Augustine or Aquinas. I am n1.ore inclined
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 53
2.1.6 The "Fideist Picture"
There are, therefore, quite reasonable ways of understanding central
Christian doctrines such as sin, grace and the darkening of the mind
that do not force us to be fideists. But fideist Christianity is often
motivated by an interpretation of these doctrines, to which I will give
the name 'the fideist picture.'
The fideist picture goes something like this: Sin has so corrupted
our natural faculties that they are entirely unreliable as guides to the
truth. Our every atten1pt rationally to assess the evidence for Christian
doctrines is so infected with sinful denial, evasion and self-deception
that the result can never be anything, in form, except culpable lying,
and in substance, wicked falsehood. We may have begun with what
John Calvin calls a sensus divinitatis, but sin has utterly numbed that
sense, or even destroyed it. Every tendency to rely on our own faculties,
every intention to do what their proper use seems to us to require, is
merely an expression of sinful pride, and it takes us farther and farther
away from the truth.
In our present fallen condition, then, our only reliable access to the
truth is divine grace. Our access to this grace is, on son1e accounts,
the deliverances of immediate inspiration, while on others its criterion
lies in scripture or church authority. But any use we make of our ratio-
nal faculties to decide whether our beliefs originate from supernatural
grace, or criticize putative deliverances of grace for their authenticity,
or even to interpret these deliverances so as to reconcile them with the
deliverances of reason and experience, is nothing but sinful evasion, and
will only lead us further astray. Genuine effects of grace are bound to
appear to us as contrary to reason-for this is what they are, since our
reason is corrupted by sin and always stubbornly determined to reject
theme In short, anything that n1ight appear to us as a well-founded
doubt about the truth of Christianity must be a sinful falsification,
and true belief in the teachings of Christianity must appear to us as
groundless and irrational.
On the fideist picture, there is no route that could lead sinful unbe-
lievers through reason to Christian belief. Nor is there even any such
route that could lead to confidence in God's revelation, and hence to a
to interpret both as holding it permissible and even meritorious to believe Chris-
tian doctrines even in the absence of any rational ground and thus as advocating
the violation of Clifford's Principle. Such an interpretation, with specific reference
to Clifford and the ethics belief, has been presented (with greater sympathy than
I would show for the resulting position) by James Ross, "Believing for Profit," in
Gerald D. McCarthy (ed.), The Ethics of Belief Debate (Atlanta: Scholars Press,
1986), pp. 225-235.
54 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
reasonable faith. This entails that believers and unbelievers occupy, so
to speak, two entirely separate epistemic worlds, entirely cut off from
each other, with no possibility of meaningful communication between
them. Further, it entails that believers themselves are cut off from. any
rational access to the truth about how they themselves believe. The
beliefs they hold by faith through grace can appear to them only in the
shape of something they must accept in defiance of what their senses
and intellect tell them. The true beliefs they hold by faith are imposed
on them by divine grace, always against the resistance of their sinful
reason.
In short, on the fideist picture the hun1an condition is one in which
everything in which faith plays a part is, so to speak, topsy-turvy, epis-
temically speaking. Beliefs that appear to reason to be solidly grounded
are the results of sinful deception, while beliefs that are true, and have
a reliable connection to truth through divine grace, always appear to
be irrational and groundless. Whatever might appear to the unbeliev-
er's reason to show Christian doctrines to be false is bound to be other
than it appears, not only to him but to the believer as well. Christian
beliefs produced in the believer by divine grace are always true, despite
the fact that to even the believer's reason they appear groundless.
These beliefs are, however, 'warranted' (to use Plantinga's term)
in the purely externalist sense that they are true beliefs produced by
mechanism that reliably produces true beliefs. (Thus perhaps they, and
only they, also truly warrant being called 'knowledge,' while rationally
justified beliefs, insofar as the process of their formation has been cor-
rupted by sin, might never be anything but culpable errors.)
The fideist picture, as just drawn, may seem fantastic, but it is not at
all far from the theological views espoused by some fideist Christians.
It seems to me quite a fair rendering, for example, of the account of sin
and faith that we find in Kierkegaard's so-called "project of thought"
in the Philosophical Fragments.
16
A picture of religious epistemology
very similar to this one has recently been defended at length, and with
considerable ingenuity, rigor and resourcefulness, by Alvin Plantinga in
his book Warranted Christian Belief
Fideists need not accept what I have called the 'fideist picture'. But
the fideist picture does embody a certain (extreme) interpretation of
some central Christian doctrines, and it permits the fideist consistently
to regard beliefs on insufficient evidence as warranted or justified (in an
externalist sense).
16Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, translated by David Swenson, revised by
Howard V. Hong. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967).
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 55
The fideist picture must remind us of Descartes' skeptical hypoth-
esis that there might be an evil demon, who subverts our intellectual
processes and causes us to be mistaken even in those beliefs for which
we have the strongest evidence. It does so in at least two ways: First,
according to this picture it is we who play the evil demon to ourselves,
subverting our own intellectual processes, and do this so perfectly that
when it comes to matters relevant to Christian religion everything we
do (or even rationally can) take for evidence against the faith is re-
ally deception. Second, God plays the role of an inverted, beneficent
demon, insofar as he creates in the faithful beliefs that are both true
and reliable, even when these beliefs directly contradict everything the
believers might accept on the basis of reason or experience.
Probably no fideist understands the picture in its most extreme form,
according to which all beliefs formed through our rational processes are
false and corrupt, whereas the only beliefs that are warranted and true
are those caused by divine grace in direct opposition to what reason
tells us. Even fideists who accept the picture rely on their rational
faculties in everyday life and in science for most of their beliefs. They
avail themselves of the picture only when they need to in order to
protect Christian belief against the assaults of argument and evidence.
God permits them to believe according to reason and experience as long
as the results do not threaten faith. Divine grace steps in only where
sinful reason tempts them to unbelief.
But it is worth considering the fideist picture in its extreme form
because once the picture is adopted, it can be invoked arbitrarily to
warrant or reject any belief at all, wholly irrespective of the presence
or absence of epistemic justification for it. (That, in fact, seems to be
precisely the point.) Fideists might respond that the picture warrants
only those beliefs that belong to Christian faith. But the picture itself
makes it entirely arbitrary which beliefs these are. And of course an
analogous picture could obviously be devised for the beliefs of non-
Christian religions, or indeed for any set of beliefs at all. It would do
no good to defend Christian beliefs against other belief-sets that are
actually or notionally possible by appealing to other beliefs we hold by
common sense or on rational grounds. For it is precisely the point of
the fideist picture that any of these may be directly discredited as the
product of a darkened mind whenever it clashes with the faith.
In effect, then, there are an indefinite number of possible fideist
pictures. Any set of beliefs, however insane or morally objectionable,
could be 'warranted' according to some picture of this sort. For any
set of beliefs anyone might hold, it could be claimed that they are
the effect of God's grace and that the apparent evidence against them
56 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
is a product of sin and a darkened mind. In fact, it even belongs to
the essence of the fideist picture that all such claims must be of equal
epistemic merit. A Christian fideist who appeals to moral common sense
or rationally justified beliefs in refusing to allow that a fideist picture
might be constructed defending a different, non-Christian, or even a
quite monstrous religious faith (for example, a faith in some pagan
deity who has commanded the murder of all infidels) is on a slippery
slope toward accepting rational arguments against Christianity itself.
It is true that the slide could be arbitrarily arrested anywhere in a way
that is consistent with any particular version of a fideist picture, but
the point once again is that this would be utterly arbitrary.
I call it a 'fideist picture' partly to evoke the fact that it is an inter-
nally self-consistent representation of a way things might be (or might
have been). But it would be self-refuting for any fideist to represent
either their faith or the fideist picture (of sin, the darkened mind and
faith given by divine grace) corresponding to it as something for which
there is credible evidence or good reasons. This n1eans that it would be
inconsistent for any fideist to represent their faith either as something
they believe for good reasons or son1ething the person with whom they
are communicating should adopt for good reasons. This point is insep-
arable from the fideist clain1 that the warrant fideists claim for their
belief is wholly independent of rational episten1ic grounds for the belief.
For any argun1ent or evidence that an unbeliever (or even a Christian
rationalist) n1ight possibly offer against it has already been dismissed
beforehand as the futile ravings of a darkened mind. This rules out the
possibility that a fideist Christian could have good epistemic grounds
for Christian faith. 17
The fideist picture began with the Pauline idea that human be-
ings are subject to self-deception and motivated irrationality-to the
"darkened mind." But fideism turns out to be the very reverse of a
healthy response to these human failings. It does not recommend that
17Fideists are often fond of emphasizing the way in which their faith is closed
off in this way from rational criticism, even to the point of anticipating the charge
that their beliefs are irrational, as though their awareness of this point constitutes
some sort of defense against it. Thus Kierkegaard regards it as "an acoustic illusion"
when human reason discovers that Christian revelation is a paradox, that it violates
rational standards and offends the human being as a rational believer. For, he points
out, the Christian message, in confronting the human being as a sinner, directly
p r s t ~ itself as a paradox and an offense (Philosophical Fragments, p. 60-67). Or
again, Pascal puts the point this way: "Who, then, will blame Christians for not
being able to give a reason for their belief, when they profess a religion for which
they cannot give a reason?" (Pascal, 66). But is that a defense? It is as if a terrorist
should say: "Who reproaches me with showing no respect for human life, when I
belong to a movement that declares it has no respect for human life?"
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 57
we respond to them being skeptical or critical of thoughts or beliefs
in which motivated irrationality might be implicated. Its injunction is
rather that we should give in wholly uncritically to certain impulses to
believe, which it declares to be exempt from all criticism. The fideist
picture even turns rational self-criticism itself into the enemy, telling
us to refrain entirely from it regarding certain privileged beliefs.
It is not unusual for religious believers with a tendency toward
fideism to lay great stress on the point that there is an objective truth, a
way things really are, and to think that there is something very in1por-
tant about strenuously denying the claims of relativists, antirealists,
postmodernists, who try to call the notions of reality and truth into
question.
18
The point on which they are insisting-that there is such
a thing as truth, and a way things really are-is of course correct, even
trivial. But there is something rather suspicious about the in1portance
they attach to it. I diagnose the suspicious feature as follows: Accord-
ing to the fideist picture itself, nothing can be said to reason on behalf
of the fideist picture except perhaps that it is not self-contradictory
and hence that it might possibly be true-so that if it is true, then
Christians are saved by belief in it, and their belief is even (in an ex-
ternalist, reliabilist sense) warranted.
19
In maintaining his own belief,
therefore, the fideist has no possible recourse except to cling desper-
ately and dogn1atically to a bare assertion that the fideist picture really
is true. For the fideist picture, moreover, this truth is necessarily con-
ceived realistically--that is, it cannot be reduced to what passes certain
verification procedures, or is supported by the best arguments, or to
what the human community of inquirers would agree upon under some
ideal conditions of rational inquiry and communication. For all these
18Thus Plantinga takes on the monsters of postmodernism in the penultimate
chapter of Warranted Christian Belief.
19Kierkegaard, however, insists that Christian truth must be a paradox, incompre-
hensible and even offensive to reason (see Philosophical Fragments, pp. 60-67). He
doesn't say that it is self-contradictory, since that might allow us to conclude simply
that it is certainly false. But he does hold that it must be experienced by reason as
unacceptable and repellent. In this I think Kierkegaard is a more consistent fideist
than is someone like Plantinga, who frustrates the rationalist by painting a picture
maddens because it is obviously indefensible and yet it apparently receives, from a
plainly clever philosopher, an impressively lucid, deft and even sweetly reasonable
defense (at least against self-contradictoriness, and on the terrain Plantinga care-
fully marks out). But for just these reasons, Plantinga's version of the skandalon is
likely to offend only analytic philosophers, whereas Kierkegaard's description of the
Christian paradox is broader and better suited to convey the outrage that fideist
Christianity is supposed to effect in any reasonable person, even one who lacks
training in analytical philosophy and the acute sensitivity to patent nonsense that
it usually creates.
58 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
might well be only the products of sinful lying. Any suggestion that
the nature of truth itself is somehow entangled in the web of human
uncertainty or the ambiguity of interpretation must be rejected. For it
threatens to take from the fideist the one positive thing he can assert
with the hope of being understood: namely, that in defiance of all rea-
son and experience, what he believes in really exists, what he believes
is true.
Locke is surely right to question the consistency of maintaining that
a morally good God wants creatures he has endowed with rational
powers not to use them. We would not think it good for a powerful
human being to want to take over the lives of others who are capable of
autonomous self-direction, even if this human being's intentions toward
his charges were entirely benevolent, and even if he knew better than
they did what was good for them. Why should we think any differently
about God? It is contrary to what we believe about benevolence toward
rational beings to suppose that a good God would demand an irrational
faith of his creatures, or that he would supply them with it. A God
who respected the autonomy of his rational creatures and also wanted
them to believe certain things would not degrade them by imposing
heteronomous belief states on them. Instead, such a God would produce
belief in them autonomously by providing them with knowledge, based
on good evidence, for what he wanted them to believe. Contemplating
the fideist Christian's conception of God in this regard, a Christian
rationalist therefore would have good reason to exclaim, along with
Goethe:
Wie einer ist, so ist sein Gatt,
Darum ward Gatt so oft zum Spott.
20
(Loosely translated: "Each of us fancies God to be like ourselves, and
that's why God is so often made to look ridiculous.")
2.2 Religious Beliefs as Illusions
Christian doctrine says that that faith is caused by the miracle of God's
grace. A Christian rationalist could point out that this doctrine is not
necessarily inconsistent with saying that we have good reasons or ev-
idence for what we believe by faith. But the fideist picture gives that
doctrine a specifically anti-rationalist interpretation, and invokes it as
part of the 'warrant' fideists claim for their beliefs. But of course this
explanation for their beliefs can no more be supported by evidence than
many other implausible beliefs they hold by faith. Parroting the fideist
20Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe's World View, ed. F. Ungar (New York,
1963), p. 46.
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 59
picture, David Hume concludes his essay on miracles with the following
exclan1ation:
"The Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles,
but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person with-
out one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And
whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued
miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his un-
derstanding, and gives him a deterll1ination to believe what is most
contrary to custom and experience." 21
Hume's irony bears tacit witness to the fact that more mundane
explanations for religious beliefs are readily forthcoming. Even fideists
themselves often acknowledge the role of familiar, non-rational psycho-
logical mechanisms in motivating their beliefs, and they offer various
excuses for permitting or even encouraging these mechanisms in them-
selves.
2.2.1 Beliefs, Wislles and Fears
Perhaps the most obvious and natural of these explanations is the one
offered by Sigmund Freud.
"Religious ideas . .. which are given out as teachings, are not precip-
itates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, ful-
fillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.
The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes. As
we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood
aroused the need for protection-for protection through love-which
was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness
lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a
father, but this tin1e a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of
a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establish-
ment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of
justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization;
and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the
local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall
take place" (Freud, pp. 47-48).
In calling religious beliefs "illusions", Freud means "they are derived
from human wishes" (Freud, p. 48). This implies, however, that they
are not derived fron1 a consideration of the evidence, since in the case of
beliefs we wish to be true but which we also know to be well-grounded
on the evidence, it would be not only gratuitous but false to attribute
our belief to the wish rather than to the state of the evidence. So we
21 Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Indianapolis: Hackett,
1977), p. 90.
60 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
may regard an "illusion" in Freud's sense as a belief disproportionate
to the evidence that we wish to be true and which we hold on account
of this wish.
Freud stresses that 'illusions', in this sense, are not necessarily false
(even if they are not supported by the evidence). Some most certainly
turn out to be true: "For instance, a middle-class girl may have the
illusion that a prince will come and marry her. This is possible; and a
few such cases have occurred. That the Messiah will come and found
a golden age is n1uch less likely" (Freud, p. 49). The point is that if a
belief is motivated by wish-fulfillment, this is plainly no reason at all
for thinking that it is true. On the contrary, that is an obvious reason
for being skeptical about it. Such reasons for skepticism are especially
strong in the case of religious beliefs, because of other things we know
about them:
"We know approximately at what periods and by what kind of men
religious doctrines were created. If in addition we discover the motives
which led to this, our attitude to the problem of religion will undergo
a marked displacement. We shall tell ourselves that it would be very
nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent
Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an
after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we
are bound to wish it to be. And it would be more remarkable still if
our wretched, ignorant and downtrodden ancestors had succeeded in
solving all these difficult riddles of the universe" (Freud, pp. 52-53).
Not all religious doctrines answer to our wishes. Some religious doc-
trines, in fact, seem specifically designed to frighten us. The doctrine
that after death most people, perhaps including ourselves, will be con-
signed to eternal torment in Hell is hardly the way we would wish things
to be. Of course, if we think of ourselves as escaping this fate which
awaits our enemies, or even awaits all people who do not happen to be
our co-religionists, then this belief clearly answers to some of the most
despicable wishes we could possibly have.
Yet if not all religious doctrines are motivated by wishes, that shows
only that wish-fulfillment is merely one side of the picture. People some-
times hold beliefs disproportionate to the evidence not because they
wish them to be true, but because they fear that they might be true.
Thus we n1ay speak of fearful illusions in addition to wishful illusions.
About the belief in an afterlife, with the possibility of both eternal re-
wards and eternal punishments, Hume remarks: "All doctrines are to
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 61
be suspected which are favoured by our passions. And the hopes and
fears which give rise to this doctrine, are very obvious." 22
Wherever their hopes or their fears are engaged, people have a ten-
dency to leave the evidence behind and fly to extremes in their beliefs.
They fornl beliefs of these kinds not only in religion but in many other
matters besides. Lovers imagine all sorts of things about those they
love. In the absence of any encouragement at all, they sometimes be-
lieve that their love will be returned, while under the influence of jealous
fear some people form the groundless belief that their beloved is deceit-
ful and unfaithful. I have been experiencing an abdominal pain: today
I confidently tell myself that it is nothing at all, but tomorrow I may
be seized by the terrified certainty that I an1 dying of cancer. A par-
ent whose child is fifteen minutes late home from a date will believe
one minute that there is nothing wrong, only to be overcome the next
minute by a horrible premonition that the child has been murdered or
has died in an auto accident.
Religious beliefs often follow the same pattern. They are beliefs
about very large and important things, about not only the most basic
things, but also-and this seems n10re to the point from a religious point
of view-about the things that are supposed to matter most to us-the
things we think are most important to determining our good or bad
fortune, in this life and even beyond it. When brought face to face with
our instinctive fear of death, people sometimes portray this fear writ
large (no doubt aided by their awareness of their moral shortcomings)
by imagining that they will be plunged eternally into an infernal lake
of fire and brimstone. But then they take consolation from this fear in
their faith that God will save them and has elected them for an afterlife
of peaceful pleasures in Heaven. Religious people then put themselves
under the further wishful illusion that if they succeed in holding both
these groundless beliefs, then their "saving faith" will even make their
wishful illusions more likely to be true, and their fearful illusions true
only of people who believe differently.
Many of what Hume calls our "passions" can influence our beliefs,
causing us to believe in the absence of sufficient evidence, or even con-
trary to the evidence. Wishes and fears, love and hatred, gratitude and
vengeance, self-conceit and feelings of guilt, can all subvert our cog-
nitive processes. Emotions can also play a positive role in cognition.
Different religious beliefs too n1ay have a variety of complex psycho-
logical causes. But surely Freud's explanation, that religious beliefs
22Hume, "Of the Immortality of the Soul," in Dialogues Concerning Natural Re-
ligion and Posthumous Essays, ed. Richard Popkin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980),
p.96.
62 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
are illusions-beliefs motivated by wishes-clearly identifies the most
obvious and most pervasive cause of these beliefs. Whatever role di-
vine grace may play in causing religious beliefs, for most of thenl this
Freudian account is surely the explanation that answers best to the
evidence.
2.2.2 The Hunger to Believe and the Meaning of Life
Freud's characterization of religious beliefs as illusions is in1portant
because it is the sober and critical way of saying what religious people
themselves often say about their beliefs. Religious beliefs, it is said, are
consoling, they bring us joy, they give our lives meaning, and we hold
them by "faith"-not through the operations of our intellect but with
the warmth and fervor of our desires. It is often said that people have a
"hunger" for faith-"for something they can believe in." This hunger is
represented as something healthy, even something noble, as evidence of
their "spirituality." Yet what could this hunger be except a will to put
themselves under some illusion? They wish that their life, or perhaps
that human life generally, had a different meaning, what would seem
to them a greater meaning, than the evidence shows it to have. And
they wish to be aware (if only through a form of unjustified belief) that
their lives have the meaning they wish it to have.
From the fact that our lives have a meaning different from the mean-
ings we might wish for them, it hardly follows that they have none at
all. It is part of being honest with ourselves-and also properly hum-
ble about who and what we are-that we should be willing to accept
our lives for the meaning that they have rather than the meanings we
wish them to have. Religions claim to teach us humility, but a fideism
motivated by this "hunger for meaning" does not represent humility
but instead a kind of dishonest arrogance. We must also face the fact
that our lives may have meanings that n1ay be hidden from us but will
become clear to people in the future. Religions also claim to celebrate
the mystery of life, but to this hungry fideism, n1ystery is apparently
endurable only to a certain extent, or in certain prescribed forms. It
must be surrounded by cornforting assurances, so that its effect must
be to relieve us of the anxiety that goes with taking responsibility for
the meaning of our lives and with the sin1ultaneous awareness that that
meaning is never guaranteed to us.
The hunger for faith is the wish to find some teaching that is not
rationally credible, but is still capable of captivating us emotionally so
as to persuade us that life has some meaning or other that we wish
that it had. This hunger is a wish to be protected from reality-from
the particular realities of my life, or from the reality of the human
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 63
condition generally-protected from them magically, through the mere
belief that one is protected from them.
"The heart has its reasons," said Pascal, "which reason does not
know" (Pascal, Pensees 277, p. 78). This is only another way of saying
that religious beliefs portray reality to us as we wish it to be, that we
hold them either in order to give ourselves pleasure or to ease the pain
of life, and that in forming and maintaining these beliefs, we indulge
our feelings and wishes rather than facing up to our lives as they are.
Pascal's "reasons of the heart" are not reasons for believing anything at
alL They are reasons only for perpetrating intellectual subterfuges that
result in belief. To speak of the "heart's reasons" is not to justify our
beliefs but only to offer a lame excuse for our bad conduct in believing;
and the only excuse we have to offer is the self-indulgent one that these
acts of bad faith make us feel better.
When all the sentimental euphemisms are stripped away, this is what
fideists themselves often admit about their beliefs, and what they offer
as grounds for us to share these beliefs. The difference between accept-
ing their apologetics and rejecting it is simply whether we let ourselves
succumb to the pity (or self-pity) through which they hope we will
excuse their (or our own) intellectual misconduct. Freud is simply let-
ting us hear for what it is the indictment that fideist apologetics has
drawn up against itself. Once we permit ourselves to hear this indict-
ment soberly and honestly, we can never again regard these beliefs as
the apologists would like us to. We can react to them as Freud does,
with a sort of tolerant, pitying condescension. Or else, like Clifford, we
can look upon them with sympathy, yet mixed with indignation, since
that shows greater respect for religious people, who are rational men
and women, responsible for the self-indulgent harm they do themselves.
But we can never again regard these beliefs as lovable or innocent, be-
cause we ourselves will have lost our innocence regarding the impulses
in ourselves that might favor them.
It is not only at the abstract level-concerning the existence of God
and immortality of the soul-that people are disposed to religious il-
lusions. It is a central part of the religious experience of n1any devout
people to think they can detect God's presence in their lives. They are
not only assured in the abstract that God has some purpose for them,
but they often think they have been blessed with a knowledge of what
it is. This supposed knowledge, and the confidence that they can obtain
it about some event even if they don't have it already, is frequently part
of their interpretation of whatever good fortune or success they meet
with in life. It is also what sustains many people through the terri-
ble and questionable things that happen to them, such as catastrophic
64 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
upheavals in their lives brought on by illnesses, natural disasters, per-
sonal failures of all sorts, or the unexpected death of loved ones. Fideist
religion would like to persuade us that there is something noble and
uplifting, or if not that, at least something "human", deserving of both
our sympathy and respect, in people's illusions about God's "plan" for
them and their intimations of what that plan is. But an honest person
will not be persuaded. For there is, on the contrary, something pre-
sumptuous and self-centered, even something unattractively childish,
in the assumption that we can discern the divine plan for the universe
in the detail necessary to know God's purposes regarding the accidental
occurrences-for good or ill-that make up a good part of the substance
of our individual lives. For many people, in fact, self-centered illusions
of this kind about particular events are what they chiefly mean when
they talk of "religious experience" and even constitute the primary ra-
tionale for their believing in God at all. Once again Hume's observation
is acute and right on target:
Even at this day, ask any of the vulgar, why he believes in an om-
nipotent creator of the world: he will never n1ention the beauty of final
causes, of which he is wholly ignorant. He will [instead] tell you of the
sudden and unexpected death of such a one: the fall and bruise of such
another; the extensive drought of this season: The cold and rains of an-
other. These he ascribes to the immediate operation of providence: And
such events, as with good reasoners, are the chief difficulties in admit-
ting a supreme intelligence, are with him the sole arguments for it.
23
Human beings are specimens of a naturally evolved life form. Evolu-
tion and natural selection are natural effects that operate largely at ran-
dom, through chance. It is therefore entirely to be expected that what
is most significant in the lives of individual human beings should be
delivered over to chance events. In short, we should not expect most of
what happens to us, for good or ill, to make sense or to have any mean-
ing; such expectations are both childish and self-centered. It is arrogant
to interpret our good fortune as something we deserve, and although
many of the bad things that happen to us are due to our own foolish-
ness, greed or lack of self-control, it is superstitious to think that every
mischance that befalls us is a punishment or a lesson to be learned.
Societies show their humanity chiefly by the way they collectively
protect their individual members, as far as they can, fron1 the blows of
ill fortune. In a decent society, the fortunate would be happy to forego
some of the benefit chance has bestowed on then1 for the sake of help-
ing those who have had worse luck. The society would be organized
23Hume, "The Natural History of Religion," p. 153.
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 65
so that good and ill fortune are distributed as equally as the limited
powers of hun1an beings can make it. But the regime of capitalism tri-
un1phant makes it a point of honor to repudiate its collective humanity,
and even cherishes institutions that exaggerate the effects of chance on
its individual n1embers. In a society like ours, that has chosen inhuman
absurdity over humanity and meaningfulness, people can be expected
to feel especially strongly a need for illusions about the meanings of the
absurd accidents that determine the course of their lives, and super-
stitiously to look to unseen powers to perform the duties their fellow
human beings have chosen to neglect.
Of course there are sometimes meaningful patterns in people's lives.
Chiefly this is because people themselves are sometimes successful in
creating meaningful patterns through forming meaningful intentions
and then carrying them out in action. Most of the meaning our lives
have will therefore be rather obvious; it will depend on us, usually
in light of the actions of others, and often consciously through co-
operation with them. Once again, in a decent society people would
take collective responsibility for the meaning of that part of their lives
in which they impact on one another (in the political and economic
spheres), while in self-regarding spheres of life (such as those involving
taste, sexuality or religious belief and practice) they would try to em-
power one another to give to their lives the meanings they seek them to
have. (In our society, however, the collective spheres are put in thrall to
the market, and to the powerful individuals and institutions that con-
trol it; while in self-regarding matters moralists and religious fanatics
often succeed in limiting the freedom of individuals.) If we want our
lives to be meaningful, therefore, we must take action (both individual
and collective) to n1ake them so, but always in full recognition that
there can be no guarantee in advance that we will succeed in creating
the meanings we try to give our lives.
Sometimes human intentions, under the influence of circumstances
unknown and unintended, also give rise to meaningful patterns in hu-
man life. The ways of life people adopt can be explained by geogra-
phy, climate and other factors that necessarily influence the conditions
under which they can survive and achieve their other goals. Perhaps
these factors, along with the contingent history of human actions, can
be used to explain large-scale structures and changes in human affairs,
occasionally perhaps even individual events that people regard as sig-
nificant (such as wars and revolutions). Such explanations, however,
need to be regarded with caution and skepticism, if for no other reason
than that our beliefs about them are likely to be open to influence by
our wishes, hopes and fears.
66 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
Regarding those events in our individual lives that are in no way
planned or intended (individually or collectively) by hun1an beings,
and do not belong to large scale changes that might have the kinds
of explanations just described, there is no ground at all for believing
that any discernible meaning or purpose exists. Why one person rather
than another is stricken with cancer or their property wiped out by a
natural disaster, and why this happened today rather than last year or
next year-for this sort of question there simply is no answer.
This is often a hard fact for people to face in relation to concrete
events, whether they represent good or bad fortune. People want their
happiness to signify son1ething about them (most often, they want to
see it as deserved). They are also sometimes generous enough to want
there to be some benevolent power to thank for it. When faced with
personal tragedies, many people lack the courage to believe that they
can pass from the stage of despair and denial to the stage of consola-
tion and emotional acceptance without some supposed insight into the
event's meaning. They succumb to the illusion that they need to know
what the event means.
When this attitude is raised to a level of generality, the argument in
favor of religious belief is often given a sense of urgency; the consolations
of religion are depicted not merely as something that makes life more
pleasant, but something without vlhich human life would be miserable,
intolerable, without meaning and without hope. We are presented with
a fearful dilemma: either we hold epistemically ungrounded beliefs that
cater to our hopes and fears or else we are doomed to lose our psychic
moorings and plunge into the abyss of nihilism and cosmic despair.
24
Here the fear-inspired illusion that they cannot accept their life without
some belief about its meaning gives rise to the wish-inspired illusion
that it has a meaning, and then to illusions about what that meaning
is and about their ability to discern it. One illusion serves another in
enabling them to retreat from dealing maturely with the realities of
human life.
The sad thing is that all these illusions often direct people's attention
24An eloquent statement of this point of view is found in Miguel de Unamuno,
The Tragic Sense of Life, translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch (New York: Dover,
1954), who portrays Cervantes' Don Quixote as the archetypal representative of the
human condition, and exhorts us to follow hin1. in indulging the religious illusions
necessary to sustain a sense of meaning in life, for which (Unamuno claims) a belief
in personal immortality is required. But it might be more natural to read Unamuno's
philosophy as a candid confession that Freud is quite right about the psychological
status and functions of religious beliefs, and to see the cosmic condition of illusion,
for which Don Quixote's pitiable madness is Unamuno's chosen metaphor, as a fate
that can be avoided by rational people who are honest with themselves.
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 67
away from the one genuine source of consolation-the one thing that
is no illusion because it provides no shortcut around their pain, but is
strongly supported by the facts. This is the recognition that despite
the misery and weakness of human nature, it also contains somewhere
deep within it-perhaps partly at some animal level, but also at a level
involving rational knowledge and strong emotions presupposing such
knowledge-the courage, strength and resilience, given enough time
and suffering, to look the ghastly absurdity of the human condition
straight in the face and to go on living.
The only honest way to face our condition is first to see it clearly
without illusion for what it is, and only then take up the question
whether the kinds of meanings and hopes it actually affords us are
enough to make life worth living.
25
Living on the basis of illusions,
whether about your health, or your marriage, or your cosmic destiny, is
not a suitable way for any self-respecting rational being to live. If a nlan
lives longer because he hides from himself the fact that he has terminal
cancer, or a woman retains economic security because she nlanages to
deceive herself into thinking her husband really means it this tinle when
he promises to stop beating her, these advantages are purchased at the
cost of their human dignity. Religious illusions, even if they could be
shown to benefit us, would be no different.
What seems too good to be true is usually not true. All other things
being equal, when some doctrine has that appearance, we should with-
hold belief in it. Yet the recognition that psychologically, most religious
beliefs are ' illusions' in Freud's sense does not necessarily discredit the
content of those beliefs. The world can sometimes turn out to be the
25Freud himself tends to treat religious illusions with a sort of weary patience. He
does not think they are harmless, but he thinks they are ineradicable. He regards
them as a comprehensible if cowardly reaction to the human condition-which, like
many apologists for religious illusion, he too apparently regards as both wretched
and comfortless without religious consolations. I wonder whether I am alone in
finding his condescending tolerance as offensive, in its own way, as the religious
apologetics he is rejecting. Religion may well be psychologically ineradicable among
human beings, and for the very reasons Freud thinks it is; but very likely so are many
other forms of deplorable human conduct (greed, war, racial and ethnic hatred, drug
and alcohol addiction, physical abuse in sexual and family relationships). The fact
that we will never finally put an end to any of these evils fact no doubt gives us
reason to deal with such conduct realistically, in terms of the actual harm it causes
and using the best strategies for preventing that harm. In some cases, at least, such
realism might lead us to take a more tolerant attitude toward these evils than we
do. But people should not be excused from bad conduct of any kind when they are
capable of refraining from it. And even if people are too weak to n1.ake the abolition
of some evil a real possibility, that should not stand in the way of our declaring cruel
conduct to be cruel when it is cruel, despicable when it is despicable, or childish
and cowardly when it is childish and cowardly.
68 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
way we wish it to be. More to the point, there can sometimes be good
evidence that it will turn out as we wish it to be. In that kind of case,
the belief that it will turn out that way need not be an illusion (if it is
held on the basis of the evidence rather than due to our wishes), and
even if it is an illusion (because psychologically, the belief is motivated
by wish-fulfillment rather than by the evidence), the belief is still one
we ought to hold. These points show that Freud's critique of religious
beliefs as illusions does not necessarily discredit Christian rationalism.
At most, Freud's critique should incite Christian rationalists to take
special care to be sure that their beliefs are indeed supported by the
evidence. They should do their best to see to it that in them (at least)
Christian beliefs are not held psychologically in the form of illusions.
2.2.3 Are Religious Illusions Beneficial?
The supposedly beneficial effect of religion on our happiness and our
conduct is the most pervasive element in all religious apologetics. In
n1any cases, this argument directly takes the form of claiming that reli-
gious beliefs are beneficial qua illusions, that is, that they are beneficial
precisely because they are motivated by wish-fulfillment rather than on
the basis of the evidence. Thus apologists claim not merely that reli-
gion portrays human life as meaningful, but further that holding these
beliefs because you want your life to be meaningful is what makes life
meaningful. Moreover, it is argued that religious beliefs are beneficial
because they are the expression of good wishes, and that this fact is
what n1akes them beneficial. This lies behind the argument that the be-
lief that the world is governed by a just Providence tends to strengthen
our commitment to morality and our confidence in the ultin1ate victory
of what is right, whereas agnosticism or atheistic materialism offer our
moral efforts no such support.
It is no doubt a consequence of our own moral imperfection that we
are sometimes deeply self-alienated in our relation to our own moral
comn1itn1ents. This can take the form of seeing those commitments
as something insufficiently grounded from the standpoint of our 'intel-
lectual' or 'rational' self, and therefore sustainable only through some
supposedly 'higher' part of ourselves, which we represent as our emo-
tional attachment to morality. Then our "rational" self can seem like
the part of us that is selfish and prudently unwilling to take the risks
involved in trusting others or being generous to then1, or in general
putting moral principles ahead of our fear and greed. A commitment
to morality then seems to require a "faith" that goes beyond anything
compatible with a coldly rational reading of the realities of hun1an life.
But this way of representing our corrupt alienation from morality is
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 69
not the only possible way, or even a defensible way. Selfishness, mis-
trustfulness, fear and greed are not traits we find in truly happy people.
They are rational policies only for people living under desperate condi-
tions, in which one must live in immediate fear of the ill-will of others
and where trust and generosity are likely to be disastrous policies-in
other words, under conditions where a decent, happy life is very likely
impossible no matter what policies we adopt. For anyone living in less
desperate straits, to view a commitment to morality as clashing with a
rational reading of the evidence about the realities and prospects of our
lives is already a form of self-deception about our situation, expressive
of the irrational forms of fear and greed that constitute our own moral
corruption. The idea that we need some sort of "faith" that might vio-
late Clifford's Principle in order to sustain our commitment to IIlorality
can only be regarded as an expression of the same evil tendencies. To
interpret our alienation from our own moral commitments in terms of
this idea is therefore already to represent our moral struggle as one we
have lost.
We can't reasonably expect people to be committed to morality as
long as we think the evidence fails to support such a commitment. And
we won't expect this of ourselves either. When people think they will
do the right thing only if they hold unjustified beliefs, what this shows
immediately is that their own commitment to morality is already very
weak, and even more dangerously, that they have begun to integrate
this lack of commitn1ent into their comprehensive view of the world
at a pretty deep level. There is little reason to think that attempts to
induce the supposedly morally beneficial beliefs, in people who are in
this condition, even if these atten1pts are successful, will do much to
strengthen anyone's commitment to morality. In effect, to think that
my commitment to morality is contingent on illy holding beliefs that I
regard as insufficiently supported by evidence is already to think that
my commitment to n10rality itself is irrational. If I am the kind of
person who judges that it is irrational to be honest or generous, then
I am not apt to make myself into an honest or generous person by
adding conspicuous violations of Clifford' s Principle to the catalog of
my vices.
26
Arguments associating religious belief with moral commitment look
more promising if we think of a person whose commitment to morality
as already strong, and the religious beliefs as some sort of fitting ex-
26 As Hume's Philo puts it: "The smallest grain of natural honesty and benev-
olence has more effect on men's conduct than the most pompous views suggested
by theological theories and systems" Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
edited by Richard H. Popkin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), p. 83.)
70 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
pression of that commitment (on the level of a world-view or attitude
toward life as a whole). But this picture too looks pron1ising only if the
belief that supposedly expresses a strong moral commitment is repre-
sented as one the agent knows to be supported by the evidence. For
only then do the agent's practical commitments honestly cohere with
the agent's true and stable world-view (for that would have to include
the agent's assessment of the evidence for what is believed). 27
Another defense of illusions as such is Willianl James' argument
that in general, believing things will go well, believing we will succeed
in what we undertake, will aid us psychologically in achieving that
very success-perhaps it will even be a necessary condition for it. "In
truths dependent on our personal action, then, faith based on desire
is certainly a lawful and possibly and indispensable thing" (Jan1es, p.
29). He regards hopeful religious beliefs as a prime example of what he
is referring to. But the fact is that sometimes optimistic beliefs help
you and sometin1es they don't. Such beliefs can be very harmful. There
are a multitude of cases in which a person's confident and self-satisfied
belief that "it is impossible to fail" can be directly blamed for the
person's miserable failure. Athletes who need to "psych themselves up"
for events usually try to be "confident" but not "overconfident".
Admittedly there is rOOln in logical space for a divergence between
what the person is justified by the evidence in believing and what it
would be most beneficial for them to believe. But it is a separate ques-
tion how often this divergence is a genuine reality frorYl which we might
hope to reap sonle benefit for our projects. Denis Diderot says: "Al-
though a lie may be useful for the moment, it is necessarily harmful in
the long run, and truth necessarily does good, even though it may be
harmful at the moment.,,28 In the eighteenth century there were still
people who dared to maintain the opposite of this: but it is hard to
believe that there is still anyone who would have the nerve to do so.
There is, however, no other responsible guide to what beliefs are true
than what the evidence indicates, or what epistemic standards justify
27We also have to question the kind of moral commitment that would find expres-
sion in beliefs that violate the duties of intellectual integrity that we owe both to
ourselves and to others. Thus there is something to be said in favor of the reaction
of rationalist theologians, such as Moses Mendelssohn, to Kant's theoretical critique
of the traditional proofs for God's existence, and their refusal to be satisfied with
his attempt to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith. Their aim was not
merely to preserve traditional religious beliefs, but also to make it possible to retain
their intellectual integrity while holding those beliefs.
28Denis Diderot, "Rameau's Nephew," p. 39 in Rameau's Nephew / D'Alembert's
Dream, edited and translated by Leonard Tancock. London: Penguin Books, 1966.
See also "D'Alembert's Dream," p. 218.
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 71
(this is true by the very meaning of the terms 'evidence' and 'epistemic
standards'.) So Diderot's saying entails that violating Clifford's Prin-
ciple can be beneficial only in the short run, and must be harmful in
the long run. If Diderot is right (as I think he is), then the divergence
between what it is epistemically justified to believe and what is bene-
ficial to believe may sometimes be real, but it can never be anything
but local and temporary. Permitting or even encouraging such a gap is
always a counterproductive policy on the whole and in the long run.
Opponents of religion might also counter the argument that reli-
gious illusions are beneficial by directly denying that religious beliefs
have beneficial effects. They could point to all the terrible deeds that
have been done in the name of religion, the holy wars, inquisitions,
pogroms, persecutions, to the profound harm wrought at every level by
the pernicious authority priests, prelates, preachers and prophets have
exercised over society and over people's hearts and minds. Is there
any limit to the depth of the evil that lies behind the fact that for
centuries religion has treated 'freethinker' as a pejorative term? In re-
sponse, the defenders of religion might respond, as Hume's Cleanthes
did to Philo, by warning us not to let our zeal against false religion
undermine our veneration for the true, and perhaps also by insisting
that "religion, however corrupted, is still better than no religion at all"
(Hume, Dialogues, pp. 86, 82). The first of Cleanthes' remarks may be
right-minded. The second is certainly false.
We ought to admit from the start, however, that there is no hope
of answering the question whether religious beliefs are on the whole
harmful or beneficial. Religion is so deeply interwoven into so much in
human life that there are few goods in life for which it cannot plausibly
claim some credit, and equally few evils from which it is exempt from
some share of the blame. The attempts of both religious and anti-
religious people to evaluate religion are seldom more than exercises
in the familiar duplicity, characteristic of religion but practiced often
enough by its opponents as well, of portraying an unassailable prejudice
as if it were a theory open to reasoning and en1pirical disconfirmation.
Let us therefore ask instead what sort of reason for believing p it
would be if it were true that believing p is beneficial (regarding human
happiness, or morality, or whatever end you like). The first thing to
notice is that if Diderot is right, then the benefits of believing something
that the evidence indicates is untrue could never be anything but short-
term and temporary, while the long-term result would inevitably be
harm. But even if we waive this point, there is a deeper problem: The
fact that a belief is beneficial never gives you any epistemic justification
at all for holding the belief. At most it is parasitic on one. For instance,
72 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
it would be beneficial to believe that a certain n1edication will be good
for you because the evidence shows that this medication really is good
for you.
This is why, as we saw in the previous essay, it is never possible
to produce a belief that p in yourself merely by reflecting on the fact
that it would benefit you to believe that p. Unless there is also good
evidence that p, some further mechanisn1 subversive of our cognitive
processes, such as the motivation of belief by wishful thinking, or acts
of intellectual dishonesty or self-deception, will be needed if you are to
enjoy the alleged benefit. Thus even if it is true, and justified by the
evidence, that believing p is beneficial, this latter, well-confirmed belief
cannot play the decisive role in producing the belief that p. To use the
beneficial effects of a belief as an argument for holding the belief (even if
these effects are well-confirmed by evidence) is part of a way of thinking
whose intellectual integrity has already been subverted and corrupted.
It is symptomatic of this that James regards the beneficial effects of
religious beliefs as also something that religion teaches us, and that
we require our "passional nature" to believe in. Where it works, this
kind of argument usually serves mainly as a way preventing yourself
from thinking too much about a belief you want to hold on to, but
feel slipping away because the weakness of the evidence for it, or the
strength of the evidence against it, is becoming all too clear to you.
The appeal of James' argument is not really to the evidence that
religious illusions are beneficial in the long run, but simply the experi-
enced fact that they give us the momentary pleasure of a rosy outlook
or relief from the pain of dealing with reality. An unshakable "faith"
in such illusions merely means that the state of anaesthesia has been
prolonged indefinitely. In this regard, religious illusions have all the
benefits of postponing an unpleasant task, running away from a danger
you eventually have to face, or seeking refuge from the stresses of life
in alcohol or drugs. 29
2.3 Practical Arguments for Religious Belief
The argument we have just been considering-that religious beliefs can
be justified by the (alleged) fact that they have beneficial results-is
29Religion occasionally incorporates chemical abuse into its rites, but often shuns
and conden1.ns intoxication, probably because substance abuse is one of religion's
n1.ost serious competitors. Marx was right in saying that religion is the form of opium
that is in widest uSy because even the poorest can afford it. James acknowledges
the affinity between religious experience (in particular, mystical experience) and
the debilitating mind-expansion of drugs in The Varieties of Religious Experience
(New York: Random House, 1929), pp. 377-385.
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 73
actually only one species of a larger genus, and certain other members
lof that genus have been at least as famous and as promising. The
genus is one I will call "practical argun1ents." They defend religious
belief, even in the absence of evidence for them, through the way that
these beliefs relate to pieces of practical reasoning. The argument we
have been considering, for instance, can be seen as doing this in a very
straightforward way:
1. We should do whatever is beneficial.
2. Holding religious beliefs is beneficial.
3. rrherefore, we should hold religious beliefs.
The argument seems to be valid, but we have seen there are prob-
lems with both premises. Even a thoroughgoing consequentialist should
have trouble accepting (1) without qualification; Clifford's Principle
purports to identify a class of exceptions to it that are directly relevant
to this argun1ent. The truth of (2) seems impossible to decide. Even if
we grant the argument is sound, we have just seen that the conclusion
does not get us all the way to a genuine reason for holding religious
beliefs. Assun1ing (3) is true, what it tells us is that we have reason to
wish that we held religious beliefs. It does not, however, create such
beliefs, justify our forming them, or even justify our retaining them if
we have them. In that respect, (3) is analogous to a proposition like:
(L)We should be in possession of the winning lottery ticket.
It would be easy to give a sound argument for (L) analogous to (1)-
(3), but that argun1ent would not supply us with the winning ticket. We
have reason to wish n1any propositions true which we cannot directly
make true or are forbidden directly to make true. The truth of (L), for
instance, does not entail that we are entitled to steal or forge the win-
ning lottery ticket. Practical arguments for religious belief, considered
in light of Clifford's Principle, put us in a similar predicament.
Other practical arguments relate religious belief to pieces of practical
reasoning in different ways. Perhaps the two most famous practical
arguments are Pascal's Wager and Kant's Moral Argument.
2.3.1 Pascal's Wager
Blaise Pascal was a philosopher and theologian, but also a brilliant
mathematician, and one of the founders of what is now called 'deci-
sion theory' or 'rational choice theory'. He offered an argument that
represents an attempt to use theorems of such a theory to argue for
theistic belief. The argument admits that theistic belief cannot, at the
theoretical level, be justified by reason. It therefore tries to show that it
74 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
is rational to believe in God even contrary to reason. Or as Pascal also
puts it: "There is nothing so conformable to reason as this disavo,val
of reason" (Pascal, Pensees 272, p. 78).
Pascal is a fideist, even in a certain sense an irrationalist, and he
thinks it is essential to religion itself that it go beyond reason and even
require the sacrifice and submission of reason. But he is rationalist
enough that he thinks irrationalism itself must be given a kind of reason
if it is to be acceptable: "If we submit everything to reason, our religion
will have no mysterious and supernatural element. If we offend the
principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous" (Pascal,
Pensees 273, p. 78). Some fideists, such as Kierkegaard, seem willing
to embrace a religion that offends reason, and is therefore "absurd
and ridiculous." Pascal is not one of them. His way, to put it in more
Kantian-sounding language, is to provide an argument that gives us a
practical reason for sacrificing theoretical reason.
Pascal expresses the argun1ent that is supposed to answer to this
paradoxical description in the following words:
"If there is a God, he is infinitely incomprehensible, since having nei-
ther parts nor limits, he has no affinity to us. We are then incapable
of knowing either what he is or if he is. This being so, who will dare
to undertake the decision of the question? Yes, but you must wager. It
is not optional. Which will you choose, then? You have two things to
lose, the true and the good, and two things to stake, your reason and
your will, your knowledge and your happiness. Your reason is no more
shocked in choosing the one than the other, since you must of neces-
sity choose. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God
is. Let us estimate these two chances. There is here an infinity of an
infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of
chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; wherever
the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against
that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you n1ust give all. And thus,
when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his
life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as is the
loss of nothingness. This is demonstrable; and if men are capable of
truths, this is one" (Pascal, Pensees 233, pp. 66-68).
The basic principle of decision theory used in Pascal's argument
was stated in Arnauld and Nicole's The Art of Thinking (the so-called
'Port-Royal Logic')-probably they learned the principle from Pascal:
"In order to decide what we ought to do to obtain some good or avoid
some harm, it is necessary to consider not only the good or harm it-
self, but also the probability that it will or will not occur, and to view
geometrically the proportion all these things have when taken togeth-
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 75
er" (Arnauld, pp. 274-275).30 Pascal's conclusion from this proposition
regarding religion is also stated a couple of pages later: "This is why
even the slightest bit of help for acquiring salvation is worth more than
all the goods of the world taken together. And the least peril of being
lost is n10re important than all temporal harms considered merely as
harn1s" (Arnauld, p. 275).
We n1ay represent Pascal's argument this way: When we are pre-
sented with a set of options where with each option we have sonlething
to gain or lose, and also a certain probability that the gain or loss will
occur, the most rational choice is the one maximizing the product of
the gain and the probability of its occurrence. Suppose, for instance,
that I have to bet a dollar on the flip of a coin, and you give me the
following odds: If the coin comes up heads and I bet heads, you will
pay me two dollars, if it comes up tails and I bet tails, you will pay me
a dollar and fifty cents. If I guess wrong, I lose my dollar. Then there
are four possibilities:
1. Heads where I bet heads: I gain $1.
2. Tails where I bet tails: I gain $0.50.
3. Heads where I bet tails: I lose $1.
4. Tails where I bet heads: I lose $1.
Probabilities range between 0 (meaning the event will certainly not
occur) and 1 (meaning the event will certainly occur). Assuming the
probability of heads is 0.5 and tails is 0.5, then the rational bet is heads.
This is because the product of 0.5 and $1 is $0.50, whereas the product
of 0.5 and $0.50 is only $0.25.
We can represent a wager on the existence of God in similar terms.
There are again, as Pascal presents it, four possibilities:
1. I believe in God and God exists: I gain infinite happiness.
2. I do not believe in God and God exists: I lose infinite happiness.
3. I believe in God and God does not exist: I lose finite happiness.
(Pascal, whose religious temper was ascetical, supposes that belief
costs the believer finite earthly pleasures in which the unbeliever
may indulge.)
4. I do not believe in God and God does not exist: I gain finite happi-
ness.
What is the probability that God exists? Pascal's argument concedes
that it is far less than one, and requires only that it be greater than zero.
30 Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, Logic or The Art of Thinking, ed. Jill Vance
Buroker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Abbreviated as 'Arnauld'
and cited by page number.
76 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
For the product of the infinity to be gained and any nonzero probability,
however small, yields infinity, whereas the finite loss or gain to be had by
betting on God's nonexistence will always yield only a finite quantity.
Therefore, no matter how improbable the existence of God may be (no
matter how much evidence there is against the existence of God, so
long as it does not render God's nonexistence certain), the rational bet
is on belief, and it is irrational to bet on unbelief.
Let us concede that the argument is valid (though this has not gone
unchallenged in the literature on the argument). 31 Even so, Pascal's
framing of the options open to us is problematic in a number of respects.
Pascal supposes first that if there is a God, then whether you get eternal
happiness or not depends on God's will, and second, that God makes
his decision depending solely on whether you believe in him or not. If
you believe in him, you gain eternal happiness, if you don't believe in
him, you lose it. This second supposition is far n10re problematic than
31 For an excellent discussion of the argument, and citations of many other
good discussions of it, see Alan Hajek, "Pascal's Wager," The Stanford En-
cyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 1999 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL ==
http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fa1l1999/entries/hajek. Hajek argues that, in
addition to the other objections commonly raised against the argument, it is actu-
ally invalid. "There are strategies besides wagering for God that also have infinite
expectation-namely, mixed strategies, whereby you do not wager for or against
God outright, but rather choose which of these actions to perform on the basis of
the outcome of some chance device. Consider the mixed strategy: 'Toss a fair coin:
heads, you wager for God; tails, you wager against God'. By Pascal's lights, with
probability 1/2 your expectation will be infinite, and with probability 1/2 it will be
finite. The expectation of the entire strategy is:
1/2*00 + 1/2[f2*p + 13*(1 - p)] == 00
That is, the 'coin toss' strategy has the same expectation as outright wagering for
God. But the probability 1/2 was incidental to the result. Any mixed strategy that
gives positive and finite probability to wagering for God will likewise have infinite
expectation: 'wager for God iff a fair die lands 6', 'wager for God iff your lottery
ticket wins', 'wager for God iff a meteor quantum tunnels its way through the side
of your house', and so on. The problem is still worse than this, though, for there
is a sense in which anything that you do might be regarded as a mixed strategy
between wagering for God, and wagering against God, with suitable probability
weights given to each. Suppose that you choose to ignore the Wager, and to go and
have a hamburger instead. Still, you may well assign positive and finite probability
to your winding up wagering for God nonetheless; and this probability multiplied
by infinity again gives infinity. So ignoring the Wager and having a hamburger has
the same expectation as outright wagering for God. Even worse, suppose that you
focus all your energy into avoiding belief in God. Still, you may well assign positive
and finite probability to your efforts failing, with the result that you wager for
God nonetheless. In that case again, your expectation is infinite again. So even if
rationality requires you to perform the act of maximum expected utility when there
is one, here there isn't one. Rather, there is a many-way tie for first place, as it
were."
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 77
the first. A Christian rationalist such as Locke does not believe God
would decide matters this way: He thinks God would reward people not
according to what they believe, but according to how they have made
use of their faculties in forming their beliefs: "He that makes use of the
Light and Faculties GOD has given him, and seeks sincerely to discover
Truth, by those Helps and Abilities he has, may have this satisfaction
in doing his Duty as a rational Creature, that though he should miss
the Truth, he will not miss the Reward of it" (Locke 687). Pascal, as
a fideist, is taking it for granted that if there is a God, then he is a
God who approves of fideists and places no value on the intellectual
integrity prized by Christian rationalists.
This is not the only doubtful assumption of this sort concealed in
Pascal's argument. Pascal knows perfectly well that there are many
different gods in which people have believed (or not believed): Ra, Zeus,
Baal, Jaweh. Even if we restrict ourselves to the God of Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob, different religions and sects do not regard belief in
him as salvific unless combined with the right other beliefs, practices,
attitudes, and sacraments. Jews, Christians and Moslems each usually
think the followers of any religion but their own are excluded from
salvation. As Diderot observed, "An Imam could reason just as well
this way" .32
Later in the Pensees, Pascal himself reflects at length on the fact that
there are other faiths besides the Christian, and on the fact that reason
cannot decide between them, yet also tries to vindicate the 'proofs' of
Jesus Christ against the erroneous beliefs of Jews and Moslems. (Pas-
cal, Pensees 736-801, pp, 222-237). He seems to have thought that
non-Catholics were all damned; even within Catholicism, Pascal appar-
ently thought that Jansenists are more likely to be saved than Jesuits.
To set up the wager realistically, therefore, even by Pascal's own lights,
we would need to estimate the probability not merely that there is a
God, but that there is a God believed in and worshipped in a certain
way, through certain practices and with certain attitudes, mediated by
a certain history of prophets and historical testan1ents or dispensations.
Even if the 'proofs' of Christianity are stronger than those for Judaism
and Islam, for instance-that is, even if they make belief in a Christ
more probable than in Jaweh or Allah-it seems unlikely that in Pas-
cal's estimation the proofs would diminish the probability of Judaism
or Islam to zero. In that case, and if each religion promises infinite hap-
piness (if it is believed in) and threatens infinite loss (if it is not), then
3
2
Diderot, Denis. 1875-1877. Pensees Philosophiques, LIX, Oeuvres, ed. J.
Assezat, Vol. 1.
78 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
this infinity wipes out the differences in probability between the differ-
ent faiths. So the wager does not provide us with any way of choosing
one religion over another.
Further, if a Lockean or rationalist God is considered a possible hy-
pothesis with nonzero probability of truth (and how can Pascal exclude
it?), then the fideist must reckon with the possibility that believing as
he does (that is, in the conscious absence of good reason to think that
what he believes is true) threatens the loss of infinite happiness too.
As Locke says: "He that does not this [nan1ely, believing only as reason
directs him to believe] to the best of his Power, however he sometimes
lights on Truth, is in the right but by chance; and I know not whether
the luckiness of the Accident will excuse the irregularity of his proceed-
ing. This at least is certain, that he must be accountable for whatever
Mistakes he runs into" (Locke, 687). Following Locke, even if the fideist
lights by chance on the truth, there seems a nonzero probability that
he will forfeit his infinite happiness anyway. Perhaps a rationalist, or
Jewish, or Moslem God will give the fideist Christian believer only a
finite reward (as a sort of consolation prize for getting it partly right).
How shall we estimate the probabilities of all these various chances?
In short, Pascal's wager is like a great many later applications of
rational choice theory (for instance, in microeconomics), in that it in-
volves an unrealistic idealization that abstracts from many things that
he himself perfectly well knows, but would hopelessly complicate the
elegant mathematics if we took them into account. As soon as you be-
gin to consider the practical problem under assumptions rich enough
to approximate the way we see things-or even the way Pascal himself
sees things-then the reasoning becomes profoundly more complex and
ceases to yield any determinate result at all.
It is the same with a lot of economics and game theory, when their
proponents try to apply them to the real world. In more recent appli-
cations, the theorist typically begins with a set of facts resulting from
the way people have made choices. For instance, oil is currently sell-
ing for $15 a barrel or Microsoft for $67 a share, or some diplomat or
businessman or labor representative has taken this or that position in
some negotiation. Then the theorist engages in a dizzying idealization,
ignoring massive amounts of exceedingly complex information directly
relevant to why the people actually made the choices in question. The
idealization yields a simple mathematically compelling argument that
provides a putative rationale for the choice or behavior with which we
began. The simple beauty of the reasoning becomes too ravishing for
the theorist to resist. So the theorist claims that the argument 'ex-
plains' that choice or behavior by showing it to be 'rational'. More
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 79
an1bitiously, a structured theory is then devised, consisting of similar
abstract arguments and a set of hypotheses (also true only under ide-
alized conditions, almost never in the real world) about the cumulative
effect of all this putatively 'rational' behavior. It is then claimed that
the theory provides 'microfoundations' for an entire system of human
social behavior. A new science is born. But the proposed theories, ex-
planations, and claims of 'rationality', when applied to the behavior
of actual human beings, are worth nothing-or even less, since they
present a deceptive appearance of rational behavior and its compre-
hension where there really is neither.
It may seem tasteless to compare Pascal's wager argument to these
shabby sophistries of modern econon1ics and game theory. Pascal was
not only a brilliant m.athematician but also a man of undoubted sin-
cerity and true religious sensitivity, while the more recent theories have
been used chiefly as apologetics for the collective rationality of sys-
tems human behavior (war, politics, and above all markets) that often
make fideist religious belief look good by comparison. Sadly, however,
in respect of his wager argument Pascal is indeed the father of modern
decision theory.
2.3.2 Kant's Moral Argument
In1manuel Kant famously denies knowledge to make room for faith
(KrV B xxx). By 'faith,' Kant means belief in something the evidence
or theoretical proofs for which would warrant skepticism or suspense of
judgment, and not belief. Yet Kant thinks that in certain cases, such
as the belief in God, 'faith' in this sense is something for which a kind
of rational argument can nevertheless be given, on moral grounds.
Kant's argument works this way: Kant holds that if we make some
state of affairs E our end, then we rationally commit ourselves to be-
lieve that E is possible of attainment through the actions we propose to
take in its pursuit. The denial that E is possible of attainment, even the
avowal of a suspense of judgment about E's possibility, is inconsistent
with the profession of an intention to pursue E as an end. According to
Kant's moral philosophy, however, we are morally obliged to promote
a supreme moral end which Kant calls "the highest good". This end
includes the apportionment of happiness to moral agents in accordance
with their deserts. Thus anyone who fulfills the duty to promote this
end is committed to believe it possible of attainn1ent. But Kant claims
that the highest good is possible only if there is a God, a omniscient,
omnipotent and morally perfect author of nature, through whose prov-
idential care alone the highest good could be actualized. Therefore, al-
though in Kant's view the theoretical evidence regarding the existence
80 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
of such a being would demand suspense of judgment regarding God's
existence, moral agents who fulfill their duty to pursue the highest good
are rationally committed to believe in God's existence.
33
Different versions of this moral argument are found near the end of
all three of his Critiques. It represents in effect the culmination of Kant's
philosophical reasoning in all three works. This is a sign of the fact that
the argument has a number of presuppositions, both metaphysical and
moral, which would need something like his own system of philoso-
phy for their vindication. Instead of worrying about those assumptions
(which would require us to evaluate the critical philosophy as a whole),
I propose to step back and take a look at what the argument can show
even if we grant that it is sound. We will see that Kant himself ex-
presses the conclusion of the argument in different ways. Sometimes
he thinks it justifies belief in God-that is, justifies our believing that
there is a supremely perfect being, with an omniscient understanding
and a holy will, who created the world and governs it. But sometimes
his expression of this conclusion is weakened in various ways. I will
argue that the argument, even if sound, does not adequately support
the strongest form of the conclusion-that we are justified in believing
there is a God-but it may justify some of the qualified forms, which
are still philosophically and religiously significant.
Kant's moral faith is apparently intended to be a belief held on
insufficient evidence, without adequate epistemic (or theoretical) justi-
fication. Yet Kant did not intend it to be a belief incompatible with the
demands of rational autonomy. He was very much aware of the fideisms
of contemporaries like his friend J. G. Hamann or F. H. Jacobi, which
he regarded as irrationalist, and wanted to distinguish his views sharply
from theirs. Kant's most explicit statements on this point come from
his essay "What is Orientation in Thinking?" which was his contribu-
tion to the famous controversy over reason and faith between Jacobi
and the rationalist deist Moses Mendelssohn. The closing words of the
essay indicate how far Kant is from Jacobi's fideism: "Friends of the
human race and of what is holiest to it! Accept what appears to you
most worthy of belief after careful and sincere examination, whether of
facts or rational grounds; only do not dispute that prerogative of reason
which nlakes it the highest good on earth, the prerogative of being the
final touchstone of truth" (0 8: 146) .
331 have given an extensive explication of this argument in Kant's Moral Religion
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970), Chapters 1-4. This paragraph is a very
brief summary of that account.
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 81
2.3.3 Th.inking for Oneself
How can Kant think that his defense of faith is compatible with this
injunction to follow reason exclusively in matters of belief? He seems to
suppose that the demands of rational autonomy are satisfied in regard
to belief so long as the belief is arrived at through one's own reason-
ing, whether that reasoning rests on empirical evidence ("facts") or
a priori arguments ("rational grounds"), whether they are theoretical
proofs or practical arguments such as the one sumn1arized above. The
fundamental principle of Kant's ethics of belief is not Clifford's Prin-
ciple, but rather the principle of thinking for oneself: "Thinking for
one's self means seeking the supreme touchstone for truth in oneself
(i.e. in one's own reason); and the maxim of always thinking for oneself
is enlightenment" (0 8: 146 note). Kant's ethics of belief is based on
the principle that in matters where one's autonon1y is at stake, one's
beliefs n1ust be arrived at through one's own rational thought rather
than from reliance on the authority of others.
The principle of thinking for oneself surely is an important prin-
ciple for the ethics of belief. Kant held that we violate the principle
of thinking for oneself, for example, when we defer to physicians in
matters of health, or to books in forming our opinions about various
things, or especially to clergymen in matters of religion and morality,
and let doctors, authors or priests do our thinking for us (A 8:35).
The proper scope of Kant's principle is not clear, however, since if left
wholly unrestricted it (unlike Clifford's Principle) would deprive us of
many beliefs we need in common life. A great many of our beliefs do
depend on the testimony and sometimes on the thinking and expertise
of others. In forming our beliefs, it would surely be irrational of us
to try get along entirely without the testin10ny, thought and author-
ity of others. Kant clearly does not intend the scope of the principle
to be unrestricted, however. He thinks that our dignity and autonomy
are compromised by reliance on others in some matters (in matters
of health and religion, for instance), but by no means in everything.
Once we determine in which matters our autonomy is compromised by
reliance on the thinking of others, and restrict the principle of think-
ing for oneself accordingly, Kant's principle ranks alongside Clifford's
Principle as part of any well-constituted ethics of belief.
Kant's principle and Clifford's Principle, however, are quite inde-
pendent. Both principles n1ight be valid (indeed, I think both are). A
belief might be condemned according to one principle even though it
satisfies the other. An epistemically justified belief could be condemned
according to the principle of thinking for oneself if it is adopted on the
82 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
authority of another but belongs to a province of life where one ought
not to defer to authority, but should work the matter out for yourself,
even where the authority provides you with a sound epistemic justifica-
tion. And a belief that is arrived at through your own thinking can be
condemned according to Clifford's Principle if your thinking does not
provide you with sufficient evidence that the belief is true.
2.3.4 Belief from a Need of Reason.
T'his is exactly what happens in the case of Kantian moral faith in
God. Assuming that Kant is right that the theoretical evidence war-
rants suspense of judgment about God's existence, then belief in God's
existence stands morally condemned by Clifford's Principle even if it
passes the test of Kant's principle. Kant is therefore wrong in supposing
that his moral faith is morally permissible simply because it is arrived at
through one's own thinking rather than through reliance on authority.
We can see that Kantian Inoral faith does indeed violate the denlands
of rational autonomy if we reflect on the fact (already noted) that
no practical argument can ever by itself produce belief in God. What
Kant's argument shows, assuming it is sound, is that a conscientious
moral agent is rationally committed to believe in God, and hence that
such a belief would be a very desirable thing for such an agent to have.
The desirability of belief, defended by a different practical argument,
was Pascal's reason for recommending that we take steps to stupefy
ourselves so as to bring about a practically advantageous (but epistem-
ically unjustified) belief. Kant would no doubt have been horrified by
Pascal's recommendations, and rightly so. But it is Pascal who shows
the deeper insight into the psychological dynamics of a faith which,
lacking sufficient theoretical justification, is forced to defend itself by
practical arguments such as Kant's, or his own.
34
Kant actually says very little about how moral faith is to be acquired
and maintained. He describes faith as an "assent from a need of reason"
(KpV 5:142), and says that it results from a "voluntary determination
of judgment" (KpV 5:146). But he never describes any way in which rea-
son might be capable of satisfying its need, or explains how belief might
ever arise from a voluntary determination based on a practical argu-
ment. "This is the only case in which my interest, because I may not give
up anything of it, unavoidably determines my judgment" (KpV 5:143).
3
4
The explanation for Pascal's greater insight on this point, I think, is that he was
a troubled soul, painfully aware of the difficulty of believing the gloomy doctrines
of his Jansenist Christianity; whereas Kant was a man of more serene faith, whose
austere deistic creed was specifically designed to place less strain on the intellect of
a sincere and thinking person.
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 83
This suggests that Kant is inclined to accept Clifford's Principle in
general, but thinks of moral faith as a unique exception to it, because
the "interest" and the emotional attachments to faith in God are bound
up with n1orality. But that reasoning involves a non sequitur. The in-
terest would give us a reason to want to believe, but it does not give us
the belief itself, or indeed any means at all of satisfying the want. And
if we found such a means, the question could still be asked whether it
is permissible to take it.
2.3.5 The Minimum of Theology
We must admit that if Clifford's Principle, Kant's theoretical agnosti-
cism about God's existence and Kant's moral argument that unbelief
in God is practically inconsistent with a moral disposition are all cor-
rect, then moral agents face a serious difficulty. But it is not obvious
that the only solution to this difficulty is to make an ad hoc excep-
tion to Clifford's Principle. A more natural response to it might be to
make an exception to the principle relating purposive action to belief
in the attainability of one's purpose, so as to say that a person be-
haves consistently in pursuing an end while remaining agnostic about
the possibility of its attainn1ent.
At times Kant appears to accept this modification, though there
he seems to be motivated more by considerations of religious toler-
ance than by worries connected with Clifford's Principle. Kant main-
tains that although "dogmatic" atheism is inconsistent with morality,
"skeptical" atheism (which holds God's existence to be neither prov-
able nor disprovable) suffices as a "minimum of theology" consistent
with a moral disposition (R6:154n VpR 28:998). Given Kant's theoret-
ical agnosticism about God, however, this would seem to be both the
minimum and the maximum of theology that can be n10rally allowed
by Clifford's Principle.
2.3.6 Religious Belief and Moral Motivation
It might be argued that while this minimum might be enough to prevent
a direct conflict between pursuit of the highest good as an end and belief
about its possibility, a positive belief in God would harmonize better
with a genuine moral commitment to bringing about a better world.
For one's commitment would be strengthened by the confidence that
the world's author is co-operating with one's efforts.
This might seem to bring us back to the clain1 that religious faith
is supposed to have beneficial effects. But here the argument does not
appeal directly to those effects. The crucial claim is rather-as we also
put it earlier at one point-that religious belief would be a fitting ex-
84 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
pression of a strong commitment to morality. Strong moral motivation
harmonizes with religious faith in a way that it does not harmonize
with other beliefs.
We could look at Kant's clainl simply as an empirical thesis about
the relation between religious belief and the actual psychology of human
motivation. People who believe there is a good God presiding over the
world are in fact motivated to do good deeds, because they see these
as co-operating with his efforts. People who lack these beliefs will get
discouraged and quit. As an interpretation of Kant's moral arguments,
however, this doesn't look convincing. The arguments are not presented
as empirical sociology.
As an empirical thesis, the claim that religious belief either produces
or expresses moral motivation looks like a glittering generalization, and
one that would be hard to evaluate just in general. But there seems to
be considerable evidence against it. Criminal behavior, for example,
is not negatively correlated with assent to religious doctrines.
35
Em-
pirical studies have also shown that those who believe that the world
is governed by a benevolent and just power tend rather to think that
existing conditions are already just, and they tend to think this even
when they themselves are victims of evident and severe injustices. Peo-
ple with such a belief tend, as compared to those who do not have such
a belief, not to perceive the injustice and their own disadvantage, they
attribute more blame for their disadvantages to themselves rather than
their oppressors and to identify more with the standpoint of their op-
pressors, they tend to be more fatalistic about their situation, and they
tend to be more resistant to change.
36
This suggests that people may
be at least as well motivated to bring about the highest good if they
believe that there is no humanity or justice built into the cosmic order,
so that bringing about a better world is entirely up to us humans, and
that there is no inevitability about the victory of good over evil (or,
for that matter, about the victory of evil over good). This, moreover,
on the basis of the imperfect evidence we have, would seem to be the
kind of world we live in.
2.3.7 Belief, Assent and Acceptance
In its most appealing form, Kant's moral argument seems designed to
show not that religious people are in fact more strongly motivated to
35See Robert Adams, The Virtue of Faith, p. 156. In support of this claim, Adams
cites Michael Argyle, Religious Behavior (London: Routledge, 1958), pp. 96-99.
36For a review of the evidence, see John T. Jost, "Negative Illusions: Conceptual
Clarification and Psychological Evidence Concerning False Consciousness," Political
Psychology, Volurne 16, No.2 (1995), especially pp. 402-413.
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 85
act morally, but rather that there is some sort of inconsistency or failure
of rationality involved in being morally motivated while denying God's
existence. What the argument shows, if sound, is that there is sonie
sort of clash between our moral conlnlitment and a denial of certain
religious teachings. But what is not yet wholly clear exactly what would
be required to resolve the conflict, and whether belief in God is precisely
what is needed to resolve it. I think that if we become clearer about
this, we can see how Kant's argurnent might, in a different way, take
us at least a little beyond the 'minimum of theology' though it will not
get us all the way to a justification of belief on insufficient evidence.
There is some variation, to which scholars have seldom attended, in
the ways Kant expresses the conclusion of his moral argument. He does
often speak of moral "belief" or "faith" (Glaube). Yet he also says, as we
have seen in some of the passages already quoted, that the conclusion
of the argument is an "accepting" (Annehmen) of God's existence, or
"assent" (Fiirwahrhalten) to the existence of God, even an assent "in
a moral respect" (in moralischer Absicht) (KpV 5:146). Assenting to
or accepting a proposition is not necessarily the same as believing it,
and it might be that a practical argument such as Kant's could justify
these propositional attitudes even if it does not justify belief.
This way of reading Kant makes sense of the passages we quoted
above that seemed problematic when we tried to understand them as
saying that a practical argument could result in belief Avoiding the
threat of incoherence between what you do in setting the highest good
as an end and what you think in refusing to agree that this end is pos-
sible of attainment might be seen as a reason to assent to the existence
of God or accept it (in thoughts or words), even if you do not have
enough evidence to believe it. Your commitment to pursue the highest
good as an end, plus your resolve to avoid incoherence between your
practical and theoretical commitments could easily lead to a "voluntary
determination of your judgment" that you should consistently accept
and assent to the existence of God. Acts of assent and acceptance, un-
like beliefs, can be direct results of a voluntary decision. It even makes
sense to speak of assenting to a proposition "in a practical respect" or
"for practical purposes." For the point of the assent is to avoid a prac-
tical incoherence between one's beliefs and one's moral commitment to
pursue an end, so it seems right to say that one's assent is only relative
to, or in respect to, that end.
Thus if Kant were to draw a distinction between saying that his
argument justifies assent or acceptance, and saying that it justifies be-
lief or faith (Glaube), he nlight conceivably avoid violating Clifford's
Principle while still deriving a significant conclusion froln his practical
86 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
argument for the existence of God. Of course there is a danger here
of falling into a sort of dishonesty with oneself somewhat analogous to
the sort we saw earlier in the case of those who profess belief according
to a creed. To assent to or accept a proposition is usually a sign that
you believe it. If you habitually assent to or accept a proposition you
do not believe, it looks like you are simply lying--to others, or even
to yourself. But not necessarily. It all depends. The sort of assent or
acceptance without belief justified by Kant's argument n1ight be not
only consistent with maintaining our intellectual integrity, but actually
required by it.
We philosophers often not only assent to and accept but also argue in
favor of theories of reference, or views about the nature of mind, or eth-
ical theories such as Kantianism and consequentialism, or philosophical
theses such as the indeterminacy of translation, or the tenability of the
analytic-synthetic distinction, and we also defend these theories and
theses against the objections and arguments of other philosophers. We
often not only feel the force of these objections and counter-arguments,
but we regard it as part of our honest consideration of the issue to
try to sympathize with the opposing position while we are considering
it, and to let the considerations in favor of it have their way with us,
so to speak, while we are considering them. Not only in writings and
conversations, but even in our private thoughts we may never cease to
assent to and accept the theories and theses we continue to defend.
Doing this is not only compatible with intellectual honesty and strict
adherence to Clifford's Principle, but it is arguably required by them.
Despite this unwavering assent and acceptance, it is not clear that our
attitude toward our pet theories and theses could always be accurately
described as belief
Sometimes philosophers obviously do believe the theses they defend,
just as they believe in all sorts of common sense facts and in the results
of science. In other cases, however, this is less clear. On many matters,
philosophers may find that the best we can ever hope for regarding the
philosophical views we defend (and it is often quite good enough) is a
firm but always tentative acceptance, expressing itself in a consistent
assent (whenever the issue comes up). If we have beliefs regarding these
issues (that conflict with the beliefs of other philosophers), they usually
concern the cogency of certain arguments or objections, or the relative
strength of the considerations on either side of the issue. That is, we
believe that the arguments in favor of the thesis we accept and assent
to are rationally stronger than the arguments against it. That, in fact,
CLIFFORD'S PRINCIPLE AND RELIGIOUS FAITH / 87
is why we accept it and assent to it.
37
But do we always believe the
thesis itself, or think that our belief about the state of the arguments
requires us to believe the thesis? I think in some cases the answer is
no, and in others it is very hard to say, or it depends on when, how
and by whom the question is posed to us.
38
Further, I submit that
our vagueness and uncertainty on this point is not only consistent with
our acceptance of Clifford's Principle, but it is even one of the clearest
possible expressions of it.
Suppose Kant regards the existence of God as a philosophical thesis
regarding which there are various arguments, for and against. The the-
oretical arguments, on both sides, prove to be inconclusive. No genuine
belief is therefore possible either way. But there are practical arguments
to the effect that we can maintain our moral commitments coherently
with our theoretical ones only by accepting and assenting to the propo-
sition that God exists. If we are to set the highest good as our end and
not to fall into practical incoherence, we have a rational need to assent
to the proposition that God exists. So because we believe (or perhaps
even know) that these arguments are of compelling strength, we con-
sistently make the voluntary determination of judgment to accept and
assent to that proposition.
This reading of the conclusion of Kant's moral argument for God's
37Hume's Philo, toward the end of his dialogue with Cleanthes, drops the irony
and "raillery" he has been practicing while Demea was party to the conversation,
and finally delivers his "unfeigned sentiments on this subject." Hume, Dialogues
Concerning Natural Religion, p. 82. He then makes the following declaration: "If
the whole of natural theology resolves itself into one simple, though somewhat
ambiguous proposition, That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably
bear some remote analogy to human intelligence, ... what can the most inquisitive,
contemplative and religious man do more than give a plain, philosophical assent to
this proposition as often as it occurs, and believe that the arguments on which it is
established exceed the objections which lie against it?" (Hume, Dialogues, p. 88).
Philo's words here are well chosen. He assents to the philosophical proposition, and
reserves his expression of belief for the claim that the arguments for it preponderate
over those against it. Philo is not speaking here as a skeptic, but is conceding to
Cleanthes the conclusion he has disputed through much of the dialogues. But his
concession is the more admirable because it is made in a manner suited to an honest
man with a genuinely philosophical mind.
38
1 have heard it reported that shortly after the publication of A Theory of Justice,
and while he was fully engaged in defending the contents of that book against
objections in the large literature it was generating, John Rawls was asked by a
graduate student whether he believed the theory contained in his book was true.
Rawls, who has always spoken with a slight stutter, is supposed to have thought
for a moment, looked the student straight in the eye, and said: "P-p-probably not."
This story, whether it is true or not, is entirely credible. I have never met anyone
in the field of philosophy whose intellectual honesty and seriousness I would rank
clearly ahead of Rawls', and this story only provides further evidence for that.
88 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
existence certainly appears to conflict with his use of the tern1 Glaube
in such contexts. Just as surely, it makes extremely good sense of his
use of terms like Annehmen, and expressions like "assent from a need of
reason," "voluntary determination of the judgment" and even "assent
in a moral respect". Such a purely philosophical attitude toward the
existence of God should not satisfy religious people who are looking
for faith in God. It is not close enough to belief to merit the award
of eternal happiness from Pascal's fideist God. But a rationalist or
Lockean God would understand and sympathize with it. One thing I
do firmly believe-and with good reason-is that a wise and good God
would sooner reward someone with that attitude than he would the
kind of self-despising, self-stupefying believer fideist Christians aspire
to be.
Kant's Deism
3.1 What Is Deism?
Kant defines a "deist" as someone who admits only a "transcendental
theology," that is, who ascribes to God only properties which can be de-
rived fron1 a priori concepts; by contrast, a "theist" is someone who also
admits a "natural theology," applying to God, by analogy, the proper-
ties of creatures known to us through experience (VpR 28:1001,1023).
In his concept of God, says Kant, the deist "understands merely a
blindly working eternal nature as the root of all things, an original
being or supreme cause of the world" (VpR 28:1047). A deist, there-
fore, will say that God is supremely perfect, necessarily existent, a
single extramundane substance, immutable, impassible, all-sufficient,
omnipresent, omnipotent, timelessly eternal, and a cause of the world
(VpR 28:1031-1046). But only a theist predicates of God the qualities
drawn froln the human mind; only the theist can say that God lives,
knows, and wills (VpR 28:1047-1062).
In this sense, of course, Kant is a theist and not a deist. He thinks
that we are justified in ascribing to the ens realissimum the predicates
of finite things, especially of the human intellect and will, so long as we
do so by analogy (VpR 28:1047-1048) and are careful not to ascribe hu-
man imperfections to God; and Kant insists that only the idea of God
as a living, knowing, and willing being is adequate for the purposes of
our moral faith in providence (VpR 28:1001-1002). Kant's definition of
"deisn1," however, is idiosyncratic, less a reflection of common seven-
teenth and eighteenth-century usage than a device to deflect reproach
from Kant's own heterodox religious views.
'fhe first known use of the term in a sense opposed to "theism" is
found in the Calvinist theologian Pierre Viret's Instruction chrestienne
(1563). Viret characterized deists as "those who profess belief in God as
89
90 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
creator of heaven and earth, but reject Jesus Christ and his doctrines." 1
Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester, probably best known for his
exchanges with John Locke, described the addressee of his polemical
"Letter to a Deist" (1677) as "a particular person who owned the Being
and Providence of God, but expressed mean esteem of the Scriptures
and the Christian religion."2 The poet John Dryden, in the preface to
his poem "Religio Laici" (1682), defined "deism" as "the opinion of
those that acknowledge one God, without the reception of any revealed
religion."3 In his Dictionary of 1775, Samuel Johnson defined deism as
"Belief in a God, but rejection of all other articles of religious faith." 4
All these characterizations are given by people who are trying to dis-
play deisn1 in an unattractive light. Nevertheless, the main significance
of the term is clear enough from them, and Dryden's definition, at least,
is both clear enough and fair enough to be quite usable. A deist is a
monotheist who believes in the goodness and providence of God but
refuses to embrace a revealed faith based on the biblical traditions of
Christianity. In other words, a deist is a believer in a natural religion,
a religion founded on unaided reason, but not in a revealed religion, a
religion founded on a supernatural revelation through scripture.
My purpose here is to consider how far Kant is a deist in this sense
and to examine some of Kant's arguments in favor of deism. The very
title of Kant's principal work on religion, Religion innerhalb der Gren-
zen der blojJen Vernunft, clearly raises the issue. In that title, the word
"blojJ" n1eans "unassisted" or "unaided," that is, without the aid or as-
sistance of supernatural revelation. The reference of the title, therefore,
is precisely to the deist's natural or rational religion: a religion within
the boundaries of unassisted natural reason, religion without the su-
pernatural aid of miracles, signs or other divine revelations through
mystical experience, ecclesiastical tradition, or holy scripture. But the
title by itself does not necessarily imply that Kant embraces the deistic
position that religion can get along without revelation. Some of Kant's
own formulations are meant to appease those who think it cannot. III
the Preface to the Second Edition of 1794, Kant has this comment on
the book's title:
1Pierre Viret, Instruction chrestienne (Geneva, 1563), vol. 2, Epistle
2Edward Stillingfieet, Bishop of Worcester, A Letter to a Deist (London Moses
Pitt, 1682).
3John Dryden, Religio Laici; Or, a Laymans Faith (London J. Tonson, 1682),
Preface.
4Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London. W. Strahan
for J. and P. Knapton, 1775). See also my article "Deism," in Mircea Eliade, et al.,
eds., The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York Macmillan, 1987), vol. 4, 262-64.
KANT'S DEISM / 91
Since, after all, revelation can at least comprise also the pure religion
of reason, whereas, conversely, the latter cannot do the same for what
is historical in revelation, I shall be able to consider the first as a wider
sphere of faith that includes the other, a narrower one, within itself
(not as two circles external to one another but as concentric circles) (R
6:12).
Moreover, at crucial junctures Kant indicates that the religion of
reason has need of revealed traditions: owing to "a special weakness
in hun1an nature," he says, a church cannot be grounded solely on
the religion of unassisted reason but requires an "ecclesiastical faith"
based on an empirical revelation (R 6:103). The preservation of pure
religious faith unchanged over long periods of time, he says, has been
best facilitated not by tradition alone but only with the help of revered
scriptures or holy books which, he wryly adds, are treated with the
greatest reverence by those who do not read them (R 6:107).
3.2 Ecclesiastical Faith and Human History
As these remarks indicate, Kant thinks of the necessary function of
revealed religion as social or historical, and so his conception of the
relation of revealed or ecclesiastical faith to the religion of pure rea-
son must be understood in the context of his philosophy of history.
Kant does not think that experience enables us to resolve the question
whether in its history the human race is improving, getting worse, or
remaining about the same; but he does hold that we can look at the ev-
idence in light of our practical vocation to improve ourselves and try in
this way to form conjectures about the way nature or providence might
contrive the progress of our species (SF 7:81-84, I 8:29-31). According
to the Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Standpoint
(1784), the chief goal nature has set for the human race is the fashion-
ing of a "universal civil society" which is able to protect the freedom
to which rational beings have a fundamental right and thereby enable
them fully to develop and perfect their manifold capacities (I 8:22). The
means nature has used in working toward this end is the human trait of
"unsociable sociability," the human passion to "achieve a rank among
one's fellows, whom he cannot suffer but also cannot leave alone" (I
8:21). People are thus driven together into societies, all seeking domin-
ion over the others, abusing such freedom as they have and struggling
to violate the freedom of others. This struggle leads to the founding of
states, in which a supreme authority achieves mastery over the lawless
wills of its subjects, forcing them to obey a law that is universally valid
and confining each within its rightful sphere (I 8: 17). The remaining
task of the human race in the political realm is to establish a constitu-
92 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
tion in which the powers of the state are administered with complete
justice; Kant is convinced that this task cannot be fulfilled completely
until states establish a lawful order regulating their external relations
with each other and this is son1ething which Kant thinks there are
definite historical tendencies for states to do (I 8:24-26).
Nearly a decade later, in Religion, Kant attempts an analogous his-
torical conjecture as regards a purely ethical society founded not on
public laws of external right but on moral laws which ought to govern
people's inner dispositions. "The species of rational beings is deter-
mined objectively, in the idea of reason, to a common end, namely the
furthering of the highest good as the good of a community" (R 6:97).
Kant claims that the highest moral good cannot be brought about only
through individuals striving after their own moral perfection, rather,
the highest moral good requires them to unite into a whole for the pro-
motion of the moral improvement of each and all, a "universal republic
according to laws of virtue" (R 6:98). Because the laws of this commu-
nity have to do with morality rather than strict right, membership in it
must be optional (R 6:96) and the scope of this community should be
in principle universal, extended to the whole of humanity rather than
lin1ited to anyone people (R 6:97).
Just as Kant finds in the political state the empirical ectype of a
realm of external justice, so he finds the empirical ectype for the univer-
sal ethical republic in the churches of various empirical religious faiths
(R 6:100). And as empirical states have been highly imperfect, often
straying far from their rational end of establishing external justice, so
churches and ecclesiastical faiths have regularly fallen short of their
task. Their chief failing has been to encourage not morally good con-
duct of life, which is their proper office, but rather the performance of
statutory observances, in themselves morally indifferent. Instead of cul-
tivating a disposition to moral freedom, they have typically promoted
cult and prayer, often combining such activities with superstitious be-
lief in miracles, enthusiastic pretensions to supersensible experience,
and fetishistic attempts to produce supernatural occurrences through
ritual acts (R 6:53,86,106,174,177-78). Worst of all, they have sub-
jected the consciences of individuals to a hierarchy of priests, under-
n1ining the individual freedom of conscience which is the very essence
of rational religion and enslaving the very soul itself, where the proper
function of true religion is precisely to liberate it (R 6: 134n, 175-80,
185-90).
The historical function of ecclesiastical faith is to serve as the vehicle
for pure rational religion (R 6:106). But it is also the shell in which
rational religion is encased and from which it is humanity's historical
KANT'S DEISM / 93
task to free the religion of reason (R 6:121, 135n). It is not Kant's view
that this n1ust involve the actual abolition of ecclesiastical faiths: "Not
that [the shell] should cease (for perhaps it will always be useful and
necessary as a vehicle) but that it will be able to cease" (R 6:135n).
Kant does, however, look forward to the time when "the form of a
church itself is dissolved, the viceroy on earth steps into the same class
as the hun1an being raised to a citizen of heaven, and so God will be
all in all" (R 6:135).
The plain intent here is eventually to abolish the church's hierar-
chical constitution and, with it, the tutelage of humanity to a class of
priests who (in Kant's view) usurp the authority of individuals over
their own beliefs and consciences. To think for oneself, Kant says, is
the vocation of each and every human being (A 9:36). When some-
one's thinking is subject to the guidance or direction from others, as
the thought and conduct of children is to the direction of their par-
ents, then that person is in the condition of "tutelage" or "n1inority"
(Unmundigkeit) (A 9:35). The greatest human indignity occurs when
free adult human beings are also in a state of tutelage. There is noth-
ing offensive, of course, about acquiring information and advice from
others, or in listening to and being persuaded by their arguments, or
treating the informed opinion and wisdom of others with the deference
and respect it deserves. What disturbs Kant is the way that people tend
simply to let others do their thinking for them, the way they substitute
deference to the authority of others for the critical use of their own
reason in matters of central importance to the conduct of their lives.
To do that is not to show due respect for the wisdom and expertise of
others but utter disrespect for oneself as a rational being.
Religious faith is not the only form taken by such degrading tutelage;
people put themselves in tutelage not only to priests but also to teach-
ers, lawyers, physicians, and the printed page (A 9:35). (This last, of
course, was virtually the sole mediun1 of mass communication available
in Kant's day. The list of media threatening critical thought would have
to be greatly expanded to apply to the twenty-first century.) But Kant
lays stress on religious tutelage because, of all the forms of tutelage, he
regards it as "the most harmful and degrading" (A 9:41). Hence the
most fundan1ental change which Kant demands in .ecclesiastical faith
is what he calls "enlightenment." Kant defines "enlightenment" as "re-
lease from self-incurred tutelage." Tutelage is "self-incurred" when it
is due not to the immaturity or incapacity of one's faculties but to the
lack of courage and resolve to think for oneself (A 9:35). This does not
mean, however, that Kant lays the blame for tutelage entirely on the
individuals subject to it. He recognizes that ecclesiastical faiths have
94 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
devised highly effective means of inculcating "pious terror" into people
and powerful means of playing on the human propensity to a "servile
faith in divine worship" (gottesdienstlich Frohnglauben). Such methods
regularly destroy people's confidence in their own capacities, frighten-
ing them away from honest doubt and thus preventing them from ever
acquiring a faith free of servile hypocrisy (R 6:133n, 188-90). Kant
is confident that in the long rUll, the powers of "inner compulsion"
must inevitably yield to the progressive forces of moral insight; but he
urges the secular authority not to hinder this progress by "supporting
the ecclesiastical despotism of some tyrants in his state over his other
subjects" (A 9:40).
Perhaps there was a time when most human beings benefited by the
paternal guidance of priests and could do no better than to follow
the revealed statutes of the church, handed down by tradition and
recommended on the supernatural authority of divine revelation. But
to be in such a condition is to be treated both by oneself and by the
authorities as less than a human adult, less than a fully rational being.
Kant sees the highest vocation of his age as that of putting an end
to this condition, which still harms and degrades the vast majority
of people. That is why Kant describes his own time (soberly) not as
an enlightened age but (optimistically) as an age of enlightenment (A
9:40).
The leading-string of holy tradition, with its appendages, its statutes
and observances, which in time did good service, become bit by bit dis..;.
pensable, yea, finally, when a human being enters upon its adolescence,
turn into a fetter. So long as he (the human species) 'was a child, he
was as clever as a child', and knew how to combine learning too, and
even a philosophy helpful to the church, with propositions imposed
upon him without any of his doing: 'But when he becomes a man, he
puts away childish things.' The degrading distinction between laity and
clergy disappears, and equality springs from true freedom, yet without
anarchy, for each indeed obeys the law (not the statutory one) which
he has prescribed for himself, yet each must regard it at the same time
as the will of the world ruler as revealed to him through reason, and
this ruler invisibly binds all together, under a common government, in
a state inadequately represented and prepared for in the past through
the visible church (R 6: 121-122).
3.3 Rational Religion
Essential to any deism is the view that there is such a thing as rational
or natural religion, religion based on natural reason and not on super-
natural revelation. Kant clearly holds that there is rational religion in
KANT'S DEISM / 95
this sense. Kant defines "religion" as "the cognition of all duties as di-
vine commands" (R 6:153). But this definition is in need of commentary
on several counts. Kant understands religion not as a matter of theoret-
ical knowledge but as a matter of subjective practical disposition (KpV
5:129, KU 5:481, SF 7:36, VpR 28:998; cf. A 9:818). Thus the definition
must be understood in the sense that religion is "the n1.oral disposition
to observe all duties as [God's] con1mands" (R 6:105). Kant is emphatic
that there need not be any special duties to God in order for there to
be religion; he also denies that theoretical cognition of God's existence
is required for religion-naturally enough, since he thinks that no such
cognition is available to us (R 6:153-54n). What does seem requisite to
religion is that (1) we have duties, (2) we have a concept of God, and
(3) we are capable of regarding our duties as something God wills us
to do.
Now Kant holds that these three requirements for religion can all be
met solely through reason. That we have duties is presumably proven
in rational moral philosophy. That we have a concept of God as a
supren1.ely perfect being is argued in detail and with sophistication by
Kant in the unjustly neglected second section of "The Ideal of Pure
Reason.,,5 That God wills the fulfillment of our duties follows from
his supreme perfection as the ideal of pure reason and the fact that
duties are imperatives of reason. A purely rational or natural religion,
therefore, is possible.
Of course, Kant plainly associates religion in this sense with ratio-
nal or moral faith in God's existence, in the immortality of the soul,
and in God's forgiving grace, which makes it possible for us to satisfy
the den1.ands of the moral law despite the propensity to radical evil
in our nature. He holds that while we cannot have theoretical cogni-
tion or knowledge of any of these matters, we can attain to practical
cognition, rational conviction, or faith in them through the famous (or
infan1ous) moral proofs with which Kant's name is associated.
6
But
although Kant himself credits these proofs and sees them as harmoniz-
ing with rational religion (R 6:3-7), it is far from clear that he regards
the acceptance of his proofs-or any other rational arguments, theo-
retical or practical, for their conclusions-as necessary for a rational
"religion" in the strict sense. Kant is emphatic in Religion that for re-
ligion "no assertoric knowledge (even of God's existence) is required;
. .. but only a problematic assumption (hypothesis) as regards specu-
5See my book Kant's Rational Theology (Ithaca, N. Y. Cornell University Press,
1978), 25-94.
6These moral arguments are expounded sympathetically in nlY book Kant's
Moral Religion (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970).
96 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
lation about the supreme cause of things." Though Kant refers to this
requisite as a "free assertoric faith," he explains that "this faith needs
merely the idea of God . .. only the minimum cognition (it is possible
that there is a God) has to be subjectively sufficient" (R 6:153-54; cf.
VpR 28:998). Apparently I can be a religious person in Kant's sense
even if I am an agnostic, so long as my awareness of moral duty is
enlivened with the thought that if there is a God, the fulfillment of my
duties is commanded by him. Kant wants to broaden rational religion
in this way because he thinks that a religion of reason must be open to
all rational beings who use their reason honestly. To demand an "asser-
toric knowledge," even of God's existence, as a prerequisite for rational
religion would be to demand for religion more in the way of theoretical
faith than that "to which all morally serious (and therefore faithful)
striving for the good must inevitably lead." It would be to demand "a
confession which might be hypocritical" due to "our lack of insight into
supersensible objects" (R 6:153-54n).
It is worth emphasizing the extreme modesty of the theoretical de-
mands for Kantian rational religion, because the usual strategy of
deism's most formidable religious opponents, from the acute Bishop
Butler in the eighteenth century down to the present day, has been to
charge that if revealed religion stands on shaky epistemic foundations,
so equally does the deist's natural religion.
7
It has always seemed to
me that this line of argument would better suit the aims of those who
want to reject all religion than those who want to affirm revealed reli-
gion rather than natural religion. As a way of shoring up conspicuously
shaky claims to knowledge, this strategy of indiscriminate skepticism-
which has been aptly called the strategy of "poisoning the wells"s-is
surely bound to fail, since it does not alter the relative strength of the
evidence for different views but only raises dust in the faces of us who
are examining the evidence.
But however all this may be, Kant seems to be very much aware of
the skeptical strategy and intends to counter it by emphasizing how
modest the claims of rational religion are and how little they need to
strain the intellect of an honest person. Of course, the standard anti-
deist response at this point is to ridicule natural religion for its aridity
and emptiness as compared with the fulsome heart-swelling fantasies of
revealed faith. But such reproaches miss the mark at least partly, since
the point for Kant is to guarantee the flexibility, not the poverty, of ra-
7 Joseph Butler, Bishop of Durham, The Analogy of Religion to the Constitution
of the Course of Nature (New York Frederick Ungar, 1961).
8Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Inquiry (Harmondsworth,
U. K. Penguin, 1978), 26n.
KANT'S DEISM / 97
tional faith. Kant regards the content of rational religion for any given
individual as including whatever that individual may believe through
reason about the God whom we regard as commanding the fulfillment
of moral duties. Some may be led by rational reflection only to the
"minimum of theology" necessary for rational religion, while others
may be able to convince themselves of considerably more than this:
Kant himself, for instance, is convinced of immortality, divine provi-
dence, and even of God's forgiving grace. Kant's Religion itself exhibits
a concerted effort to provide a rationalist interpretation of Christian
doctrine and imagery so as to include as much as possible of it within
the religion of pure reason.
The only unequivocal concession which Kant must make at this point
concerns the uniformity of belief in rational religion. But as Kant sees
it, genuine religious solidarity does not rest on the confession of a uni-
form symbol or creed anyway; Kant suspects such credal formulas of
contributing more to a spirit of hypocrisy within people and between
them than to anything else. What unites believers in rational religion is
not the content of their beliefs but the morality of their dispositions and
their propensity to associate their moral vocation with the thought of
God. On what they believe, rational believers may differ each being led
by reason to a wholly personal creed. But as Kant sees it, this is quite
as it should be in a religion which encourages us to regard ourselves as
free adult rational beings whose basic convictions should always be the
results of our own thinking.
3.4 Rationalism and Deism
A deist is someone who believes in a natural or rational religion rather
than a religion based on supernatural revelation. We have seen that
Kant does believe in a natural or rational religion. What we have now
to examine is his attitude toward the claims of revealed religion.
The authority of ecclesiastical faith rests on its claims to empirical
or historical revelation as preserved in scriptural documents and eccle-
siastical tradition. Hence Kant's views about the claims of revelation,
and consequently his position as regards deism, are intimately bound
up with his view of the function and the shortcomings of ecclesiastical
faith. Kant provides us with what is probably the most explicit account
of his position on revelation at the opening of Book IV, Part I of Re-
ligion (R 6:153-55). But the account is a bit confusing, and Kant is a
trifle coy about exactly where he stands.
Kant begins with a flurry of definitions. Religion in general is the
recognition of one's duties as commands of God. A religion in which my
98 / lTNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
knowledge of something as a duty depends on my knowledge of it as a
divine command is a revealed religion whereas a religion in which my
knowledge of something as a divine command depends on my knowledge
of it as a duty is a natural religion. Kant calls a "rationalist" anyone who
holds that natural religion alone is morally necessary. A rationalist may
either believe or deny that there is revealed religion. A rationalist who
denies the reality of all supernatural revelation is a naturalist, whereas
one who accepts the reality of such revelation (while of course regarding
it as morally unnecessary) is a pure rationalist. Someone who not only
believes in revealed religion but also holds it to be morally necessary is
a pure supernaturalist.
Though he does not avow it in so many words, it seems clear that
Kant's position is a rationalist one. From this it follows that he is com-
n1itted to denying pure supernaturalism, since pure supernaturalism
affirms, while rationalism denies, that a revealed religion is morally
necessary. But it is equally clear that Kant is not a naturalist: he in-
sists that it would transcend the limits of human insight to claim that
supernatural revelation has not occurred (R 6:155). What may be less
clear is Kant's attitude toward pure rationalism, the view that recog-
nizes the reality of supernatural revelation but nevertheless denies that
belief in it is morally necessary. But "pure rationalism" seems scarcely
deserving of its nan1e, and it is hard to imagine anyone who would hold
it. For it apparently takes the position that God has given us certain
commands supernaturally while denying that we are morally bound
to carry them out. This surely cannot be a position Kant intends to
en1brace. Kant's only purpose in mentioning pure rationalism at all
seems to be the rhetorical one of cushioning his evident denial of pure
supernaturalism.
Kant is plainly a rationalist because he is simply an agnostic about
supernatural revelation. Kant's disavowal of all claims to transcendent
knowledge justifies his refusal to assert that there is no such thing as
supernatural revelation. On the other hand, it justifies equally his re-
fusal to admit the possibility that anyone might have adequate grounds
for claiming the authenticity of any particular putative revelation. This
is stated most clearly in The Conflict of the Faculties: "If God actu-
ally spoke to a human being, the latter could never know that it was
God who spoke to him. It is absolutely impossible for a human being
to grasp the infinite through the senses, so as to distinguish him from
sensible beings and be acquainted with him" (SF 7:63). Kant's position,
then, is that there may be such a thing as supernatural revelation but,
if there is, no human being can ever know that there is and no par-
ticular claim to supernatural revelation can ever be deserving of our
KANT'S DEISM / 99
rational assent. For that very reason, belief in supernatural revelation
cannot be required of us as a duty: for it would be a duty which one
could fulfill only by holding a belief which no human being could ever
be theoretically justified in holding.
In his own terms, then, Kant's position is simple rationalism: natural
religion alone is morally necessary. He rejects not only pure supernat-
uralism, which holds that belief in supernatural revelation is morally
necessary, but also naturalism, which denies that there is such revela-
tion; and he eschews pure rationalism, which affirms that there is such
revelation while denying that it is morally necessary to accept it. Of
these four positions, naturalisn1 most clearly deserves to be called a
"deist" view, since it alone positively rejects the existence of supernat-
ural revelation. But Kant's rationalism also fits Dryden's definition of
deism as "the opinion of those that acknowledge one God, without the
reception of any revealed religion"; for although Kant does not deny the
possibility of a supernaturally revealed religion, he seems plainly not
to accept such a religion himself, and he denies that it can be morally
necessary to accept it. In that sense, it seems accurate to say that
Kant acknowledges one God, but his position involves no "reception"
of revealed religion; and so I think we ought to conclude that Kant is
accurately described as a deist.
3.5 Reason and Revelation
We have already become acquainted with two of the main premises
on which Kant's deism rests: the theoretical premise that our faculties
afford us no cognition of the supersensible and the practical premise
that the vocation of every rational being is thinking for oneself. But it
is now time to look at Kant's arguments for deism in a bit more detail.
For it is not immediately evident that the two premises just mentioned
preclude the possibility of a revealed religion or even the possibility
that such a religion might belong to what God might morally require
of us. Kant himself acknowledges that rational thinking, in the form of
the moral arguments for faith in God, justifies a religious faith which
goes beyond what our powers of theoretical cognition can afford us.
Why might not such thinking also justify us in embracing a faith in
supernatural biblical revelation as a consequence of our predicament as
moral beings? Such a direction was actually given to Kant's doctrine
of rational religious faith by Hegel's sometime teacher, the Tiibingen
100 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
biblical theologian Gottlob Christian Storr (See R 6:13).9 Does Kant
have good grounds for rejecting Storr's alternative?
The main lines of the Religion's argument on this point are clear and
are repeated a number of times in the book: only that can be morally
required which is universal and common equally to all human beings.
The commands of rational morality and the modest requirements of
rational religion can meet this universality test, but the claims of an
empirical revelation cannot.
Pure [rational religious faith] alone can found a universal church, be-
cause it is a faith of unassisted reason, which n1ay be comn1unicated
with conviction to everyone; but a historical faith, insofar as it is
grounded merely on facts, can extend its influence no further than
the news of it, in respect of time and circumstances, can acquire the
capacity to make themselves worthy of belief. (R 6:102-03)
Kant's claim is apparently that rational morality, and the religion
founded on it, is equally credible to all people, irrespective of time and
circumstance, but any faith based on empirical (historical) facts about
a putative divine revelation is necessarily more credible to those more
closely acquainted with the facts and the tradition which preserves the
record of them than to those who have the misfortune to be less well
acquainted with these matters. From this Kant concludes that if we
regard belief in a revealed faith as morally necessary, we are committed
to giving the historically learned an inherent moral advantage over the
unlearned, a consequence Kant regards as morally unacceptable (R
6:164; VpR 28:998-999).
This line of argument seems to me rather dubious. First, it seems
empirically false that any kind of knowledge or human capacity is dis-
tributed to people with perfect equality, so that if the only moral de-
mands on people 'were those resting on completely equal capacities,
then the conclusion would have to be that nothing whatever could be
morally demanded of people. But even worse, it also seems untrue that
rational religion holds any advantage over revealed religion as regards
the empirical extent of its accessibility. If there is a determinate his-
tory to the dissemination of the Christian message, and determinate
temporal and geographical limits to the credibility of this tradition, a
morality founded on reason seems equally to belong to a determinate
culture and its dissemination has a determinate tradition, much more
limited in spatial and temporal extent than that of Christian revelation.
Part of the trouble with Kant's argument is the tempting and char-
9Gottlob Christian Storr (1746-1805), Annotationes quaedam theologicae ad
philosophicam Kantii de religione doctrinam (Tiibingen Typus Fuestianus, 1793).
KANT'S DEISM / 101
acteristically Kantian but sadly unrealistic idea that before the cosmic
bar of moral judgment, all must somehow ultimately stand as perfect
equals, to be judged solely on their intrinsic merits. But its even more
obvious and flagrant defect is the way in which it seems to insist on
taking the spatiotemporal extent of a faith's dissemination as the sole
measure of its credibility. This seems neither plausible in itself nor likely
to bring out the advantages which rational religion might reasonably
claim over revealed religion. For if the contest turns solely on histori-
cal pedigree and control over the cultural engines of dissemination, the
victory will of course go not to the religion of reason but to revealed
faith, and even within revealed faith the rankest and most pernicious
popular superstitions are likely to score higher than the traditions rep-
resenting wisdom and goodness. (We need only to consider the forms of
revealed faith which have greatest access to the media of mass commu-
nication today.) Moreover, despite being deprived of the opportunity to
watch the "700 Club" on television, Kant seems acutely aware of these
regrettable facts (VpR 28: 117-118); and this should make us wonder
whether we have misunderstood his argument or whether perhaps he
has misstated it.
Of course the basic issue raised by the argument is not how widely
religious doctrines are disseminated but rather how rationally credible
they are. Kant's statement of his argument seems encumbered with a
certain tact, or even fear, which makes him reluctant to express with
perfect candor what he really thinks about this issue. Kant's real view
is expressed clearly enough on occasion, when he asserts that a revealed
faith "can never be universally communicated so as to produce convic-
tion," so that when a church founds itself on claims to supernatural
revelation, it "renounces the most important mark of truth, namely a
rightful claim to universality" (R 6:109). But for the sake of tact, Kant
tries to pretend that this defect of revealed teachings is due only to the
indisputable fact that their dissemination is spatially, temporally, and
culturally limited. But as we have seen above, this is not what Kant
really thinks. He thinks that even for those who are most intimately
acquainted with a putative revelation, and even supposing the revela-
tion to be wholly genuine, there could never be sufficient grounds for a
human being to attain a justified conviction of its authenticity.
This defect of claims to supernatural revelation has nothing to do
with the fact that they are based on historical reports or with the fact
that not everyone has access to these reports. Historical evidence, if it
is strong enough, is surely capable of convincing any rational being who
is in possession of it, and it has this virtue even if many people do not
have access to it (0 8:300). The problem with supernatural revelation
102 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
is rather that because the idea of a God or supremely perfect being
is an idea of reason, to which no experience can ever correspond, it
follows that no empirical evidence that a finite being may possess is
capable of licensing the conclusion that some empirical event is the
special revelation of a supremely perfect being (0 8:142).
Kant's real argument, then, depends on neither of the two dubious
premises we looked at earlier. Instead, the argument is that belief in
supernatural revelation cannot be morally required. In Kant's view, the
morally required cannot extend beyond what a rational being might jus-
tifiably be convinced of, and no rational being could ever be justifiably
convinced of any claim to supernatural revelation. The argument does
not require that people cannot be morally judged on matters where one
person may possess more morally relevant information than another;
it requires only that people should not be morally required to hold a
belief for which no person could ever, under any circumstances, have
adequate grounds. And the argument does not depend on the claim
that rational religion is n10re widely available to people than revealed
religion; it depends instead on the clain1 that it is possible in principle
for any rational being to be justified in holding the extremely modest
and highly flexible tenets of rational religion but impossible in principle
for any human being to authenticate any alleged case of supernatural
revelation. It is this line of argument, I suggest, which is really intended
in the Religion. But it is expressed much more clearly several years later
in The Conflict of the Faculties:
It is a contradiction to demand universality for an ecclesiastical faith
(catholicismus hierarchicus) because unconditioned universality pre-
supposes necessity, which occurs only where reason itself sufficiently
grounds the propositions of faith, and so these are not mere statutes.
On the other hand, pure [rational] religious faith has a rightful clain1
to universality (catholicismus rationalis). Sectarianism in matters of
faith will therefore never occur with the latter, and where it is met
with it always arises from an error of ecclesiastical faith that of hold-
ing one's statute (even a statute of divine revelation) for an essential
piece of religion . .. and so passing off something contingent for what
is necessary in itself. (SF 7:49-50)
In the passage just quoted, however, Kant's explicit reason for deny-
ing the universality of revealed faith is the equivalence of universality
with necessity, and the claim, familiar fron1 the first critique, that only
reason and not experience is capable of supplying either one (KrV A1-
2/B3-6). "Universality" here refers to the fact that rational grounds
for belief apply universally to all rational beings, that when I am con-
vinced of something by rational grounds, I am convinced by grounds
KANT'S DEISM / 103
which would be valid for any rational being who happened to be in
possession of then1. It is apparently Kant's view that the claims of ra-
tional religion are universal in this sense, but claims to supernatural
revelation cannot be. Those who are convinced by such a claim may
hold it sincerely and fervently, but they do not hold their conviction on
grounds which would be valid for any rational being who had them.
In Kant's view there is a close connection between the universality
of reason in this sense and Kant's fundamental principle of the ethics
of belief, the principle of enlightenment or of thinking for oneself. This
connection is made explicit in Kant's 1786 essay, "What is Orientation
in Thinking?":
Thinking for oneself means seeking the supreme touchstone of truth in
one's self, i.e., in one's own reason; and the maxim of always thinking
for one's self is enlightenment ... To make use of one's own reason
means nothing more than to ask oneself with regard to everything that
is to be assumed whether he finds it practicable to make the ground
of the assumption or the rule which follows from the assumption a
universal principle for the use of one's reason. (0 8:145-46n)
The principle of thinking for oneself is nothing but a special case of
the Kantian principle of autonomy applied to our intellectual conduct.
The moral test is to ask oneself whether the grounds on which one holds
one's belief could serve as a universally valid principle of reason. Think-
ing for myself no more licenses me in believing whatever I please than
the principle of autonomy licenses me in doing whatever I please. Kant
apparently thinks that it is consistent with the principle of thinking
for oneself to hold certain beliefs in the absence of sufficient theoreti-
cal evidence for them if there exist practical or moral considerations,
valid universally for all rational beings, that are capable of sufficiently
grounding one's belief. But it would be a violation of the principle of
thinking for oneself to permit oneself to believe something in the ab-
sence of any grounds, or from grounds which do not proceed according
to a rule which might be a universally valid principle of reason.
Beyond this, however, I confess it is obscure to me what consequences
Kant intended this to have. We might give it a lenient interpretation
analogous to the universal law formula of the categorical imperative,
which says that one is permitted to follow any rule which would not
involve any impossibility or any contradictory volitions if it became a
universal law of nature. On this reading, the principle might license
beliefs which are not grounded on reasons universally valid for all ra-
tional beings, so long as no contradiction results from supposing that
all rational beings might hold the same belief on the same grounds. It
is not clear to me what would have to be true about the grounds of a
104 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
belief for it to violate the principle on this interpretation, but it seems
likely that at least some beliefs based on enlpirical revelation might
turn out to be morally permissible. But presumably the denial of any
such belief would be equally permissible, and this would yield Kant's
rationalist conclusion that no belief based on empirical revelation can
be morally required.
Alternatively, however, we might interpret the principle of thinking
for oneself more strictly as saying that a belief is not permissible unless
it is held on grounds which actually are universally valid for any ratio-
nal being who possesses them. In other words, it would be immoral to
hold a belief unless one held it on rationally adequate grounds, grounds
which would be sufficient to convince any rational being who had them.
Kantian rational religious faith would still be permitted by the principle
in this interpretation, because Kant's moral arguments, though practi-
cal rather than theoretical in character, are supposed to be universally
valid for all rational moral agents. In effect, Kant's principle of thinking
for oneself would entail a variant of W. K. Clifford's renowned princi-
ple that it is wrong for anyone ever to believe anything on insufficient
evidence.
The only variation would be that for Kant a belief could be grounded,
and thus rendered morally permissible, by practical grounds as well as
by theoretical evidence. But in this interpretation the consequences
of the principle for ecclesiastical faith based on empirical revelation
would be dire. For Kant holds as we have seen, that no universally
valid grounds can be given for beliefs based on en1pirical revelation. In
this more stringent interpretation of the principle, then, any religion
which goes beyond the boundaries of unassisted reason is not merely
gratuitous; it is also necessarily immoral.
3.6 Revelation through Reason
Kant does provide one way of rescuing revealed religion, however, or
at least certain parts of it. For he holds that supernatural,
or external revelation, revelation through scriptures or extraordinary
experiences, is not the only kind or even the most important kind.
Revelation is either external or inward. An external revelation can be
of two kinds: either (1) through works, or (2) through words. Inward
divine revelation is God's revelation to us through our own reason. It
must precede all other revelation and serve as a judge of external reve-
lation. It has to be the touchstone by which I know whether an external
revelation is really from God and it must give me proper concepts of
him. (VpR 28:117)
KANT'S DEISM / 105
It may seem a wretched subterfuge for a shameless rationalist such
as Kant to lay claim to divine revelation simply by identifying reve-
lation with the deliverances of human reason. But this reaction is too
hasty. For in the first place, Kant does not describe just any result
obtained by human reason as a case of divine revelation. Principally,
he identifies inward revelation with our pure rational concept of God
as a most real being but he also identifies inward revelation with our
knowledge of our moral duties, since these can be represented as divine
commands and thus go to make up our concept of God (R 6:87). And
in the second place, we are justified in regarding all rational knowledge
of God as an instance of revelation because it hardly makes sense to
suppose that we might acquire any knowledge of God whatever except
through revelation. No doubt we are capable of finding out n1any things
about the natural world solely through our own initiative; and through
similar ingenuity we are often able to discover the truth about other
people against their will, by spying on them or by interpreting the hints
they give us unintentionally through slips of the tongue or other such
behavior. But in the case of an omnipotent and omniscient being, no
such ingenious prying could possibly avail us. Any knowledge of any
kind which we might acquire of such a being would have to depend on
the decision of such a being to reveal itself to us.
Kant also regards our rational concept of God as a case of divine
revelation because he is convinced that there is no other source from
which we can derive a suitable concept of Deity: "The concept of God
and the conviction of his existence can be met with only in reason;
they can con1e from reason alone, and not fron1 inspiration or from any
tidings, however great their authority" (0 8:142). Of course Kant is
aware that the concept of God possessed by many people, perhaps by
most, derives from some other source: fron1 the conten1plation of the
works of nature, for instance, or fron1 some religious tradition claiming
supernatural authority. But these are precisely the concepts of God
against which we should be especially careful to guard ourselves: "Of
what use is the natural concept of God as a whole? Certainly none
other than the use actually made of it by most peoples: as a terrifying
picture of fantasy, and a superstitious object of ceremonial adoration
and hypocritical high praise" (VpR 28:118; cf. R 6:168-69).
Just as the principle of thinking for oneself is the touchstone of
morally permissible belief generally, so inward revelation is the touch-
stone of permissible belief about God. As such, it can also serve in a
certain sense to authenticate claims of revelation based on nonrational
illumination and the external revelation claimed on the authority of
scripture by ecclesiastical faiths. We cannot prove whether such expe-
106 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
riences and records are in fact the result of special divine deeds, but we
can judge whether, as regards the content communicated, they could
have been. "If I encounter an immediate intuition of a sort that nature,
so far as I know, cannot afford, a concept of God must still serve as a
criterion for deciding whether this appearance agrees with the charac-
teristics of the divine" (0 8:142; cf. R 6:169n).
The inward revelation of reason is also our only criterion for the pos-
sible authenticity of external revelation. And in this connection Kant
views it as the sole legitin1ate interpreter of any scripture or ecclesias-
tical tradition which claims divine authority (R 6: 109-10; SF 7:46-48).
Kant is very blunt about what this entails: "If [a scripture] flatly con-
tradicts morality, then it cannot be from God (for example, if a father
were ordered to kill his son who is, as far as he knows, perfectly inno-
cent)" (R 6:87). "Frequently in reference to the text (the revelation)
this interpretation [given by reason] may appear to us forced, it n1ay
often really be so; and yet it must be preferred to the literal interpre-
tation if the text can possibly support it" (R 6:110).
But by now Kant's God may seem to some very far from on1nipotent.
For it now appears that God is incapable of revealing himself to human
beings except through the operations of their reason. Kant appears not
to admit the possibility that God might take it upon himself to make
his presence known or to reveal his saving truth to us, simply by caus-
ing us to believe in that presence, irrespective of our rational scruples,
to believe by faith through a grace which transcends and humbles the
feeble powers of human reason. For were God to do this, as orthodox
Christianity insists that he has and does, Kant would deny us the ca-
pacity to receive such a gift. Worse yet, he would blasphen10usly forbid
us to accept it.
It is quite true, I think, that Kant would be reluctant to admit
that God ever provides us with revelation in any such way. But it
would be an error to think that Kant denies to God the power to
provide it. Instead, Kant would have us reflect on what sort of being it
is that would create free, rational creatures, with the vocation to self-
legislation and to thinking for themselves, and then exhibit contempt
for this vocation in his own conduct toward them. An omnipotent being
surely has the power to take such a degrading course with its rational
creatures, but the real blasphemy would consist in asserting that a good
God actually chooses that course.
4
Self-Deception and Bad Faith
4.1 The Problem of Self-Deception
Self-decerltion is so undeniable a fact of human life that if anyone tried
to deny its existence, the proper response would be to accuse this person
of it. But Jean-Paul Sartre begins his famous discussion of bad faith in
Being and Nothingness by raising a problem about how self-deception
is possible.
1
In general, to lie or deceive someone is not simply to tell
that person something false or to create a false belief in that person.
In order to lie or deceive someone, I must myself disbelieve what I
am telling that person, or disbelieve what I am causing the other to
believe-typically, I must know that it is false. Accordingly, Sartre says,
when I deceive or lie to myself,
I must as deceiver know the truth that is masked for me as the one
deceived. Better yet, I must know that truth very precisely, in order
to hide it from myself the more carefully-and this not at two differ-
ent moments of temporality, which would permit us to reestablish a
semblance of duality. but in the unitary structure of one and the same
project. (BN 87-88/89)
This means, however, that I must believe something as victim of the
lie which as liar I disbelieve. It now looks as if self-deception cannot
occur; a self-deceiver must simultaneously believe and disbelieve the
same proposition, and this looks like a contradiction.
One straightforward way out of the contradiction immediately
presents itself. For in general it is not a contradiction to say that a
1 References to Being and Nothingness will employ the abbreviation "BN" and
will cite both the French text, Jean-Paul Sartre, L 'Etre et Ie Neant (Paris: Editions
Gallimard, 1949), and the standard English translation, Being and Nothingness,
trans. Hazel Barnes (New York: Pocket Books, 1966). The pagination in the French
will be cited first and then the pagination in the English, separated by a slash U).
All translations from Being and Nothingness in this paper are my own.
107
108 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
thing simultaneously has two contradictory properties, if one says that
it has then1 in two different respects. I may be both hot and cold at
the same time, that is, hot in my forehead and cold in my feet; a piece
of prose may be good and bad at the same time, that is, good in the
ideas it expresses, but bad in its grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Accordingly, one way out of the problem about self-deception is to say
that when I believe and disbelieve the same proposition, I do so in
two different respects. But not just any distinction of this kind will
do, because any systen1 of beliefs involving the simultaneous belief and
disbelief in the san1e proposition will be inherently unstable in a way
that the state of self-deception is not inherently unstable. A stable con-
dition of self-deception seems to require that there be in a single person
two distinct subsystems of belief, one of which involves the belief in a
proposition and the other disbelief in it. Self-deception thus seems to
require us to hypothesize what we may call a "divided mind."
The commonest way to do this is to distinguish a subsystem of con-
scious beliefs from a subsystem of unconscious beliefs. When I deceive
n1yself into believing that p, then what happens is that I consciously
believe that p, but unconsciously I disbelieve p (or know p to be false).
In self-deception my unconscious mind is aware of the falsity of what
n1Y conscious mind believes, and it hides this falsity from my conscious
n1ind. Freud, for example, holds that certain mental processes are kept
out of our conscious mind by unconscious mechanisms of "repression."
Sartre, however, rejects this solution to the problem he raises, along
with the whole concept of unconscious mental processes. Because of
this, he is committed to accounting for self-deception as an entirely
conscious process. And the special Sartrian concept of "bad faith"
(mauvaise foi) refers to this wholly conscious type of self-deception.
Sartre's discussion of bad faith in Being and Nothingness is designed
to serve the larger ends of the book, and so the concept of bad faith is
developed in paradoxical terms, as part of his ontology of consciousness
or the "for itself," whose being is "to be what it is not and not to be
what it is." This makes it less than wholly clear what bad faith is, or
how Sartre thinks he has solved his problem about self-deception.
In 2 of this essay we will critically examine Sartre's reasons for
rejecting the Freudian appeal to the unconscious in solving the problem
of bad faith. In 3 we will look briefly at Sartre's famous description
of several examples of self-deception or bad faith, and see how much
his solution to his problem is illuminated by his attempt to relate it
to his theory of human freedom. In 5 we will try to develop Sartre's
concept of bad faith and see how it is supposed to solve the problem of
self-deception. And in 6 we will decide how successful the solution is.
SELF-DECEPTION AND BAD FAITH / 109
4.2 Ull.conscious Deception
The Freudian theory of repression is a great deal more than a solution
to Sartre's problem about self-deception, and it is not clear that Sartre
has correctly interpreted Freud's account of the mechanisms by which
repression works. But beyond a brief consideration of Freud's reasons
for believing in unconscious mental processes, it will suffice for our
purposes simply to take up the Freudian solution to Sartre's problem
in the (perhaps caricatured) form in which Sartre presents it. For even
in this form we will see that it easily withstands Sartre's objections.
As Sartre depicts it, the Freudian solution is this: My mind includes
not only an ego or consciousness, but also an id, a set of instincts
and drives. These drives are originally unconscious, but they display
themselves to my consciousness in the form of "conscious symbols,"
such as desires and impulses, which take the form of "real psychic facts"
(BN 88-89/90-91). At the "border", between the conscious n1ind and
the unconscious mind there is a part of me which acts as a "censor,"
(conceived, at least half-seriously, as a sort of psychic custon1S office or
passport control). The censor decides which desires are to be permitted
entry into consciousness, and it also determines the form in which my
instincts appear as facts of consciousness (BN 88-90/91-93). The censor
has cognitive access to the instincts, it knows the real truth about them;
it also has access to the psychic facts as they exist for consciousness, and
is capable of selecting these on the basis of the conscious states (e.g.,
beliefs, emotions) that will result from them. On this model, when we
deceive ourselves what happens is that our consciousness forms a belief
that the censor has brought about in it, and that the censor knows
to he false. In self-deception, I as deceiver am the censor, while as
victim of the deception I am ego or consciousness. The ego and the
censor represent belief systems divided from each other, and this is
what makes self-deception possible.
There are many things in this picture which Sartre cannot accept.
He scorns the "mythology" of physiologically detern1ined instincts and
drives (BN 91/93: cf. BN 707/784). He also rejects the whole conception
of "psychic givens" (BN 17/11), and in particular rejects the idea that
any conative or motivational states, however "basic," can be given to
us as brute psychic facts independent of our choices (BN 516-519/567-
569). Sartre's attack on the Freudian solution to his problem, however,
is directed at difficulties that it allegedly incurs in its account of the
censor's activities.
"The censor, in order to apply its activity with discernn1ent, must
know what it is repressing. If we renounce in fact all those metaphors
110 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
that represent repression as an interaction of blind forces, we are forced
to admit that the censor must choose, and in order to choose, it must
represent itself' (BN 91/93) If it is to carry out its activities, Sartre
alleges, the censor must have it second-order knowledge both of the
activities themselves and of the information it uses in acting. Not only
must it know the truth about the drives it is repressing but it must
also represent itself as knowing, it must know that it knows; not only
must it select which drives are to become conscious and choose the
form in which these drives are to appear in consciousness but it must
also represent itself as choosing, it must know that it is making these
choices.
Why does Sartre think the Freudian must grant the censor this
second-order knowledge?2 Sartre himself seems to think that all know-
ing and choosing involve second order knowledge of then1selves (BN
18/12),3 but a Freudian need not agree. Sartre seems on the right track
in suggesting that the censor needs such knowledge "in order to apply
its activity with discernment," but to clinch his case this suggestion
would have to be spelled out in more detail.
Sartre's next step is to claim that the second-order knowledge that
the censor must have must be conscious knowledge, on the ground
that "all knowing is consciousness of knowing" (BN 91/93). From this
he argues that the censor's knowledge must belong to the same con-
sciousness as the false beliefs the censor is creating. Hence the censor's
consciousness can only be "consciousness (of) the tendency to repress,
but precisely in order not to be conscious of it." (BN 91-92/94). But
2David Pears, "Motivated Irrationality, Freudian Theory and Cognitive Disso-
nance," in Philosophical Essays on Freud, ed. Richard Wollheim and James Hopkins
(Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 273-274, supplies on Sartre's behalf the argu-
ment that if the censor were ignorant of its own knowledge and activity then this
ignorance would have to be explained by a process of repression, thus leading to an
infinite regress. But I find this neither persuasive nor in Sartre's text. For all that
has been shown, the censor might just happen to be ignorant of its own cognitive
states and activities, without any process of repression or self-deception entering in.
3Actually, Sartre rejects the formula (which he attributes to Alain): "To know is
to know that one knows" But he rejects it because he interprets the word "knows"
very narrowly, as expressing a relation between a subject and an object different
from it. Hence Sartre thinks that Alain's formula entails that all knowing of knowing
must be "reflective," or "positional" -involving an objectification of the self and an
act of distinguishing it from the consciousness for which it is-whereas Sartre wants
to insist that every mental state is "prereflectively," "nonpositionally," and hence
"noncognitively" conscious of itself conscious of itself while completely coinciding
with itself (BN 1623/9-17). This, however, is not a denial of the thesis that "to know
is to know that one knows" as it is usually understood, but is instead an unusually
strong form of its affirmation, since it affirms not only that there is second-order
knowledge but also that this second-order knowledge must be conscious.
SELF-DECEPTION AND BAD FAITH / III
that is only to say that the censor, entirely on the conscious level, is
deceiving itself. The problem about self-deception has returned in its
original form.
This argument, however, assumes both that the censor must have
second-order knowledge of its activities and that this second-order
knowledge must be conscious. But the Freudian has been given no
reason for accepting these assumptions, and especially the second. One
reason that might be given is to be found in an explication of the
distinction between the conscious and the unconscious given by Colin
McGinn.
4
For McGinn, not to be conscious that you believe p is sim-
ply not to have the second-order knowledge that you believe p. From
this it would follow that if the censor has the second-order knowledge
of its knowledge or its activities, then it is eo ipso conscious of them.
But surely all this shows is that McGinn's way of drawing the distinc-
tion between the conscious and the unconscious is defective. For why
could there not be unconscious mental processes involving second-order
knowledge of themselves which is also unconscious? If we suppose that I
have second-order knowledge of a mental state, that should not by itself
decide one way or the other whether either the state or the knowledge
of it is conscious.
Another argument Sartre might use is this: If the explanation for
the repression or disguising of my knowledge that p requires the act
of a censor, then if my knowledge of that act is also supposed to be
repressed or disguised (rendered unconscious), this must in turn require
the act of a second censor. And if the act of this second censor is to be
rendered unconscious, this will require yet another act of censorship,
and so on. Either we face a vicious regress or else we are forced at
some point to imagine an act of censorship performed consciously. But
this argun1ent overlooks the obvious possibility that the censor's act
might be self-repressing. (If it were not, it is hard to see how it could
accomplish its aim.) We postulate a "censor" (that is, a subsystem of
beliefs and mental activities independent of my consciousness) in order
to explain how I can believe something consciously which I at the same
time disbelieve, and whose falsity I hide from n1yself. But there is no
need to postulate a third subsystem to explain the censor's keeping
its knowledge and activity out of consciousness, because there is no
incoherence in the censor's system of mental activity. Hence there is no
need for the regress to begin.
Of course the Freudian can grant the obvious fact that in actual cases
4Colin McGinn, "Action and Its Explanation," in Philosophical Problems in
Psychology, ed. Neil Bolton (London: Methuen, 1979), pp. 20-42.
112 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
of self-deception there is nearly always some awareness of the processes
through which the deception is maintained. For instance, in the conver-
sation between Ivan Karamazov and Smerdyakov before Ivan's depar-
ture for Moscow, the two men make a compact: if Ivan announces the
intention to go to Tchermashnya, then Smerdyakov will murder their
father, Fyodor Pavlovich, while Ivan is away. Throughout the conver-
sation, and even while he is agreeing to the compact, Ivan prevents
hin1self from becoming consciously aware of its terms, or even of its
existence. He does this largely through a single device: when there is a
danger that Ivan will become consciously aware of what Srnerdyakov is
proposing, Ivan loses his temper and demands that Smerdyakov stop
insinuating and state clearly and explicitly what he means.
5
Ivan is
clearly conscious of his own anger, impatience, and his conscious de-
sire that everything between Smerdyakov and himself should be kept
wholly explicit and aboveboard. Since these are in fact the devices by
which Ivan prevents the compact from entering his consciousness, Ivan
is in a sense conscious of what the "censor" in him is doing.
But this is not the kind of consciousness of the censor's acts which
Sartre's argument requires Ivan to have. For Ivan is not conscious of
these desires and emotions as devices for keeping his knowledge of
the murder compact out of his consciousness-indeed, they seem to
Ivan to be no more than expressions of his fervent desire that there
should be nothing at all unstated or merely implied in his relations
with Smerdyakov, and hence Ivan's awareness of the devices by which
he deceives himself only contributes further to the deception. What
Sartre thinks the Freudian must concede is that the self-deceiver is
consciously aware of the censor's acts of repression precisely as acts
of repression, as the keeping out of consciousness of what is to be re-
pressed. But why should Sartre think that the Freudian must concede
this?
The answer to this question, I am afraid, is disappointingly sim-
ple and from the standpoint of Sartre's argument, flatly question beg-
ging. Sartre thinks that the censor's mental activity must be conscious
because he holds as a dogma that all mental activity must be con-
scious. Sartre's frequent references to the "transparency of conscious-
ness" are really assertions that the mental is reducible to the conscious.
For Sartre, there can be no unconscious knowledge at all (BN 91/93),
no unconscious believing (BN 117-118/121-122), no unconscious in-
tending (BN 20/14). The dogma that the mental is reducible to the
5 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New
York: Random House, 1950), pp. 314-325.
SELF-DECEPTION AND BAD FAITH / 113
conscious belongs to the phenomenologist's peculiar interpretation of
the project of founding everything on what is self-evident, and then tak-
ing for granted (what is far from self-evident) that mental processes,
both their occurrence and their nature, are something self-evident, or
at least something that can be made self-evident by the right epistemic
techniques.
As one sympathetic interpreter describes it, Sartre's rejection of the
Freudian unconscious is due to Sartre's "mistrust of the hypothetical,"
and especially of science hypotheses.
6
In effect, Sartre simply accepts
Descartes, definition of "thought" (his inclusive ternl for nlental) as
"everything which we are aware of as happening within us in so far as
we have awareness of it.,,7
Strictly speaking, this definition does not even allow for latent or
dispositional mental states, for dispositional knowledge, belief, desire,
and so on. If Descartes can account for such dispositional mental states
at all, it must be by saying that they are not mental but bodily states
(perhaps states of my brain which dispose my mind to have certain oc-
current thoughts at certain times). It is not clear that even this account
of dispositional mental states would be open to Sartre, since he enter-
tains a radical skepticism about dispositions generally, derived partly
from Hume and partly from Hegel (BN 33-34/29,139-142/147-150).
Descartes himself does not adhere consistently to his definition of the
mental, since he believes in innate ideas, which are plainly supposed to
be dispositional states, and states of the mind rather than the body.
8
A more moderate version of the Cartesian view of mind would hold
that all mental states are either states of consciousness or else disposi-
tions to have states of consciousness. Freud is well aware of this view
as a source of "philosophical" objections to his concept of unconscious
mental activity, to which he responds frequently and thoughtfully, not
without condescension. Freud points out that we do not hesitate to
ascribe mental states (and occurrent states, not merely dispositional
ones) to other people on the basis of their behavior, despite the fact
that we ourselves are not conscious of these states. The same principle,
however, he says, might be applied to ourselves: on the basis of our own
behavior, and in the same way we infer mental states from the behavior
of others, we nlight ascribe to ourselves mental states of which we are
6Peter Caws, Sartre (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 8l.
7J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, trans. and eds. Philosophical
Writings of Descartes (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), 1:195.
8 Philosophical TIVritings of Descartes, 1:303-304.
114 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
not conscious.
9
Such unconscious mental states, Freud argues, turn out
to be reasonable hypotheses, even necessary ones, which are required in
certain cases to fill in the gaps between conscious states.
10
The states
whose existence we may infer in this way, he says, are not merely dispo-
sitions to conscious states (these dispositions Freud calls "preconscious"
states) but themselves occurrent or "active" states, some of which re-
main unconscious however strongly active they may be in their influence
on our behavior.
11
Freud is convinced that the web of unconscious mental states which
is required to explain people's behavior is sufficiently large and com-
plex that it makes sense to regard unconsciousness as "a regular and
inevitable phase in the processes constituting our mental activity; every
mental act begins as an unconscious one, and it may remain so or go
on developing into consciousness, according as it meets with resistance
or not"; far from its being true that consciousness is the hallmark of
the mental, Freud maintains that "what is mental is in itself uncon-
scious." 12
Freud's concept of the mental harmonizes well with contemporary
functionalist accounts of mind, which treat categories of mental events
and activities as states of an organism, distinguished by the functional
role they play in the physical mechanisms through which the organism
processes its informational input and generates its behavioral output.
Mental states need not be consciousness in order to perform their func-
tions; indeed, sometimes they can perform them better if they remain
unconscious. When this is so, a theory of the organism's mental func-
tioning ought to be able to explain why. And this is what Freudian
psychology tries to do.
Freud acknowledges that this ambitious role for unconscious states in
people's mental lives must be established by a complex set of inferences,
each of which must be tested for its soundness;13 and many people
are rightly skeptical of some of Freud's claims about our unconscious
memories, wishes, and decisions. But surely there is no good reason in
principle why the workings of our minds might not be explained better
by a theory attributing unconscious mental states to us than by one
9Sigmund Freud, An Autobiographical Study, trans. James Strachey (New York
W. W. Norton, 1963), pp. 58-59.
10Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (New
York: W. W. Norton, 1949), pp. 105-106.
11John Rickman, ed., A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud
(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957), pp. 46-53.
12 A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud, p. 51, Freud, An Outline
of Psychoanalysis, p. 35.
13Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, pp. 106-107.
SELF-DECEPTION AND BAD FAITH / 115
limiting itself to conscious mental states. For example, the hypothesis of
an unconscious subsystem of mental activities acting on our conscious
beliefs provides one plausible way of solving Sartre's problem about self-
deception and explaining how self-deception is possible. Whether self-
deception works in some such way in real life is an empirical question.
There is nothing either original or persuasive in Sartre's attempt to
reject the Freudian unconscious a priori on philosophical grounds.
4.3 Facticity and Transcendence
Once he has dismissed the Freudian solution to his problem, Sartre
makes a new start by describing several cases in which he thinks we will
recognize self-deceptive conduct at work. The examples are well known,
even famous. A woman ignores the sexual overtones of her escort's
conduct because she does not ,Tant to "break the troubled and unstable
harmony that makes for the charm of the hour" (BN 95/97). She seems
not to notice when he takes her hand, because at that moment she
happens to be pure intellect, divorced from her body. Then there is
the waiter in the cafe who plays at being a waiter in a cafe in order
to persuade himself that he is nothing more than that. There is the
homosexual who refuses to acknowledge that he is a pederast, insisting
that his case is "different"; and, finally, there is his friend, the champion
of sincerity, who tries to get him to admit that he is a pederast and no
more than that (BN 94-108/96-112). Sartre describes these examples
so skillfully and vividly that it is easy to overlook the fact that they
do not tell us much about self-deception. They neither provide a clear
solution to Sartre's problem about self-deception nor support his claim
that self-deception must be a wholly conscious phenomenon. In fact,
they are little more than a series of illustrations of Sartre's own radical
and idiosyncratic views about human freedom. What they say about
self-deception is almost incidental.
In each case, Sartre claims, the self-deceptive behavior turns on a
distinction between "facticity" and "transcendence": between the brute
givens of my situation (my body, my occupation, my past) and the to-
tal freedom in which I confront these givens as someone who must be
the person given through them and yet must be that person freely, un-
constrained in any way by them. The self-deceivers in these examples
are all depicted as exploiting this inevitable ambiguity in the nature of
free selfhood. The woman "transcends" her body and the homosexual
his past behavior. Both have a truth on their side when they dissociate
themselves from their "facticity," but each misinterprets this truth so
that it turns into a falsehood. The woman uses her freedom in relation
116 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
to her body as an excuse for disavowing responsibility for the decision
she must make about what she will do with her body; the homosexual
uses his freedom in the face of his past to disavow the only plausi-
ble interpretation of that past. On the other side, the waiter and the
champion of sincerity recognize that one cannot flee from one's factic-
ity, that one must be that facticity. Yet they interpret this truth in such
a way as to deny our total freedom in the face of facticity. The waiter
wants to become nothing more than the social role in which he has
cast himself (and has been cast by others); the champion of sincerity
wants his friend not only to admit the pattern represented by his past
behavior but also to identify himself wholly with this past, disavowing
his freedom in the face of the past.
There seem to be significant philosophical issues between Sartre and
the waiter or the champion of sincerity, and it is not self-evident that
Sartre is right about these issues. The waiter behaves as he does because
he wants to realize his condition (BN 99/102), that is, to actualize
hin1self, to live a life in a way which is consonant with his nature. Of
course Sartre thinks that human freedom precludes having a "nature"
in this sense; and it is easy to make fun of the aspiration to actualize
one's nature when that nature is identified with being a waiter in a cafe.
But it is not quite so easy to discredit a theory of self-actualization as it
is put forward by Aristotle or Aquinas, or even by F. H. Bradley or T.
H. Green. Likewise, it is far from self-evident that to be a homosexual
never means anything more than to have a certain past, in the face of
which we are always totally free to reconstitute our desires through a
radically new choice of ourselves. But even if Sartre were right on the
philosophical issues, that would not necessarily show that those who
disagree with him are victims of self-deception. 14
What is worse than this, however, is that Sartre's philosophically
loaded discussion of his examples contributes nothing at all to the solu-
tion of his original problem about self-deception. The common pattern
in the examples is that the self-deceiver misinterprets a truth drawn
from the Sartrian ontology of consciousness. 15 What he or she believes
14This is an objection brought against Sartre by Arthur Danto, Jean-Paul Sartre
(New York: Viking Press, 1975), pp. 76-79.
15The initial description of the case of the woman in fact illustrates not the
ambiguity of facticity and transcendence but only the original problem. The woman
"knows very well the intentions that the man to whom she is speaking nourishes
regarding her. She knows also that she will have to make a decision sooner or later"
(BN 94/96). But she does not want to make the decision and would find it unpleasant
to be aware of the man's intentions, so she "refuses to take his desire for what it
is," and "postpones the moment of decision as long as possible" (BN 94 95/97).
These are clear examples of someone who believes two propositions (namely, that
SELF-DECEPTION AND BAD FAITH / 117
is true taken in one sense, but not in the sense in which he or she takes
it. ("I am not my past" is true, but not in the way in which the ho-
mosexual interprets it; "I am my past" is true, but not in the way in
which the champion of sincerity interprets it; and likewise for the other
examples.)
Mistakes of this kind, however, do not necessarily involve self-
deception at all-in philosophy we run across them all the time. Self-
deception occurs in such a case only if I assent to a statement that I
know I am interpreting in a false sense while nevertheless believing the
statement on that interpretation. But if this is what has happened,
then we simply have one more kind of case-and not a distinctive, or
a fundamental, or even an especially illuminating kind-in which an
individual believes a proposition while disbelieving it (knowing it to
be false). It contributes nothing to resolving Sartre's problem about
self-deception that the subject matter of the simultaneous belief and
disbelief is the dubious Sartrian ontology of free selfhood.
Sartre identifies "the unity we find in the different aspects of bad
faith" as "a certain art of forming contradictory concepts, which is
to say, concepts that unite in themselves an idea and the negation of
that idea. The basic concept thus engendered utilizes the double prop-
erty of human being, that of being a facticity and a transcendence"
(BN 95/98). Does Sartre really expect us to believe that every case
of self-deception involves attributing a contradictory concept to some-
thing? And does he think that all contradictory concepts derive from
the facticity-transcendence relation? Neither claim has much plausibil-
ity, and neither receives any real defense from Sartre. But leaving that
aside, my attribution of a contradictory concept to something counts
as a case of self-deception only if I believe the attribution while at
the same time knowing that the concept is contradictory and that a
proposition ascribing a contradictory concept to something must be
false-that is, only if I believe the self-contradictory proposition and
simultaneously disbelieve it (because I realize it is self-contradictory).
Once again, even if it is correct that all self-deception concerns the
facticity-transcendence relation, we are still no closer to a solution of
Sartre's problem about self-deception.
the man's intentions are merely respectful and that there is no need to make any
decision about whether she will go to bed with him) while also disbelieving them-
knowing that they are false. As far as I can see, Sartre never gives an account of
these central examples of the woman's self-deception in terms of her exploitation of
the facticity-transcendence relation.
118 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
4.4 The Project of Believing
Sartre's problem about self-deception arises because it seems that in
order to deceive myself I must simultaneously believe and disbelieve
the same proposition at the same time, and this looks like a contradic-
tion. But it looks like a contradiction because it looks as if believing
p entails not disbelieving p and vice versa. I will suggest that Sartre's
own solution, presented briefly in the section entitled "The 'Faith' of
Bad Faith," operates by questioning this assumption.
How might we argue that there is no contradiction in saying that I
simultaneously (and consciously) believe and disbelieve the same propo-
sition? We might say that it is not a contradiction for me to believe
and disbelieve p, just as it is not a contradiction for me simultaneously
to want X and to want not-x. When Don Giovanni asks Zerlina to give
him her hand, Zerlina reports her mental state as "Vorrei e non vorrei."
This would be a self-contradictory report if it is taken to mean: "I want
to give you my hand and it is false that I want to give you my hand."
But it is not self-contradictory if what it says is: "I want to give you my
hand and I want not to give you my hand." What Zerlina is reporting
is a conflict between two wants. The two things she wants cannot both
occur at the same time (she cannot at the same time both give Don
Giovanni her hand and not give Don Giovanni her hand), but there is no
contradiction in her consciously wanting both things at the same time.
The obvious problem with this suggestion is that while it seems per-
fectly possible to be wholly conscious of conflicting wants coexisting in
oneself, the same does not seem to be possible with contradictory be-
liefs. If I am shown a contradiction between two of my beliefs, then my
reaction-like Zerlina's-is confusion, but not the same kind of confu-
sion. Zerlina's recognition of her conflicting wants does not necessarily
weaken either of the wants or cause her to doubt that they conflict. But
when someone claims that two of my beliefs conflict, then that either
tends to weaken at least one of the beliefs or else causes me to doubt
that there really is a conflict between them. Of course I can be inclined
to believe p and also to disbelieve p, but this is not a state of both
believing and disbelieving p: rather, it is a state of being uncertain.
The remark "I believe it and I don't," seems to make sense only if it
is taken as an expression either of such uncertainty or else as a report
of my vacillation over time between incompatible beliefs ("I believe it
and I don't: one day I will find myself believing it, but then the next
day I will tell myself that it can't be true").
We can, of course, describe Zerlina's state too as one of being un-
certain what she wants. But this is misleading if it suggests that she is
SELF-DECEPTION AND BAD FAITH / 119
unsure whether or not she wants the thing in question (i.e., to give Don
Giovanni her hand). For that suggestion is simply false: Zerlina does
quite strongly want to give him her hand, and at the same time she
quite strongly wants not to give it to him, and she is painfully conscious
of the strength of both wants. Zerlina is uncertain about what to do,
because although she can both want and not want the same thing, she
can't both do and not do the same thing. She must make up her mind
not about what she wants (that's clear enough), but rather about what
she will do in the face of her conflicting wants.
Believing, however, appears to be in this regard like doing, and unlike
wanting. Just as you can't do and not do the same thing at the san1e
time (unless you do them in different respects or with different parts
of yourself-e.g., saying 'No' with your lips and 'Yes' with your eyes),
so you can't believe and disbelieve the san1e thing at the same time
unless you believe two different things in two different respects (e.g.,
consciously and unconsciously).
It is well for Sartre, therefore, that he does not try to solve his prob-
lem about self-deception by arguing that believing is in this respect like
wanting. But his solution does resemble this abortive one. Both work by
arguing that the two apparently contradictory doxastic states involved
in self-deception are really compatible, and arguing this through an ap-
peal to son1ething allegedly special about the nature of believing and
disbelieving. "The true problem of bad faith comes evidently from the
fact that bad faith is faith," that is, belief. "But if we take belief as
the adherence of being to its object when the object is not given or is
given indistinctly, then bad faith is belief, and the essential problem of
bad faith is a problem of belief" (BN 108/112). The problem of self-
deception, as we have seen, is that it looks like a contradiction for me to
believe p and yet at the san1e time and in the same respect to disbelieve
p. Sartre maintains, however, that the typical case of belief is one in
which belief is combined with disbelief. "To believe is not to believe,"
he declares. "No belief is enough belief, one never believes what one
believes.... No belief, strictly speaking, is ever able to believe enough"
(BN 110/114).
As in the case of Zerlina, these assertions would be self-contradictory
if we took Sartre to be saying: "One believes p and (at the same time
and in the same respect) it is false that one believes p." But there is not
necessarily a contradiction if what Sartre means is: "One believes p and
(at the same time and in the san1e respect) one disbelieves p." This is
not necessarily self-contradictory if sense can be made of the idea that
I can simultaneously and in the same respect believe and disbelieve p,
so that my disbelieving p does not entail that it is false that I believe p.
120 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
Sense can be made of this if we recognize that Sartre is alluding to
what might be called the imperfection of beliefs, taking that term in
its etymological meaning. That is, he is describing belief as a project
that all too often fails, which fails short and is consciously left incom-
plete, owing to the unfortunate circumstances of our lives. When this
happens, what we are left with as beliefs are things that are made to
do the job of beliefs but which we recognize as insufficient to do this
job. Insofar as what must serve as the belief that p is forced to serve in
this capacity it may be said that I believe p. But insofar as I recognize
this same iten1 as insufficient to do the job of a belief, I consciously
disbelieve p. As a result, it can be simultaneously true that I believe p
and that I disbelieve p, since my disbelieving p does not entail that it
is false that I believe p.
We must note to begin with that Sartre uses the term "belief" in an
unusually narrow sense. "Belief," he has told us, is to be understood "as
the adherence of being to its object when the object is not given or is
given indistinctly." Because this sense of "belief" is artificially narrow
and because it will be necessary below to use "belief" and its cognates
in their ordinary senses as well as in Sartre's special sense, I propose
to refer to "belief" and its cognates, when used in Sartre's sense, as
"belief*."
We do not believe* what is self-evident or undeniable on the basis
of the evidence presented to us. Belief* is only what we believe on
the basis of inadequate, mixed, or ambiguous evidence. A belief* is
not some thing for which we can claim "an intuition accompanied by
evidence" (BN 109/114). You do not believe* anything for which the
evidence you have is so overwhelming that you have no choice but to
believe it. Exactly which of our beliefs we count as beliefs* depends on
how charitable an epistemology we subscribe to, how high its standards
are, and what we think meets those standards.
16
But for my own part,
I would claim to believe, though not to believe*, such things as that 2
+ 2 == 4, that p o h ~ o n died before I was born, that there are at least
16Belief* seems to be very close to what Locke calls "Faith, or Opinion," as
opposed to "Knowledge." John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understand-
ing edited by Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 536-537.
Locke thinks we have "knowledge" of our own existence, of God's existence, of cer-
tain truths of mathematics and metaphysics, and (in his charitable rather than his
stricter moods) of the existence of corporeal bodies while we are actually sensing
them. But he denies that we ever have anything more than "faith" or "opinion"
concerning the existence of other minds or these same bodies at any time when we
are not actually sensing them. I suspect that most of us are less certain than Locke
is about God (even if we believe in him), and more certain about other people's
minds and about bodies we have very recently sensed.
SELF-DECEPTION AND BAD FAITH / 121
five automobiles now in Paris, and that right now my eyes are focused
on a piece of paper with words written on it.
Belief* is something that we to some degree sustain in ourselves,
something we hold at least to some degree by choice. Hence Sartre
associates belief* with "faith" in a religious sense. "1 believe it means I
give way to [je me laisser aZZer a] my irnpulses to rest confidence in it;
I decide to believe it and to maintain myself in that decision, I conduct
myself as if I were certain of it, all in the synthetic unity of the same
attitude" (BN 109/114).
Sartre's claim that "to believe is not to believe" is thus really the
clain1 that all belief* is imperfect, that it falls short of what it has to be
to perform the function of belief. But what is this function? We may
look at all believing (including believing*) as a way of dealing with the
world, and more especially with facts about this world as they present
themselves to us in the forn1 of direct sense information, reports heard
or read, pieces of reasoning presented to or engaged in by our minds-in
short, what we call, in relation to our beliefs, the "evidence" for them.
Every belief is an atten1pt to "integrate" that evidence into a coherent
whole. A belief of course tries to be consistent with all the evidence, but
it also tries to explain this evidence, and it tries to do so in a tidy and
nonarbitrary way. Finally, it tries to win out in a competition, using the
above criteria as its standards, with other possibilities for belief which
we see as alternatives to it.
We do not bother to form beliefs about everything, perhaps not even
about everything concerning which we have evidence available to us.
On the whole, we form beliefs about things that matter to us, things
concerning which we need to integrate the evidence because we need
to establish a settled way of reacting to the world-where "reacting"
includes verbal behavior, and even tacit speech or thought directed
only to ourselves. The function of believing is to give ourselves a stable
way of reacting to the world in the face of the evidence. A belief best
performs this function when it fully integrates all the evidence that the
believer faces.
A belief*, however, is by definition a response to the world not to-
tally fixed by the evidence, perhaps even one integrating some pieces
of evidence while clashing with others. A belief* is something I hold
in the clear consciousness that other, alternative beliefs* are also open
to me, while no belief that is not a belief* is open to me. Whatever I
believe*, the evidence I face will be less than fully integrated, n1Y world
will be less than fully intelligible, and there will be a distinct danger
of instability, ambiguity, and tension in my reactions to it. From the
standpoint of the project of believing, this result is unsatisfactory. To
122 / tJNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
believe* is always to fall short of success in the project one has in every
believing.
Now we can see why Sartre might hold that "to believe is not to be-
lieve," that "no belief is enough belief," that "we never believe what we
believe." All belief* is imperfect, a project we are unable to complete.
To believe* is not to succeed in doing what every believing-and that
includes every believing*-tries to do. No belief* does enough of what
beliefs* aim at doing. What we believe* never does the job a belief* is
supposed to do, and so in that sense we never quite believe* what we
believe*.
Sartre thinks our consciousness of the imperfection of our beliefs*
becomes especially acute when we reflect on them, when we become
aware of them as beliefs*. "To know that one believes is no longer
to believe. Hence to believe is no longer to believe because it is only
to believe" (BN 110/114). In becoming aware that my belief* is only
belief*, I become aware that it is I who maintain myself in nlY belief*,
and I see clearly too that nothing in the state of the evidence prevents
me equally from adopting this or that alternative belief*. But to see that
is already to see nlyself as not quite believing what I have defined myself
as believing. It is in this act of reflection that we are most clearly aware
of the conlplete compatibility, in all cases of belief*, of believing and
disbelieving the same proposition, and even the reciprocal dependence
of belief and disbelief in these cases.
If we could regularly achieve a perfect integration of the evidence
we face, so that beliefs* were a rarity, merely a marginal phenomenon
in human life, then the phenomenon of faith (good faith or bad faith),
would not be central to our dealings with the world. But I think Sartre
is convinced that the human condition is sufficiently shot through with
complexities, anlbiguities, uncertainties, and tensions that we cannot
live without believing*, that a wide range of our responses to the world
must consist of beliefs* that are conscious of their own inadequacy.
Moreover, these complexities, ambiguities, and uncertainties often hit
us right where we live, in our beliefs about ourselves, about our char-
acter traits and the meaning of our actions, in our beliefs about our
relations to others, in our beliefs about what is worth living for, beliefs
about morality and philosophy, politics and religion. If Sartre is right
about this-if in the things that matter we almost never find ourselves
in the enviable position of the perfect knower, with our reactions to the
world fixed scientifically by a complete integration of the evidence-
then the typical case of believing is after all a case of believing*.
SELF-DECEPTIO AND BAD FAITH I 123
4.5 Good Faith and Bad Faith
The imperfection of belief*, the fact that no belieh ever succeeds in
being what it needs to be, is what makes bad faith possible. Every
belief* is faith but not every belief* is bad faith. Sartre insists that
there is also the possibility of good faith, and that good faith is belief*
every bit as much as bad faith is. Both good faith and bad faith come
to terms with the fact that we must believe* and with the fact that no
belieh is ever enough, that we never quite believe what we believe*.
But good faith and bad faith come to terms with the imperfection of
belief* in different ways.
Both good faith and bad faith want to flee the imperfection of belief*.
The difference is that "good faith wants to flee the 'not believing what
one believes' into being; bad faith flees being into the 'not believing
what one believes" '(BN 111/115). What this seems to mean is that
good faith is forever discontent with its own imperfection and strives
to complete the project of believing, it believes* but only in order to
convert its belieh into an integral response to the world. Good faith
therefore involves "critical thought," its beliefs* are always open to
revision in the light of new evidence; good faith even strives to alter
its beliefs* whenever the alteration brings it closer to completing the
project of believing.
Bad faith, by contrast, is less quixotic and self-alienated, more real-
istic, more modest in its demands; it may be less "rational," but it is
more reasonable. Bad faith realizes that the condition of "not believing
what one believes" is inescapable, that all belief* is inevitably a decision
in a situation of ambiguity. It is resigned to the fact that whatever it
says it believes will be something that fails fully to integrate its world.
So it is "resigned in advance to not being fulfilled by the evidence," and
all evidence for it becomes "unpersuasive evidence," since belief* can
never rest solely or squarely on the evidence anyway (BN 109/113).
Bad faith defines itself as believing* something that at the same
time it quite consciously disbelieves, insofar as its belieh fails to inte-
grate certain elements of its world, leaving them outside its belief* and
clashing with it.
No belief is enough belief, one never believes what one believes. And
consequently the primitive project of bad faith is only the employment
of this self-destruction of the fact of consciousness. If all belief in good
faith is an impossible belief, then there is a place for every impossible
belief. My inability to believe I am courageous will not deter me, since
no belief, strictly speaking is ever able to believe enough. As my belief I
shall define this impossible belief. Certainly I cannot hide from myself
that I believe in order not to believe, and that I do not believe in
124 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
order to believe. But this subtle and total annihilation of bad faith by
itself cannot surprise me: it exists as the foundation of all faith. (BN
110/114-115)
Both bad faith and good faith are counterexamples to the central
assumption behind Sartre's problem of self-deception: the assumption
that there is a contradiction in consciously believing and disbelieving
the same proposition at he sanle time. For both good faith and bad faith
involve belief*, a state of mind in which believing some proposition p
(adopting it as one's integrating response to the world) can without
contradiction coexist consciously with disbelieving p (recognizing its
inadequacy as an integrating response to the world). The difference
between good faith and bad faith, and the reason why we may call
the one and not the other a form of "self-deception," is that in good
faith the project of belief is still being carried on in earnest, belief* is
still striving to perform its function as integrating evidence for a stable
response to the world, even if its striving is unsuccessful. In bad faith,
however, this is no longer the case. In bad faith, belief* has become
content with itself as belief*.
But why then do people fall into bad faith? Why should I consciously
be content with a belief* that fails to complete the project of believing*?
The answer is obvious enough. For our beliefs are often called upon
to do far more than integrate the evidence. Beliefs also interact with
our desires, wishes, feelings, and emotions, which make demands on
them which diverge from the demands placed on belief by the evidence.
Bad faith is a state in which we consciously satisfy these extraneous
demands. It is open to us to satisfy them because we can never do
n10re than believe*, and that liberates us to some degree from the
cruel constraints of the evidence. For bad faith, as for the honest Kant,
it is well that we cannot know, but must believe*.
But if believing can serve to satisfy our desires and cater to our feel-
ings, why not treat these as functions coequal with that of integrating
the evidence? The answer to this question is clear enough in cases of
belief which are not cases of belief*. Where beliefs successfully inte-
grate our response to the world, there is no room for selecting them
on the basis of their service to other needs, and people do not worry
about whether they are doing any good or harm by holding the beliefs
they hold. It is only where belief has admittedly failed, where it has
taken the consciously imperfect form of belief*, that the question can
arise, and only there that bad faith's answer is an option at all. The
question whether anything except the evidence should determine vvhat
we believe is a question that can be raised only in bad faith.
SELF-DECEPTION AND BAD FAITH / 125
Yet in a sense the question remains a real one, because it is part of
what Sartre calls "the Weltanschauung of bad faith" to behave as if the
function of believing is as much to cater to our desires and feelings as it
is to conform to the evidence and produce an integral response to the
world (BN 108/113). Because bad faith has its own Weltanschauung,
it is not surprising that it should have its defenders too. We see this
Weltanschauung exhibited often enough, perhaps most conspicuously
by a certain style of tender-minded religious apologetics, but in other
places too-in that aestheticism that calls it philistine not to prefer
the beauty of poetic fancies to the petty facts and displeasing truths
of science; or in that comfortable (pseudo-Humean) skepticism that
counsels us to ignore shrill reason in favor of the mellower promptings
of nature. The first two essays in this volun1e have already tried to say
what is wrong with this Weltanschauung of bad faith. 17
4.6 Bad Faith as a Form of Self-Deception
How successfully does Sartre's conception of bad faith solve his problem
about self-deception? We have seen that in belief*, in good faith as
well as bad faith, Sartre has given us a counterexample to the central
assumption behind his problem: he has shown how believing something
can coexist consciously with disbelieving the same thing. In bad faith,
Sartre has also displayed for us a case of belief* in which the pressure of
wishes, emotions and so on, might consciously influence belief, bringing
about a state we are probably inclined to describe as "self-deception."
Yet there is no need to appeal to either a divided mind or unconscious
mental processes in explaining how bad faith works.
Despite Sartre's success on this point, I doubt that his concept of
bad faith can account for all the phenomena of self-deception, even for
all the phenomena Sartre himself appears to recognize. It cannot, for
example, account for a case in which "I as deceiver know the truth that
is masked for me as the one deceived, and know that truth precisely,
17 "Bad faith does not preserve the norms and the criteria of truth as they are
accepted by the critical thought of good faith. The thing it decides first, in effect,
is the nature of truth" (BN 108-109/113). These remarks may mislead. They are
accurate if they are taken as describing the unreflective conduct characteristic of
bad faith, but they are false if they are taken to indicate a catalog of beliefs that
someone in bad faith must hold. It would even undermine Sartre's project of solving
his problem about self-deception on the conscious level if he thought that when you
are in bad faith you must have deceived yourself about the essential function of belief
and its proper standards-believing one thing about these matters while knowing
that your belief is false. For this would make bad faith rest on a kind of self-deception
for which, as we shall see in 6, Sartre has no account. Fortunately, however, there
is no need for to make the claims that would get him into this trouble.
126 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
in order to hide it from myself the more carefully" (BN 87--88/89). In
bad faith, I disbelieve what I believe* to the extent that I recognize
my belief* as an imperfect attempt to produce an integral response
to the world. But bad faith is not a case in which I disbelieve what I
believe* in the stronger sense of knowing that what I believe is false
while nevertheless believing it. If there are cases of self-deception which
involve this stronger sort of disbelief of what one believes, then we can
give no account of them in terms of bad faith alone.
The devices available to Sartrian bad faith seem, on the whole, to be
restricted to what Harry Stack Sullivan calls "selective inattention." 18
In bad faith, I n1aintain my belief by consciously attending to those as-
pects of the world that the belief integrates, and directing my attention
away from those aspects that clash with my belief. (I permit myself to
do this consciously because I am aware in advance that I cannot do
more than believe*, and that whatever belief* I hold I will have to be
selective in this way.) Sartre's own description of the woman in bad
faith exhibits a clear preference for selective inattention as the device
by which her state is maintained.
19
But it is doubtful that selective
inattention by itself can satisfactorily explain her success in deceiving
herself, because it cannot account for its own selectiveness. As Sartre
himself depicts her, the woman knows her companion's intentions, and
uses this knowledge to select what to attend to in his behavior, so as
to avoid becoming conscious of what she knows. Some sort of "divided
mind" explanation, most likely involving unconscious knowledge and
unconscious choices, seems required to account for this conduct.
Bad faith and self-deception involving unconscious mental processes
seem to be two quite distinct and equally tenable ways of responding
to Sartre's problem about self-deception. But in the actual conduct of
self-deception, is bad faith wholly distinct from self-deception involving
unconscious processes?
Consider the case of Mr. Nicholas Bulstrode, the pious, prosperous,
and respected banker in George Eliot's Middlemarch. Bulstrode was
not always so rich, however, or so respectable. And his past comes back
to haunt him in the forn1 of the sickly, bibulous, and garrulous Raffles,
who knows too much about how Bulstrode made his money, and forces
himself on Bulstrode as an unwelcome houseguest by threatening to
18Harry Stack Sullivan, Clinical Studies in Psychiatry (New York: W. W. Norton,
1956), chap. 3.
19 "She interests herself only in what is discrete and respectful in her companion's
attitude," "She does not take his conduct as part of the 'first approach' ," "She
refuses to take his desire for what it is," "She does not notice that she is leaving
[her hand in his]" (BN 94/96, 96/98, 97/100).
SELF-DECEPTION AND BAD FAITH / 127
tell what he knows. Dr. Lydgate has told Bulstrode that Raffles' illness
is not at present life-threatening, but Lydgate has warned Bulstrode
repeatedly not to allow Raffles to indulge his taste for brandy, since
in his present diseased state this might be very dangerous Bulstrode
admits to himself his desire for Raffles' death, but as a God-fearing
man he vows not to let this desire influence his conduct: he will obey
the doctor's orders.
Should Providence in this case award death, there was no sin in con-
templating death as the desirable issue-if he kept his hands from
hastening it-if he scrupulously did what was prescribed. Even here
there might be a mistake; human prescriptions were fallible things;
Lydgate had said that treatment had hastened death-why not his
own method of treatment? But of course intention was everything in
the question of right and wrong. (M, p. 644)20
Wearied by the thought of what Raffles' loose tongue might do to his
reputation in the town, Bulstrode decides not to watch the night with
his patient, but to go early to bed, putting the sick man in the care
of his servant, Mrs. Abel, who knows nothing of Dr. Lydgate's orders
but what the master has told her. But then when Mrs. Abel urges
that Raffles be given the brandy he craves, Bulstrode strangely fails to
mention Dr. Lydgate's orders (has he forgotten them?) and gives her
the key to the wine cooler where the brandy is to be found. Before Dr.
Lydgate sees him again, Raffles has sunk into a sleep from which he
will never wake. When the end comes, however, Bulstrode's conscience
is at rest, "soothed by the enfolding wing of secrecy, which seemed
then like an angel sent down for his relief" (M, p. 650). Bulstrode
accordingly offers his sincerest prayers of gratitude to Providence, which
has chosen to release him from the cause of his anxiety. As to his own
behavior in the matter, "Who could say that the death of Raffles has
been hastened? Who knew what would have saved him?" (M, p. 651).
Bulstrode surely knows (at some level) that by letting Raffles have
the brandy, he has killed him; but consciously he does not let himself
believe it, for he is a Christian and a man of conscience, who could not
bear the thought of committing a cold-blooded murder. He conceals
from himself the link between his conduct and the consummation of
his desire, although the link is plain enough to him.
A man vows, and yet will not cast away the means of breaking his vow.
Is it that he distinctly means to break it? Not at all; but the desires
which tend to break it are at work in him dimly, and make their way
20George Eliot, Middlemarch (New York: Bantam Books, 1985), abbreviated
throughout as "M" and cited by page number.
128 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
into his imagination, and relax his muscles in the very moments when
he is telling himself over again the reasons for his vow (M, p. 647).
Even in his inmost prayers, we are told, Bulstrode cannot "unravel
the confused promptings of the last four-and-twenty hours"; but then
private prayer, after all, "is inaudible speech, and speech is represen-
tative; who can represent himself just as he is, even in his own reflec-
tions?" (M, p. 650).
Bulstrode's state is not merely one of bad faith; his self-deception
requires for its explanation some appeal to a "divided mind," some sort
of partition between what Bulstrode unconsciously knows and what he
consciously makes himself believe. But bad faith is plainly there too,
in his conscious thoughts. On the one hand, there is the attitude of
cautious doubt, used in the manner of bad faith to show that he does
not have to believe what it would prove inconvenient or painful to
believe: "Human prescriptions were fallible things," "Who could say
that the death of Raffles had been hastened? Who knew what would
have saved him?" Bulstrode makes full use of "the common trick of
desire-which avails itself of any irrelevant skepticism, finding larger
room for itself in all uncertainty about effects, in every obscurity that
looks like the absence of law" (M, p. 645).
On the other hand, there is also bad faith's selective appeal to argu-
ment and evidence, its use of plausible arguments that one nevertheless
knows in advance can never be wholly convincing. In Bulstrode's case,
these argun1ents take a special form because he is a man who values
not only righteousness but also the appearance of righteousness, and
who values both so highly that he has gotten out of the habit of dis-
tinguishing sharply between them: "For who, after all, can know how
much of this most inward life is made up of the thoughts he believes
other n1en to have about him?" (M, p. 629). Hence Bulstrode has a
certain weakness for arguments that might perhaps convince others,
even if not himself-yet they are offered precisely to himself, and not
to others. Thus, just as Bulstrode tells Dr. Lydgate the next day, "I
was over-worn, and left [Raffles] under Mrs. Abel's care," (M, p. 651)
so he had told himself the night before, "It was excusable in him, that
he should forget part of an order, in his present wearied condition" (M,
p.649).
In Mr. Bulstrode, some form of self-deception involving a divided
mind seems not only to coexist with bad faith, but even to use bad faith
for its ends. Bad faith serves as the solicitor, as it were, for thoughts
and deeds Mr. Bulstrode refuses to acknowledge, representing the in-
terests of these thoughts and deeds before the forum of Mr. Bulstrode's
SELF-DECEPTION AND BAD FAITH / 129
consciousness. We may suspect that it is not uncommon for bad faith
to be employed in this "vay as the conscious agent of some deeper form
of self-deception.
5
Relativism
Many different ideas have been given the name 'relativism', and the
term has been used to pillory all sorts of views (sometimes for good
reasons, sometimes for bad ones). It is mere posturing to say that you
are for or against "relativism" unless you say what you mean by the
term. Here I want mainly to discuss (and to criticize) a view I have
encountered among students in philosophy courses, who say things like
this: "What anyone believes is true for that person. What you believe
is true for you, what I believe is true for me." We can call the view
expressed in such statements 'relativism' because it denies that there
is any such thing as "absolute" truth, holds that all truth is relative to
the person who believes it.
5.1 Protagorean Relativism
Though relativism is strangely attractive to some beginners in phi-
losophy, there are virtually no relativists among significant figures in
the history of philosophy. The principal exception to this last claim is
Protagoras of Abdera (c. 485-410 B.C.), a Greek philosopher who ap-
parently put forward a version of relativism in a treatise entitled Truth.
Protagoras traveled to many city-states, taught many influential people,
and became very wealthy. He was possibly the most successful of the
teachers in fifth century Greece who were known as 'sophists'. None of
Protagoras' writings have come down to us, but his views are reported
by others, chiefly by Plato in the dialogues Protagoras and Theaetetus.
According to Protagoras, "The human being is the measure of all
things, of those that are, that they are, and of those that are not,
that they are not." 1 By this Protagoras apparently meant that each
1 Plato, Theaetetus, tr. J. McDowell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973) 152A. Rel-
ativist views were also put forward in an anonymous document, called the Dissoi
logoi (or "double accounts") which was composed at about the same time. See
131
132 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
individual person is the measure of how things are to that person: things
are or are not (to me) according as they appear to me to be or not be.
Protagoras was thinking of cases like this: To me the wind feels cold,
while to you the wind feels warm. About this case Protagoras wants
to say the following: The wind isn't (absolutely or in itself) either cold
or warm; "cold" and "warm" are merely subjective states or feelings.
To me the wind feels (or is) cold, and to you it feels (or is) warm, and
beyond this there is no fact of the matter concerning the temperature
of the wind.
2
Protagoras' relativism may have been a response to some of the
metaphysical assertions made by his contemporaries, such as Par-
menides of Elea. Parmenides' view was: What is, is; what is not, is
not. What falls under the senses, however, is always changing, always
different from what went before and will come after, and comes before
us only by seeming this way or that way to us. What truly is cannot
become or change, must be different from anything it is not, and can-
not be perceived by the senses. The only reality is Being or the One.
What merely appears is nothing at all. If the mere seeming of sense
perception falls short of total Being, it can have no reality whatever.
Against this, Protagoras understandably wanted to defend the real-
ity of sense perception, and say that there is such a thing as the way
something appears. According to Plato's account, however, Protagoras
wanted to extend his defense of appearance to the point of saying that
appearances are completely real, as real as it gets. He also wanted to
extend 'appearances' beyond perceptual feelings to other kinds of seem-
ings, such as beliefs. If I believe that the world is a certain way, then
that's how the world seems to me, and so that's how the world is (to
me). If you have a different belief, then that's how the world appears,
and therefore how it is, to you.
From this Protagoras concluded that error and false belief are abso-
lutely impossible.
3
For a belief says only how things seem to someone,
and how they seem to anyone is always how they are (for that person).
In fact this view is not so far from Parmenides' own view, which empha-
sized reality to the extent of denying appearance altogether. Protagoras,
by contrast, inflates the "appearance" side of the appearance/reality
distinction to the point where it completely excludes the "reality" side.
So he too is denying there is any room for a difference between appear-
ance and reality.
Jonathan Barnes, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (London: Routledge, 1979), pp.
516-535.
2Plato, Theaetetus 152B.
3Plato, Theaetetus 160C.
RELATIVISM / 133
Let's try to imagine a world of which Protagoras' relativism would
give us a correct account. Suppose a world composed entirely of inde-
pendent sets of private sensations or experiences (such as my feeling
of cold, which is present only to me and not to you, and your feeling
of warmth, which is present to you and not to me). I have access only
to my private experiences, you have access only to yours, and neither
of us has access to anything we might share in common-to a public
or "objective" world, containing things like material objects. To get
Protagoras's view, however, we must suppose not only that myexpe-
riences are there only for me, but also that I can't be mistaken about
any of them. And in order to exclude the possibility of any sort of er-
ror, we have to suppose, finally, that in this world people can formulate
judgments only about things with which they are acquainted, so that
I couldn't make any erroneous judgments about someone else's experi-
ences. But in the world we're imagining now, there isn't anything about
which two people could either agree or disagree. Each of us is shut up in
our own private microcosm; my seemings don't even exist in your little
world, and yours don't exist in mine. There couldn't be any error or
falsehood, because the only things a person can make judgments about
are exactly as that person thinks they are. In that sense each person's
beliefs in that world are (necessarily and infallibly) true, but they are
true only for that person since no one else could possibly have access
to that truth.
But for this very reason, it could equally be argued that in such
a world there would be no place at all for the idea of "truth". Truth
applies only to judgments about a shared world, which can be either
as son1eone believes it is or otherwise than it is believed to be. For the
possibility of saying or believing son1ething true goes hand in hand with
the possibility of saying or believing something false; in a world where
there is no possibility of ever calling a belief or assertion "false", there
would also be no use for the word "true". In such a world, however,
there would also be no use for the word "belief". For beliefs aim at
truth, and to believe that p is exactly the same thing as believing that
p is true. If I can't apply "true" to my thoughts or speech acts, then
none of my thoughts could count as a belief And since to assert that p
is no different from asserting that pis true, nothing anyone says in that
world could even count as an assertion.
We don't think we live in a world of that kind. We take ourselves
to have beliefs and make assertions, and we think our world contains
public objects for beliefs and assertions to be about. We even think of
our "private" sensations as public objects in the sense that other people
can have beliefs about them that can be true or false. If you say that
134 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
the wind feels warm to you, I might believe you lying to me, or even
that you are lying to yourself This could not happen in a Protagorean
world. In fact, even our ability to imagine a Protagorean world shows
that for us this world is not Protagorean at all. For although we have
been thinking of that world as one in which people's private experiences
would not be public objects in that world, we have nevertheless been
taking it for granted that the judgulents we have been making about
their experiences are shared and public between us.
5.2 Is Relativism Self-Refuting?
What this suggests is that Protagoras' view isn't true in our world. But
perhaps relativism couldn't be true in any world. That is what Plato
thought. He argued that Protagoras' relativism is necessarily false, be-
cause it refutes itself
4
The problem arises as soon as Protagoras tries either to assert rela-
tivism or believe it. If Protagoras asserts relativism, then he asserts that
relativism is true, and that those (such as Plato) who deny relativism
say and believe something false. But relativism denies that anyone can
say or believe anything false. Hence to be consistent Protagoras nlust
concede that the denier of relativisnl says and believes something true.
Consequently, relativism is committed to saying that its own denial is
true, and in this way it refutes itself.
Protagoras might try to escape the problem by saying that rela-
tivism is true for the relativist, while the denial of relativism is true
for the non-relativist. He might even try to say that when he asserts a
proposition, he isn't asserting that the proposition is (absolutely) true
(since the notion of absolute truth is just what a relativist wants to get
rid of) but only that it is true for him. But what is "true for" supposed
to mean here?
Suppose you and I disagree about something. I think there was once
life on Mars and you think there never was. In such a case, we do say
things like this: "For me it is true that there was life on Mars, but for
you it is true that there never was." What this means is: In my opinion,
it is (absolutely, objectively) true that life once existed on Mars, while
in your opinion it is (absolutely, objectively) true that life never existed
on Mars.
Or again, we say things like this: "For me, it is true that dot-com
investments in the 1990s were disastrous, while for you it is true that
they were profitable." This might refer to our respective opinions about
dot-com investments in the 1990s: whether we think that they were in
4Plato, Theaetetus 161C 162A.
RELATIVISM / 135
general good or a bad investn1ents for people at large; but it might
also mean that it is (absolutely, objectively) true that I lost my shirt
investing in dot-com companies in the 1990s, while you made big bucks
investing in such companies. None of these uses of "true for" succeed
in getting rid of the notion of (absolute, objective) truth; on the con-
trary, when we spell out what they mean, we see that this notion is
indispensable to explaining what they mean.
When pressed, relativists usually say that p is "true for me" if I
believe that p. But this answer is no help, because believing that p
is once again no different from believing that p is (absolutely) true.
If relativists say that this isn't what they mean when they assert a
proposition or say they believe it, then they are apparently using the
terms "assert" and "believe" in some new and mysterious sense. Until
they explain the meanings these words have for them, we can't be
sure what (if anything) they are really saying when their mouths make
noises that sound (to us) like assertions of relativism. Understanding
their words in the usual sense, if you try to assert or believe that there
is no (absolute) truth, it has to follow that you can't believe anything at
all (not even relativism), and so nothing can be true even for you (not
even relativism). Relativism is self-refuting simply because it has no
way of using or making sense of the expression "true for me" without
relying implicitly on the notion "(absolutely) true," the very notion
relativism wants to reject.
5
5There are "antirealist" theories of truth that deny that the truth of a thought or
assertion is correspondence with the real world and hold instead that it consists in
meeting some criterion or passing some test of verifiability. See Michael Dummett,
Truth and Other Enigmas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978). Such the-
ories are not usually intended to be relativistic, but they would be if we suppose
that there could be different and competing criteria or tests of verifiability, since
the identification of truth with a criterion or test would then entail that there are a
plurality of truths. One could say that when an assertion meets one certain criterion
for truth but fails to meet another, then it is true for those who accept the first cri-
terion but not true for those who accept the second. But this would be misleading,
since on an antirealist theory of truth, what each criterion is a criterion for is being
identified with passing that criterion itself, and so different criteria could not really
be criteria for the same thing ("truth"), nor (for the same reason) could they really
be competing criteria. But what this really shows is that as soon as an antirealist
theory of truth admits a plurality of criteria, what it calls 'truth' ceases to behave
the way the notion of truth is supposed to behave on either a realist or an antirealist
theory of truth. Hence this is not going to provide any intelligible account of the
relativist notion of "true for" either. On this point, see Chris Swoyer, "True For,"
in Michael Krausz and Jack Meiland (eds.) Relativism, Cognitive and Moral (Notre
Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), pp. 84-108. The fact that we might
be tempted to take antirealist theories of truth in this direction really illustrates
the point that wherever there is a criterion or test for verifiability, it is always con-
ceivable that there should be other, competing criteria or tests for the same thing
136 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
If their own assertions of relativism are to make sense, relativists
must allow at least one proposition to be absolutely true, namely rel-
ativism itself. Suppose we let the relativist make relativism itself an
exception (the sole exception) to its own claim that all truth is rela-
tive. The relativist now says that relativism is true absolutely, and all
beliefs except relativism and its denial are true only relatively (true for
those who believe them). This retreat seems to save relativism from
direct self-refutation, but it looks extremely ad hoc. Before it looked as
if the relativist's view was that there is something wrong with the very
idea of absolute truth; but now the relativist can no longer say that.
And once we're allowed to use the notion of absolute truth in asserting
relativism, then it's natural to wonder why there couldn't be any other
absolute truths except relativism. And of course if there are any others,
then relativism itself is absolutely false, since it denies that there is any
absolute truth (except itself).
Even with this retreat, relativism becomes just as self-refuting as it
was before as soon as the relativist tries to apply the notion of relative
truth to what anyone believes. For it is still true that to believe that p is
to believe p is true (absolutely). Thus in order to assert that anything
is true jor someone, the relativist has to say that something else besides
relativism is true absolutely. For instance, if the relativist holds that
"p is true for Socrates" n1eans "Socrates believes that p" , then in order
to assert that p is true for Socrates, the relativist has to assert that it
is true (absolutely) that Socrates believes that p. But then "Socrates
believes that p" is an absolute truth other than relativism, which entails
that relativism is absolutely false.
("truth"). And what that shows, in turn, is that antirealist theories of truth are
fundamentally mistaken in simply identifying truth with any proposed criterion or
test for truth. In general, it belongs to the nature of criteria or tests for something's
being X that its really being X is logically distinct from its meeting any particular
criterion for being X. This holds for any property X that is not simply convention-
ally defined by some criterion (as being "one meter long" might be conventionally
defined by being the same length as the standard meter stick in Paris). But few
properties are like this. For instance, someone might consider having won the Most
Valuable Award in the American League for 2002 as the correct criterion for hav-
ing been the most valuable player in the American League that year; but someone
else might consider the sportswriters to have made a mistake, and think that some
other criterion (such as the player's statistical performance in batting average, runs
batted in or game-winning hits) would be a better criterion for saying that someone
was the most valuable player. Truth is like this case rather than being like the case
of the standard meter, in that different metaphysical or epistemological or semantic
theories may offer different and competing criteria for truth. Such a situation makes
sense only if we realize that a proposition's being true is something logically distinct
from its meeting any particular criterion for truth (even the criterion we think is
the right one).
RELATIVISM / 137
5.3 Ideas Not to Be COll.fused With Relativism
People who think they are relativists are often trying to express one
(or more) ideas different from relativism and not threatened with self-
refutation. Here are four such ideas:
I. Skepticism: All beliefs are uncertain; no belief is justified. Rela-
tivism looks something like skepticism in that they both put all beliefs
in the same boat.
6
Further, people are often attracted to relativism by
the feeling that others are too confident in the absolute truth of what
they believe, and skepticism is the view that no one is ever entitled to
such confidence. But skepticism is not the same as relativism, and is
even in a way its diametrical opposite. Relativism says that whatever
anybody believes must be true (for that person), so that no belief can
ever be mistaken, unjustified or even uncertain. Skepticisnl does not
deny that some beliefs are (absolutely) true, it denies only that we can
ever be sure which beliefs these are. Skepticisnl is quite an extreme po-
sition, and probably false; but it is not threatened with self-refutation,
as relativism is. For it is perfectly self-consistent to say that you hold
beliefs that are uncertain, or even unjustified. (Religious people some-
times say such things about beliefs they hold on faith.) A consistent
skeptic must hold that skepticism itself is uncertain, but there is no
self-refutation involved in doing that.
If a relativist catches you audaciously suggesting that there is such a
thing as (absolute) truth, then you are bound to be asked the rhetorical
question: "But who is to decide what the truth is?" Apparently the
relativist thinks that if you hold that there is an absolute, objective
truth, then you have to believe there is some authority whose word on
that truth must not be questioned. The rhetorical question appears to
be meant as a challenge to your presumed right to set yourself up as
such an authority. It is supposed to make you either abandon the whole
idea of absolute truth or else reveal yourself for the arrogant dogmatist
you are. But the possibility of skepticism shows very graphically that
this is a false dilemma. Skeptics don't deny that there is an absolute
truth, but they are as far fronl dognlatism as it is possible to be, since
6Thus Barry Barnes and David Bloor want to identify "relativism" with the
view that "all beliefs are on a par with one another with respect to the causes of
their creditability. It is not that all beliefs are equally true or equally false, but that
regardless of truth and falsity the fact of their credibility is to be seen as equally
problematic." "Relativism, Rationalism and the Sociology of Knowledge," in Martin
Hollis and Steven Lukes (eds.) Rationality and Relativism (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 1989), p. 23). Whether or not one finds their position plausible (I must admit
I regard it as extremely implausible), the thesis Barnes and Bloor call "relativism"
is not what we are discussing under that name, and is not self-refuting in the ways
we have described.
138 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
they deny absolutely that anyone (least of all then1selves) could ever
be in a position to say with certainty what the truth is. Even if you
aren't a skeptic, you can believe there is an (absolute) truth without
thinking that anyone counts as an infallible authority about what it is.
Even though skepticism is the exact opposite of relativism, I some-
times suspect that people have arrived at relativism by going through
skepticislu. First they became aware that there is widespread disagree-
ment on fundamental philosophical issues, which fostered in them a
commendable (though perhaps exaggerated) sense of intellectual mod-
esty. This led them (perhaps rashly) to the extreme skeptical conclusion
that nobody knows anything at all about anything and that all opin-
ions are equally doubtful. But that conclusion panicked them, so they
began looking around for a way in which people can be certain about
something even in the face of this universal uncertainty. As a quick way
out, they hit on this compromise: If everyone just stops trying to claim
absolute truth for what they believe, then in return we can let each
person's beliefs count as "true for them". But this attempt at a nego-
tiated settlement is bound to fail, because it is nothing but an attempt
to combine two mutually contradictory assertions, namely: "All beliefs
are utterly doubtful" and "All beliefs are unquestionably certain". If
the point of relativism is to try to cOITLbine these two assertions, then
it is easy to see why it has to be self-refuting.
II. Different people can be justified in holding different beliefs. In
the eighteenth century, chemists such as Georg Ernst Stahl and Joseph
Priestley held that when something burns, it loses a substance called
"phlogiston" . Later, after the researches of Antoine Lavoisier, chemists
came to reject the phlogiston theory in favor of the theory that com-
bustion involves not the loss of something, but the gain of something,
namely, oxygen.
7
Before Lavoisier, the most informed chemists in the
world all believed the phlogiston theory; very likely they were justified
in doing so: perhaps evidence for the phlogiston theory was so strong
that they would have been unreasonable if they had not believed it. But
Lavoisier acquired new evidence, which justifies rejecting the phlogiston
theory and believing the oxidation theory instead.
There is nothing relativistic in claiming that Stahl and Priestley were
justified in believing the phlogiston theory while Lavoisier was justified
in rejecting it. That is not at all the same as claiming that the phlo-
giston theory was "true for Stahl, but not true for Lavoisier." It is one
thing for a person to be justified in holding a belief, and a very different
7See I-Ienry Guerlac, Lavoisier: The Crucial Year (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1966).
RELATIVISM / 139
thing for the belief to be true. If you and I hold mutually incompati-
ble beliefs, then what at least one of us believes must be false; but it
could still be true that my belief is justified on the evidence I have and
your belief is justified on the evidence you have. In a case like this the
obvious thing to do is to communicate with one another as we inquire,
sharing evidence until (hopefully) we eventually come to agreement on
(what we hope is) the truth, But we shouldn't deceive ourselves into
thinking that this is a simple or easy process, or that the atten1pt to
reach agreement will always be successful. Priestley was a good scien-
tist, and he knew of Lavoisier's results, but he died still believing in the
phlogiston theory, even after most chemists considered it discredited.
The fact that intelligent people often can't reach agreement does not
show that there is no true or false, no right or wrong.
III. People sometimes hold conflicting beliefs without any of them
being wholly mistaken because they each see different aspects of the
same reality. Suppose you are climbing a mountain from the south and
I am clin1bing the same mountain from the north. The north side of
the mountain is covered with evergreen trees; the south side is barren
and rocky. On the basis of what I see around me, I judge that the
whole mountain is covered with forest; on the basis of what you see,
you judge that the whole mountain is barren rock. Here each of us holds
a true belief about the part of the mountain we see, but a false belief
about the mountain as a whole. Different religions have sometimes been
depicted as different paths up the same mountain (whose summit is
God, salvation or religious truth); each describes a different path to the
summit, and describes it accurately, but there is more to the mountain
(the religious life) than any of them realizes; so every religion is in error
when it denies the experience of other religions.
The claim here is not that any religion is "true for' its believers. It
is rather that every religion contains some of the (objective, absolute)
truth by correctly representing the side of God or religious truth the
religion genuinely experiences. But this also implies that each religion
is limited and fallible, containing some falsehood to the extent that
it regards itself as complete and in exclusive possession of the truth.
The point of the picture n1ight be that each religious tradition deserves
respect because it has part of the truth; but it implies equally that the
adherents of each religion should be wary of its blind spots and open
to the elements of truth in other religions that are missing in their
own. This last point, however, is one that a relativist can't make, and
must even deny. For since relativists are committed to saying that every
person's beliefs are wholly true (for that person), relativism rules out
140 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
the possibility that anyone's beliefs are open to correction or completion
by considering some other viewpoint.
IV. Fallibilism: We might always be mistaken in what we believe.
Rene Descartes thought that we can be infallible in some of our asser-
tions: for example, that when you attend to your own thinking, your
assertion "I think, therefore I exist" could not possibly be mistaken.
8
This denies fallibilism, since Descartes holds that son1e of our beliefs
could not be mistaken. But Descartes thought that many of his own
beliefs had turned out to be erroneous and many beliefs we need for
everyday life are always going to be somewhat uncertain. He held that
we can achieve infallibility only about a few things, and then only if
we follow the right philosophical method very cautiously and carefully.
Other philosophers, however, such as Charles Sanders Peirce, have dis-
agreed with Descartes, maintaining that we are always going to be
fallible in everything we believe (the term "fallibilism" was Peirce's
invention).
9
Son1e relativists seem directly to equate relativism lith
fallibilism. When you deny relativism (or assert that there is such a
thing as absolute truth), they can interpret this only as a denial of fal-
libilism. But this is a confusion. When you assert that p, you take the
risk that you will have to take the assertion back if it is shown to be
wrong; at the same tin1e you assert that p, you commit yourself to the
claim that you aren't in fact mistaken in your assertion that p, and you
risk having to take that back too. But in asserting that p you aren't
thereby committing yourself to saying that your assertion that p is in-
fallible and couldn't possibly be proven wrong in the future. If p turns
out to be false, you don't have any claim of infallibility to take back
because you neither made nor implied such a claim when you asserted
that p. Not only is fallibilism perfectly consistent with holding beliefs
about what is (absolutely) true, but fallibilism itself makes sense only
if you are prepared to n1ake some assertions about what is absolutely
true, since unless you do this there is nothing at all for you to be fallible
about.
Actually, it is the relativists who are committed to denying falli-
bilism. For according to them, they can't be fallible in any of their
clain1s that son1ething is absolutely true (since they make no such
clain1s); nor can they have false beliefs about anything they believe
to be relatively true, since relativism says that whatever I believe
is true (for me). Therefore, relativists are committed to being total
8Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, tr. Don-
ald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), pp. 17 and 61.
9See C.S. Peirce, "The Scientific Attitude and Fallibilism," Philosophical Writ-
ings of Peirce, edited by J. Buchler (New York: Dover, 1955), pp. 42-59.
RELATIVISM / 141
infallibilists-infallibilists not merely about a special class of their be-
liefs (as Descartes is), but infallibilists about absolutely all their beliefs.
5.4 Ethical Relativism
In 2 we tried (unsuccessfully) to save relativism from self-refutation
by exempting relativism itself from the claim that all truth is relative.
We might have better luck if we try admitting that most beliefs (es-
pecially scientific or purely factual beliefs) are true or false absolutely,
but holding that relativism is nevertheless correct for some limited class
of beliefs. Since relativists are often interested in applying their view
chiefly to ethical issues, we might try ethical relativism. It says: There is
no absolute truth about ethics, but only relative truth. What I believe
is morally right (or wrong) is right (or wrong) for me, and what you
believe is right is right for you. If I think abortion is wrong, then it is
true for me that abortion is wrong; if you think abortion is OK, then
it is true for you that abortion is OK.
A natural question is: Why pick on ethical beliefs in this way? The
answers most often given are these two:
A. People never agree on ethical questions.
B. There is no way of knowing any absolute truth about ethics.
Critics of ethical relativism often point out that there is more agree-
ment on ethical questions than (A) admits: for instance, when you take
account of the differing circun1stances and factual beliefs of different
cultures, it is not so hard to account for their differing ethical custon1S
and opinions on the basis of a comn1on set of fundamental ethical prin-
ciples. There is also a very practical reason for assuming that eventual
agreement on ethical questions is possible: namely, that if people are to
treat one another with mutual respect and seek rational agreement on
disputed questions, they have to proceed on the provisional assun1ption
that the agreement they seek is at least possible. The critics also clain1
that (B) is a wild exaggeration: For some ethical truths seem virtually
impossible for anyone to doubt. Who, outside the artificial atmosphere
of a philosophical discussion, could seriously claim to doubt that it
would be wrong to torture a child to death before its parents' eyes just
for the fun of it?
But let us grant both (A) and (B), at least for the sake of argument.
The problem for ethical relativism is that they don't entail ethical rela-
tivism. Further, ethical relativism isn't the only (or even the best) way
of accounting for them. (B) seems to assert ethical skepticism, which
would provide a natural explanation for (A) as well, since if no one
142 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
knows anything about a subject, then that explains why people have
widely differing opinions about it.
When we limit relativisn1 to ethical beliefs, relativism itself no longer
has to count as only relatively true, so it looks as if it has been rescued
from the threat of self-refutation. But the rescue will be successful only
if:
(i) Ethical relativism itself is not an ethical belief; and
(ii)Ethical relativism does not share with ethical beliefs the features
which make them only relatively and not absolutely true.
But both (i) and (ii) are doubtful, or at least very difficult for ethi-
cal relativists to hold consistently with their relativism. The relativist's
main reason for thinking that ethical beliefs can't be absolutely true is
that they are endlessly controversial. Ethical relativism shares this fea-
ture with ethical beliefs: people don't agree about ethical relativism ei-
ther. Moreover, ethical relativists often want to treat ethical relativism
as if it were an ethical belief, or as if it implied certain ethical beliefs.
For instance, they think ethical relativism implies that we should be
tolerant of people with ethical beliefs different from our own (however,
see 6 below.) If either (i) or (ii) is false, then ethical relativism must
regard itself as only relatively true, and so it 'would be self-refuting after
all. So if ethical relativism is to avoid self-refutation, ethical relativists
cannot treat ethical relativism as if it were itself a substantive ethical
view (supporting tolerance, for instance). And as long as ethical rela-
tivism remains as controversial as many ethical views are, they have to
explain why we should regard it as any n10re true than these views.
Even if these objections are waived, ethical relativism still inherits
some of the serious problems of unqualified relativism. Ethical rela-
tivists still haven't explained what (if anything) they mean by "true
for me". Since an ethical relativist doesn't believe that it's true (abso-
lutely) that killing is wrong, then the ethical relativist doesn't believe
that killing is wrong, and so it can't be true for the ethical relativist
that killing is wrong. Thus ethical relativists can't consistently have
any ethical beliefs of their own.
Once again we may learn something if we look at some other views
which might be confused with ethical relativism even though they are
quite distinct from (and even incompatible with) it:
I. Ethical Skepticism: No ethical belief is certain, all ethical beliefs
are unjustified. As before, ethical skepticism is the diametrical opposite
ofethical relativism, and as before, ethical skepticism is more defensible
than ethical relativism. Even so, unqualified ethical skepticism seems
exaggerated, to put it mildly. We need only think again of our belief,
RELATIVISM / 143
which no sane person could seriously doubt, that it would be wrong to
torture children before their parents' eyes just for the fun of it.
II. Ethical nihilism: All ethical statements are false. Ethical state-
ments predicate moral properties ("right," "wrong," "good," "evil,"
"just," "unjust") of people or actions or social institutions, etc.; but
(according to the ethical nihilist) the world does not contain any of
these properties; the belief in then1 is an error or a superstition, like
believing in gods or black magic or the bad luck which will happen if
you spill the salt. As Nietzsche puts it: "There are altogether no moral
facts. Moral judgments agree with religious ones in believing in realities
which are no realities. Morality is merely an interpretation of certain
phenomena-more precisely, a misinterpretation." 10 Ethical nihilism
and ethical relativism both deny that any ethical beliefs are absolutely
true, but ethical nihilism doesn't sugar-coat this denial by adding the
mysterious qualification that ethical beliefs are all nevertheless "true
for" the person who holds them. Ethical nihilism does have one prob-
lem in common with ethical relativism: Since you can't believe that p
unless you believe p is true, if you are either an ethical relativist or an
ethical nihilist, then you are committed to having no ethical beliefs at
all, not even beliefs like the one about torturing children cited in the
previous paragraph.
III. Emotivism: Ethical statements do not make assertions at all,
but instead express emotions or attitudes. According to the emotivist,
ethical statements do not really assert anything that could be true
or false. Instead, they express emotions of approval or disapproval,
rather like exclamations of joy or distaste. 11 On this view, to say "Kind-
ness is good" is like saying: "Hooray for kindness!" To say "Cruelty is
bad" is like saying: "Cruelty-Yuck!" Imperatives, like exclamations,
aren't true or false. So "prescriptivism", a variant of emotivism, holds
that ethical statements are not assertions but imperatives: "Killing is
wrong" means something like: "Don't kill!" 12 Emotivism has to be dif-
ferent fron1 ethical relativism because ethical relativism says that all
ethical beliefs are true (for someone), while emotivism says that no one
really has any ethical beliefs at all! Like ethical relativists and ethi-
cal nihilists, emotivists can't have any ethical beliefs, but this doesn't
lOWalter Kaufmann (ed.), The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking Press,
1968), p. 501.
11See C. L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1944) and A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (New York: Dover, 1946), pp.
102-115.
12See R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals (Oxford:Oxford University Press,
1952).
144 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
bother them because they have ethical sentiments or attitudes instead.
For example, emotivists can't believe anything about the wrongness
of torturing children, but they can have very strong negative feelings
about such practices and they can try to get others to share their feel-
ings. Emotivists try to reinterpret (what look like) ethical assertions
as really disguised expressions of emotion and commands or exhorta-
tions to share emotions. On the basis of such reinterpretations they
then claim that their view has the advantage that it rids us of the con-
fused and difficult task of justifying moral beliefs but otherwise makes
no difference to normative ethics. Accordingly, emotivists subscribe to
normative ethical the9ries such as utilitarianism and Kantianism just as
they would if they thought these theories involved beliefs about ethical
truth.
13
Emotivism is probably the most defensible of the views being
considered here; it is still defended by some philosophers, though it is
no longer nearly as popular among them as it was in the mid-twentieth
century.
IV. Cultural relativism: Different cultures have different ethical stan-
dards and the standards by which the conduct of any individual should
be measured are the mores of the community to which that individual
belongs. 14
5.5 Cultural Relativism
Cultural relativisn1, taken in this sense, deserves a separate discussion
all to itself. For it is not really a form of relativism at all in the sense
we have been using that term. If taken as merely a collectivized form
of ethical relativisn1, then it inherits all the other problems of ethical
relativism. But as just stated, cultural relativism does not deny that
ethical beliefs are true. It is a view about which ones are true and why.
Those who subscribe to cultural relativism about ethics are often
trying to make a point, which is both correct and important. Ethics or
morality itself can, in a certain sense, be seen as a social or cultural
phenomenon. The ethical beliefs by which most people guide their lives
and measure themselves tend to come in systems that are conjoined
with cultural practices and acquired by individuals as part of their
13But can they really preserve everything about normative ethics that they want
to? See Nicholas Sturgeon, "What Difference Does It Make if Moral Realism Is
Thue?" Southern Journal of Philosophy 24 (1986).
14For some defences, criticisms and other discussions of cultural relativism, see
Edward Westermarck, Ethical Relativity (New York: Humanities Press, 1960);
Richard B. Brandt, Ethical Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1959), pp.
98-105, 285-286; David Wong, Moral Relativity (Berkeley: University of Califor-
nia, 1985; and Richard Miller, Moral Differences (Princeton: Princeton University,
1992).
RELATIVISM / 145
socialization. Systems of ethical belief differ from culture to culture
in significant ways that anthropologists may study with profit. When
we deal with people in or from cultures different from our own, not
only prudence but also n10ral decency requires that we attend to these
differences and consider then1 with care and sensitivity in light of the
respect we owe the members of other cultures simply as human beings.
If that were what 'cultural relativism' or 'ethical relativism' meant,
then it would be an (objectively, absolutely) true doctrine relating to
the sociology and anthropology of moral beliefs, and to some of the
practical implications of those studies. It also would have nothing to
do with the 'relativism' discussed in the preceding pages.
But sometimes the people who rightly insist on the truths just stated
think those truths have the substantive normative implication that
whatever any culture believes is right is right for mernbers of that
culture. This is the position I have just named 'cultural relativism'.
In effect, cultural relativism holds that there is a single, absolute, ob-
jectively right answer to any moral question about the rightness or
wrongness of a given action: If you want to know whether an action is
right or wrong, simply find out what the agent's culture believes about
it. If they think it is right, then it is right; if they think it is wrong then
it is wrong.
15
Anybody who holds that there are (absolute) ethical truths must
admit that the rightness or wrongness of an act is relative to the cir-
cumstances in which it is performed. Because people's circumstances
differ, what is (absolutely, objectively) right for one person, might be
different fron1 what is (absolutely, objectively) right for another. For
instance, even the most extreme moral absolutist might very well hold
that it is right for Joe to have sex with Joe's wife but wrong for Sam
15 Anthropologists who consider then1selves cultural relativists are not always con-
sistent at this point. William Graham Sumner, for example, sometimes seems to be
giving a cultural relativist account of moral rightness in the sense just provided.
But at other times he seems to think that what makes an action right is its that it
is well adapted to life in the given set of circumstances, and he takes cultural normS
to be a generally reliable guide to this. See William Graham Sumner, "Folkways,"
in John Ladd (ed.) Ethical Relativism (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1973), pp. 23-39.
Similar ambiguities are detectable in Melville Herskovits, "Cultural Relativism and
Cultural Values," ibid., pp. 58-78. The latter sort of account of rightness, depend-
ing on adaptedness to life, would not really be culturally relativistic at all. For it
would provide instead an absolute, not culturally relative, criterion for rightness
(whose precise meaning would depend on how one conceived of the ends of life and
what behavior is well adapted to them under a given set of circumstances). The
ideas touted as cultural relativism would come in only with the additional (contin-
gent, empirical, and perhaps controversial) thesis that prevailing cultural norms are
always reliable guides to which behavior is well adapted to life.
146 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
to have sex with Joe's wife. Such cases of "right for you, wrong for
me" obviously do not support any form of ethical relativisn1. Cultural
relativism, as we are now considering it, could be understood in a sim-
ilar way, as simply a special view about how moral right and wrong
vary with the agent's circumstances. It holds that (absolute, objective)
moral rightness and wrongness depend on the prevailing culture's be-
liefs about a given action. If you want to know the objectively right
answer to the question whether a given act is right or wrong, just find
out what the agent's culture believes on that question: their belief de-
termines what is objectively true.
16
Accordingly, a moral judgment such as "Joe's killing Sam was
wrong" would be like the judgment "It is raining" in that both have
implicit reference to a context determining their objective truth. "It
is raining" always means that it is raining at a certain time and place
(e.g. in Fresno at 6 pm on September 12, 2002). "Joe's killing Sam
was wrong" means that Joe's killing of Sam was wrong in a certain
culture at a certain time (e.g. in white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Eastern
seaboard American culture early in the 21st century), where acts like
16This assumes what David Lyons has called "agent relativism" (see David Lyons,
"Ethical Relativism and the Problem of Incoherence," in Krausz and Meiland (eds.)
Relativism: Cognitive and Ethical, pp. 209-225). Alternatively, one could propose
a very different doctrine-"appraiser relativism" which says that an act is right
(or wrong) if the appraiser (the person judging the act, or perhaps the appraiser's
culture) considers it right (or wrong). If we allow, as relativists often want to insist,
that there are different judgments among different appraisers (or different cultures),
then appraiser relativism would immediately yield inconsistent judgn1ents about an
actions rightness or wrongness. A relativist might want to express these by speaking
of the act being "right for me" and "wrong for you" or even of different ethical
judgments being "true for" different appraisers. As Lyons is quick to point out, this
would only lead us back into the quagmire of incoherence we found in relativism
earlier in this chapter. It is not unusual for culturally relativistic anthropologists
at this point to fall into saying that when someone says an action is right, all they
mean is that the act satisfies their own culture's standards of rightness (see Lyons,
pp. 221, 223, 225, who cites both Sumner and Ruth Benedict as examples of this
move). However, this is quite clearly not all that most people mean by calling an
act 'right', since they believe that because it meets certain standards, the act also
deserves some sort of approval which they know it would not get from someone
who knew it met those standards but did not endorse the standards. The error
of these anthropologists is quite analogous to that of antirealist theorists of truth
(see note 5 above), when they identify the truth of an assertion with its meeting
certain criteria or tests of verifiability. In both cases, the point to insist on, once
again, is that (unless we are talking about qualities defined merely by an arbitrary
convention), actually being X is always logically distinct from meeting some criterion
or standard for being X. And the sense in which moral standards might constitute
"social conventions" is not such a sense, since no one thinks that these standards
are conventional in the purely arbitrary way that the standard meter in Paris is
conventional.
RELATIVISM / 147
Joe's act of killing are widely disapproved. Cultural relativism then
holds that what a culture believes about an act determines the truth
about its objective rightness or wrongness in something like the way
that spatio-temporal location determines the truth about the weather
conditions obtaining then and there.
Cultural relativism and the affirmation of cultural diversity. Much of
the appeal of cultural relativism has come from the perception that dif-
ferent cultures have different moral standards and moral practices from
ours, but nevertheless get along at least as well with their standards
and practices as we do with ours. This perception is often conjoined
with the idea that it is wrong for Western culture to be intolerant of
other cultures and impose its ways on them. But this last idea does
not imply cultural relativism, and is probably even inconsistent with
it. Perhaps the intended connection between cultural relativism and
cultural tolerance is based on an argument of the following kind:
1. We shouldn't blame, or interfere with, actions that are objectively
right.
2. The actions generally approved in other cultures are objectively right
just because they are generally approved there. (Cultural relativism)
3. Therefore, we should not blame or interfere with the actions of people
in other cultures when they are generally approved in those cultures.
But can a cultural relativist consistently put forward such an argu-
ment? Cultural relativists often charge that among the ethical beliefs
of Western culture is Western Supremacy:
Western Supremacy: Western values should be imposed on other
cultures, and members of Western culture should blame and interfere
with the actions of people in other cultures whenever these actions
violate Western values.
If the cultural relativists are right that Western Supremacy is a belief
of Western culture, then what cultural relativism tells us as members
of Western culture is that it is absolutely, objectively right for us to
impose our ways on others and objectively right for us to blame and
interfere with the actions of people in other cultures whenever our val-
ues condemn them. That means that cultural relativism supports not
(3) but its contradictory.
Further, what account can a cultural relativist consistently give of
the ethical principle stated in (I)? If the principle is supposed to have
absolute or trans-cultural validity, how can this be consistent with cul-
tural relativism? If the principle is valid merely because it is one of
our culture's ethical beliefs, then it deserves no priority over Western
Supremacy. And then it looks as if (1) and Western Supremacy taken
148 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
together imply the falsity of (2) (that is, of cultural relativism). In that
case, cultural relativism is self-refuting for us Westerners (and, indeed,
for the members of any culture whose ethical beliefs happen to be in-
compatible with cultural relativism). It follows from this that cultural
relativism is totally incapable of combating any form of culturally en-
trenched imperialism, racism or ethnocentrism. For whenever we find
these ugly things built into a culture's beliefs, cultural relativism is
committed to endorsing them; and if cultural relativism is interpreted
in such a way as to conflict with these beliefs, then it becomes self-
refuting in that culture.
In practice, cultural relativism is sometimes used as a pretext for
following whatever ethical beliefs one finds convenient. For instance, a
Western-based multinational corporation operating in other parts of the
world comes from a culture that believes that it is all right to seek the
highest profit you can within the law; cultural relativism therefore says
they may do that (even if it means disrupting the traditions of that
culture). But cultural relativism also says that they need not blame
or interfere with practices within that culture which might be consid-
ered wrong in their own culture: practices such as police-state terror
directed against workers who protest the brutally low wage scales and
miserable working conditions through which the corporations reap their
profits. So interpreted, cultural relativism allows these corporations to
do whatever they like.
The above results suggest that cultural relativism doesn't do justice
to the actual views of those who really want to promote cross-cultural
tolerance or oppose Western imperialism. It looks like those views re-
ally consist in holding to certain (absolute, objective, trans-cultural)
ethical principles about how the members of different cultures should
act toward each other, such as that people should be open-minded
and tolerant toward all human beings, always treating them with dig-
nity and respect. Perhaps the anti-imperialists are embarrassed to avow
such principles because they obviously come from the modern, Western
Enlightenment tradition, and avowing them will imn1ediately expose
you to the dreaded charge of ethnocentrism. By contrast, cultural rel-
ativism's principled stance of absolute cross-cultural neutrality seems
to buy us immunity from this charge. But of course cultural relativism
is a n10dern Western idea every bit as much as Enlightenment moral
principles are; the only difference is that, as we have seen, cultural rela-
tivism is actually hostile to cross-cultural tolerance and n1utual respect,
whereas certain other Western Enlightenment principles do favor them.
Very likely we end up in this paradoxical position because we start
from the correct perception that everyone's standpoint is limited by
RELATIVISM / 149
their cultural perspective, and then (directly contradicting this insight)
we try immediately to occupy a sublimely neutral standpoint which is
above all such limitations. We would be wiser to align ourselves with
some standpoint situated within a definite culture which, despite its
inevitable limitations, at least makes an effort to be critical of itself
and tolerant of other cultural standpoints. We are reluctant to take
this wise course because we know that it is hard to identify such a
standpoint; we realize that the biases from which we start will doubtless
lead us into mistakes, probably culpable ones; and we are aware that
by this route we can never hope altogether to escape the accusation of
ethnocentrism, but will just have to learn to live with it (as part of our
human condition).
We find cultural relativism far more appealing because its empty
gestures enable us to announce our good intentions and repudiate our
cultural biases in the abstract, with a mere wave of the hand. It en-
ables us to absolve ourselves all of our cultural limitations in general
without ever having to overcome any of them in particular (as we have
seen, it even provides an endorsement for them, when that is needed).
But perhaps what we have really wanted all along is a license to be-
have like brutal, arrogant imperialists while at the same time thinking
of ourselves as tolerant, humane cosmopolitans who have transcended
all their cultural prejudices. This makes it unsurprising that cultural
relativism has had widespread appeal among the more sophisticated
members of Western imperialist culture.
Difficulties in accepting cultural relativism. Even if it lived up to
its billing, cultural relativism would still be extremely implausible. It
commits you to the objective rightness (in the context of the culture in
question) of all the moral beliefs and practices which have ever existed.
Slavery was objectively right in ancient Greece and Rome, and even
in our own country not so long ago. Human sacrifices were objectively
right for the Aztecs; so was the Indian custom of suttee, requiring a
widow to burn herself to death on her husband's funeral pyre; and
also the pogrom-the periodic indiscriminate slaughter of Jews-which
has long been part of the folkways of Christian peoples in Europe.
Also objectively right is the genital mutilation of women, which is still
practiced in a variety of cultures. Cultural relativists sometimes refuse
to back down even when presented with the most outrageous and grisly
cases; but I can't help thinking that if they hadn't been backed into this
position by the stance they hastily chose in a philosophical discussion,
these same people would be the first to condemn these practices as
strongly as anyone.
The moral problems cultural relativism is trying to address are cer-
150 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
tainly real ones. In sonle cases it is simply not obvious what we should
do (or even think) when confronted by practices of another culture that
offend our moral sense and contradict our deepest convictions. Some
things that people do to one another in different cultures are quite ev-
idently the results of wretched superstitions and the brutally unjust
distributions of power and authority that are traditional in those soci-
eties. On the other hand, we can often see that in other cultures certain
actions have a different meaning, and we are quite aware that we lack
the capacity to understand and evaluate the practices of alien societies.
If we do nothing in the face of evident moral evil, we completely forfeit
our integrity; but if we act on the basis of convictions held from our
admittedly incomplete perspective, then we run the risk of arrogantly
setting ourselves up as infallible moral judges of people who may know
more than we do about what is being judged. If traditional cultures
in other parts of the world are changing so that they become more
like modern Western culture in ways we approve, should we applaud
and support this process as the victory of moral progress, or should we
deplore, regret and oppose these changes because they amount to the
violent extinction of that culture's priceless heritage? What is most ob-
jectionable about cultural relativisnl is that it pretends to have found a
simple, general, tidy and unambiguous answer to questions where any
answer of that description is aln10st certainly wrong.
Difficulties in applying cultural relativism. Another problem with
cultural relativism is that the general criterion of right and wrong which
it proposes is actually very unhelpful because it is inherently unclear
and impossible to apply in the real world. Cultural relativism tells us
that the rightness of an act depends on what the agent's culture believes
about it. But most societies today are a complex network of cultures
and subcultures, sometimes having widely divergent moral beliefs about
controversial issues. For a given person in a given situation, how are we
supposed to decide which culture or subculture the person belongs to?
How many of us can be entirely sure what culture we ourselves belong
to? Can people set up a new culture whenever they want to? How few
people would it take to do this?
In most cultures (our own, for instance), many ethical questions are
the subject of endless disagreement and debate (this, after all, was what
got ethical relativism started in the first place). How are we to deter-
mine what the ethical beliefs of the prevailing culture are? Does this
require an overwhelming consensus among the culture's mernbers, or is
it a matter of simple majority vote? Or does cultural relativisnl imply
that the most old-fashioned and ethnically traditional moral opinion
is always the right one? Wherever there is any intra-cultural d i s a ~ _ ~
RELATIVISM / 151
ment at all, the effect of cultural relativism will then be to support the
dominant view within the culture and to de-legitimize all dissenting
views without giving them so much as a hearing. Cultural relativism
implies that on any moral question within a culture an opinion is al-
ways necessarily wrong whenever it goes against traditional beliefs in
the culture which are still very widely held. That means not only that
those individuals who raise moral questions about accepted practices
are always in the wrong, but also that any movement for moral reform
within a culture, even if it eventually succeeds, must have been in the
wrong at the tin1e it got started, and therefore that it must always be
absolutely wrong to try to reform any culture's accepted moral beliefs
and practices.
Cultural relativism seems to give plausible answers to ethical ques-
tions only in a culture (utterly unlike our own) that is homogeneous, un-
reflective, unchangeable and free of serious moral disagreements. Iron-
ically, the very social complexities, mutabilities and controversies that
make relativism attractive also render it useless, unclear and implausi-
ble as an account of ethical truth.
5.6 The Appeal of Relativism
Relativism and dogmatism. Why does relativism appeal to people? Peo-
ple are often attracted to relativism because they think it expresses and
supports attitudes of open-mindedness and tolerance, and that the re-
jection of relativism commits you to arrogant dogmatism and narrow-
mindedness. Since the opposite of "relative" is "absolute," the opposite
of "relativism" seems to be "absolutism", a word that usually connotes
"authoritarianism" or "dogmatism". Besides, dogmatism and intoler-
ance always seern to be based on the idea that I am right and the other
is wrong about something. But if everyone's belief is equally true (be-
cause "true for them" ), then there never could be any occasion to think
that I am any more (or less) right than anyone else about anything.
Consequently, it seems to follow that there could never be any possible
reason for treating anyone with hostility or disrespect if they hold a
belief different from mine.
If you want to avoid a bad thing, however, it isn't always a good
idea to fly to the opposite extreme, since that might turn out to be
just as bad. If "absolutisn1" is bad and "relativism" is its opposite,
it still doesn't follow that relativism will be good. However, it is not
clear that relativism really is the opposite thing from authoritarianism,
dogmatism, closed-mindedness and intolerance. In fact, it may even be
just another version of the same thing.
152 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
Relativism never declares any belief absolutely true or false; this may
make us think that it is open-minded. But to be open-minded is to be
disposed to think that you are fallible, that you could be mistaken
in what you believe (so that what you now think is absolutely true
might on closer examination turn out to be absolutely false). This is a
thought a relativist can never have, because relativists are convinced
that at any time all their beliefs are necessarily true (for them). You
show open-mindedness by leaving open the possibility of changing your
beliefs (coming to disagree with what you used to believe) when you
are given good reasons to. But relativists can never have any reason for
changing their beliefs, since relativism says that at every point their
beliefs are already true (for them). Of course relativism doesn't give
anyone a reason for not changing their beliefs, since if I just happen
to change my beliefs, then relativism says that my new belief is just
as true (for me) as, but no truer (for me) than, myoId belief was. In
short, relativism implies that that the right attitude toward our beliefs
is always one of total, uncritical self-con1placency.
Relativism is anti-authoritarian only in the sense that it takes away
any reason you might have for considering the opinions and arguments
of others in forming your beliefs (for instance, the opinion of some-
one better informed than you are). For relativism says that your be-
liefs are all true (for you) no matter what anyone else may say or
think. Relativism thus undercuts any reason anyone might have for
being critical about their own beliefs. As we have already noted, rel-
ativism implies that you are always infallible in whatever you believe.
The closed-minded arrogance of this view is not diminished by saying,
in effect, that everyone else is infallible too. This merely adds to my
own dogmatism the provision that it is all right for everyone else to be
just as dogmatic as I am.
Tolerance is the willingness to let others be different from us, espe-
cially to let them disagree with us, even if they are wrong. Relativism
cuts down on the need to be tolerant, since it denies that anyone is ever
wrong. But this doesn't make the relativist tolerant for exactly the
same reason that successfully fleeing from every danger doesn't make
you courageous. It is as if relativists can't even conceive of actually
tolerating those they think are in the wrong, and the closest thing to
tolerance that they are capable of imagining is the principled refusal
ever to admit that anyone could ever be wrong about anything. But
relativisnl does not altogether eliminate the need for tolerance because
people can be intolerant not only of those whose beliefs they think
are wrong, but also of those who differ from them in other ways (in
skin color, customs and folkways, or emotional sensibilities) even when
RELATIVISM / 153
the difference involves no disagreement in beliefs. And when the need
for tolerance does arise, relativism provides no reason at all for being
tolerant rather than intolerant. If I believe it is wrong to hate people
who differ from me, relativism tells me that that belief is true (for me);
but equally, if I believe in persecuting others, then relativism tells me
that this belief is also true (for me). In short, relativism is just exactly
as likely to encourage intolerance as it is to encourage tolerance. But
this is precisely what we should have expected. In saying that every
belief is true for the person who holds it, relativism is absolutely neu-
tral between all pairs of opposed beliefs. But that entails directly that
relativism is absolutely neutral between the belief in tolerance and the
belief in intolerance. What this shows is simply that tolerance is not the
same thing as neutrality. Tolerance requires some positive convictions
about why, when and to what extent we should let people believe and
do what we take to be wrong. Relativism can never support or even
admit any convictions of this kind, because it can't even admit that
anything is ever wrong.
Relativism and conservatism. Religious or political conservatives or
traditionalists often attack "relativism". When they are accused of
maintaining their views dogmatically or intolerantly, they sometimes
reply that all they are doing is maintaining that there is such a thing
as "the truth" , and that it is right to stand by the truth. Or when some
view of theirs is challenged, they sometimes engage in the rhetorical
move of asserting that their dogmatically held opinion is true (as if this
would be sufficient to justify the dogmatic and intolerant manner in
which they hold it). The right reply to them is simply to point out that
it is one thing to believe that there is truth and quite a different thing
to believe that you are in sole and certain possession of it. They also
often need to be told that if their beliefs were true, that would not au-
tomatically justify forcing them down other people's throats. But their
bad habits do probably encourage the idea that it is inherently conser-
vative to believe in "truth" and that "relativism" is the right name for
any view that is open-minded, tolerant, liberal and progressive.
What the traditionalists are usually opposing is not relativism in
the sense we have been discussing here. Their target is more often the
following views:
1. Traditionally accepted moral principles may not be correct; this is
at least something about which intelligent people may disagree.
2. Which moral rules and principles are correct is subject to change
with time and circumstances.
3. Moral principles apply differently to different circumstances, so that
154 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
what is right for one person in one situation can be wrong for another
person in a different situation.
4. There are sometimes justified exceptions to even a moral rule that
is correct in general.
5. Even if an accepted moral principle is correct, we should sometimes
be tolerant of people who disagree with it and refuse to follow it.
Each of these views might be described as "relativist" in the sense
that it asserts that moral rules and principles should be considered
"relative" to son1ething-in (1) and (2), relative to the grounds or ev-
idence for them, which may not, or may no longer, be sufficient, in
(3), (4) and (5), relative to the conditions of their application, which
may justify flexibility in applying them. But these forms of "relativity"
do not imply "relativisn1" in the sense we have been discussing, and
are even inconsistent with it. For all of (1)-(5) presuppose that there
is truth in moral matters, since they challenge traditional ideas about
which principles are objectively correct, how certain we can be about
this, whether moral truth can change, and how flexible we should be
in adapting moral principles to different situations. Those who want
to defend views such as (1)-(5) should not let traditionalists get away
with suggesting that they are vulnerable to the charges of incoherence
and self-refutation that can be brought against relativism.
Relativism itself is a very conservative position. In ancient Greece,
Protagoras was well known for advocating very conventional views
about how to live and what is right and wrong. Cultural relativism,
as we have seen, tends to lend uncritical support to dominant cultural
views and practices. Those who want to question or criticize traditional
creeds and values at least have to admit that they n1ight be wrong. But
since relativism holds that everyone's belief is already true (for them),
it implies that there is never really any need for anyone to change their
views about anything. You don't have to attack the very notion of ob-
jective truth in order to challenge traditional ideas about what it is,
where it is to be found, or whose views have to be taken into account
in looking for it. On the contrary, it is only by presupposing that there
is such a truth that you can legitimize challenges to mistaken ideas
about what it is and how it should be sought. In fact, since absolute
truth is not truth for anyone in particular, this implies that everyone's
standpoint needs to be taken into account in searching for it.
Relativism, humbug, hype and spin. Here is a somewhat speculative
hypothesis about why relativism appeals to some people in our culture.
Much of what we are exposed to in mass culture is what Max Black
RELATIVISM / 155
used to call "humbug" .17 Humbug is when I say something to you that
isn't true, where I know it isn't true, I know you know it isn't true, and
I know you know I know it isn't true, but I know that if you hear it
enough, it will probably influence your behavior (typically, in my inter-
ests). "Hype" is a special kind of humbug: it makes wildly exaggerated
claims for something: no one believes them, but the hype-artist foresees
that people will end up acting as though they believed them, if only
just a little. "Spin" is a transparently self-serving interpretation of the
world, such as the contrasting versions of events narrated by openly
self-advertised representatives of political parties, or by the ostensi-
bly "right-wing" and "left-wing" debaters on those television shows in
which important issues of the day are reduced to half-serious shouting
matches for the amusement of the audience. Nobody expects the spin
artist to be objective or fair or even credible-indeed, he or she would
not be doing the job if what is said could be taken as meant in good
faith. Most political rhetoric and nearly all advertising is "spin" and
"hurnbug" , a lot of it is also "hype". Nobody believes either of them, or
even takes them seriously. But the politicians who spend their donors'
money are the ones who get elected and the products that are hyped
on TV are the ones that sell.
To be hun1bugged is to be exposed to something that seen1S at first at
least to pretend to be truth, but which you know fron1 the start is less
than truth. You reject it as truth, but then gradually come to accept it
as less than truth, but also as not quite nothing either. Hurnbug there-
fore works partly by dulling your appetite for truth, getting you used
to filling your mind with what you know is less than truth, with what
is self-consciously phony, a glitzy but of course unconvincing imitation
of truth. Hurnbug does not function on the level of reality but on the
level of subjectivity (the perceptions of the recipient and the interests
of the hype- or humbug-artist). Pleasing fictions work well as humbug.
We know that James Bond is not a real person but we get emotion-
ally involved with the story anyway, and we even end up cheering the
hero and wanting to be like him (so that we wear the clothes he wears,
buy the car he drives, we live in reality some sad imitation of his glam-
orous fictional life). We don't take the fiction seriously as reality, but in
chasing after it we expend real energy and often spend serious money.
The psychological result of constant bon1bardment by spin, hype
and humbug may help us to understand what relativists might mean
17Max Black, The Prevalence of Humbug and Other Essays (Ithaca: Cornell Uni-
versity Press, 1983). The American word for 'humbug' is 'bullshit'. See Harry Frank-
furt, "On Bullshit", The Importance of What We Care About. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1988.
156 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
by "true for me": humbug is something other than and less than truth,
something designed to dull my appetite for truth, son1ething I don't
believe (yet eventually sort of believe), a substitute for truth that func-
tions effectively not because of its relation to reality but because of its
relation to our subjective susceptibilities (to being deceived and manip-
ulated at least partly with our own knowledge and consent). Humbug
puts itself forward as a sort of truth (which will affect my behavior as
if I believed it, even though I really don't).
This is one way in which the confused and self-contradictory notion
of "true for me" might acquire a semblance of intelligibility. Relativism
might express the consciousness of someone whose whole cognitive envi-
ronment, so to speak, has been taken over by humbug. Nothing anybody
believes is really believed, nothing anybody asserts is meant seriously,
so nobody would be so crude as to say that it was "true". Nobody would
care about the truth even if it can1e up and hit them in the face. Such
a person would have come to regard being humbugged as the normal
state. This person thinks of really believing something (holding it to be
true, period) as abnormal, a relic of a more innocent age in which people
didn't yet realize that everything is hun1bug. This also explains why rel-
ativists often think of themselves as sophisticated compared to people
who haven't gotten over the idea of 'absolute truth'. Relativism might
even seem to be a way of protecting yourself against being deceived by
humbug, since it makes it explicit that no assertion is to be taken at
face value and nothing anybody ever says is really to be believed.
But of course people who hurnbug others do seriously hold some be-
liefs, even if they don't express them: They seriously believe that if the
others are humbugged often enough, they will behave in ways that serve
the humbugger's interests at the expense of the humbuggee's interests.
And it is only because the hun1buggees seriously believe this too that
they have any reason to protect themselves against humbug by not tak-
ing it seriously. So however prevalent humbug might become, it never
really abolishes genuine belief or assertion, or renders the notion of (ab-
solute) truth obsolete. In fact, it is a self-defeating strategy to try to
protect yourself from humbug by not taking it seriously. For humbug
is by its nature something that is not seriously believed, and it ma-
nipulates you despite-sometimes, even because-you do not seriously
believe it. Therefore, however prevalent spin, hype and humbug may
become in our cognitive environment, we can't ultimately avoid chal-
lenging them directly and unsophisticatedly by just recognizing them
for what they are and declaring bluntly that they are false. Admittedly,
this is not "cool". But it is the nature of humbug that it manipulates
those who are cool even more successfully than it does those who are
RELATIVISM / 157
uncool, since being cool means slouching into the acceptance of the very
notions that let hurnbug work on you. The only way really to oppose
humbug is by being uncool, chopping logic and just insisting squarishly
on the obvious if boring fact that there is after all a distinction between
telling the truth and telling lies.
Relativism as an intellectual defense mechanism. Relativism says
that whatever you believe is true for you irrespective of anyone else.
In effect, relativism marginalizes everybody's standpoint except your
own. In relation to humbug, relativism tries to protect me from being
manipulated by being cool, blocking the beliefs others are trying to
iInplant in me against my knowledge and will by cutting me off from
any pretense at serious communication with them. In relation to what
I do seriously believe, however, relativism also cuts me off from seri-
ous communication with others and thereby serves as a self-protective
mechanism in another way.
When I begin the study of philosophy, I may suddenly discover pow-
erful arguments and theories I never considered before which challenge
the opinions I have always taken for granted. This can be very disturb-
ing, and make me feel intimidated and insecure. Relativism comes to
the rescue by protecting my opinions (making them all "true for me").
Because relativism is absolutely neutral between all particular opin-
ions, it enables me to remain above the fray, taking the high ground
away from those who, by lobbying for their particular version of the
absolute truth, make it all too obvious that they have an axe to grind.
As a relativist I never have to bother with the frustrating details of any
philosophical dispute because relativism explains to me ahead of time
not only why the dispute will never get resolved, but also why this is
perfectly all right. I can agree that inquiry, reasoning and argument are
fine (if someone happens to feel like paying attention to them), but I
can rest assured that they need never seriously threaten my own be-
liefs (which remain true for me however the arguments come out). In
this way relativism will encourage the one kind of tolerance for which
I have the most desperate need: tolerance toward my own intellectual
cowardice, laziness and incompetence. And when it protects me against
all those whose powerful arguments might threaten my comfortable lit-
tle world of convictions, relativism also makes me think I am tolerant
toward others, since it releases me from the need to experience their
alternative views as a threat to mine, and hence from the need to resist
their arguments or to argue back: I Gan just live and let live. Both the
appeal of relativism and its claim to tolerance would then be found in
the way it immunizes my dogmatically held opinions against any facts
or reasonings that might possibly call them into question.
6
The Objectivity of Value
6.1 Issues in Metaethics
When we ask whether "values" are "objective", what are we asking
about? What is at stake? The agendas of different questioners are
varied, and the issues are seldom entirely clear or explicit. When is-
sues about the 'objectivity of values' are raised by people with certain
kinds of political Inotives, one typical ainl is simply the short ternl
legitimation or de-legitimation of certain kinds of rhetoric in certain
limited argumentative or political contexts. Sometimes the assertion
that there are 'objective' values (or even 'Objective Truth') is merely a
crude rhetorical device used on behalf of dognlatic and intolerant indi-
viduals who see themselves as courageous defenders of The Right, and
view anyone who questions what they believe in as enemies of What
is Right. But this superficial ploy works, when it works at all, only
by focusing attention on self-answering nleta-questions (about whether
there is anything Right at all, and whether one should try to be on its
side), thus distracting attention from the real issues, which are whether
what they believe really is true, whether they have any good reasons
for believing it, and whether any truth at all could possibly warrant the
dogmatic and intolerant spirit in which they act in the name of what
they believe.
Sadly, the ploy often succeeds at least to this extent, that their con-
fused opponents are led to think that in order to resist dogmatism they
must challenge it directly on the rhetorical terrain it has marked out.
Thus they think they have to reject the thesis that values are 'objective',
and this has attracted them to extreme skeptical or nihilistic theories
according to which any assertion of the objectivity of values as noth-
ing but a rhetorical device used by dogmatists representing entrenched
power structures, whose only possible use is to enforce uniformity of
opinion, or exclude nlarginalized interests, or suppress legitimate ques-
159
160 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
tions about existing relations of power. The evident iconoclasm of such
theories (which may be "subversive" even to the point of showing con-
tempt for all standards of intelligibility) perhaps makes them seenl like
suitable vehicles for radical questioning of everything that exists or is
accepted. In fact, however, these theories merely deprive us of the ca-
pacity to raise meaningful questions or objections regarding anything.
They are therefore very well suited to express the spirit of sonle of the
pretentious, hyper-intellectualistic, self-deceptive and quietistic forms
that political radicalism has fashionably assumed during the left's pe-
riod of weakness, confusion and despair at the end of the twentieth
century.
When analytical philosophers in the twentieth century have raised
questions about the objectivity of values, their interests have often
had little in comnlon with these. They are often motivated by meta-
physical or epistemological concerns about what there is, and how it
is known-and therefore whether and how claims about values can be
understood to be about what is genuinely real or what is knowable
about the real. They also care about the psychology of human motiva-
tion and how a naturalistic understanding of it can be integrated into
our understanding of practical reasoning. The questions they raise fall
under a distinct variety of different headings. There are, to begin with,
metaphysical questions about whether terms like 'good' refer to real
properties of things, properties as real as those talked about by physics
or mathematics, for example. Then there are epistemological questions,
about whether there is, or could be such a thing as knowledge about
what is good or has value. There are also semantic questions about
whether what are formally or grammatically assertions about values,
such as 'pleasure is good' are really assertions having truth values, or
are better understood instead as expressions of attitude or emotion, or
as commands or exhortations, which should no more be considered as
having truth values than shouted expletives or sentences in the imper-
ative mood.
In this context, the view that there are 'objective' values, about
which true assertions can be made, is called realism; 1 cognitivism is
the thesis that assertions about values (whether or not they are about
1 Following G. E. Moore's discussion in Principia Ethica (1903), the view that
'good' refers to a real and knowable property, such as pleasantness, was called
'naturalism'. (This view was rejected by Moore as the 'naturalistic fallacy'.) But
more recently 'naturalism' has come to refer, as we shall describe below, to a different
set of views which bear no clear relation to issues about the objectivity of values.
Besides, there are metaphysical or theistic forms of moral realism which should be
described as 'supernaturalistic' rather than 'naturalistic', such as that defended by
Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 161
objective 'realities') can be known, or justifiably believed, to be true.
Against them, there are n1any versions of antirealism, and noncogni-
tivism, including 'fictionalism' and 'error theory', which take state-
ments about values to be semantically realist but deny that there are
any real value properties or truths, and hence deny that there could be
any knowledge about values.
2
These controversies make up the subfield usually known as 'meta-
ethics'.
3
In contrast to the nihilistic positions first mentioned, which
are advocated in part directly on political grounds, it is controversial
among analytical philosophers whether metaethical questions have any
practical bearing whatever. Antirealists often attempt to show how
their view enables them to mimic the talk and thinking of realists, so
that they may reap the supposed benefits of antirealism about value in
metaphysics, epistemology, psychology and semantics while leaving our
everyday language, thought, morals and politics exactly as they were.
4
(To the extent that they succeed, analytical philosophy confirms the
thesis that antirealism about values is socially quietistic in its import,
at least to the limited extent that it would have no substantive moral
implications in any particular direction.)
20ne influential defense of such an 'error theory' is J .L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing
Right and Wrong (London: Pelican, 1977).
3The issue whether there are objective values in general might be, but is not
often, distinguished from issues relating more specifically to certain kinds of values,
such as moral or aesthetic values. People wonder whether rational argument about
moral questions is really possible at all, or about its possible scope and limits-
whether it always must presuppose a certain framework of custom or convention or
form of life, which can never be rationally called into question within moral argu-
ment itself. And there are very real questions about the real significance of certain
specific values, such as justice or moral virtue-whether these are really functions
of social ideology and manipulation, merely devices for social domination through
deception, or symptoms of psychological pathologies of various kinds. Some theo-
ries on this score raise profound questions about whether how far we ought to be
committed to these values at all, both in general, or in certain contexts, such as po-
litical ones. There are also some very old problems about aesthetic values-whether
there are such things at all and whether, if there are, they have an 'autonomy' with
respect to moral values or are only a species of moral value or a special way of repre-
senting moral value. Most discussions of the objectivity of value take it for granted
that when we talk about 'value' we have to mean moral value, or at least that if
there are any values at all, there are moral values. I think this is a mistake, and
that metaethics would benefit from greater attention to challenges that have been
brought against specifically moral values by thinkers such as Marx and Nietzsche.
See the next essay in this collection.
4See Simon Blackburn, Spreading the Word (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984) for one
influential attempt to do this. For a reply on behalf of a naturalistic version of
realism, see Nicholas Sturgeon, "What Difference Does It Make if Moral Realism Is
True?" Southern Journal of Philosophy 24 (1986).
162 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
6.2 The Unavoidability of the Deliberative Standpoint
The approach to the question of the objectivity of values I mean to
suggest here is derived from the conception of ourselves that we have,
and must have, as beings who are active, reflective, and in more or
less constant communication with other human beings who are likewise
active and reflective. Let n1e take these three points in turn.
L We are active judges. First, we are active beings. In our lives
we are constantly presented with choices that have to be made, and
moreover that we have to make. The one thing about these choices
that is not up to us is whether to regard them as issues for us. They
are issues for us, and we must settle them by judging what we should
do on the basis of what we take to be good reasons that justify the
judgments and choices we n1ake.
It is sometimes represented that along with seeing ourselves from
the "first person" standpoint of the "agent", it is also possible to look
at ourselves (and all other people) from a "third person" standpoint
of "pure observer"-for whom (according to one picture of what "pure
observation" is) our actions are seen not as choices to be made for rea-
sons but only as events in the natural order that happen in accordance
with a causal laws. When we regard them this way, so the story goes,
then justification, reasons and the like are irrelevant.
5
Yet even if it were possible to look at others in this latter way (as I
will presently argue that it is not), or even to look at most of one's own
actions in this way, it would still not be possible to adopt unqualifiedly
the stance of a "pure observer" of oneself. For even as an observer, I
have to decide what observations to make, and in understanding what
I observe, I have to choose which theories guide my observations, what
observational and experimental techniques to employ, and what conclu-
sions to draw from the observations I make. And I must decide all these
questions on the basis of what I take to be good reasons that justify
my choices about how and what to observe and what to conclude from
it.
In this sense, even the purest possible observer is always even more
fundamentally an agent. This means, however, that the very conception
of the standpoint of the "pure observer," as conceived above, is a bogus
50ne important text in the history of philosophy from which one might get
this picture is Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (KrV A547-558/B575-586). See also
Christine Korsgaard, "Morality as freedom," Creating the Kingdom of Ends (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Hilary Bok, Freedom and Responsi-
bility (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). For an alternative reading of
Kant, see my book Kant's Ethical Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press,
1999), pp. 171-182.
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 163
one. There is no alternative of viewing our own actions as merely nat-
ural processes subject to observed regularities. Our only alternative in
thinking about our own actions is to see them as subject to self-directed
processes of practical reasoning, and hence to rules that we regard as
normative for them. We do of course often need to understand ourselves
as failing to follow these rules, or falling short of acting for the best rea-
sons. But that is also part of seeing ourselves as deliberating beings. In
holding that we must necessarily see ourselves as deliberating beings,
hence as rational beings, I do not mean to suggest that we must see
ourselves as successful deliberative agents, or that we always (or even
usually) act rationally. But only a being that is seen as having the ca-
pacity to act rationally can be seen as an irrational being, in the sense
of a being that sometimes or usually fails to act rationally. Hence if we
did not presuppose that we are rational beings, then it would make no
sense to claim that we are irrational. If we did not inevitably adopt the
deliberative viewpoint, from which we must see and represent ourselves
as acting (or at least trying to act) for reasons, then there would be no
interest in the fact that we often fail to act rationally.
Some people, including romantics and religious enthusiasts, occa-
sionally say that we should act irrationally. This at least makes sense
(whether it is true or not) as long as what it means is that we should
act otherwise than in some specific way that has been represented as
'rational'. But it is directly self-contradictory if what it is supposed to
mean is that we should act directly contrary to whatever way we decide
there are the strongest reasons for us to act. For to say that we should
act that way is to represent that way as the way we have most reason to
act, and it is therefore self-contradictory to say that we should not act
that way. I do not say that people who hold such views cannot mean
them, since it is quite common for people to contradict themselves. But
like those who knowingly hold self-contradictory beliefs, their position
is inherently unstable, and can continue to be held only in some sort
of bad faith.
If we also understand our actions as natural processes, then we have
to understand these natural processes as giving us the capacity to reg-
ulate our actions according to normative rules and by what we take to
be good reasons that justify them, as well as inflicting on us various
possibilities of failing to act for good reasons or to follow the rules we
recognize as norms over our actions. It is a non-starter to try to under-
stand our actions as following merely the kinds of observed regularities
that belong to inanimate and non-rational things in the natural world,
such as the orbits of planets and the mechanically impelled motions of
billiard balls.
164 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
ii. We must reflect in order to act. The idea that we must act
for reasons that seem to us to justify our action involves us already
in the second point. We must not only act on rules and for reasons,
but we must also understand ourselves as so acting-whether through
conceptual structures we call scientific theories or in ways of thinking
that we do not dignify with that name. For as agents we are also re-
flective beings, who are aware of our agency, and whose awareness of
their agency is an essential part of that agency itself. Acting involves
judging how to act, and to judge how we should act we must reflect
on ourselves, on our judging and our acting, and represent it to our-
selves as justified by reasons. In order reflectively to weigh competing
reasons, I have to think of myself as the one who weighs them. I have
to be conscious that I should, and hence that I can, determine which
of them deserves to predominate in n1.Y deliberations, and thus I have
to presuppose that I have the capacity to regulate my own conduct
according to the determination about this that I will make.
6
I cannot view the outcome of my deliberations as already pre-
ordained by something outside what I think of in this context as myself.
Likewise, when I am in a situation where a momentary impulse threat-
ens to distract me from a rational plan I have made, I can hold myself
to the plan only by reflecting on the fact that I have adopted it, and for
good reasons, which I recognized as good when I chose the plan, and
which I still recognize as good. The thoughts I have here about'!, and
'myself'- -and the active capacities I implicitly ascribe to this '1'-are
inseparable from the thinking I engage in, and have to engage in, as an
agent-of course including, once again, the thinking I have to engage
in when I adopt the standpoint of a theoretical observer of the world,
and even of myself. The'!' that acts must think of itself as acting for
reasons. If I later come to see that these reasons were bad ones, or that
I did not act for the reasons I thought I did, then this judgment about
my past choice is one that I must now see myself as making for good
reasons. So although in any given case my judgment that I am acting
60f course, in many cases when we act for reasons, we do so habitually and
unreflectively. When I am driving a car, for instance, and signal before making a
left turn, I signal for a reason, but I do not stop and think: "Now I am going to
turn left, so I have to pull down the lever to the left of the steering wheel in order
to signal." Even the decision to turn left is probably made unreflectively, though it
may also be made for good reasons. But not all our behavior as rational agents is
of this kind. Sometimes we are confronted with situations in which we must reflect
on the reasons we have if we are to act on them. This happens whenever we are
faced with competing reasons for alternative courses of action, and also when we
are tempted to depart from the practical course we know we have the best reasons
to follow.
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 165
for reasons is fallible and revisable, it can be questioned and revised
only from the standpoint of an'!' who judges its fallibility for what
are taken to be good reasons. Hence the standpoint of a self that sees
itself as acting for reasons can never be called into question absolutely
or in toto, since whenever it is called into question, it has to be called
into question only by someone who sees himself as actually occupying
it. The very act of calling it into question is possible only for someone
who presupposes that he is an I who calls it into question for good
reasons.
iii. Acting, judging and reflecting are communicative activ-
ities. So far I have been discussing what some philosophers would call
the 'first person' standpoint of agency. But I think this is a n1isleading
way of putting it, because it ignores a third crucial feature of ourselves
as agents which is just as important as the two we have already ex-
amined. This is the fact that deliberation is always either explicitly
or implicitly a communicative activity. The justification of a belief or
action is always a justification to someone, an attempt to respond to
more or less determinate questions or demands. We learn from others
how to ask for and give reasons for what we think or do. The business
of requiring and providing justifications is a kind of social practice, a
kind of communication that people develop over time in concert with
one another.
7
This is why it is fundamentally misleading to represent the delibera-
tive standpoint on our own actions as a 'first person' standpoint-as if
it were somehow a merely 'subjective' standpoint, that might contrast
with a more 'objective' standpoint of a mere observer who would un-
derstand our actions more impartially or less perspectivally. For insofar
as our deliberation involves communication with others, the perspec-
tive of deliberation is as much a perspective on others' actions as it is
on our own. It presupposes a stance toward them which is as far fron1
that of an observer of natural regularities as the stance it presupposes
toward ourselves. When we offer others reasons for what we are doing,
7By this I do not mean that a satisfactory justification is to be identified merely
with what in fact satisfies some person or some community. Authoritarian practices
of justification-those that regard some actual authority figure, or some de facto
consensus of opinion as definitive of what is right-may exist at certain times and
places, but they are not what we have to think of as genuine justification, and
in fact they are not what critically minded people ever think of as definitive of
it. But asking ourselves for justifications, and answering ourselves, is always an
internalization or an extension of answering someone else's questions. We aren't
content with the reasons we think we have, or at least we shouldn't be, unless we
think that they would satisfy someone else who understood our problem, or at least
that they should satisfy such a person.
166 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
we must suppose them to be able to understand and weigh reasons in
the same way we do. And we have to suppose the same thing when we
listen to their arguments and keep ourselves open to being convinced
by them. In that sense, the standpoint of agency is every bit as much a
"second person" perspective as a "first person" one. But if we are will-
ing to think about offering arguments to, and considering arguments
from, other parties with whom we are not presently discoursing, then
we must also attribute the same perspective of agency to them as well,
so it is every bit as much a "third person" perspective on human actions
too.
When we regard other human beings as rational agents, there is
simply no alternative of considering them as natural automata whose
observed behavior we are to bring under natural regularities by a pro-
cess of induction or inference to the best explanation. On the contrary,
we can make sense of their behavior (as we can make sense of our own)
only by bringing it under normative principles, such as intentions, rules
of conduct and the recognition of reasons. When we deliberate or rea-
son together with others, communicating about what we, or they, or
some third person should do and why, the reasons we consider are by
their very nature public or common or objective reasons, not reasons
tied to a particular person or particular perspective.
Philosophers have sometimes distinguished between 'agent-relative'
reasons and 'agent-neutral' reasons-the former consisting in reasons
that are capable of motivating a certain particular agent to do some-
thing, the latter reasons that might be offered by this or another agent
to someone (or anyone) else, to justify his doing it.
8
The distinction
8For one influential account of the distinction between agent-neutral and agent-
relative reasons, see Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1986). The distinction was introduced earlier by Nagel (using
the term "subjective" and "objective") in The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1970). The terms "agent-neutral" and "agent-relative"
were introduced by Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984).
As Parfit uses it, reasons are agent-relative if they have different normative force
for different agents-giving me, for instance, an agent-relative reason to value my
happiness that you do not have for valuing my happiness. It is true that sometimes
I have reasons for doing something that other people do not have, owing to my
particular circumstances, or resources, or the ends I have set. (This seems to be
Parfit's main point, and I don't dispute it.) In the course of drawing the distinction,
Parfit says that if all reasons were agent-neutral, then it would never be rational
for people to have incompatible or conflicting aims. This is true enough, but it does
not follow that agent-relative reasons do not ultimately rest on agent-neutral ones.
For a Kantian, who believes that we are all bound by the laws of a realm of ends (a
system of ends in which all the ends of rational beings form a harmonious unity),
it is entirely correct to say it can never be rational for there to be an ultimate
conflict between human aims. It is rational for our aims to conflict only to the
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 167
is all right in its place, but as it is sometimes used, it is bogus. If I
have good reasons, then they are reasons that would justify anyone
in my circumstances, with my resources, and with my ends, in doing
the thing. And they are also reasons I could offer to others for my do-
ing it, and expect them to accept. Further, if I have genuine reasons
for valuing my own happiness, then there ought to be genuine reasons
for others to value it too (even if those reasons do not have the same
normative force for them). And this means that there n1ust also be
some reasons for any agent to value my happiness-hence some sort of
'agent-neutral' reason for valuing it. 'Agent-relative' reasons are gen-
uine reasons at all only insofar as they are capable of being presented
in such an 'agent-neutral' way.
Theoretical reasons are practical reasons. An important aspect
of my argument depends also on challenging the fundamental status of
another distinction. There is no ultimate or essential difference between
theoretical reasons, reasons for believing propositions, and practical rea-
sons, reasons for doing things or trying to bring about states of affairs.
Inquiry is a species of agency, and reasons for believing are a species
of reasons for doing. I don't deny there is room for drawing a distinc-
tion between reasons for acting-including such theoretical actions as
seeking out information, forming hypotheses and weighing competing
evidence-to which we respond by voluntary actions, and reasons for
wanting or believing to which, when they are sufficiently strong, we
can't help responding to with the relevant wants or beliefs. But the
more important point is that both are equally cases of responding to
reasons, and what I am saying about rational agents as active judges
applies equally to both.
Belief is tightly bound up with action; the inquiry necessary for
belief is a kind of action, which in turn rests on belief. A being who
might have beliefs but no volitions is impossible. Beliefs are not purely
passive states; they are dispositions to assert, investigate, and connect
other beliefs with actions in determinate ways. If there are reasons to
believe, then there are reasons to act. For to represent oneself as acting
for a reason is to represent oneself as believing there is a reason for
one to act. And to represent oneself as believing is to represent oneself
extent that the conflict rests on a more fundamental unity. Thus when you and I
playa game of chess, we each seek to win, and our aims conflict; but if our play is
to be compatible with the laws of a realm of ends, this conflict must rest on a more
fundamental aim which is the same-for instance, the aim of our both enjoying the
game, or of perfecting human skill in playing chess. In this sense, a Kantian must
hold that although there may be agent-relative reasons, all genuine reasons (even
these agent-relative ones) must rest ultimately on agent-neutral reasons.
168 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
as having a reason to act in the ways that the belief gives you to act.
Consequently, if we were to deny that there are any genuine reasons
to act, then we would also have to deny that there are any reasons to
believe, and vice-versa. If I tried to deny that there are any genuine
reasons to act, and to represent myself as having reasons for this belief,
then I would thereby contradict myself, since to deny that there are any
reasons to act would involve the denial there are any genuine reasons to
believe, including any genuine reasons to believe there are no reasons
to act.
Desires as reasons. Philosophers often think that reasons for doing
something always consist ultimately in desires. Desires are subjective \
states, belonging to an individual, which cause the individual to do
certain things. My desire gives me a reason to do things to satisfy it,
but it does not give any other person the same reason, so it is essentially
an "agent-relative", never an "agent-neutral" reason. If all reasons can
be reduced to desires, then all reasons ultimately come down to agent-
relative reasons. But this entails that if all reasons are basically agent-
neutral, as I have been claiming, then reasons cannot ultimately be
reduced to reason-independent desires.
One thought behind these reductions, I think, is that if we can re-
duce reasons to desires, and explain actions through a combination of
desires and beliefs, then we can reduce the subjective or "first person"
perspective of the agent who acts on reasons to the more objective per-
spective of the observer, who explains the agent's behavior by citing
the states that cause it.
9
Desires are then seen as causal states of an
agent, much like the momentum of bodies in mechanics. Such a state is
particular to that body, and gives it a disposition to move in a certain
direction at a certain velocity. Taken together with facts about the re-
lation of the body to other bodies
i
it explains, in terms of inductively
observed natural regularities, how the body actually does move. On this
picture, the 'subjectivity' of desires plays the role of reducing reasons
(which by their very nature are communicable, hence universal there
for all rational beings) to something particular about this subject, and
allows its behavior to be explained in the same way as that of beings
who do not deliberate or judge or communicate about reasons.
But in fact we can see that the reduction will not work if we consider
the matter from the deliberative standpoint of someone who acts for
reasons. For then we can see clearly that desires could not play the
9There is a more moderate view which, while not trying to be reductive in the
way here described, takes reasons for action to be supplied by desires. The arguments
to follow, however, seem to me to cast serious doubt on the moderate view as well
as the reductive one.
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 169
role they are assigned on this picture. No desire by itself could ever
be the sole, sufficient and unconditional reason for any action-even
when it is combined with beliefs about how to satisfy the desire. When
I ask what I should do, or why I should do it, I can never answer
the "Why?" question satisfactorily merely by citing a desire to do it
that I find in n1yself. On the contrary, the existence of such a desire
usually presupposes that the question has been answered already-the
existence of the desire is SilTIply an effect or expression of that answer.
In giving the reason for an action, I should cite not such "motivated
desires" but instead the reasons why I have them.
10
If I simply find a
desire in myself (such as hunger), this does not automatically give me
a reason to satisfy it, but rather raises practical questions about how
and whether to act on it, perhaps even whether I should have it at all.
I might say the reason I go to a movie this evening is that I feel like
going or that I desire to see this particular film. But this counts as a
reason only in a context where it can be taken for granted that it is not
unreasonable to satisfy the desires I avow. And I can always be asked
(or ask myself), on many different grounds, why I want to go out, or to
see a movie, or to see that particular movie. The foul weather, the dan-
gerous downtown streets, the generally deplorable state of commercial
cinema, the tedious predictability into which the director of the film
has slouched in recent years, or the bad reviews the film has received,
can all be cited as grounds for asking pointedly why I want to go out at
all, or go to a movie, or go to this movie. The question has now become:
"Do you (really) want to?" Or "should you want to?" In response to
these challenges, therefore, "I (just) want to" will not even have the
general form of an adequate answer. 11
lOThe term "motivated desire" is drawn from Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of
Altruism, p. 29.
11 Much the same goes for pleasures and pains. Some standard empiricist accounts
try to reduce all reasons to subjective sensory states, such as pleasure and pain,
taking the quest for reasons to end always in the fact that it self-explanatory why
we should seek the former and shun the latter. The idea that all reasons reduce to
a desire to seek pleasure or avoid pain is so obviously oversimple that it practically
wears on its face that it is motivated by some misguided reductionistic philosophical
theory. Some sensory states are such that we intrinsically seek them or avoid them,
and unless we are in a situation where the pleasure is not "worth it" or the pain is
"worth it" (as measured by other kinds of reasons), we take this to be a sufficient
reason to seek the one and shun the other. If someone says that he tortures kittens
because he finds it "pleasant," or avoids all sexual encounters because he finds them
"painful", we do not accept these statements as putting a self-evident end to the
inquiry into the reasons for, or the rational justifiability of, his conduct. Pleasures
and pains themselves can be reasonable or unreasonable, as reflecting desires or
tastes that are reasonable or unreasonable. They can be symptoms of conditions
in a person that there is good reason for the person to alter. Philosophers such as
170 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
The suggestion that all reasons must ultimately reduce to unmoti-
vated desires, depends for its entire plausibility on the appeal of the
project of reducing reasons to mere blind dispositional states (like mo-
mentum). Its hopelessness is indicated by the truth of the scholastic
adage: Nihil appetimus, nisi sub ratione boni ("We desire nothing ex-
cept under the species of the good" ).12 In other words, we regard son1e-
thing as desirable for a reason (the reason that we consider it good).
Desires are ultimately based on reasons, not reasons on desires.
The incoherence of total skepticism about reasons. As agents
and as inquirers, we have many options. But one option not open to
us is holding no beliefs and making no choices. The ancient Pyrrhon-
ists are supposed to have held that the arguments on each side of every
question are so perfectly balanced that there is never any reason for be-
lieving or doing one thing rather than another. According to Diogenes
Aristotle take being pleased and pained by the right things as a sign of virtue, and
taking pleasure or suffering pain in the wrong things as a sign of vice. We typically
enjoy doing something because we already value it for good reasons other than the
pleasure it brings; our enjoyment of it is then merely the subjective expression and
confirmation, on our sensory side, of this valuation. When pleasures do not have
this relation to other values, it is unreasonable to give the enjoyment of them a
very high priority in our lives. We usually avoid pain in part because it is a kind
of harm to us, and we have reason to avoid harms not only when they are painful
but even when they may be pleasant. Derek Parfit has suggested to me that the
felt character of intense pains by itself gives us a reason to avoid them (he doubts, I
think correctly, that the same holds for pleasures-even intense ones-and reasons
to seek them). Even if Parfit is right about intense pains, this is still a case where
the desire to avoid the pains rests on a reason (namely, their felt character). It is
not a case where a brute desire, unmotivated by a reason, counts as a reason for
doing something.
12This saying is quoted by Kant (KpV 5:59). It is contradicted, with the more or
less open intent of rendering human actions mechanistically explainable by reducing
reasons to desires, by Hobbes, Leviathan, 1.6, E. M. Curley (ed.), (Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1994), pp. 28-29 and Spinoza, Ethics 3p9s, E. M. Curley (ed.) Spinoza,
Collected Works (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 1:500. Some desires
(such as, perhaps, the desire to go out on a miserable night to see a bad film) tend to
go away when they are recognized to be unreasonable, while others (such as hunger,
or sexual desire, or the addict's craving for nicotine or alcohol) usually do not. This
fact sometimes bears on rational deliberation about what to do about our desires,
but it does not always bear in the same way. There is no simple relationship between
the reason-independent strength of a desire and the reasonableness of including its
satisfaction among the ends we choose to pursue. Sometimes desires do not go away
because, although it may be unreasonable to satisfy them under the circumstances,
they are in general healthy, and good to have. Others may not go away precisely
because they are bad, dangerous and harmful to us. Which desires we ought to
cultivate and satisfy depends on the kinds of reasons there are for having and
satisfying them. Some of these reasons themselves arise from unmotivated desires
and some do not. Hence there is no way of reducing the strength of reasons to the
strength of reason-independent desires.
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 171
Laertius, Pyrrho is supposed to have lived this doctrine so consistently
that he needed to be guided in daily life by his (less consistent) skep-
tical followers, who saw to it that he ate and kept him from walking
off precipices.
13
In the same spirit, Hume writes about "excessive" or
"Pyrrhonistic" skepticism, that if its principles were to prevail, then
"All discourse, all action would immediately cease; and men remain in
a total lethargy, until the necessities of nature, unsatisfied, put an end
to their miserable existence." 14
This, however, is still too optimistic, since it supposes that a life
according to the principles of Pyrrhonism, though perhaps neither long
nor pleasant, might at least still be somehow possible. But for an agent
who thinks there is no reason to believe or do anything, there is not
only no reason to get up or eat, but no reason not to get up or eat.
In fact (and this shows why Pyrrhonism, so understood, is simply an
untenable doctrine), there could also be no reason for holding that
there is no reason to believe or do anything, hence no reason to become
or remain a skeptic. That is, the doctrine that there is no reason to
believe or do anything is one which could not self-consistently represent
itself as being held for reasons. And that means it could not be held
at all by beings like ourselves, who necessarily take the deliberative
standpoint. 15
13Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers (London: Loeb, 1925) IX, 62.
1
4
Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in .David Hume: Enquiries,
Third Edition, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, revised by P. H. Nidditch (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 160.
15Sextus Empiricus appears to hold that it is possible (and desirable) to hold
no beliefs and do no actions for reasons. Skeptical arguments are therefore not to
be viewed as reasons for holding beliefs, but rather simply as therapeutic causes,
bringing about in us a total suspension of all beliefs. But he seems to think that it is
consistent with this to live "according to nature and custom"-in effect, to do what
you would have done if you had never thought about reasons for believing or doing
anything (see Sextus Empiricus, Selections from the Major Writings on Skepticism,
Man and God, tr. Sanford G. Etheridge, ed. Phillip P. Hallie (Indianapolis: Hackett:
1985), pp. 79-86, 98). But this is not the way that beings like us could ever behave.
In order to do as Sextus bids, we would have to be unconscious, or at any rate lose
our capacity to deliberate, so that our behavior is prompted solely by blind instincts
and never by anything like choices. This, however, is precisely the one option we
do not have. See Myles Burnyeat, "Can the Skeptic live his skepticism?" in M.
Frede and M. Burnyeat (eds.), The Original Skeptics: A Controversy (Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1997). More modest forms of skepticism, of course, are still self-consistent.
It is quite consistent to say, for instance, that no belief can ever be certain or
fully justified. The skeptic can then self-consistently say that his own skepticism is
doubtful and not fully justified. Above all, it is perfectly all right to present the
skeptical arguments on both sides of every question, leaving us to judge whether
they are exactly equal, and if they are, to be perplexed by then1. and figure out what
172 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
6.3 A DefeIlse of Realism About Values
For quite a while now I have not been discussing directly the question
whether values are objective, or real, or objects of cognition, or proper
predicates in genuine factual assertions with truth conditions. But the
points I have been making do seem to me to bear on these questions,
if they are taken in the right way.16 For what they seem to me to
show is this: For anything that is offered as a reason for believing or
acting, we can always question whether it is as good a reason as the
reasons that can be adduced on the other side, or even whether it is
a sufficient reason, or a good reason, or a genuine reason of any kind
at all. It is always legitimate in the case of any given putative reason
to wonder whether it is not merely a deception or illusion to regard
it as a reason. What we cannot do, however, is to deliberate without
taking for granted that there are some genuine reasons for doing either
what we are deciding to do, or for some other alternative (which, if the
better reasons are on its side, we should have resolved on in place of
what we are in fact deciding to do). To be an inquirer or an agent at
all is to presuppose that there are sonle reasons for believing and for
acting-whether or not we have found them, or ever will find them. In
this way, to be an inquirer or an agent at all is to presuppose that some
values are real. To think of an action as good is to think that it is one
for which there are reasons; to think of a state of affairs as good is to
think of it as one that we would have a reason to bring about, if we
could; to think of any object at all as good in any way at all is to think
of it as having a property such that this property might give someone a
reason for doing something. To consider something good is to consider
it as having value. Thus deliberating at all presupposes that something
is good, and hence that something has value.
Further, as deliberative beings we are also communicative beings,
to do on the basis of them. For this still treats the reasons as reasons, and leaves
us with the choice what to do on the basis of reasons.
16Lanier Anderson has pointed out to me that an argument somewhat similar to
mine was presented several times by the neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rick-
ert. See Rickert, Die Grenzen der naturwissenschaftliche Begriffsbildung (1902)
(Tiibingen: J.e.B. Mohr, 1929), pp. 673-696, "Vom System der Werte," Logos 4
(1913), pp. 295-327, System der Philosophie (Tiibingen: J.e.B. Mohr, 1921), pp.
112-145. I do not think Rickert's argument is quite the same as mine. Rickert
places less emphasis on the communicative presuppositions of value questions and
does not admit, as I do, that there is a distinction to be drawn between the objec-
tivity of values generally, which is a presupposition even of raising questions about
the objectivity of values, and the objectivity of certain specific values (e.g. moral
values),which depends on a more specific (and possibly controversial) vision of our
questioning and communicative situation. But I accept that there are resemblances
between Rickert's position and rr:!in!i. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 173
who take our reasons to be genuine only insofar as they are reasons
others should accept. Hence the values we presuppose in deliberating
are also objective, because I cannot regard them as reasons while think-
ing of them as values merely for me (this particular subject), but can
regard them as genuine reasons only insofar as I think they ought to
be recognized as such by any other subject who understands the sit-
uation and the decision to be made. This is why it is entirely natural
and proper to treat statements claiming that things are good or have
value as statements having truth values and truth conditions, and as
predicating real, objective properties of the actions, states of affairs
or other entities that are their subjects. If we presuppose that delib-
eration is looking for good reasons, we presuppose also that we can
find them, and therefore that some of the statements we make (using
terms like 'good') that express what we think we have found may be
not only believed by us, but justifiably believed, and also true. If knowl-
edge is anything like justified true belief, then it follows that we also
presuppose that it is possible for us to know some of these objective
truths about value. Therefore, I think the positions on metaethical is-
sues that are generally called realism and cognitivism are correct, and
the positions usually called antirealism, noncognitivism and emotivism
are incorrect. 17
'Naturalism' and antirealism about value. In one sense, to be
a 'naturalist' about human conduct is merely to believe that human
beings are part of the natural world, so that the understanding of what
they are, how they have evolved, what they are capable of, and what
they do must all somehow be part of our understanding of nature.
Nothing I have said so far is intended to question naturalism in this
sense. Of course there have been philosophers who question whether it
is possible that beings who act for reasons in the way I have said we
cannot help thinking of ourselves as doing could be part of the natural
world as we understand it. Some philosophers have held that acting
for reasons, and directing one's own conduct freely in ways necessary
to act for reasons, must be impossible for any being that is subject
to natural causality and whose conduct follows the laws of nature as
17In this paper I am not defending any particular account of the ontological status
of values. Some think that value properties are natural properties (for instance,
those constellations or clusters of natural properties that correspond to reasons for
acting), while others more platonistically think they are nonnatural properties, like
mathematical properties, that are real and playa role in our cognition but do not
interact causally with objects in the natural world. I am more inclined myself to the
former sort of view than the latter, but I think it is important to make the point
that one can have decisive reasons for being a realist about values without having
to take any definite position on questions about the ontological status of values.
174 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
we know them. Some philosophers who take this position hold that we
cannot be (or cannot be "only") natural beings, and hence they deny
'naturalism' in the above sense. Others, holding fast to 'naturalism'
conclude that it cannot be the case that we really act 'freely' in the
way I have been describing, so that acting for reasons must be some
sort of illusion.
I think the first of these views has been adopted too hastily, usually
by people who have religious motives for adopting it. We still know
too little about how human mental capacities relate to their neural
and physiological basis to judge that these capacities would have to
be supernatural in character. The scientific evidence seems to me over-
whelming that human beings are naturally evolved parts of the physical
world, and no more than that. So it seems to me that until there are
absolutely conclusive arguments to the contrary, we should take our-
selves both to act for reasons (as I have argued we cannot help doing if
we are to avoid self refutation) and to be entirely natural beings who
have the capacity to act for reasons. 18
The second of the views, however, the one that regards naturalism
as precluding the possibility that we act for reasons, seems to me self-
refuting. For those who pretend to argue for that view must at least
represent themselves as judging for reasons that naturalism is true and
that naturalism precludes the possibility of our acting for reasons. But
in that case what they want to assert, namely that we cannot act for
reasons, is directly refuted by what they must presuppose in order to
assert it, since they must presuppose that they can judge for reasons
that naturalism is true and that it precludes their acting for reasons. For
the remainder of this discussion, I am going to assume (what I believe to
18To this extent, the position I am arguing for a 'compatibilist' position on the
issue of free will and determinism. I do hold that regarding ourselves as 'free' in the
sense appropriate to genuine agency is compatible with regarding ourselves as part
of the order of nature and subject to whatever natural causality obtains there. But
'compatibilism' as it is often defended comes in a variety of shades, some of them
involving views about causality, and also about agency, that I find very uncongenial
(or even incoherent). I think that many philosophers who consider themselves com-
patibilists tend to underestimate both the metaphysical demands required by free
agency and also the modifications that need to be made in traditional conceptions
of natural causality in order to account for free agency. In order to integrate free
action into our theory of nature, we probably have to follow Leibniz in admitting
natural causes that "incline without necessitating," and Locke in ascribing to free
agents natural causal powers that can be exercised either by doing something or by
not doing the same thing. Leibniz and Locke are both usually described as compati-
bilists. But some self-described 'compatibilists' with whom I have argued concerning
these two points think my position on these points is more 'incompatibilist' than
'compatibilist'. So out of deference to their feelings I hesitate to use either term to
characterize my view.
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 175
be true), that human beings are wholly natural beings, whose behavior
follows laws of nature, but who, in accordance with those laws of nature,
act for reasons in the way I have said we cannot help presupposing.
In the previous paragraph, I have used 'naturalism' in a broad sense,
in which I regard myself (tentatively) as a naturalist. Sometimes, how-
ever, 'naturalism' is given a narrower meaning in this context, because
certain doctrines are presupposed about what must be required for hu-
man actions and choices to be 'natural' or consistent with the workings
of the natural world. Specifically, the view sometimes held is one we
looked at briefly earlier, that all actions are caused or prompted funda-
mentally by desires. Following this view, it is held that the only things
that could count as 'reasons' for action would have to be beliefs about
how to satisfy desires, and specifically about the causal connections
that link possible actions we might choose as means with the states of
affairs we desire as ends. From this it is inferred that values, as distinct
from beliefs about means-ends causal connections, could never play a
role in human action, at least if human action is understood 'natural-
istically'. Since values play no explanatory role in hurnan action, they
are superfluous from the standpoint of a 'naturalistic' account of the
world, and so there is no reason to believe they exist. This leads to
antirealism about values.
19
The reasons why I reject this kind of 'naturalistic' antirealisrn about
values should already be clear. Desires are not the starting point for
the explanation of actions. Desires are not causal states of an agent,
analogous to states of momentum or energy in bodies as their motion is
understood by mechanics. Human desires playa role in actions that is
determined by the reasons the agent has, or believes she has, for acting.
Desires explain actions only insofar as they are expressions of reasons,
or apparent reasons, which are independent of desires, or else desires
are accepted as reasons for action because they figure in a con1plex
picture of the objective good held by an agent, according to which
the agent judges that she has good reasons to satisfy these desires.
A rational agent's actions are made intelligible by understanding the
actions as done for reasons. The reasons need not be good or even
genuine reasons, but they have to be understood as reasons the agent
19This kind of view is found many places, for instance in Gilbert Harman, The
Nature of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977). Harman's challenge
to realism based on the explanatory redundancy of objective values has been chal-
lenged by Nicholas Sturgeon, "Moral Explanations," in D. Copp and D. Zimmerman
(eds.) Morality, Reason and Truth (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1984).
Probably the most sophisticated version of naturalistic antirealism is the specula-
tive Darwinian version presented by Allan Gibbard, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).
176 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
believes to be good and thinks of as (at least ideally) representable
to other agents as objectively good. If the agent's beliefs about these
reasons, and the objective values underlying them, are mistaken, they
must at least be understood as attempts at finding the truth about
vvhat is objectively valuable, and those who judge that a given agent has
false beliefs about what is objectively valuable presuppose some beliefs
about what is valuable merely in thinking of themselves as having good
reasons for supposing that those with false beliefs are mistaken about
what is objectively valuable. 20
Those who think about values antirealistically from this 'naturalis-
tic' standpoint often attempt to account for our realistic way of think-
ing and talking about values by providing 'error theories'--according
to which we think values are real because we mistakenly project our
desires onto the w o r ~ o r 'fictionalist' theories, according to which
20Some who are 'naturalists' in this second or narrower sense are realists about
value, because they take values to be those properties which relate to desires in the
right way. Two somewhat different versions of naturalistic realism about value can
be found in Richard Boyd, "How to Be a Moral Realist" in Geoffrey Sayre-McCord
(ed)., Essays in Moral Realism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988) and Peter
Railton, "Aesthetic Value, Moral Value, and the Ambitions of Naturalism," in Jer-
rold Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection (Cambridge,
Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1998). While I agree with their realism, I do not
think their naturalism yields the right kind of realism because in the end it reduces
to saying that the sole, sufficient and unconditional reason we have for valuing some-
thing is simply that we desire it. But for reasons I have already tried to give, this
is never a sale, sufficient and unconditional reason for valuing anything. A variant
of this kind of naturalism holds that something is valuable if all hUHlan beings in
fact desire it. But the plausibility of this position varies greatly depending on what
we take to be universally desired by all human beings. Sometimes, of course, the
fact (if it is a fact) that all human beings naturally have a certain desire (for ex-
ample, a desire for happiness or a desire for the affection of other human beings)
can be part of the reason why the desire should be satisfied. But the whole reason
must consist in a picture of the objective human good, in the context of which this
natural or universal desire is seen as expressive of that good. Where a universal
natural desire conflicts with the good, its naturalness and universality do not at all
tend to show that its satisfaction is good. Suppose, for instance (what some have
thought is actually the case), that all human beings naturally desire not to live on
equal terms with other human beings but desire to exercise dominion over as many
other human beings as they can and to avoid being on merely equal terms with
anyone. If, however we also suppose (what I actually I believe to be the case) that
it is objectively bad for human beings for one to dominate another, and objectively
good for human beings to live on equal terms with one another, with no relations of
domination and subordination obtaining among them, then the fact that all human
beings naturally desire to dominate others does not entail that there is anything
valuable at all about dominating other human beings. On the contrary, what this
would show is that all human beings have good reason to resist their natural desire
to dominate other human beings and to set up social arrangements in which it is
impossible for people to satisfy this natural desire.
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 177
our behavior is to be understood as a sort of pretending or acting 'as
if' there were objective values, even though there are none. All such
views become self-refuting as soon as they take their error or fiction-
alist theories to be justified by the reasons or arguments they offer in
favor of them. For they cannot self-consistently represent the reasons
they give for their theories, and on which they expect others to accept
these theories, as mere projective errors, or as merely fictional or "as
if" reasons.
6.4 An Enlightenment Vision of Objective Values
So far my argun1ent has proceeded entirely on the basis of the fact that
the practical standpoint is unavoidable for us and of what we necessarily
presuppose in taking that unavoidable standpoint. This very abstract
basis has enabled me to articulate the reasons why I think we must
be realists and cognitivists about values and cannot, on pain of self-
refutation, be antirealists, noncognitivists, emotivists, fictionalists or
error theorists about all values. But as I have already indicated, this
argument by itself leaves me in no position to defend any particular
claims about objective value, and it does not even enable me to argue
for the reality of whole categories of value that have been taken to be
fundan1ental to all values, such as moral and aesthetic values. For all
I have said so far, there might be no objectivity to any of the values
invoked in morality or politics or aesthetics. The only values that might
be real and objective are those necessary to decide rationally that some
values must be real and objective, and that everything anyone has ever
proposed under the heading of moral, political and aesthetic values are
not among them.
21
In order to show how I would argue for the reality
of the values I take to be most central and important, I would like to
21There are many grounds for doubting many of the claims that people make
about values, and even about whole categories of values, such as moral or aesthetic
values. People notoriously disagree about questions of value at all levels, both indi-
vidually and across cultures. Such widespread and seemingly endless disagreement
easily leads to the thought that no one really knows what they are talking about,
which may be extended to the thought that perhaps all sides are laboring under
some kind of pervasive illusion. Many of what people propose as objective judgments
about values held on rational grounds are easily seen as self-serving declarations
made in the course of strategic maneuvering. Other such judgments can be inter-
preted, with greater or lesser difficulty and plausibility, as symptoms of irrational
psychological disorders or the pernicious effects of social ideologies. Nothing I have
said so far should be taken as agreeing or disagreeing with such theories, or with
any of the grounds on which people challenge the specific claims about value that
others make. What I have been arguing so far is quite consistent with the thesis
that all claims about moral or aesthetic value are bogus and illusory, and that all of
what are offered as moral reasons for doing things are not genuine reasons at all but
only false rationalizations, which should not be taken at face value but diagnosed
178 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
articulate a certain specific vision of our practical standpoint, a vision I
think we inherit fron1 the Enlightenment. (My argument so far has been
quite recognizably Kantian in spirit and substance-a fact of which I
am not in the least ashamed. As I proceed, it will become even more
explicitly and recognizably so.)
This vision is centered on the kind of community we take to be the
basis for the public or communicative aspect I have argued is essential
to the practical standpoint. It is one which sees this community as
not limited or conditioned by any contingent geographical or historical
boundaries, but as essentially encompassing all human beings, or even
all beings existing anywhere who are capable of taking the practical
standpoint and hence of understanding what it is to believe or act for
reasons and to search for objective values. According to this vision, our
practical standpoint as rational agents must be one governed by mutual
communication with a universal or cosmopolitan community. 22
as either neurotic delusions or tactical ploys in a game of social power. What my
argument so far does attempt to exclude, however, is the tenability of holding an
antirealism about value: the position that all possible claims about value are false or
nonsensical, and that there are no genuine reasons of any kind for believing or do-
ing anything whatever. For all such positions necessarily refute themselves as soon
as they are represented by their proponents as being held on good grounds or as
being something others should come to hold on good grounds. In fact, antirealism
about value would directly undermine all particular critiques of value claims, based
on intersubjective or cross-cultural disagreement, on psychological theories or on
social theories. For antirealism is committed to the position that there can never be
any good reasons for believing, asserting or acting in accordance with any of those
arguments or theories-in fact, that there could never be any reason for holding
antirealism about value itself. There would, to be sure, be no incoherence in sim-
ply asserting antirealism, perhaps not even in believing it, or attempting to bring
about belief in it in others. But an antirealist could never represent herself as hold-
ing antirealism for any reasons, or represent herself as offering to others reasons for
adopting antirealism on the basis of which these others would be justified in holding
antirealism. For antirealism itself denies even the possibility of such reasons, hence
the possibility of discovering or having them, or communicating them to others.
22The Enlightenment vision begins with Descartes. In Descartes' Meditations,
the meditator appears to have abstracted himself from every form of human
community-to be merely an isolated individual human being, or even (as it turns
out) a single disembodied mind, considering its metaphysical beliefs completely
solipsistically. But this appearance is deceptive. For the point of the Meditations is
to invite each of us to think about the fundamental questions of philosophy from an
entirely universal standpoint. The basic idea of the Meditations is that each of us,
any of us, should be capable of occupying the standpoint of the meditator. Descartes'
vision of rational inquiry as involving a universal community of rational inquirers
all treating one another with equal respect, is expressed boldly, yet ironically, in the
humorous opening sentence of the Discourse on Method: "Good sense is the best
apportioned thing in the world: for each thinks he has been so well provided with
it that even those who are hard to content in all other things are not accustomed
to desire more of it than they have" (Descartes, Discourse on Method, Oeuvres,
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 179
From the standpoint of this community, some empirically actual and
limited communities-of families, nations, cultures and so o n ~ c n be
justified as legitimate, or even as indispensably valuable to us. But
all such communities gain their legitimacy solely through being able to
justify themselves through reasons that can be understood and ought to
be accepted by any member of the universal community of all rational
beings.
Universalism and cosmopolitanism are sometimes attacked on the
ground that they are merely a cover for privileging dominant (perhaps
Western imperialist) social structures, cultural attitudes, and so on,
since these will inevitably be the ones regarded as "universal" and
"cosmopolitan" .
I agree this is sometimes an abuse to which cosmopolitanism has
been subject, but it is no more a part of cosmopolitanism itself than
is the rhetorical abuse by dogmatists of the ideas of truth and the
objectivity of values discussed at the start of this paper. In general, it
is a bad form of argument to criticize a moral or political theory by
citing cases in which it has been abused so as to justify wrongdoing.
For there is no doctrine whatever (however correct and free from error)
that is, or ever could be, immune to abuse in this way. So arguments of
this form, however correct their factual premises and however deep the
experiences of wrong on which they rest, are equally valid against any
conceivable philosophical doctrine--which means that they are invalid
against all.
23
'
ed. Adam and Tannery (Paris: Vrin, 1965), 6:2). The point is that none of us can
approach rational deliberation in common with others on the assumption that the
other will defer to our good sense, or suppose that our arguments, just because they
are ours, are more worthy of belief than any other person's. The rules governing
rational discussion is that all in common are seeking for the objective truth, each
with a fundamental respect for his own rational powers; everyone's viewpoint is to
be considered, no one's excluded; and the endless quest after objective truth is the
quest for an ideal agreement between all rational agents where each is convinced by
the objective reasons. These same three rules were later formulated by the greatest
of all Enlightenment philosophers, Immanuel Kant:
1. Think for yourself.
2. Think from the standpoint of everyone else.
3. Think consistently. (Critique of the Power of Judgment, 5:294-295; cf. 7:200,
228-229, 9:57).
23It would be valid, of course, to argue against a doctrine that its correct and
consequent application would result in wrongdoing-assuming we agree on what
'wrongdoing' consists in. But that case will of course be impossible to make out
clearly in the case of any philosophical doctrine that is true, since it is trivial that
no doctrine would advocate anything that counts as 'wrongdoing' by its own lights,
and if the doctrine is assumed to be true, then only what it counts as wrongdo-
180 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
By seeing ourselves as part of a universal community, we see all
other rational beings as in principle equal participants in the process of
giving and critically evaluating reasons for belief and action, or (what
is the san1e thing) giving and critically evaluating claims about what
is objectively valuable. This vision therefore accords fundamental and
primary value to those beings themselves who are members of this
community, and who are entitled to a voice in deciding questions of
objective value. And it is therefore committed to treating them as all
of equal value.
Treating all people as having equal value does not immediately com-
mit us to treating them in the same way in any particular respect, or
giving then1 equal shares of anything. Exactly how, and how far, it has
such implications depends on what we think is required in order to
treat people as equal. To n1e it seems fairly obvious that fundamental
human equality is incompatible with all forms of involuntary servi-
tude, whether based on legal relations or merely on the results of re-
ceived property relations and market transactions, with the subservient
position occupied by women in virtually all traditional societies, and
with all the varied forms of racial or ethnic domination that are found
throughout the world-especially those that have characterized the his-
tory of European colonialism. Taken together with the earlier idea that
searching for the objective truth about values must be a collective and
communicative enterprise aiming ultimately at rational agreement, this
implies that we ought to seek a society in which people are free to use
their reason and to con1municate with others about matters of general
interest. Yet for this last reason, it cannot be a society in which what
predominates is narrow self-interest based on human separation and
individual rights, but a human community based on universally valid
reasons and shared goals.
In these respects, Enlightenment values are radical in their import,
and stand opposed to any ideology that would give its blessing to any
of the forms of traditional privilege that are involved in the phenom-
ena just described. Metaethical realism in general may not have any
ing really is wrongdoing. Sometimes, as a matter of political tactics, an authentic
cosmopolitanism must support some 'particularist' claims of oppressed peoples, as
the only possible way of gaining recognition for their human dignity and defending
them against oppression. Cosmopolitan principles, in fact, represent the only way of
reasonably distinguishing between unjust claims on behalf of particular groups and
proper, legitimate claims. But even with the latter there is also cosmopolitan way
of defending the rightful claims of different cultures and particular human identi-
ties, which is the right way, and contrasts sharply with the fascist tendencies found
among some defenders of so-called 'identity politics'.
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 181
particular practical implications, but the specific form of metaethical
realism I am now advocating certainly does have them.
6.5 Aesthetic Values
According to this enlightenment vision, objective truth is to be sought
through communication between rational agents on terms of equal
respect. The basis of this search is the fundamental objective moral
value-that of rational agency itself. In addition to moral principles
of reason, there are surely also epistemic principles, governing how we
formulate ideas, seek evidence, and form and revise our beliefs on the
basis of it. It is beyond the scope of this paper to work out these mat-
ters any further here.
24
But I shall try to make a few brief remarks in
24It is a nice question how far epistemic reasons overlap with or are interdependent
on practical reasons of various kinds. 'Pragmatic' theories of epistemic justification
seem to want us to guide the formation of our beliefs by instrumental or prudential
considerations. Some people (myself included) think it is morally wrong to believe
anything on insufficient evidence. But this position is controversial, and it assumes
that there is such a thing as the purely epistemic justification of beliefs, since the
claim is that having such a justification is a necessary condition for being morally
justified in holding the belief. And I do think that epistemic reasons for believing,
disbelieving, doubting and so on are to some extent distinct from moral reasons.
As for reasons for action, we can understand reasons for action as being funda-
mentally of three kinds. First, as agents capable of seeing states of affairs as having
objective value, we understand the production of those states of affairs as having
value for us in action. Therefore, we must recognize the principle that if we have
decided that a state of affairs is to be brought about as an end, then we ought to
seek a set of means to this end, and if possible perform some set of actions making
it likely that we will attain this end. This is the basis of instrumental reasoning.
Notice that this basis is not solely, or even primarily, the value of the states of affairs
we take as ends; it is rather the value we place on ourselves as rational agents, who
have reason to plan for and carry out the creation of states of affairs they find to
be valuable as ends. But instrumental reasoning is not selfish; it gives no one's ends
any priority over anyone else's, but demands only rational means to whatever ends
we have set.
Second, as rational agents capable of weighing and co-ordinating the objects of
our rational desire, we ought to form a comprehensive idea of the ends we pursue,
taking into account the priority among these ends and also the availability of means
to them. This is the idea of the happiness of an individual, or a group, or a commu-
nity, or of all rational (and even non-rational) beings taken together, insofar as they
are thought of as having a good, or interests or well-being. The principle here is that
whenever some individual or collective is under consideration, we ought to pursue its
happiness, and prefer that happiness to any of its more particular, limited or tempo-
rary aims that might conflict with or threaten that happiness. This principle is the
basis of all prudential reasoning. Prudential reasoning is not reasoning about means
to ends, but reasoning about ends. The basis of prudential reasoning, however, is
not solely, or even primarily, the value of happiness. It is instead the value of the
rational beings themselves (whether considered individually or collectively) whose
happiness has value because they have fundamental and primary value. Prudential
182 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
closing about aesthetic values-the beauty of a painting or a piece of
music, the capacity of beautiful-and sometimes also of unbeautiful-
objects-such as works of art-to move us, to bring to life for our feel-
ings the meanings of things that we recognize but to which we n1ight
be emotionally dead were it not for the way the work of art portrays
them. Aesthetic objects also sometimes reveal new meanings to us to
us that we did not previously recognize, or even suspect.
Works of art n1ay make assertions of fact, or of value, and those
assertions, like all such assertions, are a matter of objective truth and
falsity. But the experience of beauty is a subjective experience, funda-
mentally a pleasure (sometimes also mixed with pain). The same is true
of emotions, and the experience of meanings. All these are essentially
subjective and perspectival, not matters that admit of objective proof.
If I am not moved by a certain poem or piece of music that moves you,
there is no point in your haranguing me with arguments intended to
convince me to be moved. In that sense, it is true that when we respond
to a work of art, we are not responding to reasons. This is also the truth
in the proverb, De gustabus non est disputandum ("There is no disput-
ing about taste.") But we also make judgments about the value of our
reasoning is not essentially selfish. It concerns the happiness of any individual or
collective whose interests we are considering.
Finally, as rational agents we are capable of weighing reasons and values uncon-
ditionally, and deciding what to do without having to presuppose any end, or set
of ends, or any desire, as the starting point of our deliberations. The only value
from which we cannot abstract is the value of the capacity to weigh reasons itself,
which we find in ourselves, but also equally in every other member of the universal
community of rational agents. This is the basis of moral reasoning. Its principle is to
treat all rational agents as having an objective value that is fundamental, supreme
and equal.
It is solely through this moral value that happiness acquires its value, and the
principle of prudence beconles binding on us; it is likewise solely through the value
of happiness that more limited ends, and hence the means to them, acquire their
value. Therefore, the three species of practical reasoning stand in a definite order of
priority. Moral reasoning takes precedence over, and governs, prudential reasoning,
and prudential reasoning takes precedence over, and governs, instrumental reason-
ing.
The common dogma that all practical reason is instrumental is based on the false
idea that all reason must begin with desire (for an end) and that the role of reason is
merely to supply the means to the end. But apart from our conception of ourselves
as capable of setting ends, and as having reasons to pursue the ends we set, there
would be no reason for us to take the means to our ends apart from the momentary
desire we might feel to perform the actions that count as those means. However, an
agent who always felt that desire, apart from any reason to feel it, would not need
instrumental reason. An agent needs instrumental reason at all only insofar as it
must create in itself a desire to employ the means it realizes are necessary for its
end. It creates this desire through its awareness of its value as a rational agent, and
the consequent objective value of the ends it has set for good reasons.
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 183
aesthetic responses, and these judgments are answerable to reasons.
Because of such judgments, taste admits of good and bad. Hume is
quite correct in saying that no sensible person can take seriously the
thesis that all painting or poetry, for instance, are of equal aesthetic
merit-that Ogilby is as good a poet as Milton.
25
We therefore do not
regard all aesthetic responses as equally appropriate, and this gives us a
basis for regarding some aesthetic judgments as true, others as untrue.
For example, it is true that Duke Ellington's band played better mu-
sic than Lawrence Welk's, and false that Norman Rockwell is a better
painter than Edward Hopper. People whose aesthetic responses do not
conform to the truth on these points simply have bad taste in music
and in painting.
Further, there seem to be aesthetic truths that do not deal directly
with aesthetic value, such as that the mood of Grey's Elegy in a Country
Churchyard is wistful and pensive, or that the march that is the third
movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony is frenzied and unpersua-
sively optimistic. These kinds of judgments have to do with the directly
perceived or felt (Le. aesthetic) features of aesthetic objects, and they
are as little susceptible to objective proof as judgments of beauty and
ugliness, but they are often relevant to such aesthetic appraisals, since
no one could possibly provide a decent aesthetic appraisal Grey's Elegy
who so badly misread it that he perceived its tone to be playful and
ironic.
There do, then, seem to be aesthetic truths, some of them directly
judgments of aesthetic value, others not. They are not objective truths,
however, both in the sense that they are not about the properties ob-
jects have irrespective of our subjective experience of them and also in
the sense that they cannot be proved or confirmed by rational argument
or empirical evidence. But there is one in1portant point of continuity
between aesthetic judgments and objective judgn1ents (whether about
values or not): both occur in the context of our communicative inter-
actions, and are answerable to standards we recognize in the contexts
of communication in which they occur. Hence although you cannot di-
rectly convince me that a piece of music is moving by providing me
with a demonstration of that fact, there are many things you might
say to me that might lead to n1Y hearing (or remembering) the piece
differently fron1 the way I first did, and in consequence being moved
by it as I previously was not. Some of the things you might say to
have this effect (all those that might be seen as genuinely aesthetic
25Hume, "The Standard of Taste" ,in S. Copley and A. Edgar (eds.), David Hume:
Selected Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
184 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
discourse about it) will also tend to convince nle that my new reaction
to the piece is a truer or more authentic reaction to it than nlY old one
was. It is probably the main task of critics, interpreters and scholars
of aesthetic objects-especially works of art-to engage in this kind of
discourse, to conform what they assert and what they argue to the right
standards for it, and to reflect on and (when necessary) to criticize and
revise those standards.
In this way, not only are there aesthetic truths but there is also
a quasi-objectivity about aesthetic truth, which has its basis in the
kinds of discourse we engage in about the objects (both of nature and
art) to which we react aesthetically, and the standards we recognize
for our aesthetic reactions and aesthetic judgments in the context of
that discourse. But it is perhaps puzzling that there should even be
a discourse of this kind at all. Why should we care about how the
feelings and sensibilities of others react to things? What business is it
of ours, anyway, what they feel or don't feel, whether they are pleased
or pained or moved in the same way we are by the same things? ("If I
happen to like Lawrence Welk better than Duke Ellington and Norman
Rockwell better than Edward Hopper, who the hell are you to criticize
me?") Why should we try to change people's feelings by talking to
them about works of art, and even treat different people's feelings as
though they corresponded to some kind of truth having something like
objectivity about it?
No doubt a lot could (and would need to be) said in answer to these
questions. But let me give the beginnings of one simple answermoti-
vated by the Enlightenment vision I have sketched. As rational beings
who ought to relate to one another, and communicate with one another
on conditions of mutual esteem and respect, we have strong reasons to
seek agreement with one another on basic questions both of factual
truth and of value. We do also have reasons, based on considerations
of modesty and caution as well as mutual respect, for not trying to en-
force this agreement or to reach it too hastily. But in valuing ourselves
and one another, we ought to seek a community of opinion between
ourselves and all other rational beings, freely and rationally arrived at,
and grounded on principles all can approve and accept. As members of
such an ideal community, we rightly seek to integrate into it everything
that is important to us. But arllong the most intimate features of our
lives are our experiences and emotions, which express our reactions to
other things that are important to us-including the natural objects
around us, the crucial events in our individual lives, the forms and sym-
bols of our collective life. It is part of our aspiration to a cosmopolitan
community that we want to share with others even, or especially, on
THE OBJECTIVITY OF VALUE / 185
the level of subjective experience, and that we therefore place greater
value on those subjective experiences which can be shared than on
those we cannot share or about which we cannot communicate.
26
This
gives us a legitimate interest in taste, in aesthetic truth and precisely
in its quasi-objectivity. Precisely because authentic feelings cannot be
forced, it clearly promotes the development of a free cosmopolitan con1-
munity that we should want to reach agreement at the level of feeling,
and ought to subject our own feelings to critical scrutiny in light of the
quasi-objective standards employed in the best discourse about those
objects that evoke the richest, subtlest and deepest feelings.
The objectivity of values is a necessary presupposition of all rational
deliberation. The objectivity of moral and political values respecting
the equality of every rational being and seeking for the community of
all rational beings, especially at the crucial levels of communication,
judgment, action and feeling, is a consequence of the Enlightenment
vision that takes rational deliberation to define us as human beings
having equal value who ought to live in community with one another.
27
26This is what Kant calls our "empirical interest" in the beautiful. See Kant,
Critique of the Power of Judgment, 41 (KU 5:296-298).
27The present version of this paper has benefited from the thoughtful and per-
ceptive comments of Derek Parfit.
7
Attacking Morality: A Metaethical
Project
Metaethics is the philosophical study of what morality is. It differs from
ethical theory, which attempts to systematize (and possibly ground)
n10ral judgments, and also from practical or applied ethics, which re-
flects on particular moral issues or problen1s. As it has been done in the
last century, n1etaethics has usually involved three interrelated projects:
a metaphysical investigation into the nature of moral facts and prop-
erties, a semantic inquiry into the meaning of moral assertions, and
an epistemological account of the nature of moral knowledge. In all
three areas, the questions raised by twentieth-century metaethics have
apparently been radical, and the dominant position was even openly
nihilistic. In metaphysics it was antirealist, maintaining that there are
no moral facts, in epistemology noncognitivist, denying that there is
moral knowledge, and in semantics emotivist or prescriptivist, holding
that moral assertions aren't assertions at all, but are speech acts utterly
devoid of truth conditions.
1
Perhaps most nihilistic of all was the comparatively recent variant
of this position put forward by J.L. Mackie. His position on moral lan-
guage was semantically realist but metaphysically nihilistic (or as he
put it, "skeptical"). It held that moral talk does assert the existence of
distinctively 'prescriptive' properties, but that no such 'queer' proper-
IThis is the best way to put it, since 'disquotational' theories of truth allow
emotivists to equate'S is true' with'S.' Even if the semantic function of'S' is
solely to express an emotional reaction, someone who sympathizes enough to be
disposed to utter'S' is saying something equivalent to'S is true,' end someone who
expresses antipathy can, correspondingly say something equivalent to'S is false.'
Even utterances whose only function is to express emotions therefore can, in this
miniInal sense, be said to possess truth values. But of course there are no truth
conditions for mere expressions of emotion.
187
188 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
ties exist, or even could exist. Moral language is thus to be accounted
for only through an 'error theory' which explains why people system-
atically project their feelings and attitudes on the world.
2
What is strange, however, is that this utterly nihilistic metaethi-
cal tradition has almost never seen itself as an attack on morality. On
the contrary, it has usually treated with contempt (as an elementary
misunderstanding) any suggestion that its views should be seen as un-
dermining the moral point of view or questioning the high esteem in
which people ostensibly hold moral values. Mackie, for example, in-
sists that his view concerns only 'second-order' questions or issues of
'conceptual analysis' and not 'first-order' or 'factual' questions about
lnorality itself.
3
(Imagine someone who insisted that theistic religion is
a system of error, that all belief in divine beings is nothing but a tissue
of lies and superstitions, and yet held it to be an elementary confusion
to think that accepting this 'second-order' claim has any tendency to
discredit the 'first-order' activities of religious people such as sacrificing
or praying to deities.
4
)
If the nihilistic metaethical views just mentioned are not n1eant as
attacks on morality, this does not mean that such attacks have been
absent from philosophy. On the contrary, in the continental tradition
they have been quite prominent, associated with such names as Hegel,
Stirner, Marx and Nietzsche. Recent critics of morality have included
Bernard Williams, Susan Wolf, and John D. Caputo.
5
Of course not
all the attacks on morality have been equally radical. Some are less
attacks on morality itself than on certain positions in moral theory, or
else they are attacks on certain specific moral values or on 'morality' in
a technical sense which is contrasted with' ethics' (which is not regarded
as vulnerable to the same objections).
I will be concerned here with certain ways of attacking morality
which are both radical and distinctively metaethical in nature. These
views are radical in that they attempt to some degree directly to un-
dern1ine our commitment to all moral values or to the moral point of
2 John L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth, Middle-
sex: Penguin 1977).
3Ibid., 22-4.
4We might consider such a person to be either contradicting himself or talking
nonsense. But following Mackie, perhaps that accusation could in turn be treated
as only a 'higher order' assertion which should not be interpreted as criticizing the
philosopher's views on religion.
5Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Har-
vard University Press 1985) ch. 10; Susan Wolf, "Moral Saints," Journal of Philos-
ophy 79 (1982); John D. Caputo, Against Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press 1993).
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 189
view generally, typically by showing that such commitment is based
on illusions about morality, regarded as a psychological or social phe-
nomenon. The distinctively metaethical character of such critiques of
morality consists in the fact that they rest on claims about what moral-
ity is (and that commitment to the moral standpoint is based on errors
or deceptions at this n1etaethical level).
Hence I will not be interested in Mackie's view, for instance. For
although he apparently regards the moral point of view as involving
metaethical error (since according to him it involves the 'projection' or
'objectification' of feelings and attitudes, after the pattern of the so-
called 'pathetic fallacy'), he does not think that exposing such errors
is going to undermine our commitment to morality itself. He seems to
think that exposing the systematic errors of moral language will have
no effect on our moral feelings and attitudes themselves or our commit-
ment to them. Mackie's metaethical view could with some plausibility
have been developed into the relevant sort of radical metaethical cri-
tique of morality, if Mackie had claimed that our commitment to moral
attitudes as such is dependent on our understanding them as grounded
in objective values, and inferred fron1 this that when we recognize there
are no such values, then that n1ust tend to undermine a rational per-
son's commitment to morality. The same could be done with other
antirealist and noncognitivist positions, such as emotivism if they were
combined with the view that it would undermine our commitment to
moral emotions to find out that moral staten1ents are no more than
expressions of emotion and make no claims having truth conditions. I
have always thought, in fact, that these radical variants of metaethi-
cal nihilism are far more interesting and plausible than the tediously
complacent and uncritically moralistic versions of metaethical antire-
alism common among Anglophone philosophers. But it will not be my
purpose to pursue that point here.
6
Instead, I will explore son1e specific examples of two general kinds
of critique to which morality as a whole has been subjected. One sort I
will call 'content critiques,' the other 'formal (or structural)' critiques.'
6" There are no moral facts at all. Moral judgments agree with religious judg-
ments in believing in realities which are no realities. Morality is merely an inter-
pretation of certain phenomena-more precisely, a misinterpretation" (Nietzsche,
Twilight of Idols, "The Improvers of Humanity," 1). When Nietzsche wrote this,
he intended it as a radical attack on morality, as the foundation of his "demand
upon the philosopher, that he should take his stand beyond good and evil" (ibid.).
Yet English speaking metaethical antirealists usually regard Nietzsche's inference
here with impatient condescension, as the sort of thing one might expect from a
particularly naive and annoying undergraduate. On this point I have always sided
with Nietzsche and the naive undergraduates.
190 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
Content critiques of morality claim that moral norms, principles and
ends have a certain unavoidable content, disguised from or misperceived
by those who are committed to morality, whose recognition tends se-
riously to undermine that commitment. Formal or structural critiques
deal with features of the psychology or sociology of morality which
pertain to it irrespective of the content of moral norms. In this chap-
ter, for example, it will involve a theory about the psychology of two
fundamental and indispensable Inoral feelings: indignation and guilt.
The critique displays such feelings as irrational or pathological, thus
undermining our commitment to all patterns of thinking and feeling in
which these feelings are involved either actually or virtually (that is, all
properly moral patterns of thinking). The modified form of Mackie's
position described in the previous paragraph would also fall under the
heading of a 'formal (or structural) critique.' For it would say that our
commitment to morality depends on the false belief that moral atti-
tudes are grounded on objective moral facts, so that the discovery that
there are no such facts tends to undermine that commitment, at least
in a rational person.
7.1
One of the earliest content critiques of morality is the position of
Thrasymachus, as presented in the first book of Plato's Republic. Ac-
cording to Thrasymachus, justice is the advantage of the stronger. This
theory is based on a piece of sociology or political theory: In societies,
there are some who rule, while the rest are ruled. 'Justice' refers to a
disposition on the part of the ruled to obey the laws made by the rulers
(338c-339a). Those who rule seek their own advantage at the expense
of the ruled, as shepherds carryon their activities for their own advan-
tage rather than that of the sheep (343b). This means that to act justly
is really to abey laws that are made in someone else's interest (343c),
and hence that just conduct is always foolish, disadvantageous and de-
serving of contempt, while unjust conduct (whenever one can get away
with it) is advantageous and therefore wise (343c-344a). Thrasymachus
notes that justice is generally praised, but thinks that his theory shows
this esteem to be based on deceptions. The praise of justice is due to
bold cunning and self-serving bluster on the part of rulers, fear and
high-minded foolishness on the part of the ruled (344c). Those who
know what justice really is do not praise it, but rather despise it. They
consider inj ustice to be good, intelligent and wise (348c-e).
In the terminology of twentieth-century metaethics, Thrasymachus'
position is best understood as a form of realism (both metaphysically
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 191
and semantically) and cognitivism (epistemologically). 'Justice' refers
to a real property of actions, namely, their conduciveness to the inter-
ests of the rulers and consequent disadvantageousness for the agent. For
example, the assertion 'Paying taxes is just' means that paying taxes
has the objective property of benefiting those who rule and harming
the taxpayer. Of course Thrasymachus does not suppose that the de-
scription 'benefiting the rulers at my own expense' is associated in most
people's minds with the term 'just' when they pride themselves on their
justice. On the contrary, he maintains that people are systematically
deceived about the real nature of justice, and would be quite incapable
of identifying justice with the referent of this phrase (at least until they
have been enlightened by his metaethical doctrines). But he does think
that the property referred to by this phrase is, unbeknownst to them,
the real referent of the term 'justice' and what governs their use of this
term.
It has been noted before that views such as Thrasymachus's are very
difficult to make sense of if one accepts an antirealist, noncognitivist
and emotivist metaethics.
7
Emotivists hold that 'just' is used most
basically to express praise or approval. But that would make a view
like Thrasymachus's close to self-contradictory, since its fundamental
claim is that justice is contemptible and that what is just receives praise
or approval only from the foolish and ignorant. Since Thrasymachus's
position, though unconventional and perhaps quite mistaken, is clearly
intelligible and in no danger of contradicting itself, it poses serious
problems for emotivism.
8
Thrasymachus's definition of justice is like the claim that water is
H
2
0 or that gold is the element with atomic number 79. People in ear-
lier ages could not have had these descriptions in mind when they used
the words 'water' or 'gold,' but their usage of 'water' may nevertheless
have been governed by the property of being H
2
0, and hence H
2
0 may
have been the correct referent of the term. The semantics of the term
7See Philippa Foot, "Moral Beliefs," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 59
(1958-1959) 420-425; Nicholas Sturgeon, "What Difference Does It Make if Moral
Realism is True?" Southern Journal of Philosophy 24 (1986)126-7.
8For similar reasons, the intelligibility of Thrasymachus's view casts serious
doubt on any semantical form of 'internalism,' which takes it to be part of the
meaning of words such as 'just' that people have some reason or motive for doing
what is just. It presents no difficulty, however, for other forms of internalism, such
as those which say merely that there necessarily is a reason or motive for doing what
is just. Such views are, to be sure, committed to denying that Thrasymachus's ac-
count of justice is correct, but they can easily admit that it is intelligible and not
self-contradictory. Their contention is rather that justice is a different property from
the one identified by Thrasymachus and that of this property it is in fact true that
there is necessarily a reason or motive for doing actions which have it.
192 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
'water' need not defer to their mistaken theories about water (their
belief, for instance, that it was an element rather than a compound).
Likewise, Thrasymachus's theory about the term 'just' does not need
to defer to what is associated with the term in people's minds, such
as the idea that justice is what is impartially good and that justice is
worthy of honor and respect. For these ideas according to Thrasyma-
cus, are nothing but false popular beliefs about justice (in fact, they
are the very illusions his theory means to expose).
Suppose there were an ignorant people who superstitiously believed
that gold is possessed of magical properties, or mistakenly thought that
ingesting it cures many sorts of illnesses. If their philosophers engaged in
metaethical speculations, making the same mistakes that philosophers
have made in the last century, then they might come to regard being
magical, or medicinal, or simply desirable, as an indispensable part
of the meaning of the word 'gold.' On a view like Thrasyn1achus's, the
superstitions of this people would be analogous to our belief that justice
is deserving of praise, and the errors of their philosophers would be like
the error regarding praiseworthiness as essential to the very meaning
of the word 'justice.'
A much later and more sophisticated version of Thrasymachus's view
is articulated by Marx, when he defines the justice of transactions as
their 'correspondence' or 'adequacy' to the prevailing mode of produc-
tion.
9
Marx does not hold that justice is directly the property of benefit-
ing those that rule, nor does he think of the relation between those who
legislate politically and those legislated to as the fundamental power
relation in society. But like Thrasymachus, Marx takes justice to be
an objective property of transactions, whose content is detern1ined by
social facts. He thinks justice is a property usually unknown to people,
even disguised from them, when they think and talk about justice, and
that ideological illusions are typically involved in their motivation to
perform just acts. And like Thrasymachus, Marx thinks that once we
gain a clear view of what justice is, we will acquire more sober ideas
about how praiseworthy or desirable it is.
10
9 Marx-Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz Verlag 1966-) 25: 351-2; Capital vol. 3, trans-
lated by David Fernbach (New York: Random House 1981) 460-1
lOSee Allen Wood, Karl Marx (London: Routledge 1981) ch. 9 and "Marx Against
Morality," in P. Singer, ed. A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell 1990). Thus
in Thrasymachus's view, someone who holds, for instance, that just laws are those
made in the interest of the governed is making a fundamental mistake about what
justice is. This is precisely the sort of mistake which benefits the rulers and makes the
notion of justice so useful to them. Such a person may nevertheless believe correctly
that the actually existing laws are just, and they may in fact be just. If a party came
to realize that the existing laws benefit the rulers at the expense of the ruled, it might
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 193
7.2
The most tempting response to all such content critiques of morality is
probably to claim that they are based on confusing morality itself with
people's erroneous ideas about it. It might be conceded, for example,
that Thrasymachus is right in saying that what serves the interest of
the rulers is identical to what people (erroneously) call just. But, so
the objection goes, the very fact that his definition, if accepted, would
undermine our commitment to 'justice' (to what it defines as 'justice')
is sufficient to show that Thrasymachus's definition fails to capture
what we really consider justice itself to be.
This objection certainly coheres with emotivist metaethical theories
which hold that the central function of terms like 'just' is merely to
express approval, and whatever content they have beyond that is con-
strained by the requirenlent that what we regard as 'really' just has
to be something toward which we have, all things considered, a 'pro'-
attitude. But its reinterpretation of Thrasymachus does an extremely
poor job of capturing his intentions, and in effect it accuses him of quite
elementary confusions. From his point of view, however, the objection
reveals the objectors' hopeless entanglement in the very errors his own
theory is intended to expose.
Thrasymachus is clearly not saying merely that what people (per-
haps erroneously) call just has the property of benefiting the rulers, any
more than when we say that water is H
2
0 or gold is the element with
atomic number 79 we are asserting merely that these properties belong
to what people (perhaps erroneously) call by those names. Likewise, the
notion that the referent of 'just' has to track our pro-attitudes is like
propose a new legal code which benefits the ruled, and argue for these new laws on
the ground that they are more just than the present ones. In Thrasymachus's view,
their argument would rest on the same confusion by which they had previously
been hoodwinked; it would be based on the party's substitution of a vulgar and
mystified conception of what justice is for a correct one. There is no sign that
the Thrasymachus of Plato's dialogue would have shared the goals of this party,
but if he had shared them, then he would still criticize the party for articulating
its views in terms of an erroneous and mystified conception of what justice is.
What this party wants, he ought to say, is not justice, but rather injustice-and
he would add (if he agreed with the party's goals) that this injustice is precisely
what would make the proposed laws desirable and worthy of adoption. This, in
effect, was Marx's reason for condemning those in the working class movement who
advocated socialist distribution on grounds of justice (see Marx-Engels Werke 19:8;
Marx Engels Selected Works [New York: International Publishers 1967] 325). For
what the socialists demand is not a distribution which corresponds to the prevailing
(capitalist) mode of production, but rather one which contradicts it. What they
demand may be quite all right, but their way of articulating the demand betrays
a fundamental misconception about the nature of justice, resting on even more
fundamental n1isconceptions about social reality.
194 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
saying that in a society which attributes magical powers or medicinal
virtues to the ingestion of gold, 'gold' really refers to nothing at all (if
nothing has these powers or virtues) or perhaps that 'gold' might turn
out to refer to penicillin (if penicillin turns out to have some significant
portion of the medicinal virtues they attribute to gold).
The whole point of content critiques of morality is to insist that
a term such as 'just' has a referent whose proper content is fixed, or
at least severely limited, by certain facts (in the case of Thrasymachus
and Marx, social facts)-and limited in such a way as to undermine our
commitment to justice once we understand the lin1itation. The objec-
tion just considered, on the other hand, is based on a prejudice which is
widely held but seldom explicitly stated: namely, that the 'true' content
of moral principles is whatever content we decide, in the end and all
things considered, these principles should have. This prejudice tempts
us to respond to every content critique of morality by reinterpreting
it as a clumsy and needlessly paradoxical way of disagreeing with con-
ventional moral beliefs, hence not as a critique of morality but merely
a disagreement within morality. For example, if 'justice' has up to now
usually referred to what is to the advantage of the rulers, and on re-
flection we favor the interest of the ruled, then we say that it is what
is 'really just' is what favors the ruled. According to this view, justice
itself should not be attacked, but pernicious ideas about it need to be
reformed.
There are powerful reasons, rooted in the cultural fact of mod-
ern 'morality' and its history, why this prejudice, and the consequent
interpreting-away of any content critique of morality, should be very
tempting to us. The same history, however, equally reveals why we
should not expect such atten1pts at reinterpretation always to succeed.
What we call 'morality' in rnodern liberal society is the outcome
of a cultural process through which social norms and customs, n10st
of them originally with a premodern (usually religious) basis and con-
tent, have been appropriated, modified and rationalized so as to accord
with a culturally diverse society whose only workable common basis
has proven to be universalistic and secular. Some writers, such as Alas-
dair MacIntyre, who mistrust the power of thinking with such a basis,
have emphasized the moral fragmentation inevitably involved in such a
process. Others, such as John Rawls, have more optimistically brought
out the indispensable role which must be played in modern society by
an 'overlapping consensus' with a liberal content. 11
A strong argument for the pessimistic side of this controversy can be
11 MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press 1981, 2d.
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 195
drawn from the value comn1itments of the social traditions out of which
modern morality arose. They reflect a premodern society in which the
division of society into unequal orders or estates was taken for granted,
in which social forms involving personal domination and dependence
(slavery, serfdom and various forms of indentured servitude) were com-
mon, and in which women were routinely treated as sexual property or
domestic labor, to be disposed of as their fathers and husbands saw fit.
Partly as a consequence of this last point and partly for other rea-
sons, the norms of traditional n10rality were focused compulsively on
the social regulation of the sexual conduct of individuals in ways that
are plainly pathological, patriarchal and homophobic. Such morbid ob-
sessions, which undeniably continue to belong to the principal con-
notations of the word 'moral,' can never be made intelligible on the
assumption that the point of morality is the greatest happiness of the
greatest number or the self-government of free and rational beings. It
may still have been possible for Prussian Protestants (such as Kant)
or English Victorians (such as Mill) to deny the obvious contradictions
here, but it is no longer possible for us to do so. It n1ay be the greatest
lasting contribution of such twentieth-century thinkers as Freud and
Foucault to have revealed the patterns of individual pathology and so-
cial oppression on which traditional sexual morality rests.
One way out of this dilemma-a way which betrays a deep commit-
ment to 'the system morality'-is to say, as Bernard Williams does,
that "there is no distinctively sexual morality," that 'sexual matters'
engage moral principles only to the extent that they involve issues
which are recognizably 'moral' (in a recognizably sane, modern, secu-
larized sense)-issues of 'trust, betrayal, and so forth.' In response to
such a view, David Carr is surely quite correct to insist that the virtue
of sexual chastity itself constitutes an original and irreducible element
of morality.12 Williams is probably correct, of course, in thinking that
it would be 'better,' all things considered, if people's sexual conduct
were not culturally regulated according to such standards of chastity
(insofar as these resist reduction to values which are more rational,
healthy, autonomy-respecting, and felicific). But it does not follow that
these standards can be either eliminated from the content of morality
or reflectively reformed so as to make them acceptable to modern, en-
lightened sensibilities. Their ineliminability may be merely a reflection
ed. 1984); Rawls, Political Liberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
1993)
12David Carr, "Chastity and Adultery," American Philosophical Quarterly 23
(1986) 363-71. Williams's quoted remarks, taken from a 1971 radio broadcast, are
cited by Carr on p. 370.
196 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
of the fact that the content of morality, in whatever forn1, contains
ineliminable elements of neurosis, patriarchy, homophobia and so on.
Yet there is equally little doubt that the content of what we call
'morality' is now decisively determined by the such modern, secular,
rationalistic values as human rights, human dignity and human hap-
piness. Even those who crusade against 'secular humanism' have no
choice but to conduct their public relations campaigns so as to avoid
open conflict with these values (thus betraying the fundamental intel-
lectual and spiritual bankruptcy of their position). Whatever their dif-
ferences, both moral traditionalists and moral modernists are therefore
deeply committed to the project of reconciling morality's traditional
form with a content suited to a modern secular society oriented to the
freedom, welfare and fulfillment of individuals. 'Morality' (whatever its
content) is by now most fundamentally a name for just that project,
and struggles within morality are merely over the precise terms of the
treaty of reconciliation.
7.3
The two perennially favorite moral theories, utilitarianism and Kant-
ianism, are quite transparent attempts to adapt inherited social and
psychological materials to the needs of a modern, hence more reflec-
tive, individualistic, and rationalistic culture. Utilitarians accept from
the tradition the conceptual and psychological substructure of moral-
ity, especially the notions of moral right, wrong and obligation, and
the supporting feelings and attitudes of praise, blame, guilt and con-
science, even sometimes the standards of individual rights and social
justice, but seek to reform their content according to the rational prin-
ciple that conduct should be conductive to the collective welfare of all.
Whatever the original cultural or religious meaning of moral concepts,
feelings, and forms of reflection, the utilitarian wants to detach them
from the contingent and often irrational 'sympathies and antipathies'
they usually express. Conscience, as Mill says, is simply an artificial
association of a painful sanction with certain rules of conduct, through
which a society controls the behavior of its members. 13 The utilitarians'
aim is to reform, re-educate and socially re-engineer these associations,
directing and manipulating hun1an conduct toward more rational, sec-
ular, universalistic ends.
Kant recognizes that morality has arisen historically out of social
standards of 'decency' (Sittsamkeit) , or 'propriety' (Anstiindigkeit) ,
that is, forms of customary behavior through which individuals have
13Mill, Utilitarianism, ed. G. Sher (Indianapolis: Hackett 1979) 28-30
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 197
sought to gain social status, or at least to avoid the contempt of others
by conforming their conduct to the expectations of social custom.
14
He emphasizes that both the basis and the content of many of these
socially enforced norms were originally religious and hardly deserving
of rational respect. They were, he points out, statutory observances
superstitiously directed to winning the special favor of supernatural
beings, and usually designed to maximize the tyrannical power which
a class of priests wielded over people's thoughts, feelings and actions.
15
The decisive break with this traditional morality, in his view, occurs
with enlightenment, "the human being's release from self-incurred mi-
nority," through which people begin for the first time to think for
themselves.
16
This gives morality a new basis, not fear of social dis-
approval or divine displeasure, but the autonomy of reason, through
which their own faculties give universal laws which accord with the
dignity of their rational nature.
17
Thus for Kant the rational reform
which brings us to a consciousness of true morality does not merely
modify the content of traditional social norms, as utilitarianism pro-
poses to do, but even revolutionizes their character as forms of social
control, turning them instead into laws which realize the freedom of
individuals as moral agents.
Alasdair MacIntyre has claimed that modern morality is made up of
leftover scraps of various social traditions, which Enlightenment uni-
versalist rationalism is impotent to unify or to provide with a common
ground. He seems to me to underestimate both the power of reason and
the distinctive and positive contribution the Enlightenment tradition
plays in grounding and shaping the values of modern culture. Neverthe-
less, I am arguing that in the end something rather like his contentions
turns out to be true. For both utilitarian and Kantian theories reveal a
deep tension within morality, between its social basis and content and
what modern reflection wants to make of it.
The culture of premodern society obviously did not rest on values
such as the maximal tendency of individual pleasure over pain or the
autonomy of the human will. Even modern society, insofar as its basic
form is capitalism, though its ideologies are grounded on these val-
ues, is deeply hostile to them, so that the tension is not only between
modern and premodern values, but also between modern values and
modern practice. Since this is so, it should not be surprising that our
moral consciousness should resist the radical transformation custom-
14Kant, MA 8:113
15Kant, R 6:151-190
16Kant, A 8:35
17Kant, G 4:431-441
198 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
ary moral norms would have to undergo if modern values were fully
accepted. It is therefore hard to be convinced by the optimism to which
moralists (whether traditionalist or reformist) are irrevocably commit-
ted. We should not believe them when they say, for example, that moral
principles have always achieved stability only through the unacknowl-
edged influence of the utilitarian standard,18 or that autonomy of the
will suddenly solves the problem of grounding morality, which defeated
all previous moral theories
19
-in other words, that traditional morality
grounded on custom and religion was really modern morality all along,
only it did not understand itself.
7.4
The best-known radical critic of morality is, of course, Friedrich Ni-
etzsche. Some of Nietzsche's attacks on morality can be interpreted
as content critiques analogous to those of Thrasymachus and Marx.
It is a familiar theme in Nietzsche, for instance, that morality's con-
tent is determined by its social function of asserting the dominance of
society over the individual, hence of controlling or suppressing what-
ever is 'deviant' or creative in human beings, whatever stands outside
or rises above the 'herd' and its perspective. His attack on Christian
morality-and even more on its modern, humanist descendants-may
also be viewed as a content critique of morality insofar as Nietzsche
regards 'slave values' as having defeated 'master values' in the histori-
cal struggle, and thus as monopolizing the content of morality. And of
course Nietzsche was one of the first philosophers to notice the destruc-
tive tensions and incon1patibilities in modern morality, and to draw
radically anti-moral consequences from then1.
For just this reason, however, many of Nietzsche's attacks are not
so much content critiques of morality itself as polemics against cer-
tain specific moral values-of the value ascribed to compassion, for
instance, or of moral principles such as human equality and universal
human dignity-which he himself views as competing with other val-
ues, such as strength or creativity, which might also be affirmed as part
of a 'master morality.' It is significant in this respect that Nietzsche's
earliest discussion of the opposition between 'slave morality' and 'mas-
ter morality' concludes with the observation that "our current morality
has grown on the soil of the ruling tribes and castes.,,20
For this reason as well as others, it n1ay be more illuminating to
18 Mill, Utilitarianism, 3
19Kant, G 4:441-445
20 Human, All-Tao-Human, 45
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 199
consider aspects of Nietzsche's polemic against morality which consti-
tute formal or structural critiques. Specifically, I will briefly discuss
two themes in Nietzsche's chief work on the topic, On the Genealogy of
Morals. The first is the theory of ressentiment, presented in the 'First
Essay,' and the second is the theory of self-directed aggression and its
rationalization, presented in the 'Second Essay.' We will regard these
two theories as structural critiques of two basic moral attitudes, blame
and guilt, which are fundamental formal or structural features of moral-
ity. Attitudes of blame and guilt, that is to say, are indispensable to
any morality, whatever its content, since they are directed toward what
is perceived as morally evil, irrespective of what moral good and evil
are taken to consist in. Hence, if Nietzsche can convincingly display
the psychology of these attitudes in a way that discredits them, then
he will thereby succeed in undermining our commitment to morality as
such, irrespective of its content.
The fundamental psychological mechanism involved in ressentiment
is quite simple. Someone does you an injury, trespasses on territory
you hope to occupy, takes away something you wanted, or in some
other way causes you pain or humiliation. The natural reaction is to
strike out at the person who has done this to you, to assert yourself by
perpetrating an even greater aggression, to inflict an even greater pain
or humiliation, visiting on your tormentor an even greater suffering than
the one you have been forced to endure; and this pain you want to inflict
is seen by you not as a means to your well-being but rather as desirable
for its own sake, simply because it deprives the other of a happiness
equal to or greater than that of which you have been deprived. Suppose,
however, that you are aware that you cannot strike out in this way,
that you are too weak, that you are impotent to do the other any
harm, or that this other is so much your superior that if you dare to
strike back you will be crushed by the overwhelming power of the one
you hate. The fact that your reactive impulse does not find an outlet
does not mean that this impulse disappears. On the contrary, Nietzsche
theorizes, it merely accumulates, grows and festers. And if you are so
aware of your own impotence that you are often offended by external
powers and can seldom give expression to your reactive instinct, then
the consciousness of your position may easily become psychologically
untenable. Your rancor will then change its form, it will be transmuted,
disguised. And if it does not dare to assail its real object directly, it will
seek out another object, or manufacture an imaginary object on which
it may mount an attack with impunity. Nietzsche's theory is that the
concept of moral evil first arises as such an imaginary object, and the
200 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
attitude of moral blame is the accumulated ressentiment, assuming a
concentrated, purified form.
21
When we confront evil, we get all worked up. We draw on a store
of negative psychic energy which is sometimes surprising or even ter-
rifying in its strength and vehemence. Our opposition to evil is not
driven by mere anger, still less by any offense to ourselves personally.
To the extent that it is, our indignation is felt to be tainted, not purely
moral in character. In moral blame, that is to say, we are driven by
a force more sublime than any immediate impulse to retaliate against
an injury, whether done to ourselves or to son1eone else in particular.
The particular object of our indignation is merely an example, and we
may feel all the nobler if we feel no hatred of it (him, her or them) as
an individual (we 'hate the sin, not the sinner'). The real object of our
moral attitude, we tell ourselves, is simply evil itself, of which the mis-
creant before us is simply an example. It is evil, we tell ourselves, that
calls forth blame, as what it inherently deserves. Nietzsche's theory,
however, explains this by reference to the vast reservoir of unconscious
ressentiment which has built up in us through a long series of injuries to
which our in1potence has prevented us from reacting in a healthy and
spontaneous way. We require an object on which to vent these feelings,
an object distinct from any particular individual, but capable of taking
up residence in individuals, when awareness of their vulnerability, or
lack of our self-control, or some other contingent factor n1akes them
seem fit objects toward which to direct our pent-up hostilities. This
is, on Nietzsche's theory, the psychological meaning of evil, regarded
specifically as an object of feelings such as an indignation and blame.
On Nietzsche's theory, it would be hopelessly naive, from the stand-
point of psychology, to ask whether 'evil,' in this sense, is a real prop-
erty of actions or people in the world. We understand where the idea
of evil comes fron1 only if we understand the self-concealing mechanism
of creative imagination which produces evil as a way of making our
suppressed ressentiment psychologically tenable. We grasp the nature
of evil, and of the blan1e it calls forth, only when we understand the
sick and self-opaque psychological process through which our imagi-
nation was compelled to posit it. Moral evil, as the 'proper' object of
blame, is not a moral 'reality' of any sort, which might rationally guide
our conduct or figure in the explanation of what happens. It is only a
symptom of a psychological process whose irrationality necessitates its
being hidden fron1 consciousness.
21 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, especially 10-11, 14-15
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 201
7.5
The 'Second Essay' in the Genealogy provides a similarly psychological
(and deflationary) account of guilt feelings. For Nietzsche, as for Kant,
the historical origin of morality is to be found in the social customs
through which a culture forms and controls its members, a regimen to
which Nietzsche gives the name 'the morality of mores' (Sittlichkeit der
Sitte).22 The mores of the community frustrate many of the individual's
instincts, especially the aggressive ones, since their natural expression
would threaten others and make a secure social life in general impossible
for all.
Once again Nietzsche argues that powerful psychological needs do
not go away merely because their direct satisfaction is inhibited. In-
stead, they once again assume a form which is acceptable-to the
psyche of the individual, and also to society. Once the individual hu-
man animal has been caged up in civilization, its suppressed aggres-
sive impulses-Nietzsche calls them the "instinct for freedom"-are
left with only one acceptable object: the only thing on which it is per-
missible to inflict pain is oneself 23
As in the case of ressentiment, however, this redirection of a destruc-
tive instinct would be psychologically untenable if it were consciously
recognized for what it is. Before the individual's consciousness it re-
quires articulation in an acceptable form. Nietzsche argues that this
form developed at a comparatively early stage of civilization, based on
the then existing social relationship between creditors and debtors. At
an earlier stage of culture, Nietzsche observes (he is thinking mainly
of the relevant provisions of the Roman Twelve Tables, promulgated
about 450 B.C.), when a debtor was unable to pay a creditor what
was owed, the latter was permitted to amputate a part of the forn1er's
body commensurate with the size of the debt (we are bound to think
of Shakespeare's Shylock in this connection). Nietzsche argues that we
entirely misunderstand this practice if we see it as a deterrent to those
who would voluntarily escape their obligations; voluntariness on the
part of the debtor did not con1e into it at all. The point, rather, was
simply to compensate the creditor for a pecuniary loss by permitting
him to receive an acceptable substitute-"the pleasure of being allowed
to vent his power freely upon one who is powerless, the voluptuous plea-
sure de faire le mal pour le plaisir de le faire." 24
22 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, 2; cf. also Human, All-
Too Human, 96; Mixed Opinions and Maxims, 89; The Wanderer and His Shadow,
48; Daybreak, 9,14,16.
23Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, 17-18
24Ibid., 5
202 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
This way of dealing with unpaid debt, Nietzsche n1aintains, also
functioned in people's thinking about crime and punishment. Life in
society, under the protection of its laws, was something individuals
have been given, and for which they owe society a recompense, in the
form of obedience to those laws. When I break the law, I am viewed
as a debtor who has not paid my debt to society, and it therefore may
inflict pain on me to compensate itself for my transgression. 25
These institutions, Nietzsche hypothesizes, provided people with a
way of dealing consciously with the psychological results of social pro-
hibitions. We have a need to inflict pain on ourselves, but we do not
understand why, and we have to explain this need in a way we find
acceptable. But we understand that when we owe a debt we cannot
pay, or have done something wrong, pain is rightly inflicted on us, in
compensation to our creditor, or to the law or the authority we have of-
fended. The sufferings we endure at our own hands, then, can be n1ade
intelligible if we see then1 as punishments or compensation for unpaid
debts. All we need in order to make this explanation work is to find (or
invent) an unpaid debt or a crime we have committed, and a creditor
who demands our pain as satisfaction.
Nietzsche points out that today we think of debt and crime very
differently from the ways in which they were thought of back when the
concept of guilt and the feeling of bad conscience were first invented.
But he finds traces of their genealogy in the fact that the German
word Schuld n1eans both 'guilt' end 'debt.'26 The moral attitudes of
guilt and bad conscience, owing to the persistence of the social and
psychical necessities which gave birth to them, long ago acquired a life
of their own, though they are supported today by the same diseased
psychology they had at the beginning.
As for our need to find debts and a creditor, crimes and someone
to take satisfaction in our punishment, the human imagination makes
quick work of these requirements. Ancestors and gods are easily viewed
as benefactors, to whom we owe more than we can possibly repay.2
7
Crimes are also easily found, all the more easily as we purify the de-
mands of our n10rality, so that we make not only the deed but even
the wish into a transgression. This device even does double service in
our present predican1ent, since our need to be punished arises precisely
from the fact that we have aggressive desires on which we may not act.
There is admirable psychic economy exhibited in the fact that we are
25Ibid., 9, 12-13,15
26Ibid., 6
27Ibid., 19
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 203
finally able to express these desires when we punish ourselves simply
for having them.
28
On Nietzsche's theory, there is also a profound symbolism in the
Christian doctrine of original sin, the idea that our real guilt lies far
deeper than any of our particular misdeeds, and they merely provide
so many occasions for this guilt to manifest itself. For Nietzsche the
truth in this is that the origin of our feelings of guilt does not lie in any
transgression we have committed against the laws of society, but is due
on the contrary to society's aggression against us, in checking and sup-
pressing our instinct for freedom, which therefore seeks opportunities
to vent itself on us by taking our acts as occasions for punishment.
If Nietzsche's theory is correct, then we should expect a somewhat
paradoxical consequence: If guilt feelings are the results of aggression
suppressed by social mores, then ceteris paribus those who are least
outwardly aggressive should be most sensitive to them, while those
who express their aggressiveness most freely should be least susceptible
to the unhealthy psychology of guilt and hence should feel the least
guilty about what they do. And this is what we do see; for it is saintly
people like Augustine who still feel guilty over the pears they stole as
children, while brutal conquerors seldom feel guilt about what they
do (unless, Nietzsche thinks, their innocence has been corrupted by
Christian moral sicknesses). 29 Morality, of course, has its own account
of all this, telling us that this is because the former type of person,
being especially 'good,' is also especially sensitive to his own flaws,
while the latter type ignores them because he is 'evil.' But neurotic
and ideological patterns of thinking always have resources for explaining
away the obvious facts in a manner which keeps us within the circle of
illusion. Nietzsche contemptuously rejects such 'moral explanations,' as
part of the systematic web of myths, diseased imagining and outright
lying which characterizes moral consciousness in general. 30
7.6
Nietzsche writes as if his theories provided a complete account of the
nature and psychological origin of morality, of feelings such as blame
and guilt, as well as the value Christianity and its successors in mod-
28The maximal invention of this sort, Nietzsche thinks, is that of the forgiving
God who had to sacrifice himself for our sins because these were too profound and
heinous ever to be expiated by any punishment we might undergo: the infinite love
and infinite beneficence of such a God, and the infinite debt we incur on its account,
is sufficient to provide endless occasions for the most exquisite forms of self-torment
(ibid., 20-21).
29Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, 11
30Ibid., 14
204 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
ern secular morality place on such things as compassion and equal-
ity. Admittedly, this suggestion is pretty outrageous. It is an example
of Nietzsche's ploy (one that often succeeds with his gullible admir-
ers and followers) of impudently parading the iconoclasm and down-
right implausibility of his ideas as if they were arguments for them.
To that extent, when taken at its word, his entire genealogy of morals
is fairly easy for a level-headed person to dismiss. There are no doubt
any number of more humdrum and saner theories of moral psychology,
having greater plausibility, that do not in the least discredit moral con-
cepts or feelings. Nevertheless, we would be too hasty simply to dismiss
Nietzsche's outlandish theory altogether. For it is not so easy to dis-
credit the possibility that the psychological mechanisms he describes
have-along with the less loony explanations we can think of-some
significant influence on the expression of people's moral attitudes, or
even that they identify part of what is constitutive of those attitudes
themselves.
Consider the following possibility: Morality, as a psychological and
social fact, for the most part, may be an expression of a perfectly ratio-
nal set of values, and moral attitudes n1ay usually constitute a perfectly
rational set of reactions to the human condition and the circumstances
human social life. Yet these rational reactions may sometimes also, at
least at the margins, be accompanied by, and at times warped by, the
irrational psychologies Nietzsche identifies. Guilt, for instance, may be
simply a proper psychological reaction to my having violated norms
with which others rightly expect me to comply, and which I rightly
impose on n1yself. But it may be that some of the emotional power
of guilt feelings is also borrowed from the mechanism of self-directed
aggression Nietzsche postulates; and sometin1es the pathology of this
mechanislll may influence guilt feelings, leading us to feel guilt when
it is not rational to do so. In a few cases, it may even lead guilt feel-
ings to be perverted in their content and expression, hence explaining
the neurotic behavior observed by Freud. Blame is likewise mainly a
rational reaction to those who violate the proper norms of conduct in
a healthy society. But perhaps part of the vehemence of this feeling
is also due to the mechanisms of unconscious ressentiment, and this
also explains why it is occasionally directed to objects that don't re-
ally deserve it. Perhaps this also helps to explain why moral blame
sometimes takes the form of the sickening vehemence we observe, for
example, among the sizable majority of Americans who still believe
passionately in the death penalty, even though they have every reason
to know that it is ineffective as a deterrent to crime and also that they
(at any rate) are incapable of ever administering it without also turning
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 205
it into a vehicle of the class and racial injustices that continue to make
the United States, despite its prosperity, one of the most barbarous
nations in the world. It is this more moderate contention, then--that
Nietzsche's theory captures only part of the truth about moral concepts
and emotions--that I propose to take as a hypothesis, to see what its
metaethical consequences might be for the kind of morality theorized
by Kant and the utilitarians.
We should ask how far the ends and principles of morality, as the
theorists portray them, may be plausibly served by a system of thoughts
and feelings having such psychological origins, even if Nietzsche's theory
of these origins is only part of the story. None of these feelings, to begin
with, has anything felicific about it. None involve the pursuit of pleasure
or happiness, even for the agent, much less for sentient creation as a
whole. All of them aim chiefly at inflicting pain, even pain for its own
sake, either on oneself or on someone else. From this point of view, it
is at least initially implausible that moral feelings, to the extent that
they have the origins Nietzsche ascribes to them, could serve utilitarian
ends.
Utilitarians sometimes note that certain moral feelings have an ori-
gin in vengeful inlpulses, and then like to suggest that in their moral
form these feelings, perhaps combined with sympathy, function to de-
ter injury, hence to serve the general happiness.
31
Now to begin with
this is just about as plausible as saying that sadistic impulses might be
moral feelings in good standing, since they too, if properly manipulated
and directed, might conceivably have a felicific tendency on the whole.
But to the extent that Nietzsche's theory is correct, there are also psy-
chological constraints on both blame and guilt as regards their object
and as regards the occasions on which they're likely to be manifested.
The manifestations of pent-up ressentiment will be selected in part be-
cause they can be easily associated in imagination with the archetype
of 'evil' representing the perceived causes of our past frustrations and
humiliations, partly because they are easy and safe targets, suitable
scapegoats on which to release all the hostilities we have been unable
to vent naturally on their real objects. To the extent that Nietzsche's
theory is correct, then, we might expect moral blame to be most com-
monly directed not at those whose actions pose the greatest threat to
the general happiness, but rather at those whom it feels natural to bring
under convenient stereotypes associated with people's images of evil,
and also at people in vulnerable positions, on whom one may inflict
injury with least fear of retaliation.
3
1
Cf. Mill, Utilitarianism, 50-51.
206 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
We need only look at the social types at which it seems easiest for
people to direct blame-people driven by poverty to desperate acts,
unwed mothers living on public assistance, racial minorities, people
whose lifestyle is readily perceived as 'other' and 'deviant'-to see that
Nietzsche's theory has many confirming instances. If feelings with this
psychological origin are then combined with a utilitarian morality, the
result is that convenient social pariahs are then judged-without much
evidence, perhaps, but nevertheless with psychological consistency-
to be the cause of all manner of social ills. The frequency with which
this happens should provide us with some basis for deciding how far
the utilitarians are right when they say that morality puts vengeful
feelings in the service of promoting the general happiness. When we
consider this question, we may well ask pointedly what is being put in
the service of what.
On the standard utilitarian account, guilt feelings would be useful
when associated in people's minds with unfelicific acts, and as deter-
rents to committing acts of the same kind in the future. To the extent
that they originate in the way Nietzsche supposes, however, there is no
reason to expect them to have such an effect. On the contrary, Nietz-
sche's theory tells us that feelings of guilt, other things being equal,
are proportional to the extent to which we have repressed our impulses
to harm others. Moreover, these feelings arise along with a need to at-
tribute guilty acts to ourselves, or, if we find that too difficult, a need
to commit crimes in order to bring our perception of ourselves into line
with our guilt feelings, a phenomenon Freud noted in some of his pa-
tients.
32
In that case, far from serving to prevent unfelicific acts, guilt
feelings should be expected to cause them.
To whatever extent we think a Nietzschean account of morality may
explain attitudes such as blame and guilt, to that very same extent
we make it more difficult to reconcile the psychology of moral atti-
tudes with a utilitarian account of the purpose they are supposed to
serve. But if such a reconciliation is difficult for a utilitarian theory of
morality, it surely becomes utterly impossible in the case of a Kantian
theory, which takes the autonomy of reason as morality's fundamental
principle. For the minimum we could ask of a morality of autonomy is
that agents who are influenced by moral feelings and attitudes should
act with self-transparency, that their interpretation of their attitudes
should be correct, and that they should be able to act on these at-
3
2
Freud, "Some Character Types Met With in Psychoanalytic Work," Standard
Edition of the Complete Psychological Works (New York: Macmillan 1964-)19:53.
Nietzsche anticipated this point: see Thus Spake a r a t h ~ s t r a First Part, 6: "The
Pale Criminal. " - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 207
titudes as they understand them. To the extent that moral feelings
arise in the way described by Nietzsche's theories, however, they are
essentially self-opaque: one has them at all only insofar as aggressive or
reactive impulses undergo repression, disguise and unconscious trans-
formation. If Nietzsche's theories of blame and guilt are even partly
correct, then those who take such attitudes toward themselves or oth-
ers are always thereby involved to a degree in the subversion of their
own rational autonomy. The same is obviously true of morality to the
extent that Freud is correct in regarding the superego as an introjection
of the father as a way of resolving Oedipal conflict.
33
To many people it is so obvious that some such account is true of
moral feelings and impulses that as soon as they see how far Kant's
theory captures the spirit of ordinary moral consciousness, they im-
mediately become unable to take seriously Kant's insistence that his
moral theory is founded on the autonomy of reason. It is only on the
basis of such a misunderstanding, for example, that Bernard Williams
could suppose that Kantian morality might pose any threat to personal
integrity.34 The ease and commonness of such a misunderstanding, how-
ever, testifies to the deep tension which exists, on the purely formal or
structural level, between morality as a social and psychological fact and
Kant's attempt to produce a rational theory of it.
7.7
I have claimed that Nietzsche's formal critiques of morality are far more
plausible if taken to express part of a con1plex metaethical truth than
if taken to be con1plete reductive psychological analyses of blame and
guilt. The same should surely be said regarding the content critiques
we have examined. Thrasyn1achus's conception of justice, for example,
is based on some extren1ely crude social analysis; even its more so-
phisticated Marxian variant is far more plausible if taken to capture
only a partial truth. Appeals to justice generally stabilize the prevail-
ing mode of production, but often enough they also destabilize it. Any
view which sees justice as always on the side either of the oppressor or
the oppressed has yet to arrive at a fully satisfactory theory of it.
Both Nietzsche and Marx were, I think, clearly aware of this point,
even if their polemical intentions usually made them reluctant to ad-
mit it. Marx pretty clearly regards his reductive, historical materialist
account of justice as only a rough approximation, the best that one can
(or need) do with concepts in the purely ideological sphere, which ad-
33Freud, The Ego and the Id, Complete Psychological Works 19: 36, 48, 167
3
4
Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 184-95
208 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
mits of less scientific precision than the economic foundation on which
it rests.
35
Nietzsche, on the other hand, was unconcerned with tidiness
because he celebrated unsystematic thinking. Like some of his recent
admirers, he did not much care that the overall import of his thoughts
about morality is in many respects obscure and even self-contradictory.
The harder question is what conclusions we should draw from rad-
ical metaethical critiques of morality, granted that the theories which
undermine our commitment to morality contain a measure of truth but
give a partial rather than a total account of the moral phenomena they
propose to explain. The most intensive investigations into this question
are to be found in the writings of philosophers in the recent continen-
tally inspired tradition. But they are unfortunately of little help. For
although they are lucidly aware of its difficulty-and even the difficulty
of formulating it properly-they usually content themselves with 'de-
constructing, morality, in other words, reveling in confusion for its own
sake, tracing out the multifaceted ambiguities and ramified mystifica-
tions it introduces into every aspect of the moral life, and show little
or no concern with proceeding toward any clarity about the questions
it raises, much less toward answers to them.
36
Perhaps they are right, though, to think it is worthwhile merely
to make us painfully aware of the mere presence and urgency of such
questions. For as we have seen in the case of traditional Anglophone
metaethics, there is a powerful resistance to admitting their existence
at all. Arguments which purport to undermine our commitment to
morality and even to discredit it are likely to elicit fear and revulsion,
or if not that, then a detached attitude of idle intellectual amusement
which is equally effective in preventing us from thinking seriously about
what those arguments imply, if they are sound. Even those who do not
consider moral principles to be categorical imperatives, even those who
do not consider moral reasons to be overriding in all cases, are apt to be
reluctant to admit that there could be shades of grey regarding moral
principles and moral feelings considered simply in themselves.
We may be frightened that radical critiques of morality threaten to
leave us defenseless against all the cruelties and injustices people do
to one another, with no support for any of the decent impulses which
make human life bearable. If this is our reaction, then we would do
35 "A distinction must be made between the material transformation of the eco-
nomic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of nat-
ural science, and the ... ideological forms in which human beings become conscious
of this conflict" (Selected Works, 183).
36This is obviously true of Caputo, Against Ethics; see also Charles C. Scott, The
Question of Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1990).
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 209
well to ask ourselves how much good we think morality actually does
in these respects, and how much faith we really place in moral motives
to direct people's conduct as we think it should be directed. Moreover,
the thrust of most radical metaethical critiques of morality is to insist
that morality itself-meaning not the que voulez-vous of philosophical
theories but the actual social and psychological phenomena to which
a whole system of words and concepts like 'nlorality,' 'justice,' 'evil,'
and 'guilt' are correctly applied-is responsible for no small propor-
tion of cruelty, oppression, suffering, and degradation against which we
hope 'morality' will protect us. These critiques show us that looking to
morality for such protection is like an oppressed people looking to their
tyrannical ruler for justice, or an abused wife looking to her husband
for protection.
37
The next thought is likely to be that morality is needed even to artic-
ulate our objections to the ugly practices with which radical critiques
charge morality; hence to undermine our conlmitnlent to nl0rality, as
radical metaethical critiques seek to do, is simultaneously to undernline
the values on the basis of which those same critiques are carried out,
and therefore the radical critiques show thelnselves to be self-refuting
or internally incoherent. There is clearly some force in this line of 0 b-
jection. I think something like it is quite telling against many so-called
'postmodernist' critiques of Enlightenment values (for example, those
of Foucault) which make no sense except on the basis of precisely those
same modern, Enlightenment values.
Yet here it is important to draw a distinction between radical cri-
tiques of morality that claim to provide a reductive and deflationary ac-
count of the whole phenomenon of morality, and more moderate forms
of these critiques claiming only that critical accounts of morality tell
a significant part of the story. The former are indeed self-defeating if
they're carried out on the basis of values that themselves belong to
morality. In order to avoid this self-defeat, these critiques must appeal
solely to non-moral values, such as self-interest.
38
But this restriction
would make them less compelling. The latter, more moderate versions
of a radical critique of morality, however, are not rendered incoherent
37And not only like such things, but, as a matter of culture and institutions,
actually entwined with them. Also, the point is not to deny that morality does
sometimes protect us from cruelty and barbarism, just as tyrants sometimes do
justice among their subjects and abusive husbands sometimes protect their wives.
38Thrasymachus's radical critique of morality, for example, avoids any threat of
self-defeat in just this way. Marx's critique of morality is self-consistent only if the
values on which his critique of capitalism rests are non-moral values. Most of the
controversy over Marx's anti-moralism comes down to the question whether this is
a possible interpretation of the basis of his social critique.
210 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
if they appeal to values that themselves belong to morality. Their gist
is rather that morality itself is a complex and internally contradictory
phenomenon, so that it makes perfectly good sense to be committed to
one strand of the tangled fabric in mounting a criticisn1 against other
strands.
For example, it makes perfectly good sense to appeal to the modern
Enlightenment values represented by utilitarian or Kantian morality
(that is, to the value of human happiness or rational autonomy) in
attacking those aspects of morality (whether contentual or structural)
which are premodern, antirational and counter-Enlightenment in na-
ture (that is, to the aspects of morality which derive fron1 such things
as psychological dysfunction, religious superstition, social oppression,
or sexual repression).
'Postmodernists' usually do not make clear where they stand here.
Their love of paradox for its own sake makes them reluctant to distin-
guish between coherent and incoherent forms of their own doctrines,
even where this would make those doctrines more plausible. Moreover,
they usually do appeal in practice to Enlightenrrlent values, but they
often confusedly identify the very values to which they in fact appeal
with the enemy they mean to attack. I conclude that their way of crit-
icizing morality will remain hopeless and undeserving of serious atten-
tion unless it places some value on rational coherence and consequently
sorts out the (modern rationalist Enlightenment) values to which it is
ultimately committed fron1 the (anti-modern, antirationalist, counter-
Enlightenrnent) features ofrnodern culture which are the proper objects
of its attacks. But of course in order to achieve this degree of self-clarity
'postmodernism' would have to abandon that name, as well as most of
the vain rhetorical posturings to which its adherents are so devoted.
Thus the sort of radical critique of morality I am advocating is one
which remains deeply and even ruthlessly committed to the modernist
values, such as rational autonomy and the greatest happiness of the
greatest nurnber, which ground modern moral theories. But it is nev-
ertheless anti-moral to the extent that it recognizes (as these theories
do not) that morality is a less than perfect vehicle for expressing these
values, in some ways a vehicle which may be unsuitable or even dan-
gerously self-subverting. It would acknowledge that human autonomy
and happiness sometimes come into conflict with morality, that they
are worth pursuing even when they do, and that the consequence of
such an acknowledgment is not only that we must look at the con-
tent of morality as something in need of continuous rational criticisn1
and reform, but that in the name of autonomy and happiness even
the essential forms of morality (for example, the feelings which serve
ATTACKING MORALITY: A METAETHICAL PROJECT / 211
as its essential psychological vehicles) and its role in human life need
constantly to be brought into question.
Thus even if Rawls's famous remark that justice is the most funda-
mental virtue of social institutions is seen as expressive of the moral
point of view, that should not prevent us from doubting whether justice
should be one of our first or fundamental concerns. Systems of concepts
and impulses such as blame and guilt, desert and punishment, for exam-
ple, may need to be kept under strict rational surveillance; and the fact
that these are attitudes fundamental or even dispensable to morality
should not be regarded as providing a sufficient defense of them.
What I have been saying in the last few paragraphs is, of course, only
one of many possible options opened up by the recognition that radical
metaethical critiques of morality are a viable sort of enterprise. This
option would be easier to articulate, and more such options would be
available for development, if metaethics had taken the radical critique
of morality as one of its proper tasks. The present essay will have its
intended effect if it stimulates metaethical inquiry to focus on these
unresolved and even largely unexplored questions.
8
What Dead Philosophers Mean
8.1 Interpreting Dead Philosophers
Those of us who study the history of philosophy spend our time trying
to understand texts written mostly in languages other than English by
people long dead. Our primary aim, whose successful achievement is
presupposed by any other ainlS we may have, is to determine what the
text means, or what the author means, or meant (I take these all to be
the same).l
This is often difficult to do. The writings of Kant, for example, often
challenge our ability to understand thenl. This can happen at the level
of a single term. (What does Kant mean by "synthesis" or "determina-
tion of the will" or "transcendental principle of judgment"?) Or there
can be questions about specific assertions (that nlatter is an appearance
rather than a "thing in itself" , or that the n10rallaw is a fact of reason).
Or it can happen when we try to understand the general structure of
his system. (How does judgment mediate between understanding and
reason?)
1I will rnake no distinction between what a text means and what the author
means in (or by) it. Nor will I distinguish between what an author now means and
what she meant at the time she wrote the text. On the contrary, I think that an
author at the time of writing meant everything her text can now be rightly under-
stood to mean. I have been asked if I accept a distinction like that drawn by some
philosophers of language between "speaker's meaning" and "linguistic meaning" in
the case of such texts. Perhaps I might, but in that case I do not think we are inter-
ested primarily in the "author's meaning" (in that sense) of philosophical texts. We
might be interested in what the author intended (e.g. which contemporary positions
or movements he intended to attack or oppose) but that is not what we are chiefly
concerned with when investigating the meaning of the text (such information might
sometimes be a means to helping us determine the meaning). I do want to say that
the meaning of the text with which we are concerned is also what the author means
because for there to be a meaningful text at all it must be the product of a human
author (or authors) and because one indispensable way of getting at the meaning
of the text is to ask what the author held, or what the author meant in the text.
213
214 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
But the kinds of questions that I want to ask do not arise only in
the case of some philosophers, and the fact that we have to raise them
cannot be blamed merely on the regrettable unclarity with which some
philosophers write. The texts of Kant and Hegel are famously obscure,
but the meaning of even apparently lucid writers such as Descartes and
Hume is something that begins to elude us when we ask questions about
their views. Descartes says that the mind and body are two distinct
substances, which together constitute one thing, the human being. But
exactly how do they do so? Hume reasons at length about our idea
of causal power or necessary connection, basing his reasonings on the
thesis that we have no ideas that are not copied from impressions. But
does Hume mean to say that we have an impression of causal power or
doesn't he?
Asking difficult questions about what philosophers mean in their
writings turns out to be an important part of what it is to read a text
in the history of philosophy, or at least to read it philosophically. And
trying to decide what a philosopher means will also lead us into con-
troversies that often seem to be about philosophy as much as they are
about what an author thought or meant. But how can questions about
what someone means be philosophical questions? How can controversies
about what a text means be philosophical controversies?
There have long been disputes, for example, about whether Aristotle
regarded form or matter as the principle of individuation of substances.
2
Again, some think that in the famous discussion of the piece of wax in
the second Meditation, Descartes was trying to establish that only the
properties dealt with by mathematics belong truly and permanently
to n1atter, while others think his aim was the more modest one of
identifying which properties are necessarily involved in our concept of
body insofar as this concept is a distinct one.
3
One set of interpreters
holds that Hume intended his philosophy to curb the pretensions of
metaphysics and thwart the enthusiasm of religious zealotry by casting
2In the scholastic tradition, the "matter" interpretation was famously defended
by Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and St. Thomas Aquinas; the "form" interpretation was
held by Richard Rufus of Cornwall, author of the first scholastic con1mentaries
on Aristotle's physics and metaphysics in the West, and the last great scholastic
philosopher, Francisco Suarez. For a historical discussion, see Jorge Gracia, Indi-
viduation in scholasticism: The Later Middle Ages and the Counter-reformation
(1150-1650)(Albany: SUNY Press, 1994). Probably the majority interpretation to-
day agrees with Rufus and Suarez. For a good example, see A. C. Lloyd, Form and
Universal in Aristotle (Liverpool: Cairns, 1981).
3Compare Edwin A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science
(New York: Harcourt, 1925), pp. 115-120, and Margaret D. Wilson, Descartes (Lon-
don: Routledge, 1978), pp. 79 88. ---------
WHAT DEAD PHILOSOPHERS MEAN / 215
skeptical doubt over all human knowledge and belief; others say that
far from trying to discredit human knowledge, Hume was trying to
lay a new foundation for it on the basis of a comprehensive empirical
science of human nature.
4
Kant scholars ask whether noumena or things
in themselves are entities distinct from their appearances and causing
them, or whether things in themselves are the very same entities as
appearances, distinguished from them only by the ways in which they
are considered or referred to.
5
There is a dispute about whether Marx
condemned capitalism for distributive injustice or held a deflationary
account of justice according to which capitalist exploitation is just but
no less objectionable for being just.
6
When we ask these questions and try to settle these disputes about
the meaning of a philosopher or philosophical text, what exactly is
it that we are trying to find out? And what kinds of arguments and
evidence are relevant?7
4The traditional reading until this century was the skeptical one, that was found
prominently in Reid, Beattie and the Scottish common sense school, as well as in
T. H. Green and the British idealists. The first prominent Hume scholar to defend
the "naturalist" reading was Norman Kemp Smith, The Philosophy of David Hume
(London: Macmillan, 1941), and it has been prominent in Hume scholarship ever
since, including the excellent work of Barry Stroud, David Fate Norton, Robert
Fogelin, Annette Baier and Don Garrett. See especially Annette Baier, A Progress
of Sentiments: Reflections on Hume's Treatise (Cambridge: Harvard, 1991); Don
Garrett, Cognition and Commitment in Hume's Philosophy (New York: Oxford,
1997). Two studies in the latter half of the twentieth century that have to one extent
or another defended the skeptical reading are John Passmore, Hume's Intentions
(London: Duckworth, 1968) and Wayne Waxman, Hume's Theory of Consciousness
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994). For a recent attempt to do justice to
both readings and find a way of reconciling them, see Graciela de Pierris, "Hume's
Pyrrhonian Skepticism and the Belief in Causal Laws," Journal of the History of
Philosophy (July, 1999).
5For some recent discussions of this topic, see Gerold Prauss, Erscheinung bei
Kant (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1971), Henry Allison, Kant's Transcendental Idealism
(New Haven: Yale, 1983) and Idealism and Freedom (New York: Cambridge, 1996),
Ch. 1; Allen W. Wood, "Kantianism" in J. Kim and E. Sosa (eds.), A Companion
to Metaphysics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).
6The deflationary interpretation is defended by Robert Tucker, The Marxian
Revolutionary Idea (New York: Norton, 1969), Allen W. Wood, Karl Marx (Lon-
don: Routledge, 1981); Richard Miller, Analyzing Marx (Princeton: Princeton U.
Press, 1984). The view that Marx condemned capitalism for distributive injustice is
defended by Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1985) R. G. Peffer, Marxism, Morality and Social Justice (Princeton: Prince-
ton Press, 1990), Kai Nielsen, Marxism and the Moral Point of View (Boulder:
Westview, 1989).
7Some of these disputes are about the meaning of a very specific passage in a
specific text. Others are about the overall shape of a philosopher's doctrines as
expressed in an entire body of writings. Some are even about what a philosopher's
doctrines say or imply in regard to philosophical questions the philosopher did not
216 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
8.2 Why Study the History of Philosophy?
But perhaps some will want to ask a prior question. Why does it matter
precisely what long dead philosophers, or their texts, really mean? It
n1ight be argued that from a historical point of view, all we really have
is what the texts say, and what others have said about them. Endless
philosophical disputations about precisely what the texts mean is of
little use to those who are interested, as historians should exclusively
be, in wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. Philosophers might argue that the
only job of philosophy is to concern itself with questions about what
material objects really are, or what makes a thing the thing it is and
different from other things, or whether we can ever know reality as it
truly is, or whether capitalist wage bargains are unjust. They might
object that we make no real progress in answering these questions by
studying the opinions on them held by Aristotle, Descartes, Hume,
Kant or Marx-especially if these opinions are so obscurely expressed
that even the experts, with all their erudition and fine-grained analysis,
still cannot agree on what they are.
My aim here is not to defend what I do as a historian of philos-
ophy, but it might help if I at least sketch the reply I would try to
make to these objections, since what we are looking for as the mean-
ing of a philosophical text will be conditioned by what we are trying
to accomplish in undertaking this kind of inquiry. I do not think that
the philosophical importance of studying the history of philosophy can
be demonstrated a priori by some rigorous argument. It can be ap-
preciated only by those who engage in philosophical inquiry, and have
studied enough of the history of philosophy to experience for them-
selves, in a variety of ways, how indispensably it contributes to that
inquiry. But I will try to offer some general considerations that might
summarize the results of such experiences for a scholar who has had
them.
To the objections of historians I would be conciliatory, at least to
explicitly ask. But disputes that may at first look as though they are of wholly
different kinds tend to be harder to distinguish when we look at them more closely.
Interpretations of the overall aims of Hume's philosophy or Aristotle's views about
individuation will have to appeal to specific things these philosophers say in certain
specific passages in their writings, and these passages have to be read in light the
context where they appear. In trying to determine what Descartes meant in a brief
passage of the second Meditation, we may need to look at what he was trying to
accomplish later in the Meditations, so as to understand his overall plan in that work
and how the second Meditation contributes to it. We may even need to compare
the discussion of the nature of matter in the Meditations with the accounts given
in later works in trying to decide how his aims and views there fit into his doctrines
as a whole.
WHAT DEAD PHILOSOPHERS MEAN / 217
a degree. To the extent that historiography is interested only in the
historical influence of what philosophers wrote, rather than the sig-
nificance of what they actually meant, it can afford to ignore subtle
interpretive inquiries. But I would also point out that it is extremely
hard for a historian to keep away from questions about what philoso-
phers mean, since these questions arise as soon as they try to explain
the influence of a text in terms of its intellectual content. It is also very
easy to underestimate the danger of being satisfied with what is sup-
posed to be obvious about this.
8
There is also an unfortunate tendency
on the part of some (to which vulgar Marxism has contributed) simply
to identify the meaning of what philosophers said with the role their
ideas have played in social or political struggles or with some set of
historical consequences for which the philosopher's ideas are commonly
held responsible. The element of truth in this is that texts and ideas,
like people and their actions, always have a historical fate they cannot
escape. But when we reduce the meaning of a text merely to that fate
(or, more often, to some conspicuously lurid aspect of it), this does not
tell us what the text means, but only gets in the way of understanding
that.
9
8For example, discussions of medieval and early modern intellectual history often
refer to a position they call 'theological voluntarism', whose paradigmatic represen-
tative is supposed to be William of Ockham. This is supposed to be the view that
what is good is whatever God wills. This is understood to mean that if God had
commanded us to act in direct defiance of all the dictates of right reason, or had
chosen to damn those who love him and bless those who hate him, then it would
have been virtuous to defy right reason and we would have the very same reasons to
praise and give thanks to God that we have now. This error is well exposed in Mar-
ilyn Adams, William of Ockham (South Bend: Notre Dame Press, 1987) and Rega
Wood, Ockham on the Virtues (W. Lafayette, Purdue, 1997). Or in more recent
intellectual history it is sometimes presented as a commonplace that Hegel taught
that the political status quo is always rational and held that all historical change
follows the dialectical law of "thesis-antithesis-synthesis." (The curious history of
this familiar howler was long ago documented by Gustav Emil Mueller, "The Hegel
Legend of 'Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis'," Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (1958).
See also Allen W. Wood, flegel's Ethical Thought (New York: Cambridge, 1990.)
Such bits of conventional pseudo-wisdom about the history of philosophy involve
errors on the same scale as if one said that the Confederacy won the Civil War or
that in 430 B.C. the public health conditions in Athens were generally good; his-
torical discussions that assume them are accordingly worthless. No doubt questions
about the meaning of difficult philosophical doctrines (such as those of Ockham
and Hegel) are subtler and inherently more controversial. And there is usually some
basis for the error, such as it would be hard to imagine regarding questions about
who won the Civil War or whether the Athenian plague occurred. But when people
hold grossly erroneous beliefs about what past philosophers meant, their beliefs are
just as false as if they fell into error about other kinds of historical fact.
9Marx himself has been a frequent victim of this erroneous tendency, though the
fact that he may have shared it does not make it any the less erroneous to apply it to
218 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
Philosophers' objections to studying the history of philosophy are
more fundamentally mistaken and n10re pernicious. Fortunately, in the
last generation their credibility has declined sharply in American phi-
losophy. G. E. Moore once confessed that it was not life or the sciences
that suggested philosophical problems to him, but rather the things
other philosophers had said about them.
10
In the mid-twentieth cen-
tury, many philosophers in the tradition from which Moore came would
probably have understood this remark as meaning that philosophical
problems are entirely artificial inventions, of interest only to the pecu-
liar sort of diseased or befuddled mind that might think them up. But
I think Moore's point was really quite insightful, and therefore entirely
different from this. Moore's remark was his way of acknowledging a
fundamental truth about virtually all philosophical questions, namely,
that they are inherited from the thoughts of earlier philosophers. All
such questions have been created and shaped through a long historical
process in which philosophers have, taken over the thoughts of earlier
philosophers, criticizing and modifying them.
This means there is something fundamentally self-deceptive in the
view of those who disdain the history of philosophy on the ground
that they are "interested only in solving the problems then1selves, not
in endlessly rehashing the failed attempts of others to solve them." 11
For solving a philosophical problem is not like solving a problem in
engineering, where the only issue is whether the solution enables you
to do something in the future that you couldn't do in the past. Above
all, solving a philosophical problem means coming to understand the
problem. Since these problems are always products of a history, you
can't fully understand then1 unless you understand their origins.
him. Hence because Fichte's Addresses to the German Nation were used by the Nazis
over a century after they were written, this text, or even Fichte's entire philosophy
(whose political tendencies were in fact largely rationalistic, progressive and even
cosmopolitan) is sometimes dismissed on account of its association with National
Socialism. Even if we deplore the nationalism of the Addresses, as a political act
they were above all a courageous defiance of the Napoleonic occupation.
10 "I do not think that the world or the sciences would ever have suggested to me
any philosophical problems. What has suggested philosophical problems to me is
things which other philosophers have said about the world or the sciences" in P. A.
Schilpp (ed.) The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (Evanston: Northwestern University
Press, 1942), p. 14.
11 Moore's fellow Bloomsburian John Maynard Keynes once said that "practical
men, who believe themselves exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually
the slaves of some defunct economist." (Quoted by John Cassidy, "The New World
Disorder," The New Yorker, Oct. 26 and Nov. 2, 1998, p. 207). Something very
analogous is true, I think, of the attitude toward the history of philosophy that I
am here criticizing.
WHAT DEAD PHILOSOPHERS MEAN / 219
Sometimes it n1ay look as though you can do this well enough merely
by studying the thought of the previous generation of philosophers (the
ones who taught you philosophy). After all, problems in mathematics
are also inherited, but n1athematicians do not need to engage in deep
study of the history of mathematics. One thing we historians of philos-
ophy learn to our chagrin is that most of the philosophers whose works
we study with such care were not especially well-informed or accurate
interpreters of their predecessors.1
2
Yet from the fact that philosophers
have been extremely successful without knowing much history of phi-
losophy, it does not follow that ignorance of the history of philosophy
is not harmful to then1 as philosophers. (Beethoven and Smetana wrote
great and original music after they were completely deaf. It does not
follow that being deaf is not a serious drawback to composing.) Philo-
sophical problems relate to more aspects of human life and experience
than n1athematical problems. There are many more things that might
count as a solution to them, and no solution to a real philosophical
problem is ever going to be as elegant, perfect or certain as a n1ath-
ematical proof. Truly understanding philosophical problems therefore
requires taking a wide view, which means, historically, a relatively long
view.
13
12Kant, for instance, was originally a man of science. He absorbed the tradition
mainly through reading Wolff and Baumgarten, and knew the history of philosophy
chiefly through Brucker's accounts of it. Kant also said, quite correctly, that we
often can understand a philosopher better than he understood himself. If this were
my theme, I would argue that Kant's own philosophy is better understood when
we consider its relation to the historical tradition more accurately than he was able
to do. I would try to show how philosophers get an impoverished, blinkered and
inadequate conception of philosophical problems, positions and arguments when
they consider only the way these problems and views about them have been honed
and redacted in the past couple of generations.
13
1 would argue further that we can still learn a lot about grounding claims to
knowledge from Descartes, about possible worlds from Leibniz, about theories of
meaning from Locke, about causation from Hume and Kant. I would try to show
that what we gain in precision on these topics from reading contemporary litera-
ture (on the Gettier problem, say, or the writings of and about Kripke and Putnam,
Lewis and Stalnaker, or Mackie and Kim), we tend to lose in our blindness to the
set of background assumptions these theorists take for granted, and in forgetting
a wide variety of alternative options these approaches exclude, apparently with-
out even realizing it. Even more zealously I would try to show that the questions
that do absorb the technical skill of analytical philosophers are no more inherently
interesting or worthwhile than a lot of other philosophical questions that might pre-
occupy them if they came to read and be gripped by the writings of philosophers
like Fichte and Hegel. I would argue that the critical interpretation of texts in the
history of philosophy-the activity of trying to determine what those texts mean,
whether what they mean is true, and how good their arguments are-is one thor-
oughly respectable way of engaging with philosophical problems, and constitutes an
indispensable part of philosophical inquiry.
220 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
The Bible tells us that there is no new thing under the sun.
14
Like
much that is in the Bible, this is no doubt poetic hyperbole and not
meant literally. But in philosophy a fertile source of the new is the re-
emergence after a tin1e, often in the form of a re-interpretation, of ideas
and viewpoints that have for a while been unkno\vn or else despised and
neglected as dead, profitless and false. Son1e of the greatest movements
in the history of philosophy have been sparked by the rediscovery and
revitalization of old ideas: of Aristotle by Averroes and the Western
scholastics of the high middle ages; of Sextus Empiricus by Montaigne,
Gassendi and Descartes; of Spinoza by the German idealists. Or some-
times ideas that are not necessarily despised contribute to what is new
by being reappropriated. Think of the diverse ways in which recent
philosophy has been impacted by successive waves of the rediscovery of
Kant (by Cohen and Cassirer, Strawson and Putnam, Rawls, Apel and
Habermas), or of Hegel (by Sartre, Taylor, MacIntyre, HosIe, McDowell
and Brandom), or even of Dewey (by Quine and Rorty).
As these examples illustrate, however, there is no Nietzschean eternal
recurrence in philosophy; what is old never returns precisely as it was,
and often the heritage of a past philosopher or past idea can become a
bone of contention. This makes it a matter of far more than antiquarian
interest whether past philosophers are being correctly understood and
whether revisions and modifications of their views are well-motivated or
merely the result of misreadings and distortions, blinkered through the
influence of intervening prejudices. Deciding such questions is there-
fore not merely a matter of intellectual heraldry, but is essential to
the proper philosophical assessment of theses, argun1ents and theories.
Likewise, it matters for philosophical purposes (and is not of 'merely
historical' interest) whether, for instance, as Myles Burnyeat has ar-
gued, our modern understanding of skepticism has been based on fun-
dan1ental misperceptions about what ancient skeptics were up to and
how they saw the world.
15
One of the greatest services we historians
of philosophy can render to philosophy is therefore to prevent the ef-
facement of earlier views, and especially to keep alive what our age
is likely to regard as "weird", "foreign", "outdated", "no longer to be
taken seriously" -that is, what is incapable of easy assimilation into
the prejudices and fashions of our own time. For precisely that (or at
any rate some now unidentifiable and inscrutable part of it) is always
14 Ecclesiastes 1:9.
15See especially, "The Skeptic in his Place and Time," in M. Burnyeat and M.
Frede (eds.) The Original Skeptics: A Controversy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997),
pp.92 126.
WHAT DEAD PHILOSOPHERS MEAN / 221
the source of virtually every philosophical thing that is new under the
sun.
8.3 Thinking Dead People's Thoughts
When we interpret a text in the history of philosophy, a surprisingly
varied set of considerations come into play. To begin with, to do it right
we need to understand the language in which the text is written.
16
We
need to know what other philosophers had thought and were thinking
at the time.
I7
Sometimes we have to be aware of how the philosophical
16Elementary as it is, this is something philosophers often fail to do. In conver-
sations between Kant scholars, for example, the following scenario used to be fairly
common. An English speaking scholar, usually from the analytical tradition, would
criticize something found in his copy of the Critique of Pure Reason, which (until
recently, anyway) was Norman Kemp Smith's 1929 translation. A German speaking
scholar would object that what he quoted is not what Kant says, that the German
is such-and-such, which Kemp Smith mistranslated. At times the German in such
disputes was merely trying to "pull rank," and the English speaker had hold of a
real philosophical issue. Deplorably often, however, the German speaker was right,
and despite this the English speaker would not give up, but press on, claiming that
the German speaker's information was irrelevant, because what mattered was "the
philosophical issue" -by which the English speaker meant merely whatever thoughts
he happened to have got from reading Kemp Smith, whether they were expressed
in Kant's text ,or not. The English speaker's position was then indefensible, and his
arrogant stubbornness a disgrace.
17The decisiveness of understanding the philosophical background is easy to il-
lustrate. For example, Plato maintains that forms or ideas belong to reality rather
than appearance and are immune to change (Phaedo 78d-e; cf. Republic 526-534,
Symposium 210e-211a). In the course of arguing for these claims he argues that a
pair of equal sticks is not really equal because they can seem to us to be unequal, but
the equal itself (the form of 'equal') is really equal because it cannot seem to us to
be unequal (Phaedo 74b-c; cf. Republic 523e-524a.). These arguments do not draw
the distinction between appearance and reality in the way we are now accustomed
to do. We do not think that it counts against a pair of sticks being really equal that
they may seem unequal to someone. He also maintains that the size of Simmias is
subject to change or becoming because when compared with Socrates, Simmias is
tall, while compared with Phaedo, Simmias is short (Phaedo 102b-103a; cf. Hippias
Major 289a-c). The conception of change or becoming used in this argument is
clearly broader than our concept of change or becoming, since we are not inclined
to treat as an instance of change in Simmias' height the fact that Simmias is tall
considered in one context (or as judged by one standard of tallness) and short in
another context (or as judged by a different standard). Yet in interpreting Plato's
claims, and assessing his arguments, it is highly relevant how concepts like being vs.
appearance and becoming or change were understood by his philosophical prede-
cessors, such as Heraclitus, Cratylus, Parmenides and Melissus, when they argued
about whether the real is subject to change or whether the sensible and changing
is real. We may have good reasons for conceiving of change or becoming and the
distinction between being and appearance differently from the way they were con-
ceived by the early Greeks, and these reasons are certainly relevant to our final
assessment of Plato's doctrines. But simply to substitute our notions of reality and
222 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
questions addressed by the text had been shaped by political, religious
or other kinds of social forces.
18
Also of vital importance is philosoph-
ical expertise-the ability to formulate ideas clearly and precisely, to
construct and evaluate arguments, even to build philosophical theories
and systems for ourselves.
For this reason, the interpretation of texts in the history of philoso-
phy raises a specific set of problems that might be thought to differ from
the problen1s of interpreting documents in other fields of the humani-
ties. In literary texts, for example, the author often does not address the
reader directly, but speaks through other characters; even the persona
of a narrator in a novel or of the 'speaker' in a poem may be a care-
fully crafted fiction, quite distinct from the person of the author. But
problems of that kind arise in philosophical texts too-in the dialogues
of Plato, Diderot or Hume, for example, or the pseudonymous writings
of Kierkegaard, the aphorisms of Pascal, Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, or
in philosophical novels such as those by Dostoyevsky or Sartre.
This kind of problem arises even in such a basic philosophical text
as the first sentence of Descartes' Discourse on Method: "Good sense
is the best apportioned thing in the world: for each thinks he has been
so well provided with it that even those who are hard to content in
all other things are not accustomed to desire more of it than they
have." 19 Descartes' argument here is surely intended ironically; it is a
self-conscious joke. What, then, are we to make of the fact that he goes
on to treat the thesis that good sense is equally distributed as though
it had been adequately demonstrated? Such features of philosophical
texts are like the analogous features of poems, novels and plays; they
add to the richness of a text, but also make it more difficult to interpret.
I think many of the things I am going to say about interpreting texts in
the history of philosophy might well carryover into the interpretation
of literary texts or other works of art, or even to the interpretation of
such things as the aims and intentions of historical agents. But I will
change for those current in Plato's philosophical context can result only in a total
misunderstanding the claims he is making and an underestimate of the strength of
his arguments for them. Conversely, it may help us better to understand our con-
ceptions of reality and change if we become aware of the very different way these
concepts were grasped by past philosophers, even by highly influential philosophers
in our own tradition.
18It is one of the great merits of Jerome Schneewind's recent book, The Invention
of Autonomy, to keep before our minds a variety of such issues as he writes about
the history of ethics in the early modern period. J. B. Schneewind, The Invention
of Autonomy (New York: Cambridge, 1998).
19Descartes, Oeuvres (ed. Adam and Tannery) (Paris: Vrin, 1965),6:2; Cf. Edwin
A. Curley, "Dialogues with the Dead," Synthese 67 (1986), p. 35. This article will
be cited below as "Curley".
WHAT DEAD PHILOSOPHERS MEAN / 223
not argue for any particular extensions of what I say to other kinds of
interpretation.
What is the meaning of a philosophical text? R. G. Collingwood
is well-known for advancing the thesis that the proper nlethod of all
history (including the history of philosophy) is that of re-thinking in
one's own mind the thoughts of people who lived in the past.
20
There is a lot in Collingwood's approach that I agree with. One
of Collingwood's aims was to rescue important figures in the history of
philosophy from what he thought were the shallow, arrogant and short-
sighted criticisms of his analytical contemporaries. He wanted thelll to
see how difficult it was to be sure they had gotten the questions and
aims of past philosophers right when they accused them of failed theo-
ries and bad arguments. He urged them to try to rethink the thoughts
of the past so that they would not disnliss the thoughts of Plato, or
Descartes, or Kant by taking them to express whatever simplistic (and
usually erroneous) ideas, drawn from the contemporary analytical fash-
ions, were suggested to their impatient and blinkered minds by a casual
reading of the historical texts, thus turning the study of the history of
philosophy into little more than a contemptuous survey of the stupid
errors supposedly committed by famous dead men.
It is easy for me to sympathize with Collingwood's aims here. If
the only points he was trying to make were those mentioned above, I
would wholeheartedly agree with him. But Collingwood went further.
He ended up maintaining that the theories of philosophers in different
ages were incommensurable, because they were attempts to answer dif-
ferent questions.
21
That merely invites the thought I have just been
20Robin G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon, 1939), pp. 205-
231. I think this picture appeals to us in many forms, and that it has influenced
a lot of people's thinking about methodology in intellectual history. For example,
one influential version of it is found in Quentin Skinner's thesis that "the under-
standing of texts presupposes the grasp both of what they were intended to mean
and how this meaning was intended to be taken. [Thus] the appropriate method-
ology [for the history of ideas] is.the recovery of intentions" (Skinner, "Meaning
and Understanding in the History of Ideas," History and Theory VIII (1969), pp.
48-49).
21 Robin G. Collingwood, Autobiography (Oxford: University Press, 1978), pp.
60-68. Collingwood combined this "incommensurability" thesis with an extravagant
version of the "principle of charity" , in such a way as to guarantee a priori the truth
of whatever any philosopher said, meant or wrote. He held that we cannot "discover
for example 'what Plato thought' without inquiring 'whether it is true' .What is
required, if I am to know Plato's philosophy is both to re-think it in my own mind
and also think other things in the light of which I can judge it" (The Idea of
History, pp. 300, 305). But there is in Collingwood's view such a tight connection
between Plato's thoughts on the matter and the reasons in light of which he had
them, that when we truly arrive at the question Plato was asking, we must at
224 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
inveighing against, that the history of philosophy is bound to be pretty
irrelevant to the philosophy we do today. For the same reason, Colling-
wood's account makes it hard to explain why not only historical em-
pathy but also philosophical skill is needed in interpreting a text in the
history of philosophy. It even seen1S directly to rule out something that
good historians of philosophy regard as essential to interpreting texts,
namely, the use of concepts and theories that have been developed since
the text was composed and therefore could not possibly have been part
of their author's actual thought processes.
Let me develop Collingwood's idea in a way that may be a caricature
of it, but nevertheless succeeds in bringing out more clearly some of the
problems I want to discuss. We might think of the meaning of a text as
a certain inner mental process that was taking place in the mind of the
author as the text was being written. The text is the author's attempt to
put down words that will enable the reader of the text to duplicate the
succession of those thought-types in the reader's own mind. Following
this picture, my task as an interpreter of the text will be to con1plement
the author's efforts by bringing before my own mind, as far as possible,
exactly the sequence of mental process-types that were in the author's
n1ind as the text was being written. For the sake of convenience, let
me call this (possibly caricatured) version of Collingwood's clain1s the
"Collingwood picture" .
One problem raised by the Collingwood picture is whether it is even
possible to rethink the same thought-types as people who lived in the
past. How should we set about doing this? Even worse, how can we ever
kno,v whether we have done it? That way lies skeptical historicism. But
the more serious problems arise even if you suppose, as Collingwood
apparently did, that we can think the same thoughts as people in the
past. I think there are good reasons for doubting whether successfully
doing this would really constitute either what we do mean or what we
ought to mean by interpreting and understanding a philosophical text.
Reproducing the thought-types available to philosophers in past cen-
the same tinle see why he answered it correctly. In fact, Collingwood thinks, we
can identify the problem he was trying to solve only after we have decided what
the solution was (and after we have judged that the solution was correct). "The
distinction between the 'historical' question 'What was So-and-so's theory on such
a matter?' and the 'philosophical' question 'Was he right?' [is] fallacious. We only
know the problem by arguing back from the solution" (Autobiography, pp 68, 70).
I won't discuss this thesis of Collingwood's, because I don't think he is committed
to it merely by the Collingwood picture. But the fact that Collingwood maintained
such obvious and outrageous absurdities in this connection makes me feel less guilty
about attaching his name to what I suspect of being a caricatured version of his
thesis that understanding a philosopher is rethinking his actual thoughts.
WHAT DEAD PHILOSOPHERS MEAN / 225
turies would not insure that we are getting them right. In fact, limiting
ourselves to the thought-types they had available to them would often
cut us off from our best route of access to their meaning, and make it
impossible for the study of past philosophers to make a contribution to
ongoing philosophical inquiry.
It may help at this point to look at an example. In Chapter Seven of
his recent book Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza,
Michael Della Rocca is trying to understand how three claims found in
Spinoza can be consistent:
22
(1) Every mode of extension is caused by another mode of extension
(cf. Spinoza, Ethics 2p7) .23
(2) No mode of substance conceived under the attribute of thought
can cause any mode of substance conceived under the attribute of
extension, or vice versa (cf. Ethics 3p2).
(3) "The mind and the body are one and the same thing, conceived
now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of
extension" (cf. Ethics 3p2s).
Della Rocca is responding specifically to R. J. Delahunty's argument
that (3) is inconsistent with (1) and (2). For Delahunty claims that the
following form of argument is valid.
(i) Mode of extension A causes n'lode of extension B.
(ii) Mode of extension A == mode of thought 1.
(iii) Therefore, mode of thought 1 causes mode of extension B.
24
Della Rocca, however, argues that, according to Spinoza, clain'ls (1)-
(3) are consistent. He does so by appealing to W. V. O. Quine's notion
of referential opacity.25 A context is referentially opaque when a substi-
22Michael Della Rocca, Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza
(New York: Oxford, 1996). Referred to below as "Della Rocca".
23Spinoza's Ethics will be cited by part and proposition, 's' means 'scholium'.
24See Della Rocca, p. 127.
25W. V. O. Quine, "Quantifiers and Propositional Attitudes," in Leonard Lin-
sky (ed.), Reference and Modality (London: Oxford, 1971), pp. 110-111. No doubt
Quine was not the first to notice this point. Indeed, it was quite clearly anticipated
by Frege's notion of "oblique" (ungerade) reference in Uber Sinn und Bedeutung
(see P. Geach and M. Black (eds.), Translations from the Writings of Gottlob Frege
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1960), pp. 65-68). I cite Quine here only because it is his concept
and his terminology that Della Rocca actually uses in interpreting Spinoza. Some
have suggested that Quine'S (or Frege's) point was anticipated by philosophers be-
fore Spinoza (the name of Buridan has been mentioned in this context), and it might
have been their thoughts that Spinoza was using, so that Della Rocca's innovation
is merely terminological. I agree that if this (so far undocumented) speculation is
correct, then this would no longer be a counterexample to the Collingwood picture.
Still others, however, have even suggested that Spinoza himself might have had
226 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
tution of one co-referring term for another yields an invalid inference.
For example,
(a) John knows that Jim is sitting next to him at the bar.
(b) Jim == the serial killer.
(c) Therefore, John knows that the serial killer is sitting next to him
at the bar.
This inference is invalid because contexts like "A believes that" and
"A knows that" are intensional. That is, what is true of a subject in
those contexts depends not only on the identity of the subject but also
on how the subject is referred to or represented. What John knows or
believes about Jim depends on how Jim has been presented to him. If
Jim has been presented to John as "Jim" but not as "the serial killer,"
then the fact that 'the serial killer' and 'Jim' refer to the same person
does not entitle us to substitute one expression for the other when we
are talking about John's knowledge or belief. Della Rocca argues that
for Spinoza, causal contexts are also intensional, therefore referentially
"the same thought" simply on the basis of common sense-for of course the ancient
Greeks, even apart from philosophy, already realized that from "Oedipus knows he
is married to Jocasta" it does not follow that "Oedipus knows he is married to his
own mother". This idea, if correct, would not only disable the example but make
it hard to challenge the Collingwood picture at all, since it would suggest that we
could treat any philosophical development on which we might draw in interpreting
a past philosopher as something already available to the philosopher from common
sense, and hence already part of the philosopher's thought processes. But surely
that would be wrong. For although common sense, prior even to the formulation of
any logical or semantical theory, might have declined to draw the inference about
Oedipus, it is only in the context of a certain kind of logical theory, and a certain
theoretically developed concept of valid inference, that the problem of oblique refer-
ence or referential opacity could even arise; and only after the concept of referential
opacity has been forn1ulated would it be possible to make fully explicit the thesis
that the same concept applies to causal contexts. Another objection to this example
which I have encountered is that by not allowing that Spinoza was "in some sense
aware of the concept of referential opacity" I am not giving Spinoza enough credit
for his own insight. But of course my whole point is that Spinoza did (very insight-
fully!) express the thesis that causal contexts are referentially opaque-that this is
the meaning of what he wrote. What I am denying is that in order to credit him with
this insight we must hold that the twentieth century conceptions in which we now
express his insight were already part of his seventeenth century mental processes.
One pitfall to avoid here is thinking that Spinoza must either have had Quine's full
blown concept of referential opacity or must have totally lacked it. My point is to
affirm that Spinoza held, and expressed, the thesis that causal contexts are refer-
entially opaque, but I deny that he did express, or even could have expressed, this
thought in those terms because he could not have had it in his mind in that precise
form. That he did express it, (and therefore could have expressed it), does not entail
that later formulations of the idea of referential opacity are merely terminological
innovations.
WHAT DEAD PHILOSOPHERS MEAN / 227
opaque. Granted that thesis, Delahunty's argument (i)-(iii) would be
invalid, and (3) would be consistent with (1) and (2).
I have spoken of the thesis that causal contexts are referentially
opaque as 'Spinoza's thesis', but of course Spinoza never said any such
thing. In fact, Spinoza never could have said or even thought it, since the
term and even the concept 'referential opacity' was devised by Quine in
the second half of the twentieth century and therefore was not available
to Spinoza.
If, following the Collingwood picture, we identify the meaning of
what Spinoza wrote with some thought-processes actually going on
in Spinoza's mind sometime in the third quarter of the seventeenth
century, then we must dismiss Della Rocca's interpretation as mistaken
solely on that ground. Given the Collingwood picture, Spinoza can no
more have subscribed to the thesis that causal contexts are referentially
opaque than Aristotle can have uttered an English sentence, such as
'All men by nature desire to know'. For just as modern English did not
exist in Aristotle's day, and hence was not available to him to speak,
so the concept of referential opacity did not exist in Spinoza's day, and
hence was not available to him to think.
Yet Della Rocca's interpretation of Spinoza seems to me correct. Not
only does it provide a simple and straightforward solution to the prob-
lem of reconciling (1)-(3), but Della Rocca also shows convincingly that
it dovetails with other doctrines about causality and representational
content which it is reasonable to attribute to Spinoza, such as his even
more famous clairns of substance identity and substance monism, and
his belief in the mind-relativity of content (a thesis which Della Rocca
also states in terms not historically available to Spinoza). Della Rocca
also finds some direct textual support for his interpretation in Ethics
2p6, where Spinoza says that God causes given modes insofar as he is
"considered through the attribute of which they are modes." 26 But that
Della Rocca is right is not essential to the point I am making. For if it is
even possible that Della Rocca's interpretation is correct, then it must
be possible that what Spinoza means in the Ethics can be properly
understood only in terms of concepts not available to Spinoza, which
therefore could not possibly have belonged to the thought processes
passing through his mind when he wrote the Ethics.
The point I am trying to make here, to put it with a sharpness
approaching paradox, is that people can mean things they can't think,
and therefore that they must be able to express thoughts they can't
have. Accordingly, my criticism of the Collingwood picture could be
26Della Rocca., p. 123.
228 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
put this way: In discerning the meaning of a text, we are interested in
the thoughts the author expressed, but not necessarily in the thoughts
the author had.
We might avoid these paradoxes by stipulating that whatever some-
one means in what they say or write is eo ipso something that they
think, or that there is some sense of 'think' in which it is necessarily
true that a whatever a person means is something the person thinks. I
have no strong objection to using "think" in that sense, as long as we re-
alize that such a stipulation would no way save the Collingwood picture
from my objections. On the contrary, it would be a fundamental rejec-
tion of that picture, since the picture holds that we get at the meaning
of what the author wrote only through rethinking in our minds what
the author thought (which is depicted as there prior to and indepen-
dently of our process of interpretation), whereas this stipulation would
have us get at what the author thought only through deciding what
the author meant, and treats what we count as the author's thoughts
as derivative from what we count as the meaning of what the author
wrote.
The study of Kant is a fruitful source of similar examples, because
even more than Spinoza, his writings have been subject to a long his-
tory of reading and interpreting, and have interacted with the ongoing
reflection of each subsequent generation of philosophers. Consider the
claims that Kant held a functionalist conception of mental activity
or was a constructivist in moral theory, or anticipated Marxian ma-
terialism in his philosophy of history.27 Functionalism, constructivism
and historical materialism are all positions formulated only well after
Kant's death. It is even arguable that in the actual historical sequence
of events, it became possible to formulate all three positions only be-
cause Kant wrote what he did, and because other philosophers then
reflected further on his thoughts in creative ways that Kant could not
possibly have known about.
If the meaning of what Kant himself wrote is restricted to the men-
tal processes that might actually have passed through his mind, then
on that ground alone we can dismiss out of hand the notion that he
could have subscribed to these positions in virtue of the meaning of
27See Patricia Kitcher, Kant's Transcendental Psychology (Oxford: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 1990), especially Chapter 4; Onora O'Neill, Constructions of Reason
(Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989), especially Chapter 11;
and Allen Wood, Kant's Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1999), Chapter 7, as well as "Marx's Historical Materialism," in J. Kneller and
S. Axinn (eds), Autonomy and Community: Readings in Contemporary Kantian
Social Philosophy. Albany: SUNY Press, 1998.
WHAT DEAD PHILOSOPHERS MEAN / 229
what he actually wrote. But whether we think the above interpretive
claims are true or false, they certainly cannot be dismissed merely on
these grounds. There are any number of real questions in the history of
philosophy which take the form of asking whether Kant or some other
philosopher himself belongs to a certain tradition of thinking that was
subsequent to him and was based on certain ways of appropriating his
thought. The Collingwood picture, taken literally, would seem to com-
n1it us a priori to a negative answer to every question of this form, and
thus to rejecting a priori a lot of what n1akes inquiry into the history
of philosophy interesting and worthwhile.
This also shows how the Collingwood picture makes it impossible to
understand an important aspect of historical development in philoso-
phy. Ideas seldom spring from human minds Athena-like, fully mature
and magnificently armored with cogent articulation and argumentative
defense. They usually develop gradually, first anticipated, then adum-
brated, and only later, after a long development is it possible adequately
to articulate and defend then1. It is part of what Hegel meant by say-
ing that the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at dusk that this
is a process that never really ends, so that our access to philosophical
thoughts, as to the meaning of all other creations of spirit, is necessarily
limited by history and hence reaches its uttermost boundary for us in
the present. 28
It follows that an idea may belong to the meaning of a text without
its even being possible for it to have been part of the author's actual
28It is absurd to ascribe to Hegel the thesis that history has ended, or that it could
ever end. What Hegel does hold is the (apparently trivial) claim that past history
ends in the present. This has non-trivial implications, however, if it points toward
the ground, and also the limits, of our capacity to comprehend. When Hegel says
that philosophy always comes on the scene too late to give the world advice about
what ought to be (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Preface), he means to be
asserting the (non-trivial) thesis that spiritual formations belonging to the future
always lie beyond what we have the capacity to comprehend sufficiently for us to
act rationally with regard to them, and therefore that action can be rational only to
the extent that it accepts the standards of rationality arising from present spiritual
formations. Hegel does, however, think that we have the capacity to comprehend
these, and moreover to comprehend the entirety of past history as having them as
its rational result, at least in times when these formations themselves are mature
and not in the turmoil of historical transition. At such times, the present is bound
to appear to us as the rational end of a rationally comprehensible world-history.
But Hegel's own way of putting this, in speaking of a shape of life "grown old",
directly suggests the denial that history is in any other sense at an "end", since
what we conceive of as having "grown old" is something we think of as eventually
to be replaced by something "new" or "young". Hegel's view, however, is that we
cannot rationally speculate about what this future thing is, or pretend to say what
it ought to be.
230 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
thought-processes. This is also an important reason why Collingwood
was wrong to say that philosophers in different ages are always ad-
dressing different questions.
29
As we have seen, it is only because this
thesis of Collingwood's is false that the history of philosophy can be
of interest to philosophers at all. And it is only because the history of
philosophy is necessarily of interest to philosophers in the way that it is
that philosophical questions themselves are the kind of questions they
are. So the Collingwood picture gives us not only a false image of what
interpretation is, but also presupposes a false image of what philosophy
is--ironically, given many of Collingwood's intentions, an image that
would deprive philosophy of any philosophically meaningful history.
8.4 Interpretation as Construction
From these considerations I conclude that the Collingwood picture must
give an incorrect account of the n1eaning of a philosophical text. But I
also believe it is in part a perception of the falsity of the Collingwood
picture that has led to some of the strange and paradoxical things
certain literary theorists have said in recent years. Roland Barthes, for
example, was apparently prepared to say such things as that the author
of Spinoza's text is not really the historical Spinoza at all; rather, the
text is a product not of the author but of language, together with the
creative reader.
3o
Others, such as Derrida and Foucault, have formu-
29 Another example may help make this point. Stephen Darwall has recently ar-
gued persuasively that what moral philosophers call 'internalism'-the thesis that
the truth of a moral judgment entails the existence of a motive for acting accord-
ing to it-arose gradually in the thinking of seventeenth and eighteenth century
British Moralists such as Cumberland, Cudworth, Locke, Shaftesbury and Hutche-
son (Stephen Darwall, The British Moralists and the Internal 'Ought' (New York:
Cambridge, 1995)). Darwall tries to show how internalism answers a longstanding
need in a tradition of thinking, He thereby deepens our understanding of present
day controversies surrounding internalism. But of course in fact no one ever spoke
of 'internalism' or explicitly articulated that concept until a paper by W. D. Falk
published in 1948 (W. D. Falk, '''Ought' and Motivation", Proceedings of the Aris-
totelian Society 48 (1947-1948), pp. 492-510). On the Collingwood picture, there-
fore, internalism could not have developed in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries,
and no texts from that time could possibly add anything to our understanding of
the present day controversies over internalism. In general, if the Collingwood picture
is correct, a philosophical idea first occurs only at the precise time when it actually
belongs to someone's thought-processes-in the case of internalism, to David Falk's
thought processes around 1948. Here again, the point is not whether Darwall is
right about internalism and the British moralists. For it even to be possible that he
is right, the Collingwood picture has to be wrong.
30Barthes expresses such a view in the following cryptic slogans: "The birth of the
reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author. Once the Author is removed,
the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to
impose a limit on that text. to close the writing" (Roland Barthes, Image, Music,
WHAT DEAD PHILOSOPHERS MEAN / 231
lated similar paradoxes, designed to cast skeptical doubt on the whole
idea of a text's having any determinate meaning whatever.
I think those who say such things may sometimes be trying to get at
something true, especially insofar as they are counteracting romantic
views according quasi-divine status to the author of literary texts (anal-
ogous fantasies have often been entertained about 'great philosophers').
But I strongly disapprove of the sayings nonetheless. For unlike the bril-
Text, tr. Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday Press, 1988), p. 147). The kind of
author of which Barthes most approves is Mallarme, because "Mallanne's entire
poetics consists in suppressing the author in the interests of writing (which is, as
will be seen, to restore the place of the reader)" (ibid., p. 143). Compare the related
views of Foucault:
"The author is not a source of indefinite significations which fill a work; the au-
thor does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which in
our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the
free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition and
recomposition of fiction.
In saying this, I seem to call for a form of culture in which fiction would not be
limited by the figure of the author. It would be pure romanticism, however, to
imagine a culture in which the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state, in
which fiction would be put at the disposal of everyone and would develop without
passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure .... [But] I think
that, as our society changes ... the author function will disappear, and in such a
manner that fiction will once again function according to another mode, but still
with a system of constraint-one which will no longer be the author, but which will
have to be determined, or perhaps experienced.
All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever treatment to which
they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would
no longer heed the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke?
Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And
what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse? Instead, there would be
other questions, like these: What are the ill.odes of existence of this discourse? Where
has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? ...
And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of
an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?" (Michel Foucault,
"What is an author?" in Paul Rabinow (ed.) Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon,
1984), pp. 118-120.)
No doubt, as some of these remarks illustrate, the reflections of these theorists has
been focused on fiction; but Foucault's concluding remarks seem to be intended to
apply to discourse generally, including philosophical discourse. Further, the intent
of the theorists seems to be at least as much to record recent (or forecast future)
changes in the social context of writing and reading as to say something general
about what the meaning of a text is and where it comes from. The obvious point
to make, however, is that both types of questions Foucault mentions are legitimate,
both are relevant to determining what a text means, and we do not have to choose
one type of question over the other. The impression that we do is perhaps created by
a certain romantic tradition both in literature and in reading, which first absurdly
exaggerates the importance of genius and then, by a ridiculous (because equally
romantic) inversion of the hyperbole, wants to make the reader rather than the
author the divine source of a text's meaning. Joshua Landy has suggested to me,
I think correctly, that there is something a bit paranoid in viewing the author of
the text as a constraint on its "free" interpretation. This is rather like holding that
breathing is a constraint on life.
232 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
liantly ironical remark that opens the Discourse on Method, reminding
us of the need for modesty and an egalitarian spirit in conducting all
philosophical argument, the paradoxes of these literary theorists in fact
only obscure the truth, first by mixing up an important insight with the
error it ought to remove, and then further making that insight harder
to accept by self-conceitedly calling attention not to it but only to their
own outrageous absurdity.31
In what sense, if any, is the author of a text constructed by in-
terpreters? It is true that we find out what a text means only through
thoughtfully interpreting the text. To do this we need all our philo-
sophical resources, and the interpretation may be a creative theoretical
construction employing concepts and theories not available to the his-
torical author. But the point to insist on is that if we are successful,
then what we get at through the construction is what the text itself
means, and hence precisely what its author meant. It is Kant, and not
we, who created the meaningful texts; our function is to recover, under-
stand and articulate that meaning. It may be true that Kant himself
could not have fully understood or articulated his meaning. But we
garble this truth if we mix it unawares with the Collingwood picture,
and say that because in interpreting Kant's text we aren't reproducing
(or even trying to reproduce) Kant's actual thought-processes, there-
fore the meaning we are finding (or constructing) is not his meaning.
Instead, what we should say is that because each new generation of
philosophers devises new concepts in terms of which to ask questions
and construct answers to them on behalf of Kant's texts, the process
of understanding better what those texts mean is forever ongoing. It
will not end until people cease to read Kant, or at any rate until they
cease to understand him.
Especially to be avoided is the (deplorably common, but crudely fal-
lacious) inference from: "In discerning the meaning of a text, we need
to engage in creative acts of intellectual construction" to "The mean-
ing of the text is constructed by us, not put there by the author." In
general, when people find out facts about the real world (in the natural
sciences, say, or in the study of history), they do so by constructing
theories (about the origin of the solar system or the causes of the First
31 Descartes' ironical joke at the beginning of the Discourse on Method may, taken
literally, be a bad argument, but it calls our attention to the fact that when we
converse with others, we cannot expect them to regard us as possessing more good
sense than they have, and so we must address them as our intellectual equals. There
is a clear difference between, for example, Descartes' use of a joke to make this point
and the paradoxes just referred to, which operate by confusing a false picture with
its correction and do not help us to distinguish the
WHAT DEAD PHILOSOPHERS MEAN / 233
World War). The fact that the theories are their intellectual constructs
obviously does not entail that the external reality the theories are about
(the solar system or the Great War) is not real but is only a figment
of their minds. On the contrary, the whole point of these theories was
from the start to grasp what is true about the real world as it is there
independently of us.
In this respect, interpretation is no different from any other sort of
theoretical inquiry about the real world. There are objective facts, inde-
pendent of what we think, about what the text of the Critique of Pure
Reason means (that is, about what Kant meant in the Critique). Con-
trary to what the Collingwood picture might suggest, these facts partly
transcend anything Kant himself could have actually thought. We get
at them through our intellectual constructs. When the constructs are
successful, they tell us what Kant means in the text of the Critique.
8.5 Conversing With the Dead
Many of the things I am trying to say here were expressed over a dozen
years ago by Edwin Curley in an admirable article entitled "Dialogues
with the Dead." 32 One insightful thing Curley said was: "Knowing what
a philosopher means by what he says requires, at the very least, having
son1e well-founded beliefs about how he would respond to questions
and objections he may never have explicitly considered."33 Curley's
basic thought here is one that has been famously stressed by Hans-
Georg Gadamer: namely, that the meaning of a text is revealed only by
asking it questions and understanding it as answers to them (though
I don't pretend that I am using that basic thought quite in the way
Gadamer is). To the basic thought, Curley adds that the questions
may, and even must, go beyond the questions the author explicitly
asked in the text. Understanding a language requires being able to
form original sentences in the language, expressing thoughts no one
has ever had before. Likewise, understanding a text requires knowing,
or at least having well-founded beliefs about, the answers the text gives
to questions the text does not ask and which may never have been asked
before. These questions must be our questions, simply because it is we
who are interpreting the text and trying to understand it. Because the
answers given by the text must be responsive to our questions, the
n1eaning of the text must also be expressed in our concepts.
But I an1 not happy with one aspect of Curley's formulation of this
point. He speaks of "how [the philosopher] would respond to [our]
32 Curley, pp. 33-49.
33 Curley, p. 36.
234 / UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS
questions." This seems to n1e still too close to the Collingwood pic-
ture, since it too identifies the meaning of the text with the author's
thoughts, merely substituting counterfactual conditional claims about
the author's conjectured thoughts for past indicative claims about the
author's actual thoughts. This is connected with another thing Curley
says, with which I also do not agree: "If our philosopher were a contem-
porary, still alive, active and cooperative, we might of course simply ask
him what he means [by what he says in a text] ."34 Here Curley writes as
if our asking unasked questions and forming well-grounded conjectures
applies only to the interpretation of dead philosophers, or at any rate
those philosophers from whom, for one reason or another, we cannot
elicit direct answers to our questions about what they mean. He seems
to be saying that if only Aristotle or Spinoza or Kant were alive and
willing to answer our questions about what he means, then that an-
swer would necessarily be correct-absolutely definitive of the meaning
of the text.
Yet Kant is right in saying that we sometimes understand a philoso-
pher better than he understood himself;35 and this might be just as
true of a living philosopher as of a dead one. Suppose I am asked what
I meant by a statement in a philosophical essay I wrote five years ago
and I give an answer. It is entirely possible that another person should
reject my answer and propose an alternative interpretation of my state-
ment. It is also entirely possible that she might be right and I might be
wrong. No doubt in most cases, the author of a text is as likely as any-
one to interpret his own statements correctly. We might also take the
author's interpretive statement as a further text, which as interpreters
we must integrate into the construction through which we retrieve the
meaning of the original text. If so, then this adds weight to the pre-
sumption that the author's interpretation is correct. But even then the
presumption is always rebuttable. 36
Sometimes students ask me what Kant would say, if he were alive
34Curley, p. 36.
35Kant, KrV A314/B370.
36Sometimes people make racist or sexist remarks, and then when accused of
having done so, they say "1 didn't mean it that way". This last statement is am-
biguous, and people who say such things are often trying to exploit the ambiguity.
They could mean: "I didn't intend to be making a racist remark." To this the reply
should be: "Maybe you did intend to be making a racist remark and maybe you
didn't, but it's certain that you made one just the same." Or they could be trying
to say: "I know what 1 meant by my remark, and I therefore can certify that it was
not a racist remark." To this the rejoinder should be: "What you say is up to you,
but what you mean by it is no more subject to your authority than to anyone else's.
We apparently understand what you said better than you do, and we recognize it
as a racist remark."
WHAT DEAD PHILOSOPHERS MEAN / 235
today, about some philosophical question we raise about his text. When
they do, I always point out to them that Kant became senile several
years before his death in 1804. Hence if by some ghoulish miracle of
medical science he had been kept alive until today, then we would be
lucky if he could even drool in response to our questions.
37
This answer is, I think, entirely correct, and the fact that it doesn't
satisfy the students is sin1ply a sign that they are asking the wrong
question. When pressed, what they think they mean to ask is: "What
would Kant say if he were brought back to life in full possession of
his Inature intellectual powers?" This new question, however, is both
unclear and problematic. Are they or aren't they also supposing that
the resurrected Kant is aware of all the philosophical developments that
have occurred in the last two hundred years (including the two centuries
of Kant-interpretation and Kant-revision) which now shape the inter-
pretive questions we are asking about his texts? If we don't suppose
that he is, then we cannot take it for granted that he could even under-
stand n1any of our questions correctly, in which case his answers surely
could not be taken as definitive of his meaning. But if we are imagining
a Kant who is philosophically up to date (a twentieth or twenty-first
century philosopher rather than an eighteenth century philosopher),
then our question obviously has even more counterfactual suppositions
than were apparent. It is not clear what sort of animal a twenty-first
century Kant would be, or whether this animal is any more thinkable
than the legendary chimera or goat-stag, which philosophers in many
ages have used as paradigmatic of the absurd and the unthinkable. 38
37See Karl Vorhinder, Kants Leben (Harnburg: Meiner, 1986), pp. 197-205; also
interesting is rrhomas De Quincey, "The Last Days of Immanuel Kant," in The
English Mail Coach and Other Essays (New York: Dutton, 1965), pp. 162-209,
which purports to be based on the recollections of Wasianski.
38 Jerrold Katz has suggested to me a sense in which we might understand the
question "what would X say?" in which it might sometimes be a useful question,
even where we have to suppose counterfactually that X is acquainted with philo-
sophical developments since X's death. Descartes denied that the cogito involves a
logical inference from "I think" to "I am" . But the logic he knew was late scholastic
syllogistic logic. Would Descartes have had the same reasons to say this about the
cogito if he