Featured Philosop-her: Lucy Allais

Lucy Allais

Lucy Allais is jointly appointed as professor of philosophy at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and Henry Allison Chair of the History of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. She has worked primarily on Kant’s theoretical philosophy, on which she has published a number of papers, and has a book on his transcendental idealism coming out in the next few months (Manifest Reality: Kant’s Idealism and his Realism, OUP). She has also published on forgiveness and some other topics in ethics and is interested in moral psychology and free will.

Kant on Giving to Beggars

Lucy Allais

When I moved back to Johannesburg after 9 years of living in the UK (first for studying, then working), I didn’t expect to experience culture shock. Johannesburg was home. In the UK I had lived first in Oxford and then in Brighton, both old, compact cities, where almost everything was easily accessible by walking or public transport, and I hadn’t had a car. Now I was back in a huge urban sprawl with no public transport. I bought my first car. There are extremes of both wealth and poverty in the UK but I didn’t really see them. Back in South Africa, I couldn’t help seeing. As I drove around the city in my small, ten year-old, second hand car, at the intersection of every major road was someone, often male, almost always black, often young, asking for money. They held up signs, hand written on pieces of cardboard boxes, sometimes appealing to Jo’burg fear of violent crime (‘hungry boy scared to do crime’), sometimes trying to be humorous at the same time (‘criminology is not my major’). At the same time, many of my friends from my undergraduate time in Jo’burg had gone into business or law, while I’d been in graduate school and becoming a lecturer, and seemed to have dramatically more money than me, wanting to eat out in restaurants I didn’t think I could afford. I felt both poor and ridiculously rich.

Since there are beggars at so many street intersections, and since Jo’burg life involves driving everywhere, every day involved some time thinking about whether and why to give. I had never worked in political philosophy, and though I had started working in ethics (after years of writing primarily about Kant’s theoretical philosophy, mostly interpreting his transcendental idealism), it was mostly through writing on forgiveness, which felt like the opposite of a systematic approach to theoretical ethics. But I had been reading Nussmbaum’s work on compassion in public life, which was partly critical of Kant, and came across some very harsh-seeming things Kant had to say both about compassion and about beggars. Kant’s political philosophy is centrally about the idea of freedom and his main work on political philosophy, The Metaphysics of Morals, starts with an account of how to understand private property. This might not seem like a promising place to look for thinking about wealth inequality. But as I began to think through his position (using the brilliant work of Arthur Ripstein and Helga Varden as my interpretative guide) I found materials for a surprisingly rich account of the troubling nature of interactions with beggars.

Fundamental questions in political philosophy concern the justification for the state’s coercing us, and what things, in particular, the state is entitled to coerce. Kant’s answers to these questions are based on human freedom: the legitimacy of state coercion is based in the fact that this is the only way of defending and enabling all of us living in conditions of reciprocal respect for all of our freedom, and this also is what explains what the state is entitled to coerce. Since this starting point seems to be shared by right wing libertarian politics, it might be thought that it would lead to a political philosophy concerned merely with limiting state interference. However, Kant draws different conclusions, arguing that public structures and public institutions are positively necessary to enable our freedom. A minimally legitimate state, and the possibility of public life, is not a mere remedy against human nastiness and scarcity in nature, but is essential for all of us to interact rightfully with each other and to fully realize our free, human natures. As such it is something we are morally obliged to create.

These ideas can be illustrated using Arthur Ripstein’s helpful example of public roads. If all land were privately owned then people wanting to move around the country would be dependent on private landowners giving them permission to do cross their land. In this situation, our capacity to set and pursue ends for ourselves would be systematically subject to arbitrary private choices of others. In order to properly enable our freedom, Kant thinks that the state (which represents all of us but none of us in particular) must create public roads, governed by public law, that link all bits of private land. In moving around public roads, we are all equally subject to public law, rather than the discretionary choices of private landowners. It is important to see that even if all the landowners are generous and always allow us to cross their land, we would still be subject to their choices. In Phillip Petit’s terms, we can be in a situation of domination when we are dependent on another’s choosing to be virtuous, even if they always do choose well, since we are subject to their power. If they were to choose not to be virtuous, we would have no recourse; we are in a dependency relation. This example shows how enabling freedom positively requires public institutions, not simply government limiting our interfering with each other.

Kant thinks that one crucial way in which the state enables and defends our purposive agency is by instituting rightful private property relations. Having property, he thinks, is a matter of having assurance with respect to an external object that I am not currently physically defending that others will respect its being up to me to determine what happens to it. Kant thinks that rightful property ownership can exist only in the context of a rightful state, because my owning something creates obligations for you, but I can’t put you under obligations through a unilateral declaration (‘I’m taking this and I declare it to be mine’). We need a state that puts us under reciprocal obligations and provides us all with assurance with respect to our ownership. By protecting people’s property, however, the state limits the choices of those who have nothing (whether this is through their own fault or not) in a way which, on Kant’s account, is not compatible with respecting their freedom. Those who have no means and no legal way of getting means are dependent on the private generosity (discretionary, private giving) of others. But the state’s entitlement to coerce us (including defending individuals’ private property) is legitimate only if it is compatible with everyone’s freedom: with everyone’s being subject to universal law and not systematically subject to choices of other individuals. This means that anyone who is in the position that beggar presents themselves as being in (dependent on private, discretionary giving for their very survival), has been wronged. They have a claim under justice, and such a claim cannot be met by private charity.

This is a complex and troubled situation. We have, in Kant’s view, a general moral obligation to care about the needs of others (to make their needs one of our ends), and, if beggars are as they represent themselves as being, we are encountering someone whose needs are dire. Further, the beggar has been wronged by a state which fails to provide for their needs, and has a legitimate claim to some material means. But this claim cannot be rightly met by your giving since your discretionary giving is not a way of their getting their basic entitlement under justice. And although you may have more than you would have under a just distribution, the beggar does not have a claim against your particular private property. In addition, on Kant’s analysis, the beggar is wronging you by the way they intrude on you in a public space and is doing something humiliating. But a person who is in the humiliating position of surviving by asking for money is also not treated more respectfully by having their request refused. On Kant’s analysis, the beggar’s request requires you to solve a public (systemic) problem through a private interaction and there is no way of doing this. When we are confronted with a beggar, we are implicated in relations of servility and humiliation from which we cannot escape, whether or not we give. We are related to each other wrongfully, and, in the particular encounters, there is nothing we can do about this. The analysis suggests that the feelings of guilt, discomfort, resentment, and helplessness may all be part of accurately registering the nature of the situation.

If you read only Kant’s moral philosophy, you may acquire an impression of individual autonomous agents whose virtue depends only on their own good intentions. But Kant’s political philosophy presents a much more complex picture, one according to which our being implicated in unjust relations can place us in positions in which we have no morally untainted choices. Further, it explains why some problems created by injustice and domination cannot be solved by private compassion and private virtue. It also, in my view, is helpful for understanding Kant’s account of humanity’s existing in a fallen condition—our evil.

Featured Philosop-her: Susanna Siegel


Susanna Siegel is Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. She is author of The Contents of Visual Experience (Oxford 2010), a book about perception and intentionality. She has recently published articles about perceptual justification, the influences of hopes, fears, beliefs, and prior knowledge on perception, wishful thinking, and the relationship between affordances and perception. She teaches a course in the General Education program on social protest and political philosophy, and contributes to the program in Mind, Brain, and Behavior.  She is committed to fostering analytic philosophy in Spanish, and together with Diana Acosta and Patricia Marechal, is hosting a series of philosophy workshops in Spanish at Harvard. The second workshop will take place in March of 2015.

The Rationality of Perception

Susanna Siegel

I’d like to thank Meena for starting and hosting PhilosopHer.

For a long time I’ve been interested in perception. Much work in Anglophone philosophy of perception has focused on two kinds of perception: “good” cases where perception puts us in contact with reality, and “bad” cases where we are unwittingly hallucinating or under a visual illusion of some sort. The distinction between good and bad cases is important. It is the start of enduring philosophical problems of skepticism about the external world. And if there were no good cases, both science and common sense would be called into question. Both rely heavily on observation.

I’m interested in a third category of perceptual states. It cross-cuts the good and bad cases, and it can help analyze desire, fear, a range of cultural phenomena. The third category is that sometimes perception is a sham. It purports to present things as they are, but behind the scenes, your own psychological states are stacking the deck, so that the way things appear ends up congruent with what you want, hope, fear, suspect, or already believe.

Here’s an example from Cordelia Fine’s (2010) book Delusions of Gender. She starts Chapter 1 with a quote from Jan Morris, a male-to-female transsexual describing her post-transition experiences in her autobiography Conundrum (1987). Morris writes,

“The more I was treated as a woman, the more woman I became. I adapted willy-nilly. If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself. If a case was thought too heavy for me, inexplicably I found it so myself.”

How does Morris’s being presumed incompetent by others come to be part of her own outlook on the world? This happens in part by influencing her perception of things in the world. Consider Morris’s perception of heaviness. This perception is a sham. It’s no surprise if the perceived heaviness of a suitcase is a function of how strong you are – even if, from your point of view, you seem to be simply taking in a feature of the suitcase. It’s more surprising if its perceived weight is a function of how strong you think you are – and if that belief can in turn be influenced so fluidly by what hoards of other people presume about you, regardless of your physical strength. What other people presume about you has nothing to do with the heaviness of the suitcase, and everything to do with social relationships.

So suppose Morris finds the suitcase to be heavy when she tries to lift it. Does Morris’s experience of its heaviness make it reasonable for her to believe that the suitcase is heavy? Yes or No? Both answers can seem plausible. No: It is fishy for her to believe that the suitcase is heavy, when what led to her perception of heaviness simply internalizing other people’s ill-founded underestimation of her competence. Her perception of heaviness is akin to a rationalization of the outlook on which she can’t lift it.  But at the same time, Yes: What else is she supposed to think about how heavy the suitcase is? If the suitcase feels heavy, then so long as she isn’t aware of any reason to discount the feeling, isn’t it reasonable for her to believe that it really is heavy? (Perhaps later, on reflection, Morris becomes aware of such reasons, but let’s focus on the moments before she is aware of any such reason.)  The philosophical problem is that both Yes and No answers to this question seem plausible.

This epistemological problem takes many forms. It can arise when the very contents of perceptual experience are influenced by what the subject fears, beliefs, wants, suspects, or knows. Some influences on the contents of experience have come to be called ‘cognitive penetration.’ This label applies widely. It isn’t always exactly what Fodor and Pylyshyn, and Churchland debated in the 1980’s under that label. (I talk a bit about the differences in “Epistemic Evaluability and Perceptual Farce”).

But the same problem can arise from psychological influences on the role of perceptual experience in what the subject goes on to believe.  For all Morris says (“I found it to be heavy…), perhaps the suitcase didn’t feel heavy, but she just thought it did. Morris might be making an introspective error about how heavy the suitcase feels. Or perhaps introspection isn’t involved at all, and Morris is jumping to the conclusion that the suitcase is heavy. Due to her outlook on herself (freshly inherited from those who presume she’s weak or incompetent), she believes that it is heavy, but if she were guided by her experience, she’d find the suitcase easy to lift.  Here, the perverse, ill-founded outlook makes her discount her experiences, preventing them from playing the prized epistemic role of regulating our beliefs.

So there are a number of ways in which perception might be influenced by the view of herself that Morris is gradually internalizing. This view of herself is obstructing her access to the world. And it is doing that, by making Morris perceive the world as the world would be, if the patriarchal presumptions that she encounters were true. If she were weak and incompetent, then the suitcase really would be heavy.

This kind of sham opens the possibility that perceptual experience itself might be epistemically evaluable. Philosophers often distinguish perception from reasoning. We reason from information we have already, whereas perception is a way of taking in new information. But in a perceptual sham, perception is hijacked as a means of apparently confirming the outlook that shapes it.

We’re familiar with the idea that perceptual judgments can be epistemically better or worse (more or less reasonable). In my book The Rationality of Perception (in draft), I argue that even perceptual experiences can be epistemically evaluable, due to the ways they are formed. Not every perceptual experience is epistemically evaluable. But some are. The epistemically evaluable experiences are outgrowths of the rest of our outlook on the world. When that outlook is epistemically ill-founded, so are the experiences they help generate.

If experiences could be epistemically evaluable, that would solve the epistemological problem posed by perceptual sham. Does Morris’s have reason from her experience to believe the suitcase is heavy, if it feels heavy and she can see no reason to doubt her experiences? No. Her experience is an outgrowth of an epistemically poor outlook on the world, according to which is incompetent in various ways. Her experience was formed unreasonably, due to influences of this outlook.  It is like an unjustified belief. It’s unsuitable for transmitting justification to subsequent beliefs about how heavy the suitcase is.

If I had more space, I’d discuss cases where perceptual experiences are outgrowths of well-founded outlooks on the world. Think of all the intelligence involved in the radiologist’s knowing which parts of an X-ray to focus on when she is studying it to see if there’s a tumor.  But here I’ll stick with the putative cases of ill-founded experiences.

If experiences can be epistemically evaluable due to the way they are formed, what exactly is it about the way that they’re formed that makes them epistemically evaluable?

A first answer is that some experiences result from inferences. What kind of inferences? The kind that bear on the rationality or irrationality of the subject. This kind contrasts with many pre-perceptual inferences discussed by psychologists, such as Helmholtz in the 19th century and today’s Bayesian theories of perceptual processing. Those inferences do not bear on the rationality or irrationality of the subject. I think that in addition to resulting from Helmholtzian inferences, experiences can also in principle result from an epistemically more significant kind of inference.

A second idea is that perceptual experiences can be epistemically evaluable by virtue of their relationships to fears or desires (including hopes and preferences). What kind of relationship? It doesn’t have a label, the way inference does. But we might call it ‘elaboration’. Consider experiences that are congruent with what you fear or want. For instance, an acrophobe (someone afraid of heights) on a balcony will typically overestimate its height from the ground.  (Stefanucci, J. K., & Proffitt, D. R. 2009. “The roles of altitude and fear in the perception of height”. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 35(2), 424-38.) Non-acrophobes are also poor at estimating height. But the misestimates of acrophobes are in the direction of exaggerating the distance to the ground. Why? One explanation is that a greater distance from the ground is more congruent with their fear than a smaller distance. If fear makes the chance of falling salient to you, and the greater the height, the more dangerous the fall, then an experience of a higher balcony rationalizes the fear. It makes the fear seem reasonable.

A similar phenomenon is found in desire. An advertiser might try to move you to buy something, by getting you to want it. How do they get you to want it? They present it in a way they think you will find desirable. Tim Scanlon and Peter Railton have emphasized ways in which desires are closely related to representations of the world that are congruent with them. But now consider a case where a desire you have already influences how things appear to you. You’re tired, you want to plop down and rest. You see a bed. It looks fluffy! It might even look as if it is beckoning you to plop down and rest. Here, the way the bed looks to you could be an outgrowth of your desire to rest. The perceptual experience of the bed as fluffy is an outgrowth of your desire. The outgrowth could operate via attention – you attend to features of the bed that it really has. Or it could operate in some other way: your experience exaggerates the fluffiness of the bed.

How could these relationships between fear and experience, or between desire and experience, be epistemically evaluable? If fears can be well-founded or ill-founded, then when the fear is elaborated into an experience, the experience could inherit the ill-founded or well-founded character of the fear. What about desire? It’s a long-standing question in moral philosophy whether desires can be fitting or ill-fitting. In the special case of a preference to maintain a belief, the notion of ill-fittingness is easy to grasp. (This preference is central to the analysis of belief polarization and other forms of motivated cognition).

Here’s a hypothesis. The elaboration of fear or desire into experience is mediated by confidence that things in the world are congruent with the fear. Whether or not fear or desire are independently well-fitting or ill-fitting, the confidence that the world is congruent with the fear or desire is clearly something that can be more or less reasonable.

Where can this analysis say about Morris? Morris ‘adapts willy-nilly’ to the presumption of incompetence that she finds herself subject to. How could other people’s presumptions influence her perception? They could influence it by influencing her confidence in those presumptions. Surrounded by social reality where those presumptions operate, one’s own confidence in those presumptions could easily gravitate upward. That is one kind of social construction in action. And once one’s confidence in such presumptions gravitates upward, it can mediate the influence of fear and preference on perception. The situation is ripe for elaboration and inference – two routes by which perception itself can be drawn into the domain of epistemic norms.

Featured Philosop-her: Connie Rosati

Gil, csr2

Connie Rosati is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona.  She received the Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Michigan and the J.D. from Harvard Law School.  Her research interests lie primarily in metaethics, the philosophy of law, and constitutional theory.  She is currently working on a book on the nature of personal good.

The following post is an excerpt from work in progress on the kinds of normative reasons facts about our good provide.

“On Reasons of Personal Good”

Connie Rosati

Among the many things I came to believe when I was young was that people should be prepared to make at least some significant sacrifices for one another, including at least minimal physical sacrifices.  In particular, I came to believe that, other things equal, people ought to donate blood.  After all, what could be a more important, while still minimal physical sacrifice, than donating a pint of a bodily fluid that would readily replenish itself?  As it happened, I didn’t weigh enough to give blood.  So I vowed that if I ever met the minimal weight requirement of 110 pounds, I would make a donation.  I did not stably meet that requirement until my mid 40s.  Periodically, it would cross my mind that I had once committed myself to giving blood, if ever I could.  Time continued to pass, however, without my ever doing much more than checking, on a few occasions, for the location of the local American Red Cross.

On Wednesday, January 13, 2010, I again located the nearest Red Cross blood donation center, but this time, I scheduled an appointment.  On Saturday, January 16, 2010, I became an “FTD,” as the forms identified me:  a first-time blood donor.   When I arrived, the receptionist informed me that they were running behind, and my 12:00 appointment would be delayed by half an hour; I could come back another day if I wanted, she said.  But I figured, no doubt correctly, that doing it later might well mean doing it never, and so I stayed, waiting until nearly 1:30, at which point another staff person took me into a room to check my hemoglobin and complete the required questionnaire.  Giving blood was mostly uneventful, except for the part when, just after they finished drawing a pint and filling several vials, I passed out (twice).

There were, as it happens, excellent reasons for me to have arranged to donate blood when I did.  A massive earthquake had just shaken Haiti to its knees, and news reports were grim.  No doubt the disaster was in the back of my mind when I called.  But in truth, it served more as a reminder of a vow as yet unkept than as a direct impetus to action.  Perhaps it played some unconscious part in my doing what I did when I did it, but I can’t say that I felt any sense of urgency about donating blood, and when asked by the staff person why I had decided to become a donor, I didn’t mention Haiti.  I had, in fact, already donated money to the Red Cross in response to the tragedy.  And when I returned home after donating blood, I made a second monetary contribution.  Surely donating money was enough and probably mattered more than donating a pint of blood, at least so far as Haiti was concerned.  Given the lag time between when I made the donation and when the blood would be usable, and given the complexities of the blood distribution system, I couldn’t rationally have been moved by the thought that my blood would help someone in Haiti.  Of course, someone, somewhere, at some time would presumably benefit, and I could rationally have been moved by the thought of that benefit, but it was no particular part of my thinking.  The consideration of such a benefit was among the reasons for doing what I did, but it wasn’t the reason for which I acted.

It seems to me that I was ultimately moved to act, at least in part, by the fact of that long-ago vow, that somehow a commitment made by me then weighed with me now.  Suppose, that I am right about this, that among other considerations, the fact of my having once made a vow did move me to act 35 years later.  Did that fact give me normative reason to act?  Do facts about our earlier vows or commitments give any of us normative reason to act?  And if so, do they give reasons weighty enough to sometimes make a difference to what we ought to do?

As I shall explain, facts about earlier vows and commitments are among the things that can give an agent a special kind of reason—reasons of self-constitution—and such reasons are reasons of personal good.

Reasons of personal good include at least the following.  There are first, intrinsic reasons of personal good.  These are reasons that exist in virtue of the fact that something is good for a person at a time.  The fact that an individual is engaged in activities that are currently a part of her flourishing, for example, is a source of reasons for doing what is constitutive of engaging in those activities, reasons distinct from whatever reasons morality may provide for doing so.  Her engagement in parenting is a source of reasons to attend to her children.  Her career as a lawyer provides reasons for carrying out the sundry tasks involved in the practice of law.  There are also instrumental reasons of personal good.  These are, as the name indicates, reasons that are grounded in facts about the means to be taken to attain or maintain what is now good for an individual.

In addition to facts about what is good for a person at a time, there are facts about what could be good for her, what could become a part of her good.  The fact that something might be good for a person provides her with pro tanto reasons as well.  Because they arise from facts about a person’s possible good, a good that could be hers if she were to choose it and do the necessary work to bring herself into a relation of fit with that possible good, let’s call these conditional reasons of personal good.

Conditional reasons are among what we might call constitutional reasons of personal good.  Constitutional reasons are reasons to constitute our good in particular ways.  A person might have constitutional reasons to make certain things a part of her good, to make her possible good her actual good.  Constitutional reasons include reasons that bear on whether to pursue some ends rather than others, whether to undertake various sorts of education or training, whether to lead a particular sort of life.  They also include reasons to undertake acts that will constitute, sustain, or reconstitute oneself as a particular sort or person.  They include, that is, reasons of self-constitution.

Now here we must consider certain peculiarities about the good of persons.  As persons, creatures with the capacity for autonomy, we live our lives not only with conscious awareness, but with a kind of self-awareness.  We each have a certain need to make sense of ourselves to ourselves, and so we reflect on ourselves and our doings.  We care about what sort of persons we are, whether for moral or aesthetic reasons or reasons of expected benefit, and we sometimes deliberately seek to alter or develop ourselves.  We each have a self-ideal, a normative conception of the sort of person we are and of what our lives are about, though we typically embody that self-ideal imperfectly.  Sometimes we find that we have changed in unexpected ways so that we have strayed from our self-ideals, or we become aware of ways in which we fail to fit our self-ideals, so that we are not as we conceived ourselves to be.  As a consequence, we may experience a need to “reconsolidate” ourselves, to get back to who we were so as better to match our self-ideals, or to revise our self-ideals as we adjust to the persons we have become, perhaps integrating aspects of our former and current selves.  Our ability to function effectively as autonomous agents, and so our ability to lead flourishing lives partly depends on our having and acting from effective self-ideals.  If a person has a self-ideal that is too at odds with what she is really like, if she has a conception of what matters to her that is too at odds with how she acts, her ability to be self-governing and her ability to achieve a good life will be impaired.

A person’s ability to develop and sustain an effective self-ideal requires activity on her part.  Aristotle famously emphasized the role of practice and habituation in the development of moral virtue, and the need for practice and repetition, as well as the cultivation of habits, is important, too, in developing and sustaining an effective self-ideal.  Habits, though, may be just so sturdy, and a person may, due to poor choices, self-deception, a lack of self-knowledge, laziness, or circumstances beyond her control, come to act in ways that are “out of character”—not in keeping with who she conceives herself to be.  She may also simply fall short of her self-ideal, because she has not fully developed habits and practices in line with her self-ideal.  As a consequence, she may need to deliberately undertake to perform actions that she would perform as a matter of course, were she acting in line with her self-ideal, thereby working to make it true of herself that she is as she conceives herself to be.

No doubt we all fail to do some of the specific things that we take to be a part of being the sort of person we conceive ourselves to be.  And no doubt failing in this respect is compatible with leading a satisfying life.  Nevertheless, having specified some things as significant in this way, we create reasons of self-constitution, when circumstances permit, to undertake the actions in question.  In my own case, although many acts would have been ways of acting as the person I conceive myself to be, there was a particular act that I had singled out, and I had done so by vowing that I would someday do it.  Because of its relationship to my self-ideal, and because of the importance of our having effective self-ideals to our flourishing, it seems to me that I had reasons of self-constitution to give blood in a way that I did not have to do a great many other things.

Let me now bring the forgoing discussion to bear on the questions raised earlier.  Here are my answers.  The fact that a person made an earlier vow or commitment can give pro tanto reasons to act, even many years later.  The kinds of reasons such facts give are reasons of self-constitution, which are reasons of personal good.  These reasons can be significant enough to at least sometimes make a difference to what it makes most sense for a person to do.  Reasons of self-constitution have this significance because they concern acts that are a part of our efforts to form, develop, and sustain effective self-ideals, and so to constitute ourselves as particular sorts of people.

Featured Philosop-her: Christine M. Korsgaard


Christine M. Korsgaard, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard, is the author of four books.  Creating the Kingdom of Ends is a collection of essays on Kant’s ethics and Kantian ethics. The Sources of Normativity is an investigation into modern views about the foundations of obligation. The Constitution of Agency is a collection of essays on practical reason and moral psychology.  Self-Constitution explores the foundations of morality and practical identity in the nature of human action.  She is currently working on Fellow Creatures, a book about the moral and legal status of non-human animals, and The Natural History of the Good, a book about the place of value in nature.


Provisional Rights and the State

Christine M. Korsgaard

Considered as normative entities, rights have an unusual feature: there is a sense in which they do not exist until they are instituted legally. For this reason, someone being abused or disrespected in certain ways can voice the exact same response by complaining that she has no rights or by protesting that she does have rights.  In the text below, adapted from a section of a paper in which I defend the view that both non-human animals and the world’s poor have rights against humanity collectively speaking, I argue that Kant’s doctrine that natural rights in the state of nature are “provisional” gives us the best way to understand this feature of rights.  At the same time, it grounds his argument that we have a duty to live together in the political state.


So far, what I have said has been ambiguous between two claims: that animals should have rights and that they do have rights.  There is a reason for this ambiguity, for there is a problem about what is going on when someone makes the case for a legal right.

If I say that I am arguing that someone “should have a right,” that has the disadvantage of making it sound as if all I am saying is that there is something to be said in favor of her having the right, some reasons that would support the policy of giving her the right.  But that may not seem like the correct way to argue for a right, since a right ordinarily functions as a trump and a trump requires something stronger than some considerations in its favor. If I have a right to something, call it X, then you have no right to deprive me of X. My right is supposed to be a decisive consideration against your depriving me of X, however good your reasons for depriving me of X would be if I did not have the right. So to say that I have a right to X not just to say that there is a very strong reason for me to have X: it is to say something about the relations in which I stand to those against whom I claim the right. However good others’ reasons are for depriving me of X, they will be wronging me if they do so. That includes my relations to society collectively speaking.  But if my right is a trump even against society collectively speaking, how can society collectively speaking be in a position to grant me the right? When someone claims that she has a right, she is claiming precisely that no one is in a position to deny her that to which she has a right. But if no one is in a position to deny her the right, then it seems as if no one is in a position to grant her that to which she has the right either.  What she is saying is precisely that this is not the sort of thing that others may withhold or to grant, however good their reasons.  Consider, for instance, the idea that a nation might give its slaves a right to their freedom. Is another human being’s right to her freedom something that it is ours (all of us? the rest of us?) to give?  How can society give someone his freedom, if it was already his own by right?

Some philosophers propose to deal with this problem by invoking the idea of a “moral right” and saying that moral rights are the grounds on which we should establish legal rights. That enables them to split the difference – the moral rights do already exist, although the legal ones do not.  Then we can say that what society does when it enacts laws protecting people’s rights is not granting them rights they did not already have, but protecting their moral rights by making them legal and so coercively enforceable.

That can sound sensible until we remind ourselves what exactly a right is.  A right, at least according to Kant and others in the natural rights tradition, is – by definition – a claim that may legitimately be coercively enforced. You have a right when you have a claim on others to act in a certain way and it is morally legitimate for you (or for society on your behalf) to defend yourself with the use of force against violations of that claim.  Not all moral claims, we believe, may be coercively enforced.  I cannot sue you for hurting my feelings or being rude to me or have you thrown into prison for breaking my heart, though you should not do these things.  I cannot have you arrested if you fail to open a door for me when my arms are full of packages or to help me change a tire by the side of the road.  How do we draw the distinction?  Some philosophers would argue that the distinction should be drawn on pragmatic or consequentialist grounds: on whether the costs of coercive enforcement are worth preventing wrongs of this kind. Kant, however, believed that the distinction is based on principle. Since coercion is in general wrong, we may only use it against coercion itself, when we are “hindering a hindrance to freedom.”  According to Kant, I am free when I can pursue my own ends and in doing so I am not subject to the wills of other people. I am not made subject to your will when you try to break my heart, for I am perfectly free not to care.  I am not made subject to your will when you fail to open a door for me, for that doesn’t stop me from going through the door.  But I am made subject to your will when you enslave me or make use of my person or my property without my consent. So my claims against your doing those things are coercively enforceable – that is, they are rights.

This account of what makes a moral claim one of right makes trouble for the proposed use of the distinction between moral and legal rights. It follows from it that if there are any rights, there is a sense in which they already have the status of law: that is, they may legitimately be coercively enforced. This, after all, is why we think it can sometimes be morally legitimate for people to fight even their own governments for their freedom: because they have a coercively enforceable right to that freedom even if there is no positive law upholding it. On this view, natural right is underwritten by natural law; indeed they are almost the same thing. So the state cannot be seen as making it possible to coercively enforce a claim that is already there, since the claim was not only already there, but already coercively enforceable too.

Now this may not seem like a big problem.  For of course there is still a question about the relation between law in this natural sense and the positive statutes that are actually passed by some political society. So why shouldn’t we say that a state that makes a law establishing a right is simply acknowledging a natural right that is already there, by making its own laws match the natural laws?

But there’s a problem with this too, which was brought out first by Hobbes, and then, following him, Kant. They pointed out that there is a sense in which rights do not exist even morally until laws upholding them are enacted by political society. After all, to say that a right exists morally is not only to imply that you are entitled to defend your claim with force.  It is also to imply that people have a moral obligation to respect your claim.  But Kant and Hobbes argued that no one can be morally obligated to respect my rights until he has some guarantee that I will respect his rights. For if I force you to respect my rights without giving you a guarantee that I will respect yours, then I am putting you in a position where you are subject to my will and so unfree. Or as Hobbes put it, a person who respects the rights of others when they do not respect his “would but make himself a prey to others, and procure his own ruin.” Hobbes and Kant argued that it follows that no one has a duty to respect anyone’s rights until some mechanism of enforcing everyone’s rights is in place. Since a right involves a duty on the part of others to uphold that right, and others cannot have that duty unless their rights are upheld as well, rights occupy what we might call interpersonal space – my rights and yours can only be realized together.

Kant argued that it is only the political state that can provide guarantees of the enforcement of everyone’s rights. So if I say, “I have a right to X,” I make a demand on others that I am not in a position to make unless we live together in a political state: claims of right presuppose the existence of the political state, that is, it presupposes our membership in a collective body with a General Will devoted to upholding the rights of all.  Claims of right presuppose this even if we are in the state of nature and the political state exists only in idea, so when I claim a right in the state of nature I commit myself to supporting the existence of a political state.  According to Kant, this means that we have a duty to live in the political state.  Our rights in the state of nature, are, as Kant put it, “provisional.” They exist in the sense that we have the right to defend them, but not in the sense that anyone else has a duty to respect them.  It is only when the state is actually formed that they become, again as Kant put it, “conclusive.”

Kant’s distinction between provisional and conclusive rights explains the status of so-called natural rights much better than the distinction between moral and legal rights does. Provisional rights are in one sense already legal, since the right-holder is morally entitled to coercively enforce them.  In another sense, however, they are not yet quite moral, since no one else is obligated to respect them.  What society does when it legalizes a right is neither to grant the right holder something that is already his own and not society’s to give, nor to acknowledge a merely moral right that is already there by making it enforceable. What society does instead is to realize a right whose existence is essentially incomplete or imperfect in the state of nature.

Featured Philosop-her: Janice Dowell


Janice Dowell

Janice Dowell is an associate professor of philosophy at Syracuse University and a Regular Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Edinburgh’s Eidyn Centre. Her work spans several subfields in philosophy, including metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and ethics. In the philosophy of mind, she is best known for her work defining what it takes to be a physical property for the purposes of characterizing the thesis of physicalism.  Her work in metaphysics has focused on methodological issues, particularly those concerning what it takes to justify metaphysical reductions.  Her most recent work defends Kratzer’s canonical semantics for modal expressions against a series of challenges.  Currently, she’s working on a book on deontic modals that supplements Kratzer’s basic semantics with an account of how it is modal propositions are determined at contexts of use (under contract with OUP).  Her paper, “The Metaethical Insignificance of Moral Twin Earth”, received the 2014 Marc Sanders Prize for Metaethics.


 Constructing and Justifying Semantic and Metasemantic Theories

Janice Dowell


Thanks so much to Meena for offering me this opportunity to discuss an issue I’ve been thinking about lately!  These are a few early-stage thoughts on how we might best construct and justify semantic and metasemantic theories.  My own immediate interest in this topic stems from my interest in assessing rival semantic theories for modal expressions in English, especially deontic ones.  But my hope is that these thoughts are of some interest to those interested in semantic and metasemantic theorizing more broadly, including metaethicists interested in understanding the semantics of normative and evaluative expressions in English.  Comments, questions, and suggestions very welcome.


Recently, there’s been a lot of really interesting work done by philosophers of language and linguists on understanding what sorts of meanings a semantic theory for some natural language, L, should assign the expressions of L. Is the content of a sentence at a context a set of worlds, a set ‘centered’ worlds, a set of probability spaces, a structured proposition, or what? In related debates, metaethicists wonder what sorts of meanings such a theory should assign L’s normative or evaluative expressions. How might we best approach these questions? What constraints, if any, do a plausible metasemantic theory place on good answers to them?  Here are some preliminary thoughts on some of the constraints on constructing plausible semantic and metasemantic theories. (NB: Some of these thoughts are expressed in a forthcoming paper, The Metaethical Insignificance of Moral Twin Earth.  The issues here, though, are not narrowly metaethical, but more broadly methodological ones for semantic and metasemantic theorizing.)

First, I make explicit a few of my background assumptions to keep us all on the same page:

A semantic theory for a language, L, assigns a meaning to each of L’s simple expressions and identifies rules of composition for complex expressions such that their meanings are the products of the meanings of the simples out of which they are composed, together with the rules they exemplify.

Among other things, a semantic theory should fit with and help explain data about what competent speakers are able to do with L, especially, communicate, coordinate, and collect information.  This feature of semantic theories yields our first constraint on semantic theorizing: Since helping to provide such explanations is one of the central aims of semantic theorizing, let us call doing so the “Communication, Coordination, and Collection Constraint on Semantic Theories” or the “CCC Semantics Constraint”, for short.

In contrast to a semantic theory, a metasemantic theory for L is a theory that tells us why and how it is that the phonetic and orthographic sequences that make up L have the meanings our best semantic theory represents them as having.

How do these two kinds of theory relate to one another?  Start with what we know:

1)   There are noises we able to make, scribbles we are able to produce.  Somehow, some of these noises and scribbles, those that correspond to words in the English language, acquired the meanings our best semantic theory, T, assigns to them.

2)   Using a language with those meanings allows competent speakers to communicate, coordinate, and collect information.

Keeping this in mind, what should we think about the relationship between our theories?  Should we think: Lucky are we!  For we narrowly missed living in a world in which we spoke a language, but one which didn’t allow us to coordinate our activities or communicate and collect information.  Or, rather, should we think: It’s no accident! Part of the explanation for why our expressions have the meanings that they do is that, in using expressions with those meanings, we are able to communicate, coordinate, and collect information.  The latter is clearly so much more plausible than the former, that I propose the following,

CCC Metasemantics Constraint: A metasemantic theory should help us understand how the sequences that make up L acquired semantic significance such that speakers of L are able to do what they do with L’s expressions, centrally, communicate, coordinate, and collect information.

So far we’ve seen that that a standard characterization of semantic and of metasemantic theories each suggest constraints on candidate such theories for particular natural languages.  I’ll now argue that there are important senses in which semantic and metasemantic theories are each contingent and empirical.  Since contingent and empirical theories are justified by abduction (rather than, say, by derivation from a priori principles), these facts shed light on how best to construct and justify such theories.

In the sense reserved here, a feature of a world, w, is contingent just in case it varies across worlds considered as counterfactual, as ways w could have been.  That there are albino tigers is a feature of the actual world, but not of all ways that world could have been, so it is a contingent feature of the actual world in this sense.  A feature of a world w is empirical in the reserved sense just in case it varies across worlds considered as actual, as ways w could turn out to be.  That water is H2O is an empirical feature of the actual world in this sense.

The phenomena to be explained by semantic and metasemantic theories—what the orthographic and phonetic sequences that correspond to L’s expressions mean and why they mean what they do—are contingent, empirical features of the actual world in these reserved senses; there are worlds considered as actual in which they mean a variety of different things and worlds considered as counterfactual in which they mean nothing at all. Had the actual world differed in relevant respects, the ability of speakers to use the signs they in fact do to coordinate, and what explained whether and why they have that ability, would itself have been different. The features of our world that support communication and coordination with natural languages are features that distinguish our world from others.  This suffices to guarantee that those features are contingent and empirical.  And that the phenomena to be explained by semantic and metasemantic theories are contingent and empirical suffices to make those theories contingent and empirical as well.

It’s perhaps easiest to see that this must be so in the case of semantic theories. First, recall the CCC semantics constraint, according to which the meaning assignments for a semantic theory for L must be capable of figuring in explanations of how it is L-competent speakers are able to communicate, coordinate, and collect information. To satisfy that constraint, a theory will need to be ‘cut down to human size’; that is, it will need to be one that reflects human cognitive and conative limitations, in particular, our limitations at the young age at which humans standardly learn their first language.  Moreover, a theory that meets that constraint will need to reflect the environmental conditions under which humans learn that language.

This means that whether a semantic theory meets the CCC constraint is not a question that can be answered from the armchair (or by surveys that can be performed from many individual armchairs). This makes semantic theories more like other contingent, empirical theories–biological or psychological theories, for example–than like traditional philosophical theories about the nature of knowledge or morality.  The former, though, are justified not by derivation from a priori principles, but by inference to the best explanation of the phenomena its central posits are posited to explain.

And that, I suggest, means that semantic notions, such as that of a meaning or of a semantic value, are theoretical notions, like the notion of a biological process as it figures in biological theorizing.  Which semantic notions will figure in our best semantic theory for a natural language such as English will be determined by which ones figure in our best explanations of the phenomena it is the job of a semantic theory to partly explain, such as our ability to communicate, coordinate, and collect information.  To make the connection between these ideas and the question with which I began clear: Deciding between hypotheses about what types of entities should serve as meanings in our best semantic theory’s meaning assignments will require taking into account the relevant human cognitive and conative limitations, as well as environmental conditions, that constrain what sort of entities could plausibly figure in explanations of human linguistic communication.

It’s perhaps less obvious that metasemantic theories are contingent and empirical in an important sense.  An analogy with the debate in the philosophy of mind between physicalists of different stripes may be helpful for understanding the way in which I’m suggesting that this is so. Let a minimal physical duplicate of a world w be any world w’ that is an exact physical duplicate of w and has no additional features. A physicalist about the mental is committed to a certain necessary truth about the actual world, namely, that every world that is its minimal physical duplicate is a mental duplicate. But she is not committed to saying that the physical features that ground the mental properties instantiated at the actual world ground them at every world, whether considered as actual or counterfactual.  For example, she is happy to allow that there are such worlds containing Lewisian Martians, who feel pain when fluid inflates their foot cavities.  Such worlds differ from the actual world in containing physical features the actual world does not contain. On plausible empirical and metaphysical assumptions about what types of physical properties are possible, a world containing Lewisian Martians is a way the actual world could have been or even a way the actual world could turn out to be.  This makes it an empirical and contingent matter which physical features of the actual world are the features that ground its mental truths. This part of the physicalist’s overall program, the task of settling the debate among physicalists about which are plausible candidate grounds for mental states and properties, is straightforwardly empirical.  Moreover, as observed above, those candidate grounds will not be plausible candidate grounds in all ways the world could have been.  For these reasons, the identification of candidate grounds will be largely the fruit of empirical investigation by neuroscientists into which contingent features the actual world has.

How do these observations help improve our understanding of the nature of metasemantic theories? Let S be the best such semantic theory for some natural language L. Metasemantic hypotheses for L are hypotheses about what grounds the meanings S assigns L’s expressions.  Given the CCC Metasemantics Constraint, which grounds are plausible candidate grounds will depend in part on facts about human biology and psychology.  Just as the entities a plausible semantic theory may assign as meanings to L’s expressions are constrained by human cognitive and conative limits, so too must the grounds of those meanings.  (Slightly less abstractly: a meaning is an entity human beings are capable of communicating in part thanks to.  Being a candidate grounds for such an entity must fit with this fact.)