Featured Philosop-her: Gina Schouten

Gina Schouten

Gina Schouten is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University. Before coming to Illinois State, Gina completed her PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013. Her research interests include political legitimacy, educational justice, gender in the family, and diversity problems within the discipline of philosophy. She is currently working on a paper that extends her previous work on stereotype threat in academic philosophy, in which she argues for the expansion of pre-collegiate philosophy instruction as a possible remedy for the underrepresentation of women in the field. Other projects in progress include a series of papers concerning the legitimacy of political interventions to alter the gendered division of labor.

What do we owe the violinist? Some musings on the ethics and politics of abortion

Gina Schouten

Though abortion is a profoundly controversial ethical issue among the population at large, it seems to be fairly decisively settled among feminists. Feminists who endorse women’s full equality in workplaces, politics, and intimate relationships have generally regarded strong protections for reproductive freedoms as essential to securing that equality. I agree that efforts to achieve women’s social and political equality are likely to be frustrated by restrictions on abortion. My sense is that these facts have been taken by many feminists to settle at least the politics of abortion, if not the ethics as well: Women’s equality is an urgent requirement of justice, and that equality depends upon women having the capacity to decide whether and when to have children. Thus, we must assure women access to the tools necessary to choose freely whether and when to become pregnant; and, at least so long as that capacity cannot perfectly be assured, we must assure their access to the tools necessary to end pregnancies that they do not want.

But the urgency of securing women’s equality, and the fact that abortion restrictions frustrate that goal, do not suffice to settle the ethics or politics of abortion.

There are, of course, many different kinds of people who think of themselves as feminists, and some so called “pro-life feminists” argue that women’s interests are actually furthered by restrictions on abortion.[1] These arguments are unpersuasive. But it seems to me that there are some genuine feminist commitments that challenge the moral permissibility of abortion, and that challenge the impermissibility of policies that aim to restrict it.

I assume that restrictions on abortion frustrate the cause of women’s equality. Even so, I want to suggest, tentatively, that such restrictions may nonetheless be justified, all-things-considered. Judith Thomson’s now iconic defense of abortion asks us to assume that the fetus is a person.[2] Still, she argues, this does not suffice to show that it is impermissible to kill it: If the fetus is a person, then its interest in the use of the woman’s body to sustain its life is a morally relevant interest. But according to Thomson, that interest is, in many cases, decisively outweighed by the interests of the woman whose body it is.

On what grounds is this weighting so decisive?

Some of our most basic feminist commitments entail that, if the fetus becomes a member of the moral community at some point during fetal development, then at that point its interests become morally very weighty indeed. Feminists have powerfully drawn attention to the ubiquity of dependence, and the implications of dependence for our moral and political theorizing. We all rely on the care we receive from others to meet our basic needs and to flourish, and our dependence does not lessen our moral claim to have our interests respected and considered in moral decision-making. Moral theorizing is flawed, for example, insofar as it lacks the resources to secure the status of children, people with disabilities, or other dependents as direct and unambiguous moral subjects. This commitment of feminists also makes vivid the fact that moral obligations can compel us even when those obligations are not voluntarily undertaken. Thus are we owed care during times of dependency even if we have no intimate relations who are intrinsically motivated to provide that care.

Because they have so compellingly drawn attention to these implications of our common need for care, feminists are especially well-positioned to recognize a crucial, if contingent, point about the ethics of abortion: Whether or not fetuses are members of the moral community whose interests must be taken into account, their neediness does not suffice to exclude them from the moral community; nor, if fetuses have morally relevant interests, are those interests rendered less weighty by virtue of the fetuses’ reliance on others to have them met. Presumably, the fetal interest implicated in the abortion debate is something like the interest in receiving the care necessary for survival. That seems, prima facie, to be a strong interest. If that interest is not weakened by the fetus’s dependence, then we have some presumptive reason—conditional on Thomson’s assumption that the fetus’s interests are morally relevant to begin with—to think that interest is morally weighty indeed.

Women have a morally weighty interest in reproductive freedom. But as Thomson rightly points out, very morally weighty interests can be in tension with other very morally weighty interests. Under some conceivable circumstances, then, very morally weighty interests can justifiably be frustrated. If this is right, then the fact that abortion restrictions are very bad for women does not yet suffice to show that those restrictions are unjustified, all-things-considered. I am genuinely unsure whether the fetus’s interests are morally relevant, and if so, at what point during the pregnancy they become so. But contra Thomson, I think that answering these questions is of paramount importance. And if the fetus does have moral status, then one initially appealing strategy for discounting the weight of its claims is ruled out by feminist commitments: Dependency does not lessen one’s moral status.

The slogan “the personal is political” captures another paradigmatic commitment of feminism. The personal is political because intimate relationships can give rise to profound vulnerabilities, and these vulnerabilities can generate claims of justice that are no less urgent in virtue of arising in intimate relationships. On these grounds, feminists have rightly resisted those who would classify the family as a “private” realm and afford families presumptive immunity against political intervention. The vulnerabilities of unpaid caregivers, we argue, generate demands of justice even when those receiving care are intimates whom the caregiver loves, and even when the resulting inequalities occur between intimates, such as between the caregiver and her spouse. Because the personal is political, we endorse political protections to secure women’s equality not only in the workplace but in the home as well.

It is tempting to treat abortion as a personal issue. But the personal becomes political when the choices we make have profound implications regarding others’ lives. I have suggested that even the strongest and most compelling interests—such as the interest in securing women’s bodily integrity through reproductive freedom—can conflict with others that are similarly strong and compelling. If fetuses’ interests are morally relevant, then it is difficult to see how we could avoid classifying reproductive choices as political.

Of course, even assuming that fetuses are members of the moral community whose interests must be accorded weight in moral and political calculations, women’s quite strong interest in exercising control over their bodies may be decisive. The importance of reproductive control in securing women’s most basic equality might render their interest sufficiently strong and fundamental to override any countervailing considerations. But even if women’s reproductive freedom is overridingly important, there are nonetheless reasons to keep track of morally important trade-offs that we make in securing it. The difference between a moral calculus in which the fetus’s interests do not matter and one in which they matter but are outweighed might have relevance for both our rhetoric and our policy endorsements.

If we recognize the fetus’s interests as morally important, though, is it so obvious that they are outweighed, even by the extraordinarily strong interest in protecting rights to reproductive freedom? I worry that we might, after all, have some obligation to stay plugged into the violinist. The needs and vulnerabilities of others generate powerful moral obligations, and feminists have long been banner-carriers in the recognition of those obligations. Moreover, if the vulnerability of the fetus is morally important, then it has many of the hallmarks of the personal and yet still political vulnerabilities that feminists have been particularly adept at theorizing.

In considering this possibility, we must remember that ubiquitous dependency generates ubiquitous moral obligations as well: There are serious costs to doing the socially necessary and morally obligatory work of caregiving. We must develop policies to share the costs of discharging such obligations fairly, and to compensate those who incur costs that cannot be shared. If fetuses are morally significant, then the vulnerabilities of those who care for them are particularly urgent, since the most serious harms are entirely non-transferrable. If fetuses’ interests generate moral imperatives, and if pregnant women are uniquely in a position to provide the care they need, the rest of us have obligations to share the costs of providing care insofar as sharing them is possible, and to take other steps to ease resultant vulnerabilities when sharing is not possible. If sustaining fetuses turns out, under some circumstances, to be morally obligatory care, then feminists should endorse protections and social supports for those who perform it and call for new social and medical technologies to share its costs more broadly.

Thomson was right that the fetus’s having morally relevant interests does not suffice to show that abortion is morally impermissible. But we must also recognize a corresponding—if far less welcome—insight: The moral relevance of women’s very strong interest in reproductive freedom does not suffice to show that abortion is morally permissible, or that restricting it is always illegitimate. If we assume with Thomson that the fetus is a person, then our obligations to care for it are weighty indeed. Even if we acknowledge that restrictions on abortion would frustrate profoundly worthy feminist goals, we should consider whether, after all, the ethics and politics of abortion crucially depend on the moral status of the fetus and the moral weight of its interests.

Because I believe that restrictions on abortion are likely to undermine women’s equality, I want for the ethics of abortion to be settled decisively in favor of the woman’s right to choose, and for the politics of abortion to be settled in favor of strong protections for that right. But when I scrutinize my conviction that abortion is permissible and that robust protections for access to abortion are desirable, I am dismayed to find that conviction in tension with other commitments I have that I take to be distinctly feminist. I welcome any thoughts about whether the tension is genuine or merely apparent, and, if it is genuine, how it is best resolved.

[1] I set aside questions about what views are properly regarded as “feminist.”

[2] Thomson Judith J. (1971). “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(1): 47-66.

Featured Philosop-her: Robin Jeshion


Robin Jeshion is professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. She specializes in the philosophy of language and mind, focusing especially on topics concerning the ways that language contributes to shaping cognition, and cognition shapes and is manifest in language.  Her research includes work on the relationship between the semantics of singular terms and the nature of singular thought; the semantics of demonstratives and the nature of perception and spatial representation; the semantic, cognitive, and social functions of proper names.  Most recently, she has been writing about slurring terms, and related expressions, attempting to understand to what extent attitudes and/or social structures are incorporated within their semantics and pragmatics.  Outside of mind and language, she has written about mathematical intuition, a priori knowledge, the epistemological status of proofs, and Frege’s logicism. Before returning to USC, she taught at Yale University, the University of California, Riverside, the University of Arizona, and spent a year as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, supported by an ACLS Burkhardt Fellowship. This spring, she will deliver the Wedberg Lectures in Stockholm, presenting Dehumanizing Slurs, four talks that bring together much of her work on this topic.

Slurs, Dehumanization, and the Expression of Contempt

Robin Jeshion

Thank you, Meena, for running this terrific blog and inviting me to present a post.  I’ve lately been thinking and writing about slurring words, expressions like “Kike”, “Chink”, “Spic”, and “faggot”, pejorative terms that target individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, socioeconomic status, occupation, and various other socially important properties.  Such expressions raise a spate of questions regarding their semantics and pragmatics: Do sentences containing slurs ever express truths?  How can we account for what has come to be called in the literature the ‘offensiveness’ of slurs? Is it somehow semantically encoded as a proposition, perhaps a proposition encoding the stereotype of the group or a proposition encoding that the group merits contempt? Or is it rather that slurs are terms conventionally used for expressing a speaker’s attitude, perhaps an attitude of contempt?  Is a semantic explanation needed at all to account for slurs’ offensiveness – perhaps it can rather be explained entirely pragmatically, e.g., by reference to social prohibitions on uses of slurs or socio-linguistic facts regarding which groups tend to use slurs? Do those who use slurs engage in actions of “othering”, and if so, is this captured linguistically?  How can we explain the fact that uses of slurs are extraordinarily destructive – dehumanizing – to their targets and can tend to make hearers feel complicit?  What accounts for the fact that those who use slurs signal something about their social allegiances and affiliations? How should we explain the appropriation of slurs, the phenomena through which a slur’s offensiveness is neutralized?  What is the relationship between slurring terms and various other pejoratives, expressions like “jerk”, “freak”, “wino”, “blimp”, “commie” – are any of these of the same linguistic type? And how are they related to approbatives like “goddess”, “hottie, “saint”, and “ace”? And bare expressive intensifiers like “damn” and ‘effin”? It would be easy to go on, to spin out twelve more questions. With such a rich set of phenomena – and obviously deeply important social, political, and psychological matters at stake – it is no wonder that interest in such expressions has been rapidly accelerating.

The text that follows is adapted from a paper in which I offer a bare sketch of my semantic theory of slurs.  The view is inspired by two key ideas.  One is that there are multiple sources of the offensiveness in utterances of slurs, only some of which ought to be explained semantically. The dominant aspect of slurs’ offensiveness that should be explained semantically is needed to explain their capacity to dehumanize. John Amaechi, the first NBA player to openly identify as gay, called slurs “a threat to human dignity” and remarked about the slur “faggot”:

…young people are being killed and killing themselves simply because of the words and behaviors they are subjected to for being perceived as lesbian or gay, or frankly just different. This is…an indication of the power of that word, and others like it, to brutalize and dehumanize.

Amachi’s remarks are apt. Slurs dehumanize.

We need a theory of slurring terms that fully explains how and why they dehumanize, one that explains how they signal that their targets are unworthy of equal standing or full respect as persons, that they are inferior as persons. Extant analyses of slurs’ semantics have faired poorly on this score. I hope to do better with the account I offer.

The other key idea is that slurring terms function semantically in virtually the same way that their neutral counterparts function when given contemptuous intonation and when fronted by certain expletives or negative adjectives.

[1]Jake is a Kike.

[1a]Jake is a fucking Jew.

[1b]Jake is a JewC.

(I use italics to denote intonational stress, and superscripts to italicized material to indicate the type of prosodic pattern given to the word, where the superscript letter denotes the affective attitude conveyed by that pattern. Here, “C” denotes contemptuousness.) In effect, [1],[1a], and [1b] all mean the same thing.


On the view I favor, slurring terms possess three separable semantic components. One is the group-designating component. A slurring term, references the group that is referenced by its neutral counterpart. The truth of sentence [1] depend only upon whether Jake is Jewish, and so is truth conditionally equivalent to [1NC].

[1] Jake is a Kike.

[1NC] Jake is Jewish.

So slurring terms share some semantic structure with their neutral counterparts. However, given that the slur and neutral counterpart make parallel semantic contributions along this dimension, the group-designating component does not account for slurs’ offensiveness. This marks its separation from the other two components of the semantics, both of which, likewise, make no contribution to the truth conditions.

The second component is expressivist:  slurring terms are used to express contempt for members of a socially relevant group on account of their being in that group or having a group-defining property. Note that this component involves the expression of the speaker’s attitude toward his targets, not a separately semantically encoded descriptive content, say, contemptible on account of being Jewish.  Views on which slurring terms semantically encode such descriptive contents are markedly different.  Suppose that “Kike*” encodes the descriptive content given by “worthy of contempt on account of being Jewish”. Then, although it is not misconceived to regard the utterances of

[1] Jake is a Kike

[1c] Jake is a Kike*

as communicating the same information, they do so in different ways.  While the utterance of [1c] encodes the proposition that the target is worthy of contempt on account of being Jewish, the utterance of [1] does no such thing.  It communicates, rather, the speaker’s contempt itself, which is expressed, not asserted.  A proponent of the analysis involving semantic descriptive encoding will be hard-pressed to explain why the negation of [1c], as in “Jake is not a Kike*” or “It is not the case that Jake is a Kike*”, are not what would be used to deny the derogating content of [1]. Yet they ought to do so if “Kike” is synonymous with “Kike*”.

This expressive component indicates that slurring terms share semantic properties with other expressives like intensifiers (“totally” in “That is totally interesting”), exclamatives (“holy crap!”, “Wow!” “Ouch!”) and other explicitly performative expressives (“right on!”) which similarly function to express speakers’ emotional or attitudinal states and do not contribute meaning by predicating a descriptive content.

Despite this similarity in semantic structure with other expressives, do not assimilate the expressive component of slurring terms to the “mere” expression of a feeling, like a flash of anger or a state of frustration. While contempt is an affectively laden attitude, often accompanied by feelings of abhorrence, hostility, and hatred, no particular “raw” subjective feeling need be felt by one who uses a slur.  Indeed, one could express contempt for someone coolly, without any “heat-of-the-moment” feeling.  Furthermore, the expression of contempt differs from the expression of purely subjective feelings like pain or fear or astonishment, which are largely insulated from normative assessment and neither implicate nor represent their objects as pain-, fear-, or astonishment- worthy.  By contrast, contempt, like resentment, is a highly structured affectively- and normatively-guided moral attitude that is subject to evaluation for its appropriateness.  As such, in using slurs, speakers not only express their own contempt for the target, but also implicitly represent (but still do not say or assert that) their targets as worthy of contempt. And because contempt is a moral attitude specifically held toward those one regards as inferior as persons, users of slurs thereby implicate that targets ought to be so-regarded as inferior.

The third component to slurs’ semantics is what I call the identifying component. Extant expressivist views neglect this component, and thus, to my mind, haven’t gone far enough in accounting for how the nature of contempt infects slurring terms’ semantics. Contempt involves taking those properties that are the basis for regarding the target contemptuously as fundamental to the targets’ identity as a person and this feature of contempt is semantically encoded. As a matter of the semantics of the slurring term, an utterance of

[2] He is a faggot

does not simply ascribe a property to the target, here, that of being gay.  It classifies the target in a way that aims to be identifying. In calling someone “faggot”, the homophobe takes a property that he believes someone to possess and semantically encodes that it is the, or a, defining feature of the target’s identity.  As such, it is used to shape the target’s social identity, and so to dictate how others ought to treat, regard, think of, and respond to its target. As a matter of their semantics, “Kike”, “Chink”, Nigger”, “faggot”, “whore” are used so as to signal that being Jewish, Chinese, black, gay, a prostitute identify what its targets are.

The classification of the target in a way that aims to be identifying should not be conflated with any notions of metaphysical identity or essentialism.  In wielding slurs, racists, anti-Semites, and homophobes are not in the business of presenting their target’s group membership either as an essential, metaphysically necessary property, or as determining or explaining their other properties.   Rather, they express that the target’s group membership is the, or among the, most central characteristic(s) for classifying what the target is, as a person, construed along a broadly moral dimension.

Notice that the identifying component is dependent upon the expressive component because the identifying component partially captures what it is to regard someone with contempt.  That is, it follows from what it is to find someone contemptible on the basis of being gay that one takes that person’s sexual orientation as the most or among the most central aspects of that person’s identity. This dependence is, at heart, moral-psychological, but is manifest in the semantics. A speaker who expresses contempt toward her target for being G thereby also expresses and implicitly represents G as fundamental to her target’s identity as a person.  Thus, within a single speech act, the speaker expresses both her contempt and way of identifying the target as a person.

Together, the expressive and identifying components explain slurs’ common and conventional capacity to derogate. As a matter of their semantics, slurs function to express the speaker’s contempt for his target in virtue of the target’s group-membership and that his target ought to be treated with contempt in virtue of that group-membership, because what the target is, as a person, is something lesser, something unworthy of equal or full respect or consideration. In this way, slurs, as a class, conventionally function to dehumanize.
























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.

Anderson on Democratic Ideals and Racial Integration


Anderson on Democratic Ideals and Racial Integration

Meena Krishnamurthy

In her book, The Imperative of Integration, Elizabeth Anderson’s main claim is that integration is a core democratic ideal.[1]  She argues that citizens from all walks of life should interact freely on the basis of equality and mutual regard in all institutions of civil society, and on voluntary terms in the intimate associations of private life (p. 95).  Anderson argues that integration is central to democracy because it fosters democratic values of collective practical intelligence, accountability, and equality.[2]  Anderson makes her case for these claims through an examination of Black individuals’ struggle for racial equality in the United States.  Her careful consideration of historical facts teaches us that examination of a dark past can contribute positively to contemporary philosophical theorizing.

While I find much of what Anderson says in this work compelling, I have some concerns.  I am sceptical about the extent to which the kind of collective learning that Anderson argues for can take place, even with integration.  In what follows, I outline my concerns and try to offer some helpful suggestions where I can.

Anderson argues that, in a fully democratic society, public policy should take into account each citizen’s interests.  She argues that this requires integration.  By allowing people of different walks of life to meet face to face in political institutions and in greater civil society, integration will support public policy that takes into account the interests of a diverse populous.  Interaction with people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints, will enable citizens to form better conceptions of the common good and justice.  It allows members of the public to educate one another about the nature of public problems and appropriate solutions to these problems.  As an example of this phenomenon, Anderson describes the 1963 Civil Rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama (“educative acts”), which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“the lesson”) (p. 96).

Three assumptions seem to underwrite Anderson’s arguments here.  The first assumption is that people have superior knowledge with respect to their own interests and the interests of people like them (i.e., those of similar class, racial, or ethnic backgrounds).  There is, to use Anderson’s own phrase, “asymmetrical knowledge” among different groups of people (p. 109).  The second assumption is that this asymmetrical knowledge can be conveyed or communicated from one group to another.  Anderson explicitly states that she is against the thought that “certain ideas possessed by one group are inherently ineffable to another” (p. 110).  The third assumption is that people will listen to and take into consideration the expression of such asymmetrical knowledge.  After all, without this, there could not be a transfer of knowledge or, in turn, collective learning.

I have some worries about each of these assumptions.  Begin with the first assumption that there is asymmetrical knowledge.  In general, this seems plausible.  People have a more intimate and more sensitive understanding of their own interests and of the interests of those who are similar to them than they do of others’ interests.  Anderson seems right in suggesting that it is only by interacting with others and hearing their views that we are able to fully understand their interests (what they are, what weight they give them, and so on).  There is, however, the worry that sometimes people do not know what is best, even when it comes to their own interests.  This may be particularly true when we are concerned with members of oppressed groups.  False consciousness arising from adaptive preferences and internalized oppression may, in some cases, limit the usefulness of integration.[3]  We might not always be enlightened about what justice requires by asking those who are suffering injustices what they want, for example.[4]  Oppressed people sometimes internalize and adapt to their oppression so well that they do not have a deep sense of what they are entitled to as human beings.[5]  They do not, in some cases, have a sense of what is just or unjust, right or wrong.  In short, because the preferences of oppressed people may be adaptive, they may not be reliable indicators of what is morally right or wrong or what we ought to do in a given policy situation.  Oppressed people may not have “asymmetrical knowledge” to translate to others.

If this is right, then there is a genuine reason to be sceptical about the tendency of integration to lead to the collective learning that Anderson has in mind.

In the end, this may not be a very strong objection.  Worries about adaptive preferences might actually support integration.  One way for members of oppressed groups to become more critical of their own preferences and values, to overcome false consciousness, may be to engage with others who are outside of their group and of goodwill.  Integration is valuable then not only because it allows White individuals to form better conceptions of the common good, as Anderson argues, but also because it allows Black individuals to form better conceptions of their own good.  Noting this point only strengthens Anderson’s argument.

A further point to make in response is that the oppressed are not the only ones who sometimes suffer from adaptive preferences.  As Anderson’s own discussion of implicit bias suggests, privileged peopled, simply because of their positions of privilege, may lack an appropriate sense of what is just or unjust or right or wrong.  They too may not be reliable indicators of what is morally right or wrong or what we ought to do in a given policy situation.  Noting this only adds additional strength to Anderson’s argument, since the only way around the adaptive preferences of the privileged may be to integrate them with the oppressed.

Turn now to the second assumption.  I am more sceptical than Anderson is about the extent to which asymmetrical knowledge can be conveyed or expressed.  Some things are difficult to teach and to learn because they can only be fully understood with experience.  To use a personal example, before having my own child, I had never understood why some women feel so strongly about breastfeeding rights.  I had always vaguely supported the rights of women to breastfeed at home, at school, and at work, but I never understood why it might be of great importance in the fight for women’s rights and women’s equality.  Having had my own baby and having breastfed her, I now understand the claim to breastfeeding.  Interacting and talking with other women did not convince me of the force of this claim.  Breastfeeding my daughter and having first-hand experience of the intimacy and closeness it underwrites, something that is rather difficult to articulate in its full, did.  For example, I now understand why it is important for women to be able to continue breastfeeding while in school or at work.  Moreover, I now understand why breastfeeding rights are of such importance in women’s fight for equality and why it is worth fighting for with such vigour.  In the same way, experience might be necessary to understand why certain ends take priority in Black individuals’ struggle for equality.  We might need to have certain experiences to understand why rights to assemble and protest rather than rights to vote have often to taken priority in Black individuals’ struggle for equality, for example.  My point is simply that, in many cases, it may be difficult to teach and to learn from one another without experience.

Once we acknowledge that experience is needed for full knowledge, the question is whether, outside of stepping into an experience machine, there are ways of communicating or sharing our experiences with others.  There are ways of sharing, at least in part, our experiences with one another and learning from them.  Discussion and protest are surely part of this, but are less well suited toward sharing experiences than storytelling, literature, poetry, art, film, and music.  These mediums are geared toward sharing the inexpressible.  They are geared toward the sharing of emotions, memories, and the imagined.  For example, though they may not fully communicate the experience of breastfeeding, stories, paintings, sculptures, and film might better convey the intimacy and emotion connected with breastfeeding.  In this way, storytelling, literature, poetry, art, film and music can help us to share our experiences and, in turn, can help to us to teach and to learn more from one another.  In short, these mediums are essential to the sort of integration and collective learning that are crucial to a fully democratic society.  This is something that Anderson’s account misses and would benefit from acknowledging.

Finally, putting these points aside – that is to say, even if there is asymmetrical knowledge and this knowledge can be conveyed – there are concerns about whether this knowledge will be assimilated.  In order to form appropriate conceptions of the common interest, we need to take into account the impact of various schemes and policies on a diverse populace.  To do this properly it is important to take other people’s interests and points of view into account adequately without exaggerating our own viewpoint.  Interacting with others and hearing their views is important to this process, for it is by interacting with others and hearing their views that we are able to understand their interests.  Nevertheless, this can be difficult because it is often hard to listen to those who are very different from ourselves. It is also easy to see the downside, without seeing the upside, of other people’s views, especially when they are very different from our own.  Anderson has shown us that the good listening and opened mindedness that are essential to collective learning are possible.  The Birmingham demonstrations are an example (see p. 95f).  But it is hard to know what to draw from this example.  It is certainly easier to listen to those who are different from ourselves when the only other option we are faced with is to take their lives, but many matters are much more mundane than this.  And I wonder, in these cases, what will lead to the kind of good listening and open mindedness that are essential to the collective learning that Anderson emphasizes?

In answer to this question, Anderson’s account might benefit from a discussion of the importance of empathy.  The cultivation of empathy among members of society would encourage good listening.  Empathy is the capacity to imagine ourselves in another person’s position and to discern her needs, motives, and feelings.[6]  Empathy also involves introspection.  We must look inside ourselves and determine our own needs, motives, and feelings.  To be good listeners and to genuinely learn from others, we must know which feelings and motives are our own so that we will not take them to be, or misrepresent them as, those of the other person.  Though there are important questions about how such a capacity can be encouraged in people and about the extent to which it will stimulate good listening, it seems clear that, if it can be encouraged, empathy will at least have the tendency to foster better listening and greater learning among diverse peoples.

In the end, Anderson makes an interesting and plausible argument for the value of integration in a democratic society.  Anderson’s arguments show us that, even if they are often difficult and incomplete, vital lessons about the common good and justice can only be learned with genuine integration at the level of the state and civil society.  However, literature, poetry, art, and film, and the cultivation of empathy among citizens have the potential to bring us even closer to complete learning and could work as a compliment to integration.



[1] Elizabeth Anderson, The Imperative of Integration (Princeton University Press, 2010).
[2] The core of her argument for racial integration as a democratic ideal is developed in chapter 5, “Democratic Ideals and Segregation” and chapter 6, “The Imperative of Integration.”
[3] A similar worry is raised in relation to “dialogic approaches” in Susan Moller Okin, “Gender Inequality and Cultural Differences” Political Theory 22.1 (1994), pp. 5-24.
[4] Ibid., p.19
[5] Ibid., p.19.
[6] On the importance of empathy and introspection to moral knowledge and good listening see Alison M. Jaggar, “Toward a Feminist Conception of Moral Reasoning,” in James P. Sterba et Al, Morality & Social Justice: Point/Counterpoint (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1995), pp. 115-146.

Featured Philosop-her: Kyla Ebels-Duggan

I am very happy to welcome Kyla Ebels-Duggan as the next featured philosop-her. Ebels-Duggan is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University. She works on issues in moral and political philosophy. Recently, some of her work has focused on the intersection of these areas with questions in the philosophy of education. Her recent publications include “Dealing with the Past: Responsibility and Personal History,” Philosophical Studies, vol. 164:1, 2013, 141-161, and “Autonomy as Intellectual Virtue,” forthcoming in The Aims of Higher Education, Harry Brighouse and Michael MacPherson, eds.

Her post follows.


How Not to Solve the Liberal Dilemma of Childrearing

Kyla Ebels-Duggan

The Amish loom oddly large in philosophers’ reflections on the norms governing childrearing. They’re taken to represent an especially thoroughgoing commitment to communicate their particular normative outlook to their children whole. This places them at one end of a continuum of childrearing practices shared by many parents who seek to give their children a religious upbringing, as well as others—less common, but importantly similar—who look to inculcate various non-religious comprehensive views.

Many people take the Amish approach to childrearing to stand in irreconcilable tension with the central liberal commitment to the autonomy of individuals. This commitment gives rise to a problem that we can call the liberal dilemma of childrearing: the task of raising children seems centrally to involve shaping their values or normative commitments. But, as a general matter, imposing our conceptions of the good on others is thought to be ethically suspect. Children’s particular vulnerability to those primarily responsible for their upbringing arguably makes imposition especially threatening here, even as their need for guidance makes it seem especially necessary. How, then, can conscientious parents both respect their children’s claims to autonomy and responsibly execute their childrearing task?

In a classic article, Joel Feinberg articulates a widely favored response. He argues that children have a right to an “open future,” a right to have options kept accessible until they are adults capable of exercising free choice among them. Feinberg presents securing an open future for children as a superior alternative to teaching them a single worldview or conception of the good, an alternative that solves the liberal dilemma. I understand him as claiming both that ideally conscientious parents aim to give their children an open future, and that children’s entitlement to options can ground state intervention in childrearing practices that do not achieve this aim.

Though broadly shared, both positions embody an important confusion. To get at this confusion, we must consider more closely what it means to have access to options that one can freely choose. If this conception of autonomy is to provide an alternative to teaching a single conception of the good, then simply living according to values one endorses cannot be enough, for surely even the Amish aim to put their children in a position to do this. Their childrearing project will succeed only if their children eventually guide their lives by Amish values of their own accord.

Though the Amish children will thus exercise autonomy in a sense, Feinberg and others hold that their future is not open because they lack access to a range of options. While there are many ways in which a maturing child might be said to have or lack access to options, Feinberg’s leading idea seems to be that of a certain sort of psychological, or we might even say existential, access. Options are accessible to a person in this sense if they seem “live” to her, if she can take them seriously as possibilities for her own life. Thus Feinberg claims that the Amish violate their children’s claims to autonomy insofar as they seek to eliminate from consideration all alternatives to the Amish way of life.

Autonomy, understood as existential access to a range of options, may seem the most natural contrast to attempts to teach a child a single, particular conception of the good. But what should fall within this range? Surely responsible parenting is compatible with, and even requires, putting some possibilities out of psychological reach. For example, many parents self-consciously aim to raise their children to regard everyone as entitled to consideration. If these parents succeed, their children reach maturity with a settled conviction that it is wrong to harm others without very significant reason. This conviction is settled in the sense that they cannot take alternatives, such as thoroughgoing egoism, seriously as a possibility for their lives. But moving that possibility off the table is not only unobjectionable, but also commendable, indeed basic to good parenting.

Anyone who agrees must then sort between possibilities that parents ought to make existentially accessible and those that may or should be closed. This might not seem so hard to do. We think it permissible to exclude egoism because we are confident that treating others with respect is required and not merely an idiosyncratic preference or matter of taste. By contrast, we may find it objectionable to limit children’s options with respect to matters on which we lack confidence or think that there are many valuable yet incompatible possibilities.

But, of course, people disagree about which normative matters are settled as well as which concern areas of value pluralism. Our views about these questions are simply part of our overall normative outlooks. Variety here will lead to derivative disagreements about which options an ideal parent would make accessible, or which a child is entitled to have open. From their own point of view, conscientious parents cannot do better than to rely on their own considered commitments in making such determinations. They will try to give their children existential access to a range of options on matters they judge to be appropriately settled by individual preferences or idiosyncrasies. They will also seek to make a range of possibilities existentially available with respect to questions on which they themselves lack confidence as to which answer is right. It follows that giving children existential access to a given set of options is not an alternative to communicating particular normative commitments, but rather one aspect of doing so.

There are other ways of understanding access to options, but they don’t help the theorist looking to solve the liberal dilemma by providing an alternative to communicating a particular normative outlook. Some conceptions of access place demands on background political and cultural structures, and so lie beyond the immediate control of individuals responsible for childrearing. Others involve imparting skills and information that would be needed to exercise various options. But, like the existential interpretation of access, these raise the question of how to sort between possibilities that children should and should not be empowered to realize. And, again, the conscientious parent can settle such questions only by looking to her own considered convictions.

Continued objections to the Amish parents, and those relevantly like them, thus need to be understood differently from the way that they are often presented. Opponents cannot object merely on grounds that such parents teach their children a particular normative outlook. They must, instead, object to the content of the outlook taught, claiming that these parents are imparting normative convictions that are importantly mistaken. The second order character of the relevant disagreement can obscure the need to interpret the objection this way. Feinberg may grant that the Amish way of life, insofar as this consists in a traditional agrarian lifestyle conceived as devoted to God, is a permissible—perhaps even valuable—choice. By extension he may grant that the parents do no wrong in teaching their children to regard this way of living as valuable. But he must object to their communicating the further conviction that it is uniquely valuable, not merely one of many permissible options. Though second order, this is a substantive commitment on the part of the Amish parents, one they presumably find important.

Understanding the objection as depending on the view that the Amish have, and teach their children, the wrong normative commitments, makes each of the two positions I attribute to Feinberg look more problematic. First, consider his claim that the goal of an open future can and should provide guidance to conscientious parents. He suggests that responsible parents would refrain from teaching their children their particular normative convictions, instead seeking to put them in a position to choose such convictions for themselves. But we have seen that this depends on a false dichotomy. Conscientious parents enact their own commitments in determining the options among which children should be educated to choose. Given their normative outlook, Amish parents would not and should not be moved by Feinberg’s argument to change the ways that they raise their children. From their own point of view, they are not denying their children access to any option that it would be valuable for them to have.

Secondly, if Feinberg’s objection depends on a substantive normative disagreement with the parents, the case for government intervention is much less straightforward. Should those who agree with Feinberg be permitted to intervene in the upbringing of the Amish children to replace the parents’ normative outlook with the one they affirm? May they intervene in any religious upbringing on similar grounds? What about the Marxist upbringing that G.A. Cohen fondly describes in If You’re an Egalitarian? While the discussion above does not settle these questions, it undermines a certain way of arguing in support of intervention. The state cannot interfere with parents’ childrearing on the limited grounds that it is protecting children’s autonomy rights. In intervening, it must also assert entitlement to determine important substantive aspects of the conception of the good into which children are educated.

The Unfairness of a Racial Democracy

Jason Stanley and Vesla Weaver have written a powerful and compelling article, arguing that the United States is a racial democracy.  On their view, “a racial democracy is one that unfairly applies the laws governing the removal of liberty primarily to citizens of one race, thereby singling out its members as especially unworthy of liberty, the coin of human dignity.”  For example, Stanley and Weaver point to the fact that black individuals (in cities such as New York) are more likely than white individuals to be stopped and questioned by the police.  They are also more likely to be imprisoned in the United States than white individuals.  Stanley and Weaver show that this type of “punishment and surveillance by itself causes individuals to withdraw from political participation.” They conclude that (1) black individuals, in particular, are both formally and informally excluded from political participation in the United States and (2) that their being excluded in this way is patently unfair.

The evidence that Stanley and Weaver give for the systematic exclusion of black individuals from political life (claim 1) is entirely convincing.  So, I will focus on the second claim regarding the unfairness of such treatment, since I think more can be said to flesh out their point.   What I say here is more of a friendly addition than a critical commentary.

At this point, what I think is missing from Stanley and Weaver’s discussion is a notion of unfairness.  I take it that their claim is that the sort of treatment being discussed – e.g., being targeted by the police – is unfair if it happens only to one segment of the population, such as the black population, and there is no good reason for why this portion of the population should be treated this way (since black individuals are no different than other individuals).  This seems right, but for reasons that aren’t mentioned in the article and that I think are worth developing.

I think that fairness implicitly (or perhaps by definition) requires parity of reasons: agents advancing a reason in favour of or against a political measure must be willing to accept the similar relevance of similar reasons in other similar cases.  So, if white individuals and black individuals are relevantly similar (i.e., they are not inherently dangerous), and white individuals would accept certain reasons (such as the fact that they are not inherently dangerous) against stop and frisk policies in the case of white individuals and these reasons also hold true in the case of black individuals, then white (and non-white) individuals must accept those reasons in the case of black individuals as well.  This just seems to be part of what is required by fairness.  So, to the extent that black individuals are not being treated by police officers and the law, more generally, in a way that is consistent with parity of reasons, they are not being treated fairly.  This is morally objectionable because political systems should treat people fairly.

One might now ask a more foundational question: why is it important to treat individuals fairly?  Again there isn’t a clear answer found in Stanley and Weaver’s article.  Stanley and Weaver make some gestures toward answering this question in their appeal to Aristotle, who suggests that “human dignity” is at stake, but I think a better and more complete answer is found in John Rawls’s work on self-respect.

Rawls argues that a fair political system is one that ensures that the grounds for each individual’s sense of self-respect are secure.  In Rawls’s sense, self-respect can be understood as a having a sense of one’s equal value or worth.  Rawls notably argues that there are social bases of self-respect.   “Self-respect depends upon and is encouraged by certain public features of basic social institutions, how they work and how people who accept these arrangements are expected to (and normally do) regard and treat one another” (A Theory of Justice, 1996, 319).  On Rawls’s view, citizens’ sense of self-respect is diminished unless social institutions express equal respect for them.

Rawls suggests that self-respect is “perhaps the most important primary good” because “without it nothing may seem worth doing.”   He also suggests, in his discussion of the difference principle, that a lack of the social bases of self-respect is likely to lead individuals to withdraw from public life.  As individuals come to see the social system as a potential source of a diminished sense of self-respect, they come to resent that system and become apathetic and cynical toward it and, as a result, are likely to withdraw from participation in that system.  For these reasons, Rawls argues that individuals would “wish to avoid at almost any cost the social conditions that undermine self-respect.”

Some of the considerations that Rawls raises are empirical considerations and they must be empirically validated.  If, however, they are right, then I think that they lend themselves to a helpful development of Stanley and Weaver’s argument.  Rawls’ arguments not only help to explain why unfair treatment of black individuals by officers of the law may lead to their withdrawal from public life but also why this sort of unfair treatment is objectionable.

Turning back to Stanley and Weaver’s arguments, they persuasively demonstrate that black individuals are more likely than white individuals to be stopped by police officers (even when they have committed no wrong doing).  Stanley and Weaver argue that an individual’s being stopped by a police officer often causes her to withdraw from public life.  A Rawlsian analysis may help to explain why this is the case.  Being stopped by a police officer, often for little or no good reason is unfair because it involves treating black individuals in ways that are not consistent with parity of reasons.  This is objectionable because it is insulting and undermining of one’s sense of self-respect (in the Rawlsian sense).  This type of treatment of black individuals suggests that, in contrast to white individuals, black individuals are not of equal value.  They are not entitled to the same sorts of reasonings and considerations that white people are entitled to.  To the extent that how we see ourselves and our worth is dependent on how others treat and regard us, such treatment may undermine individuals’ sense of self-respect.

This potential connection to self-respect may explain why black individuals, after being stopped and questioned by the police, pull away from public life in the way described by Stanley and Weaver.  It is difficult to maintain a sense of self-respect while participating in a society or a political system that allows these sorts of unfair social practices to perpetuate.  So, the best option, if you are concerned with maintaining your sense of self-respect, is just not to participate in these broader social and political systems.

In conclusion, I think that Stanley and Weaver have written a powerful and persuasive argument about the exclusion of many black individuals from the political process in the United States.  A Rawlsian analysis can only strengthen their argument by illustrating why such exclusion is morally troublesome.  It may also help to explain why such exclusion results.

[For an illuminating discussion of the contributions that Du Bois and Douglass’s work can make to Stanley and Weaver’s discussion see Tommy J. Curry and John Drabinski’s post here. Stanely also provides some thoughtful replies in the comments section.

Michele Moody-Adams’ paper on “Race, Class, and the Social Construction of Race,” Philosophical Forum 25.1-3 (1992-1993): 251-266 is very relevant to the discussion of self-respect in this context.  I am currently think this paper through and suggest that others who are interested in the connection between fairness, self-respect and racial discrimination take a look too.

I also develop some related ideas in my article, “Completing Rawls’s Arguments for Equal Political Liberty and its Fair Value: The Argument from Self-Respect,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 43.2 (2013): 179-205.]

Rejecting Mill on Plural Votes

In Considerations on Representative Government (Vol. 18 (1861), in J.M. Robson, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963-1991), Mill argues that those with greater education should have plural or weighted votes. He believes that, because they will have superior knowledge and intelligence, those with greater education will have a greater capacity for the management of joint interests and as such should have a greater say.  Mill suggests that the superior influence of the educated should be enough to protect them from the class legislationof the uneducated, but not so much as to allow them to enact their own class legislation (that is, legislation that favours the interests of their own class).  As Rawls puts it, on Mill’s picture, ideally those with superior education “should act as a constant force on the side of justice and the common good, a force that, although always weak in itself, can often tip the scale in the right direction if the larger forces cancel them out” (ATJ, pp. 204).  In short, Mill favours plural votes because he thinks that everyone, even the uneducated, who have fewer votes, will benefit from such a scheme.  Plural votes are justified not only because they will maximize the good of all but also because they will maximize the good of those with fewer votes, specifically.

Mill also suggests that plural or weighted voting of this kind is not insulting or damaging of self-respect.  He writes

entire exclusion from a voice in the common concerns is one thing: the concession to others of a more potential voice on the ground of greater capacity for the management of joint interests is another . . . Everyone has a right to feel insulted by being made a nobody and stamped as of no account at all.  No one but a fool, only a fool of a peculiar description, feels offended by the acknowledgement that there are others whose opinion, and even whose wish, is entitled to greater amount of consideration than his (Mill, Representative Government, p. 474).

I think that both of Mill’s arguments, regarding the benefit of plural votes and self-respect, are wrong.

Let’s start with what Mill says about self-respect.  There is an ordinary sense in which Mill’s proposal seems consistent with self-respect. Imagine that my husband is a nutritionist and that we are trying to decide what would be the most nutritious dinner to have.  Imagine that we tend to place more emphasis on my husband’s opinions about dinner, since he knows much more about nutrition than I do.  This does not seem insulting or undermining of my self-respect.  I could self-respectfully accept a change in family meals because my husband thinks it is right.  After all, I am less competent with respect to making nutritious dinner decisions; acknowledging this fact, by placing more weight on his opinions, is not insulting.  It is not undermining of one’s sense of self-respect to trust and concede to the opinions of those who are identified as having superior knowledge.  Indeed, this seems consistent with a proper sense of self-respect.  A person who has an appropriate or proper sense of her own worth or value will be aware of her limitations.  To the extent that I know that I am less competent with respect to making decisions about nutritious dinners than my husband, it is not degrading or undermining of my sense of self-respect to give greater weight to my husband’s opinions about dinner.  In short, in at least some cases, I can self-respectfully give greater weight to others’ opinions such as those of my husband.

However, this ordinary scenario is relevantly different from the one that Mill is suggesting.  In the case I describe, both my husband and I have an influential say in what will be served for dinner.  I get to make the decision along with my husband about whether to change the family meals or not.  My husband may have an opinion about what is best to serve for dinner.  Insofar as he knows more than me about this topic, we count his word as special evidence.  In this sense, his say counts more evidentially.  Yet, my husband does not have more power than I do.  Sometimes there may not be enough time for an explanation.  The kids might really need to be fed, for example, and so I will not get an explanation of my husband’s choice.  I will just go with his choice.  But, presumably, under normal circumstances, when there is time, my husband will have to explain his choice to me.  It is only when I have heard his reasons, weighed them, and agree with him, that we will go with his dinner choice.  I acknowledge my husband’s superior knowledge by taking his viewpoint seriously and listening to his case carefully.  However, and rather importantly, though I may generally go along with my husband’s choice, this is revocable.  I can always decide, after hearing his case, not to go along with his decision.

Mill’s proposal is different in the sense that the opinions of the educated are not just weighed more evidentially.  As long as the educated agree about what serves justice or the public good, insofar as they are given plural votes, their opinions are given special authority or power.  When they agree, their decisions will become embedded in social institutions, enforceable by law.  This is the case even when the uneducated disagree with the educated.  This is undermining of self-respect.  Imagine that I was to enter into a contract with my husband that says that in all instances, even when I disagree with him, his decisions are binding.  Signing this kind of contract is not consistent with my sense of self-respect.  A self-respecting choice does not involve admitting mental incompetence.  And signing this kind of contract suggests that I am mentally incompetent.  It suggests that I could not be convinced by good reasons and that any disagreement that I might have is not reflective or intelligent.  I think something similar can be said with respect to Mill’s proposal.  Accepting his plural or weighted voting proposal involves a making judgment of oneself that would be rather difficult for a self-respecting person to make, unless s/he were below a certain level of minimum competence.   For this reason, I think that those with fewer votes would have good grounds for claiming that plural voting is not consistent with their sense of self-respect.

I think that Mill’s arguments regarding the benefit of plural votes also fails.  Plural votes are unlikely to maximize the good of those with fewer votes.  The most fundamental threat to justice is, perhaps, not being appropriately impartial.  Different groups of people have different conceptions of justice and the common good.  There is a tendency for our conceptions of justice and the public good to represent our own interests disproportionately. As Thomas Christiano notes, this seems only natural given that people have a more intimate and sensitive understanding of their own interests than of others’ (see his “An Argument for Democratic Equality”).  It seems fairly clear that no education level, or qualification of any kind for that matter, is going to help us overcome this fact.  An education from Cambridge or Oxford, for example, will not guard against partiality.  So, if people tend to advance conceptions of justice and the public good that reflect their own interests, it follows that those who lack equal opportunity to advance their own conceptions of justice and the public good will tend to lose out.  If those with superior education are given a greater say, it is likely that the interests of the uneducated will be ignored.  This suggests that the good of those with fewer votes will not be maximized.  Again, Mill’s arguments for plural votes are not compelling.

Can We Make Rational Decisions to Transition to Justice?

In my post earlier today, I said that I would say something about the relevance of Paul’s work to political philosophy.  So, here goes!  The connection to political philosophy lies in the notion of transformative experiences.  Just as transformative experiences can occur in the private lives of individuals, they can occur in the public lives of individuals, that is, in their lives as citizens of a state.   For example, when citizens transition from living in a state of autocracy to one of democracy, they presumably undergo a transformative experience.  Living in a democratic state is much like Paul purports having a child of one’s own to be.  One could argue, it is genuinely unlike any experience the individuals would have had before.  So, they cannot project from past experiences to know what it will be like to live in a democracy.  In turn, they cannot know whether they will value living in a democracy or not.  So, if we take Paul’s arguments seriously, then the individuals’ decisions to transition to a democracy cannot be considered rational decisions.

One way around this conclusion is along the lines that I suggested here.  Even if they lack knowledge or an approximate idea of what this specific token of democracy will be like for them, individuals could project on the basis of similar types of phenomenal experiences of democracy to determine the value that transitioning to a democracy in their state will have for them.   For example, they may have experienced what democratic decision-making is like within their families or with their neighbors or in other community based groups.  On this basis, they can know or, as I have suggested, at least have an approximate idea as to whether they value experiences of this (democratic) type.  If they determine that they value these types of experiences positively, they can make a rational decision (on the standard model) to transition to a democracy.

As I argued in my post from earlier today, another way around the Paulian conclusion is simply to deny that phenomenal knowledge is necessary for rationality.  There are other (non-phenomenal) basis for making such decisions: for example, we might think that we owe democracy to the other individuals in the group say, because, as Thomas Christiano has recently argued here, democracy promotes human rights and we have a moral obligation to satisfy other people’s human rights.  In this case, we can know that we will place positive value, for non-phenomenal reasons, on transitioning to a democracy.  We might also know that such values swamp (or trump) any phenomenal reasons that we have for not transitioning to a democracy.  If so, we can make rational decisions to transition to a democracy.

I also wonder what role genealogical processes could play in rational political decisions.  We can, for example, look at historical and global accounts of experiences of what transitioning to a democracy has been like for various individuals in various countries.  One might wonder, couldn’t this serve as a basis for knowing or at least approximating what it will be like to transition to a democracy?

I think Paul would deny this possibility (see her discussion of relying on other people’s testimonies).  Imagine after considering other individual’s experiences of what it is like to transition to a democracy, we notice that there are two groups of individuals: those that valued the transition and those that did not.  Since we cannot project on the basis of our past experiences to know what the transformative experience of transitioning to a democracy will be like for us, one could argue (again for Paulian reasons), we cannot know which of the two groups we will end up being in.  It could go either way:  we might value the transition or we might not.  So, one could argue, we cannot come to know what it will be like for us to transition to a democracy on the basis of other people’s testimonies because we don’t know which of their testimonies will apply to us.

However, while, on the face of it, we may not be able to know which group we will end up being in, it does seem that we can know something about which groups we share similar starting points with.  So long as we can identify our country as starting at a certain point, for example, of initially being composed of individuals with certain cultural, social, economic and other sorts of features  (i.e., the points from which we will transition from), we can at least have an idea of which countries start off in positions similar to ours.   We can then consider whether those sorts of societies had positive experiences or not and we have at least some grounds for concluding that for countries like ours, which are composed of individuals like us, transitioning to democracy has had positive or negative phenomenal value.   This might not be a basis for knowing what democracy will be like for us, but it could be a basis for forming an approximate idea of what it is will be like for us.  We could form an approximate idea of the types of experiences that we might have and what they might be like for us on the basis of other’s experiences of what it has been like to transition to a democracy.  And, as I suggested, an approximate idea may be all that is needed to make a rational decision to transition to a democracy.