From the literature of 2016
Many of us remember 2016 as a year of political upheaval. Happily, however, scholarship endures . This year’s editors of Philosopher’s Annual received, read, and reviewed a wealth of excellent philosophy articles, making the task of selecting only 10 a daunting one. That said, we ultimately converged on a collection of papers that, in our fallible and humble collective opinion, rose slightly above the rest. They run the gamut from ancient Stoic philosophy to formal semantics and many topics besides.
A sterling piece in moral philosophy is Alex Voorhoeve and Marc Fleurbaey’s “Priority or Equality for Possible People?”. There, Voorhoeve and Fleurbaey invite us to consider some puzzling cases that pose a challenge to egalitarianism in population ethics. Imagine that a certain couple will have one child, equally likely to be a boy or a girl. While they currently live in a place that has poor prospects for children, you can help the prospective parents relocate to one of two better places: location A, where the future child will certainly have a moderately good life; or location B, where, if the child is a girl, she will have a mediocre life, but if the child is a boy, he will have a very good life.
Ordinary egalitarian intuitions, Voorhoeve and Fleurbaey argue, cannot tell us how to resolve questions like these because they do not determine how we should take into account the welfare of merely possible people. In response to this impasse, Voorhoeve and Fleurbaey develop a novel value-pluralist egalitarian theory specifically addressed to such issues.
More generally, they defend pluralist egalitarianism as a compelling theory of distributive ethics in decision-making contexts where the welfare of possible future people is at stake.
Two of the other papers we have chosen are not works of traditional moral or political philosophy, but are notable for bringing the methods and perspectives of their respective subfields to bear on questions of contemporary moral and political relevance. In his paper “Selection Under Uncertainty: Affirmative Action at the Shortlisting Stage,” Luc Bovens uses decision theoretic analysis to show that hiring policies mandating the shortlisting of those candidates with the highest expected performance—policies like the 2010 UK Equality Act—may be counterproductive to the goal of ultimately hiring the best candidates.
Laws like the UK Equality Act encourage employers to favor “sure bets” with proven track records of good (though not always extraordinary) performance. By contrast, Bovens’ analysis demonstrates that they might benefit from shortlisting “riskier” candidates whose future performance is more difficult to predict. The resulting “risky” shortlists are likely to reflect a wider range of ability, including both mediocre candidates and outstanding ones, with later stages of the search process assumed to enable employers to separate the latter from the former. How do these observations bear on the permissibility of affirmative action? For several reasons, Bovens suspects that members of underrepresented minority groups are unusually likely to be “risky” candidates. If his empirical hypothesis is correct, Bovens’ paper provides a powerful argument that can justify minority-preferential shortlisting policies without appealing to considerations beyond the widely accepted goal of selecting the candidates who will ultimately perform best.
Jean-Luc Solère’s article “The Coherence of Bayle’s Theory of Toleration” considers a historical problem with remarkable resonance in today’s world. In this essay, Solère seeks to dissolve the so-called “conscientious persecutor aporia” that has often dogged Bayle’s moral argument for religious toleration. The puzzle is this: Bayle argues that religious persecution is impermissible because it is wrong to transgress the dictates of one’s conscience, so forcing others to violate their religious beliefs is tantamount to coercing them into sin. However, some persecutors sincerely believe that their religions require them to persecute unbelievers. If it is always wrong to force others to disobey their consciences, then it appears we cannot rightly compel sincere persecutors to stop persecuting dissenters. Moreover, the fanatic’s acts of persecution appear justified insofar as refraining from persecution would wrongfully violate the dictates of her conscience .
To dissolve this puzzle, Solère points out that Bayle identifies a crucial disanalogy between the epistemic (and moral) situation of the sincere (though mistaken) religious dissident and that of the sincere persecutor. Whether an agent who obeys her misguided conscience is blameworthy depends on whether she is to blame for the underlying error in her conscience. In this respect, the dissident differs dramatically from the persecutor. Not only is Solère’s solution to the problem subtle and elegant, but it also sheds needed light on contemporary worries about the putative hypocrisy of refusing to tolerate intolerance in the social and political spheres.
In “Substance and Independence in Descartes,” Anat Schechtman wrestles with an interpretive challenge from the work of Bayle’s close philosophical forebear René Descartes. Schechtman begins with the generally accepted observation that although the concept of substance is central to Descartes’ metaphysics, Descartes appears to offer two different characterizations of substance, resting on two different concepts of independence. At numerous points in the Principles, Replies, and Meditations, and in accordance with Scholastic tradition tracing back to Aristotle, Descartes describes substance as independent in the sense that properties inhere in it, while it does not itself inhere in anything. In a crucial passage in the Principles, on the other hand, substance is said to depend on no other thing.
An easy and common interpretation holds that the notion of dependence at work in this passage is causal, leaving us with two very different Cartesian concepts of independence and substance.
By contrast, Schechtman suggests that we interpret all of these texts as claiming that substances are ontologically (rather than causally) independent of other entities. This kind of independence holds when there is no relation to another entity that holds by virtue of the nature of that entity. This interpretation of Descartes’ notion of independence dissolves the apparent contradictions within his corpus, Schechtman argues, and it may also help us to better understand other aspects of Descartes’ work, including his account of the relationship between mind and body.
Another historical article that we found particularly noteworthy was Jacob Klein’s “The Stoic Argument from Oikeiōsis.” Klein notes that accounts of oikeiōsis in the three main surviving works of Stoic ethics all pose a particular difficulty for interpreters. They begin with descriptive claims regarding the complex and purposeful behavior of animals in their environments. They conclude, however, with normative claims applicable to human life. “On the face of it,” Klein notes, “an appeal to animal behavior does not offer a compelling strategy for establishing fundamental ethical conclusions.” How precisely is the argument supposed to go? Moreover, sources turning on oikeiōsis begin by considering animal self-preservation, which seems oriented toward egoistic concerns. How does one move from there to the notably cosmopolitan Stoic views regarding justice and obligations to others?
Klein offers a historically rich and philosophically intriguing reconstruction in which the argument from oikeiōsis parallels “cradle arguments” evident in other Hellenistic schools. The analysis of animal behavior emphasizes non-rational, but complex and goal-directed activities that demand both self-perception and perception of the outside world. In the human case, the analogous core of action is cognitive and rational, notably including self-knowledge, which is crucial to virtue. On Klein’s reconstruction, Stoic accounts of oikeiōsis culminate in important conclusions about human virtue in the context of a wider, unified account concerning accurate cognition, appropriate action, and the telos of both rational and nonrational animals.
Another subfield from which this volume draws heavily is semantics. Two contributions, one by Una Stojnic and the other by Fabrizio Cariani, bear on the interpretation of modal language.
In “One’s Modus Ponens: Modality, Coherence, and Logic,” Stojnic offers a novel explanation of why modal language appears to generate false inferences under classical truth-conditional theories of meaning. For instance, consider Seth Yalcin’s example of an urn containing the following 100 marbles: 10 are big and blue, 30 are big and red, 50 are small and blue, and 10 are small and red. One marble is selected at random. We can say the following about this marble:
However, contrary to modus tollens, we cannot draw the following conclusion:
- (1) If the marble is big, then it is likely red.
- (2) The marble is not likely red.
Most philosophers, presented with examples like this one, have either denied that such cases are instances of modus tollens, or used them to motivate non-truth-conditional semantics for modal vocabulary, such as Yalcin’s expressivism. Stojnic offers a compelling alternative that does not require us to give up classical logic or truth-conditional semantics. Rather, she argues that linguistic mechanisms, reflected in the logical form of a discourse, systematically affect the interpretation of modal language. Stojnic develops a semantic account of the interaction between discourse context and modal vocabulary according to which the relevant mechanisms are those that govern how individual utterances are organized to form a coherent discourse. If she is right, puzzles like Yalcin’s do not force us to accept a non-truth-conditional semantics for modal vocabulary, after all.
- (3) The marble is not big.
In “Deontic Modals and Probabilities: One Theory to Rule Them All,” Fabrizio Cariani seeks a semantic account of deontic modals that retains the attractive features of probabilistic expected value theories without importing their normative commitments. Many theorists analyze the semantics of modals like “should” on the basis of a Bayesian approach to decision-making that assumes the goal of maximizing expected value. But such views have trouble accounting for the thinking of non-Bayesian agents who, for instance, choose between vacation spots by considering the worst-case scenario of each place. Consider the prospective traveler who says, “I prefer A to B, because B could be terrific or awful, whereas A is certain to be mediocre.” It could be that the sure-thing utility of A is lower than the expected utility of B, but the agent still believes she should choose A. However we regard the rationality of her choice, it seems unreasonable to assume that she is confused about the meanings of deontic modal terms.
In light of cases like this one, Cariani argues that a theory of what deontic modals mean should be neutral with respect to competing decision rules. With this goal in mind, he proposes a plausible and elegant probabilistic premise semantics that can handle the dependence of deontic modals on probabilistic states, while also making sense of orderings based on different decision rules, without building any given decision rule into the semantic theory itself.
Our final selection from the semantics literature is Cian Dorr’s “Against Counterfactual Miracles,” which examines a puzzle arising from standard theories of counterfactuals and determinism. Even in deterministic worlds, it would seem that a counterfactual of the form ‘if ~p were true, then q would be true’ could be true. But it is orthodoxy that in considering the relevant ~p-worlds, we should hold fixed all other facts and the laws of nature. On the other hand, a deterministic world is one where the initial conditions in conjunction with the laws of nature at t, metaphysically necessitates a unique set of facts F at t1. Where p is a member of F, and w is a deterministic world, it would seem that every accessible world with the same initial conditions and the laws of nature at t as world w, will be a p-world. Conjoining these results with a plausible closure principle, we are left with the implausible conclusion that in deterministic worlds, ‘if ~p were true at t1, then p would be true at t1’.
What gives? David Lewis in his treatment of the problem allowed for the local suspension of the laws of nature, i.e. miracles. In this work, Dorr argues that the less costly alternative is to relax the requirement that we hold all other past facts fixed i.e., in evaluating the counterfactual, it suffices to consider worlds that approximate the actual world at t. Moreover, we have independent reasons from current understandings of chaotic systems in physics, to be confident that among such worlds, will be relevant ~p-worlds.
The final two selections are remarkably similar in subject matter. It is amazing that two such excellent articles on the same topic were published in the same year, but the two were of such high quality that we decided that both deserved to be included in this year’s selection. Both pieces aim to defend one of rationalist philosophy’s oldest and most controversial metaphysical principles, the Principle of Sufficient Reason (or PSR), from a common worry—namely, that PSR leads to necessitarianism, the unattractive thesis that there are no contingent truths. In their respective contributions, Samuel Levey and Shamik Dasgupta employ very different (though similarly inventive) strategies to rebut this charge.
Levey, in his article “The Paradox of Sufficient Reason,” tackles an argument originally formulated by Peter van Inwagen and Jonathan Bennett. Suppose that C is the set of all contingent truths. Then, according to the PSR, it has a grounding explanation. This grounding explanation is itself either contingent or necessary. If it is contingent, then part of the explanandum is the explanans. But if it is necessary, then there is no set of all contingent truths, and it seems we are forced to admit that there are no contingent truths—in other words, we must embrace necessitarianism. Levey offers us a way to escape this conclusion by denying the inference from “no set of all contingent truths” to “no contingent truths.” He argues that given the inexhaustibility of the PSR’s explanatory requirement, even if contingent truths exist, we should not expect there to be any such thing as all contingent truths: for any totality of contingent truths, we could always identify one more such truth not contained in the totality. Levey argues therefore that advocates of the PSR need not embrace necessitarianism after all .
In “Metaphysical Rationalism,” Dasgupta takes a different tack. He begins by pointing out that there are at least two forms of necessitarianism, and the more troubling of the pair need not follow from the PSR, at least when we understand the PSR as a requirement for grounding explanations. On Dasgupta’s version of metaphysical rationalism, all substantial facts terminate in facts about essences, which in turn are necessary facts that are neither brute nor in need of further grounding (i.e., they are autonomous). Dasgupta contends that while his view implies that things exist (and in the manner that they do) out of a kind of metaphysical necessity, this necessity holds not virtue of their own essences, but rather in virtue of the essences of whatever it is that grounds their existence (e.g., the underlying matter). So while the PSR does lead to a kind of necessitarianism, it is not a version of necessitarianism that should worry us.
As editors we struggled, as always, to find criteria that would help us to select from a field of papers that were excellent in so many different ways. Should we concentrate on the most skillfully executed papers, those that could show graduate students, “This is how you write a philosophy paper”? Should we instead privilege cutting-edge ideas that could shape the future trajectory of a subfield? Should we prioritize lifting up topics or views that, for one reason or another, might not have received as much attention as we felt they merited?
We never arrived at definitive answers regarding the appropriate balance. All of these considerations, plus a healthy dose of intuition, shaped our deliberations. Still, we feel confident that all of the papers in this volume will be rewarding to attentive readers, perhaps all the more so if they are read together, as a single, delightfully diverse collection. They represent some of the most exciting recent contributions to contemporary philosophy, and many will undoubtedly shape the dialogue for years to come.