From the literature of 2017
Selecting the “ten best” philosophy articles published in a given year is, admittedly, an impossible task. This is due in part to the nature of philosophical practice, which does not easily lend itself to consensus judgments regarding the merit of any particular philosophical argument. Nevertheless, upon reviewing an excellent collection of articles recommended by some of the discipline’s leading lights, we proudly present this year’s Philosopher’s Annual. These ten articles represent, in our collective judgment, some of the most exciting advances in philosophical debates old and new.
One could make a plausible case that shamelessness is the public vice of our time. Possessing a capacity for shame thus seems to be a virtue. Yet against intuition and his contemporaries, Aristotle explicitly denies that shame (aidōs) is a virtue. His treatment has puzzled scholars: his arguments are prima facie implausible and seem to conflict with things Aristotle says elsewhere in the Nicomachean Ethics. In “Shame and Virtue in Aristotle,” Christopher C. Raymond mines the details of Aristotle’s treatment of occurrent feelings, dispositional states, and emotions in order to argue that this sense of tension in Aristotle is merely apparent. Drawing on Alexander of Aphrodisias’ analysis in the Ethical Problems, Raymond takes us further, arguing persuasively against Aristotle that aidōs plays a role in the virtuous person’s life after all. Raymond’s article is not only a sterling piece of Aristotle scholarship but also an important contribution to moral psychology more generally.
One might adopt a more skeptical view of the virtuousness of shame, given that the capacity to feel shame is ultimately due to natural selection. This raises a broader question in moral theory, namely: does evolution undermine morality? In “Evolution and Moral Realism,” Kim Sterelny and Ben Fraser argue that it need not. They chart a middle course between moral error theory on the one hand and full vindication of our folk moral beliefs on the other. Their version of reductive naturalism grounds moral truths in facts about how humans best cooperate. Over time, our folk moral theories track— imperfectly, to be sure—objective facts about what makes for profitable and stable cooperation. This provides a partial vindication of our folk moral theories, they argue, much in the way that ancient Greek astronomy is partially vindicated by its predictive and observational successes, despite being largely false propositionally. Their view has a number of interesting consequences. By basing morality on facts about cooperation, moral epistemology becomes much less mysterious: we often have easy access to facts about social cooperation, what works well and what does not. Furthermore, moral facts become counterfactually sensitive to facts about cooperation: if we lived in a world where optimal cooperation required cruel punishment, then the moral standing of cruelty would change accordingly. Nevertheless, due to the complex and error-prone process of arriving at true moral beliefs, their view has ample resources to ward off charges of moral relativism. All moral beliefs result from social learning, but only some moral beliefs are true, they argue, based on standing in the proper causal relation to the social structures and personal dispositions that help (or hinder) humans from cooperating in a manner that is fair, trustworthy, and committed.
Appeals to natural selection and the benefits of cooperative social practices require an account of how stable systems of cooperation arise in the first place. Yet philosophers of science and game theorists have tended to focus more on the dynamics of choice within a given payoff structure; the origins of these payoff structures are generally presupposed in the analysis. Concentrating here on signaling games, the question that Jeffrey Barrett and Brian Skyrms pursue in “Self-assembling Games” is: how “individuals, in dealing with the world, come to interact in such a way that the interactions can usefully be characterized as a game with specified players, strategies, information, order of play, and payoffs?” With reference to results from animal studies, the authors offer a suggestive model for how interactive cue-reading, sensory-manipulation, and signaling games can emerge from the ritualization of individual decisions. On that basis, the authors go on to outline how a game can be appropriated from one context to another, how more complex games can be built from simpler components by modular composition, and how games can ‘chain’ together by polymerization. In a synthesis that combines, builds on, but goes beyond the previous work of both authors, the paper expands both game theory and its applications with a deeper look at how patterns of interaction might themselves emerge.
As Lara Buchak argues in “Taking Risks Behind the Veil of Ignorance,” a close analogy exists between decision theory and social choice theory. Both disciplines revolve around how to aggregate the value of individual outcomes into the value of a whole, e.g. a gamble or a social distribution. Buchak lucidly develops and exploits this analogy to defend what she calls relative prioritarianism: everyone's interest matters, but the interests of those who are relatively worse off matter more than the interests of those who are relatively better off. Buchak carefully distinguishes this position from both egalitarianism (according to which inequality is bad in itself) and prioritarianism (according to which the interests of individuals matter absolutely rather than relatively). Her position provides a middle ground between Harsanyi’s utilitarianism (in which everyone receives equal weight) and Rawls’ maximin equity (where the worst-off in society receive all of the weight). Formally, relative prioritarianism uses convex importance functions (members of the Gini family) to determine the priority ranking of individuals’ interest. These convex social choice functions are the analog of reasonably risk-avoidant individuals in decision theory, whereas Harsanyi’s utilitarianism corresponds to risk-neutral individuals, and Rawls’ maximin corresponds to maximal risk avoidance. Based on important differences between taking risks for ourselves and making risky decisions for someone else, Buchak argues for a normative Risk Principle: we should always choose the most risk-avoidant attitude that is within reason, unless we know the individual’s actual attitude toward risk. In the context of the original position, this Risk Principle leads to the adoption of relative prioritarianism as the correct social choice rule. Considerations of reasonable risk attitudes rule out risk-neutrality and maximal risk aversion. By remaining neutral on a number of foundational questions—such as the nature of the goods being distributed—Buchak offers a compelling formal framework for relating risk and inequality in distributive ethics.
Science aims at the truth, which is precisely what scientific fraud undermines. A common view is that fraud is fueled by a misplaced drive for priority and credit. It would seem to follow that the solution is motive-modification: to make “the fundamental but abstract accuracy motive—getting it right—competitive with the more tangible and concrete incentive—getting it published” (Nosek et al, 2012). Liam Kofi Bright’s “On Fraud” argues that even a dedicated attempt at motive-modification, in which investigators propagate what they see as the genuine truth, can make the situation worse. Explored with important variations and extensions within a formal model, a core mechanism in Bright’s analysis is fully intuitive. If investigators fail to be ‘honest reporters,’ distrusting their own results in favor of what they perceive as an over-all truth, the effects of fraud can be perpetuated in the form of ‘noble lies.’
While much has been written about the aim of belief, little has been said in contemporary epistemology about the aim of judgment suspension—the topic of Jane Friedman’s “Why Suspend Judging?” Friedman’s starting point is that to suspend judgment is to be committedly neutral about whether p rather than a mere lack of belief. Against that background she defends the strong view that one has suspended judgment on an issue if and only if one is inquiring into it. Friedman defends each direction of the biconditional. The claim that continued inquiry demands suspension of judgment is perhaps the easier direction. The other direction—that suspending judgment about Q entails inquiring about Q—is bound to be more controversial. Friedman argues that by suspending judgment about Q, one delays making a judgment but does not set the question aside—one still aims or intends to judge. Since someone who aims or intends to judge is arguably in an inquiring mind, judgment suspension “seems to imply some sort of commitment to continued efforts to judge.” Thus, judgment suspension entails inquiry. Friedman’s article broadens epistemology in new and interesting ways, opening up further lines of research regarding the relationship between doxastic states and norms of inquiry.
Philosophical analyses of the nature of explanation and the aim of belief have a long pedigree. Starting from a narrow exegetical dispute, Marco Malink’s “Aristotle on Principles as Elements,” provides a wide-ranging interpretation of explanatory demonstrations à la Aristotle. For any philosopher interested in scientific explanation, mathematical explanations, grounding, or reasons why, this paper is well worth reading. While listing paradigmatic examples of material causes, Aristotle includes hypotheses as material causes of an argument’s conclusion. According to the definition of material cause, this would mean that hypotheses are constituents of the conclusion, responsible for its being the case. This puzzling and seemingly false statement has bedeviled commentators for centuries. Malink sets out to vindicate Aristotle’s claim, in a tightly-knit and well-supported argument that does much more. First, we learn that hypotheses are a special kind of premise, being true, explanatory, and prior to the conclusion. Second, not all deductions are scientific demonstrations, and only the latter provide scientific knowledge. Malink argues that the intended scope of Aristotle’s claim only applies to the hypotheses of the conclusion in a demonstration; it does not apply generally to premises in a deduction. To show that these hypotheses are genuinely material causes of the conclusion, Malink provides a satisfying and systematic diagrammatic interpretation of Aristotle’s account of syllogisms in the Posterior Analytics. Just as the smallest musical interval can compose larger intervals, hypotheses compose their conclusions. Next, Malink extends his interpretation to the context of geometric analysis and the practice of decomposing a theorem into its elementary constituents. This explains why ancient Greek geometers interpreted certain geometrical theorems as being elements of more complicated theorems. The paper closes by showing that we can simultaneously understand hypotheses as material causes while understanding demonstration as a formal cause of the conclusion. Who would have thought that such a simple question about Phys. 2.3 195a16–19 could prove so illuminating?
The remaining three selections return us to more strictly normative topics. It seems uncontroversial that consent possesses normative force. The mutual consent of the parties to a fight is what makes boxing a sport and not simply ritualized assault. Yet in a number of cases–the modern state, for example–physical coercion is claimed to be legitimate even though not all of the relevant parties have consented. Can the notion of consent play any role here? For many philosophers, the answer is yes: hypothetical consent explains why, in some cases, coercion is legitimate even when actual consent is lacking. Given the right conditions, if the parties would have consented to some coercive act, then this purported fact at least partly justifies the coercive act in question. However, it is unclear that hypothetical consent possesses the same normative force as actual consent, or that it possesses any normative force at all. Moreover, if a coercive act is justified then it must be justified in virtue of some underlying reason(s); the notion of hypothetical consent thus seems explanatorily otiose. In “Hypothetical Consent and the Value(s) of Autonomy,” David Enoch aims to show that hypothetical consent is both explanatorily useful and, under the right conditions, normatively significant. Enoch suggests that hypothetical consent is a multiply realizable property that might refer to a variety of underlying properties. Just as multiply realizable properties in the natural sciences possess genuine explanatory value, Enoch argues, the notion of hypothetical consent possesses genuine explanatory value in moral explanations. Regarding normative force, Enoch argues that treating an individual according to her deeper commitments is very close to treating her in ways that she would have consented to, under certain idealized conditions. Thus, at least in some cases, hypothetical consent possesses some normative force. Overall, Enoch’s article is an excellent guide to the debate about hypothetical consent and a stimulating defense of a much-invoked concept.
Coercion is plainly wrong, but why? In “On the Moral Objection to Coercion,” Stephen J. White offers a novel and compelling answer: moral coercion is wrong because it involves an illicit transfer of responsibility from the coercer to the coercee. For instance, if Green threatens Brown by saying, “Stay out of Malibu, or you’ll be sorry,” Green has now made Brown partly responsible for not being beaten up, a responsibility that should lie wholly with Green. By disavowing responsibility for her conduct, Green thereby expands the responsibilities of the coercee. Specifically, Green refuses to “take responsibility for what she does in the sense that she purports to be unwilling to ensure (or even to attempt in good faith to ensure) that her conduct conforms to her duty.” Unfairly, Brown now becomes responsible for making sure Green conforms to her duty to not beat Brown up. If this seems counterintuitive, White asks us to switch to the third person. Suppose that a mugger threatens to harm someone else if you do not hand over your wallet. In this case, it seems intuitive that you would be (at least partly) responsible for what the mugger does to this stranger. This case brings out the sense in which there is a mismatch between practical and moral reality on White’s picture: you are responsible for another person’s life, though unfairly and illegitimately. In addition to offering a novel and innovative account of what makes coercion morally wrong, White offers a sophisticated, critical overview of the literature. This is a very rich contribution to the literature on coercion and has important implications for a wide range of issues in ethics and political philosophy.
On the day before he died, Derek Parfit submitted for publication a draft paper, “Future People, the Non-Identity Problem, and Person-Affecting Principles.” Edited by Jeff McMahan and Larry Temkin, this article finds Parfit revisiting philosophical terrain first explored in Reasons and Persons. Parfit attempts to find a moral principle that entails plausible conclusions about future populations while avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion. The Repugnant Conclusion, recall, states that for any given number of people whose overall quality of life would be very high, there is a larger number of people whose overall quality of life would be even higher, even though, for each individual, life would be just barely worth living. It has proven devilishly difficult for moral philosophers–utilitarians and non-utiliarians alike–to articulate a set of plausible moral principles about future populations that escape the Repugnant Conclusion. In his characteristically rigorous manner, Parfit derives the “Wide Dual Person-Affecting Principle.” Simplifying greatly, this principle states that outcomes should be assessed with respect to a population’s overall quality of life as well as with respect to the quality of life for each individual within the population. As Parfit puts it, this Wide Principle appeals “both to the benefits to each and to the benefits to all.” While acknowledging that this principle does not necessarily slam the door on the Repugnant Conclusion, Parfit suggests that it provides grounds for a further argument that might do so. Overall, the paper provides a compelling defense of the value of a life well-lived; it is a fitting coda to a monumental body of work.
Over many hours we debated the relative strengths and weaknesses of the articles in our candidate pool. These arguments naturally led to second-order discussions of the appropriate criteria for evaluating and comparing philosophical papers that touch on such a broad range of subjects. We labor under no illusion that our judgments are decisive or that our list possesses more than a morsel of epistemic authority. Nevertheless, we are at least confident that the articles described above are well-worthy of your time and philosophical attention. We hope you will consider this list as an invitation to fruitful dialogue and debate.
Josh R. Hunt