From the literature of 2020
Every year, the editors of The Philosopher's Annual set out on an ambitious and lofty task: to choose the ten best philosophy articles published that year. We receive a list of rigorous and thought-provoking articles from our nominating editors, a group of philosophers of various specializations and backgrounds. The Annual editors then spend months carefully reading and reviewing the articles, extensively discussing each one and debating its merits — while simultaneously debating the very question of what makes an article a contender for the classification of “best.” The wide diversity of philosophical methodology and subject matter makes it a complex and sometimes contentious task to categorize what makes a philosophy article good, let alone among the best. Nevertheless — though reasonable people could (and probably will) disagree with our ultimate conclusions — we are confident that the ten articles selected for this year’s Annual are excellent works of philosophy that capture an exciting range of debates and issues, and that showcase some of the very best of the discipline.
Why should I vote? The overwhelming consensus seems to be against a consequentialist justification: with millions of voters, the chance of my vote making a difference is miniscule, and thus the stakes would have to be astronomically high in order to make my voting rational. In “Why You Should Vote to Change the Outcome,” Zach Barnett argues that this consensus is misguided. The standard argument rests on (1) a calculation of what is at stake in terms of individual self-interest and (2) the modelling assumption that the chance of mine being a decisive vote is 1/N, where N is the number of voters. Barnett challenges both assumptions directly. If you are a consequentialist voter, you will calculate what is at stake in terms of what is best for the public, with everyone’s interests given equal weight. Given two weak and standard modelling assumptions, it can also be shown that the chance of casting a decisive vote will be greater than 1/N if each of two candidates has at least a 10% chance of winning. Given conditions that will often hold in real-world elections, Barnett argues, voting turns out to be rational on consequentialist grounds.
Waheed Hussain moves us from individual political motivation to the evaluation of political institutions, where the importance of liberty and fairness are broadly recognized. But are such institutions also subject to a community-oriented principle of political morality? Hussain argues for this position in “Pitting People Against Each Other,” contending that Rawls’ notion of civic friendship extends into the economic sphere and constrains the manner and extent to which institutions may permissibly put people in competition with each other for primary goods. Hussain argues that many basic institutions (e.g., neighborhoods, universities, workplaces) should be characterized by widespread solidaristic associations, governed by a relational ideal that requires members to care for each other. These solidaristic associations are undermined by competitive institutions if they put us in situations where we must act in mutual disregard to fulfill our most basic needs. This essay provides a plausible explanation of the general feeling of malaise many of us have experienced when pushed to compete with our peers at work or in school. And it offers a sharp insight into the nature of institutional morality, which turns out to be about more than equality, fairness, liberty, or the welfare individuals enjoy. It is also about how individuals relate to one another as a community.
But relating to each other as a community is complex, and sometimes people make mistakes. Consider three examples adapted from Renée Jorgensen Bolinger’s “The Moral Grounds of Reasonably Mistaken Self-Defense:”
On widely shared intuitions, Dahlia’s act of self-defense is reasonable and Alex has not been unjustly wronged by her mistake. But in the second case Alishan has been seriously wronged by Dignitary’s mistake. What is the difference, and what does that say about the case of Dolores and Aston? In a carefully detailed and timely discussion, Jorgensen argues for the surprising conclusion that the answer turns on considerations of distributive justice: in particular, on agents’ entitlements to a fair distribution of the risk of suffering unjust harm. On her analysis, important differences in cases turn on social norms that mark some behaviors and not others as signals of aggression.
- Dahlia is being followed by an imposing man in the shadows (Alex) as she walks to her car. When she stops, he stops. When she starts again, he does too. When she ducks down an alley he rushes toward her and she thinks he’s about to be assaulted. When he’s at arm’s length she tazes him. But it is a mistake: Alex was merely trying to scare her.
- On testimony from a generally reliable source, the man approaching Dignitary at the reception (Alishan) is a skilled assassin intending to kill her. If so, her only recourse is to disable him before she is attacked. When Alishan steps forward to shake hands, she tazes him. But it was a mistake: the reliable source was wrong.
- It’s raining hard as Dolores withdraws cash in a cramped ATM booth in a neighborhood in which she knows that robberies and muggings are statistically most likely to be performed at ATMs and by Black males. As she makes her withdrawal, she sees a Black man (Aston) rushing toward her across the street, pulling what she takes to be a gun from his coat. As he crowds into the booth, she tazes him. But it was a mistake: Aston was rushing in from the rain and pulling his wallet from his pocket in order to make a withdrawal.
Like Jorgensen, C. Thi Nguyen and Bekka Williams take on a topic that is both philosophically rich and relevant to the moment. In “Moral Outrage Porn,” they argue that there may be more in common than we thought between pornography in the more traditional sense, and porn in the colloquial sense — which includes enticingly curated representations of, e.g., scrumptious foods (food porn), meticulously organized homes (organization porn), and shocking news stories (moral outrage porn). Nguyen and Williams argue that the defining feature of porn in general is that it instrumentalizes the objects represented in order to produce a gratifying response while avoiding the usual costs and consequences of actually engaging the object. They use this general treatment to illuminate the problem with moral outrage porn specifically: it provides us gratification by offering us nuance-free representations of morally charged events. But engaging these representations repetitively may cause us to develop epistemically impermissible habits. Moral outrage porn may lead us to seek out overly simplified moral representations of the world. It may also motivate us to accept new beliefs for the sake of emotional gratification, which is the wrong kind of reason to believe. But perhaps the most fascinating insight of the essay is that moral outrage porn is morally deleterious for an independent reason: it instrumentalizes morality for our gratification, and thereby makes morality about oneself, cheapening and undermining the moral experience.
Where Nguyen and Williams focus on not instrumentalizing what ought not be instrumentalized, Vida Yao considers what happens when we take a more realistic look at a domain philosophers often idealize: love. In “Grace and Alienation,” Yao observes that existing accounts of love, which hold that love involves attending to and seeing the beloved clearly for who they are, face a problem in cases where the beloved is, in reality, vicious. When someone’s vices cannot be easily changed, they are likely to feel ashamed, and fearful of others seeing them for their true, vicious selves — an alienating motivation directly at odds with the connective goals of attentive love. To make sense of such cases, Yao appeals to grace: love non-proportional to the goodness of its object, and felt instead in response to the perceived qualities of human nature. Loving people graciously, she argues, involves affectionately responding to such features “not because they are good, but because they are human.” Her approach not only invites us to think about the non-ideal, real-world circumstances in which people love others, but also critiques and enriches existing philosophical accounts of love.
History of philosophy scholars sometimes choose to tweak or update the views they are reconstructing to make them more valuable for a contemporary audience. So it is certainly felicitous when the reconstruction that hews closest to the text also turns out to be the one that is most independently valuable. This is the case for both of the works in the history of philosophy selected for the Annual this year, each of which present views that are original, plausible, philosophically rich, and above all, closely grounded in the texts themselves.
Suzanne Shogry and Simon Bobzien’s “Stoic Logic and Multiple Generality,” posits that early Stoic logic had an inferentially active theory of variable-free multiple generality, almost 2100 years prior to Frege and Quine’s accounts. The authors lead us through a handful of text fragments, each time masterfully carving up the possibility-space, and then providing the reader strong textual evidence to motivate their interpretation. By the end of the essay, the decisions they’ve made at each of these choice-points have led us to a bigger picture that hangs together remarkably well and constitutes a genuine development in our understanding of ancient logic.
In “The Heart of Flesh: Nietzsche on the Affects and the Interpretation of the Body”, Christopher Fowles redirects recent systematic attention regarding Nietzsche’s philosophical psychology by turning to affect, which, surprisingly, has not received the same kind of sustained, careful attention as the drives. This has been a common oversight in spite of the central role of affect in Nietzsche’s moral psychology and meta-ethics; “moralities,” he famously says, “are the sign-language of the affects.” Fowles ascribes to Nietzsche a Jamesian theory of emotions, predating James himself. On this reading, to feel an affect is to have bodily changes that are then cashed out as feelings. I was not shivering because I was afraid of the bear; I was afraid because I shivered upon seeing the bear. According to Fowles, Nietzsche is committed to understanding affect in terms of “internal” physiological changes triggered by external stimuli, changes which are then interpreted as being warranted by the stimuli. Thus, affect is tied up with interpretation. What we experience in our bodies, as a result of stimuli, comes to the surface as something demanding to be interpreted in light of reasons. This takes us to the external world, pushing us to see the world as normatively-saturated: as the kind of world which calls for those emotions and feelings. Fowles’s rigorous treatment of a central Nietzchean concept is illuminating to both Nietzsche scholars and anyone exploring the history of psychology.
We turn now back to the contemporary moment, with three wonderful papers in the philosophy of science and epistemology. In “Crystallized Regularities,” Verónica Gómez Sánchez grapples with a problem that cuts across philosophical fields: (how) do the regularities of physics — often said to be the most fundamental generalizations about the universe — fit together with the law-like regularities in the special sciences, such as biology, psychology, and sociology? Gómez Sánchez seeks to reconcile the view that the laws of physics are fundamental, with our sense that the regularities of the special sciences — though based in the physical stuff — are laws unto themselves. Central to her proposal are crystallized regularities: temporally and modally indexed regularities, relative to the way things are at a particular moment in the natural and social history of the world and throughout neighboring possible worlds. The idea is to use this kind of regularity to bring together the nomic structures of physics and of the special sciences in the following way. The regularities we identify in the special sciences, if they are crystalized, will necessarily map onto and be grounded in the regularities of the physical world, since crystalized special science regularities only quantify over the world and its spatiotemporally similar worlds.
In “Putting Explanation Back Into ‘Inference to the Best Explanation,’” Marc Lange also undertakes a project that makes sense of and unites the differences and similarities across scientific disciplines. In the paper, Lange criticizes previous accounts that have sought to fit inference to the best explanation (IBE) into Bayesian frameworks by collapsing explanatory quality into either prior probability or likelihood. He argues that these existing accounts have mischaracterized the distinctive role that explanation itself plays in scientific confirmation. To remedy this, he proposes an account on which no single feature always makes a hypothesis explanatorily better — but rather, that what features make one so are determined by background knowledge of what kinds of features other explanations of similar phenomena tend to have. This account denies that there are standard features that always make scientific explanations better; rather, it recognizes that scientific domains tend to favor different kinds of explanations, depending on their target phenomena. Thus, Lange’s account seeks to do three crucial things: a) fit IBE into a Bayesian framework without reducing it to prior probabilities or likelihoods, b) preserve the distinctive role of explanation in IBE, and c) account for the variation in types of explanations sought across scientific disciplines.
Finally, in “The Epistemic and the Zetetic,” Jane Friedman addresses a practice involved in each of the previous nine projects, and indeed in every philosophical project: inquiry. She begins with a principle so intuitive that few would reject it: humans ought to take the necessary steps to settle our inquiries. She then works her way to a serious challenge for contemporary epistemology, showing that it offers conflicting advice. On the one hand, we should take the steps necessary to settle our inquiries. In practice, following this principle forces us to close off other potential instances of evidence gathering, knowledge acquisition, and belief formation. On the other hand, we have the widely accepted thought that it is permissible (and perhaps normatively recommended) to conditionalize on our available evidence and take epistemic advantage of our situations, working our way towards new beliefs and knowledge. But these recommendations are in tension: we ought to close off various epistemic advantages in order to settle our inquiries, but we should also get those same epistemic goods when they are available. In the face of this dilemma, Friedman urges us to rethink norms of inquiry and norms of epistemic advantage in a way that makes them fit the kind of inquirers we are, such that epistemic norms don’t stay hopelessly incoherent.
The papers selected here cover a wide range of philosophical topics and methodologies, reflecting the diversity of focus that makes the discipline unique and invigorating. The authors who wrote them come from a range of backgrounds and stages in their careers, and we are thrilled by the opportunity to showcase this set of thinkers. Our minds were especially on the authors themselves this year, as we were deeply saddened to learn of Waheed Hussain’s passing in early 2021. Though his paper included in this collection is one piece of evidence of his innovative thinking and philosophical prowess, those who knew him all attest most of all to his kindness, humor, and overall quality of character. He will be greatly missed as a member of the philosophical community, and we are honored to have the opportunity to showcase one of his final works in this year’s Annual.
We as editors learned a great deal from engaging with the many wonderful papers nominated for this year’s Annual. Though we recognize the near-impossibility of the Annual’s central task, we are confident that the articles described above are worthy of serious philosophical attention from any member of our discipline. We hope they spur as much thought, learning, dialogue, and excitement for the future of philosophy for others as they did for us.
Ariana Peruzzi Sancio
Laura K. Soter