Category Archives: philosophy

analytical moral philosophy as a way of life

(These thoughts are prompted by Stephen Mulhall’s review of David Edmonds’ book, Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality, but I have not read that biography or ever made a serious study of Derek Parfit.)

The word “philosophy” is ancient and contested and has labeled many activities and ways of life. Socrates practiced philosophy when he went around asking critical questions about the basis of people’s beliefs. Marcus Aurelius practiced philosophy when he meditated daily on well-worn Stoic doctrines of which he had made a personal collection. The Analects of Confucius may be “a record of how a group of men gathered around a teacher with the power to elevate [and] created a culture in which goals of self-transformation were treated as collaborative projects. These people not only discussed the nature of self-cultivation but enacted it as a relational process in which they supported one another, reinforced their common goals, and served as checks on each other in case they went off the path, the dao” (David Wong).

To practice philosophy, you don’t need a degree (Parfit didn’t complete his), and you needn’t be hired and paid to be a philosopher. However, it’s a waste of the word to use it for activities that aren’t hard and serious.

Today, most actual moral philosophers are basically humanities educators. We teach undergraduates how to read, write, and discuss texts at a relatively high level. Most of us also become involved in administration, seeking and allocating resources for our programs, advocating for our discipline and institutions, and serving as mentors.

Those are not, however, the activities implied by the ideal of analytic moral philosophy. In that context, being a “philosopher” means making arguments in print or oral presentations. A philosophical argument is credited to a specific individual (or, rarely, a small team of co-authors). It must be original: no points for restating what has already been said. It should be general. Philosophy does not encompass exercises of practical reasoning (deciding what to do about a thorny problem). Instead, it requires justifying claims about abstract nouns, like “justice,” “happiness,” or “freedom.” And an argument should take into consideration all the relevant previous points published by philosophers in peer-reviewed venues. The resulting text or lecture is primarily meant for philosophers and students of philosophy, although it may reach other audiences as well.

Derek Parfit held a perfect job for this purpose. As a fellow of All Souls College, he had hardly any responsibilities other than to write philosophical arguments and was entitled to his position until his mandatory retirement. He did not have to obtain support or resources for his work. He did not have to deliberate with other people and then decide what to say collectively. Nor did he have to listen to undergraduates and laypeople express their opinions about philosophical issues. (Maybe he did listen to them–I would have to read the biography to find out–but I know that he was not obliged to do so. He could choose to interact only with highly prestigious peers.)

Very few other people hold similar roles: the permanent faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study, the professors of the Collège de France, and a few others. Such opportunities could be expanded. In fact, in a robust social welfare state, anyone can opt not to hold a job and can instead read and write philosophy, although whether others will publish or read their work is a different story. But whether this form of life is worthy of admiration and social support is a good question–and one that Parfit was not obliged to address. He certainly did not have to defend his role in a way that was effective, persuading a real audience. His fellowship was endowed.

Mulhall argues that Parfit’s way of living a philosophical life biased him toward certain views of moral problems. Parfit’s thought experiments “strongly suggest that morality is solely or essentially a matter of evaluating the outcomes of individual actions–as opposed to, say, critiquing the social structures that deeply shape the options between which individuals find themselves having to choose. … In other words, although Parfit’s favoured method for pursuing and refining ethical thinking presents itself as open to all whatever their ethical stance, it actually incorporates a subtle but pervasive bias against approaches to ethics that don’t focus exclusively or primarily on the outcomes of individual actions.”

Another way to put this point is that power, persuasion, compromise, and strategy are absent in Parfit’s thought, which is instead a record of what one free individual believed about what other free individuals should do.

I am quite pluralistic and inclined to be glad that Parfit lived the life he did, even as most other people–including most other moral philosophers–live and think in other ways. Even if Parfit was biased (due to his circumstances, his chosen methods and influences, and his personal proclivities) in favor of certain kinds of questions, we can learn from his work.

But I would mention other ways of deeply thinking about moral matters that are also worthy and that may yield different kinds of insights.

You can think on your own about concrete problems rather than highly abstract ones. Typically the main difficulty is not defining the relevant categories, such as freedom or happiness, but rather determining what is going on, what various people want, and what will happen if they do various things.

You can introduce ethical and conceptual considerations to elaborate empirical discussions of important issues.

You can deliberate with other people about real decisions, trying to persuade your peers, hearing what they say, and deciding whether to remain loyal to the group or to exit from it if you disagree with its main direction.

You can help to build communities and institutions of various kinds that enable their members to think and decide together over time.

You can identify a general and relatively vague goal and then develop arguments that might persuade people to move in that direction.

You can strive to practice the wisdom contained in clichés: ideas that are unoriginal yet often repeated because they are valid. You can try to build better habits alone or in a group of people who hold each other accountable.

You can tentatively derive generalizations from each of these activities, whether or not you choose to publish them.

Again, as a pluralist, I do not want to suppress or marginalize the style that Parfit exemplified. I would prefer to learn from his work. But my judgment is that we have much more to learn from the other approaches if our goal is to improve the world. That is because the hard question is usually not “How should things be?” but rather “What should we do?”

See also: Cuttings: A book about happiness; the sociology of the analytic/continental divide in philosophy; does doubting the existence of the self tame the will?

defining state, nation, regime, government

As a political philosopher by training, and now political scientist by appointment, I have long been privately embarrassed that I am not sure how to define “state,” “government,” “regime,” and “nation.” On reflection, these words are used differently in various academic contexts. To make things more complicated, the discussion is international, and we are often dealing with translations of words that don’t quite match up across languages.

For instance, probably the most famous definition of “the state” is from Max Weber’s Politics as Vocation (1919). He writes:

Staat ist diejenige menschliche Gemeinschaft, welche innerhalb eines bestimmten Gebietes – dies: das „Gebiet“, gehört zum Merkmal – das Monopol legitimer physischer Gewaltsamkeit für sich (mit Erfolg) beansprucht.

[The] state is the sole human community that, within a certain territory–thus: territory is intrinsic to the concept–claims a monopoly of legitimate physical violence for itself (successfully).

Everyone translates the keyword here as “state,” not “government.” But this is a good example of how words do not precisely match across languages. The English word “government” typically means the apparatus that governs a society. The German word commonly translated as “government” (“der Regierung“) means an administration, such as “Die Regierung von Joe Biden” or a Tory Government in the UK. (In fact, later in the same essay, Weber uses the word Regierung that way while discussing the “typical figure of the ‘grand vizier'” in the Middle East.) Since “government” has a wider range of meanings in English, it wouldn’t be wrong to use it to translate Weber’s Staat.

Another complication is Weber’s use of the word Gemeinschaft inside his definition of “the State.” This is a word with such specific associations that it is occasionally used in English in place of our vaguer word “community.” A population is not a Gemeinschaft, but a tight association can be. Thus to translate Weber’s phrase as “A state is a community …” is misleading.

For Americans, a “state” naturally means one of our fifty subnational units, but in Germany those are Länder (cognate with “lands”). The word “state” derives from the Latin status, which is as “vague a word as ratio, res, causa” (Paul Shorey, 1910) but can sometimes mean a constitution or system of government. Cognates of that Latin word end up as L’État, el Estado and similar terms that have a range of meanings, including the subnational units of Mexico and Brazil. In 1927, Mussolini said, “Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato (“Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”). I think he basically meant that he was in charge of everything he could get his hands on. Louis XIV is supposed to have said “L’État c’est moi,” implying that he was the government (or the nation?), but that phrase may be apocryphal; an early documented use of L’État to mean the national government dates to 1799. In both cases, the word’s ambiguity is probably one reason it was chosen.

“Regime” can have a negative connotation in English, but political theorists typically use it to mean any government plus such closely related entities as the press and parties and prevailing political norms and traditions. Regimes can be legitimate, even excellent.

If these words are used inconsistently in different contexts, then we can define them for ourselves, as long as we are clear about our usage. I would tend to use the words as follows:

  • A government: either the legislative, executive, and judicial authority of any entity that wields significant autonomous political power (whether it’s territorial or not), or else a specific group that controls that authority for a time. By this definition, a municipality, the European Union, and maybe even the World Bank may be a government.

(A definitional challenge is deciding what counts as “political” power. A company, a church, a college, an insurgent army, or a criminal syndicate can wield power and can use some combination of legislative, executive, and/or judicial processes to make its own decisions. Think of canon law in the Catholic Church or an HR appeals processes inside a corporation. Weber would say that the fundamental question is whether an entity’s power depends on its own monopolistic use of legitimate violence. For instance, kidnapping is a violent way to extract money, but it does not pretend to be legitimate and it does not monopolize violence. Taxation is a political power because not paying your taxes can ultimately land you, against your will, in a prison that presents itself as an instrument of justice. Not paying a private bill can also land you in jail, but that’s because the government chooses to enforce contracts. Your creditor is not a political entity; the police force is. However, when relationships between a government and private entities are close, or when legitimacy is controversial, or when–as is typical–governments overlap, these distinctions can be hard to maintain and defend.)

  • A state: a government plus the entities that it directly controls, such as the military, police, or public schools. For example, it seems most natural to say that a US government controls the public schools, but not that a given school is part of the government. Instead, it is part of the state. Likewise, an army can be in tension with the government, yet both are components of the state.
  • A regime: the state plus all non-state entities that are closely related to it, e.g., political parties, the political media, and sometimes the national clergy, powerful industries, etc. We can also talk about abstract characteristics, such as political culture and values, as components of a regime. A single state may change its regime, abruptly or gradually.
  • A country: a territory (not necessarily contiguous) that has one sovereign state. It may have smaller components that also count as governments but not as countries.
  • A nation: a category of people who are claimed (by the person who is using this word) to deserve a single state that reflects their common identity and interests. Individuals can be assigned to different nations by different speakers.
  • A nation-state: a country with a single functioning and autonomous state whose citizens widely see themselves as constituting a single nation. Some countries are not nations, and vice-versa. People may disagree about whether a given country is a nation-state, depending on which people they perceive to form a nation.

See also: defining capitalism; avoiding a sharp distinction between the state and the private sphere; the regime that may be crumbling; what republic means, revisited etc.

Analyzing Political Opinions and Discussions as Networks of Ideas

This is a talk that I have prepared for the Universidad Carlo III in Madrid tomorrow. It is a summary of recent work that I have been conducting with colleagues at Northeastern, Wisconsin, and Oxford and that I’m beginning to develop into a book manuscript.

In the model that I present, an individual holds potentially connected beliefs about political or moral issues, which we can represent with nodes and links (an “idiodictuon”). Whether and how the various ideas are linked in the person’s network influences that individual’s actions and opinions. When people discuss political or ethical issues, they share portions of their respective networks of which they are conscious at the time and may bring ideas from their interlocutors into their own idiodictuons.

Some network structures are better than others for discussion: overly centralized or scattered networks are problematic. Individuals tend to demonstrate similar network structures on different issues, so that having a proclivity for a certain form of network is a character trait.

People, with their respective networks of ideas, are also embedded in social networks. An idea is more likely to spread depending on features of both the social network and the idea networks of the people who interact. Specifically, the odds that an idea will spread from a given person depend on how many people receive communications from that person and how much they trust the communicator. It is reasonable to take into account the trustworthiness of a source when assessing an idea.

As a whole, a population may develop a shared network structure. An idea that is widely shared and frequently central in individuals’ networks becomes a norm. Such norms play important roles in institutions. A community or a culture is a single network or phylodictuon that encompasses disagreement. Ultimately, all such networks interconnect to form a network of human ideas.

does doubting the existence of the self tame the will?

I like the following argument, versions of which can be found in many traditions from different parts of the world:

  1. A cause of many kinds of suffering is the will (when it is somehow excessive or misplaced).
  2. Gaining something that you desire does not reduce your suffering; you simply will something else.
  3. However, one’s will can be tamed.
  4. Generally, the best way to manage the will is to focus one’s mind on other people instead of oneself. Thus,
  5. Being ethical reduces one’s suffering.

In some traditions, notably in major strands of Buddhism and in Pyrrhonism, two additional points are made:

  1. The self does not actually exist. Therefore,
  2. It is irrational to will things for oneself.

Point #7 is supposed to provide both a logical and a psychological basis for #4. By realizing that I do not really exist, I reduce my attachment to my (illusory) self and make more space to care about others, which, in turn, makes me happier.

Point #6 is perfectly respectable. Plenty of philosophers (and others) who have considered the problem of personal identity have concluded that an ambitious form of the self does not really exist. (For instance, David Hume.)

But if the self doesn’t exist, does it really follow that we should pay more attention to other people? We might just as well reason as follows:

  1. The self does not really exist. Therefore,
  2. a. Other people do not really exist as selves. Therefore,
  3. a. It is irrational to be concerned about them.


  1. The self does not really exist. Therefore,
  2. b. It is impossible for me to change my character in any lasting way. Therefore,
  3. b. There is no point in trying to make myself more ethical.

Striving to be a better or happier person is not a sound reason for doubting the existence of the self. This doubt may do more harm than good. If there actually is no self, that is a good reason not to believe in one. But then we are obliged to incorporate skepticism about personal identity into a healthy overall view. The best way might be some version of this:

  1. The self does not really exist. Nevertheless,
  2. c. I would be wise to treat other people as if they were infinitely precious, durable, unique, and persistent things (selves).

I think it is worth getting metaphysics right, to the best of our ability. For example, it is worth trying to reason about what kind of a thing (if anything) a self is. However, I don’t believe that metaphysical beliefs entail ways of life in a straightforward way, with monotonic logic.

Any given metaphysical view is usually compatible with many different ways of being. It may even strongly encourage several different forms of life, depending on how a person absorbs the view. Thus I am not surprised that some people (notably, thoughtful Buddhists) have gained compassion and equanimity by adopting the doctrine of no-self, even though the same doctrine could encourage selfishness in others, and some people may become more compassionate by believing in the existence of durable selves. In fact, many have believed in the following argument:

  1. Each person (or sentient being) has a unique, durable, essential being
  2. I am but one out of billions of these beings. Therefore,
  1. It is irrational to will things for myself.

The relationship between an abstract idea and a way of being is mediated by “culture,” meaning all our other relevant beliefs, previous examples, stories, and role-models. We cannot assess the moral implications of an idea without understanding the culture in which it is used. For instance, the doctrine of no-self will have different consequences in a Tibetan monastery versus a Silicon Valley office park.

We cannot simply adopt or join a new culture. That would require shedding all our other experiences and beliefs, which is impossible. Therefore, we are often in the position of having to evaluate a specific idea as if it were a universal or culturally neutral proposition that we could adopt all by itself. For instance, that is what we do when we read Hume and Kant (or Nagarjuna) on the question of personal identity and try to decide what to think about it. This seems a respectable activity; I only doubt that, on its own, it will make us either better or worse people.

See also: notes on religion and cultural appropriation: the case of US Buddhism; Buddhism as philosophy; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives); individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon. And see “The Philosophic Buddha” by Kieran Setiya, which prompted these thoughts.

how the structure of ideas affects a conversation

According to the “interactionist” theory of Mercier & Sperber 2017 (which I discussed on Monday), human beings evolved to make smart decisions in groups, and that requires us to exchange reasons. We naturally want to express reasons for our intuitions and critically assess other people’s reasons for their beliefs. It matters how well we perform these two tasks.

One familiar kind of person frustrates discussion by constantly linking every belief that he endorses back to one foundational principle, whether it is a constitutional right to individual freedom, God’s will, or equality for all. The problem is not the core belief itself but the way his whole network of beliefs is structured; it prevents reasoning around his core idea if you don’t happen to share it. 

A different familiar figure is the person who offers many ideas but cannot provide a reason for most of them. If we think of a reason as a link between two ideas, then this person’s network has no links. Whereas the first network was too centralized, the second is too disconnected.

We don’t literally possess networks of beliefs; rather, a network graph is a way of representing our reasoning. I conjecture that the formal features of such a network can predict whether the person will deliberate well. To illustrate (but not to prove) that conjecture, I will discuss two Kansas State students who participated in an online discussion as part of the research that led to Levine, Eagan & Shaffer 2022.

Before discussing how socioeconomic factors affect health, all the students in this study wrote short passages describing their personal views. Adèle and Beth are pseudonyms for white undergraduate KSU women, aged 21 and 22, whose mothers had not attended college.

Adèle wrote:

In my opinion, race should not influence the human health and well-being because every person should have an opportunity to succeed no matter what race they are. Social class influences the health because a healthy lifestyle is more expensive, but also a healthy lifestyle means physical activity and that does not depend on the social class, it depends on individual motivation. A social factor would be the people that we surround ourselves with. If we interact with people that live a healthy lifestyle, we can get influenced and borrow some of their habits. But is also true that for the lower class is the hardest to live a healthy lifestyle because they cannot afford one.

I think we could informally diagram her view with the graph below. The nodes are her stated beliefs. The arrows are her causal claims, except where I’ve denoted them as normative implications. This graph does not explain why Adèle formed her intuitions (i.e., why these beliefs formed in her mind) but rather represents the explicit reasons that she offers to explain her beliefs to others.

Beth wrote:

My thoughts on the impact of race, class and social factors on determinants on human health and wellbeing are that no matter what your race or social class is, you should be treated equally because the color of a person’s skin should not affect the way you view them. Both a black and white person can put in the same amount of hard work and effort to be able to reap the benefits of a happy healthy life. However, with that being said, there are some people who do not work as hard and that puts them in a lower social class than others. possibly making their overall health and wellbeing less than someone who is up in a higher social class.

I think we could informally diagram Beth’s view like this:

I propose that Adèle will be a better conversation-partner than Beth, not because her beliefs are superior but because of the structures represented by these two graphs.

Adèle has generated several independent intuitions (moral and empirical) that push in somewhat different directions. They are all connected to the idea of health, because that is the assigned topic, but there is some wiggle room between her beliefs, and she has identified several causes of the same outcomes. Adèle and I could talk about several of her intuitions. I could ask her to offer reasons for each one, and we could turn to another issue if we found that we disagreed on that point.

Meanwhile, Beth only offers reasons for one conclusion: that people should not pay attention to racial differences. I would worry that we couldn’t engage once she had made that point. Her sentence that begins, “However, with that being said,” does not actually present a conflicting point but elaborates on her main argument.

When asked whether “Everyday people from different parties can have civil, respectful conversations about politics,” Adèle agreed, but Beth strongly disagreed. Adèle also rated the online discussion more highly than Beth did as a learning experience. This is suggestive evidence that Adèle was more deliberative (in this context) than Beth.

Beth did participate in the online discussion four times and explicitly referred to previous commenters with openings that look civil, such as: “Although I agree with everything you have said, I think. …” However, all four of her contributions were variations on her basic point that success is due to hard work.

In contrast, when Adèle saw a post in the online discussion that recounted a story about a white woman who had succeeded in life due to her own hard work, she responded deliberatively, trying to connect to the previous writer’s ideas. She began: “I saw you talked about how hard work and effort can help you achieve a better lifestyle and I agree with it.” She had expressed this belief in her personal statement prior to the discussion, and it is represented in the first graph above.

She added, “But we also need to have in mind the people that grow up in less fortunate families and have different aspirations that some people have.” Here she introduced another belief that she had already held. She supported it with reasons: “For some of us, going to college is a thing that we knew it’s going to happen in our lives and we never question if we might go or no. But for some people they do not have this opportunity to afford college. … I believe that some people even if they are willing to put hard work and effort, not all of them are guaranteed to succeed.” She then acknowledged a criticism and addressed it: “Of course, there are people who succeeded but I believe that there are a lot of them who did not. And for a person who is less fortunate is not too easy to live a healthy lifestyle.”

My claim is not that Adèle formed better beliefs by reasoning. She may have developed her beliefs intuitively, as we generally do. Nor is there evidence that she revised her beliefs in response to objections, any more than Beth did. My claim is that Adèle contributed better to the group’s discussion because the structure of her reasons permitted more interaction.

(Two limitations of this post: First, I chose the examples to illustrate my main point. That does not prove the general pattern. Second, my diagrams could be biased. For instance, Beth’s belief that “motivation determines health,” which I depicted above as one node in her network, could be unpacked to look like this:

Adding those four nodes to her map would make her whole graph look almost as complex as Adèle’s. I am still looking for less subjective approaches to mapping text. In a lot of my current work, I elicit network structures by asking people multiple-choice questions, rather than graphing their open-ended statements, because the quantitative data seems more reliable for making interpersonal comparisons.)

Sources: Mercier, Hugo and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2017; Levine, Peter & Eagan, Brendan & Shaffer, David. (2022). Deliberation as an Epistemic Network: A Method for Analyzing Discussion. 10.1007/978-3-030-93859-8_2. See also modeling a political discussion; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; and how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach.