Three Types of Politics: Interests, Ideas, and Grievances

The political system in a democratic society allows a diverse group of people to make collective decisions. Here I define politics as the content of deliberations and decisions within such a system, rather than institutions and mechanisms used to bring about decisions. Of course, institutions do affect the content of politics, but that won’t be my focus here. Rather I will focus on different types of political content.

The content of our political discussions, arguments, and bargaining can be categorized into a number of incompatible types. They are about different subjects. These types of politics are all utilized by the major political parties, but we are often unaware of how their incompatibility thwarts political compromise and decisions. And they each leads to unique problems when any one begins to dominate the politics of a country or political party.

One of the basic problems we are seeing with politics today is a transition from a politics of ideas and interests to one primarily of grievance. Although the politics of grievance is perhaps best exemplified by Donald Trump and his followers, grievance is also becoming a dominant political theme on the left.

There is nothing particularly wrong with the inclusion of grievances within our politics. Many grievances are valid and must be addressed by any successful political system. However, when grievance dominates politics, much as when it dominates personal relationships and other social relations, it fosters a bitterness and anger that makes compromise and cooperation difficult.

I do not think that the answer to this problem is a politics dominated by either interests or ideas. A politics dominated by interests lacks any direction or justice and will tend to promote the narrow interests of whatever groups are in the best bargaining position. Likewise a politics dominated by ideas, where we attempt to transform government and society according to some coherent ideology, leads society to ignore the interests of various groups. History also tells us that a politics guided by ideology often justifies dispossession of property and violence in order to bring about the radical social change in line with that ideology.

My primary purpose here is to describe these three types of politics. However, I think that such a discussion provides reason to prefer a politics that mixes interests and ideas, and attempts to limit the inclusion of grievances.


A view traditionally held by political scientists (for instance, see Dahl’s Democracy and Its Critics) states that democratic politics allow the interests of the public to be expressed in political decisions. Voters will tend to vote according to their interests, and so a widespread franchise that weighs voters roughly equally will tend to create politics that reflect the interests of voters equally as well. Modern western thinkers tend to reduce “interests” to economic interests, though we probably shouldn’t do this. People also have an interest in living within an environment that allows the to act according to their non-economic values as well.

The politics of interests is a politics of negotiation. When people are guided by their interests, they tend to support tax codes in which they pay the least and budgets in which they gain the most. They expect their political representatives to act similarly. The rich, who benefit more from lower taxes more than generous social welfare programs will advocate for lower taxes, whereas the poor will advocate for higher taxes on the wealthy and more generous social welfare programs. Communities will pursue funds for their own roads and infrastructure projects, even when it puts other communities at a disadvantage. Farmers pursue farm subsidies, corporations that need large numbers of workers pursue free trade and open boarders, and labor unions pursue tariffs and closed borders.

Politics from interests tend to be both stable and, given a universal franchise, serve the interests of the most people. There are also ways of creating institutions so that political decisions take into account the interests of minority groups that might be largely ignored within large societies. One of the more powerful tools is the promotion of political localism in which many decisions are left to community governments. This has the effect of allowing national minorities with shared interests to possess majorities or significant minorities within local governments. It also allows for a safety valve, so to speak, so that minorities who believe that their interests are not being respected by local politics can move to a place where they are respected. For all of these reasons politics from interests serve as the stabilizing backbone of a thriving political system.

However, politics from interests are also shallow and myopic. They lack any vision or wider direction that can guide a state or community to become better, and will often promote outcomes that seem unjust. We feel a strong need for political decisions to tend toward some notion of fairness, even when it may disadvantage certain groups that have historically had various advantages. For this reason systems that are dominated by interests will also tend to be unstable in their own way, as people are unwilling to accept immediate personal and regional costs that promote the greater good. Therefore, it is important that political systems are also guided by ideas about what a good society looks like and what is just. They allow people to see how certain political policies will promote larger social goals that they support. A politics of ideas also allows politics to promote a sense of justice, something that binds people together within the society.


When politics is too focused on individual and group interests it is very difficult for us to provide arguments for our favored policies that can be accepted as valid by others. Discussions about politics of interests begin and end with the bargaining power of the various groups. Good arguments show others how the result will benefit them and why they couldn’t hope to get a better result. These are politics in the mud.

Arguments about political ideas, on the other hand, allow us to discuss the merits of various political policies abstracted away from the particular bargaining context. Ideas allow us to paint a picture for others about a possible ideal society and describe how various policies might get us there. If politics of interests is fought in the mud, politics from ideas soars through the air.

The libertarian reformation of American economic policy during the 1980s (whatever we may think of it) would have been impossible without a clear vision of its ideals and goals. Free-market advocates did not just argue that their preferred policies would advantage the interests of voters (although they did do this), they also argued that they would create a system in which people were better able to get what they deserved. When taxes were redistributed, in the form of social welfare programs, some people were given things by the government that they had not earned and so did not deserve. Under this view, eliminating redistributive policies makes the system more just. Of course, they also offered an argument from interests (the high taxation required for redistribution is inefficient and so makes us all poorer), but the libertarian ideas were crucial for gaining widespread support even among those who benefited from redistributive policies.

The politics of ideas is important for understanding why people often vote against their interests. Some have wondered “what is wrong with Kanasas” where scores of people of modest means vote against the very redistributive policies that would likely benefit them. One could similarly wonder “what is wrong with California” where scores of rich people vote for redistributive policies and higher taxes that are unlikely to benefit them. They do so because of their political ideals, based upon ideas of what a just and good society is like. They believe that certain types of policies are just, even though those policies don’t benefit them.

It is the very ability of political ideas to support policies not in people’s direct interests that also make them dangerous. Although the politics from interests tend to by myopic, they also keep people grounded. It is rarely in anyone’s direct interests to commit acts of violence, disturb the peace of society, or radically alter important government programs. On the other hand, politics from ideas often call for radical actions and radical shifts in policy. If we are concerned about justice, and we see that a certain group of people are supporting an unjust system, then we may be able to justify violence against them.

Not only do ideas more easily justify radical actions, but they are also more susceptible to manipulation. The ideas that we have are more malleable than our own interests, and few people are any good at examining their own ideas or those provided by others. It was shocking to many how easily a large portion of the Republican party was made to believe that Trump rightly won the 2020 election. I don’t think that this should come as too much of a surprise. Political elites can easily manipulate the political ideas of those who already follow them – it is much more difficult for those leaders to alter the interests of their followers.


Politics of interests and ideas are both forward-looking. When people are guided by them they seek the best possible future outcome. The past and present are only relevant in what they say about those future outcomes. However, people also often demand responses to their grievances over what they view as past wrongs. Many grievances are able to be resolved within the judicial system. If someone causes you a demonstrable harm, then in many cases you can file a lawsuit that is meant to resolve that grievance. However, many perceived harms are not subject to intervention by the judicial system; this is the role of a politics of grievance.

Politics of grievance is concerned with those grievances that are not in the purview of the existing judicial system. Those with grievances seek to use the political system to obtain restitution for the harms done to them, sometimes directly from the people who they believe harmed them and other times from society at large. Often times these grievances are valid and the target is indeed responsible, but other times grievances are largely invented (there was never a corresponding harm) or the target is incorrect. Ultimately the burden of differentiating valid and invalid grievances is placed on the political system.

Western political systems are generally good at handling both politics of interests (through bargaining) and politics of ideas (through deliberation), but have more difficulty handling grievances without creating conflict. Conflict is inherent to grievances, because they typically make demands on others without offering them anything in exchange. This is because grievances are backward looking; the perceived harm has already occurred and only compensation for that harm can resolve the grievance.

Grievances can still be worth pursuing, but these politics often require that the aggrieved group (or its allies) are in a position to coerce the group that supposedly committed the harm. For instance, after the Civil War, the north was in a position to resolve grievances of enslaved people in the south only by first destroying the ability of southern whites to resist. And of course, coercing groups who do not believe that they have done anything wrong will often cause them to create grievances of their own. This sets up a bitter cycle of grievance, and if coercion is not continually applied (just as it was ended after Reconstruction) the originally harmed group can find itself once again the subject of the perpetrators’ violence. Alternatively, the perpetrating group can be convinced of the wrongness of the harm they caused (as with Germans after WW2). However, this often requires a dramatic social change that is beyond the immediate coercive abilities of a state.

Interests, Ideas, and Grievances

A healthy political system will support both politics of interests and ideas. Interests ground political decisions in a concrete world of actual people, whereas ideas allow a political society to develop into something better and more coherent. A politics of grievances is important in providing recourse to those who were harmed when there is no recourse to be had through current law. However, this form of politics can quickly grow contentious and bitter. A political system that is characterized by grievance will tend to devolve as conflict interferes with a society’s ability to come to reasonable political agreements. After observing the events of the past year, it is hard not to conclude that American society may be devolving in just this way. Grievances are crowding out interests and ideas.

Psychological disorder and the dream of Utopia

The view of humanity that we get from the ancients (and by extension the Abrahamic religions) is both deeply deceptive and very influential.  If people are the creation of beings of (more or less) perfection, then it is reasonable to expect that humans are naturally orderly creatures.   Or, at the very least, we are disordered in some sort of systematic way.  According to this view, the psychological and social disorder experienced by all people and societies to varying degrees is a shortcoming.  The behavior and lived experiences of humans fall short of some meaningful ideal, because they fail in some way to reach their full potentials.  Of course, we might think that humans cannot reaching their full potentials without the grace of God or unadulterated contemplation of the good — or perhaps humans cannot possibly reach such a point of perfection — but all of this presumes that there is some sense to the idea of human perfection.

Certainly, we can conceive of what a “perfect” human might look like, but this has little to do with humans as they actually are.  Evolutionary theory in fact is able to provide us with a simple yet profound insight in this regard: the natural state of a human is to be a jumbled mess that gets the job done better than the next local competitor.  The same goes for a community.  We all know this to some degree, but we typically ignore what this means for our lives and society.  The human body and psychology has certainly been “finely tuned” by various evolutionary forces, so that individuals can produce offspring and provide them with various advantages.  We have also been made naturally cooperative in certain ways, so that we can more easily form societies of individuals to provide mutual advantages to each other, but this in no way guarantees healthy psychologies or societies of peace and happiness.

In fact, it is reasonable to think that a society of perpetually unsatisfied humans, who continually seek to compete with one another, will have an advantage over those containing people who have reached a state of inner peace and unconditional love for their neighbors.  This matters, because it seems to call into question the widely lauded goal of promoting universal happiness and social tranquility.  Not only does such a goal take a too optimistic view of the power of social reform, but it also promotes a false vision of human nature.

Many of us also think that finally getting our psychological act together would make us happier.  If we could only take account of all of our disparate (and often maladaptive) motivations and feelings and put them into proper order, then we would finally be living in a virtuous and happy way.  Social reformers often take a similar view of our social ills; if only our institutions were made to function well enough (providing all of the needed resources and incentives) to bring about virtuous and happy lives among the populous, then social order and prosperity would also be achieved.  They of course recognize that such a utopia is not likely in our messy world, but they still think that the ideal is meaningful.

I think we should doubt that the ideal of utopia is meaningful.  This is not simply because humans are deeply flawed.  Rather, it is because human psychology is not the sort of thing that is likely to achieve either internal (psychological) harmony nor external (social) harmony.  Again, this is nothing new, but it is largely ignored by optimistic social theorists and reformers who hope to create environments and education that promotes pro-social motivations and subsequent behaviors.  This includes both social theorists on the left as well as the right.  Some socialists, for instance, think that once the capitalist power structure is removed (or at least substantially weakened) then the motivations of people will be transformed, becoming more pro-social.  An extreme version of this comes form Marx and Engels, but a somewhat weaker one persists among many modern socialists and social-democrats; something about the current economic paradigm makes us slavish and vicious consumers, that once removed will free us from that sort of behavior.

On the right, libertarians have a similar utopian ideals.  They think that when people are left alone to live, create, and trade, they will live cooperative and virtuous lives, because it will be prudent to do so.  When the government’s only role is to provide for public goods and a system of public justice, and it does so rather effectively, then the only way for someone to get by is to be productive.  Cheating and stealing are promptly punished, and begging for subsidies does no good.  Many libertarians seem to have an idea that such a society would be a rather happy place to be, where people are able to safely pursue their own interests.

If people are naturally disordered, then there is little reason to think that non-coercive social systems will bring about a happy and peaceful world.  It cannot be assumed that more just social institutions can automatically lead to a more just and well-functioning public.  It leads us to a social theory more in line with Thomas Hobbes and “classical” conservatives like Edmund Burke than the modern social muses of Locke and Marx.  Cultural norms certainly provide a form of internal control, but these forms of control are typically inadequate, especially in pluralistic societies with weaker cultural norms.  And if many people experience a great deal of psychological disorder, disorder that will never be fully resolved, then their ability to internalize and behave according to a complex set of social norms with any consistency may be limited.  Ultimately, greater levels of social organization may require greater levels of external coercion, or at least the threat of it.  This coercion may be subtle, though nonetheless real and backed by state violence.  It may even be subconscious, like that which comes from messaging and marketing.  Those in marketing have long known that you often need to trick people to buy a product; likewise, you may need to trick people to bring about a good society.

In societies (like the U.S.) with relatively weak social control through culture, promoting greater levels of the public good may require greater degrees of social coercion.  I’m not sure what we should conclude from this.  It may, of course, mean that there are limits to how well the public good can be promoted in free societies.  Some people will always choose private violence in order to settle disputes.  Others will make poor choices about when to start a family or what purchases to make.  Still others will adopt hateful attitudes toward their fellow citizens because of prejudice.  What we can do to get people to change their behaviors on their own may be far more limited that we would hope.   However, it may also mean that we should be open to greater levels of social coercion, at least if we are serious about improving human lives.  I’m not sure which we should choose, but it seems that the disordered character of human nature pits freedom and well-being  against one another.

Skinner vs Jacobs: a project

I admit, this has a horrible title.   But I wanted to get something written about a project that I would like to work a little more on…and creating good titles is not one of my strengths.

Anyone who has encountered a manifestation of B.F. Skinner’s  utopian dreams (Walden II as a prime example) is made instantly aware of a certain view of public policy.  Under this view, public policy is formulated by experts who mold the behaviors of citizens in such a way to lead to the most happiness possible.  We should never have to ask people what sort of policies are good, we assume that certain results are desirable (pleasure, happiness, fulfillment, or whatever) and formulate policy with those as our end.  This is the technocratic idea; it presupposes that people generally do not know how to achieve the outcomes we want and that experts can do so better.  This is obviously undemocratic, but we do just this sort of thing for engineering problems.  We don’t generally question how the engineers decide to build a bridge, for instance, once we have set the parameters.  One might argue that we should aim for the same ideal in public policy; this would require an extensive understanding of sociology and psychology (which we don’t currently have) but we might still think that this is the sort of way we should develop public policy.

On the other end we find theorists such as Jane Jacobs, who thought that planners should generally leave people to their own devices and listen to their preferences.  During New York City’s highway wars of the 1960s, Jacobs was one of the principal opponents of the technocrats (Robert Moses, most prominent among them) who had a vision of New York that stressed easy vehicular transportation.  Such plans, however, typically involved the destruction of urban neighborhoods.  Jacobs advocated mostly democratic (and localist) procedures that centered around the involvement of community members in the formation of public policy related to that community.  This is similar to the messy process that is common today; there may be (and often are) grand, all encompassing plans for policy or urban design but these plans rarely see the light of day without a good deal of public debate.  Of course, this approach is nearly as problematic as that advocated by the technocrats.  Many questions arise as to how such a process actually works.  How do we know what the goal of public policy should be?  It is likely the case that what is actually better for people (what they will prefer in the end) is different from their current preferences.  So, it seems that people may not even know what they want (as paradoxical as that may seem).  Also, how do we make any cohesive plans if we have to listen to the chaotic preferences of the public?  How do we find any commonalities or order among these preferences?  It also often seems to be the case that political power overcomes truth in the formation of public policy.  If political power is the determining factor of our public policy using the democratic process, such a process seems just as tyrannical as the technocratic solution.

I have a few more thoughts on this topic but I won’t share those today.  I simply wanted to get some questions about this topic written down.  I’ll certainly write more about it in the future.

However, perhaps I’ll post some coffee reviews next.

A Psychological Interpretation of Hume’s Standard of Taste

In Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste”1, we are presented with a sometimes confusing picture of the aesthetic world. On one hand, Hume is quite explicit in saying that aesthetic properties are dependent upon beliefs of aesthetic agents; they are parasitic on sentiment. However, Hume argues that there are nevertheless clear standards of taste, which dictate the correctness of our various aesthetic judgments. Here I wish to present a loose interpretation of Hume that takes the psychological nature of aesthetic judgments seriously. Following work by Jerrold Levinson, I claim that aesthetic standards can only be understood from the perspective of prediction; we want to have an aesthetic standard of taste so that we can predict which works will bring us the most aesthetic pleasure. Furthermore, if we consider this issue from such a perspective, the more troubling issues of Hume’s view fall away. Continue reading A Psychological Interpretation of Hume’s Standard of Taste

Activism and truth

I simply don’t trust activists. The reason for this is probably quite clear; activists have stopped searching for truth (whatever sort of thing that might be) and simply focus on how they can argue for some given view. Philosophers who deal with topics that interface directly with the world have the difficult task of straddling the line between simple neutrality and activism. Rhetorical skills are extremely important when dealing with those not familiar with a topic; too often clear, valid but dull arguments fall flat when posed to the general public, and this makes such illuminations of truth completely useless if one wants to make a difference. Some topics are simply too complicated to be comprehensible (all at once and quickly) and therefore need to be distilled down to more simplistic elements that might appeal to a general audience. I don’t want to make any big claim here about any of this, but I do want to elucidate the problem for the philosopher of practical problems.

So how do we stay neutral and yet be effective? It certainly requires good faith; we need to approach these issues with as much neutrality as possible and with truth as our goal. But I think this is often ignored. If we decide for some pre-reflective reason (or after some sort of preliminary reflection) that something is true then it is far to common for us to find cleaver ways to argue for that given view. We can simply feel that healthcare is a right or that urbanity is good without any deep understanding of why. Then it is quite easy to practice a little sophistry and make plausible arguments even though we might ignore a good deal of facts. Or we take facts that exist within some sort of complex context as simple (or straight forward) facts without qualification, even though most facts require a great deal of contextualization. I fear that most of the information you hear from activists is of this simplified sort and it seems obvious that this strategy likely leads to a great deal of deception and confusion.

But I (like most people) have social views that are not totally elucidate and vetted. Does such a high mandate for truth-seeking require me to sit on the sidelines until I am very sure that my views at least approach truth in some meaningful way? (of course I don’t require that we are absolutely sure of the truth, just reasonably so) I hope not; however, it seems as though the unthinking mode of politics (in which we never question our lower level assumptions about how to bring about good) would be in direct conflict with the truth-seeking (or modeling of regularities, if one is going to be difficult) of philosophers, scientists, and any other serious theorists.

How do we deny someone a good?

David Chalmers has coined the term “hard problem” to describe the issue of consciousness; science has had great success solving “easy” problems related to the functional roles of mental states but has had little (and perhaps no) success solving the deeper questions regarding consciousness itself.  Although, the existence of some consciousness problem beyond the functional (and scientifically testable) issues of mind is extremely controversial, I think a similar language might be useful when talking about ethics.

We can imagine a case in which someone desires some good (something that they desire to do, that gives them pleasure); perhaps they want to witness animals fight each other to the death.  Society, however, might prohibit this; if a person does do this sort of thing they will be put in jail.  That would certainly leave the person worse off as far as experiencing goods.  So, simply put, society has decided to deprive this person of some good.

There could be an “easy” solution to this problem.  If the person reasons morally within a similar moral context as the rest of society then we can show them that setting up animal fights is inconsistent with other moral views that they have.  Notice that if this works we are guaranteed a solution that is satisfactory for both society and the thwarted animal killer.  It is a matter of logic whether a given moral belief follows from others.  Of course, making our moral outlook internally consistent is a lengthy process, but at least we know the process by which this can be achieved.

However, there is another possibility that seems to be “hard”.  Imagine the person who wants the spectacle of animal slaughter simply says that they consider animals to have no moral rights whatsoever.  They may have metaphysical (or similarly, religious) views that allow them to do anything they want to animals just as we do with machines.  As Descartes believed, this person might think that animals are simply automatons; therefore, under their view, to protect animals from needless pain and death is as pointless as protecting robots from a similar threat (and we do watch robots destroy each other without feeling guilty).

This is a “hard” problem because we can not reason this person out of the wish to watch animals suffer.  Their view is, at some basic level, incompatible with our own and there is no reason for anyone to choose one view over the other unless they refer to their pre-existing moral views.  We can try to find some moral common ground with the person so that they will come around to our point of view, but this attempt may very well fail.  So, we must simply deny the person the pleasure they seek.  What gives us the right to do this?  At this point the process completely falls apart; we must reference yet more moral beliefs of ours (perhaps about how we have the right to protect creatures from harm) in order to justify any action we take.  For these cases there can not be any more moral argumentation, only conflict.  This makes the problem quite “hard” indeed.

The difference between trains and buses

Some people feel buses are the answer to all our mass transit needs.  They will, of course, admit that big expensive commuter rail systems are more pleasant than a fleet of buses (anyone who has ridden on both can attest to this), but they will simply point to the price tag as the major issue at hand.  How can we afford such large transit systems?

In fact, if you look at the issue from a certain perspective rail systems seem simply fascist.  Whereas bus networks can be easily adapted to meet the ever changing demands of the customers (we must keep them happy!) , rail systems dictate what the customer behavior should be.  It is very easy to change a bus route to accommodate a new population distribution (for example, the construction of a new subdivision); it is extremely difficult to change a rail system.

A rail system has the remarkable effect of change the area around it.  Transit stops usually become hubs of development; property values go up around them and people try to move as close by as possible.  In the Washington DC area, for example, real estate prices are largely a function of distance to a metro stop; people want to use the metro and thus want to be near a stop.  But it is not clear how we should feel about this trend.  On the one hand, a rail system can have an incredible stabilizing effect on a community.  It supports clear neighborhood centers and a maximization of space (i.e. higher density) around the stops of the metro.  This in turn greatly decreases the dependence of residents on cars and thus decreases energy consumption; if you live near a metro station/neighborhood center, you have all your basic needs met within walking distance and you can take the train to anywhere else you need to go.

However, the flip side of stability is restrictiveness.  The rail will stay where it is for a great while and therefore people are forced to live where that system exists if they want the high quality mass transit that their tax dollars helped build.  People must, in effect, react to what the government has provided and are not as free when choosing where to live.  The government can, in effect, coerce people to live in a specified pattern.   The ethical implications of all this are rather interesting, and when I have time I’ll post about my take on it.  However, for now this is an issue about which I am still starting to form a view.

Update about my real life

The last few months have been quite hectic, so I haven’t really updated this much.  There are a few coffee shop reviews that I have yet to write up, but those should be coming soon.  Also, I’m moving to the Washington D.C area by the end of summer where I’ll be starting in the philosophy PhD program at the University of Maryland.  So, the entire admissions process is over for me and I’m quite happy with how it turned out in the end.  However, the waiting process was probably the most stressful period in my life and I’m very glad for it to be over with!  I’ll probably post more about my experiences later; I did learn a few things as I went through this admissions cycle and perhaps it may be of some (limited) help to others.  And maybe I’ll have some thoughts about philosophy eventually…who knows.

Moral Seriousness and Ethical Contextualism – The writing sample

This is the writing sample I sent graduate schools; it is full of philosophy jargon that may make it a difficult read for many.  But I just put it out there, because it is something I wrote.

1. Introduction

One way to evaluate a metaethical view is to determine how it accommodates beliefs we have about the world. On the one hand we want our moral theory to be compatible with the extremely successful naturalistic ontology that is the dominant view of the objective world; however, it is also hard to deny that we have moral experiences of a certain sort that oftentimes seem to contradict naturalism. Mark Timmons in Morality without Foundations and Timmons with Terry Horgan in a number of later articles have proposed a metaethical theory that aims to satisfy both of these pressures. This view has changed names several times through the years but I will call it ‘ethical contextualism’, as this is how Timmons refers to it in Morality without Foundations, which most of this analysis is based upon. In this paper, I will not contest whether ethical contextualism is satisfactorily compatible with naturalism; as an irrealist view, it easily accommodates this. I also will not deny that the view properly accommodates moral experience as Timmons and Horgan have characterized it. However, in section 3, I contend that Timmons and Horgan do not properly address one important aspect of our moral experience; they fail to address our experience of taking morality seriously. This makes their view vulnerable to a plausibility argument that I present. Then, in section 4, I show that their explanation of moral seriousness does not coincide with our common conception of it. In section 5, I further demonstrate that Timmons and Horgan cannot simply jettison moral seriousness from their view without also conflicting with the prevalent notion that we can change our moral context in a reasoned manner. Finally, in section 6, I assert that ethical contextualism can only be made plausible if its proponents provide a detailed description of moral seriousness that is consistent with irrealism and also show how this affects the role of morality in our lives.


2. An overview of ethical contextualism

The version of ethical contextualism that Timmons and Horgan propose is entirely irrealist; it asserts that there are no moral properties and therefore moral statements are not descriptive. This can be contrasted with moral realism, which views moral statements as descriptions of properties in the objective world. Under moral realism, matters-of-fact in the world somehow set the truth-value of a moral statement. However, under moral irrealism the source of moral truth is not so easily explained because there are no direct ‘truth makers’ in the world. Some irrealists attempt to overcome this by reducing moral statements to non-normative descriptive ones. For instance, a statement such as “Abortion is wrong” may be reduced to something about the psychological state of the speaker (“I believe abortion is wrong”). However, along with this reduction comes an elimination of many of the features of moral experience that we take for granted. For example, moral statements have certain surface features that allow us to reason logically with them. If I say “Abortion is permissible” and my friend says “Abortion is impermissible,” typically we think of these as being two answers to the same question. We also think that they are contradictory because they are translated into the logical form of ‘A’ and ‘~A’ respectively. Under a reductive account, this is not the case; the statements are translated into “P1 thinks A” and “P2 thinks ~A,” and these two statements are not contradictory. At least on face value, this seems to change the standard way we experience our moral language. Timmons’s solution is non-descriptive and non-reductive, so moral statements are not transformed at all. Instead, the truth-value of a moral statement is set by its correct assertibility within a moral context. Notice that this is a rather radical solution, as it means that no aspect of a moral statement’s truth-value is set by the world. However, this has the potential to accommodate both our moral experience and naturalism. This gives ethical contextualism an advantage over standard realist and irrealist views that tend to only accommodate one or the other.

Under Timmons’s view, described in Morality without Foundations, the basic element of the moral world is the context. A moral context is the set of moral beliefs that we hold, some of which are more important in our moral reasoning than others. Timmons asserts that much of our moral reasoning is done from a morally ‘engaged’ perspective. This means that we are thinking and acting morally using the context as our basis and justification for moral truth. This process need not even be conscious for us; this is demonstrated by the direct nature that many of our moral perceptions and acts possess. For example, if you see a person being beaten in the street, it seems as if you see the wrongness of that situation directly; you do not need to contemplate the physical properties of the event in order to conclude that the action is wrong. Given your moral context, the normative properties of the act come automatically from the physical properties.

Furthermore, we are least aware of those moral beliefs that form the basic structure of our moral world. In a coherent moral network, all the other moral principles will be based upon these base principles. For example, there may be an individual who reasons morally from within context ‘A’ and another who does so in context ‘B’; imagine that ‘A’ has a hedonistic basic moral principle whereas ‘B’ has a basic principle that centers around the sanctity of human life. According to Timmons, all other moral principles need to be justified by these basic moral principles. So, in A it would likely be justified to kill an infant with a degenerative illness if his/her life will be one filled with constant pain, whereas this probably would not be justified in context B. Moral justification within a context works in this fashion: less basic moral principles receive their justification from the basic principles that characterize a moral context, though those basic moral principles do not require any sort of objective justification from facts outside of the context. Timmons contends that it is through this method of moral justification that moral statements within a context can have truth-values. This means that for moral statements reflecting derived (non-basic) principles, moral experience and practice can function just as if there were objective moral facts.


3. The argument from moral seriousness

The first part of my argument relies on what Timmons proposes is an advantage of ethical contextualism; to use his words, it “comport(s) with deeply embedded presumptions of ordinary moral discourse and practice” (Timmons 1999, 12). He further describes what he has in mind by giving several categories of discourse and practice. In summarized form, they are as follows (p. 159):


  1. There is a general form of our moral language. For instance, we oftentimes use logical constructions in moral language, refer to moral properties, and assert moral statements as if they are genuine.

  2. There is a certain moral phenomenology, so that we seem to experience moral facts as if they are in the world itself.

  3. There are ‘critical practices’ in morality; some moral statements seem genuinely true, and we feel as though moral progress is possible. Furthermore, there also seem to be genuine moral disagreements between moral agents.

  4. Moral discourse is oftentimes reason guided.


Timmons spends a great deal of time showing that a contextual irrealist view can accommodate all of these aspects of moral experience. I will not contest that he succeeds on this point. However, I wish to propose another aspect that I think Timmons has missed:

5.    When we carefully analyze our moral beliefs, we do not consider an (epistemologically) arbitrary basis for those beliefs to be acceptable.

This is another way of saying that we take our ethical views seriously. Note that this new feature is quite different from ones already mentioned by Timmons1, but it only becomes apparent when we do a more stringent analysis of our ethical beliefs. Features 1- 4 occur from a morally engaged perspective, which means that they are experienced when one reasons and acts morally from within a moral context. Even #4 is only possible from within a moral context; moral beliefs can only be justified by their agreement with base principles of the moral context. Because we do not normally concern ourselves with these principles, this sort of justification is typically adequate. This is obviously true when we make moral assessments in real time, such as when we see someone being beaten; the situation simply does not allow for a more time-consuming analysis. However, even when we are not confronted with an immediate moral situation, we still reason from within a certain context. When one asks whether abortion is wrong, typically the dialectic involves the competing moral prohibitions on killing and restrictions on autonomy. We rarely ask whether killing or autonomy are important morally themselves; the contexts in which we all morally reason already assume that they are. Timmons himself gives a good example of how moral reasoning is typically restricted to within the context (pp. 220-221). He describes a committee he was once a member of that was tasked with formulating an honor code for the university. The committee members needed to come to a consensus in a reasonable amount of time and produce a code that would be consistent with the general sensibilities of the university. Timmons argues that in order to accomplish this they needed to operate within the same (or at least a similar) moral context. Therefore, if a skeptic should appear in such a situation declaring that we have no good reasons to think that plagiarism is wrong, his sentiments are seen as a waste of time. He is questioning the context in which the discussion takes place and, according to Timmons’ irrealism, this means that nothing can be said to contradict him.

Timmons describes how the committee in his example did not take the skeptic seriously and the conversation was quickly moved away from the skeptic’s worries. I think this is a common reaction to such a moral detachment; there is very little one can say to someone who simply denies basic premises of one’s moral outlook. For example, even something as basic as, “it is good for a human to prosper (if nothing else will be harmed” can be denied by a stubborn skeptic. We will probably stop taking them seriously, but still the skepticism stands. Timmons can explain this fact quite sensibly; we cannot justify the moral context itself because outside it there simply are no moral truths. Under his view, moral language does not even make sense without a context. Thus, the statement “My moral context is true and moral context B is not true” is simply improperly asserted. His moral irrealism posits that there are no moral truth makers in the objective world, and his contextualism states that outside of a context we can’t even make moral claims. Therefore, there is nothing else to say about these extra-contextual moral assertions.

Regardless of Timmons’ difficulty in accommodating it, #5 seems like a very compelling statement. Any successful moral theory should be able to supply the skeptic with an answer to the question of why we hold certain beliefs. It seems that when we look at our moral context from a detached perspective, we seek to make our beliefs non-arbitrary in an epistemic sense because it is not enough that our context is merely internally consistent. This is why we typically take moral truth seriously, just as we take truth about the world seriously. I will argue that because #5 is a compelling feature of moral experience, then any view that can accommodate it is more compelling than one that cannot if all other aspects of the views are equal. Furthermore, a realist version of contextualism could be this competing view; as Timmons describes it, realist contextualism does not differ from the irrealist version in how it explains the surface features of our within-context moral discourse (Timmons 1999, 124-125). However, it posits that our moral semantic norms conspire with the facts in the world to yield correct assertibility of moral statements. This means that, unlike irrealism, basic moral principles have objective justification outside of a given context; they are justified by the fact that they describe moral properties in the world. In this way, contextual realism is able to accommodate #5. With this dichotomy in mind, what I call ‘The argument from moral seriousness’ follows:


P1) If metaethical view V1 does not accommodate an aspect M of our moral experience that view V2 does, then (all other things being equal)2 V2 is more plausible than V1.


P2) Irrealist contextualism does not accommodate #5.


P3) Realist contextualism does accommodate #5.


P4) #5 is an aspect of our moral experience.


C) Realist contextualism (all other things being equal) is more plausible than irrealist contextualism.


P1 seems apparent; if we do not have to make any sacrifices, then accommodating an aspect of our moral experience is desirable. P2, P3, and P4 simply follow from my treatment of these topics above; at least on the face of it, they seem true. Timmons characterizes his contextualist view as one that can accommodate our moral experience even while being irrealist; however, if this argument succeeds then irrealist contextualism does not seem to be the optimum solution that Timmons takes it to be. In the next section I present a response to this sort of argument that Horgan and Timmons have already suggested.


4. An irrealist response to the argument from moral seriousness:

In a recent article, Horgan and Timmons preempt the issue of moral seriousness. They give the following suggestion (emphasis is theirs):


…we think that the sort of challenge being posed is best construed as a moral challenge: why ought people to take their moral views seriously? And the appropriate response is to give moral reasons – reasons that, for instance, will likely appeal to the important role that morality plays in people’s lives. Such moral reasons are not hard to find. And here again, our understanding of the challenge is to take it as appropriately dealt with from within an engaged moral outlook. (Horgan and Timmons 2006a, 287)


They see the problem of moral seriousness as just another moral question that can be treated from within the moral context. For instance, if we have a base principle under which psychological well-being is valued, it would be considered good to take morality seriously if it has psychological benefits. Thus, they assert that psychologically pragmatic reasons are sufficient to fulfill the requirement for moral seriousness if those types of goals are valued within the moral context. This directly attacks P2 of my argument from moral seriousness. However, Horgan and Timmons can only claim this because they interpret ‘arbitrary’ from #5 (in section 3) to include both epistemic and pragmatic arbitrariness.

I do not believe that the need for moral seriousness expressed in #5 can be satisfied by an appeal to pragmatic reasons to take morality seriously. I contend that the natural interpretation of ‘arbitrary’ in this case should be epistemic and not pragmatic. To clarify how the ambiguity of ‘arbitrary’ can cause us to have different interpretations of #5, let us consider the following question:

Why should I believe that I will survive my illness?

I take this sentence to be similar to the question we ask about moral seriousness, and there are at least two interpretations3. The first is a pragmatic interpretation:

P: In what way is it helpful to my health for me to believe that I will survive my illness?

There may be good psychological and physical effects from my belief that I will survive, even though my actual survival may be unlikely. This is how Horgan and Timmons interpret moral seriousness; regardless of the lack of epistemic reasons for me to take my moral beliefs seriously, it is advantageous for me to do so because of the important role morality plays in my life. The other interpretation is an epistemic one:

E: What good evidence is there for me to believe that I will survive my illness?

This is entirely based on the likelihood that ‘I will survive’ is true. We may look at medical tests and then use past outcomes to make a prediction of survival. In the medical situation either P or E seems acceptable. However, I do not see the same ambiguity in our intuitions about moral seriousness. It seems rather clear that an interpretation like E is closer to what we ask when we question whether we should take morality seriously. Intuitively, the pragmatic effects of not taking morality seriously may be a concern, but our primary concern is epistemic in nature.

Although the preference for the epistemic view of moral seriousness is based upon one’s intuition, an example of a contextual system that exhibits pragmatic seriousness without epistemic seriousness should bolster this. The fact that in the United States we drive on the right side of the road is a perfect example of mere convention with a great deal of practical seriousness. It is extremely beneficial for someone to obey this convention when in the United States; in fact, it is so serious that disobeying this rule could lead to a very early death. If we had never known about the way motorists drive in England, we might even be tempted to think that we somehow have epistemologically objective reasons to drive on the right side. However, even though we have very good practical reasons to obey the applicable traffic laws when we are in a certain country, we realize that there is not reason to think that one side of the road is more appropriate for driving than the other. ‘Side of driving’ is in some way a base principle because other aspects of our driving context (which side the steering wheel is on or the way the signs are facing) are based upon it. It seems implausible that morality works in this pragmatic way. In fact, this example suggests that if moral seriousness is merely a practical matter then moral contexts are not very different from conventions. It is unlikely Timmons and Horgan want to claim this4; therefore, their argument against P2 fails.


5. Context switching:

I also foresee an argument against P4. Horgan and Timmons may make the claim that moral feature #5 (moral seriousness) from above, unlike like features #1-4, is not a vital aspect of our moral experience. This is, of course, a matter of intuition. However, in order to overcome this assertion I will offer a concrete example of a moral activity that only seems possible if there is moral seriousness as I have described it. If Horgan and Timmons want to jettison #5 from the list of moral experience types, then they will also have to claim that reasoned moral context switching never occurs; this will make their objection implausible to most.

It seems apparent that there are cases in which one switches moral contexts. This means that the base principles that guide moral reasoning and action are changed and, consequently, the set of moral statements that are correctly assertible also changes. Within pragmatic contexts, such as the traffic example I use above, swapping contexts is a rather simple matter. Of course, it may actually be difficult to ‘learn’ a new context (we can imagine the difficulty that the typical American driver experiences when in the UK for the first time), but the goal of switching contexts is easily chosen. We see that, for the sake of some other valued goal, it is advantageous for us to switch from our current context to another and this is reason enough to do so.

I do not think this is what happens when we think about switching our moral context. When we switch our moral context, it is most natural for us to do so because we have reason to think that our current context is wrong in an epistemic sense. There may be pragmatic reasons for changing the outward behavior associated with morality; we, for example, may find ourselves isolated in a conservative atmosphere by our declarations that there is nothing wrong with promiscuous behavior. However, this is merely a change of a behavioral context. It is far rarer for us to take pragmatic reasons into consideration when we switch our moral context itself. We are more likely to hide our moral feelings in order to conform to our societal context without making any change to our moral context. I find it uncontroversial that people sometimes take themselves to change their moral context for epistemologically non-arbitrary reasons. This is only possible if there are epistemologically non-arbitrary bases to our moral contexts in the first place, and this is exactly what #5 states. Therefore, the irrealist will have to attack context switching in order to show that #5 is not an aspect of our moral experience.

I only see one option open to Horgan and Timmons at this point; they must simply bite the bullet and continue to deny P4. However, because the possibility of context switching follows from moral seriousness, they must deny that context switching (as we normally conceive of it) exists as well. This amounts to a reduction of reasons for context switching to non-epistemic ones. If we are willing to put aside the immediate intuitions we may have against such a reduction, this view does have some appeal. It may be the case that most of the shifts in moral belief can be accounted for by evoking our ability, under the contextualist view, of changing higher-order beliefs while maintaining base beliefs. When someone makes a radical, and supposedly well reasoned, change of many moral beliefs (such as through religious conversion) it is not apparent that the person’s base beliefs, that define the context, have changed. For example, one may have ascribed to the base moral principle, “It is good to do whatever God wills” before the conversion; thus, even a radical conversion may only represent the formation of new higher-level moral beliefs based upon changing beliefs about the world (mainly God’s will). Given that most of our base beliefs are non-salient in everyday ethical thinking, it is quite conceivable that we could mistake a higher-order belief for a base belief. Consequently, many of the cases that we think represent true context switching may only represent dramatic changes in higher-order beliefs. If most dramatic moral change is like this, then context switching may be only a minor problem for the irrealist. Furthermore, true context switching may not be guided by reason. People may switch contexts because of emotional or psychological pressures and not because of the sort of justifiable reasons used when within the context. This would be a reduction of our seemingly epistemic reasons for context switching to objective ones.


6. Conclusion

If Horgan and Timmons reduce moral seriousness and context switching, as I believe they must in order to make their view plausible, then this would have a dramatic effect on one’s attitude toward morality. For example, we are typically committed to our moral principles, and this is derived from the fact that we take morality epistemologically seriously. When we are involved in a serious disagreement, we believe that we are arguing for what is true and that our opponent is arguing for something that is false. When this epistemic justification is not present (if, for instance, I am arguing that the American driving context is superior to that of the British) the seriousness with which one takes the argument decreases dramatically. Horgan and Timmons do not think that this must be the case; they claim that the usefulness of moral commitment and seriousness gives us enough reason to think that we should take morality seriously just as if we had epistemic justification. I clarified the prominent intuition about this enough in section 4 to show that epistemic moral seriousness is a prerequisite for us to have an attitude of seriousness toward our moral beliefs. Therefore, I do not see how one could naturally take moral commitments seriously as Horgan and Timmons desire; we may wish to take morality seriously, but we simply will not if the proper epistemic justification is absent. This means that, under their view, there is no reason to have more commitment to our moral context than to our country’s context of traffic rules. Whether it is desirable or not to take moral claims seriously, it follows from irrealist contextualism that we have no adequate reasons to treat them so.

Although the loss of moral seriousness may seem to make irrealist contextualism automatically implausible, I do not think that this is the case. Rather, it is important to weigh this loss against the advantage that an irrealist view has of easily accommodating naturalism. It may be helpful to look toward philosophy of mind where this strategy has been implemented with some success. For example, it is commonplace for mental properties to be reduced to natural properties in order to maintain compatibility with naturalism. Oftentimes this results in the falsification of common sense notions about the mind; however, such a reductionist theory is typically thought of as plausible. I don’t see any reason why this basic idea cannot apply to metaethics as well. If naturalism is important enough to accommodate, and realist metaethical theories do not accomplish this5 then, rather than giving up naturalism, it may be worth reconsidering some of our common sense ideas about moral experience. With this in mind, it is rather simple to re-characterize the act of moral context switching and the attitude of moral seriousness in ways compatible with irrealism. Horgan and Timmons could say that people change contexts and take contexts seriously because of psychological and sociological matters-of -fact. This means that moral facts in the world do not inform us about the moral context we should adopt, but rather natural properties explain which ones we do adopt. Notice that the latter claim is causal and not normative. For example, for someone living in a puritanical society, the properties of the society and the individual’s relation to them are both natural properties that explain the persons view towards an act labeled ‘immoral’ by that society. This does not mean that a society alone sets moral contexts (a person may, in fact, react against the wishes of a society), but only that the natural matters-of-fact in the world do so.

The difficult task for Horgan and Timmons is to address how their view alters the basic way we view moral reality. The fact that moral contexts are held and adopted for epistemologically arbitrary reasons may make some fear that irrealism will lead to moral nihilism. Timmons and Horgan briefly address this fear (Horgan & Timmons, 2006b) but their response is merely an echo of the quote in section 4; they think that moral seriousness can be addressed from within the moral context. I think that this reply misses the essence of the fear; the lack of epistemological moral seriousness is a problem because it puts into question the role of morality in our lives. Typically, we relate to moral values as we do to natural facts; we ask what is right and wrong just as we ask what is true or false. Irrealism invalidates this way of relating to morality, but proponents of irrealist contextualism have not made a substantial enough effort to replace this common sense notion with something more compatible with their view. It is true that irrealist contextualism explains our moral life when we reason from within a moral context, but this is not enough. There needs to be a more complete explanation of what happens when we reason from a detached perspective. Although I remain hopeful that such an analysis can be completed in the future, irrealist contextualism does not currently offer this explanation and therefore remains inadequate.




Gibbard, Allan. 1992. Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Horgan, Terry, and Mark Timmons. 2006a. Cognitivist Expressivism. In Metaethics After Moore, ed. Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons, 255-298. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—- —- 2006b. Expressivism, Yes! Relativism, No! In Oxford Studies in Metaethics, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, 73-98. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Timmons, Mark. 1999. Morality without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1Timmons does mention moral seriousness in Morality without Foundations (170) but the scope of what this means is different for him than for myself. He is only concerned with how moral beliefs appear to be important to us; he states that because of this importance, we are unlikely to accept the moral views of others even if they also have internally consistent moral systems. I think that #5, as I describe it above, also leads to us taking morality seriously in the manner Timmons mentions. However, my version gives a reason for why morality is important to us and therefore it seems more basic than Timmons’ view.

2Given that many arguments for irrealism concentrate on the implausibility of realism, the irrealist will certainly not think that all things are equal between realism and irrealism. However, I want to determine whether irrealist contextualism is more plausible than the realist variety assuming that both views are equal on other fronts. It is far less satisfying to declare irrealist contextualism plausible simply because its major competitor fails for other reasons.

3Allan Gibbard (1992, 37) addresses a similar dichotomy between the rationality and desirability of a belief.

4I quickly dismiss the option of viewing moral contexts as mere conventions because I take it to be a view most metaethicists wish to avoid. Regardless, it seems as though Horgan and Timmons’ epistemologically unjustified moral contexts are quite similar to systems of conventions. Although it is true that moral contexts likely arise organically from environmental and social causes (at least according to an irrealist) whereas conventions (such as traffic laws) seem to be developed more intentionally, it is unclear whether this represents an essential difference. After all, conventions are not typically formed in a vacuum; for example, there are cultural and environmental pressures influencing which traffic conventions will be formed. Also, it is conceivable that some elements of moral systems are the result of intentional actions; the importance of marriage, for instance, may be the result of people intending to control how property is inherited. If we find that the moral context/convention distinction is not essential then we must consider how one should relate to morality as a convention. I am not sure how one would do this, but I don’t see any prima facie reason to avoid this line of reasoning altogether. However, this would not overcome my argument from moral seriousness because a conventionalist view of morality by definition precludes epistemological seriousness. This effectively rejects P4 of my argument because it rejects the importance of moral seriousness in our moral experience; I deal with this sort of objection in section 5.

5It is, of course, not clear that realism fails to accommodate naturalism. However, for the purposes of my analysis I have assumed that this is the case.

Architecture is a social science

I have been reading quite a bit lately about how we could design our world to better suit the needs of people. One major debate I have come across is whether Architecture is a form of art. It seems that many architects think of themselves as artists; some of the best are known for the artistry and the revolutionary nature of the structures they design. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright is well respected mainly because of the aesthetic qualities of his structures in and of themselves. People look at the pictures of Wright’s buildings (most of them homes) and see them as works of art; however, we don’t often consider whether they are pleasant places in which to live. It is also interesting to look at the sort of projects that are deemed noteworthy by the architectural community at large, and more importantly how they speak about them. Perusing most publications will reveal that artistically bold designs are the most respected, and much of the debate about their merits happens on this artistic level; there is comparatively little interest given to how these buildings are used or how they affect the people who rely on them.

I think that we should not look at architecture as an art; rather we should consider it to be a science. First, I should probably say that this is not a new idea (J. H. Crawford has said similar things), and also that I’m not making any statement about what architecture currently is (I’m not an architect, so I think it would be odd for me to define the field). However, it seems that the clients of architects (the people who actually live and work in the buildings) would be far better served if the purpose of the profession was to design buildings and living areas that were both useful and psychologically advantageous to the users. If we concern ourselves with these sorts of issues, and leave the more contestable debates about artistic merit behind, then architecture becomes empirical. We can then decide with reasonable conclusiveness which sort of buildings and environments make people happier and allow them to go about their lives most efficiently. Of course, we need to first decide what sort of effects we want buildings to have on people and also the relative weights we should give to the concerns of those who occupy them as apposed to those people for which the building is simply part of the environment. But it seems to me that these are both solvable issues, and once we answered these sorts of questions a systematic description of the properties of ‘good’ buildings is possible. This process, of discovering which sorts of buildings produce positive outcomes for people and then designing these buildings, should be the purpose of architecture.

I don’t find the above process to be all that insurmountable; after all, most of us can discern places we enjoy being around and living in from those that we don’t like. All that architects need to do is take these feelings and systematize their study. Of course, these feelings are culturally relativistic (people in Wisconsin might not be made happy by the sort of architecture that someone in Iran will prefer), however, I would be very surprised if those within cultures had drastically different reactions to many architectural types. If such commonalities can be found, the quality of a great many lives might be drastically increased.