2 | “The just life is the happiest life.” Socrates on the proper constitution of the soul

[This is installment 2 in my Ethics 101 project.]

In my first installment, I posed the question: Why be moral?

Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates in Plato’s Republic suggests that this question is difficult to answer because there seem to be prima facie reasons to prefer acting immorally when it benefits us. The problem is that, intuitively, we think of morality as something intrinsically valuable – something that should carry weight in itself, regardless of whether or not it results in good consequences. Saying that one ought to be moral because, and only because, good things come from doing so seems to be a debasement of the idea of morality.

So anyways, this was the challenge posed by Glaucon at the beginning of Plato’s Republic. Hundreds of pages later (because Socrates has a tendency to ramble and get sidetracked), we finally get our answer.


As any good philosopher should, Socrates begins his response to Glaucon’s challenge by getting clear on the subject matter. Up until this point I have been using the terms “moral” and “just” somewhat synonymously, and indeed in everyday use we tend to associate one with the other. But Socrates has a very specific conception of justice: each part of a system playing its role and only its role, rather than taking over the role of another part for which it is less suited.

This can be applied generally, for example to a city: Justice in a city is achieved and maintained when everyone in that city knows their role and sticks to it; nobody is attempting to do anything they’re not supposed to do. Those who are best suited to rule are in positions of governmental power, those who are best suited to defend the city are soldiers, and so on for all the different roles a citizen may play.

This conception of justice can also be applied particularly, to individuals. Just like a city, an individual has different “parts” with different ideal functions. This is true in many senses – biologically, for example – but for Plato and Glaucon’s purposes the relevant sense is psychological.

According to Socrates, there are three main parts that make up our psychology (in the Republic he uses the word ‘soul‘): the rational part, the spirited part, and the appetitive part. The rational part of our psychology is in charge of weighing the options, making the best decisions for ourselves, and all that good stuff. Pretty intuitive. The appetitive part is also pretty intuitive: it’s the part of our psychology that deals with desire – whether that be hunger, lust, or whatever else one might crave. The spirited part of our psychology is probably the most difficult to grasp, but basically its job is to “help” the rational part. Oftentimes, what we rationally judge to be best for us conflicts with what our appetite craves. Our ‘spirit’ is supposed to help drive us in the direction of what’s rational.

Justice, then, when applied to the individual, means that each part of our psychology is playing the role that it ought to: the rational part is ultimately in charge of making decisions and the spirited part helps ensure this by keeping the appetitive part in check.

Conversely, injustice in an individual is when the parts of our psychology are out of whack; maybe the spirited part isn’t doing its job properly and our appetitive part is calling all the shots or something. I hope it’s immediately obvious to all of us how and why this could be a very bad thing.

So it turns out we do have reason to value justice as justice: we’d be pretty fucked without it! In some cases it may seem like not playing the part we’re supposed to (a law-abiding citizen, for example) can get us ahead, but Socrates thinks this is mistaken. If justice just is the parts of a system working together as they ought to, it’s pretty clear that we ought to want this wherever it can occur – whether it be in a city or in ourselves.


Reading this back to myself, I realize this is a bit anticlimactic. Honestly, I found Socrates’ answer to Glaucon’s challenge to be pretty unsatisfying too. In Plato’s defense, the book as a whole has a lot more to say – it was just irrelevant for my current purposes (i.e., the Bib Exam).

Next week I’ll discuss Hobbes’ response to the question “Why be moral?” from his work Leviathan.

Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? – Thoughts on Khader’s Work

Closer to the beginning of this year I wrote a post titled Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze. In it, I wonder about the impossible standards placed on women – “impossible” in the sense that gender roles demand we do and be contradictory things. I question what the morally appropriate response is – or if there even is one at all – given that however women act, we will be conforming to one set of patriarchal constraints or another. I was assigned to read a paper for one of my classes called Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? by Khader which inspired some related thoughts.

Khader’s focus is significantly more narrow than mine; she is solely concerned with women living in poverty in societies which are highly and rigidly patriarchal. She raises a similar, albeit more acute, puzzle: Women’s empowerment is the increase in women’s agency, and reducing poverty increases agency. So, reducing women’s poverty should empower women. The problem is that, in practice, this is often not the case. Actually, anti-poverty interventions yield mixed results when it comes to helping women.

I believe Khader is writing this piece amidst a background of well-meaning but problematic intervention policies. A recurring problem of organizations “helping out” poverty-stricken communities in non-Western countries is their working under the assumption that Western values (individuality, autonomy, democracy, etc.) are objectively superior rather than taking the local culture’s values seriously. When interventionists evaluate non-Western cultures through an exclusively Western lens, they devalue and disrespect the very people they are trying to help.

The results of such interventions are thus mixed: By one set of standards, impoverished people are better off. By another set of standards, they are not – in the worst cases (which Khader points out are often reasonably probable) impoverished people are actually left worse off than before the intervention.

To diagnose this puzzle Khader draws a distinction between two kinds of agency: welfare agency, which is the knowledge that one’s welfare is of value coupled with the ability to pursue it, and feminist agency, which is the kind of agency that challenges sexist norms. It is the latter type of agency that is associated with women’s empowerment as it is normally conceived (in Western circles).

The key point, Khader argues, is that welfare agency and feminist agency can work against each other: A woman’s welfare agency may be enhanced through a decrease in her feminist agency. Particularly in highly patriarchal societies, women are dependent on men for basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. Securing these necessary resources requires women to be viewed as desirable by men, which in turn requires adherence to sexist norms and expectations. Khader believes that the internalization of these ideologies by women can oftentimes be the best way for individual women to enhance their welfare because it allows for a coherent self-concept. Thus in many cases women in poverty are forced to forego feminist agency to advance their welfare agency.

I take it that Khader’s response to the puzzle above regarding the mixed results of anti-poverty interventions, then, has two elements: first, the failure to distinguish between two types of agency (and their corresponding aims), and second, the implicit assumption that the goal of intervention ought to be women empowerment.

Khader claims that we ought not so easily dismiss the importance of securing welfare agency over feminist agency, but she does not go so far as to argue that, as a matter of principle, we always ought to prioritize the former.

Thus I take Khader to be expressing a similar (but, of course, more developed and better defended) sentiment to the one I express in my post Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze: It is very doubtful there is one appropriate response or set of values we ought to privilege when acting in the interest of women as a group and as individuals. It’s complicated.

I wonder if an argument inspired by this sort of reasoning could be made to refute SWERFs (sex work-exclusionary radical feminists) or those believe that BDSM is inherently problematic because of the expectation of and indulgence in the ultra-submissive roles that women often play. Arguments against these sorts of things often cite the reinforcement of sexist and misogynistic attitudes, and assume that it is a short leap from that to the continued subjugation of women. But, as Khader has shown, a woman who partakes in sex work of submissive BDSM roles may actually be increasing her agency. (For example, sex work allows women financial stability and independence they may not have otherwise had.)

A deeper look into this possibility would probably include more on when it is appropriate to prioritize welfare agency over feminist agency, why sex work/BDSM would meet these terms, and more exploration on the differences and tensions involved in advancing women as a group versus advancing women as individuals.

1 | Why be moral? Glaucon’s Challenge in Plato’s Republic

[This is installment 1 in my Ethics 101 project.]

Why be moral?

On the face of it, this seems like such a pointless question. We ought to be moral because it’s good to be good, right?

Maybe. Turns out, it’s a lot more complicated than that. As all philosophers come to find, justifying our intuitions is actually really fucking difficult. So I thought I’d start here.

A variant of this question is posed in Plato’s Republic (~375 BCE), one of the oldest, most influential, and well-known works in Western philosophy. It is written in dialogue format, with Socrates (Plato’s teacher) portrayed as the main character. Plato’s philosophies emerge through the conversations Socrates has with other characters.

In Book II, Glaucon presents Socrates with a rather unsavory conception of justice and morality he has heard. Glaucon finds it uncomfortably convincing and wants his teacher to prove it wrong. Since then, countless pages throughout the centuries that followed have been spent trying to answer some version of Glaucon’s Challenge.


We tend to think of justice as something good in itself. If that’s true, then we ought to want to act justly simply for the sake of acting justly. The problem is that in practice this just doesn’t seem to be the case. People, according to Glaucon, are only just because it benefits them. This detracts from the innate value we would intuitively want to ascribe to morality.

The way that Glaucon has come to conceptualize it, we are all liable to suffer injustice at the hands of others to their benefit, and we are also liable to commit it to our benefit. In these sorts of conditions, it’s pretty much a lose-lose scenario for us – save for maybe the strongest in society who have the resources to commit injustice and defend themselves from such acts against others. But the vast majority of us aren’t this powerful, and having to live our lives in perpetual fear of others is quite a shitty way to live. Any injustice we commit to our own benefit isn’t likely to be worth such a grim state of existence.

To avoid this, we collectively agree not to commit injustices against one another. None of us can benefit from committing injustice (which is arguably the most efficient way to get ahead), but none of us have to fear suffering it, either. Thus, we feel the need to act justly not because we think to do so is good in itself, but because it is beneficial to us.

To make his case even stronger, Glaucon appeals to two thought experiments: The first is meant to show that we would act unjustly if we could get away with it; the second is meant to show that we wouldn’t act justly if it wasn’t beneficial to us.

First, imagine there was a ring that made its wearer invisible. They could do whatever they wanted without getting caught or facing consequences. Under these circumstances, Glaucon claims, who wouldn’t act unjustly?! Even the most just person would give in to the temptation to carry out all their dark desires. For some reason, the example Plato landed on in the Republic was fucking the king’s wife, but, y’know, sub that for whatever you fancy. The point is that if we could get away with it, we’d do some pretty fucked up shit.

Second, imagine a person who is just but doesn’t carry the reputation of being so. Instead, everyone thinks they’re the scum of the earth. Now, imagine the converse: a person who is unjust but is universally loved. Glaucon thinks that, given the choice, we would totally choose to have the latter life. This goes to show that, divorced from good consequences, we would not choose justice.


So let’s circle back to the question we started with: Why be moral? What at first seemed liked such a pointless question turns out to be a lot more complicated than we thought. As of right now, our answer is that we should be moral because it is beneficial to us. Otherwise, we actually shouldn’t be moral. And this just seems…wrong. Our intuitions tell us that we should do the right thing even when it’s hard. But, like I said, our intuitions usually end up being harder to justify than anticipated.

The next few installments of my Ethics 101 project will detail some classic philosophers’ responses to this question, starting with Socrates’ own answer.

Ethics 101: An Introduction to the Course

So I’m about to start studying for my ~big, scary, super intensive 3rd-year bibliography exam~. Basically, I need to choose a branch of philosophy that I intend to develop a strong, thorough foundation of knowledge in (ethics, obviously) and then read through a pre-selected bibliography of core texts and ideas in that branch. I take the exam based on this bibliography at the end of this school year.

I would like to share some of my notes here on my blog as I work through this reading list. The first reason being that I think it’ll help me personally (as a philosopher, as a communicator, and with motivation to study and keeping me on track). The second – and probably more important – reason is that I think (if I do it right) this could be a great resource for people (particularly, undergrads or non-academics) who want to get a good lay of the land and major ideas in moral philosophy in an accessible and manageable manner.

These two goals kind of feed into each other: I need to have good notes in order for this to be genuinely helpful to people other than myself, and if I am focused on creating genuinely good notes on my reading I am more likely to do better on the exam. Win-win 🙂

So throughout this school year I’ll be posting notes which:

  • Cover core and landmark writings in ethics/moral philosophy from all eras (ancient Greeks to present day)
  • Contextualize these writings in the greater sphere of relevant debates and ideologies
  • Are accessible for everyone and (to the best of my current foresight) will not presuppose any familiarity with moral philosophy
  • Maintain a(n albeit introductory-level) sense of academic rigor
  • Individually, are intended to give one a gloss of the topic at hand
  • Collectively, are intended to give one a fairly solid foundation of the basics of moral philosophy

These posts will be given their own hyperlink in my main menu and organized by topic for ease of access and use.

Class is in session 😉 Welcome to Ethics 101.

Responsibility for Attitudes: Our Pasts; Emotional Requirements

I recently finished Smith’s “Responsibility for Attitudes: Activity and Passivity in Mental Life” (2005) and wanted to jot down a few thoughts and questions I have after reading.

First, a thought: I really liked the way she states her view towards the end of her paper:

What matters in determining whether an attitude is morally attributable to a person is whether it can reasonably be taken to reflect that person’s evaluative judgments. The fact that a person’s evaluative judgments are usually shaped in various ways by her early attachments and environment does nothing to undermine the claim that they are still genuinely her judgments… The responsibility one has for becoming a certain kind of person must be distinguished from the responsibility for the attitudes one in fact holds. (267-268)

That is, whether or not a person is morally responsible for their attitudes depends only on whether it reflects their internal, evaluative judgments. How this person came to have these evaluative judgments is not relevant here. I am inclined to agree with this statement, and am sympathetic to the arguments Smith puts forward in defense of it. She puts the point quite beautifully; I expect that I will return to this portion of her paper in the process of preparing my MA thesis.

Second, a question: Are we always morally responsible for not being emotional or sympathetic enough?

Surely there are situations in which we could be blamed (Casually conflating moral responsibility with blameworthiness here. Move along.) for lacking in emotional sensitivity, but I think the topic merits a little more examination that Smith gives in her paper.

She introduces an example from Williams of “unavoidable but harmful consequences”: A truck driver, who, through no fault of his, runs over a child. He will feel differently from any spectator, despite people trying to convince him he was no worse than one. Nonetheless it is good that the driver still feels regret, for we would have “some doubt” about him if he did not: “This would indicate a failure to appreciate the seriousness and significance he has, however blamelessly, helped to bring about.” Smith immediately accepts this, adding, “to feel regret involves the judgement that something of value has been lost.” (249-250)

I myself am not so ready to grant this. Firstly, it is not clear to me how this explains why the driver should feel differently from a spectator. Wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) the spectator also make the judgment that something valuable has been lost, and so feel regretful, as well? If this is the case, then we should feel perfectly at ease if the driver felt the same as a spectator. From “the driver should feel regret”, we cannot then say “and this is how he differs from the spectator.” In fact, I think, the correct conclusion to be drawn here given the description of regret is “and so too should the spectator.”

But this brings me to my second objection: Why should we take this to be a correct characterization of regret? Why couldn’t some different attitude be the result of acknowledging something valuable lost? Is this the only underlying judgement that regret could have?

My general concern here is that we are expected to feel in a certain way. Why should we feel worse than a spectator? Why should we feel some sympathetic emotion at all? And why are we morally answerable for not doing so?

What would be so wrong about the driver feeling a detached, somber acknowledgement for his situation instead? There are approximately 1 million suicides worldwide per year, and this is generally the feeling we have towards each of these cases. (Perhaps even that is a stretch – we don’t even know about most of these cases except for the fact that they are happening. It’s hard to feel deep emotions in general towards things we do not know anything about.) I would be hesitant to call these attitudes wrong. Given that our personal (as opposed to causal) contributions in all such cases are equally irrelevant, why is it not morally acceptable to feel the same about them all? Why should our causal contribution be relevant if it was completely through no fault of our own? A detached, somber acknowledgment towards your situation seems morally permissible to me; Smith seems to assume it is not. Why must we feel more?

The Demands of Morality: 3 Lines of Inquiry

I have recently (within the past two years) gotten interested in the demandingness of morality. When I first started looking into it I may have confused myself a bit because of how many different interpretations, and therefore approaches and responses, there were to this problem. I was at a loss to explain what it was about the problem of demandingness that I found intriguing because I had trouble synthesizing and making sense of all the things I had read about it.

As I see it (sas far as I have read; as related to my interests), questions on what is appropriate to morally demand of us are interpreted are interpreted in one of three ways:

1. Can morality demand us to do the impossible?

Here I have in mind views like Tessman’s in her book Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality (2014), wherein she argues that there are such things as genuine moral dilemmas. That is, there are times were morality demands us to do (or not do) things which cannot be done simultaneously. In meeting one moral demand we necessarily fail in meeting the other, and thus have done something wrong. Tessman claims that, despite the intuitive plausibility of “ought implies can”, allowing for impossible moral demands is the best way to make sense of the complexities of the human moral experience.

2. Can morality demand things which require us to take on a great burden (such as giving up a significant amount of time, effort, or resources)?

Questions of this sort are most popularly applied to act consequentialism, a common objection against the theory being that the act that does the most net good is one which takes a great (and even seemingly unfair) burden on the agent – donating 90% of their income to an effective charity and living a maximally frugal lifestyle with the remaining 10%, or donating all their organs to save multiple dying people, for example. The argument goes that morality could not possibly demand us to go to such great lengths, and so act consequentialism cannot possibly be the correct moral theory.

On a less theoretic level, we can ask more direct questions, such as: Are we morally required to be vegan? Are we wrong to buy from Amazon given its business practices, even if we only do so because we want to save money? Should we pursue a career we don’t enjoy because the extra money will help our parents? Some would argue that we are not required to go to such great lengths, while others are fine with the idea that morality sometimes requires significant sacrifice.

3. Can morality demand us to do things which are out of our control?

Adams tackles this question in his paper “Involuntary Sins” (1985), arguing, perhaps surprisingly, that it can. The subject of morality, he claims, is not merely how we should act but also how we should be as persons. Thus, morality can demand of us things like, “Do not be apathetic about the hardships of others,” “Be grateful to those who have helped you,” and “Do not be angry at someone without reason,” even though what we believe and how we feel are not under our control.

I think I became interested in the problem of demandingness in general through this interpretation – albeit a rather twisted version of it. My main interest as an undergrad was the Free Will Problem. Specifically, I was interested in whether it was possible to make sense of moral responsibility in a deterministic universe. The problem, classically posed, is that we lack real control over our actions in a deterministic universe because control requires the ability to have done otherwise. Moral responsibility, on the other hand, intuitively requires control. Assuming this lack of control, how – if at all – can we make a place for moral responsibility?

While these questions are all related in that they each give insight into how demanding morality can (or ought to?) be, a “yes” or “no” answer to each of them gives a different kind of insight. While the answer to one may suggest, or even necessitate, a certain answer to another, ultimately these are all separate questions which prompt unique lines of inquiries.

Conceptualizing the different approaches to the demandingness of morality in this way has really helped me organize and clarify my thoughts on the matter. I can now say a bit more about my specific interest in the matter:

I am most interested in questions of the second kind, and have secondary interests in questions of the third kind. My intended area of research has to do with moral responsibility and appropriate praise/blame, and I am wondering how different answers to the latter two questions affect how much blame is appropriate to confer on an individual for failing to meet a moral requirement (or moral supererogation).

Themed Social Media Accounts: Who Should Be Allowed A Platform?

One thing I’ve been wondering, especially recently, is when it’s appropriate to allow people (or groups of people) a social media platform.

Lots of people (especially within the circles I associate with) support the idea of administrators deleting Nazi YouTube/Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/etc. accounts so as to deny them an easy way to propagate their ideas, strengthen their communities, and influence others. This seems permissible (even obligatory?) to me, especially given how many hate crimes, violence, and even deaths have been caused at least in part by white men becoming radicalized through such social media communities.

There are, however, instances where it is less clear what we should do. An example that immediately comes to mind is social media accounts which – either implicitly or explicitly – support starvation and extreme thinness, or “pro-ana” accounts.

It is easy to find reasons why we might not want to allow such accounts: anorexia is potentially life-threatening and we do not want it presented in a glamorous or desirable manner to impressionable young children, nor do we want those already suffering from the disease to find encouragement to “give in” to it. On the other hand, arguments have been made that it is important that those suffering from anorexia have an expressive outlet and community which understands them, and to take this away from them by forcibly deleting pro-ana accounts would harm them in a different way.

This puzzle can be generalized to other sorts of social media communities. Should we allow blogs which romanticize depression and suicide if they also serve as an outlet for such thoughts? Or subReddits for pedophiles, which provide a place for sharing disturbing and objectionable fantasies but also for the non-judgmental exchange of coping mechanisms and helpful therapeutic/psychological treatments?

When it is permissible to forcibly delete themed social media accounts or communities seems like an incredibly difficult and nuanced question. While there are some clear cases of when it is permissible (e.g. pro-Nazi accounts), there are a multitude of cases wherein the verdict is unclear. I wonder if a principled approach to this issue can ever be formulated such that when it is applied we can come to an intuitively correct answer in every scenario. I am doubtful. I think each case will have to be dealt with individually, with factors unique to each situation having to be taken into concern.

The Ethics of Attraction

I think I have a view different than most of the people I tend to associate with when it comes to dating preferences. At the base of my view is the idea that you can’t really control who or what you’re attracted to, and that’s okay. So long as you’re treating everyone with respect, you’re not doing anything wrong if you don’t find yourself attracted to certain features of a person (and therefore, the person as a whole).

We can find some insight into why I hold the views that I do about attraction by looking at same-gender attraction. It is widely acknowledged that gay people cannot control the fact that they are gay. Furthermore, it is quite common among people who experience same-gender attraction to fail to realize they do until later in life because heteronormativity is so ingrained in today’s society. That is, due to overwhelming societal influence, they believed themselves to be straight. (To add some weight and credibility to these statements, it’s worth noting that both of them apply to me.) Both of these things we generally take to be okay, i.e., it is okay to be gay and it is okay to mistakenly think you are straight. Also noteworthy is that we do not pressure straight people to critically examine their feelings to make sure they are genuine and not merely the result of societal pressure.

My unusual views (within my circles, at least) on dating come from generalizing this analysis of same-sex attraction.

Thus, failing to be attracted to fat people, refusing to date a man who isn’t over 6′, not wanting to date a trans woman as a straight male, preferring that your female partner have shaved legs or your male partner have a six-pack, not finding yourself attracted to a specific race, and finding blue eyes to be the most attractive are all permissible to me. At the very least, I suspend judgement on their wrongness. This may seem unpalatable to many, but I fail to see how these cases are significantly different from what is described with regards to same-gender attraction above.

That is, we ought not blame someone for failing to be attracted to a fat or trans person because they have been influenced by the fatphobic or transphobic attitudes of society, in the same way we do not blame someone for mistakenly believing they are straight because they have been influenced by the heteronormative culture of society. In all cases, we ought to just accept it. (The same argument goes, mutatis mutandis, to the other things I’ve mentioned.) It is even puzzling what the correct course of action would be if we didn’t accept it – as evidenced by thousands upon thousands of testimonies from gay people, attraction is not under our control. It cannot simply be demanded that we alter our feelings of attraction (or lack thereof) towards any person or group of people, nor is it plausible that there is some sort of process we can undertake to change our feelings overtime, as evidenced by the failure of conversion therapy.

Again, the key point is that, regardless of who or what we are attracted to, we still treat everyone with respect. This means supporting people’s right to use whichever public restroom they identify with, denouncing body-shaming done under the guise of “concern for their health”, defending women’s right to do what they want with their body, standing up against the racism propagated by the Trump administration, and the like. So long as we are being good members of society in this respect, our dating/attraction preferences are not the appropriate objects of moral scrutiny.

We do not owe our attraction to any specific group of people, nor are we required to critically examine and consequently change our attractions. How could we be? This seems impossible.

I will admit that one phenomenon I have not managed to completely square away with my intuitions regarding attraction is that of fetishization, e.g. white men exclusively dating Asians precisely because they are attracted to the feature of “Asian-ness” (often referred to as “yellow fever”). As a preliminary response, however, I will say that this sort of attraction seems phenomenologically different from the ones listed above. We might also say that in the case of fetishization one is failing to see an individual as a person, whereas in the aforementioned cases it is merely a failure to be attracted because of some feature of that person, so the former is necessarily dehumanizing while the latter is not.

If I were trying to make my argument conservatively, I would say that at the very least there is some tension between the way we regard some instances of selective attraction in comparison to others, and there is at present no principled way in which to distinguish them. However, I am more inclined to take the stance I currently have, and tentatively suggest that there are ways to address the fetishization problem. More work needs to be done on the topic, but the point is that work can be done. I do not think this is an insurmountable problem for my position. And, if it were, what are we to say of same-sex attraction? It seems any route we go which deviates from mine runs into problems.

Procreation, Adoption, and Anti-Natalism

Here’s a recap of a conversation about having kids and anti-natalism that I recently had with a friend:

> One of the reasons I don’t want kids is because I think it would be difficult for me to unconditionally love someone, and simultaneously pour so much of my time and my resources into them and yet accept that they don’t owe me anything for doing so. Being a parent is so demanding. I don’t want that.

>> You said you weren’t completely closed off to the idea of adopting, though. Why is that different?

> In the case of adoption, perhaps the good I can do for an individual outweighs the costs to me. I could be taking someone out of an orphanage or a foster home or some other terribly abusive situation and give them a home and a stable environment to grow up in. Presumably they’d be much worse off if I didn’t adopt them. I have the ability to make someone’s life infinitely better. That’s not the case with having a biological child. They wouldn’t exist without me. I wouldn’t be making their life better nor would they be missing out on anything – they don’t exist. There’s no good I can do in having a biological child that would outweigh the costs to me.

>> Maybe, but I think there’s something to be said about raising a child to be a good person with good moral values. Regardless of whether that child is adopted or biological, doing that is a good thing.

> True, but you need to take into account the environmental footprint a person leaves on the earth over the course of their lifetime: how much waste they produce and resources they use up – especially in a first-world country. With adoption, you can still produce the good involved with raising a morally upstanding person but at no additional cost to the earth and the environment, since this person already exists and is going to produce waste and use resources regardless of what you do. To bring a new person into this world is to increase the amount of waste/resources that would have otherwise been produced/used-up.

>> That reasoning makes sense, but what happens if we universalize it? Would it be good if everyone stopped reproducing? It doesn’t seem like we’d want that.

> Well, that depends. Good for who? Good for sentient beings and the planet overall? Honestly, yeah it probably would be good if everyone stopped reproducing. Humans wreak so much havoc and destruction on the planet, the other beings that live on it, and even on each other. None of that would continue to happen if we no longer existed.

>> But what if we allowed for our species to live on and we eventually found a way to live peacefully and more environmentally consciously, such that we didn’t pose a threat to the earth or the other animals living on it anymore?

> Well, if we’re going to speculate about “what-ifs”, what if, instead, we continue to live selfishly and without regard for our impact on the greater ecosystem, eventually run ourselves into the ground, and do irreversible damage to our planet such that our way of life drastically changes for the worse because we can’t adapt to the environmental changes we’ve brought about? Now, based on what scientific experts are currently saying, which “what-if” seems more likely?

A Short Writing Sample: Maitra on Licensing Authority for Subordinating Speech

I am currently taking a seminar in which we were assigned to read Maitra’s “Subordinating Speech” in Speech and Harm: Controversies Over Free Speech (2012) and then write up an 800 to 1,000-word response. (We were given lots of freedom in how we wanted to respond, but were given the general guidelines of it likening to part of a paper rather than a whole paper, and targeting a specific aspect of the work rather than the whole.) The aim of these assignments, and this seminar as a whole, is not to help us learn any particular topic in philosophy, but instead to make us better academic philosophers by honing our reading, writing, and engagement skills.

I thought it might be helpful, both to my future self and to those reading this (especially undergraduate students looking to improve their writing skills in philosophy), to share my writing response and the comments I received. Overall I felt pretty good about this paper. It’s not the best piece of philosophical work I’ve ever produced, but it’s exactly what it needs to be: a good sample of academic philosophical writing.

So, a few preliminary notes:

  • As I mentioned, this is written in direct response to Maitra’s piece on subordinating speech. Given the short nature of the assignment, I do not provide a summary of the arguments I am responding to thoroughly enough for my paper to be fully appreciated without first reading Maitra. The PhilPapers link to her work is here.
  • I will add numbers throughout the paper to mark where my professor has added her comments. In text, each number will be bolded and underlined to distinguish it from other numbers that may appear in my paper. The note attached to each number will consist of nothing but her commentary, verbatim, and will be compiled at the end of my paper.
    • I can’t fucking figure out how to add regular footnotes in a WordPress blog post???
  • This paper was not formatted according to any particular style (APA, MLA, etc.). I’m beginning to think no one cares until the papers become ~*official*~, because I legit made up a style for all the final term papers I submitted last semester and no one docked me for nor commented on it.
  • Below the line is a direct copy & paste of the essay I turned in. The formatting has changed slightly in the process of C&P-ing as plain text to WordPress, though all the emphasis is found in the original paper.

Against Maitra’s Account of Licensing Authority

Maitra’s main project in her piece Subordinating Speech is to broaden our conception of authority. The idea is that subordination, which includes “[ranking] their targets as inferior, [depriving] them of rights and powers, and [legitimating] discriminatory behavior towards them,” (95) 1 requires authority, and thus some have argued that ordinary instances of racist hate speech cannot constitute subordination. By expanding what it means to possess authority in the relevant sense, Maitra aims to refute this position. 2

I want to focus on one way in which Maitra claims the authority to subordinate can be granted: licensing. Roughly speaking, licensing is “a kind of granting of authority” which “depends on (relevant) others refraining from challenging the speech.” (107) In the example given, an Arab woman is verbally harassed by a white man in a subway car. Maitra claims that because none of the other passengers challenged him, we can consider this a licensing of the man’s authority and thus a case of subordination of the Arab woman. (115) Hers is an argument from analogy: 3 She compares this to a clear case of a man being licensed by his friend group to delegate tasks to them in preparation for a hike, despite no one putting him in charge of planning. Because none of his friends objected to his ‘taking over’, so to speak, he is granted authority in the relevant sense. (106-107) The reasoning employed by Maitra in this section of her chapter strikes me as reaching. In what follows I want to express my concerns, particularly in what I take to be two significant disanalogies between the subway and hiking cases.

First, Maitra claims that in both the subway case and the hiking case, a person is granted authority, or licensed, because of a failure on part of the involved parties to express disagreement to their speech acts. But this is not the only reason that the man comes to have authority in the hiking case: not only do none of the man’s friends object, but furthermore they carry out the tasks assigned to them. (106) 4 Had this man’s friends stayed silent during his delegation of tasks yet also refrained from acting on his directions, it is doubtful that we would be correct in still considering this a case of licensing. Thus, it is not merely a lack of action that needs to take place (if such a thing can be said to ‘take place’ at all), but rather a lack of dissent coupled with some positive sense of action on the basis of the speech act. In the subway case, no such action (i.e., action in the positive sense as opposed to merely a withholding of it) is present. Neither the Arab woman nor any of the other passengers do anything except remain silent. Thus it is not clear that Maitra is justified in concluding that the subway case is an instance of licensing in virtue of its supposed similarity to the hiking case. 5

And second, the hiking and subway cases are also disanalogous in virtue of the different ‘groups’ involved: In the hiking case, there are two distinct groups: the friend delegating, and the friends being delegated. 6 In the subway case, however, there are three distinct groups: the Arab woman, the white man, and the rest of the passengers. (I will not attempt here to justify these divisions to the reader, but I expect them to make intuitive sense.) 7 In order to make these cases truly analogous, Maitra needs to either a) alter the hiking case such that one friend is being delegated all of the tasks or b) treat the Arab woman as part of the group doing the licensing. As I will show, Maitra faces a dilemma in that either option results in objectionable consequences for her.

If Maitra chooses option (a), to alter the hiking case such that one friend is being delegated all of the tasks, then it seems much more likely in such a scenario for someone to object. A thought experiment in which friends are planning a hike and it is suggested, and then accepted, that one person shoulder all the burdens of preparation seems highly implausible. 8 And thus she would not be able to use it as an intuition pump for why we also ought to consider the subway case an instance of licensing.

If, on the other hand, Maitra chooses option (b), to treat the Arab woman as part of the group doing the licensing, then this would lead to the unpalatable result that she contributed to her own subordination by not defending herself. All the Arab woman needed to do was speak up and the white man’s authority would be nonexistent. But we obviously do not want to blame victims of racist acts for their situation and perceived status in society. Since this is precisely what we would be forced to do in this case on Maitra’s view, we should reject this option.

Since there are disanalogies between the hiking and subway cases in the actions taken (or lack thereof) as well as in the division of groups, I do not feel Maitra is justified in claiming that the white man was granted authority in the subway case on the basis of it being similar to the delegating friend being granted authority in the hiking case.

One interesting implication of my objections, which unfortunately I will not be able to delve into in this paper, is what this means for our moral obligation to intervene when we witness ordinary instances of racist hate speech. Putting my objections aside for a moment, Maitra’s theory accounts for this obligation quite nicely: “in staying silent, the other passengers are…complicit in what the hate speaker does.” (116) But if I am correct and the subway case does not display an instance of licensing, then a new explanation is needed to explain the (intuitively correct) sentiment that we ought to step in when we witness ordinary racist hate speech.

  1. I’m glad you included these criteria of subordination – it refines the subject matter.
  2. This intro paragraph is good: it manages to introduce Maitra’s project well without a lot of superfluous stuff.
  3. I’m not sure it IS an argument from analogy, so much as the camping example is meant to show that a certain thing is *possible*.
  4. OK, good. That seems relevant.
  5. Good.
  6. delegated to.
  7. They do.
  8. What if there’s one task that no-one wants and the bossy organiser assigns it to the lowest status person?

* Please do not use or quote this paper without express permission. The link to my WordPress contact page is here.