epistemic injustice to the powerful

Miranda Fricker defines epistemic injustice as harm to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower.  In her book on the topic, she focuses primarily on testimonial injustice, which harms a potential informant.  When you are the victim of testimonial injustice, you know (or are at least in a good enough position to know, given the issue), but your word is not taken as seriously as it should be.  She also discusses, at less length, hermeneutic injustice, which occurs when someone has a kind of knowledge implicitly but — for unfair reasons — lacks the conceptual resources to articulate that knowledge.  (Witness the need to name evils like sexual harassment and marital rape.)

Understandably, Fricker focuses on epistemic injustices perpetrated against the oppressed.  She pays much less attention to epistemic injustices that more typically accrue to the powerful.  I dub one such form of epistemic injustice negative epistemic injustice.  The motivating thought here is that people have an epistemic right not only to be listened to when they are or might be right; they also have an epistemic right to be told when they are or might be wrong.  Whereas the relatively powerless are more likely to experience positive epistemic injustice (being told that they are wrong or being assumed to be wrong when they’re not), the powerful are more likely to experience negative epistemic injustice (being told that they are right or being assumed to be right when they’re not).

It’s hardly an insight that the powerful are often surrounded by yes-men, that the emperor is the last to find out that he’s naked because no one is willing to disabuse him of his mistake.  The insight here — if there is one — is that this is an obvious form of epistemic injustice.

(I recently stumbled across this idea while fuming about the fact that Joshua Greene, a highly-regarded neuroscientist at Harvard, remains ignorant of the fact that Phineas Gage did not become, for all anyone knows, a sociopathic drifter after his head was punctured by a railroad spike in a freak accident.)

Review of Austin’s _Virtues in Action_

Here’s a draft of a review of Virtues in Action, edited by Michael Austin.  As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are most welcome.

This ain’t your grandma’s virtue theory.

In Michael Austin’s bold new collection, Virtues in Action: New Essays in Applied Virtue Ethics, gone are the pretentions of defining right action generically as what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances, while acting in and from character, provided that a virtuous person would end up in those circumstances, and what a virtuous person would advise otherwise.  Instead, we find detailed explorations of specific virtues and vices related to specific fields of activity and problems, with attention (some of it careful – some less so) to relevant empirical literature and elbowroom for alternative normative approaches and conceptions.  Aristotle tells us about courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, magnanimity, even temper, pride, justice, and friendship.  The first wave neo-Aristotelians such as Geach (1977) tell us about prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity.

Contributors to the present volume tell us about instilling openmindedness and curiosity in students (Bassham), promoting a sense of competitive honor and magnificence in business executives (Demetriou), fostering humility through sport (Austin), cultivating sexual tenderness (Van Hooft), reconciling Mencius’s sprout of ren with Aristotle’s notion of virtue-habituation (Giebel), promoting pacifism because the training of soldiers harms their character (Trivigno), the relation between virtue and abortion (again – Flannagan), developing Buddhist compassion in the face of environmental catastrophe (Frakes), learning to live with the rest of nature through ecological humility (Pianalto), learning to hope to learn (Snow), translating virtue theory into the contemporary dual-process model of psychology (Tessman), and charitably debating fraught political and moral issues (Garcia & King).

That’s twelve chapters in just over two hundred pages – roughly 7000 words per chapter.  Naturally, then, many of the discussions are truncated.  In some cases, this makes the chapter a breezy jaunt through a novel topic; in others, the reader is left feeling that the discussion was facile and superficial.  To put the chapters in perspective, Austin has arranged them into four parts: professional (education, business, and sport), social (sex, partiality, war, and abortion), environmental, and intellectual.  Some of this categorization works better than others.  For instance, Bassham’s chapter on education concerns not the virtues of educators but the prospects and problems of educating for virtue – especially intellectual virtue.  It might fit better in the last part.  Likewise, Tessman’s chapter on dual-process theory might have found a more natural home among the papers on social virtue.

Given the diversity of topics covered in this volume, few readers will be equally interested in all of the papers.  Two of them are must-reads: “Sex, Temperance, and Virtue” by Stan van Hooft and “A Virtue Ethical Case for Pacifism” by Franco Trivigno.  I’ll describe these two chapters in some detail below.  Most of the rest of the chapters are quite readable.  I’ll give summarize their main points.  A few of the chapters are notably weak; I’ll briefly mention why.

Van Hooft explores the relation between virtue theory and sexual activity.  He uses as a stalking horse Raja Halwani’s (2010) claim that temperance-intemperance is the sole dimension on which virtue theorists should consider sex and sexual activity.  Halwani argues that there are two aspects to temperance: rational control and regulation over sexual behavior and mentation, and avoiding the use of independently wrong actions (lying, stealing, rape, injustice, unkindness) as means to sexual ends.  Van Hooft correctly points out that the second aspect has nothing to do with sexuality specifically, but that the first aspect applies also to moderating other natural bodily appetites related to eating and drinking.  In other words, neither aspect of sexual temperance, as Halwani characterizes it, is distinctively sexual.

On Van Hooft’s account, this error replicates Aristotle’s own failure to think through the differences between sex on the one hand and food and drink on the other hand.  As he pertly puts it, “If sex raised only the same ethical problems as eating and drinking, the paradigm case of sexual activity would be masturbation” (p. 64).  Such a conception of sex is, obviously, “seriously deficient” in at least three ways.  First, sex – even masturbation, which often involves fantasizing and imagination – is typically social.  Second, as Freud taught us, sex is polymorphously perverse, capable of eroticizing just about anything.[1]  Third, unlike eating and drinking, the enjoyment of sex is often not only passionate but agentic.  These considerations lead Van Hooft to conclude that, pace Halwani, the distinctively sexual virtue is tenderness, not temperance.  Such tenderness answers not just to the value of moderation but also to such values as agency, privacy, timeliness, intimacy, generosity, considerateness, and trust.

Trivigno mounts an argument for contingent pacifism based on psychological and related investigations of moral injury to soldiers.  The ingredients for this argument are a proper understanding of what contemporary military training does to the moral character of soldiers, the knock-on consequences of this training for the soldiers, and the knock-on consequences of this training for other people (enemies in combat, civilians and bystanders in war zones, and soldiers’ civilian compatriots).  Trivigno argues only for contingent pacificism, which he describes as “a very strong presumption against the use of military force” given current military training techniques (p. 86).  What are these techniques, and why are they so objectionable?  The vast majority of adult humans harbor a deep resistance to killing conspecifics, which seems to be bound up with both empathy and the natural tendency to see others, even enemy combatants, as human beings.  Studies reveal that during World War II, for instance, between 80% and 85% of American soldiers in combat did not fire their weapons or fired them harmlessly into the sky.  In the last six decades or so, militaries have developed techniques for overcoming this resistance to killing.  Trivigno focuses on three: automating the process of firing weapons through operant conditioning, euphemizing the act of killing, and dehumanizing enemies and potential enemies.

Through conditioning, soldiers learn to fire their weapons without deliberating about the nature of their actions.  Thus, they become capable of killing without realizing in the moment that that’s what they’re doing.  The other two techniques are meant to ensure that they aren’t later debilitated by the recognition of what they’ve done.  Action, as Davidson (1980) taught us, is always intentional under some description.  If the only available description for what you’ve done is “killing another person” and you’ve embodied (as almost all of us have) a norm against killing, then even if you judge that you did the right thing, you may feel devastated.  Moder military training erects a Potemkin village of euphemisms for the horrific actions that soldiers are sometimes ordered to commit.  You’re not “killing a person.”  You’re “servicing a target,” “achieving an objective,” “wasting a towel-head.”  The first two euphemisms work through sanitization.  The third transitions to the final technique: dehumanization.  As Tirrell (2012) explores in more detail, dehumanization is a prelude to and perhaps even a constitutive part of atrocity.  The Nazis described Jews as vermin.  During the Rwandan genocide, Hutu Power called Tutsis cockroaches.  Modern military training[2] typically severs the empathic connection between the soldier and everyone other than his comrades (since everyone else is at least a potential enemy) by portraying the other in demonic or bestial language and imagery.

Shocking.  Horrifying.  Depressing.  What does it have to do with virtue and pacifism?  Trivigno traces two main connections.  First, the capacity for empathy, while hardly sufficient for good character and flourishing, is a constituent of it.  By destroying or corrupting soldiers’ capacity for empathy, modern military training harms their moral character and their chances for flourishing.  Second, the techniques used in modern military training (automaticity, euphemism, and dehumanization) are too coarse-grained to prevent extremely bad consequences such as atrocity.  Given the way soldiers are currently trained, we should expect incidents like My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and the Fallujah massacre as a normal part of war.  Expressions of shock in the face of such atrocities reflects either ignorance or wishful thinking.

Although Van Hooft’s and Trivigno’s contributions stand out, there are plenty of other solid chapters in this collection.  Gregory Bassham furnishes six reasons to prefer a model of education in which students cultivate virtues (intellectual and perhaps even moral) rather than merely acquiring knowledge.  First, historically, this is how education has been conceptualized.  Second, this is what liberal universities are explicitly committed to in their mission statements.  Third, since a university education is meant to have a “deep and positive impact” on students, they should aim for virtue, which is deeper than knowledge.  Fourth, arguably an incomplete education that involves virtue but not knowledge is more easily parleyed into a complete education than one that involves knowledge but not virtue.  Fifth, focusing on virtue-development makes education more of a collaboration among educators, students, families, and communities.  Finally, education intrinsically aims at personal development, which includes among other things virtue.

Dan Demetriou argues that, regardless of one’s political preferences, the rapid rise in income and wealth inequality throughout the developed world should be troubling.  In response to this, he recommends promoting competitive honor and magnificence as virtues for business executives and other obscenely wealthy people (e.g., workers in the finance industry).  There’s always more money to be had.  But being the most honored (or the second most-honored, or the third) is an artificially scarce resource.  For this reason, it would be better for everyone if people with the absurd amounts of power currently afforded to the ultra-wealthy pursued the prestige that accrues to magnificent generosity than yet more wealth.  Demetriou may be right, though if he is, one is forced to ask he awkward question: if we’ve been reduced to encouraging super-managers (as Piketty 2014 calls them) to voluntarily redistribute their ill-gotten gains, perhaps more drastic solutions are called for.

In his chapter in his own book, Michael Austin argues that sport – even if it hasn’t been successfully harnessed for such purposes, can and should be aimed at cultivating and displaying virtue the moral virtues of athletes.  First, there are positive values embedded in the practice of sport.  Second, participating in sport can foster humility, as one submits oneself the standards inherent in the practice.  Third, sport can be used in the cultivation of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice.  Austin’s account of how sport can be used in this way is – for reasons of space, perhaps among others – brief.  It also makes dubious use of the empirical literature on ego depletion (pp. 43-4).  One question that Austin doesn’t ask but which clearly must be considered is how sport relates not to participants but to spectators and those related to them.  Does watching football (American or otherwise) on the television in any way help a spectator to cultivate virtue?  Does it contribute to the spectator’s vice?[3]

Chris Frakes argues that, while Western conceptions of compassion may leave on debilitated in the face of monumental environmental degradation and injustice, Buddhist compassion may be more robust.  In particular, someone who embodies Buddhist compassion is able to direct her attention and action well in the face of suffering, and is motivated to adopt an environmentally mindful lifestyle.

Nancy Snow discusses hope as an intellectual virtue.  In so doing, she distinguishes the attitude of hope, which has particular ends, from the agentic disposition of hope, which does not.  To hope for X is to perceive X as good but regard its occurrence as uncertain, and in so doing to exercise imagination and agency to see to it that X occurs.  The disposition of hopefulness, in turn, involves being inclined to have the attitude of hope towards various ends.  According to Snow, hope motivates the pursuit of knowledge by holding out the possibility that one will discover the truth, immunizes the hoper against setbacks and frustrations, and thus constitutes a method for acquiring knowledge.  Perhaps surprisingly, Snow fails to consider the ancient fatalist conception of hope exemplified in the myth of Pandora’s box: what if hope is the greatest of evils because it leads us to persevere through suffering for no reason?

The last chapter worth reading is co-authored by Robert Garcia and Nathan King, who document two fallacies that tend to undermine frank and engaged discussion of morally fraught issues: assailment-by-entailment and the attitude-to-agent fallacy.  Assailment-by-entailment is basically a failure of perspective-taking.  You believe that p entails q, and that q is morally repugnant.  Your interlocutor asserts that p.  You infer that your interlocutor not only believes that p but also believes (like you) that p entails q and therefore believes that q.  In fact, she rejects q or at least suspends judgment on it.  You thus end up attributing to her a belief that you find repugnant and that she is not committed to.  The attitude-to-agent fallacy is a relative of the fundamental attribution error, in which people all-too-quickly infer something deep about an agent from something superficial, such as a one-off behavior or the expression of an isolated attitude.  Against these errors, Garcia & King recommend cultivating and expressing intellectual humility and charity of interpretation.

I’m afraid I cannot recommend reading the chapters by Heidi Giebel, Matthew Flanagan, Matthew Pianalto, or Lisa Tessman.  Giebel’s contribution merely summarizes some well-known views of Mencius and Aristotle.  Her attempt to deal with the threat of situationism to virtue theory is shockingly under-informed.  Flannagan engages in reactionary turn of the screw in the interpretation and response to Hursthouse’s arguments about abortion.  Pianalto serves up character assassination rather than argument, suggesting that “the person who gets depressed when considering his or her life from a wider perspective feels this way because the wider perspective challenges his or her own attitude of self-importance,” belying an “attitude of arrogant or vain self-importance” (p. 140).  A word to the not-so-wise: when your best evidence is your own phenomenology, don’t accuse others of vice for honestly reporting their own phenomenology.

Finally, Lisa Tessman does that voodoo that she does, arguing in her chapter that virtue ethics is consistent with the prominent dual-process framework in contemporary psychology, and that virtue thus understood means that lots of decisions are tragic decisions (in this case, pitting automatic, affect-laden, “System 1” intuitions against effortful, deliberative “System 2” judgments).  An keen observer of Tessman’s publication record might note that this is more or less the conclusion of everything she’s published in the last decade years.

In sum, the chapters by Van Hooft and Trivigno alone make Virtues in Action a worthy acquisition.  Many of the other chapters are edifying.  A few are best avoided.  Such are the virtues – and the vices – of Virtues in Action.




Davidson, D. (1980). Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford UP.

Geach, P. (1977). The Virtues. Cambridge UP.

Halwani, R. (2010). Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage: An Introduction. New York: Routledge.

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Belknap.

Tirrell, L. (2012). Genocidal language games. In I. Maitra & M. K. McGowan (eds.), Speech and Harm: Controversies over Free Speech, pp. 174-221. Oxford UP.


[1] My favorite example is this exchange from the BBC show “Blackadder”:

SAMUEL JOHNSON: Ah, I see you’ve underlined a few: ‘bloomers’, ‘burp’, ‘fart’, ‘fiddle’, ‘fornicate’?


JOHNSON: Sir!  I hope you’re not using the first English dictionary to look up rude words!

EDMUND: I wouldn’t be too hopeful; that’s what all the other ones will be used for.

BALDRICK: Sir, can I look up ‘turnip’?

EDMUND: ‘Turnip’ isn’t a rude word, Baldrick.

BALDRICK: It is if you sit on one.

[2] And, I should add, police training at least in the United States, given the rapid militarization of law enforcement.

[3] The question is serious.  Domestic violence spikes in countries that endure losses in the World Cup.

A conceptual analysis of swagger

Swagger, as they say, don’t come cheap.

a swaggering douchebag

But what is swagger?  I contend that it’s a third-order reflexive emotion.

A what?

Start with a few distinctions.  Emotions are a particular category of attitude.  Like other attitudes, they have objects.  When you’re angry, you’re angry at someone or something.  When you’re proud, you’re proud of someone or something.  Next, as Adam Morton convincingly argues in Emotion and Imagination, emotions, like desires, can take other emotions as objects.  You can be relieved that I’m pleased with you.  I can be proud of your approval of me.

Morton successfully analyzes various complex, moral emotions using this recursive embedding/nesting structure.  For instance, guilt is a complex emotion.  When I feel guilty, I emotionally identify with a point of view from which anger is directed at me (it might be the real point of view of someone I’ve offended, but it might equally be the idealized point of view of a ‘rational observer’).  When you feel shame, you emotionally identify with a point of view from which contempt is directed at you or your action (again, it might be the real point of view of someone who’s currently observing you, but it might equally be the idealized point of view of a ‘rational observer’).  When you feel moral indignation (rather than mere first-order anger), you approve of a point of view from which anger is directed at someone, someone’s behavior, an institution, or whatever.

There’s a general abstract structure to such moral emotions.  Let Ea(X) represent a’s having emotion E towards X.  A moral emotion, according to Morton, has the structure E1a(E2b(X)).  On this account, guilt = approvala(angerb(a)).  Similarly, shame = approvala(contemptb(a)).  And moral indignation = approvala(angerb(X)).

This general structure can be iterated.  For instance, a third-order emotion has the structure E1a(E2b(E3c(X))).  Using this model, I suggest that swagger = delighta(shockb(contempta(X))), where b is the point of view of conventional opinion, squares, or what have you, and X is an otherwise unoffensive social norm, person, or institution.

Why not just say that swagger = contempt?  I think there’s something special about swagger.  Contempt can be smugly held close one’s chest.  Someone who’s swaggering wants others to know that he (usually it is a he) is contemptuous.  Beyond that, someone who’s swaggering wants to shock and appall people with his contempt.  If actual people are shocked and appalled, terrific.  If not, he’ll at least imagine their point of view.  Swagger is contempt that’s flaunted.

Why not just say that swagger = knowledgea(shockb(contempta(X)))?  Because the swaggerer doesn’t just know that others are shocked by his arrogance.  The swaggerer is positively delighted by it.  Indeed, he almost certainly cares more about the reaction of third parties than he does about the reaction of the person towards whom he directs contempt.  They’re just a tool for generating the outrage he wants to bask in.

Kanye West and Jay-Z delighting in your shock at their contempt for norms of modesty and humility

Some instances of swagger might even be fifth-order.  Call these episodes of watch-the-throne.  The swaggerer not only expresses contempt for an otherwise unoffensive social norm, person, or institution.  The swaggerer not only delights in imagining the shock of popular opinion at his contempt.  He also knows that popular opinion will be outraged by his delight, and finds that hilarious.  Take your conventional mores and your conventional shock and shove it.  If this analysis is on the right track, watch-the-throne = hilaritya(outrageb(delighta(shockb(contempta(X))))).

Ramsifying virtue theory

Draft of a paper to be published in Current Controversies in Virtue Theory.  My controversy is over the question “Can people be virtuous?”  My respondent is James Montmarquet.  Other contributors to the volume include Heather Battaly, Liezl van Zyl, Jason Baehr, Ernie Sosa, Dan Russell, Christian Miller, Bob Roberts, and Nancy Snow.

Ramsifying virtue theory 

Can people be virtuous? This is a hard question, both because of its form and because of its content.

In terms of content, the proposition in question is at once normative and descriptive. Virtue-terms have empirical content. Attributions of virtues figure in the description, prediction, explanation, and control of behavior. If you know that someone is temperate, you can predict with some confidence that he won’t go on a bender this weekend. Someone’s investigating a mysterious phenomenon can be partly explained by (correctly) attributing curiosity to her. Character witnesses are called in trials to help determine how severely a convicted defendant will be punished. Virtue-terms also have normative content. Attributions of virtues are a manifestation of high regard and admiration; they are intrinsically rewarding to their targets; they’re a form of praise. The semantics of purely normative terms is hard enough on its own; the semantics of “thick” terms that have both normative and descriptive content is especially difficult.

Formally, the proposition in question (“people are virtuous”) is a generic, which adds a further wrinkle to its evaluation. It is notoriously difficult to give truth conditions for generics (Leslie 2008). A generic entails its existentially quantified counterpart, but is not entailed by it. For instance, tigers are four-legged, so some tigers are four-legged; but even though some deformed tigers are three-legged, it doesn’t follow that tigers are three-legged. A generic typically is entailed by its universally quantified counterpart, but does not entail it. Furthermore, a generic neither entails nor is entailed by its counterpart “most” statement. Tigers give live birth, but most tigers do not give live birth; after all, only about half of all tigers are female, and not all of them give birth. Most mosquitoes do not carry West Nile virus, but mosquitoes carry West Nile virus. Given the trickiness of generics, it’s helpful to clarify them to the extent possible with more precise non-generic statements.

Moreover, the proposition in question is modally qualified, which redoubles the difficulty of confirming or disconfirming it. What’s being asked is not simply whether people are virtuous, but whether they can be virtuous. It could turn out that even though no one is virtuous, it’s possible for people to become virtuous. This would, however, be extremely surprising. Unlike other unrealized possibilities, virtue is almost universally sought after, so if it isn’t widely actualized despite all that seeking, we have fairly strong evidence that it’s not there to be had.

In this paper, I propose a method for adjudicating the question whether people can be virtuous. This method, if sound, would help to resolve what’s come to be known as the situationist challenge to virtue theory, which over the last few decades has threatened both virtue ethics (Alfano 2013a, Doris 2002, Harman 1999) and virtue epistemology (Alfano 2011, 2013a, Olin & Doris 2014). The method is an application of David Lewis’s (1966, 1970, 1972) development of Frank Ramsey’s (1931) approach to the implicit definition of theoretical terms. The method needs to be tweaked in various ways to handle the difficulties canvassed above, but, when it is, an interesting answer to our question emerges: we face a theoretical tradeoff between, on the one hand, insisting that virtue is a robust property of an individual agent that’s rarely attained and perhaps even unattainable and, on the other hand, allowing that one person’s virtue might inhere partly in other people, making virtue at once more easily attained and more fragile.

The basic principle underlying the Ramsey-Lewis approach to implicit definition (often referred to as ‘Ramsification’) can be illustrated with a well-known story:

And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, “There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.” And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” And Nathan said to David, “Thou art the man.”

Nathan uses Ramsification to drive home a point. He tells a story about an ordered triple of objects (two people and an animal) that are interrelated in various ways. Some of the first object’s properties (e.g., wealth) are monadic; some of the second object’s properties (e.g., poverty) are monadic; some of the first object’s properties are relational (e.g., he steals the third object from the second object); some of the second object’s properties are relational (e.g., the third object is stolen from him by the first object); and so on. Even though the first object is not explicitly defined as the X such that …, it is nevertheless implicitly defined as the first element of the ordered triple such that …. The big reveal happens when Nathan announces that the first element of the ordered triple, about whom his interlocutor has already made some pretty serious pronouncements, is the very person he’s addressing (the other two, for those unfamiliar with the 2nd Samuel 12, are Uriah and Bathsheba[1]).

The story is Biblical, but the method is modern. To implicitly define a set of theoretical terms (henceforth ‘T-terms’), one formulates a theory T in those terms and any other terms (henceforth ‘O-terms’) one already understands or has an independent theory of. Next, one writes T as a single sentence, such as a long conjunction, in which the T-terms t1…, tn occur (henceforth ‘T[t1…, tn]’ or ‘the postulate of T’). The T-terms are replaced by unbound variables x1…, xn, and then existentially quantified over to generate the Ramsey sentence of T, which states that T is realized, i.e., that there are objects x1…, xn that satisfy the Ramsey sentence. An ordered n-tuple that satisfies the Ramsey sentence is then said to be a realizer of the theory.

Lewis (1966) famously applied this method to folk psychology to argue for the mind-brain identity theory. Somewhat roughly, he argued that folk psychology can be treated as a theory in which mental-state terms are the T-terms. The postulate of folk psychology is identified as the conjunction of all folk-psychological platitudes (commonsense psychological truths that everyone knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows, and so on). The Ramsey sentence of folk psychology is formed in the usual way, by replacing all mental-state terms (e.g., ‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘pain’, etc.) with variables and existentially quantifying over those variables. Finally, one goes on to determine what, in the actual world, satisfies the Ramsey sentence; that is, one investigates what, if anything, is a realizer of the Ramsey sentence. If there is a realizer, then that’s what the T-terms refer to; if there is no realizer, then the T-terms do not refer. Lewis claims that brain states are such realizers, and hence that mental states are identical with brain states.

Lewis’s Ramsification method is attractive for a number of reasons.[2] First, it ensures that we don’t simply change the topic when we try to give a philosophical account of some phenomenon. If your account of the mind is wildly inconsistent with the postulate of folk psychology, then – though you may be giving an account of something interesting – you’re not doing what you think you’re doing. Second, enables us to distinguish between the meaning of the T-terms and whether they refer. The T-terms mean what they would refer to, if there were such a thing. Whether they in fact refer is a distinct question. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Ramsification is holistic. The first half of the twentieth century bore witness to the fact that it’s impossible to give an independent account of almost any psychological phenomenon (belief, desire, emotion, perception) because what it means to have one belief is essentially bound up with what it means to have a whole host of other beliefs, as well as (at least potentially) a whole host of desires, emotions, and perceptions. Ramsification gets around this problem by giving an account of all of the relevant phenomena at once, rather than trying to chip away at them piecemeal.

Virtue theory stands to benefit from the application of Ramsification for all of these reasons. We want an account of virtue, not an account of some other interesting phenomenon (though we might want that too). We want an account that recognizes that talk of virtue is meaningful, even if there aren’t virtues. Most importantly, we want an account of virtue that recognizes the complexity of virtue and character – the fact that virtues are interrelated in a whole host of ways with occurrent and dispositional mental states, with other virtues, with character more broadly, and so on.

Whether Lewis is right about brains is irrelevant to our question, but his methodology is crucial. What I want to do now is to show how the same method, suitably modified, can be used to implicitly define virtue-terms, which in turn will help us to answer the question whether people can be virtuous. For reasons that will become clear as we proceed, the T-terms of virtue theory as I construe it here are ‘person’, ‘virtue’, ‘vice’, the names of the various virtues (e.g., ‘courage’, ‘generosity’, ‘curiosity’), the names of their congruent affects (e.g., ‘feeling courageous’, ‘feeling generous’, ‘feeling curious’), the names of the various vices (e.g., ‘cowardice’, ‘greed, ‘intellectual laziness’), and the names of their congruent affects, (e.g., ‘feeling cowardly’, ‘feeling greedy’, ‘feeling intellectually lazy’). The O-terms are all other terms, importantly including terms that refer to attitudes (e.g., ‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘anger’, ‘resentment’, ‘disgust’, ‘contempt’, ‘respect’), mental processes (e.g., ‘deliberation’), perceptions and perceptual sensitivities, behaviors, reasons, situational features (e.g., ‘being alone’, ‘being in a crowd’, ‘being monitored’), and evaluations (e.g., ‘praise’ and ‘blame’).

Elsewhere (Alfano 2013), I have argued for an intuitive distinction between high-fidelity and low-fidelity virtues. High-fidelity virtues, such as honesty, chastity, and loyalty, require near-perfect manifestation in undisrupted conditions. Someone only counts as chaste if he never cheats on his partner when cheating is a temptation. Low-fidelity virtues, such as generosity, tact, and tenacity, are not so demanding. Someone might count as generous if she were more disposed to give than not to give when there was sufficient reason to do so; someone might count as tenacious if she were more disposed to persist than not to persist in the face of adversity. If this is on the right track, the postulate of virtue theory will recognize the distinction. For instance, it seems to me at least that almost everyone would say that helpfulness is a low-fidelity virtue whereas loyalty is a high-fidelity virtue. Here, then, are some families of platitudes about character that are candidates for the postulate of virtue theory:


(A) The Virtue / Affect Family

(a1) If a person has courage, then she will typically feel courageous when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(a2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically feel generous when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(a3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically feel curious when there is sufficient reason to do so.




(an) ….


(C) The Virtue / Cognition Family

(c1) If a person has courage, then she will typically want to overcome threats.

(c2) If a person has courage, then she will typically deliberate well about how to overcome threats and reliably form beliefs about how to do so.




(cn) ….


(S) The Virtue / Situation Family

(s1) If a person has courage, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against overcoming a threat.

(s2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against giving resources to someone.

(s3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against investigating a problem.






(E) The Virtue / Evaluation Family

(e1) If a person has courage, then she will typically react to threats in ways that merit praise.

(e2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically react to others’ needs and wants in ways that merit praise.

(e3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically react to intellectual problems in ways that merit praise.






(B) The Virtue / Behavior Family

(b1) If a person has courage, then she will typically act so as to overcome threats when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(b2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically act so as to benefit another person when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(b3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically act so as to solve intellectual problems when there is sufficient reason to do so.






(P) The Virtue Prevalence Family

(p1) Many people commit acts of courage.

(p2) Many people commit acts of generosity.

(p3) Many people commit acts of curiosity.

(p4) Many people are courageous.

(p5) Many people are generous.

(p6) Many people are curious.






(I) The Cardinality / Integration Family

(i1) Typically, a person who has modesty also has humility.

(i2) Typically, a person who has magnanimity also has generosity.

(i3) Typically, a person who has curiosity also has open-mindedness.






(D) The Desire / Virtue Family

(d1) Typically, a person desires to have courage.

(d2) Typically, a person desires to have generosity.

(d3) Typically, a person desires to have curiosity.






(F) The Fidelity Family

(f1) Chastity is high-fidelity.

(f2) Honesty is high-fidelity.

(f3) Creativity is low-fidelity.






Each platitude in each family is meant to be merely illustrative. Presumably they could all be improved somewhat, and there are many more such platitudes. Moreover, each family is itself just an example. There are many further families describing the relations among vice, affect, cognition, situation, evaluation, and behavior, as well as families that make three-way rather than two-way connections (e.g., “If a person is courageous, then she will typically act so as to overcome threats when there is sufficient reason to do so and because she feels courageous.”). For the sake of simplicity, though, let’s assume that the families identified above contain all and only the platitudes relevant to the implicit definition of virtues. Ramsification can now be performed in the usual way. First, create a big conjunction (henceforth, simply the ‘postulate of virtue theory’). Next, replace each of the T-terms in the postulate of virtue theory with an unbound variable, then existentially quantifies over those variables to generate the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory. Finally, check whether the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is true and – if it is – what its realizers are.

After this preliminary work has been done, we’re in a position to see more clearly the problem raised by the situationist challenge to virtue theory. Situationists argue that there is no realizer of the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory. Moreover, this is not for lack of effort. Indeed, one family of platitudes in the Ramsey sentence specifically states that, typically, people desire to be virtuous; it’s not as if no one has yet tried to be or become courageous, generous, or curious.[3] In this paper, I don’t have space to canvass the relevant empirical evidence; interested readers should see my (2013a and 2013b). Nevertheless, the crucial claim – that the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is not realized – is not an object of serious dispute in the philosophical literature.

One very common response to the situationist challenge from defenders of virtue theory (and virtue ethics in particular) is to claim that virtues are actually quite rare, directly contradicting the statements in the virtue prevalence family. I do not think this is the best response to the problem, as I explain below, but the point remains that all serious disputants agree that the Ramsey sentence is not realized.

As described above, Ramsification looks like a simple, formal exercise. Collect the platitudes, put them into a big conjunction, perform the appropriate substitutions, existentially quantify, and check the truth-value of the resulting Ramsey sentence (and the referents of its bound variables, if any). But there are several opportunities for a critic to object as the exercise unfolds.

One difficulty that arises for some families, such as the desire / virtue family, is that they involve T-terms within the scope of intentional attitude verbs.[4] Since existential quantification into such contexts is blocked by opacity, such families cannot be relied on to define the T-terms, though they can be used to double-check the validity of the implicit definition once the T-terms are defined.[5]

Another difficulty is that this methodology presupposes that we have an adequate understanding of the O-terms, which in this case include terms that refer to attitudes, mental processes, perceptions and perceptual sensitivities, behaviors, reasons, situational features, and evaluations. One might be dubious about this presupposition. I certainly am. However, the fact that philosophy of mind and metaethics are works-in-progress should not be interpreted as a problem specifically for my approach to virtue theory. Any normative theory that relies on other branches of philosophy to figure out what mental states and processes are, and what reasons are, can be criticized in the same way.

A third worry is that the list of platitudes contains gaps (e.g., a virtue acquisition family about how various traits are acquired). Conversely, one might think that it has gluts (e.g., unmotivated commitment to virtue prevalence). To overcome this pair of worries, we need a way of determining what the platitudes are. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no precedent for this in the philosophy of mind, despite the fact that Ramsification is often invoked as a framework there.[6] This may be because it’s supposed to be obvious what the platitudes are. Here’s Frank Jackson’s flippant response to the worry: “I am sometimes asked—in a tone that suggests that the question is a major objection—why, if conceptual analysis is concerned to elucidate what governs our classificatory practice, don’t I advocate doing serious opinion polls on people’s responses to various cases? My answer is that I do—when it is necessary. Everyone who presents the Gettier cases to a class of students is doing their own bit of fieldwork, and we all know the answer they get in the vast majority of cases” (1998, 36–37). After all, according to Lewis, everyone knows the platitudes, and everyone knows that everyone knows them, and everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows them, and so on. Sometimes, however, the most obvious things are the hardest to spot. It thus behooves us to at least sketch a method for carrying out the first step of Ramsification: identifying the platitudes. Call this pre-Ramsification.

Here’s an attempt at spelling out how pre-Ramsification should work: start by listing off a large number of candidate platitudes. These can be all of the statements one would, in a less-responsible, Jacksonian mood, have merely asserted were platitudes. It can also include statements that seem highly likely but perhaps not quite platitudes. Add to the pool of statements some that seem, intuitively, to be controversial, as well as some that seem obviously false; these serve as anchors in the ensuing investigation. Next, collect people’s responses to these statements. Several sorts of responses would be useful, including subjective agreement, social agreement, and reaction time. For instance, prompt people with the statement, “Many people are honest,” and ask to what extent they agree and to what extent they think others would agree. Measure their reaction times as they answer both questions. High subjective and social agreement, paired with fast reaction times, is strong but defeasible evidence that a statement is a platitude. This is a bit vague, since I haven’t specified what counts as “high” agreement or “fast” reaction times, but there are precedents in psychology for setting these thresholds. Moreover, this kind of pre-Ramsification wouldn’t establish dispositively what the platitudes are, but then, dispositive proof only happens in mathematics.

It’s far beyond the scope of this short paper to show that pre-Ramsification works in the way I suggest, or that it verifies all and only the families identified above. For now, let’s suppose that it does, i.e., that all of the families proposed above were validated by pre-Ramsification. Let’s also suppose that we have strong evidence that the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is not realized (a point that, as I mentioned above, is not seriously contested). How should we then proceed?

Lewis foresaw that, in some cases, the Ramsey sentence for a given field would be unrealized, so he built in a way of fudging things: instead of generating the postulate by taking the conjunction of all of the platitudes, one can generate a weaker postulate by taking the disjunction of each of the conjunctions of most of the platitudes. For example, if there were only five platitudes, p, q, r, s, and t, then instead of the postulate’s being , it would be (p&q&r&s)v(p&q&r&t)&…&(q&r&s&t). In the case of virtue theory, we could take the disjunction of each of the conjunctions of all but one of the families of platitudes. Alternatively, we could exclude a few of the platitudes from within each family.

Fudging in this way makes it easier for the Ramsey sentence to be realized, since the disjunction of conjunctions of most of the platitudes is logically weaker than the straightforward conjunction of all of them. Fudging may end up making it too easy, though, such that there are multiple realizers of the Ramsey sentence. When this happens, it’s up to the theorist to figure out how to strengthen things back up in such a way that there is a unique realizer.

The various responses to the situationist challenge can be seen as different ways of doing this. Everyone recognizes that the un-fudged Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is unrealized. But a sufficiently fudged Ramsey sentence is bound to be multiply realized. It’s a theoretical choice exactly how to play things at this point. More traditional virtue theorists such as Joel Kupperman (2009) favor a fudged version of the Ramsey sentence wherein the virtue prevalence family has been dropped. John Doris (2002) favors a fudged version wherein the virtue/situation and virtue/integration families have been dropped. I (2013) favor a fudged version wherein the virtue / situation family has been dropped and a virtue /social construction family has been added in its place. The statements in the latter family have to do with the ways in which (signals of) social expectations implicitly and explicitly influence behavior. The main idea is that having a virtue is more like having a title or social role (e.g., you’re curious because people signal to you their expectations of curiosity) than like having a basic physical or biological property (e.g., being over six feet tall). Christian Miller (2013, 2014) drops the virtue prevalence family and adds a mixed-trait prevalence family in its place, which states that many people possess traits that are neither virtues nor vices, such as the disposition to help others in order to improve one’s mood or avoid sliding into a bad mood.

In this short paper, I don’t have the space to argue against all alternatives to my own proposal. Instead, I want to make two main claims. First, the “virtue is rare” dodge advocated by Kupperman and others who drop the virtue prevalence family has costs associated with it. Second, those costs may be steeper than the costs associated with my own way of responding to the situationist challenge.

Researchers in personality and social psychology have documented for decades the tendency of just about everybody to make spontaneous trait inferences, attributing robust character traits on the basis of scant evidence (Ross 1977; Uleman et al. 1996). This indicates that people think that character traits (virtues, vices, and neutral traits, such as extroversion) are prevalent. Furthermore, in a forthcoming paper (Alfano, Higgins, & Levernier forthcoming), I show that the vast majority of obituaries attribute multiple virtues to the deceased. Not everyone is eulogized in an obituary, of course, but most are (about 55% of Americans, by my calculations). Not all obituaries are sincere, but presumably many are. Absent reason to think that people about whom obituaries differ greatly from people about whom they are not written, we can treat this as evidence that most people think that the people they know have multiple virtues. But of course, if most relations of most people are virtuous, it follows that most people are virtuous. In other words, the virtue-prevalence family is deeply ingrained in folk psychology and folk morality.

Social psychologists think that people are quick to attribute virtues. My own work on obituaries suggests the same. What do philosophers say? Though there are some (Russell 2009) who claim that virtue is rare or even non-existent with a shrug, this is not the predominant opinion. Alasdair MacIntyre (1984, p. 199) claims that “without allusion to the place that justice and injustice, courage and cowardice play in human life very little will be genuinely explicable.” Philippa Foot (2001), following Peter Geach (1977), argues that certain generic statements characterize the human form of life, and that from these generic statements we can infer what humans need and hence will typically have. For the sake of comparison, consider what she says about a different life form, the deer. Foot first points out that the deer’s form of defense is flight. Next, she claims that a certain normative statement follows, namely, that deer are naturally or by nature swift. This is not to say that every deer is swift; some are slow. Instead, it’s a generic statement that characterizes the nature of the deer. Finally, she says that any deer that fails to be swift – that fails to live up to its nature – is “so far forth defective” (p. 34). The same line of reasoning that she here applies to non-human animals is meant to apply to human animals as well. As she puts it, “Men and women need to be industrious and tenacious of purpose not only so as to be able to house, clothe, and feed themselves, but also to pursue human ends having to do with love and friendship. They need the ability to form family ties, friendships, and special relations with neighbors. They also need codes of conduct. And how could they have all these things without virtues such as loyalty, fairness, kindness, and in certain circumstances obedience?” (pp. 44-5, emphasis mine).

In light of these sorts of claims, let’s consider again the defense offered by some virtue ethicists that virtue is rare, or even impossible to achieve. If virtues are what humans need, but the vast majority of people don’t have them, one would have thought that our species would have died out long ago. Consider the analogous claim for deer: although deer need to be swift, the vast majority of deer are galumphers. Were that the case, presumably they’d be hunted down and devoured like a bunch of tasty venison treats. Or consider another example of Foot’s: she agrees with Geach (1977) that people need virtues like honeybees need stingers. Does it make sense for someone with this attitude to say that most people lack virtues? That would be like saying that, even though bees need stingers, most lack stingers. It’s certainly odd to claim that the majority – even the vast majority of a species fails to fulfill its own nature. That’s not a contradiction, but it is a cost to be borne by anyone who responds to the situationist challenge by dropping the virtue prevalence family.

One might respond on Foot’s behalf that human animals are special: unlike the other species, we have natures that are typically unfulfilled. That would be an interesting claim to make, but I am not aware of anyone who has defended it in print.[7] I conclude, then, that dropping the virtue prevalence family is a significant cost to revising the postulate.

But is it a more significant cost than the one imposed on me by replacing the virtue / situation family with a virtue / social construction family? I think it is. This comparative claim is of course hard to adjudicate, so I will rest content merely to emphasize the strength of the virtue / prevalence family.

What would it look like to fudge things in the way I recommend? Essentially, one would end up committed to a version of the hypothesis of extended cognition, a variety of active externalism in the family of the extended mind hypothesis. Clark & Chalmers (1998) argued that the vehicles (not just the contents) of some mental states and processes extend beyond the nervous system and even the skin of the agent whose states they are.[8] If my arguments are on the right track, virtues and vices sometimes extend in the same way: the bearers of someone’s moral and intellectual virtues sometimes include asocial aspects of the environment and (more frequently) other people’s normative and descriptive expectations. What it takes (among other things) for you to be, for instance, open-minded, on this view is that others think of you as open-minded and signal those thoughts to you. When they do, they prompt you to revise your self-concept, to want to live up to their expectations, to expect them to reward open-mindedness and punish closed-mindedness, to reciprocate displays of open-mindedness, and so on. These are all inducements to conduct yourself in an open-minded way, which they will typically notice. When they do, their initial attribution will be corroborated, leading them to strengthen their commitment to it and perhaps to signal that strengthening to you, which in turn is likely to further induce you to conduct yourself in open-minded ways, which will again corroborate their judgment of you, and so on. Such feedback loops are, on my view, partly constitutive of what it means to have a virtue.[9] The realizer of the fudged Ramsey sentence isn’t just what’s inside the person who has the virtue but also further things outside that person.

So, can people be virtuous? I hope it isn’t too disappointing to answer with, “It depends on what you mean by ‘can’, ‘people’, and ‘virtuous’.” If we’re concerned only with abstract possibility, perhaps the answer is affirmative. If we are concerned more with the proximal possibility that figures in people’s current deliberations, plans, and hopes, we have reason to worry. If we only care whether more than zero people can be virtuous, the existing, statistical, empirical evidence is pretty much useless.   If we instead treat ‘people’ as a generic referring to human animals (perhaps a majority of them, but at least a substantial plurality), such evidence becomes both important and (again) worrisome. If we insist that being virtuous is something that must inhere entirely within the agent who has the virtue, then evidence from social psychology is damning. If instead we allow for the possibility of external character, there is room for hope.[10]


[1] Nathan is also using an extended metaphor. My point is clear nevertheless.

[2] An alternative is the “psycho-functionalist” method, which disregards common sense in favor of (solely) highly corroborated scientific claims. See Kim (2011) for an overview. For my purposes, psycho-functionalism is less appropriate, since (among other things) it is more in danger of changing the topic.

[3] I seem to be in disagreement on this point with Christian Miller (this volume), who worries that people may not be motivated to be or become virtuous. In general, I’m even more skeptical than Miller about the prospects of virtue theory, but in this case I find myself playing the part of the optimist.

[4] I am here indebted to Gideon Rosen.

[5] It might also be possible to circumvent this difficulty, which anyway troubles Lewis’s application of Ramsification to the mind-brain identity theory, by using only de re formulations of the relevant statements. See Fitting & Mendelsohn (1999) for a discussion of how to do so.

[6] Experimental philosophers have started to fill this gap, but not in any systematic or consensus-based way.

[7] Micah Lott (personal communication) has told me that he endorses this claim, though he has a related worry. In short, his concern is to explain how, given the alleged rarity of virtue, most people manage to live decent enough lives.

[8] For an overview of the varieties of externalism, see Carter et al. (forthcoming).

[9] I spell out this view in more detail in Alfano & Skorburg (forthcoming). For a treatment of the feedback-loops model in the context of the extended mind rather than the character debate, see Palermos (forthcoming).

[10] I am grateful to J. Adam Carter, Orestis Palermos, and Micah Lott for comments on a draft of this paper.

The semantic neighborhood of intellectual humility

Here’s a draft of a paper (co-authored with Markus Christen and Brian Robinson) on the semantic neighborhood of intellectual humility.  We are replicating in German and Mandarin, so those who are familiar with Wilfrid Sellars should think of this as the first step in a seriously scientific dot-quotation research programme.

1. Introduction

The study of personality and conceptions of personality has been pursued by psychologists and other researchers in various ways, including among others observations in laboratory settings and field experiments, correlational studies of survey responses, and psycholexical analyses. The present research embodies the latter methodology, and is informed by both philosophical theory and mathematical modeling tools developed in physical science.

Psycholexical analysis dates back to Francis Galton’s Measurement of Character (1884). The basic idea is that, all else being equal, a natural language is more likely to include a predicate for a property to the extent that the property is important to those who speak the language. This is not to say that every phrase or term refers. There are no unicorns despite the existence of the term ‘unicorn’. Nor is it to say that everything worth talking about is already represented by a phrase or singular term. Words are sometimes coined because new phenomena come into existence or become important; words are also sometimes coined because extant phenomena could not otherwise be parsimoniously described and explained. Sometimes a speaker coins words to describe or explain phenomena for which a word already exists, but of which the coiner is ignorant. So words that are synonyms (or nearly so) emerge, further emphasizing the importance of the phenomena referred to. Regardless, the rough generalization that there is a strong positive correlation between the importance of phenomena in the lives of the speakers of a language and the probability of the existence of a term in the language that refers to those phenomena is hard to deny. If this is on the right track, studying psychological language is an indirect way of studying the psychological properties people care about.

Psychologists in the psycholexical tradition don’t stop there, though. They also typically argue that the semantic structure of a language reflects to some extent the perceived structure of the phenomena described by the language. In personality psychology, this insight was famously used by Allport & Odbert (1936) to create a semantic taxonomy of thousands of personality-relevant terms, which they argued represents how people conceive of personality. Of course, the step from language to people’s conception of personality is not identical to the step from their conception of personality to actual personality, but it’s natural to think that there will be at least a positive correlation – if only a weak one – between how we think about personality and how personality actually is. This two-step connection (from language about personality to conceptions of personality, from conceptions of personality to actual personality) has been empirically validated by personality models such as the Big Five (Peabody & Goldberg 1989) and Big Six (Ashton et al. 2004; Saucier 1997).

The Big Six includes an H factor that represents facets of personality related to honesty and humility. Intellectual humility seems to involve a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively (Roberts & Woods 2007), though others regard it as more of a “second-order” open-mindedness (Spiegel 2012). In our age of information, intellectualhumility has grown all the more relevant. However, little conceptual or empirical work has explored this trait. We think that the psycholexical approach is especially promising in the investigation of intellectual humility because questionnaires are likely to be especially unreliable as measures of this construct. Someone who is genuinely humble is unlikely to report being humble, and someone who reports being humble is unlikely to be humble. Humility – whether intellectual, moral, or otherwise – seems to involve a paradox of self-reference.

Additionally, our investigation is motivated by Aristotle’s insight, reiterated in contemporary philosophy by Roberts & Wood (2007), that a virtue (i.e., a positive value-laden personality disposition or dimension of individual difference) is often best understood in the context of related virtues and the vices they oppose. Put a different way, by contextualizing a term for a virtue in the constellation of its near-synonyms and its near-antonyms, we can create a perspicuous representation of the meaning of the term.

For these reasons, we propose to investigate the trait of intellectual humility psycholexically by comparing ‘intellectual humility’ with both its antonyms and synonyms.

2. Method

Our analysis is based on the assumption that the practice of language is precipitated in dictionaries, lexicons, and other wordbooks. Of particular interest is the thesaurus – a language reference book or database organized to help its users find words related to a concept but having slightly different shades of meaning or connotation. Thesauruses reflect what people in their daily use of language – in particular when writing text – consider semantically similar to a given term. In other words, a thesaurus lists synonyms in a broad sense. Modern thesauruses also list antonyms, which are then again related to a set of their own synonyms.

The present research explores the semantic space of intellectual humility by first identifying the most common synonyms and antonyms of ‘intellectual humility’. Next, by referring to the thesaurus.com database (the largest online thesaurus for American English), we associate each identified term with a word-bag, which is the set of synonyms listed for that term. The semantic constellation of a term t is thus an ordered pair (t, {tsyn1, tsyn2, tsyn3, …, tsynn}), whose first element is t itself and whose second element is t’s word-bag, i.e., the set of synonyms of t (including t itself). By comparing semantic constellations, we then create a similarity metric by calculating the relative overlap of each pair of word-bags. The similarities calculated in this way are then used in a novel clustering and visualization tool that generates a semantic map of the terms involved.

More specifically:

1)    We identified potential synonyms and antonyms for ‘intellectual humility’ in three ways:

  1. We searched philosophy and psychology journals for articles that discuss intellectual humility; we found 24 papers or related texts (such as calls for proposals, abstracts, and papers).
  2. We performed an Internet search for entries on ‘intellectual humility’ and found 20 entries that dealt in a significant way with the concept.
  3. We identified scales that are used in psychology for constructs that have some similarity to intellectual humility (e.g., the H factor of the Big Six personality inventory).

In all these texts, we identified terms that are used to represent the meaning of ‘intellectual humility’ or its relevant vices.

2)    Four raters that have experience with the philosophical topic of intellectual humility assessed all terms collected in step 1 to determine whether they could be used to express the concept of intellectual humility or a related vice. A term was kept on the list if three out of four raters agreed to do so. In this way, we identified 52 synonyms and 69 antonyms for ‘intellectual humility’. Each term was represented at least in noun form and usually in adjective form also: for example, {tolerance, tolerant}.

3)    We identified all entries for each term generated in step 2 in the thesaurus.com database to generate word-bags for each synonym and antonym. For example, the word-bag for ‘tolerance’ included all entries on thesaurus.com for the term set {tolerance, tolerant}.

4)    Next, we calculated the similarity in overlap between every pairwise combination of word-bags. For example, the word-bag of ’tolerance’ contains 55 terms and the word-bag of ’broadmindedness’ contains 40 terms. 12 terms are contained in both word-bags. Hence, the similarity between ‘tolerance’ and ‘broadmindedness’ is 12/40 = 0.3. In this way, the similarity measures are always between 0 (no similarity) and 1 (one word-bag is completely contained in the other word-bag).

5)    We checked for highly similar terms (overlaps > 0.5).[1] We collapsed the word-bags of these terms into a single word-bag to reduce the number of synonyms/antonyms. Conceptually, it’s unclear whether terms that share more than half of their semantic constellations represent genuinely distinct constructs. In this way, we reduced the number of synonyms from 52 to 39 and the number of antonyms from 69 to 46. When two terms were collapsed, our raters kept the term that in their estimation was better known. A new word-bag was created combining those of the two collapsed terms. In cases where the word-bag of term X overlapped with two or more terms by > 0.5 whose mutual overlap was, however, below the cutoff-value, the raters determined collapsing based on the highest mutual overlaps. This occurred 2 times for the synonyms and 8 times for of the antonyms. For all condensed word-bags, the similarities were re-calculated. Step 5 was not iterated.

6)    The similarity measures obtained in this way were then used as inputs in a visualization algorithm called superparamagnetic agent mapping, which employs self-organizing agents governed by the dynamics of a clustering algorithm inspired by spin physics to generate denoised low-dimensional representations. To conceptualize this mapping, imagine each term as a particle that naturally repels all other particles. However, as overlap between two terms increases, they become more attracted to each other. Thus, superparamagnetic agent mapping typically produces clumping, where several particles clump together (connoting similarity) while collectively repelling a different cluster (connoting collective difference between the two clusters). It has been shown (Ott et al. 2014) that this method is superior to standard methods such as factor analysis, principal components analysis, and multidimensional scaling in preserving the topology of the data space with clustered data. Since such a map will never precisely display the real topology of the original, high-dimensional space, we calculated for each point on the map the sum of the differences between the point and all its neighbors both in the map and in the original space (normalized to the longest distance in either case). The lower this sum, the better the map displays the real distance distribution of a point from its neighbors in the original space, so this number is a proxy for the quality of the map. To increase the heuristic value of the maps, we rescaled the sizes of the points themselves so that larger points indicate greater topological certainty.

7)    Finally, using the same clustering paradigm in an adapted version from (Ott et al. 2005), we identified clusters on the map generated in step 6.

Step 7 generates the maps below that are then used to inform our reasoning about intellectual humility.

3. Results

We produced three maps to convey our results. Figure 1 is the synonym map, showing the degree of overlap among intellectual humility’s 39 synonyms. The terms predominantly cluster into three groups. The first group (displayed in green) we have labeled the Sensible Self and is exemplified by terms such as ‘comprehension,’ ‘responsiveness’, and ‘mindfulness’. We take this cluster to be representative of the notion that an intellectually humble person will be open and responsive to new ideas and information. The second (pink) cluster we call the Inquisitive Self; it is illustrated by terms such as ‘curiosity’, ‘exploration’, and ‘learning’. The difference between the Sensible Self and the Inquisitive Self indicates that there is some difference between seeking new information or ideas and being open to them when they are presented. Third, we have named the blue cluster the Discreet Self, which is typified by ‘humility’, ‘decency’, and ‘unpretentiousness’. Finally, some terms (shown in black) have intermediate positions among these groups (e.g., ‘flexibility’ and ‘tolerance’) and do not fit neatly within any cluster.


Figure 1: IH Synonym map.

Figure 2 shows the results of the antonym map, displaying the degree of overlap between intellectual humility’s 46 antonyms. The first result to notice is that almost all the terms are aligned along one dimension and cluster at each endpoint. We take this to represent the distinction between underrating and overrating. The larger, red cluster can be thought of as the Overrated Self, and includes terms such as ‘vanity, ‘pride’, and ‘arrogance’. This cluster suggests that one way not to be intellectually humble is to be overly focused on one’s own high status. Overrating oneself is not, however, the only way to fail to be intellectually humble. The opposite endpoint has two closely related clusters that indicate two other ways. There is the Underrated Other in purple (typified by terms such as ‘bias’, ‘prejudice’, and ‘unfairness’) and the Underrated Self cluster in orange, which is similar in that it involves underrating, but the object of underrating is oneself. This cluster is characterized by terms such as ‘diffidence’, ‘timidity’, and ‘acquiescence’. This cluster suggests that there is such a thing as being too humble, such that one’s lack of pride ceases to have any positive value. It is worth noting how close the two (orange and purple) underrated clusters are relative to the (red) overrated cluster. This indicates that there is a higher degree of similarity based on the nature of the rating (over or under) than on who is being evaluated (self or other). Finally, we again see several terms (such as ‘hubris’, ‘chutzpah’, and ‘aloofness’) in white circles in the middle of the line, indicating that these terms do not fit within any cluster. This result should not be surprising since one can be aloof by either overrating oneself or underrating others (or both).


Figure 2: IH Antonym map.

Finally, we mapped all synonyms and antonyms together. We have preserved the colors from the two previous maps. The resulting map preserves many of the structural features of the previous maps, but with a few significant changes. First, it reveals that for the antonyms the linear structure along the poles of the Overrated Self and the Underrated Other is mainly preserved, whereas the terms on the Underrated Self (orange) are in the same region as the terms for the Discreet Self (blue) from the synonym set. Additionally, the distinction between the terms for the Sensible Self (green) and Inquisitive Self (pink) is no longer discernible. This second merger merely indicates that the difference between the Inquisitive Self and the Sensible Self is large enough to be significant when compared to the Discreet Self, but small enough not to be significant when compared to intellectual humility’s antonyms.


Figure 3: Unified synonyms and antonyms map.

4. Discussion & Conclusion

From these results, there are three points we wish to draw out for discussion. First, there is the matter of what the clusters represent. In the antonyms map, we take each cluster to represent a distinct vice, i.e., a different way one can fail to be intellectually humble. For the synonyms, however, two possibilities exist. It might be that each cluster represents a distinct trait, all three of which go by the same name of ‘intellectual humility’. Opposing this semantic diversity thesis is the alternate interpretation that sees each cluster representing a different facet of the single trait of intellectual humility.

Second, consider the merging of the synonym-based Discreet Self and antonym-based Underrated Self in the combined map. We see two possible interpretations. It might be that the discreet aspect of intellectual humility is essentially akin to underrating oneself. Snow (1995) and Taylor (1985) both argue that humility essentially involves recognizing one’s low status or personal faults. If this is right, then either the discreet aspect of humility is more of a vice than a virtue, or the underrated aspect of humility’s antonyms is more of a virtue than a vice. Either way, the valence of one or both of these semantic clusters may need to change. Alternatively, there might be two different traits picked out by these clusters – one a virtue and the other a vice – that are behaviorally similar enough that they are easily conflated. Someone who underrates herself will behave very similarly to a discreet person. They will both not regularly speak up about controversial topics, in praise of themselves, or for their own rights and entitlements, making it difficult to differentiate them behaviorally. There could, however, be an underlying psychological difference that typically goes unobserved. The discreet person may not often attend to evaluating herself, but when she does so, she does it accurately. One who underrates herself, however, may pay significant attention to her own merits, but regularly devalue them. Further research on the behavioral and psychological aspects of intellectual humility and its contraries may help to answer this question.

The final point relates back to the Big Six personality inventory (Ashton et al. 2004; Saucier 1997). As mentioned earlier, the H factor is meant to represent facets of personality related to honesty and humility. The 100-item revised version measures the participant’s humility (specifically her modesty) by having her indicate (dis)agreement with statements such as “I am an ordinary person who is no better than others.” We worry that the Big Six therefore includes in its H dimension items that are better understood as contrary to humility, not allied with or constitutive of it.



Allport, G. & Odbert, H. (1936). Trait-names: A Psycho-lexical Study.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.

Ashton, M., Lee, K., Perugini, M., Szarota, P., de Vries, R., Di Blas, L., Boies, K., De Raad, B. (2004). A six-factor structure of personality-descriptive adjectives: Solutions from psycholexical studies in seven languages. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86:2, 356-366.

Galton, F. (1884). Measurement of Character.

Ott, T., Eggel, T., Christen, M. (2014). Generating Low-Dimensional Denoised Embeddings of Nonlinear Data with Superparamagentic Agents. Proceedings of the 2014 International Symposium on Nonlinear Theory and its Applications (NOLTA), Lucerne, Switzerland, September 14-18.

Ott, T., Kern, A., Steeb, W.-H., Stoop, R. (2005). Sequential Clustering: Tracking Down the Most Natural Clusters. Journal of Statistical Mechanics: theory and experiment: P11014.

Peabody, D, & Goldberg, L. (1989). Some determinants of factor structures from personality-trait descriptors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57:3, 552-567.

Roberts, R. & Wood, J. (2007). Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. Oxford University Press.

Saucier, G. (1997). Effects of variable selection on the factor structure of person descriptors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73:6, 1298-1312.

Spiegel, J.G. (2012). Open-mindedness and intellectual humility. Theory and Research in Education. 10:27-38


[1]This cut-off value was chosen based on a logarithmic count of the long-tailed distance distribution such that the tail was cut off before the beginning of the main mode of the distribution (i.e., the largest mode in a multi-modal distribution).

My facehole talks

I did an interview with Bob Talisse (Vanderbilt) about Character as Moral Fiction for the New Books in Philosophy podcast.  Recording available (for free! 😉 here.

Draft chapters of moral psychology textbook

I’m writing a textbook on moral psychology for Polity.  Some of the material was piloted in an undergraduate honors seminar I taught this winter.  Much of it is new material (though related to my other work and drawing as carefully as I can on others’).  I’m going to be putting draft chapters up on this blog.  I’d be extremely grateful for comments, suggestions, questions, and criticisms.

Here’s a tentative table of contents:


1. Preferences

2. Agency

3. Emotion

4. Virtue

5. Intuition

6. Moral disagreement

7. Altruism

8. Development

Coda: The future of moral psychology

This post is a draft of the intro.

1 Setting the stage


Moral psychology is the systematic inquiry into how morality works (when it does work) and breaks down (when it doesn’t work).  The field therefore incorporates questions, insights, models, and methods from various parts of psychology (personality psychology, social psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology), sociology, anthropology, criminology, and of course philosophy (applied ethics, normative ethics, metaethics).  These fields are – or at least can be – mutually informative.  Indeed, one guiding theme of this book is that moral philosophy without psychological content is empty, whereas psychological investigation without philosophical insight is blind.  Given their characteristically synoptic perspective, philosophers are ideally situated to organize and moderate a productive conversation among these sciences.  Nevertheless, there is always the risk that investigators with different training and expertise may misinterpret, misconstrue, or misunderstand one another.  In this book, I attempt to put the relevant disciplines in dialogue.  They sometimes speak with different accents, jargons, vocabularies, even grammars.  My aim is to make their conversation intelligible to the reader, even if they cannot all be brought to speak exactly the same language in the same way.

Systematic inquiry depends on systematic questions.  Science is not just a collection of facts.  It’s not even a collection of facts about the same thing or class of things.  Imagine how stupid it would be to conduct moral psychology by assembling all and only the motives that every person has ever had while responding to a moral problem (assuming this to be possible in the first place).  This would be an utterly disorganized, uninformative, overwhelming mess.  In the annals of the illustrious British Royal Society, you find descriptions of “experiments” like this: “A circle was made with powder of unicorne’s horn, and a spider set in the middle of it, but it immediately ran out severall times repeated.  The spider once made some stay upon the powder” (Weld 1848, p. 113).  This would be a caricature of bad science if it hadn’t happened.  We might call this empiricism run amok.  Science doesn’t just ask what happens, as if this were a question that, when completely answered, would satisfy human inquirers.  Science asks questions systematically.  It asks, for instance, what the effect of X on Y is.  It asks whether that effect is mediated by M.  It asks whether the effect is moderated by Z.[1]  It attempts to determine which small set of variables, organized in what configuration, accounts for the variability observed and experimentally induced in the field of inquiry.

In this endeavor, science is guided by insightful identification of relevant variables, careful distinction between similar phenomena, creative elaboration of alternative models, and skeptically imaginative construction of potential counterexamples.  As the economist Paul Krugman put it recently on his blog, you can’t just let “the data speak for itself — because it never does. You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking.  If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming).”[2]  One way to help make theorizing explicit rather than implicit is asking systematic questions.

Unfortunately, in universities and in the contemporary education system more broadly (especially, to my chagrin, in the United States) we typically spend far too much time answering (and learning to answer) questions and far too little asking (and learning to ask) questions.  So, in this introduction, I’ll try to show how questions are asked, how they become more nuanced and complicated, and how conditions of adequacy for answers are (tentatively) established.

Here’s a moral question I’ve asked myself:

What should I do to him for her?

Picture this: I’m headed to work on a downtown subway car at 8:30 AM.  Two seats to my right, a 20-something woman is intently reading a magazine, obviously somewhat tense because a man is standing over her, leaning in a bit too close, leering slightly, and alternating between asking her name and telling her to smile.  She’s presumably on her way to work and obviously uninterested in his conversation.  She rolls her eyes and sighs.  He seems obnoxious but mostly harmless.  She casts about from time to time.  Is she looking for help? for someone to share a moment of derisive eye contact with? for reassurance that, if her unwelcome interlocutor escalates to insulting or assaulting her, fellow passengers will not remain apathetic bystanders?


2 Patiency


What should I do to him for her?  This question presupposes an immense amount.

First, it presupposes patiency[3] – that is, the fact that things happen to people.  My fellow commuter can be made uncomfortable.  She can feel threatened.  She can be threatened.  She can be assaulted.  Things – some of them good and some of them quite bad – can happen to her.  Some of them might be done by that jerk who keeps insinuating himself on her attention.  The fact that good and bad things can happen to her – that she is, in technical terms, a patient – is presupposed by my question.

Things can also happen to him.  He can be ignored and accommodated.  He can be egged on.  He can, alternatively, be confronted and challenged.  He can be distracted or redirected.  The fact that good, bad, and neutral things can happen to him – that he too is a patient – is also presupposed by my question.

Finally, things can happen to me.  One reason I might do nothing is that I’m afraid of what might happen to me if I confront or even merely accost him.  Probably nothing – but I’m useless in a fight, and strangers can be unpredictable.  She might express gratitude to me for intervening.  Alternatively, she might be annoyed that a second stranger has made her business his business.  I aim to be helpful, which among other things includes stymieing creeps, but I also aim to avoid trampling through strangers’ lives uninvited.  As I decide what to do, her patiency, his patiency, and my patiency are all quite salient.

Things happen to people.  When they do, we have an example of patiency.  In other words, when something happens to someone, she is the patient of (is passive with respect to) that event or action.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us patients, and how our patiency figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.  Several chapters of this book are directly related to patiency.  For instance, in chapter 1 on preferences, we will see that some philosophers argue that your life goes well to the extent that your preferences are satisfied.  In other words, your life is better when you get what you want than when you don’t get it.  If you, like most people, want to be healthy, but you end up contracting influenza, your life goes worse.  Something happens to you that contravenes your preferences.  On the flipside, if you, like most people, prefer temperate weather to frigid cold, and the weather where you are is temperate, then your life goes better.  Something happens to you that satisfies your preferences.  In chapter 4, on virtue, we will see that benevolence is typically considered a virtue.  What makes someone benevolent?  Wishing others well, and at least sometimes acting successfully on those wishes.  If a benevolent person helps you in some way, you are the patient of her action.  An extreme version of benevolence – altruism – will be discussed in chapter 7.  An altruist doesn’t just wish others well and do things for their sake; she does so at significant cost to herself.  Finally, in chapter 8, we will consider moral development.  None of us grows up in a social vacuum.  We are all raised by someone, such as a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle.  We are all patients of the myriad interventions our caretakers make in our lives, which lead us to cultivate good (or bad, or mixed) character.

Thus, patiency is a crucial concept in moral psychology.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from her patiency, his patiency, and my own patiency.  This is an example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


3 Agency


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes agency.  Things don’t just happen to people: sometimes people do things.

Return to the example of the woman on the train.  She might do something.  She might stand up and walk to the next train car.  She might lean back and hold her magazine up in front of her face, blocking the stranger’s attempt to make eye contact and muffling his voice.  She might tell him off.  She might scream.  She might kick him in the shin.

Likewise, he might do something.  He might continue to bug her until she escapes the train car.  He might sit down next to her.  He might call her a bitch.  He might throw his hands in the air and walk away.  He might switch to bothering someone else.  He might grow bored and start playing with his smartphone.

I, too, might do something.  (There’d be little point in asking myself what I should do if I couldn’t!)  If my usual wariness of strangers holds up, I might cautiously eye the situation and hope impotently that nothing too bad happens.  I might instead stride over and command him to stop bothering her.  More helpfully, I might stroll over and ask her a nonchalant question that lets her redirect her attention without seeming to be too rude to him.

People do things.  When they do, we have an example of agency.  In other words, some person is the agent of (is active with respect to) some event or action.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us agents, and how our agency figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, character, and institutions.

Several chapters of this book are directly related to agency.  Chapter 1 discusses how our preferences affect our choices, and hence our actions.  It’s tempting to assume that our preferences are fairly stable, at least once we reach adulthood.  Empirical research suggests otherwise.  It’s even more tempting to assume that our preferences are transitive: if I prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla and prefer vanilla to strawberry, then I’d better prefer chocolate to strawberry.  Again, empirical research suggests that, at least in some cases, transitivity breaks down.  To what extent can we be the authors of our own actions if our preferences are unstable and inconsistent?  Chapter 2 is about the relation between deliberative agency on the one hand and implicit biases on the other hand.  The vast majority of people in the developed world would, if asked, reject racist and sexist beliefs.  But social psychologists have demonstrated that most of us nevertheless implicitly accept and even act on racist and sexist associations.  When we do, are we really expressing our own agency?  If we aren’t, what’s going on?  Chapter 3 asks whether we are more or less agentic when we are motivated by emotions.  Particularly intense emotions seem to come over us like a hurricane, swamping our planning, deliberation, and even our agency.  But deficits in emotion have been shown to correlate with demonstrably bad decision-making.  Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the Kantian rejection of emotions on the one hand and the Humean embrace of them on the other.  Chapter 4 connects agency with virtue, which for many theorists is a matter of acting in accordance with practical reason.  Psychological research over the last several decades has demonstrated that the human capacity for slow, careful, deliberative reasoning is much more limited than most philosophers have presupposed.  The vast majority of our decision-making relies on quick, unconscious, vaguely emotional mental shortcuts.  Does this undermine our agency (as many suppose), or does it instead enable us to expand our agentic engagement with the world and each other?

If people were incapable of agency, if they were entirely passive beings, the contours of whose lives were completely determined by outside forces, there wouldn’t be much for moral psychologists to think about.  We could construct theories about what it meant for one person to have a better life than another, what it meant for one person to have as good a life as possible for such an impoverished creature, what it meant for such a life to improve or deteriorate.  But that would be about it.  The introduction of agency greatly complicates moral psychology.  Now, things don’t just happen to us; we do things.  Some of those things turn out as we want or intend them to.  Others don’t.  This imposes some constraints on what it means to act well, to be a successful agent.  Sometimes we do what we want, but then we are disappointed by the result.  This suggests that we need a better understanding of our own preferences, a topic of chapter 1.  Sometimes we accomplish one goal but in so doing thwart our striving for a second goal.  This suggests that we need to understand agency holistically, so that it involves progress towards a complete set of goals without too much self-undermining.

Thus, agency, like patiency, is a crucial concept in moral psychology, and it’s a concept that complicates the inquiry.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from her agency, his agency, and my own agency.  This is a further example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


4 Sociality


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes sociality.  Things happen to people: they get sick, they enjoy pleasant weather, they endure the many small indignities of youth and the even more numerous small indignities of aging.  People do things: they stand up and walk away, they shrink into their seats, they write books.  In many interesting cases, though, one person does something to someone else.  Indeed, some of the examples I gave above had this flavor.  The only reason I asked myself what I should do to him for her was that he was doing something to her in the first place: he was harassing her.  As I deliberated about what to do, I considered the fact that there were things she might do to him, such as pointedly ignoring him, additional things he might do to her, such as insulting her, and various things I might do to him on her behalf, such as confronting him for harassing her.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us social, and how our sociality figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, character, and institutions.


Y is a patient. Y is not a patient.
X is an agent. X harasses Y.X kicks Y in the shin.X confronts Y. X stands up.X shrinks into his seat.X writes a book.
X is not an agent. Y gets sick.Y enjoys pleasant weather.Y grows old.

Table 1: agency x patiency examples

As table 1 illustrates, people can be simple patients, to whom things just happen; they can be simple agents, who just do things; but they can also be complex agents and patients: they can do things to each other.  In such cases, agency and patiency are inextricably intertwined.  One person’s agency is the cause or even a constitutive part of another person’s patiency.  One person’s patiency is the effect of another person’s agency.  When asked, “What happened to you?” my fellow commuter would be giving an incomplete answer if she responded, “I was harassed.”  Being harassed is not like enjoying pleasant weather; it’s not something that can happen to someone all on their own.  A more complete answer would be, “I was harassed by a stranger.”  Likewise, if someone later asked the creep, “What did you do on the train?” he would be giving an incomplete response if he answered, “I harassed.”  Harassing isn’t like standing up; it’s not something someone can do all on their own.

We can represent these relations with the following schematic diagram.[4]

 agent-patient 1x

Figure 1: agent-patient relation


In this diagram (and others of its sort that I’ll use below), a dot represents a person.  An arrow proceeding away from a dot represents that person exercising agency.  An arrow pointing at a dot represents that person enduring patiency (good, bad, or neutral).  I’ll put a box around each such relation.

Figure 1 represents the simplest sort of sociality: one agent does something to another agent.  A more complex form of sociality occurs when two people are agents and patients with respect to each other at the same time: you do something to me while I do something to you.  For instance, we dance together, each making suggestions to the other through subtle bodily movement, gestures, glances, and words. Call this interactivity.  Figure 2 represents interactive sociality of this sort.


agent-patient 1x interactive


Figure 2: agent-patient relation


Things happen to people; people do things; sometimes, these are the same event.  But sociality is often more complicated than that.  Interactivity is one source of complexity, but a minor one.  Another source of complexity is the possibility – indeed, the prevalence – of recursively embedded agent-patient relations.  This might sound frighteningly technical, but don’t worry.  Recursion is all over the place, and I’m certain that you’re already familiar with it, if only informally.  Recursion is a process in which objects of a given type are generated by or defined in terms of other objects of the same type.  For instance, think of your ancestors.  What makes someone an ancestor of yours?  The answer to this question relies on recursion: the parents of X are ancestors of X (that’s the non-recursive step) and ancestors of ancestors of X are ancestors of X (that’s the recursive step).  Your grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of your parents.  Your great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of the parents of your parents.  Your great-great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of the parents of the parents of your parents.  The great-great-grandparents of your great-great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the ancestors of your ancestors.  And so on.

Social agent-patient relations can also be recursively embedded.  The majority – probably the vast majority – of the complexity of moral psychology derives from such embedding.  In fact, the example I started off with has a recursive structure.  When I asked myself what I should do to him for her, I was thinking of myself as an agent who acts on a preexisting agent-patient relationship.  After all, I would have had no reason to intervene if he hadn’t been harassing her in the first place.

 agent-patient 2x

Figure 3: recursively embedded agent-patient relations


Figure 3 illustrates the situation in which one person acts on a second person acting on a third person.  Since this relation is recursive, it can be expanded yet another step (and another, and another…), as illustrated in figure 4.

agent-patient 3x

Figure 4: doubly recursively embedded agent-patient relations


Although figure 4 might seem complicated, I think we can pretty easily conjure up a situation that it characterizes.  For instance, imagine that I decide to stride over to the creep and tell him to cut it out.  As I move towards him, my friend, who realizes what a foolhardy thing I’m about to do, grabs me by the wrist and whispers “no no NO!”  My friend acts on me acting on him acting on her.  This sort of thing happens, I suggest, all the time.  And, as you can see, the more recursion there is, the most complicated the situation becomes.

Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us social, and how our sociality figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.  Sociality is what makes moral psychology so complicated but also so interesting.  In a way, it’s the underlying theme of every chapter of this book but it features most prominently in chapters 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8.  In chapter 3 on emotion, we will see that emotions often function as signaling devices.  When I display anger, I signal to you that I am prepared and committed to reacting aggressively to offenses.  When you display disgust, you signal to me that the object of your disgust is contaminated and to-be-avoided.  Emotional signaling fits well into the recursive embedding structure discussed here.  When I display anger towards you, I also often signal to other people that they should be indignant over the offense you’ve caused me (a relationship like the one in figure 3).  When you display contempt towards my behavior, you also often signal to other people that they should feel superior to me.  Chapter 4 on virtue focuses primarily on the interlocking virtues of trustingness and trustworthiness.  Chapter 6 on moral disagreement investigates the ways in which sociality influences agreement on moral values, norms, heuristics, and decisions.  Chapter 7 on altruism is especially concerned with the potential tension between evolutionary theory and altruistic norms.  Chapter 8 explores the ways in which interlocking, recursively-structured agent-patient relations influence moral development.

Thus, sociality, like patiency and agency, is a crucial concept in moral psychology, and it’s a concept that greatly complicates the inquiry.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from our sociality, that is, from the fact that I can act on him acting on her.  This is another example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


5 Reflexivity and temporality


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes reflexivity.  People do things; things happen to people; people do things to people.  In some cases, the agent and the patient are the same person.  In other words, people can do things to themselves.  This is easiest to see if we also introduce the last main conceptual presupposition of my question: temporality.  As I decide what to do to him for her, here are some considerations that might cross my mind:

If I don’t intercede somehow, I’ll feel guilty all day.

If I manage to distract him without starting a fight, I’ll be proud.

If I act like a coward now, I’ll be cultivating bad habits.

All of these considerations involve thinking of my future self as the patient of my current self as agent.  Another way of putting the same point is that I’m taking a social perspective on myself: on the one hand, me-now is the agent who does something to a patient; on the other hand, me-in-the-future is the patient to whom something is done by that agent.  These concepts also interact with sociality and the recursive embedding of agent-patient relations.  For instance, suppose I make a bad decision on Monday (agent) that leads me to make an even worse decision on Tuesday (patient-to-Monday-me) that leads me to suffer immensely on Wednesday (patient-to-Tuesday-me).  This is the sort of structure represented in figure 3, except that all three nodes represent me – just at different stages of my life.

Whenever we engage in long-term projects – especially long-term projects that are meant to have some effects on our future selves – patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality are all involved.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us reflexive and temporal, and how our reflexivity and temporality figure in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.

Several chapters of this book are directly related to reflexivity and temporality.  The instability of preferences discussed in chapter 1 is a temporal instability, and it threatens agency because human agency as we normally conceive of it is meant to be temporally extended.  I don’t just do things now.  I do things now so that I can do and experience things later.  If my preferences change in the meantime, then setting myself up to do or experience something later seems pointless: what if I no longer want to do or experience that?  What if I’ve just wasted my effort?  The interaction between deliberative agency and implicit biases discussed in chapter 2 concerns, among other things, whether I’m able to reflectively endorse my own choices.  Emotions, discussed in chapter 3, can function as social signals; they can also function as commitment devices.  If I have a particular emotion, I’m committing myself (if only unconsciously and tentatively) to a plan of action in the future.  If I act wrongly, one of the things that may happen to my future self is the suffering of remorse.  Virtue, discussed in chapter 4, is acquired (according to Aristotle and many who follow in his footsteps) through long-term, goal-directed cultivation; I have a plan for my own life over time, which I proceed to carry out, making me both the agent and the patient of myself over the course of months, years, and even decades.  Intuitions, discussed in chapter 5, are arguably the automatic deliverances of capacities that have been built up over time through exposure to various theories, considerations, and arguments.

Reflexivity and temporality complicate moral psychology in various ways.  This is easiest to see if we imagine creatures that are just like humans in other ways but who have no long-term memory, no sense of self, and no capability to plan, to feel proud of their accomplishments, or to experience remorse.  Although such creatures would be patients (things would happen to them) and agents (they would do things) who were in some ways social (they would do things to each other), they would be very unlike us insofar as they could not intentionally do things to and for themselves, could not be grateful to or disappointed with their past selves, could not engage in long-term projects, and could not enjoy long-term friendships.  Clearly, these are crucial aspects of human moral psychology.

Thus far, we have explored five crucial concepts in moral psychology: patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality.  I don’t want to suggest that these are the only concepts moral psychologists find worth studying, but I do think they are among the most central.  Other important concepts will crop up throughout this book.  Some, such as emotion and intuition, will be treated at greater length.  Others, such as imagination and mindfulness, will receive less attention.  I encourage you to follow up on any and all of the concepts that capture your interest, and will provide lists of secondary sources at the end of each chapter to help direct and slake your curiosity.  In the remainder of this introduction, I will characterize some of the major normative theories that you might already be aware of in terms of their emphases on patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality.  After that, I’ll conclude by considering objections to moral psychology that might be raised because of the ever-fraught relationships among contingency, necessity, and normativity.  In particular, I’ll focus the truism that one can never deduce an ought from an is.


6 Comparing emphases of major moral theories


In the history of Western philosophy, four major moral theories have emerged: utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, and care ethics.  Since it’s likely that you’ve encountered at least some of these views before reading this book, in this section, I compare how they relate to the five main concepts in moral psychology


6.1 Utilitarianism


Utilitarianism is the best-known variety of a family of views known as consequentialism.  According to consequentialism, the goodness of an act is determined solely by the goodness of the consequent state of affairs.  This view is typically combined with positions on what makes a state of affairs good and a theory of right action.  For instance, hedonist act utilitarianism says that the only thing that contributes to the goodness of a state of affairs is pleasure, that the only thing that detracts from the goodness of a state of affairs is pain, and that an action is right just in case it maximizes the amount of goodness in the consequent state of affairs.

Pleasure and pain are mental states that humans and other animals enjoy and suffer.  Thus, utilitarians and other consequentialists place their primary emphasis on patiency.  Jeremy Bentham, one of the foremost utilitarian thinkers in philosophical history, put the point well while asking what determines whether a creature has moral worth and bears moral consideration:


Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse?  But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old.  But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail?  the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (1823, chapter 17, footnote)


For someone like Bentham, it doesn’t matter whether you can engage in reasoning (including the practical reasoning required for agency and the reflexivity required for long-term planning).  It doesn’t matter whether you can talk.  The main moral question for him is whether you can suffer, whether things can happen to you – in particular, bad and painful things.

Utilitarianism thus gives pride of place to patiency and de-emphasizes agency and reflexivity.  Bentham’s lack of concern for talking might lead one to think that he and other utilitarians have no regard for sociality.  In one sense, that’s correct.  However, utilitarians and other consequentialists also tend to think that every being capable of suffering matters equally.  And they recognize that people are capable of both inflicting suffering on one another and alleviating one another’s suffering.  For this reason, utilitarians put a great deal of emphasis on sociality, though deriving that emphasis from its relation to patiency and suffering.

Lastly, utilitarians tend to put great emphasis on temporality.  What I have in mind here is the fact that the consequences of an action are typically construed not just as what happens immediately afterwards but as everything that flows from the action.  Everything, for all time?  At the very least, everything that could be foreseen by a very intelligent and dedicated investigator.  Utilitarians care so much about such long-term consequences that they have debates about population ethics, asking questions such as “How many people should there be?” (Blackorby, Bossert, & Donaldson 1995)


6.2 Kantian ethics


Kantian ethics, also sometimes called ‘deontological ethics’, puts most emphasis on the two concepts that utilitarianism deemphasizes (agency and reflexivity) while according less weight to the concepts utilitarianism emphasizes (patiency, sociality, and temporality).  Kant thought that an account of moral obligation could be derived from the structure of agency itself.  He called this the categorical imperative because it applies to every agent in every action they undertake regardless of their desires, preferences, and values.  The best-known formulation of the categorical imperative states that you must “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (4:421).  This book is not an introduction to major moral theories, let alone the history of philosophy, so I will not go into much detail interpreting the categorical imperative.  Kant’s idea, though, is that simply in virtue of being an agent you are constrained to act from some motives rather than others.  Clearly, then, agency figures importantly in Kantian ethics.

The other core concept that receives primary emphasis in Kantian ethics is reflexivity.  This is already somewhat evident from the first formulation of the categorical imperative, which requires you to reflect on and extrapolate from your own motives, but it comes into focus if we consider the third formulation: act as if you were through your maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends (4:439).  On this view, a moral act is one that can be self-legislated, i.e., an act that is in accordance with a law one could give not only to others but also to oneself.

Agency and reflexivity have pride of place in Kantian ethics, but the other three concepts receive some attention.  Patiency and sociality get their due in the second formulation of the categorical imperative: treat humanity – whether your own or someone else’s – never merely as the means to some end but always as an end in its own right.  In this formulation, we can see that Kant cares not only about agency but also about what’s done to people.  He thinks it’s always wrong to treat someone as a mere means to your own end.  However, patiency matters for Kant only derivatively because he thinks that what’s wrong about treating someone as a mere means is that, in so doing, you don’t respect their agency.  Thus, the importance of what happens to us and what we do to each other depends on the antecedent importance of agency.

Finally, Kantian ethics doesn’t totally discount temporality (Kant argues that we have an imperfect duty to develop our own talents, for instance), but it also doesn’t place primary emphasis on it.


6.3 Virtue ethics


Virtue ethics is a family of views that focuses less on what it’s right to do and more on what sort of person it’s good to be.  A good person is someone with many virtues (compassion, courage, honesty, trustworthiness) and few vices (selfishness, laziness, unfairness, rashness).  Ancient Greek philosophers were basically all virtue ethicists of one kind or another.  Plato emphasized the virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.  Aristotle famously thought that every virtue was a middle state between a pair of vices.  For instance, courage is the disposition to fear neither too many things nor too few things, to fear them neither too intensely nor not intensely enough, to fear them neither for too long nor for too short a period, and so on.

Utilitarian ethics focuses primarily on patiency, sociality, and temporality; Kantian ethics focuses primarily on agency and reflexivity.  Virtue ethics has a more balanced approach (this isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing – it’s just a matter of emphasis), putting moderate emphasis on all five central concepts.  A virtuous person is characteristically active, doing things for reasons.  A virtuous person is also quite social.  Aristotle, for instance, devotes two whole chapters (out of ten) of the Nicomachean Ethics to friendship and another to justice.  Additionally, because virtue ethicists are concerned with the shape of a person’s whole life and the slow acquisition of virtuous traits, they pay more attention to temporality and moral development than utilitarians and Kantians.  They place slightly less emphasis on patiency and reflexivity, though these too figure in the account.


6.4 Care ethics


The other three views surveyed in this section are venerable, traditional approaches to morality.  The ethics of care is much more recent.  The dawn of care ethics can be dated with some precision to the publication, in 1982, of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development.  In her book, Gilligan explored the ways in which women (at least the women she interviewed) tend to talk in terms of care, emphasizing personal relationships and attachments (motherhood, siblinghood, friendship, etc.) and the special responsibilities that flow from these.  She accused existing moral theories, such as Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1971) Kantian approach to moral psychology, with ignoring and even sometimes denigrating such caring relationships in favor of a completely impartial, legalistic notion of rights and justice.  Although this criticism is somewhat overstated (as I mentioned above, Aristotle devotes twice as much attention to friendship as he does to justice), popular versions of both utilitarian and Kantian ethics clearly deserve Gilligan’s rebuke.  Since 1971, various philosophers, including Kittay, Noddings, and Slote, have formulated moral theories in the wake of Gilligan’s critique.

Like the other theories canvassed here, care ethics is actually a family of views.  What unites them is their emphasis on personal, face-to-face relationships and attachments, as well as their recognition that we all come into this world as completely helpless, dependent, screaming, fragile lumps of flesh.  Care ethicists therefore focus primarily on human sociality and patiency, with derivative interest in agency (someone has to do the caring, in addition to being cared for, after all) and temporality.  Reflexivity receives little attention in the care tradition.

major moral theories

Figure 5: Emphases of the four major moral theories


These differences in emphasis are illustrated graphically in figure 5.


7 Is and ought


To some people, the idea of combining scientific psychology with philosophical ethics to investigate moral psychology will seem only natural.  Philosophy helps to set the terms of the investigation (in this case, patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality), proposes questions and models, dreams up potential counterexamples; psychology empirically determines whether the terms refer to anything in the world, answers the questions, tests the models, and determines whether the potential counterexamples can be realized.  Psychology as an academic discipline split off from philosophy less than two centuries ago; it’s unsurprising that the two fields would sometimes collaborate.  To other people, though, this project might seem to be doomed from the start.  Science studies how things are, whereas philosophy studies how things ought to be and how they must be.  Science can never, even in principle, help to answer philosophical questions.

As you’ve probably guessed, I disagree, and for several reasons.  First, science can investigate modal reality (how things not only are but can and can’t be).  To the extent that we accept the truism that people can’t be morally required to do things or be ways that are impossible, scientific investigation of moral psychology constraints moral theory.  Second, scientific psychology can also investigate not just whether various kinds of behavior, character, and attachments are possible but also how demanding it would be for people to act, be, and relate in those ways.  The harder it is to live up to a moral theory’s requirements, the more suspicious we should be of that theory.  This is not to say that morality can’t make legitimate demands on us, just that the more extravagant those demands grow, the more suspicious we should be of the theory that generated them.  Third, even if we decide to hold onto very demanding norms, psychological science can help us to see how to live up to those norms.  In the same way, even if we hold onto extremely idealized norms of physical health, biological science can help us to see how to approximate those norms in our own lives.

Finally, morality is an important part of human behavior and cognition; as such, it’s something psychologists want to study, even if their investigations never end up suggesting revisions to moral norms.  The idea that this aspect of psychology is simply off-limits, as if philosophers could somehow call “dibs” on it, is preposterous.  As Levitin put it, those who think that science cannot study values typically commit a fallacy: “they seem to have confused making value judgments, which is incompatible with scientific objectivity, with studying objectively how other people make them – a phenomenon as amenable to psychology study, in principle, as other forms of human learning and choice” (1973, p. 491).  Moral psychology doesn’t aim to replace utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, or the ethics of care.  In the case of care, this should be especially obvious: the entire edifice of care ethics was inspired by empirical research on moral psychology!  Instead of taking their ball and going home, philosophers need to learn to share their insights, theories, and models with their scientist neighbors.

It’s not all good news for traditional normative ethics, though.  Moral theories have empirical presuppositions.  Moral psychology can investigate those presuppositions.  Sometimes, to the moral theorist’s delight, they turn out to be well-supported.  Sometimes their foundations look pretty shaky.  The relation between philosophy and psychology doesn’t need to involve confrontation or scorn, though.  A better attitude for both sides to take, I contend is one of curiosity and intellectual humility.  A curious investigator is tentatively committed to her views, but she’s also delighted to find out that she’s wrong because that spurs her to construct a better model, a stronger theory, a more nuanced hypothesis.  There’s no part of reality that’s specially marked off for philosophers and only philosophers to investigate.  By the same token, there’s no part of reality that’s specially marked off for psychologists and only psychologists to investigate.  If you don’t believe me now, perhaps you will when you finish this book.

[1] For more on mediation and moderation see Baron & Kenny (1986).

[2] Paul Krugman, March 17, 2014, on his blog, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” in a post titled “Sergeant Friday was not a Fox”

[3] When a term appears for the first time in boldface, it is a technical term that is defined in the glossary at the end of the book.

[4] I am here indebted to James Wilk.