Saturday, February 18, 2017

Why Rorty's Conception of Epistemology is Wrong

With the very first paragraph of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty's conception of epistemology starts to go astray, as he begins his criticism of traditional epistemology by saying that such philosophers as Descartes, Locke, Kant, Russell, and Husserl have sought to adjudicate claims to knowledge by trying to define the “foundations” of knowledge. Rorty says that if knowledge is seen as being based on accurate mental representations of the world, then the mind may be seen as a mirror of nature, and philosophy’s task may be seen as that of adjudicating knowledge claims by judging the accuracy of their representations of reality. He criticizes this mentalist and representationalist approach to the theory of knowledge, saying that epistemology as it has, in his view, traditionally been practiced (as a theory of representation) should be abandoned.
      Rorty conflates the search for the “foundations” of knowledge with the search for the “conditions” of knowledge, however. The distinction between the two is important, although he might deny this, and might say that the conditions of knowledge are merely foundational principles of knowledge. There is a difference, however, between seeking to establish certain basic or foundational truths and seeking to establish the conditions under those basic or foundational truths may be known. While the “foundationalist” approach may seek to define certain basic truths or knowledge claims on which other truths or knowledge claims may be based, the “conditionalist” approach may seek to define the necessary and sufficient conditions under which any truth or knowledge claims can be made. Rorty identifies epistemology with foundationalism, and he therefore rejects it. But his critique of epistemology amounts to a kind of straw man argument. He criticizes epistemology for being something that it is not (al least not in the view of many classical and modern philosophers).
      This is not to say that epistemology is merely an attempt to define the conditions of knowledge; it is much more than that. It is also concerned with the nature, extent, and limits of human knowledge, the formulation and communication of knowledge, and the differences between knowledge and belief, opinion, faith, and imagination.
      Alan Malachowsksi (1990) explains that Rorty also tends to conflate the notion that it is unwise to crave for a theory of knowledge with the notion that it is unwise to think of knowledge as something that has or needs foundations, and that Rorty fails to establish the truth of either of these notions.1 Since Rorty also claims that it’s unwise to pursue an epistemologically-centered philosophy, Malachowski says that it’s fair to ask whether Rorty’s views actually amount to a substantive position on epistemology, and that this may indeed be a difficult question to answer.2
      Descartes (1641) is a foundationalist, insofar as he argues that we can know the truth of things if we have clear and distinct ideas about them. He says that there are innate ideas in the human mind that are independent of our own perceptions and our own will. All innate ideas are clear and distinct, but adventitious ideas derived from our perceptions and factitious ideas derived from our illusions or imaginations may be unclear and indistinct.
      Locke (1689) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he describes three “degrees” of knowledge: intuitive, demonstrative, and sensory. According to Locke, intuitive knowledge is an immediate perception of the agreement or disagreement of two or more ideas, without the intervention of any other ideas. Demonstrative knowledge is a perception of the agreement or disagreement or two or more ideas, based on proofs provided by intervening ideas. Sensory knowledge is a perception of the agreement or disagreement of two or more ideas, based on sensory experience of the external objects to which those ideas refer. Demonstrative knowledge is based on intuitive knowledge, and intuitive certainty is required for every step of reasoning that produces demonstrative certainty. The faculty of understanding is necessary, however, in order to combine the three degrees of knowledge (intuition, demonstration, and sensation) into a more unified and comprehensive knowledge that transcends the respective limits of reason, intuition, and experience.
      Hume (1739) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he says that all ideas are originally derived from sensory perceptions, and that knowledge is ultimately based on experience rather than reason. Hume says that in order to establish the existence of an object, we must have already had a sensory perception of that object or of other objects from which the existence of that object can be inferred. Reason alone is insufficient to establish the existence of an object; sensory perception of that object, directly or indirectly, is necessary.
      Russell (1913) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he says that knowledge is based on acquaintance with self-evident truths. According to Russell, true propositions that are not self-evident must, in order to become objects of knowledge, be demonstrated to be true by self-evident propositions.. Knowledge is based on acquaintance with self-evident propositions and with propositions whose truth can be demonstrated by self-evident propositions.
      Carnap (1924) is also a foundationalist, insofar as he says that all scientific statements are reducible to structural statements about basic elements of experience. According to Carnap, structural statements are logical propositions about the formal properties of objects or relations. A constructional system of reality is a system in which the objects of each level are constructed from objects of more elementary levels of construction. The most elementary level of a constructional system is the level of basic objects, which includes basic elements and basic relations. The basic elements of a constructional system are “elementary experiences” that are not constructed but are immediately given to consciousness as formal objects.
      The “conditionalist” philosophers may include Plato, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, and others.
      For Plato, belief, truth, and justification are conditions of knowledge. True beliefs constitute knowledge if they can be logically justified. In response to the kinds of counterexamples supplied by Edmund Gettier (1963) of cases in which justified true beliefs may not constitute knowledge, many contemporary philosophers have proposed immunity to Gettier cases as another condition of knowledge. This subject has been discussed by such philosophers as Chisholm (1989), Lehrer (1990), Zagzebski (1994), Sosa (2011), Turri (2011), and Dretske (2015).
      Kant (1781) may be both a foundationalist, insofar as he calls for a critique of pure reason in order to determine the possibility, principles and extent of a priori knowledge, and a conditionalist, insofar as he attempts to describe the conditions under which a priori knowledge is possible. He provides a table of twelve categories or pure concepts of the understanding, describing them as a priori concepts that define conditions of possible experience. These categories or pure concepts of the understanding also define conditions under which the content of intuitions and representations may be unified by the understanding.
      Fichte (1794-95) claims that the first, absolutely unconditioned principle of the science of knowledge is the act by which the self becomes conscious of itself. The second principle, conditioned as to content, is the act by which the non-self is opposed to the self. The third principle, conditioned as to form, is the act by which the self and non-self are posited as divisible so that a limited self may be opposed to a limited non-self.
      Schelling (1800) argues that transcendental idealism is a system for all knowledge, and that it affirms that a transcendental unity of the self and nature, the subjective and objective, and the conscious and unconscious is a condition of knowledge.
      Schopenhauer (1818) says that transcendental idealism affirms that a transcendental unity of reason and experience is the condition for knowledge. He also says that all knowledge, except for knowledge of Platonic Ideas, depends on the principle of sufficient reason, and that the conditions for knowledge of Platonic Ideas include pure contemplation, extinction of desire, transcendence of the subject-object relation, and freedom from confinement by individuality.
      Rorty describes epistemology as a discipline concerned with the possibility of accurate representation, as if most epistemologists have already agreed that this is what epistemology is, and as if this is all it can be. In his view, if knowledge is not a matter of accurate representation, then we have no more need of epistemology. But this is a very skeptical and simple-minded view of epistemology. Does Rorty actually believe that a theory of accurate representation is all that epistemology can be? Is he perhaps being intentionally obtuse and simplistic for the sake of provoking some sort of critical response?
      His position also seems to be that to debunk Cartesian mind-body dualism is to debunk epistemology.
      He criticizes the concept of philosophy as a foundational discipline for other disciplines, as a discipline that can adjudicate the procedures and truth claims of other disciplines. He also criticizes the concept of philosophy as a discipline that “takes as its study the ‘formal’ or ‘structural’ aspects of our beliefs,” serving “the cultural function of keeping other disciplines honest” by “limiting their claims to what can be properly ‘grounded.’”3
      There may, however, exist within epistemology viable alternatives to foundationalism, which Rorty does not seem to account for. Keith Lehrer (1990), for example, explains that the explanatory coherence theory of justification (that justification is a reciprocal relation of coherence among beliefs belonging to a system) may be an alternative to the foundation theory (that some beliefs are completely justified in themselves and can therefore serve as the foundation for the justification of other beliefs).4 Rorty comes close to acknowledging this when he says, "For the Quine-Sellars approach to epistemology, to say that truth and knowledge can only be judged by the standards of the inquirers of our own day is not to say that human knowledge is less noble or important...than we had thought. It is merely to say that nothing counts as justification unless by reference to what we already accept, and that there is no way to get outside of our own beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence."5 
      Infinitism (the theory that beliefs may be justified for an infinite number of reasons) may be another alternative to the foundation theory.


1Alan R. Malachowski, “Deep Epistemology without Foundations (in Language),” in Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond), edited by Alan R. Malachowski (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1990), pp. 140-141.
2Ibid., p. 143.
3Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p.  162.
4Keith Lehrer, Theory of Knowledge (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990), p. 87.
5Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p. 178.


Carnap, Rudolf, The Logical Structure of the World & Pseudoproblems in Philosophy (Der logische Aufbau der Welt, 1924), translated by  Rolf A. George (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

Chisholm, Roderick. Theory of Knowledge (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966).

Descartes, René. “Meditations on First Philosophy” [1641], in Ten Great Works of Philosophy, edited by Robert Paul Wolff (New York: Penguin Books, 1969).

Dretske, Fred. “Gettier and Justified True Belief: 50 Years On,” in TPM Online, Jan. 23, 2015, at

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Science of Knowledge (WIssenschaftlehre, 1794-95), edited and translated by Peter Heath (New York: Meredith Corporation, 1970).

Gettier, Edmund L. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” in Analysis, Vol. 23, No. 6 (June, 1963), pp. 121-123.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature [1739], edited by Ernest C. Mossner (London: Penguin Books, 1969).

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781), translated byJ.M.D.Meiklejohn (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Lehrer, Keith. Theory of Knowledge (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990).

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1689], edited by Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

Malachowski, Alan R. “Deep Epistemology without Foundations (in Language),” in Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond), edited by Alan R. Malachowski (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1990).

Plato. Theaetetus. Translated by M.J. Levett. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992).

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

Russell, Bertrand. Theory of Knowledge: The 1913 Manuscript, edited by Elizabeth Ramsden Eames in collaboration with Kenneth Blackwell (London: George Allen & Unwin , 1984).

Schelling, F.W.J. System of Transcendental Idealism (System des transcendentalen Idealismus, 1800), translated by Peter Heath (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978).

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, 1818), Vols. I and II, translated by E.F.J. Payne (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).

Sosa, Ernest. Knowing Full Well (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

Turri, John. “Manifest Failure: The Gettier Problem Solved,” in Philosophers’ Imprint, Vol. 11, No. 8, April 2011, pp. 1-11.

Zagzebski, Linda. “The Inescapability of Gettier Problems,” in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 174 (Jan., 1994), pp. 65-73.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Obligatoriness of Washing Our Hands, and the Permissibility of Getting Them Dirty

Consider all the possible statements we could make about whether we should wash our hands, and what they reveal about the kinds of (personal, moral, and social) decisions we could make. Some examples are:

We should (must, or have to) wash our hands now.
We shouldn’t (mustn’t, or don’t have to) wash our hands now.
We would (probably, likely, or most certainly) be remiss if we weren’t to go ahead and wash our hands now.
We don’t have to wash our hands now, unless we won’t have time to wash them later.
It’s probably best that we wash our hands now, rather than later.
If our hands aren’t dirty, then we don’t have to wash them now.
If our hands are dirty, then we should wash them now, rather than later.
It would be better to wash our hands now, because someone might notice that they're dirty.
It doesn’t matter whether we wash our hands right now or sometime later. In fact, it doesn’t (or may not) matter whether we wash them at all.
We don’t have to wash our hands now, unless there is someone we know who thinks we should.
We'd better wash our hands now, because we don’t want people to think we’re being careless about making sure our hands are clean before we shake their hands.
We could wash our hands right now, but we don’t really have to, so we might as well wait until later.
We might as well wash our hands right now.
Washing our hands right now is no better than washing them later.
If there are sanitary facilities available, then we should go ahead and wash our hands now.
If there is hand sanitizer available (and if our hands aren’t too dirty), then we can use the sanitizer instead of washing our hands with soap and water.
If we’ve touched something unclean or dirty, then we should wash our hands with soap and water as soon as we can.
If we’ve already washed our hands, then we don’t need to wash them again right now, unless there is some reason for us to get them extra clean.
If it’s more likely that we’ll have time to wash our hands now than later, then we should go ahead and wash them now.
If we wash our hands now, then we can still (or might still be able to) wash them later.
If we wash our hands now, then we won’t have to wash them again later.

      Most of these statements are modal expressions employing modal auxiliary verbs such as “may,” “might,” “will,” won’t,” “can,” “could,” “should,” and “must” to indicate deontic modality (moral possibility or necessity). They vary in the strength of moral necessity that they express, with some expressing only moral possibility or permissibility, and others expressing moral necessity or obligatoriness.
      Given all the possible decisions we can or could make (and all the possible ways of rationalizing those decisions) regarding whether it is or isn't permissible, advisable, or necessary to wash our hands at a given moment, how are we able to decide what to do without consciously thinking about it? Such a decision-making process seems in most cases to be an unconscious and effortless one (unless for some reason, such as a mental or behavioral disorder, we have an obsessive or compulsive habit of washing our hands).
      In daily life, why is it that we don’t ever (or so rarely) seem to have any difficulty deciding whether to wash our hands? Is it because we’re always so busy doing something else that deciding whether to wash our hands at a given moment becomes very easy whenever the opportunity presents itself?
      According to CDC guidelines, we should wash our hands before, during, and after preparing food; before eating food; before and after caring for someone who is sick; before and after treating a cut or wound; after using the toilet; after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet; after blowing our noses, coughing, or sneezing; after touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste; after handling pet food or pet treats; and after touching garbage.1
      Metaphorically speaking, when are we morally obligated to wash our hands of something, and when are we morally obligated to risk getting our hands dirty? When should we accept moral uncertainty in a given situation rather than refuse to risk any compromise of our moral principles? Risking moral blame or culpability may actually in some cases require a greater degree of moral commitment than refusing to put our own personal reputations at risk. We may in some cases have to risk getting our hands dirty if we've put ourselves in a position of responsibility that requires us to compromise our moral principles for the sake of a greater good, (unless we've consciously or unconsciously avoided putting ourselves in that position to begin with).
      An example of a “dirty hands” problem might be the president or prime minister who orders drone strikes against known terrorists, targeting them for destruction but thereby potentially endangering the lives of innocent civilians. However, Ben Jones and John M. Parrish (2016) argue that the dirty hands problem “describes an emergency that forces an individual to break a moral rule, not a policy that routinely breaks moral rules.” They also argue that “Rather than provide moral clarity, dirty hands justifications of current U.S. drone policy risk legitimizing a practice that expands state power in potentially dangerous ways.”2
      Michael Walzer (1973) argues that the politician who has dirty hands, even if he has acted out of concern for the common good, must nevertheless bear a burden of guilt and responsibility for his blameworthy actions. It is in fact by the politician’s acceptance of guilt and responsibility (why guilt, necessarily?) for his blameworthy actions that we know him to be a moral person. If he were not a moral person, then he would pretend that his hands were clean.3 Once he has atoned for his wrongdoing, then his hands will be clean again.
      Stephen de Wijze (2007) argues that the dirty hands problem may be a case of “doing right by doing wrong” or “doing wrong to do right,” but may also be subject to various conceptual confusions. He explains that it may involve either a moral conflict in which a right choice can be made between incompossible duties or a moral dilemma in which there is no right overall choice between incompossible duties (and in which there may only be a choice between the lesser of two evils). Some dirty hands problems may involve moral conflicts but not dilemmas, while others may involve both moral conflicts and dilemmas. De Witze also argues, following Michael Stocker (1990), that a dirty hands problem is a special kind of moral conflict in which an action is ‘justified, even obligatory, but also none the less somehow wrong.’However, de Witze explains that “not every wrong action is a dirty action and not every moral conflict involves dirty hands. Furthermore there can be dirty hands cases which involve moral dilemmas, whereas many moral dilemma situations do not involve dirty hands.”5
      Steve Buckler (1993) describes the dirty hands problem as an example of moral ambiguity in which there may be a choice between what is morally necessary and what is morally good. Some actions, despite being morally necessary, are in themselves not morally good. Thus, dirty hands cases may not be true dilemmas, which require a choice between two or more undesirable alternatives. The politician or government official, for example, may get dirty hands simply by doing what it is morally necessary for her to do (in order to promote the common good), rather than doing what it would be morally good for her to do. She may do exactly what she has to do, even though it may be morally disagreeable. In fact, this may be an obligation for her as a politician or government official, and failure to perform the necessary but morally disagreeable action may represent a neglect of her duty to the people she represents.6


1Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives,” September 4, 2015, online at
2Ben Jones and John M. Parrish, “Drones and Dirty Hands,” in Preventive Force: Drones, Targeted Killing, and the Transformation of Contemporary Warfare, edited by Kerstin Fisk
3Michael Walzer, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Volume 2, Issue 2 (Winter, 1973), p. 168.
4Michael Stocker, “Dirty Hands and Ordinary Life,” in Plural and Conflicting Values (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 9-36.
5Stephen de Wijze, “Dirty hands: Doing Wrong to do Right,” in Politics and Morality, edited by Igor Primoratz (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 9.
6Steve Buckler, Dirty Hands: The Problem of Political Morality (Avebury: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1993), p. 7.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Creel Froman's Language and Power

Lewis Acrelius (Creel) Froman (1935-2014) was a professor of political science in the School of Social Sciences at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). He earned a B.A. in political science from Yale University in 1957, and a Ph.D. in political science from Northwestern University in 1960.  He became professor of political science at UCI in 1965, and served as the Dean of the School of Social Sciences from 1971-75. He retired in 2004. His publications include The Manuscript of Hugo Potts: An Inquiry into Meaning (1973), Congressmen and Their Constituencies (1974), The Two American Political Systems: Society, Economics, and Politics (1984), and Language and Power (4 volumes: Books I and II, 1992; Books III, IV, and V, 1993; Books VI and VII, 1995; and Books VIII and IX, 1997).
      In Language and Power, Froman argues that language is power, in the sense that language creates power and power creates language. Language both constructs power and is a construction of power.1 Power structures are “languaged,” in the sense that their construction/representation in language is controlled by those in power. Knowledge/meaning/reality is constructed/represented in language, and whoever controls language also controls the construction/representation of knowledge/meaning/reality.
      Language may be described as a structure of meaning and of knowledge/reality creation, while power may be described as a structure of inequality and of positional and distributional advantages provided to various individuals and groups within social units.
      Power maintains itself through control over descriptive and structural language. “The language of the whole” (the language of power) treats each member of society as part of a larger structure, but as a result of the asymmetry of positions within social structures, some members of society are empowered, while others are disempowered.
      “Language is a product of the powered conditions in which its construction takes place,” says Froman, and it thus “reflects/represents/incorporates the interests of those who construct knowledge/meaning/reality within it.”2 The language of power, which is misleadingly promoted as “the language of the whole,” serves the interests of power not only by ignoring/justifying the relative positional and distributional disadvantages of the disempowered with respect to the structure of social institutions, but also by masking/justifying the relative positional and distributional advantages of the empowered.
      “The language of the whole” consists of both a structural language of inequality and an individual language of merit or just desert justifying that inequality.3 In structural language, positional and distributional inequality is seen as a matter of structural relationships between the advantaged and disadvantaged, while in individual language, it is seen as a matter of individual merit or just desert.
      Power in individual/liberal language is understood as being dispersed among individuals, based on a fair and equal opportunity to participate being offered to all, rather than as concentrated in structures of unfair and unequal positional and distributional advantages.4
      Power is manifested socially as inequality between the empowered and disempowered with respect to how any given group or social institution is structured.5 Because the language of the empowered (who are promoted as “the leading part” in the structure of the whole) becomes hegemonic in its ability to define what knowledge/meaning/reality is, alternative languages arise in response to the disempowerment of some individuals and groups. Alternative (resistance) languages call attention to structural inequalities that are seen as just in conventional language (“legitimate language,” according to the empowered), but that are seen as unjust in alternative (resistance) language.6
      Conventional language (power’s language, or “the language of the whole”) is authorized or legitimized by those in power, while unconventional (resistance) language is discouraged or delegitimized.
      However, power is based not only on the control of language, but also on the division of society into criterial groups (according to race, gender, class, and age) or structural parts. This division of society into criterial groups establishes relations of inequality (with, for example, non-whites seen as unequal to whites, women seen as unequal to men, and the poor seen as unequal to the wealthy). Power/language is thus the construction of knowledge/meaning/reality on the basis of criterial inequalities established by institutional structures.7 Criterial groups are ways of understanding persons not as individual, unique persons, but as raced/gendered/classed/aged “heterohumans.”8 Structural language constructs persons "heteronomously" as being in unequal relations of power (dominance or subordination) to one another.9
      Power languagers attempt to mask/justify/ignore/deny structural inequalities by their use of individual/liberal language. Resistance languagers, on the other hand, use the already present structural language in power’s language to assert that reality does indeed consist of gendered/classed/raced/aged kinds of persons, and that these “heterohuman” categories unfairly assign unequal positional and distributional advantages or disadvantages to various individuals within the (social, economic, and political) structures of the social unit.10
      While “the language of the whole” (power’s language) may propose, or be based on, the unequal distribution of (social, economic, legal, or political) advantages to various individuals within a social unit, alternative (resistance) languages may propose alternative distributions of advantages. While the language of power may treat (social, economic, legal, or political) inequalities as merited and just, resistance languages may treat them as unmerited and unjust.
      Froman explains that “social units are divisions of labor which locate their members unequally with respect to positional and distributional advantages, based on/in a powered language of inequality.”11 Social units include the empowered (“the leading part”) and the disempowered (“the other part”). “The other part” includes “the languaging class” and “the non-languaging class” (“the oppressed”). “The languaging class” consists of those individuals who control the language of institutional structures (structural language, or “the language of the whole”), thus acting as agents for “the leading part.” "The non-languaging class" consists of those individuals for whom “the language of the whole” is least suitable, since it creates/reinforces/justifies institutional structures in which they are positionally and distributionally disadvantaged.12
      Language controllers are also problem controllers, insofar as their control over language gives them the power to tell the rest of society whether there are problems (in language, or in the world), what the problems are, and how they are to be solved.13
      “The languaging class” includes those persons (such as teachers, administrative personnel, lawyers, government officials, journalists, writers, and professionals of all kinds) who benefit, in terms of positional and distributional advantages, by (knowingly or unknowingly) serving the interests of those in power.14 “The languaging class” promotes “the language of the whole,” and it discourages alternative or resistance languages.
      Power’s language asserts that social inequalities are justified, because of differences in individual merit or just desert, but resistance language asserts that social inequalities are unjustified, because of illegitimate structural asymmetries in the positional and distributional advantages afforded to various individuals and groups.15 Justice as individually merited inequality (power’s morality) thus comes into conflict with justice as structural equality (resistance’s morality).16 In the language of power, justice is impossible without social inequality, but in the language of resistance, justice is impossible without social equality.17


1Creel Froman, Language and Power: Books VI and VII (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1996), p. 71.
2Ibid., p. 12.
3Ibid., p. 2.
4Froman, Language and Power: Books III, IV, and V (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1993), p. 84.
5Froman, Language and Power: Books I and II (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1992), p. 4.
6Language and Power: Books III, IV, and V, p. 87.
7Language and Power, Books VI and VII, p. 75.
8Language and Power, Books III, IV, and V, p. 116.
9Ibid., p. 121.
10Ibid., p. 125.
11Ibid., p. 91.
12Ibid., p. 91.
13Language and Power: Books I and II, p. 38.
14Language and Power, Books III, IV, and V, p. 91.
15Language and Power, Books VI and VII, p. 33.
16Ibid., p. 2.
17Ibid., p. 3.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Moral Imagination

What is moral imagination, and what role does (or should) it play in moral reasoning? What is its importance in moral decision-making?
      Moral imagination may be described as an ability to devise new or alternative approaches to moral problem-solving, and thus an ability to formulate new interpretations of the meaning of moral actions and situations.
      It may also be described as an ability to conceive of new or alternative moral principles and values, and thus an ability to engage with, and have a fuller understanding of, one’s own moral capacities and those of a given individual, group, or society.
      It may also be described as an ability to develop new or alternative interpretations of the moral motivations of others, and thus an ability to recognize the range of possibilities available for moral behavior.
      For some individuals, moral imagination may take the form of imagining a kind of morality different from conventional morality. It may take the form of an imagining that what is conventionally taken as right is actually wrong, or that what is conventionally taken as wrong is actually right, or that there actually is no right or wrong.
      For those who do not know right from wrong (such as some young children, perhaps, or some cognitively disabled individuals, or some psychiatrically impaired individuals), moral imagination may be an imagining that something is right or wrong because of the responses that it seems to evoke from others. The emotionally immature or cognitively disabled individual may in some cases only discover that something is right or wrong by becoming acquainted with the moral and social responses of others to it.
      Trying to improve our moral conduct, and striving toward a moral ideal, may also to some extent involve our imagining the kinds of people we could be if we were to be live up to all our responsibilities and fulfill all our moral ideals. In order to become better citizens, we may sometimes have to imagine how we could become better fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, teachers, students, co-workers, colleagues, teammates, friends, or neighbors.
      To imagine something may be to conceive of that thing without ever having actually seen or experienced it. It may also be to perceive something as present or possible without its ever having actually been present for, or accessible to, sensory perception.
      To imagine something may also be to conceive of an object, person, situation, or condition that does not yet, but could, exist. It may be to evoke, summon, or call forth unrealized possibilities.
      If something engages or captivates our imaginations, we may find it to be particularly intriguing or compelling. We may discover that it presents to us a range of possibilities that we were previously unaware of or were only partially aware of. We may then be drawn to further explore its nature, meaning, significance, and implications.
      Moral imagination may be a power or faculty of producing from current or past perceptions new ideas or concepts that have moral applications, implications, or dimensions. It may involve creative and intuitive, as well as analytic and critical thinking. It may be combined with other moral faculties, such as moral perception, intuition, insight, reasoning, and understanding, in order to produce a more secure and reliable foundation for moral judgment.
      Moral imagination may also enable us to recognize that there may be more than one way of looking at and responding to moral problems.
      The ability to be imaginative may depend on an openness to new thoughts, new impressions, and new ways of looking at things
      Moral imagination may therefore enable us to find creative solutions to moral dilemmas. It may enable us to envision and formulate ideal modes of conduct.
      Supererogatory conduct (actions that go beyond what is morally obligatory) may depend on the power of the imagination to inspire us to perform actions that go beyond the call of duty.
      Imagination may also play an important role in such moral attitudes as sympathy, empathy, and compassion. The ability to feel and express sympathy, empathy, or compassion for others may to some extent depend on the ability to imagine what they are feeling, and thus to imagine the pain, suffering, distress, anxiety, embarrassment, shame, sadness, or despair they may be experiencing.
      A constricted moral imagination may constrict the ability to feel sympathy, empathy, or compassion for others. Failure to respond to the suffering and distress of those who are seen as outsiders or strangers may thus in some cases be due to a constriction, deficiency, or failure of imagination.
      Imagination may also enable us to evaluate our own actions in light of what we think others may think about them. It may help us to recognize that our conduct can always be improved.
      Moral imagination may enable us to exercise capacities for moral decision-making that we did not previously know we possessed or were only dimly aware of. It may enable us to anticipate the possible unintended consequences of our actions, and to judge whether those consequences are desirable or undesirable. In cases in which we are compelled to ask ourselves whether we may have failed to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated, it may enable us to recognize how we would feel if we were treated by others in the same way that we have treated them.
       Moral imagination may also play a role in, or be incorporated into, other forms of imagination, such as religious, aesthetic, literary, poetic, or dramatic imagination. It may inspire the creation of moral comedy or tragedy. It may provide a foundation for moral aesthetics or poetics, including the poetics of moral possibility.
      As a creative enterprise, moral imagination may also be opposed to mimesis, rote repetition, or mechanical mimicry of conventionally accepted behavior. It may be opposed to rigid and inflexible adherence to moral norms and principles of duty. Thus, it may make possible the perception of a kind of moral truth that transcends conventionally accepted truth, and it may inspire new approaches to, and creative strategies for, moral problem-solving.
      Moral imagination may therefore depend less on the seeing of things as they are (though it certainly does depend on this kind of seeing) than on the seeing of things as they might be. The seeing of things as they might be, or as they could possibly be, is also the awareness of possibility, which may be the essence or most fundamental feature of imagination.
      Moral imagination may be something that makes possible Raskolnikov’s overwhelming sense of guilt in Crime and Punishment, Ahab’s maniacal quest for revenge in Moby Dick, Kurz’s ultimate sense of horror in Heart of Darkness, and Joseph K’s inescapable sense of anxiety and desperation in The Trial.
      It may also be something that makes possible Jane’s faithfulness to her sense of duty in Jane Eyre, Strether’s moral scrupulousness and faithfulness to personal conscience in The Ambassadors, Jay Gatsby’s romantic idealism and sense of hope in The Great Gatsby, Emma’s carelessness and capriciousness in Madame Bovary, Hedda’s recklessness and self-indulgence in Hedda Gabler, Blanche’s disdain for Stanley’s crudeness in A Streetcar Named Desire, Levee’s sense of futility and rage in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Dimmesdale’s agonizing sense of guilt in The Scarlet Letter, and Aschenbach’s hopeless infatuation with Tadzio in Death in Venice.
      Matthew Kieran, in an article entitled “Art, Imagination, and the Cultivation of Morals” (1996), explains that morally significant art may promote imaginative understandings of moral problems, concerns, or situations. Art "may extend or deepen our understanding of the values and commitments that underlie our actions and desires,” and it "may also shape our understanding of what we value by showing us how to act…in morally fruitful or harmful ways.”1
      John Dewey (1922) explains that “deliberation is a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action….Each habit, each impulse involved in the temporary suspense of overt action takes its turn in being tried out. Deliberation…. is an experiment in making various combinations of selected elements of habits and impulses, [in order] to see what the resultant action would be like if it were entered upon.”2
      Steven Fesmire (2003) extends Dewey’s conception of the role of imagination in moral deliberation by proposing three interrelated theses: (1) moral character, belief, and reasoning are inherently social, embodied, and historically situated, (2) moral deliberation is fundamentally imaginative and takes the form of dramatic rehearsal, and (3) moral imagination may be conceived as a process of aesthetic perception and artistic creation.Fesmire therefore argues that imagination may provide deliberative resources for moral decision-making that are not provided by rigid adherence to abstract principles of morality.
      Mark Johnson (1993) explains that "moral reasoning is...basically an imaginative activity, because it...requires imagination to discern what is morally relevant in situations, to understand empathetically how others experience things, and to envision the full range of possibilities open to us in a particular case."4 He also says that moral situations may be metaphorically conceptualized in order to more clearly understand them, and that "the metaphorical character of moral understanding is precisely what makes it possible to make appropriate moral judgments."5
      Moral imagination may inspire the construction of moral narratives, and it may promote understanding of the ways in which such narratives can be framed or contextualized. Moral narratives may be those that have a moral content, subject matter, theme, purpose, or meaning. The understanding of moral situations may to some extent depend on the understanding of narrative accounts and explanations that have been provided with respect to those situations. Moral understanding may therefore be to some extent a kind of narrative understanding.
      However, moral understanding may be not only analytic, conceptual, thematic, and textual, but also synthetic, imaginative, empathetic, and experiential.
      Moral imagination may include the capacity to perceive previously unrecognized or poorly understood moral dimensions of our actions. It may also include, as a result of the capacity to think creatively about moral possibility and responsibility, the capacity to perceive those moral dimensions of our actions that are not immediately or prima facie evident. It may therefore enable us to develop a fuller understanding of the morally good, and a clearer understanding of the true nature of morality (whatever that may be).


1Matthew Kieran, “Art, Imagination, and the Cultivation of Morals,” in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 54, No. 4 (1996), p. 345.
2John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1922), p. 190.
3Steven Fesmire, John Dewey and Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), p. 4.
4Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. ix-x.
5Ibid., p. 10.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Health Care as a Basic Human Right

If every person has, or should have, the right to health care, what are the limits of that right? To what kind of health care is every person entitled, if health care is a basic human right?
      I believe the right to health care is indeed a basic human right, along with the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to personal security, the right to due process of law, the right to work, the right to receive an education, and other basic human rights.
      The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, says that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”1
      I believe there is a moral argument to be made (which I shall not present here) for providing some level of basic health care to everyone who is in need of care, regardless of his or her ability to pay. What then is the level of basic care that should be provided?
       Allen Buchanan, in an article entitled “The Right to a Decent Minimum of Health Care” (1984), argues that the right to health care is not an unlimited right, but rather a right to a “decent minimum” of care.2 However, I would argue that the concept of a “decent minimum” of care is unacceptable for a number of reasons, and that the right to health care is a right to timely and adequate access to medically necessary care, recognizing that (1) access must be reasonable, not unnecessarily impeded, not unduly burdensome, and actual rather than merely theoretical, and (2) the care provided must be respectful of the human and personal dignity of each individual.
      Medically necessary care may be defined as care provided to prevent, diagnose, or treat a medical condition, in accordance with the accepted medical standard of care for that condition. The standard of care for a given medical condition may be defined as the kind of care that would ordinarily be rendered by a competent health care provider in the same community under similar circumstances. Medically necessary care may also be defined as care without which the patient being treated would suffer debilitating symptoms, preventable complications, irreparable injury, or permanent loss of function.
      The right to health care is not a right to unlimited or unnecessary care. Patients do not have the right to demand unnecessary services, and care providers do not have an obligation to provide unnecessary services. Indeed, care providers have an obligation not to provide unnecessary services, because such services may be harmful to patients and wasteful of health care resources.
      What then is wrong with the concept of a “decent minimum” of care? A “decent minimum” may be defined in a number of ways, some of them quite problematic. For example, from the point of view of party A, who thinks that party B is morally and socially inferior and therefore undeserving of the same level of health care available to party A, a “decent minimum” of care for party B may be something quite lower than what party A is entitled to. Also, from the viewpoint of party A, who lives in wealthy country C, a “decent minimum” of care for party B, who lives in poor country D, may be something quite lower than what party A is entitled to, because of the disparities between the economic and health care resources of countries C and D and the consequent disparity between what people of the two countries may see as the “decent minimum” level of care to which they are entitled. Both of these viewpoints may lead to arbitrariness, inequity, and injustice in the way in which the definition of a “decent minimum” of care is decided upon.
      It may also be argued that people have a right to more than a “decent minimum” of care, and that they have a right to the best quality of medically necessary care that can be provided, within the logistical, economic, and technological constraints of the health care system of the society in which they live.
      The financial cost of health care, of course, has to be taken into account in determining what constitutes the best possible care. The best possible care is also the safest, most reliable, most effective, and most cost-efficient care, as well as the care that is least burdensome for patients and most likely to produce the best possible outcomes.
      Buchanan says that debate about the claim that there is a right to a “decent minimum” of health care may center on two issues: (1) the issue of whether there is a more extensive right to health care, and (2) the issue of what health care services comprise the “decent minimum” of care to which there is a right.3 He admits that the claim that there is a “decent minimum” of care usually presupposes that this “decent minimum” is relative to the given society in which it is said to exist, but he argues that the advantages of the concept of a “decent minimum” for all individuals, as opposed to an equality of opportunity (regarding health care) for all individuals, are that (1) the concept of a “decent minimum” enables us to adjust the level of care according to relevant social conditions, (2) it “avoids the excesses of the strong equal access principle” (that everyone has an equal right to the best health care available) , while still acknowledging a substantive universal right, and (3) it recognizes that there must be some limitation to the right to health care, because of the limitations in resources available to any given society.4
      Buchanan thus explains that it’s reasonable to assume that, just as with other social goods and services, the extent of the right to health care services depends on the resources available to a given society.5 He makes a distinction between universal rights claims (which attribute the same rights to all individuals) and special rights claims (which attribute rights to particular individuals or groups).6 He also explains that special rights claims may be based on past discrimination against an individual or group (because that individual or group may have a special right to goods or services they have previously been denied) or may be based on unjust harms suffered by an individual or group (because that individual or group may have a special right to compensation for the unjust harms they have suffered) or may be based on sacrifices made by an individual or group for the good of society as a whole (because that individual or group may have a special right to compensation for the sacrifices they have made).7
      It may be argued, however, that everyone has a right to the best care available within the logistical, economic, and technological constraints of the health care system of the society in which they live, although everyone may not necessarily the same right. Those who are more in need of health care may have more of a right to the best care available. Those who invest their financial resources in order to ensure that they receive the best care available may also have a special right to receive the best care available. However, need should be considered more important than ability to pay in determining who is most deserving of available health care. Individuals should not be prohibited from investing their financial resources in order to ensure that they receive the best care available, but all individuals should be able to receive the best care available if they are really in need, regardless of their ability to pay.
      Another argument against the acceptability of the concept of a “decent minimum” of care is that care providers may have a duty to provide more than a “decent minimum.” They actually have a duty to fulfill a “reasonable standard of care,” which may be more than a “decent minimum.” Moreover, it may be argued they have a duty to provide the best care they can provide within the constraints of the health care system in which they function as providers. Requiring them to provide only a “decent minimum” of care may conflict with their duty to fulfill a “reasonable standard” of care and to provide the best care they can provide within the constraints of the given health care system.
      I would argue that health care providers also have a duty to provide the best possible care for all their patients, regardless of their patients’ socioeconomic status, age, gender, race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
      Part of the duty of every health care provider is to function as an advocate for his or her patients in order to help them navigate the health care system, and in order to ensure that they have access to all the care they need. Patients have a right to expect that their health care providers will do their best to ensure that they receive all the care they need, and to ensure that they receive the best care possible.
      The concept of a “decent minimum” of care may therefore become a means to unfairly discriminate against individuals, based on their socioeconomic status or other factors. Those who are seen as being of lower socioeconomic status may be seen as being entitled to only a “decent minimum” of care, while those who are seen as being of higher socioeconomic status may be seen as being entitled to the best care available.
      The supposed obligation to provide only a “decent minimum” of care may also become a “slippery slope” for care providers, leading them to provide less and less care until the concept of a “decent minimum” has hardly any meaning. A “decent minimum” may come to mean almost nothing at all. A “decent minimum” may also come to mean a lower level of care than could reasonably be provided within the constraints of the health care system.  A “decent minimum” may become a kind of “race to the bottom,” rather than an effort to make a higher baseline level of health care available to all individuals.
      Perhaps, instead of trying to explore the content of a “decent minimum of care,” we should try to explore the content of an “adequate baseline level of care.”
      Justice in health care does not require that everyone have the same access to care and receive the same level of care, regardless of whether some are more in need of care than others. It does, however, require that everyone be provided with the health care he or she needs, and that an adequate baseline level of health care be made available to all.
      Kenneth Cust (1997) describes a “just minimum of health care” as a more viable concept than a “decent minimum of health care.” He says that

“Thus far we have taken the phrase ‘decent minimum of health care’ to mean roughly an adequate amount of health care. However, the concept “decent” has normative content as well. It can mean, for example, conformity with a standard of conduct or propriety. On this account, to say that people were entitled to a decent minimum of health care would mean little more than to say they were entitled to only what we choose to give them. If this is what Buchanan meant by a decent minimum of health care, then it may not be sufficient to meet people’s basic heath care needs.”8

      The right to medically necessary care may imply other rights, such as those enumerated in various statements of patient rights and responsibilities. Patient rights implied by the right to medically necessary care may include such rights as (1) the right to be treated with dignity and respect, (2) the right to be treated in a safe and secure environment, (3) the right to be protected from abuse, neglect, and mistreatment, (4) the right to be protected from discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or disability, (5) the right to informed consent, (6) the right to privacy, (7) the right to confidentiality of personal and health information, (8) the right to participate in medical decision-making concerning one’s own care and treatment, and (9) the right to timely and understandable communications from health care providers.
      Patient responsibilities, on the other hand, may include (1) the responsibility to provide complete and accurate information about present symptoms, present and past medications, past medical history, and past treatment, (2) the responsibility to cooperate with care providers in order to develop plans of treatment, (3) the responsibility to comply with recommended treatment, (4) the responsibility to return for follow-up appointments in a timely fashion, and (5) the responsibility to respect the rights of other patients.


1United Nations, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” (1948), online at
2Allen Buchanan,, “The Right to a Decent Minimum of Health Care” (1984), in Justice and Health Care: Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 4.
3Ibid., p. 17.
4Ibid., p. 20.
5Ibid., p. 20.
6Ibid., p. 27.
7Ibid., p. 27.
8Kenneth Cust, A Just Minimum of Health Care (Lanham: University Press of America, 1997), p. 61.