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December 03, 2006


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I don't think Kantian, utilitarian, or virtue ethics are maintream moral epistemological views. In fact, I don't think that the views in normative ethics are views about moral epistemology at all. These views try to provide accounts of what is right or wrong. It is a further question of how we know exactly these normative truths, if they even are such. Of course many of these views have also tried to give epistemic accounts but they are not really tied to the normative conclusions. It's not uncommon to see an utilitarian to argue for her normative views based on Kantian moral epistemology.

On the other hand, many of the mainstream moral epistemological views seem to have a strong communal element to them. Surely enough, many intuitionists, a minority probably, want to say that an individual can, by understanding moral propositions, become justified in believing in their truth, i.e., get an access to moral knowledge by themselves. But, there are many other accounts as well.

Take McDowell's and Williams's views on thick concepts that are very popular and appealing. On this view, through education, essentially a social process, we become members of our moral community. In this education, we come to master the use of thick evaluative concepts that are the bedrock of our moral knowledge. This mastery requires adopting certain shared concerns that enable us to see the reality aright as coloured by thick moral properties. Only sharing a language in a lifeform creates the possibility of moral terms that are both guided by the world and guide our actions. And, having these terms for which there are robust assertability conditions in the world is the crucial requirement for any moral knowledge. This is because knowing something requires reliability of getting things right. This in turn requires the possibility of error - not everything believed can be the case if knowledge is applicable to the discourse at all. So, in the current moral epistemology communality runs strong from such backgrounds as Aristotle's virtue ethics and Wittgensteinian reflections on meaning and rule-following.

I'm more sceptic that social constructivists, in the sense you describe them, can give an account of moral knowledge just because it's not certain how they create the possibility of getting it wrong. There has to be a difference what even most people believe and how things are. Other problems lurk too. Taking the cue from Kuhn, the knowledge of different paradigms was not supposed to be commensurable. Taking this to the ethical case, we are back with the classic relativist problem - the consequence would be that members of different moral communities could not disagree because the lacked shared concepts and frameworks. Hare already had good arguments against this.

Great set of questions, Laurie. I agree with Jussi that we need to preserve a distinction between first-order normative theorizing, and moral epistemology. That said, I agree with you that most professional analytic ethics proceeds with a non-social moral epistemology. Appeals to reason and to intuition (or to rational intuition!) are generally non-social. Reflective equilibrium could be pursued either individually or socially, and it is not at all clear to me that the results would be the same. Philosophers influenced by Aristotle seem to be those friendliest to social approaches to moral epistemology—Jussi mentions Wiggins and McDowell, and I would add MacIntyre as the closest thing to a social constructivist (he would not like that term) about moral knowledge.

I think the main hurdle facing social approaches to moral epistemology is that few people are convinced that moral knowledge is arrived at in and by a community or a tradition (though you could probably convince many people that communities and traditions deform moral beliefs—whether this combinations of convictions is coherent I’m not sure). Unlike, say, a reasonably sophisticated view of scientific knowledge. In my view, nihilism, skepticism, subjectivism, and relativism are intellectual responses to a social situation in which people find themselves unable to strongly identify with any stable moral community. (Not that there are no arguments for these positions, but that virtually no one in a stable, coherent, functioning moral community ever considers them seriously. These considerations, so to speak, do not raise themselves.) The moral pluralism in the contemporary world raises hard questions, for any moral epistemology, that the scientific uniformity of the contemporary world does not raise for scientific epistemology.

Hi Laurie,

I have a few questions about the social constructionist position you discuss. (I am not very familiar with the literature on this topic, so I am sure that some of these questions will be very naive.) I've pasted some of your post before the question.

(1) You suggested that "For example, a community’s rationality may be judged by wide acceptance of all and only those theories with a high degree of empirical success (e.g., Solomon, cited by Longino), and its objectivity may be judged by critical interaction among members of its own community holding divergent viewpoints, and critical interactions with other communities holding views that diverge from its own."

Suppose you have a community in which everyone believes that P, and no one in the community interacts with anyone who believes that not-P. Yet everyone in the community considers and reflects on arguments for and against P, and in fact does so to such a degree that it is very unlikely that anyone outside the community would be able to produce a new argument for not-P that people within the community haven't already thought of and been unpersuaded by. How objective is this community on the social constructivist view? (I'm inclined to say that they are doing very well, despite their lack of interaction with anyone who genuinely disagrees with them about P. But if they are doing very well, why couldn't an individual do very well by doing something similar?)

(2) Another component of the social constructivist view was this:"without a community of inquirers, there can be no knowledge—knowledge cannot be produced in a social vacuum."

Does the social constructivist also want to assert the stronger claim that without a community of inquiriers, there can be no *epistemic justification*, that *epistemic justification* cannot be produced in a social vaccuum?

Suppose my boat crashes on the deserted island and I am stuck there, by myself, for the rest of my life. I'm the only person on the island. Am I still part of a community of inquirers? (I probably still share a number of social, moral, and epistemic values with people no so stranded. But I can't interact with them.)

(3) Suppose while on the island I conduct some scientific experiments. The experiments present me with a counterexample to a popular theory. I come to believe that the popular theory is false. It seems that I have evidence for my belief, sicne it was derived via a scientific experiment. Suppose my belief is true. In what ways does social interaction with other people convert my justified true belief into knowledge?

In reply to Jussi and Heath, I’m wondering if social constructivist views call into question the boundary between normative ethics and moral epistemology. This boundary relies in part on the assumption that evaluative moral claims are not reducible to non-evaluative ones; that is, it relies on a non-naturalistic view of ethics. Social constructivist accounts are naturalistic in the sense that moral evaluation and validation are understood as social processes in which a provisional consensus is reached on whether or not something is good. Normative ethics would not be about analyzing the logical relations among non-natural properties on a naturalist account, but about investigating what a particular community knows about differentiating right from wrong, and how it adjudicates moral disputes. Moral theories, on this view, could be incorrect if they were outside the dominant paradigm or relevant social consensus. Normative ethicists might then study what conditions are likely to create a consensus or a moral paradigm shift.

In reply to Jussi about education, I think many accept that moral education involves social processes and institutions without accepting that moral knowledge is produced socially. Yet those who think moral knowledge is produced socially are often interested in reforming the social institutions through which it is produced, including educational, political, religious, and civil ones.

In reply to Heath’s speculation that among scientists there is more agreement than among ethicists, I’m not sure that this is the case if you count scientists working under different paradigms (e.g., Japanese and U.S. physicists, Chinese and European medical scientists…). One worry about deferring to something like “community wisdom,” in the case of ethics, is that this often seems to mean something like rigid and stagnant traditions. But just as scientific knowledge in the west is conceived to be dynamic and evolving, so too can ethical wisdom be conceived this way (in the west and elsewhere).

In reply to Kris’s first question, he hypothesizes that “it is very unlikely that anyone outside the community would be able to produce a new argument for not-P that people within the community haven't already thought of and been unpersuaded by.” I find this logically possible but highly unlikely, given that people within the community probably share a set of assumptions that they don’t recognize, and someone who does not share those assumptions may come up with arguments they haven’t imagined. I suppose that whether you think a single community or individual can imagine all the good reasons for not-P depends upon whether you think we can discover and bracket all our unfounded assumptions, without coming into contact with other knowers. Even Descartes didn’t rely on the exercise of methodological doubt for all forms of knowledge and conducted numerous empirical studies (for an interesting review of some recent biographies of Descartes, see ).

In reply to Kris’s second and third questions: the individual alone on an island may have belief-producing experiences, and her discoveries may contribute to the advancement of science once her reports are taken up and vetted by the community. This may involve others reproducing her experiments, performing related experiments to isolate different variables, critique of the experiments, and so on. It is common to assume that scientific knowledge is produced this way, why not superior ethical judgment?


I don't think the distinction between normative ethics and moral epistemology assumes non-naturalism. Even emotivists often give a view in normative ethics (like Smart and Singer are utilitarians) and say something different about moral epistemology (usually do to with coherence and reflective equilibrium). Same goes for naturalist realists. I worry about the idea you present that a consensus in a moral community constitutes moral knowledge. That view is right rejected for all the problems of relativism. The fact that everyone agreed that slave-owning was right does not imply that they knew that it was. They could not have done so as it is not true that it's right to own slaves.


I worry about the idea you present that a consensus in a moral community constitutes moral knowledge. That view is right rejected for all the problems of relativism.
I am very far out of my league here, but I think Laurie's point, or at least to the extent (which isn't very great) that I understand similar points (Dewey's pragmatism, for example) is not that a consensus (or even a strong plurality) in *a* moral community constitutes moral knowledge, but that a consensus (or strong plurality) among *many* communities with different shared viewpoints and working assumptions constitutes (or is a sufficient condition, at least) for knowledge, just as a conclusion among scientists with many different viewpoints and working assumptions constitutes, or is at least sufficient, for considering that conclusion knowledge. So, I think such a view would avoid relativism, which, correctly understood, implies a consensus (or a strong plurality) among *a* community with shared viewpoints and assumptions.

You will likely reply: but just because folks with varying viewpoints and working assumptions may have *thought* that slavery was right, that doesn't mean that we would have known it was right, since it was wrong. I think the response to your reply will be either: (i) you are working with an assumption that knowing that p entails that p cannot be true at t but false at t1; but you are assuming (the response would continue) that knowledge is infallible, which is a false assumption; or (ii) that our community fails to conclude that slavery is right is sufficient to show that there is no consensus, and so no knowledge, that slavery was right.

Again, I'm way out of my league here, so I apologize if I am leading folks astray. Maybe Laurie can straighten us out if I've done so.


no that's extremely helpful. The talk about many moral communities is not without problems - for one, I've never seen any criteria that would give us a picture of how to individuate between them. I'm also not at all sure what could be meant by different viewpoints they have. And, the problems of relativism seem to be just put to an upper level - you get relativism between many *many communities of consensus* and with it either contradictions or failure of communication.

I am assuming that you cannot have false knowledge. That doesn't imply infallibility but being reliably right. You are right about time-indexing knowledge to beliefs and state of affairs. My belief that 'sun is shining' can constitute knowledge today (when it is true) but fail to do so tomorrow (when it is false). Now the question is can the wrongness of slavery change from false to true in the way that my belief about the weather changes? I see no reason to say that it could.

On the other side, a view that I much symphatise with is Habermas's. But, as I hazily remember, moral knowledge is not on that kind of a view identified with results of actual consensus but is rather somehow related to what an idealised social consensus would be like as a result of certain kind of idealised procedure of moral debate and communication. Maybe on that view, moral knowledge would require justified true beliefs (plus something else) about the outcome of that idealised process and that in order would require certain kind of actual shared deliberation.

One important community that should be considered in any account of human slavery is the community of slaves. Indeed historically, the discovery and publication of slave diaries played an important role in what we might call the moral development of our society. In my study of anti-abortion literature, I discovered a number of “diaries of unborn children,” written in ways that borrow from slave narratives. Of course, unlike slave narratives, the fetus narratives were fictional. But the invention of these fictional personas and perspectives illustrates how an existing consensus can be exposed as partial or problematic when it fails to consider relevant perspectives.

Seyla Benhabib tries to develop a discourse or communicative ethics that recognizes situated selves rather than abstract interlocutors under ideal conditions. Whereas Habermas’s or Rawls’s accounts assume that individuals can bracket their provincial values in public moral or political conversation, Benhabib doesn’t assume this and instead proposes “reversing perspectives” by considering disputed issues from the perspectives of those differently situated but perhaps not part of the conversation. I’m somewhat skeptical of individuals achieving “objective” perspectives or reconstructing the perspectives of others differently situated while they are absent from the conversation. Instead, I find Amartya Sen’s recent proposal that the moral practices of a society, such as the death penalty, be evaluated by genuinely diverse groups of moral authorities including those outside the relevant society.

Regarding moral knowledge, I think we need to be careful not to set the standards too high. Would we say we don’t have knowledge of chemistry because, in theory, any currently accepted account is open to correction and revision? The currently accepted accounts exhibit some degree of empirical success, but perhaps with some adjustments in the future they will exhibit more. Does the demand for certainty or infallibility already assume an account of knowledge, e.g., that knowledge involves sound deductions from indubitable first principles?


the point is not about certainty or infallibility but truth. In order to know, we don't need to know that we know, that is be certain that we are right, but we need to be right and right with some reliability. There is a reason to believe that most of our chemistry is right and thus reason to believe that we have chemical knowledge. It may turn out that we did not have knowledge where we thought we had. Take your pick of old falsified scientific theories - say Newtonian mechanics about the movements of celestial bodies. During the hayday of Newtonian mechanics people thought they knew how planets and suns move. But, my intuition is that they still didn't - they couldn't have known that the celestial bodies moved according to Newton's physics because that is not the way the move. We are in the same position. We think we know that they move according to Einstein's view. If they do, we probably know it. But, it may turn out that we didn't know.

The slave case is a good illustration about how we need to consider the moral codes from idealised perspectives of individuals and not the actual ones. This is because there probably has been and at least could be slaves who in their awful conditions believe that their fate is part of the natural order and what they are worth. In this case, there is nothing that would contest the slave-owning consensus. For this reason, actual consensus is not relevant and we need to idealise the persons so that they have all the relevant true beliefs. This is the move that is made in the anti-abortion literature you refer to.

Jussi, I think you may be operating with a correspondence theory of truth and I'm operating with a coherence model. On the latter, a belief can cohere with a larger set of "established" views at one moment but not at another if the set has been modified. But before I climb out on a relativistic limb and claim that, at the earlier moment, the belief constituted a form of knowledge, it's worth pointing out that a lot of things we now think are false may never have met the standard for established theory or knowledge that Dan formulates as a "consensus (or strong plurality) among *many* communities with different shared viewpoints and working assumptions."

Also, I don't think the fact that "there probably has been and at least could be slaves who in their awful conditions believe that their fate is part of the natural order and what they are worth" shows that we need idealized perspectives. The existence of such slaves would not challenge a consensus among the larger group. While it's logically possible that the majority of slaves could have had views of the sort you describe, I don't think we should ignore the historical fact that the majority did not and thereby dismiss the perspectives of this group.

The issue you raise though is an issue debated among feminists, who worry that many women suffer from false consciousness and may believe their social status reflects a natural order. I don't deny that some women may suffer from false consciousness but I think we need to have good evidence for this before we substitute our own perspectives for theirs. A lot of my work has been about women who are accused of false consciousness--prostitutes and sex workers--and I haven't found much evidence that they suffer more than other women from false consciousness (not just from their writings but from interviews I've done as well). How can moral theorists avoid the charge of paternalism, arrogance, or elitism if we dismiss the perspectives of such groups on questions pertaining to practices that shape their lives?


thanks that is helpful. I wasn't assuming correspondence theory of truth - I'm quite happy with many minimalist theories as well. But, coherence theory of truth is just hopeless and commits you directly to contradictions. One belief can both cohere and fail to cohere to two distinct coherent sets of beliefs. On the coherence theory of truth, this implies that the belief is both true and false. If it is false, then it's negation is true. Thus, the claim is both true and it's negation is truth. And, you are committed to believing all possible propositions.

About this:

'Also, I don't think the fact that "there probably has been and at least could be slaves who in their awful conditions believe that their fate is part of the natural order and what they are worth" shows that we need idealized perspectives. The existence of such slaves would not challenge a consensus among the larger group. While it's logically possible that the majority of slaves could have had views of the sort you describe, I don't think we should ignore the historical fact that the majority did not and thereby dismiss the perspectives of this group.'

It is true that actually it might be possible that majority of slaves did not accept their positions and had good complaints about their position. I'm not sure how things were in Antiquity. But, be as it may in philosophy and ethics we are in the realm of testing concepts and their connections with thought-experiments. This means that it is possible to imagine global unanimity between slaves and non-slaves about the moral status of slavery. Your view seems to imply that in that case slavery would be right - it is made so by large enough consensus. I can't accept such a commitment. No set of beliefs can make slavery right.

One way to avoid paternalism in the prostitute case is to take seriously what these women and men say. Would not being a social constructivist commit one not to do so? One advantage of realistic views is that they do rely on the idea that there are judger-independent normative truths. Accepting this idea implies acknowledging that my beliefs about the normative reality might be radically false. It probably is the case that others see some parts of the reality better than me. But, saying this also means that they too can be wrong. We all can have moral biases, blindspots, incoherences, ignorances, and so on, and working towards better understanding probably requires co-operation. In this way moral epistemology can be social without this implying that the moral reality is a social construct. That view for me is on the wrong side of the Euthyphro contrast.

I'm not saying the perspectives of sex workers trump all others, but I'd rather rely on the actual perspectives of diversely situated communities and individuals than on an intellectual contrivance that gets me to an allegedly ideal point of view.

Regarding slavery, I think any practice of human slavery that was tolerable to slaves would be different from most forms of slavery we've seen. For example, in the contemporary s/m community sex slavery is practiced by mutual consent. Would you oppose this form of slavery if the participants endorsed it, as well as outsiders who understood the rules and conventions that defined the practice? I don't think you can say that consensual slavery is not slavery, since you've imagined a community in which slaves morally approve of slavery, which means they implicitly accept or consent to their status.

Hi Laurie,

I'm not sure that I've understood what role you think the non-idealized normative judgments of actual people should play in an account of normative truth/knowledge. I take it that you are not just saying that we are more likely to hit upon normative truth by taking more perspectives into account than we currently do. That epistemological claim is something that all positions on moral truth ought to accept. But it sounds as if you are making the stronger claim that such perspectives partly constitute normative truth. Here are couple of questions I have about that position.

Someone needn't enjoy slavery in order to endorse it. Certainly people have believed that they 'deserved' to be enslaved, either because these were consequences of the rules of warfare which they accepted or because they were indoctrinated to believe that they were worthless (and not due to any false empirical beliefs). They thus believed that it was ok or even right to enslave them even thought they may have hated being enslaved. Don't you agree that slavery would be wrong under these circumstances? if not, what makes their (and everyobody else's) endorsement of it have such overpowering normative relevance?

Even if these conditions have never actually obtained (which is very dubious)), what is the relevance of this fact? We certainly can imagine these conditions, and we have clear normative intuitions about them that tell against the view that actual consensus determines normative truth. Is there a reason that our intuitions about hypothetical cases shouldn't be used in testing a theory of normative truth?


Nishi makes all the good questions but here is another way of putting it. We need to make a distinction between positions people can be in, i.e., the different perspectives and the people who occupy those positions and their actual opinions. It probably is true that we need to take into account the objections reasonable persons would have against our actions from the positions they occupy. Sometimes people objections or approvals are not reasonable and people agree to things that it makes not sense for them to do so if they for instance new of better alternatives. In these cases we can idealise the individuals who occupy the different positions. We do need to take into account the reasonable objections take could make even though they do not actually do so. Much of this argument is in Scanlon's criticism of Rawls who takes the individuals away from the positions to the original situation.

About this:

'I don't think you can say that consensual slavery is not slavery, since you've imagined a community in which slaves morally approve of slavery, which means they implicitly accept or consent to their status.'

I can say that there are two forms of consensual slavery. In one the people can act as if they were slaves but they are free to walk away any moment they want to. I take it that this is what is going on in the sex games we might want to permit. For me this is 'slavery' only quotation marks and not real slavery. In the other form of slavery people consent to their treatment, but, if they did not, then they would be coerced to act in the same way anyway. This form of consensual slavery I take to be wrong always. No complaints does not mean that the shackles are not there.

To both Nishi's and Jussi's points about slavery, I'm not arguing that the moral acceptability of slavery will be decided only by the perspectives of slaves--note that in the s/m case I mention the perspectives of outsiders who are familiar with the practice. I think the kinds of cases that you're imagining are likely to be problematic to outsiders, even after they have tried to understand slavery from the perspectives of those who practice it -- slaves and slaveholders. And in some cases, such as child slavery, the compliance of slaves with the practice may be given less weight. We might also give less weight to those who materially profit from slavery, on the assumption that this shapes their perspectives in morally irrelevant ways. Going back to Longino, when there is a choice between different theories—as there usually is—we should engage alternative perspectives so that unexamined prejudices are less likely to decide the issue. It’s especially useful to consider (to the extent that we can recover or access them) the perspectives of actors who are historically and culturally distant.

Regarding idealized positions, let's just say I'm an empiricist on this -- I trust the aggregated experiences of actual but ordinary individuals over the use of Reason by a few brilliant individuals, when it comes to moral truth. With other kinds of truth, such as mathematical truth, I’m willing to defer to the geniuses among us. I take a democratic approach to moral truth in the way that many take to political truth.

Regarding the s/m case, my understanding is that the terms of the “power exchange” can be renegotiated, so, yes, there is an important sense in which these folks retain their freedom and agency. Or, another way to put it is that part of being free (for those who practice sex slavery) is to be free to give up one’s freedom, at least temporarily. There are cases where people lose their freedom (temporarily and permanently), and yet we not only tolerate these practices but find them necessary (the incarceration of criminals or hostile combatants in times of war). Not all of these cases are cases of slavery, and so consenting to the taking of prisoners does not mean one consents to slavery. Slavery seems to imply ownership and disposal rights over another, and thus the dehumanization or objectification of others, which are not necessarily part of imprisonment. So to imagine people giving approval to slavery in ways that might challenge the current consensus about such practices, one would have to imagine not just incarceration practices, but dehumanizing ownership practices that some significant and sizeable community of adults who are knowledgeable about the practice would approve of. In the sex industry, where women are actually trafficked or held in brothels under conditions that approximate slavery, they do not approve of their treatment. This is not to say they don’t approve of sex work, they just do not want to perform it under conditions in which they have no control over their labor, bodies, or lives.

Are there plausibility requirements on philosophical thought experiments? It may be logically possible that some set of enslaved adults (who are not idiots, or on drugs, or semi-conscious) approve of their enslavement, but such cases are counter intuitive, so they don’t challenge whatever intuitions I have.


I'm not sure what you mean when you say that a case is counterintuitive, or why its being counterintuitive doesn't challenge whatever intuitions you have. The case is meant to elicit an intuition that challenges a theory about normative truth. When I say that my intuition is that slavery is wrong in the hypothetical case, this implies that I am disposed to believe that slavery would be wrong under those conditions. It is this intuition that challenges the theory that normative truth is constituted by a consensus of normative judgments (although I'm no longer sure that you hold this view, since I'm not sure if you have a principled way of individuating the group that constitutes the consensus.)

Let us grant that the case has never occured. Is this sufficient to make it counterintuitive? If so, the question remains, why does this mean that we can't use judgments about such cases to test a theory of normative truth? If it isn't sufficient, what more does it take to make a case counterintutive? Does it mean that one doesn't believe that such a case will ever occur? That it is ruled out or made unlikely by facts about human nature? Again, why would this mean that our judgments about such cases can't be used to test theories of moral truth? Should we trust our judgments about these cases less than we do real life cases? If so, why? Doesn't this require some view about the conditions under which normative judgments are reliable guides to the truth?

I wonder why you aren't satisfied with the very plausible claim that you attribute to Longino, which is that we gain a better epistemic position by engaging alternative perspectives. Why go further and accept a very *counterintuitive* view of normative truth?

Also, I find these claims puzzlingly contradictory:

1) 'we should engage alternative perspectives so that unexamined prejudices are less likely to decide the issue'.

2)'It may be logically possible that some set of enslaved adults (who are not idiots, or on drugs, or semi-conscious) approve of their enslavement, but such cases are counter intuitive, so they don’t challenge whatever intuitions I have.'

Second seems to say that your intuitions are unchallengable by claims you find unappealing and the first says that we should not put weight on our unchallenged prejudices. Besides, there are historical documents of actual cases where slaves have accepted their part. If some people have thought this, then it is not much of a leap of imagination that there just are more people like them. Of course, you can say that they did not really consent or that they should not have done so. But, that seems to go against everything else you've said.

Nishi and Jussi,

I think the issue is what counterintuitive and hypothetical cases are taken to show. The fact that there could be a group of adult slaves who approve of slavery doesn't show that slavery is right, nor does it show that if we consider the point of view of slaves that we will be forced to hold such views.

Jussi equates being unappealing with being counterintuitive, which I think is an unfair move. I'm raising the following issue--if we have to suspend our ordinary beliefs and intuitions in order to consider a particular case (which may not be true just because a case is unappealing or disturbing), can this case really challenge our intuitions?

The whole idea of challenging one's intuitions seems to suggest a more rationalist view of ethics than I'm taking. My intuitions are culturally and historically constituted, so "testing" them with bizarre cases won't resolve ethical disputes. The issue is what weight we give to the perspectives of hypothetical slaves in adjudicating different perspectives. Jussi claims there are documented historical cases of slavery in which the slaves approved of slavery (I take this to mean not just that they didn't rebel, but that they were not very motivated to rebel). I don't think it's enough to just say such cases have existed. In order to determine what weight we will attach to the perspectives of slaves in these cases, we need to be more informed about the cases. So Jussi, can you give us more details about these cases or refer us to the historical documents?


If a hypothetical group of people all agree that enslaving some of that group is right, then doesn't it follow on a social constructivist view of normative truth that slavery would be right under those circumstances?

We are being forced to suspend some of our normal empirical beliefs (including beliefs about other people's normative beliefs) when thinking about hypothetical cases. We are not being asked to suspend our normative intuitions; those are just what we are trying to elicit. Are you saying that we can't trust our normative intuitions when thinking about alternative empirical conditions? Why not?

The reason I began with Longino's constructivist account of science is to dispel some common notions that philosophers have of culturally relativist or social constructionist views. Few (if any) social constructivists hold views as simple as you've reconstructed them. So I wonder why moral philosophers, in particular, continue to resort to such over-simplifying representations.

Conditions for knowledge on most accounts include more than broad agreement within a single group. An important part of any social constructivist account is the process through which broad agreement is reached--were there opportunities for critical dialog, dissent, marginal views to be heard, engagement with outside perspectives, and so on. Also important may be how the group defines and responds to evidence, and whether its practices conform to or diverge from widely accepted practices of theory testing.

So let's imagine all of these conditions were met and yet we find broad agreement across different groups that slavery is okay, after there has been critical discussion from multiple and even unpopular and alien viewpoints, and theory testing of an appropriately rigorous nature. What must a social constructivist say to this?

Well first, we recognize that knowledge is provisional and that what constitutes a minority view on this scenario (slavery is not okay) could, under certain circumstances, become the accepted view. So while there may appear to be closure on this question, new evidence or events in the future could reopen it. Second, under any belief regime, an individual can decide to stand with the majority or minority. So even if I'm a social constructivist, I may believe that agreement was reached too soon, or without considering some important piece of evidence or point of view to which I attach great weight. There is nothing on a social constructivist view that commits the social constructivist to the conventional or dominant views of a particular society. Just as you can imagine, under certain circumstances, a broad agreement in favor of slavery, on a social constructivist account, one can always imagine minority viewpoints and circumstances that would destabilize an existing consensus.

Social constructivism is often deployed to critique the dominant beliefs of a society, often by exposing and analyzing the social practices that legitimize them. So again, I find it odd that moral philosophers persist in equating this view with an intellectual commitment to adhere to a dominant social order. Franz Boas, the so-called “father” of American socio-cultural anthropology, destabilized dominant social and scientific beliefs about race by showing how racial categories were socially constructed.

On the issue of trusting our intuitions, I would say we should be careful not to trust them too much, or to think they provide an unbiased source of illumination. To give my intuitions about slavery greater epistemic authority or weight than a broad consensus reached by a significant group is to be dogmatic or smug. I need not accept the consensus, but I should be willing to find out how it was reached (I'm not sure how we do this with hypothetical cases, which is why actual cases may be more helpful).

When moral philosophers say, I've shown x to be wrong because my intuitions tell me that even under the most favorable conditions, x would still be wrong, I would say, what have you done to insure that your intuitions aren't biased? Do your intuitions reflect your provincial attitudes or have they been educated by consulting historical and ethnographic records of human societies? Considering hypothetical cases just isn't enough of a check against the ways our intuitions can be biased since we contrive these cases from our limited knowledge.


Thanks, that was very helpful. I still don't quite understand the view that you are expressing, but I'm getting there.

1) I agree that we might have reasons for doubting the epistemic value of some of our intuitions. Of course, whatever grounds we have for doubting a set of intuitons will have to rely on other intuitions we have (for example, about the epistemic value of other people's intuitions). I'm not sure though, what reasons I might have for doubting my intuition that slavery would be wrong even in the hypothetical situation in which a consensus that slavery is right was reached under the conditions you described. And why can't we know how consensus was reached in hypothetical cases? We stipulate everything else about these cases, why can't we also stipulate how consensus was arrived? I doubt that most of us would find that our intuitions change about whether slavery would be wrong even when we imagine that consensus was arrived at in the way you describe.

2) Sorry for oversimplifying. I did that because I wasn't sure exactly what view you were expressing, and I thought that the view that I stated expressed the core idea in any truly constructivist account of normative truth. I agree that "opportunities for critical dialog, dissent, marginal views to be heard, engagement with outside perspectives, and so on" are important factors in discovering the normative truth. But this can't be the essence of the social constructivist view, since as I said earlier even someone who thinks that normative truths are independent of any group's normative judgments can accept this epistemic claim. It is the extra truly constructivist claim that truth is a function of some sort of consensus that seems to conflict with some of our normative intuitions, and I still wonder what the impetus is for accepting it, given that one can adopt all the good points about taking in other perspectives without doing so.

3) I'm not sure I understand what you said about the possibility of dissent. Did you mean to say that even if all the constructivist conditions for normative truth are met, it would be coherent for a constructivist who knows this to dissent from the dominant view that slavery is right? I don't see how this is possible. Whatever reasons one would have for dissent would have to be reasons for thinking that the conditions necessary for consensus to constitute normative truth hadn't been met. Otherwise, how could they be reasons for dissent, i.e. judging that it is not true that slavery is right?


Let me offer a case that appears to support your and Jussi’s claim that it is possible for all the social constructionist’s conditions for knowledge to be satisfied and yet intelligent, reflective people should withhold their assent. There is a novel, The Known World (2003), about free blacks (former slaves) in mid-19th century Virginia who became slave owners. The author, Edward Jones, states in an interview that it is a little known fact that there were some, though a small number, of slaves who were manumitted or freed by their owners and who then purchased slaves. So here’s an actual historical case of slaves (or at least former slaves) who approve of slavery.

What the novel shows, though, is that even when slavery doesn’t involve racial hierarchy, chattel slavery is a corrupting and brutalizing institution for all involved. The black slave owner and his wife treat their slaves more humanely than other slave owners, but nevertheless find it necessary to use harsh and debilitating punishments to deter escapes and extract enough labor from their slaves to run their plantation.

So think of this novel as a thought experiment: could chattel slavery be acceptable to those familiar with the reality of it, and ultimately to a wide and diverse group of inquirers confronted with all the available evidence, and allowed to engage in critical discussion of the evidence? Any case I could imagine where critical and informed discussion of chattel slavery led to broad approval would be one in which things I now believe to be true would have to be false. For example, one or more of the following claims would need to be false to make this thought experiment coherent: that chattel slavery inevitably involves high levels of suffering and exploitation, that people generally are somewhat sensitive to the suffering of others, that ordinary notions of justice and fairness carry some weight with thoughtful people who are not under great stress, and so on.

So the thought experiment "imagine the world as you now know it and then imagine that in this world people, including many slaves, approve of slavery" is defective. Because the world as we now know it (or "the known world" represented by the novel) is not a world in which chattel slavery can exist without significant suffering and unfairness, and in which informed and critically engaged people would agree to this practice (in the novel, the black slave owner's parents, who purchased their son's freedom, disapprove of their son's slave-owning). So your thought experiment must be "imagine a world different from the one in which we live in the relevant ways, and now imagine that in this world, a broad and diverse group of informed, intelligent, and critically engaged people approve of slavery."

But this thought experiment doesn’t meet the social constructivist’s conditions for knowledge about the status of chattel slavery in this world, given its tragic consequences, in the world as we know it. Moreover, a debate among people indifferent to the suffering of others or unresponsive to notions of fairness and justice would not meet the social constructivist’s conditions for knowledge. Social constructivists need not assume that, in general, people are highly sensitive to the suffering of others or strongly responsive to ideas of fairness, but we can trust that most people under normal conditions will not be completely indifferent to these. This trust in the considered judgments of ordinary people, under good but less than ideal conditions, combined with an inclination to check our assumptions against actual cases, is no less rational than trusting our ordinary intuitions when tested only against hypothetical cases that we construct. The hypothetical worlds we construct to test our beliefs may not be the world in which these beliefs really need to be tested—i.e., the world in which we live and in which they will ultimately be tested if we act on them.

So to answer your questions: (1) yes we can stipulate how agreement is reached in hypothetical cases, but the cases we stipulate may have little relation to the world we live in. (2) Should the social constructivist’s conditions for knowledge or truth genuinely be fulfilled, then the social constructivist is committed to saying that the consensus represents our current best understanding, until new data or new perspectives are introduced. But the cases we’ve conjured so far about slavery do not meet these conditions, because the issue is whether slavery could be right in this world, and not some other weird world that the clever philosopher makes up. (3) Even where the conditions for knowledge are met, rational dissent is possible. I may recognize the validity of the current consensus but be uneasy with it, though I may not yet be able to identify a flaw in how it was reached. Yet my uneasiness with the consensus may lead me to continue searching for a flaw, and to believe that I will find it if I keep looking. My search may also lead me to introduce alternative views for critical commentary. When I’m in this position, I can’t claim my view is superior, but I need not accept that the current consensus is a stable and lasting one.


From what you say in the penultimate paragraph, I'm no longer sure that we share the same understanding of what constitutes a constructivist view of normative truth. I would have thought that a condition on any truly constructivist account of normative truth is that it not express or rely on any normative judgments in describing the features that constitute normative truth. But if I understand you correctly, the consensus that is relevant for determining normative truth is the one that is reached by people who judge that there is prima facie reason not to perform actions that cause suffering or that are unjust. What is the rationale for this condition, other than that it is true that there is prima facie reason not to perform actions that cause suffering or are unjust? But the constructivist cannot give this rationale, since it employs the concept of normative truth, which is just what the constructivist is trying to explain.

Is the rationale instead that actual people care about these things? But this won't help the constructivist in determining whether slavery is wrong under conditions in which most people don't care about these things. The point of raising such hypothetical cases is to help us determine whether our trust in the considered judgments of normal people expresses confidence that in our current conditions their judgments are merely a reliable indicator of normative truth or whether it indicates that we implicitly accept the stronger claim that their judgments constitute the normative truth.

Nishi, I guess I'm just not sure what moral rules should hold in a world where most people are sociopaths. I take it you hold it to be self evidently "true that there is a prima facie reason not to perform actions that cause suffering or are unjust." This truth is perhaps derivable from the basic principles of rationality or morality, or the meanings of the constituent terms. The very certainty and universality that follows from your rationalistic view can be useful for raising moral standards and launching moral campaigns, but moral certainty can also lead to moral crusades and an inability to contextualize one's views and understand their limited reach. Perhaps what it comes down to is a different conception of how to address moral problems. The rationalist thinks appealing to reason and intuitions will cure the world's ills, while the social constructivist thinks that mutual understanding through critical engagement will work better.


I've found your exchange with Jussi and Nishi very interesting.

Let me suggest a reason why you should pay more attention to merely hypothetical situations, which you seemed to be dismissing as unimportant. Suppose it's true, as you seem to concede, that there are possible worlds in which a certain practice -- e.g. slavery -- is not morally right despite being favoured by social consensus. Then, even if all and only morally right practices are favoured by social consensus in the actual world, that connection between moral rightness and social consensus is a merely contingent, accidental one. As it happens, perhaps, there is such a connection; but there might not have been. Presumably, however, social constructivists aspire to do more than merely identify a contingent, accidental feature of moral rightness.


To say "all and only morally right practices are favoured by social consensus in the actual world" seems to suggest that you have some independent way of picking out the class of morally right practices. Also to say that we might "aspire to do more than merely identify a contingent, accidental feature of moral rightness" seems to suggest that moral analysis is a conceptual enterprise--one in which we seek to understand some abstract idea, such as 'moral rightness'. I'm trying to see how far I can get by being a thorough-going naturalist about ethical knowledge. For a naturalist, a hypothetical case is like a simulated experiment, but the simulation should match as closely as possible the features of the world whose rules we seek to discover. You’re right, then, that the knowledge we achieve is always contingent, or relative to a particular frame, and we will discover no necessary moral truths. I don’t find this to be too problematic, that our moral knowledge may not apply to all times and places. I wish more people would approach moral disputes with a sense of the historical and cultural contingency of their beliefs. When I think about moral debates taking place in our society—over abortion, marriage, preemptive war, and so on—I worry less that each side will recognize the contingency of their position (and therefore be genuinely willing to consider alternative points of view) than that each side will think its truths are unshakeable.

Here's a one way of thinking about the dispute. Maybe we can accept for the sake of the argument that some actual consensus mathes with what things are right and wrong. This would imply that biconditionals of the form:

X is F iff the community C agrees that X is F.

The dispute we are having is about order of explanation here. We can ask the Euthyphro question - Is X F because the community C agrees that X is F or do community C agree that X is F because X is F? Another way of putting the same contrast is to ask whether the consensus determines the extension of Fness or whether it merely tracks that extension that is independently fixed. I find the second choices much more plausible than the first as shown by the relevant thought-experiments. It is odd to think that it would be impossible for the consensus to be wrong about moral issues. And, so far there hasn't been any arguments why we should think that the projectivist reading from the consensus would be right.

To do conceptual analysis with the help of thought-experiments anywhere has nothing to do with naturalism issues. That is just a way of elucidating the conceptual framework we actually have and to what those terms apply. Naturalists have always used the same strategy - see the work of Frank Jackson for instance. How things are in the actual world just is not the only possibility of how its natural features could be.

I think a social constructivist can go either way on the Euthyphro question. To say that knowledge is constituted through social practices is not to say there are no outside constraints. For example, one could be a metaphysical agnostic or a critical realist, and hold that our knowledge of any mind-independent world is inevitably shaped by social conventions (i.e., there's no point of view we can assume from outside some set of conventions, esp. if we include one's natural language(s) as part of any set). A social consensus can represent the best theory we have at the moment, and still be proved wrong at some point in the future because new evidence or points of view may be introduced.

I agree that thought experiments are useful to conceptual analysis, but we were talking about moral analysis which is not necessarily the same thing.


I find a lot of what you say in your response puzzling. But let me focus on just the first sentence.

Consider this statement:

(1) All and only morally right practices are favoured by social consensus.

You give the impression that you think (1) an inappropriate thing to say, because to say it would be to 'suggest' something implausible, that there is 'some independent way of picking out the class of morally right practices.' Does this mean you think that (1) is false? And if so, which of (2) and (3) do you reject?

(2) All morally right practices are favoured by social consensus.
(3) All practices favoured by social consensus are morally right.

Suppose you reject both. Then, it seems, your social constructivism can amount to little more than the very weak and uncontroversial view that some practice is both morally right and favoured by social consensus. But who would deny that?

On the other hand, you might think that (1) is true, though inappropriate to say on pragmatic grounds. But then, given you've conceded that (1) is not necessarily true, I wonder how you could be confident that it's true. If there is some possible world in which, say, some practice is not right despite its being favoured by social consensus, how can you be confident that the actual world is not such a world?

Well, how interesting thesis social constructivism is seems to depend on the way the constructivist goes in the Euthyphro contrast. If the constructivist goes the tracking/realist way, then the constructivist is only making an empirical claim of how people came to have the moral beliefs they have. That doesn't solve any questions in moral epistemology, especially the normative question of how go about best figuring out how the normative reality is. Given that the constructuvist now accepts the realist world-view, the answer that the best way to be in touch with the true moral order is to ask people what they actually think is quite dubious. If the other, projectivist way of understanding the Euthyphro contrast was plausible, then constructivist would be making at least an interesting claim of how the moral order of the world ultimately is a social construction.

Here's something that also has started to bother me in the idea. There is no actual moral consensus. Take any moral claim and there are actual people who disagree. Now, the social constructivist claim is that moral knowledge is constituted through actual consensus. At this point something has to give. Either there is no moral knowledge - a bit of a bullet to bite - or the we have a recuctio for the constructivist claim.


The claim that a social constructivist must believe something like (1) is a straw person argument. As I’ve indicated above in my answer to Nishi, this represents an oversimplification and distortion of the constructivist view. Then to say, if you reject (1), you must believe (2) or (3), is just a false dilemma. The only thing I think you can logically conclude from the fact that I don’t subscribe to any of the overly simplified reconstructions you’ve offered is, not that the position is weak, but that it is just more complicated.


Why do you hold “that the best way to be in touch with the true moral order is to ask people what they actually think is quite dubious”? If you’re claiming that constructivists must accept whatever people happen to think, then, yes, it is dubious. But if you’re claiming that the aggregated and considered views of ordinary people (that meet constructivist criteria of rationality and objectivity) are irrelevant to moral knowledge, then I wonder what you’re doing when you test our “ordinary” intuitions?

Regarding the issue of whether we have moral knowledge, you seem to be opposing two extreme views: either we have moral knowledge (some of our moral claims are true for all times and places) or we don’t. As I’ve indicated above, the constructivist holds that when a broad consensus exists and has been reached in the right sort of way, then this represents our current best theory about what is right or wrong. But knowledge is always provisional and partial. Since no consensus could ever consider every point of view (of which there is an infinite or indefinite number) and since no consensus could ever consider all experiences (since some have not yet occurred), then any consensus is subject to retesting. To say we don’t have a consensus, because on any moral issue some people will disagree is to imply that a consensus must be unanimous to count. But why must this be so?


Then to say, if you reject (1), you must believe (2) or (3), is just a false dilemma.
No, that's not what Campbell said. Look, (1) is the conjunction of (2) and (3), so if (1) is false then either (2) or (3) is false. Campbell was just asking which of (2) and (3) you think is false.


I find the second choices [i.e. that the left side of the biconditional explains the right] moral much more plausible than the first as shown by the relevant thought-experiments. It is odd to think that it would be impossible for the consensus to be wrong about moral issues.

Isn't that a non sequitur? You seem to think that the biconditional
X is F iff the community C agrees that X is F.
is necessary if the explanation goes in one direction and contingent if it goes in the other direction. But why should that be? The modal strength of the biconditional seems like it should be independent of the direction of explanation.


You're right, I was conflating several steps in Campbell's objection. Campbell says, if you don't accept (1) then you must reject (2) or (3) or both. If you reject both, then your view amounts to no more than "some practice is both morally right and favoured by social consensus." It's in the latter set of alternatives that I find a false dilemma. I don't think it's fair to say that the constructivist view amounts to no more than the consequent of this conditional.

The constructivist view is both stronger and weaker than the alternative Campbell offers. It is stronger in the sense that it limits the class of things we can claim to know to those things around which we have built a certain kind of consensus. It is weaker in the sense that, even when a social consensus of the right sort is reached, we can't say a practice is morally right absolutely, or for all and any contexts.


I remember Wright making the claim that the modal status of these conditions is at least some evidence for the direction of explanation. Maybe there is some kind of an argument to the best explanation behind this. If the biconditional is necessarily true, then the projectivist has an explanation for this - the 'facts' are results of the consensus. If there were consensus-independent facts that the consensus merely tracked well and the biconditional was necessary, then we would like to hear some sort of explanation for the infallible ability the consensus has for tracking the facts. Failing such explanation, given the necessity of the biconditional, projectivism seems more plausible as it doesn't have the same explanatory burden. If the biconditional on the other hand is merely contingent, then it would be odd how the consensus could in some circumstances project the facts to the world and fail to do so elsewhere. The realist tracking view seems to have easier time explaining why the consensus could in some circumstances fail in matching what is out there. Even though this sounds somewhat plausible to me, maybe it is just Wright talking in me.

I see. So, when the community tracks, the biconditional could be nomic but not, say, metaphysically necessary; when the community constitutes then we're talking metaphysical necessity. That means the explanations are of two different kinds -- so the Euthyphro question is a little misleading.

We can restore symmetry, I bet, by adding 'under suitable conditions' to the right side, which then makes the biconditional much more plausible (in the ethical case) anyway. No constructivist thinks that drunk, or systematically deceived, or ... communities are authoritative over moral matters, I'd say. So, then you have metaphysical (constituting) necessity no matter which direction the explanation goes.


that sounds right. Laurie however wanted the consensus to be of the actual non-idealised kind and I tried to argue that this will not be plausible. Most constructivists want to add suitable conditions to get the biconditionals to hold by necessity by talking for instance of principle which no-one can *reasonably* reject. The problem for the constructivist is to characterise the suitable conditions in a way that does not use any moral terms. If you do that, then a) you are assuming real moral properties for characterising the suitable conditions (in which case your anti-realism is questionable) and b) the necessity is quaranteed trivially. Much of my own work at the moment is to try to avoid these horns of a dilemma - to get a type of constructivism going that plausibly gives the necessity of the relevant bi-conditionals without assuming moral terms in the description of the idealising conditions.


I'm sure social constructivism is very complicated. I was simplifying on purpose. I thought we could use the phrase 'favoured by social consensus' as a kind of shorthand for the much longer, and more complicated condition, with all the necessary bells and whistles, that you endorse. It's easier to discuss the view if we have a simple, shorthand way of expressing it.

Jamie says to Jussi:

You seem to think that the biconditional ... is necessary if the explanation goes in one direction and contingent if it goes in the other direction. But why should that be?

Perhaps Jussi has something like the following argument in mind, where B is the biconditional "X is morally right iff the community agrees that X is morally right".

(a) If B is necessary, then either the community makes morality (i.e. X is morally right because the community agrees it is), or the community tracks morality (i.e. the community agrees that X is morally right because it is).

(b) If the community makes morality, then it's possible that the community agrees that genocide is morally right.

(c) It's not possible that genocide is morally right.

(d) B is necessary only if the community tracks morality.

I’m wondering if the debate we’re having here just reflects two paradigm-dependent views about moral judgment. Each view is coherent and consistent, but they have different advantages and disadvantages. On an “ideal procedural” view of moral judgment, the agreements reached reflect positions that should hold universally and absolutely. The main advantage of this, as one human rights activist suggested to me, is that public recognition of universal human rights provides a strong club to swing at perpetrators of evil. The problem with this view is how to get people to recognize as legitimate the outcomes of our ideal procedure—i.e., to see the force of the moral judgments reached. How do we get people to realize that the ideals reflected in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not just Eurocentric sticks to swing at political and cultural opponents?

One advantage of the constructivist view is that we focus on facilitating dialog among actual people and groups (and the institutional reforms needed to achieve this), and not on a set of ideal interlocutors under ideal conditions. By focusing on actual consensus-building with interlocutors under less than ideal conditions (i.e., who haven’t been stripped of their cultural and other identities), the agreements reached have a greater legitimacy. If what we hope to achieve in ethics is not the discovery of abstract truths but engagement with our fellow humans to develop binding rules of conduct, then the constructivist, pragmatic approach to ethics seems more promising. The main disadvantage though, like any collectivist endeavor, is that the work is slow, inefficient, and dialog can break down.

Perhaps what it comes down to, then, is which approach will be more effective in combating the recognized ills and evils in this world. Many feminists find the pragmatic constructivist approach promising because we’re interested in achieving the institutional reforms that permit a diversity of perspectives to be heard, and we’re suspicious of claims to objectivity made by individuals in positions of authority. Also, constructivism has been useful in exposing the ways that science has been deployed to legitimate social prejudice rather than challenge it. What are the accomplishments of more rationalistic approaches to ethics? Do moral philosophers offer moral wisdom or admonishment to the ruling classes in the hope that their rule will be more benevolent or benign (assuming the ruling classes read philosophers anymore)? Or should moral philosophers aspire to be public intellectuals, like Cornel West, and bring more groups into public dialog?


I don't share your view about what we are doing when we take part in moral philosophy. I don't think that philosophers have any exclusive access to moral truths or that the point of philosophy is to make people better or to see that murdering is wrong. I don't think there is much ethical expertise and few ethicists have made the claim for such during the last century or so. Most people see their philosophical project as a higher level project of trying to achieve self-understanding about what is going on in our moral practices. But, this is not to deny that many prominent philosophers have made great contributions to the public life of our society (without basing it on their theoretical philosophical work) - take Russell and Dummett for instance.

But, I do share your noble aims. I'm just afraid that constructivism does not help to achieve them. I also don't see how any actual agreements would have greater legitimacy. So, imagine that I was oppresed woman in a strict Islamic society. First of all, it is likely that I would see nothing wrong with my position but rather think that it is given for me in the word of the God. Does my agreeing to the order make it right? Even if I'm not complaining, shouldn't we take into account the complaint I would be entitled to make. Second, even if I would disagree with the position the society imposes on me, I would be in the worst and weakest position to bargain for an actual consensus that would be more just for me. The cost of failing to reach a consensus for me would be much worse for me than for those already hold the best positions. For this reason, they could blackmail me to accept agreements that are really unfair to me. This is the insight in the work of Rawls we should not overlook no matter what we think of his framework. So, my worry is that the constructivist views are the ones that are most likely to leave the weakest in the society most exploited.

Thanks Jussi, this helps me see where our disagreements are. The debate we’re having, then, is basically the debate that the feminist political theorist Susan Okin had with opponents to the view she stated in “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women”(Okin shared your view).

Actual agreements have legitimacy to those who can participate in negotiating them. So let’s take the case you raise of an oppressed woman in a strict Islamic society. You seem to be imagining the kind of case where women might accept a practice that oppresses them because they can’t, without great risk, speak out against it. Your case raises a real problem, which is how do we determine whether a consensus represents the perspectives of all those affected by a practice. In a society where women are not permitted to participate in the public sphere, we should question whether any official policy represents the sort of consensus we want. So what should we do when confronted with some possible form of oppression that is not being resisted by those who are oppressed? Do we substitute our own judgments for the oppressed, or do we seek ways to allow the oppressed to be heard without risking punishment?

For example, on the issue of veiling, do I assume that Muslim women who accept or defend veiling are doing so from coercion or self-deception? I’d rather not make this assumption and instead try to access the “self-understandings” of women who veil. There may be some aspects of veiling that I fail to notice because I don’t have experience with it or I’m not familiar with what it symbolizes in different contexts. Although I may not have direct access to the views of women who veil, we have ethnographic studies, and we have women who veil or come from societies that veil who are speaking about veiling in public contexts where they are not at great risk. Should they speak in favor of veiling in terms that make sense to me, this doesn’t mean that I then accept veiling. But it does obligate me to look for other evidence that veiling practices are oppressive. Alternatively, should they condemn veiling, then I’m committed to helping them get their voices heard in the relevant contexts.

On your view, do we simply skip the step of trying to access the perspectives of the allegedly oppressed, and simply ask ourselves how would we feel if we had to veil? If we decide we don’t like it, then do we try to get social change by admonishing from afar those who veil and their practice?

No, we don't. We ask what kind of burdens does wearing the veil impose on the person who is required to carry the veil by the society. These burdens should not be too hard to find. They are the kind of burdens any reasonable person would complain against if imposed on her - lack of ability for self-expression, lack of possibility for autonous decision making, and so on. How I would feel in the situation is neither here or there. We then see if anyone would be forced to bear similar burdens if wearing the veil or not doing so was completely free for anyone to choose. If not, then the burdens imposed by that society is unjustifiable on grounds everyone could accept and therefore the practice is wrong. If the society made it a free choice and exerted no pressure whatsoever and tolerated and provided information about variety of ways to live and someone still choce to wear the veil, then I would not think she is necessarily wronged. But if we are talking about burkhas, then I think the burden would be unjustifiable in any case, even if volunteered for.

Suppose we helped the oppressed women in Islamic countries to get their real voices heard without any repercussions. I'm not sure how that would be help that society any closer to a *consensus*. On the contrary, we would have more disagreement. Of course, the women would be right about the matter but that wouldn't be here or there on your view where moral knowledge requires consensus. I'm happy to say they are right, full stop, even if they fail to convince the majority of their view.


You changed the example I gave. I didn't ask about forced veiling, but about whether, in societies where veiling is practiced, it is practiced by consent or always under coercion, and how do we tell the difference? Where force or coercion is used, then it's easy to object to the practice. But how do we know whether force or coercion is being used? And when European societies impose non-veiling on Muslim women, do you find this coercive and oppressive?

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