Skip to main content

Again with the Four-Part Question

Susan Haack.JPG

Another candidate.

As some of you may remember, I've been wondering aloud for some time whether there are any prominent ethical/meta-ethical philosophers active today who fit each of four labels in those fields that seem to me to go together rather naturally.

Maybe Susan Haack would qualify. I recently reviewed a work of hers on the philosophy of the law of evidence, and in the process I expounded on her epistemology, "foundherentism." The idea is that learning about the world is like filling in a crossword puzzle. There is the foundational matter of satisfying the clues that come in from your senses (from outside the grid of the puzzle) and there is the coherentist matter of maintaining consistency within the grid, because of course the words cross each other.

What occurred to me only after my review was published was that it is in principle possible that certain crossword puzzles will have more than one perfectly correct answer.

Indeed, this is sometimes done. I remember that for the morning of election day, 1996, someone cleverly devised a puzzle that included the clue, "tomorrow's headline." The puzzle was so arranged that either "BobDoleWins" or "ClintonWins" could fit into that spot.   This required ambivalence as to each of seven crossing words.

For example, one clue for a crossing word asked for the name of an "animal associated with recent holiday." The recent holiday was Halloween. The animal could be either "cat" or "bat," consistent with one or the other of the two possible results of the as-yet-undecided election.

Anyway, the thing can be done. And THIS got me to thinking about what Haack might say about ethical pluralism.

As a reminder, I've asked before whether any contemporary philosophers adhere to the following four positions in ethics/meta-ethics:

1) cognitivist -- we do have knowledge of the good and the right;
2) intuitionist -- some components of this knowledge are both non-sensory and non-inferential (i.e. Moore's notion of the good);
3) teleological -- we infer the right rationally, learning its consequences for the good, but;
4) pluralist -- there may be more than one equally fundamental right. I have in mind Isaiah Berlin's thoughts on crooked timber, tragedy, etc.

Haack's image of a crossword puzzle seems consistent with this combination. Consider pluralism especially. There is no a priori reason to believe that there is only one way of completely filling out the pertinent crossword puzzle. We can get to Berlin's notion of the tragic side of life if we acknowledge 1 - 3, plus this founherentist indeterminacy.


After I wrote this I decided to solicit Dr. Haack's opinion directly. she kindly replied. She does not meet this test. She is "probably" on board with cognitivism in ethics and a pluralism, but wouldn't sign on to (2) or (3).

She also writes, "please be aware that the crossword is only an analogy: the theory must stand on its own feet, and there are bound to be elements of disanalogy (e.g., sadly, no solution in tomorrow's paper!)"


Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …