As a philosopher of mind Kant was beyond brilliant. As an ethicist he was an idiot.

Kant asks us to consider two scenarios: I steal your wallet, you steal mine. If I think the one is okay, I have to think the other is too.


“Well, because they’re the same.”

No they’re not. In fact I can’t think of two scenarios more different from each other. In the first case I end up with my money plus yours, and in the second I end up with neither. In what pair of possible worlds are these two the same?

“No no no, you misunderstand. The two cases are morally indistinguishable. They’re morally indistinguishable because morality must be blind to indexicals.”

Okay, so replace the indexicals with proper names and we still have the same problem. In the one case Paul ends up with his own money plus Peter’s, in the other he ends up with neither.

Let it be granted that one of the axiom driving morality – in fact it drives all of our inductive reasoning – is treat like cases alike. But the work to be done here is fixing on the respect in which, for moral purposes, the two cases are alike. Kant doesn’t tell us. Nor, with the sparse resources he allows himself, can he. So his is a pseudo-theory. It purports to say something when it really says nothing at all.

This is not to say there couldn’t be a respect in which two cases are morally indistinguishable. In fact there has to be, since otherwise moral discourse could be nothing more than casuistry. And if it’s just casuistry then we’re all just flapping our gums.

For example, I want to say that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza is morally indistinguishable from the Nazi treatment of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. If we’re just counting properties, the two cases have orders-of-magnitude-more unshared properties than properties in common. And yet I claim they’re morally equivalent. You and I can dispute this, but if so we’re disputing what counts as a moral property, or more likely we’re agreeing about that but disagreeing as to whether that property is in fact present in both cases.

Suppose, for example, the agreed-upon property is the intentional targeting of non-combatants. You argue, appealing perhaps to the Principle of Double Effect, that those non-combatants killed by the Israeli shelling of Gaza are collateral damage. I counter that the intention of an action is not what’s in the mind of the actor but rather that in virtue of which tokens of the action-type self-replicate. Thus the intention of the shelling of an apartment building in Gaza is not the killing of the Hamas leader who may be having his breakfast there – he’ll be replaced within the hour – but rather the terrorizing of the Palestinian population by the slaughter of the fourteen children sitting around the table with him. No one, from the gunner all the way up to the Prime Minister, needs to harbor that intention in his mind, not even subconsciously. But it’s that that’s driving the shelling, and therefore it’s that that’s the intention behind it.

Again, we can disagree about this. Or we can agree but then you’ll find some other unshared property by which to distinguish the two cases. And every time you do I’ll try to collapse the distinction. And so on it’ll go.

If I’m pro-Choice and you’re pro-Life, I’ll make heavy weather of the location of the fetus, to distinguish it morally from a newborn, whereas you’ll challenge the moral relevance of location. If I concede the irrelevance of location I’ll appeal instead to the fetus having no self-concept, and then you’ll point out that neither does a newborn. And so on it’ll go.

But my purpose here is to talk more generally. I want to call the claim that two things are normatively equivalent – if one is justified so is the other, if one isn’t neither is the other – the symmetry thesis. And so by the asymmetry thesis I’ll mean simply the denial of the symmetry thesis. The dead giveaway that someone’s about to deploy the asymmetry thesis is the phrase, “Oh but that’s different!” I use it all the time to defend why I can interrupt my wife when she’s writing but she can’t interrupt me. It’s what we do, because we’re human, and because, well, that’s what humans do.

But it’s not the claims and counterclaims regarding moral equivalences that I want to talk about here. Rather I want to talk about equivalences, or the lack thereof, between claims of doxastic warrant. To explain:

A way of coming to believe some proposition has epistemic warrant – and so beliefs thus arrived at have epistemic warrant – is the degree to which that way is likely to get at the truth. A way of coming to believe some proposition has doxastic warrant – and so beliefs thus arrived at have doxastic warrant – is the degree to which one would be well-advised to believe a proposition thus acquired. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the two coincide. But there are occasions of not inconsiderable import when they don’t.

Believing in the historicity of the Holocaust on no more grounds than “I’ve heard tell of it” has virtually no epistemic warrant, but it has doxastic warrant in spades. Why? Because were I to announce that I’m as yet unconvinced about the historicity of the Holocaust, I can pretty much forget about ever getting another dinner invitation in this town. And since merely faking belief in the Holocaust is a burden without compensatory payoff, I might just as well simply believe it, which is precisely what I’ve done.

Which is precisely all you’ve done. Neither of us has put any epistemic labour into the matter because epistemic labour is expensive. Expending resources to acquire what one can have for free would be stupid. And expending resources to run the risk of discovering what one would prefer not to discover is doubly stupid, because it’s double the cost, since now one has to either a) unlearn what she’s just learned, or else b) dissimulate about it, or else c) bear the burden of being a social pariah.

This much, I suspect, will be granted. We don’t investigate the historicity of the Holocaust because that way there be nothing but dragons. But what I want to argue now is that for most of us – by which I mean ordinary doxastic agents like you and me – falling into the same doxastic category as the historicity of the Holocaust are anthropogenic global warming (AGW), vaccination safety, the abject depravity of the Koch brothers, and so on. All and only what hangs on your beliefs or mine about these things is whether we can expect any more dinner invitations.

Not so, you insist. That this is so of your subscription to the historicity of the Holocaust you can’t deny. You’ve read nothing about it – certainly nothing from any Holocaust denier – and you know better than to ever do so in the future. But, you insist, you have done your homework on your Precious, which, let’s suppose, is AGW. You’ve read a whole bookshelf on the subject. It’s true that you haven’t read any of the so-called denialist literature, but only because it’s all been refuted by the books you have read. You’ve attended religiously to the blogosphere, especially desmogblog.com. In short, you’re not a climatologist, but, dammit, you’re an informed citizen, in much the way that AGW deniers clearly are not.

But why are they clearly not? They’ve certainly read as many books on the subject as you have, in fact probably more, since each step in hiking up an incline demands more effort than walking down it or on the flats. Just like the fundamentalist Christian with her morning Bible reading, and just like you with your desmogblog.com, they too start their day reading their favorite blogs, they too …

“Oh but that’s different.”

How so?

“Because they’re being mis-informed.”

By whom?

“By shills hired by the Koch brothers.”

But aren’t the scientists and lay authors you’re dittoing also paid to do what they do and report what they report?

“Oh but that’s different. They’re not being told what their research has to show.”

The Koch brothers actually tell their shills what to find and report?

“Well maybe not, but everyone knows that he who pays the piper calls the tune.”

And the AGW asserter scientists march to their own drummer, do they? How exactly does one apply for yet another NSERC grant for a problem he’s just reported doesn’t exist? And while we’re at it, are you saying the Koch brothers care more for a few more shekels in their already bulging-at-the-seams bank accounts than the survival of their own grandchildren? Can they really be such monsters?

Keep pushing and yes, it’s precisely this difference that all this “Oh but that’s different!” will come down to. We’re the good guys, they’re the baddies.

And therein lies the problem. It’s that the baddies say precisely the same thing about the goodies. And this presents the rest of us – those of us listening in on this cross-screeching – with something of a Euthyphro problem. Each is claiming that it’s the other guy who’s evil, the proof of which being that he’s trying to deceive us. But we can’t know who’s trying to deceive us without knowing what’s true independently of being told what’s true. And we can’t know that without putting our trust in people we’re being told not to put our trust in.

And so what do we do? We do the only thing we can do. We stop asking which claim has the greater epistemic warrant. Instead we simply ask which has the greater doxastic warrant. And the one with the greater doxastic warrant is the one the subscription to which gets us the most dinner invitations.

You say you’ve come by your belief in AGW differently, and you proceed to tell me how. And when I point out to you that that’s precisely how the AGW denier claims she came to her belief, I know exactly what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, “Oh but that’s different.” And when I push that putative difference far enough, and you’re too embarrassed to admit your views are just a matter of your tribal affiliation, you’re going to accuse me of being a skeptic, or a nihilist, or a relativist – whatever that means but you won’t say – or you’ll change the subject, or you’ll just decide I’m no fun to talk to anymore.

I know whereof I speak. I’ve been through this with pro-Lifers and with pro-Choicers, with AGW asserters and with AGW deniers, with 9/11-Truthers and with Holocaust deniers. The invoking of the asymmetry thesis respects no partisan boundaries.

You can argue with the True Believer for only so long, and then you just have to give up. I’m trying to train myself to recognize the signs so I can pull out earlier. But if you’ve been reading this blog you’ve probably noticed this effort isn’t going well.

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy

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1 reply

  1. You wrote, “As a philosopher of mind Kant was beyond brilliant. ”

    What is that which you most appreciate in Kant’s philosophy of mind?


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