Hi all –

I'm very pleased to welcome Elizabeth Anderson to PEA Soup for a round of featured philosophizing.  Liz is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Rawls Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies, and is an extremely exciting figure in political philosophy and ethics more generally.  We're very happy to have her here!  Her post is below the fold.


Hello to all PEA Soup visitors!  I’m going to tell you about my current project, on the
history of egalitarianism from the Levellers to the present. 


First, a bit of background and motivation.  Many of you might know my interest in
egalitarianism from “What
is the Point of Equality?
”, which criticizes contemporary post-Rawlsian
luck egalitarianism and advances a relational view of equality, called
democratic equality.  On my view,
the fundamental egalitarian aim is not to distribute particular non-relational
goods equally, but to construct a free society of equals, to design
institutions so that the members of society can relate to each other on terms
of equality.  Distributive justice
is instrumental to this aim and partially constitutive of it, but the concerns
of equality go well beyond distribution.  Fundamentally, egalitarians aim to break down social
hierarchy and replace it with institutions in which people interact as equals,
or, if that is impossible, at least to limit
the scope of hierarchy
to its necessary functions.  Much of my subsequent work has been
devoted to thinking through what institutions can move this agenda forward, in
the context of profound relational inequalities that track intersecting social
identities of race,
and other bases of social hierarchy. 
My methodology is pragmatist, moderately naturalized, non-ideal, and
stresses the importance of doing political philosophy in close engagement with
research in the social sciences.


The pragmatist tradition in which I work, coming from Dewey
and Mill,
holds that people can learn about morality not just in thought experiments, but
in experiments in living.  They can
test their moral principles by living in accordance with them and (roughly)
seeing whether following these principles solves or manages their moral
problems in a satisfactory way. 
Unsatisfactory outcomes may lead people to modify their principles or
revisit their original understandings of the problem at hand, perhaps devising
new normative concepts to reframe their predicament in more compelling,
empirically adequate, or tractable ways.


This pragmatist idea can itself be empirically tested.  We can look to history and see if people
really have improved their moral ideas, or learned moral lessons, through
experiments in living.  The test of
improvement is not by the lights of a standard of success external to practice,
but internal to practice itself, as I explain here.


The history of egalitarianism is full of experiments in
living, often self-consciously understood as such by their participants.  So it is rich field for exploring what
lessons we can draw about the prospects of different institutional designs for
realizing a free community of equals (an ideal that is itself constantly
redrawn in light of egalitarian experiments).  For example, egalitarians have repeatedly turned to the idea
of the commune as a model of egalitarian life:  the counterculture communes of the 60s, Israeli kibbutzim,
Brook Farm, the Oneida community, and so forth.  Most of these have not survived, or have become less
egalitarian over time.  It is
important to understand both why egalitarians have repeatedly turned to this
model, and why it fails.


Since this is a huge project, more than one book, I am
breaking it down into smaller pieces. 
Right now I’m working on two egalitarian movements:  17th c. English Levellers,
and 19th c. radical abolitionists.  I’m reading the arguments they made in the context of their
actual practices, to recover the interaction of theory and practice among
egalitarian activists.


The Levellers demanded a republican form of government with
a nearly universal male franchise, abolition of the House of Lords, equality
under the law, and religious toleration—all radical ideas at the time.  I encourage you to read their sharp and
gripping debates
with Cromwell and Ireton at Putney in 1647
, recorded verbatim, for a taste
of what they were up to.  Was this
just utopian dreaming, or did they have a basis in experience for thinking that
such a mode of government could secure social order on satisfactory terms?  Well, it’s worth noting that the
Levellers tended to belong to independent sects such as the Baptists and Quakers.  These sects devised even more radically
egalitarian modes of church governance than what the Levellers demanded for the
state.  They took Luther’s
“priesthood of all believers” literally, and rejected the clergy, insisting
that each individual had equal authority to interpret the Bible and to know
God.   Anyone could stand up
and preach!  Lay sermons would be
followed by discussion and challenges among the members, much like philosophy
talks today.  Women spoke up; some
gathered huge audiences.  People
learned that they didn’t need a church hierarchy—neither a system of bishops,
as in the Anglican and Catholic churches, nor even a representative system of
elders, as in the Presbyterian churches—to govern their spiritual lives.  They could govern themselves.  And if, in spiritual matters,
individuals could govern themselves and interact as members with equal
authority, why couldn’t they establish a more egalitarian system of governance
for the state?


It should therefore not be surprising that the abolitionist
movement also originated among the Quakers, and picked up by radical
evangelical Protestants in the U.S. and England.  Not all anti-slavery activists were egalitarians.  But many of the most uncompromising
ones—people like Douglass, Tubman, Garrison, and the Grimké sisters—were
serious not only about racial equality, but gender and class equality as well.
I’m interested in how the assault on slavery by radical abolitionists and by the
slaves themselves ultimately prevailed, not only in law but in moral
conviction.  Three and a half
centuries ago most free people accepted slavery as justified; today it is
condemned worldwide. From a naturalized perspective on moral epistemology, I am
investigating how contention over slavery not just in pure moral argument but
in deed—through testimony, petitions, lawsuits, political campaigns, demonstrations,
dramas, subversion, and rebellion—can transform moral consciousness through
processes that count as moral learning.


One of the most fun things about this project is getting
beyond the canon.  There is plenty
of philosophical interest in pamphlets, petitions, prisoners’ letters, sermons,
dramas, satires, lawsuits, campaign speeches, slave narratives, broadsheets,
and other writings, where egalitarian writing is often vivid, witty, and
engaging.  For a sampler, you can
try Richard Overton’s “An Arrow against
all Tyrants, shot from the prison of Newgate into the prerogative bowels
of the arbitrary House of Lords and all other usurpers and tyrants whatsoever

(1646).  Just roll that off your
tongue and feel the righteousness behind that brilliant title!  And then you can go back to a canonical
author such as Locke, see him appropriating and refining arguments made
earlier, and realize that he is a more radical figure than he is made out to be
in most contemporary interpretations.


I welcome your questions and comments!


22 Replies to “Featured Philosopher: Elizabeth Anderson

  1. How do you see market economics play across these egalitarian projects? I ask because Mill seems broadly sympathetic to free markets as compatible with democracy (given some redistributive measures such as limiting bequest), and Rawls explicitly favors competitive markets (again, within limits). Nevertheless, income inequality can work against fair equality of opportunity if, say, education opportunities are affected by economic status.

  2. Hi Michael,
    That is a terrific question, in fact one of the biggest questions in the entire history of egalitarianism. The Levellers favored free trade. That’s because they were typically small artisans and farmers who were oppressed by monopoly privileges that the King had granted to his favorite merchants and manufacturers. I have recently taken a careful survey of every single criticism Adam Smith made of state intervention in markets in *The Wealth of Nations.* *Every* criticism he made was of state intervention that favored the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and middle classes. Smith made a powerful case that, since it was the rich and powerful who were the advisors and lobbying powers behind state policy, getting the state out of the business of rigging the rules would also block the privileged from amassing privilege for themselves at everyone else’s expense. In the 17th and 18th c., moderate egalitarians saw freer markets as the friend of equality.
    Radicals such as Rousseau opposed freer markets. But it’s important to keep in mind that Rousseau’s critique of commercial society and its attendant material inequalities had nothing to do with distributive justice. It was about protecting a republican form of government against the looming plutocracy of big-time merchants and bankers, and about protecting republican virtue against the corruptions of vanity and esteem competition.
    The Industrial Revolution changed everything. The dominant pre-industrial republican conception of equality from the Levellers through Rousseau, Smith, Paine, and the Chartists assumed that equality would be realized in an economy of mostly self-employed people: small artisans, shopkeepers, traders, and yeoman farmers. Everyone would be free and independent; everyone would be their own boss. To be sure, there would be some “servants” or employees, but this was considered a temporary way-station for older minors and young adults before they came in to their own property. In the U.S., this vision lay at the core of the Republican party’s antislavery agenda, and it lasted longest in the U.S.–until the end of the Civil War–because of the availability of land out West. In England and France, the Industrial Revolution was creating large-scale factories that were wiping out the core foundation of the earlier era of egalitarian politics–the independent farmers, craftspeople, traders, etc. People were losing their independence and had to make a living as employees in the big factories. In the first half of the 19th c. people are coming to realize that the older republican vision of universal self-employment is doomed in Europe. That older vision had its absolute last gasp in the 1848 Revolutions. The rise of the industrial working class shifts egalitarian thinking to a sharp criticism of free markets, because the employer/worker hierarchy is spreading rapidly, and the older republican egalitarian politics had no answer to the abuses employees were facing at the hands of their bosses.
    The Industrial Revolution is the key reason why we see a flourishing of egalitarian experiments in the productive realm in the 19th c. People are seeking an alternative to the employer/worker hierarchy to eliminate the power of oppressive bosses over their workers. Should we set up utopian communes? Worker-managed firms? Labor unions? State ownership of the means of production? State regulation of work conditions–maximum hours, minimum wages, factory safety regulations? Social insurance to shield workers against the “gale of creative destruction” of market forces?
    The rise of democracy in the 19th c. is connected to all this. As long as the state was in the control of the rich and powerful, everyone else has an interest in freer markets. But as the working classes gain votes and influence over state policy, they more and more see that they can get the state to regulate the economy in their favor. So egalitarians turn more to the state and against laissez faire.
    John Stuart Mill is writing in the midst of all this rethinking of the egalitarian agenda. He wants to preserve the economies of scale of the big factories of the industrial revolution, and the efficiencies of competitive markets, while ensuring that the working classes get their fair share, and also be able to be self-governing in their productive lives. Hence he supports a range of redistributive and regulative policies, and ultimately favors worker-managed firms–a kind of workplace democracy.

  3. Hi Liz,
    great post! I am really forward to your books on these topics.
    I wanted to ask you about the comparison you make between Dewey and Mill, and in particular how you think that Mill’s moral philosophy fits with the idea of the pragmatist approach (which I am sympathetic to) whereby one can test moral principles. As I recall On Liberty, what we can test by performing experiments in living is (very roughly) what life-styles are fulfilling and intrinsically rewarding for us: what makes us happy and what allows us to flourish. This requires, among other things, developing our particular individuality. The standard by which we test these experiments in living, then, seems to be whether they make us happy and/or whether they help us to flourish in the particular individuality we have as the particular persons we are.
    Now, Mill says in his Autobiography that he never gave up his commitment to utilitarianism (though, of course, he thought that the understanding of happiness at the center of utilitarianism needed to be developed beyond Bentham’s approach, so as to, for example, include the idea of higher pleasures). Do you think of Mill’s standard for the test of moral principles as being of a broadly utilitarian sort (i.e. whether the moral principles allows people to be happy)? or do you think of Mill as being more like Dewey, in taking the particular moral principles/values to be intended to solve more specific problems (more specific, that is, than the very general problem of how to be happy and how to spread happiness around us)?
    During the experiments in living, or testing of moral principles or social arrangements, in the various egalitarian movements – do you think of there as having been a basic standard that worked as the measurement against which the moral principles or social arrangements were tested? Or do you think of these experiments in egalitarian living as also having tested out which basic principles/basic values to live by?

  4. Hi Sven,
    You are right that Mill still wants to keep an ultimate standard of morality. Yet, as you note, in Mill’s view a person’s conception of happiness changes in light of experiments in living; even the terms in which she describe happiness can change. This is still an individualist picture. One can move to the collective level by considering democracy as an institution that enables its members to experiment with principles of collective living, and modify/replace them as evidence on the results rolls in. Mill has some of that epistemic picture of democracy, although there is a lot more going on in his democratic theory too.
    Dewey completely replaces any notion of an ultimate standard of morality with a method for improving our moral/political principles, and that method is democratic when it comes to principles governing our collective life. So Dewey is a more thorough-going pragmatist than Mill.
    For most readers of pragmatists, the most mysterious thing is how this testing of moral ideas in practice is supposed to work, if there is no standard outside of practice to go by.
    The history of egalitarianism offers us some clues. Egalitarians have an inchoate ideal of collective life as a free community of equals. This isn’t a standard, because it’s unspecified. Some social institutions can be ruled out by this inchoate idea from the start–for example, slavery. But that doesn’t get us far.
    Let’s focus on just one relationship: that between husbands and wives. Under the traditional law of coverture, wives had no legal personhood independent of their husbands: they couldn’t acquire property, or make contracts in their own name, nor could they work or travel outside the home or keep their wages without their husband’s permission. From an egalitarian standpoint this is all objectionable, but what to replace it with? Some utopian socialists such as William Thompson and Anna Wheeler (in the 1825 *Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery*) argued for the abolition of marriage. Everyone should live in a commune, so women would not be dependent on the will of a single man and everyone would pitch in with child-rearing and household management. Mill took a vastly less radical view, arguing for formal legal equality of men and women and enough education for women that they *could* get a job if they wanted one. Both argued for the enfranchisement of women.
    We can triangulate a bit to a better position in light of experiments in both ways of living. Thompson’s commune never got off the ground, but the Israeli kibbutz, while not abolishing marriage, did liberate women from childcare responsibilities to their own particular offspring, for the most part, as the children were raised collectively. The result, as a rash of memoirs of childhood in these communes testifies, was child neglect and emotional deprivation. The children slept together apart from adults in big bunk rooms; if one got sick and cried at night, there was no clear division of responsibility requiring a particular adult to tend to him or her. So they were often left crying without help. Children grew up without special loving attachments to any particular adults. This had lasting damaging effects on their psyches. This experiment didn’t work out well in the eyes of many children who grew up in it. No wonder the experiment has faded over time, and parents have come to insist on having closer ties to their offspring.
    What about Mill’s ideal? Women’s suffrage came mostly in the first half of the 20th c. across North America and Europe; equality of education followed; and more or less full legal equality of husbands and wives somewhat later. Was that enough to realize a free society of equal men and women? Well, many women found that the mere *potential* to have a career outside the home was not enough; private employment discrimination was an obstacle over and above legal barriers; and the failure of workplaces to accommodate workers with childcare responsibilities has been a major issue, too. Moreover, why don’t men have a share in childcare and housework? Having to work a double shift does not make employed women the equals of their husbands. Poor women, too, have their own needs, especially in the face of the feminization of poverty and the rise of single-parent households.
    Mill didn’t anticipate any of this, because even his limited experiment had not been made yet. So his remedy for gender inequality reflects an incomplete imagination of what was required. As each step was won by women, new problems came to light, new remedies sought, and the ideal of gender equality gets more fully specified. It is still very much a work in progress.
    A utilitarian might insist that this could all be explained, ultimately, in terms of happiness. That’s not obvious. As egalitarians work through these issues on the ground, their normative concerns are expressed in a much richer vocabulary than utilitarianism: feminists speak of liberation and of having a right to our own bodies; complain of patriarchy; and, more recently, mock men who purport to “mansplain” things to women as if we can’t think for ourselves. The assessment of experiments in living proceeds without resort to a single ultimate principle such as utilitarianism.

  5. Dear Prof. Anderson,
    I am wondering what you would say of the progress of our moral views, not of the patterns of our behaviour. You write: “We can look to history and see if people really have improved their moral ideas, or learned moral lessons, through experiments in living. The test of improvement is not by the lights of a standard of success external to practice, but internal to practice itself”.
    I take that your views would be something as follows: a set of moral views is improved if some changes which solve internal problems are made. Internal problems of a set of moral ideas might be about phenomena which are viewed as problematic from the perspective of those moral ideas. Say, for instance, due to the influence of the abolitionists’ writings and various experiences concerning slavery, people may hold that slavery is problematic. A solution to this may be dropping the belief that slavery is permissible and other related non-moral beliefs about the institution from people’s moral ideas.
    But, my question is, how can we assess whether a proposed solution is successful or not without appealing to any external resource? In the abolitionist case, we might want to say that the revised ideas are better than the previous ideas because the former is more coherent than the latter which contains some internal problems. The appeal to coherence must be an appeal to an external resource unless people’s moral ideas contain some views on the value of coherence. If this is what we need, it seems we need to appeal to some external resources to assess the success of a proposed solution.
    Am I misrepresenting your view? Or does you view need not appeal to such external resources such as epistemic goods or is capable of having them?
    By the way, thank you very much for your various contributions to philosophy from which I learned a lot!

  6. Many thanks for that, Liz! Very helpful, and much appreciated.
    Again, I’m very much looking forward to the books.
    All the best,

  7. Hi Ryo:
    In my pragmatist view, coherence plays a smaller role than in other interpretations of pragmatism, such as Rorty’s. I focus more on moral principles as problem-solving devices. The justifications of slavery are very complex so I’ll illustrate with just two of them so you can see what I mean.
    1. Slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude such as indentured servitude, debt peonage, and serfdom, were all seen as necessary to solve the problem of production. It was widely assumed that if the poor were not forced to work, they would be idle and production and civilization would collapse. Adam Smith produced a pivotal argument against this idea in *The Wealth of Nations.* He argued that if you want people to work, you should pay them better wages. The poor don’t have to be forced to work; provide them with the prospect of improving their condition via good wages and they will work plenty hard. Smith’s argument was ultimately put to the test and vindicated upon the emancipation of slaves, although not without complications in practice and in understanding how to apply the test of productive success.
    2. Another argument for slavery was based on original sin. Because human nature was corrupted after the Fall, people were slaves to sin. Chattel slavery was a means to force people to be slaves to virtue (hard work, discipline, Christian faith). During the English Civil War, several millenarian sects arose, including the Quakers(the only such sect to survive the war). These sects believed that, because Christ’s return was immanent, the Kingdom of God was about to rule on earth, redeeming humanity from sin. Individuals could therefore live without sin on the basis of mutual love and harmony. This undermined the Christian rationale for slavery. The Quakers forced their members to give up their slaves and embarked on a relentless critique of slavery. John Hepburn wrote “The American Defense of the Christian Golden Rule”, one of the earliest abolitionist tracts (1715), arguing that far from enforcing a regime of virtue, chattel slavery was submerged in sin: it broke the Golden rule (no one would accept being on the receiving end of slavery) and all 10 commandments–it involved murder (aggressive warfare to capture slaves), kidnapping, theft, rape (hence adultery), violation of the Sabbath (forcing slaves to work on Sunday), etc. Slavery corrupted master and slave alike. Emancipation led to workers and employers leading vastly more virtuous lives by Christian standards, even if the Quaker hope of living entirely without sin was utopian.
    Note that the second illustration appeals to the internal standards of virtue accepted at the time. But the argument is not quite that slavery was essentially incoherent. The focus was on the actual practice of slavery and its failure to live up to its own justificatory theory, and the refusal of slaveholders to live up to their own professed moral standards.

  8. Hi Professor Anderson,
    I tried posting something yesterday but it looks like it didn’t appear. I was hoping to ask you about your remark on naturalized moral epistemology and moral learning.
    I have two questions. (1) What processes would you count as moral learning? And, (2) how would you distinguish processes of moral learning from other processes, like mere socialization?
    From an epistemological point of view, it would be very interesting if, for instance, the abolitionist movement turned public opinion against slavery because people were increasingly persuaded by moral arguments against it, or maybe because they increasingly came to empathize with slaves as they became more informed about their plight. It would not be so interesting if abolitionism became popular mostly because people saw that others were accepting it and wanted to “fit in,” or at least not become the butt of social disapproval. I would not call socialization of this kind a learning process, because it is doesn’t reliably track anything resembling a success criterion like truth, rationality, or impartiality. People can be socialized into believing any silly thing.
    I was highly impressed by your postings, and I will eagerly await your work on egalitarian movements. I really think moral philosophers–especially those with naturalist leanings–need to look at the history of moral change, just as philosophers of science look to the history of science. So I take your work to be filling an incredibly important gap.

  9. Dear Prof. Anderson,
    Thank you very much for explicating your view on the matter!
    Best wishes,

  10. Hi Andres,
    There are 2 ways to tell whether a change in moral conviction counts as moral learning. First is that one finds in experience that living in accordance with the new conviction solves or copes with problems in a more satisfactory way than living according to the old. Smith was ultimately correct to hold that the problem of production does not require involuntary servitude and that prosperity is better secured by paying free workers. (It’s important to note how extraordinary his argument was at the time, given that around 90% of all workers in Europe were in some form of involuntary servitude, even if not literally slaves.) At the moment of transition, however, this can be much harder to see than in the long view. The immediate effect of emancipation in St. Domingue (Haiti) after the slaves revolted was a precipitous decline in sugar production. (It was harder for outsiders to see that the reason for this was that sugar production was a death factory: slave populations in the sugar colonies could not reproduce themselves because death rates were very high and birth rates low from malnutrition, exhaustion, disease, and industrial accidents. There was never enough food. After the slaves won their freedom, they shifted production to subsistence crops so at least they could eat.)
    Second, one has reason to believe that a process is one of moral learning if the causal explanation of the transition from one moral conviction to another is the sort of thing that can independently be understood as grounded in epistemic improvement. The simplest way this happens is by exposure to morally relevant facts.
    Regarding the second point, much of the work of abolitionists was devoted to educating the public about how bad slavery was. In England, abolitionists focused on the brutalities of the slave trade–the death and disease in suffocating, filthy crowded holds on ships, the chains, the kidnapping of innocents in Africa, the sundering of families, and so forth. In the U.S., abolitionists also countered slaveholders’ claims of paternalistic benevolence with former slaves’ testimonies of whipping, rape, separation of families, hunger, and other horrors.
    Some of this was designed to appeal to sympathy. Slave narratives and testimonies were also important for making vivid to whites that blacks were fully human, not alien savages capable of nothing but brutish labor. Olaudah Equiano, the author of one of the most influential narratives in England (*The Interesting Narrative*, 1789), displayed erudition, Christian piety, courage (he served in the British Navy and was also an adventurous sailor), and other virtues.
    In the U.S., it should be stressed that abolitionism was never popular. What was popular (in the North) was “antislavery.” The abolitionists were mostly considered fanatics for their single-minded focus on the interests of slaves. The Republican Party developed a different critique of slavery based on its bad effects on free white workers: the expansion of slave plantations out West threatened access to opportunity for independent small farmers; the use of slaves for labor made working with one’s hands for a living degrading, and so debased the status of white farmers; slave economies were plutocracies in which the small farmer had no power, so slavery was inconsistent with a republican form of government.
    These arguments should not be disparaged just because they appealed to the self-interest of white workers. Justice requires institutional arrangements that fairly serve the interests of all members. Exposing the injustice of slavery to white workers, although from the abolitionists’ perspective not getting at the worst injustice of slavery, still is morally relevant information.
    Similarly, the abolitionist cause in England (where “abolition” meant abolishing the slave trade) was advanced by publicizing the fact that the death rate for sailors on slave ships was as high as for the slaves themselves. This was due not just to disease and accident but because greedy captains would contrive the deaths of sailors before reaching the colonial shores, where huge profits would be gained from slave sales. (Under English maritime law, sailors were entitled to a share of a ship’s profits, so fewer sailors meant more profit for the captain.)
    It’s an important fact about severely oppressive institutions that they tend to spread their oppression beyond their immediate targets. Proslavery interests repressed nonslaveholding whites’ freedom of speech by rioting against abolitionist speeches; their freedom of religion by repressing evangelization of slaves; their access to government by banning antislavery petitions to Congress; their personal freedom and moral conscience by the Fugitive Slave Law, which forced them to join slave-catchers in hunting down alleged escaped slaves. Abolitionists exposed these facts about the violence inherent in the slave system by ceaseless agitation, which provoked proslavery forces to ever more repression of free non-slaveholding whites. It made vivid to the latter how unconscionable the system was, and how unsustainable was the supposition that its victims were only those outside their circle of moral concern.

  11. Liz (if I may),
    This sounds like a fabulous project! It raises so many questions for me, particularly ones about what makes certain hierarchies seem indispensable and what imaginative and conceptual work equality requires. I’ll just stick to one set of issues here:
    In the Putney debates, there is a split between the Levellers themselves on whether servants, those without or with minimal property, etc. should be able to vote (by the way, one of the striking things about voting in this period is how extremely rare contested elections for Parliament were–having the vote was important for what it expressed about membership in the political community, but not because it involved the actual exercise of political power). This depended, in turn, on whether one thought that certain relations of economic dependence prohibited one from fulfilling the office of member of the political society (Skinner, among others, has written about these themes).
    What this emphasizes for me is that what equality and hierarchy means and what make them attractive, possible, etc., depends so much on the sociology and history of various roles or offices. We have no trouble thinking of political equality now, because our political lives are so much different than, say, 17th century ones.
    Part of the importance of establishing the details of the roles/offices at play is that these are crucial in settling the pragmatic and normative context of interaction where so much of the reality of hierarchy and equality reside, e.g. who has the authority or license and in what circumstances to command, request, pass judgment (there were property qualifications for early modern jurors too), offer counsel, beg for mercy, tell jokes, etc. (a shout-out to Lance and Kukla’s recent piece in Ethics on 2nd person calls!). Would you agree with this way of putting it? Does it express part of your interest at broadening the scope of egalitarian theory?

  12. Dear Professor Anderson,
    I’d like to ask a question that may be a little far afield, about the relationship between moral theory (or moral epistemology) and philosophy of science. In particular, I am wondering about how two of your views fit together. The first is the view you’ve talked about here, of moral principles as solutions to moral problems that can be empirically tested (by experiments in living). The second is your view that science is laden with value judgments.
    In philosophy of science, much of the discussion of values in science shares the assumption that value judgments are systematically epistemically inferior to factual judgments. On the one hand, those who seek to defend the value-free ideal of science seem to think that the influence of values will inevitably harm the objectivity of science by letting in a subjective factor, leading to wishful thinking, etc. On the other hand, some of the most prominent views of science as value-laden specifically try to constrain the role of values to show that the objectivity of science is not harmed. (I’m thinking of Helen Longino’s critical contextual empiricism or Heather Douglas’s limitation of values to an “indirect” rather than “direct” role.) I’m not sure if this is a residual non-cognitivism or subjectivism about values, or what exactly the source of this shared assumption is.
    My question is this: if we accept your view about the empirical testability of moral principles, does this make it less pressing that we limit or constrain the role of value judgments in science? Is the anti-dogmatism that you recommend in your 2004 Hypatia paper the main constrain on values in science? Or do we need to further constrain value judgments in order to guarantee the objectivity or integrity of science?
    Thanks, and apologies if this is a bit far from what you wanted to talk about. I wish I had some sharp questions about the history of egalitarianism – all I can say is that I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say about it!

  13. Hi Colin,
    I agree with you completely that we need to look at the details of interpersonal interaction to understand how hierarchy works and what counts as equality in a given context.
    Voting offers an excellent illustration of this. The same issues with voting by dependents persisted even after elections became contested. One must remember that the secret ballot was a fairly late invention in democratic practice. Voting was not a discrete act separate from publicly defending one’s political views in face-to-face meetings with others. Voting took place in settings more like the Iowa caucuses today, where citizens showed up and make their position visible to neighbors. From a republican point of view, allowing servants or other household dependents (e.g., wives) to vote was really giving extra votes to their masters/husbands, since dependents had no real choice but to follow the will of those on whom they depended. This violated the equality of electors.
    Let me give you a completely different illustration of how inequality works in the present day, in face-to-face interaction. In Detroit long tradition has been that business clients are entertained by playing golf with them or taking them to strip clubs. These practices were tailor-made to create masculine bonds between salesmen and their clients as a way of cementing deals. Since women have gotten into sales, these forms of entertainment don’t work for them. Golf courses require women to tee off closer to the hole, so they can’t walk with their clients along the whole course. Plus, what if she is really good at golf? It’s one thing for a man to beat his client by a stroke or two, but for a woman to do so would be humiliating. And how, exactly, is she supposed to share with her client a common pleasure in watching a strip act? These days the IRS prohibits deducting entertainment at strip clubs as a business expense because male and female employees cannot be treated equally in that setting. But lots of clubs in metro Detroit pose as ordinary restaurants to get around this.
    I am interested in the background norms, habits, emotional expectations, modes of bodily comportment, facial expressions, and other manifestations of social hierarchy and social equality. It’s not just about income. Getting it dished out with a sneer of contempt, or having to pick it up off the floor, add new dimensions to inequality. Consider that many welfare offices, with lines hours long, do not supply bathrooms accessible to the public. And think of those poor moms who, lacking the money for a sitter, have to drag their preschool child on three bus rides and then waiting in a long line to deal with some paperwork problem so they can get Medicaid to enable their child to get health care. Think of the children growing up knowing that poverty means the system won’t let you pee for hours.

  14. Hi Matt,
    Most research in the social sciences, including history, and the applied sciences such as medicine, is driven at some level by normative concerns. We want to understand ourselves, where we came from, how people do and have dealt with their problems, and what the consequences for human interests are of dealing with them one way or another. To do this we need to ask normatively significant questions about the data, and design models that can home in on normatively significant mechanisms at the root of our problems and our successes. History, too, allows us to see the contingency of our current normative frameworks, hidden assumptions in our current concepts that are leftovers from bygone eras, alternative possibilities, etc.
    To do all this we need social scientists to be more reflective and explicit about their value judgments, rather than pretending that their work is all value-free. As I argue in the article you cite (“Uses of Value Judgments in Feminist Social Science: A Case Study of Research on Divorce,” Hypatia 19 (2004): 1-24) there is no direct route from value judgments to empirical conclusions. They don’t function as direct evidence, but rather work more in the background, shaping conceptual frameworks, models to be tested (to highlight, say, causal levers that we can, or judge are legitimate, to push; or different opportunities for people in different positions to affect events), questions to be asked, decisions to stop asking questions, etc. It’s high time social scientists justified these decisions in explicitly normative terms, since they affect the sorts of policy recommendations and evaluative conclusions likely to be drawn from their theories.
    On my view, showing that normative judgments have an empirical basis makes it more legitimate to deploy such judgments in empirical work, by undermining certain arguments against using them. Of course, this must all be done against background conditions of freedom of inquiry, including freedom to deploy competing value judgments in research.
    The fundamental pragmatist idea that I try to exemplify in my work is to bring normative theory into closer engagement with empirical work. So, not only should social scientists and historians be more explicit and free in the value judgments they deploy, but moral-political philosophers should be more empirically responsible in their consideration of normative principles.
    Philosophers put way too much stock in the a priori. I consider this an artifact of how the academic disciplines arose (with the sciences hiving off from philosophy one by one, and philosophy defending the remaining turf by defining itself as interested in that part of the a priori that isn’t math), rather than some deep way normative inquiry (or epistemological, metaphysical, etc. inquiry) differs from scientific inquiry.
    Having said that, I also think philosophers, including pragmatists, spill far too much ink writing about methodology. Talking about method doesn’t show how to implement it, and doesn’t vindicate it. At best it clears ground for doing what one thinks should be done. The main thing is to roll up one’s sleeves and carry out the method one thinks should be practiced. If it bears fruit–if people are excited by the findings–then one has *shown* how to move forward. That’s what I have tried to do in *The Imperative of Integration*, and that’s what I plan to do in my history of egalitarianism.

  15. Dear Liz,
    In the link to your SEP entry on Dewey’s Moral Philosophy that you provide in your post you write:
    Dewey held that value judgments express propositions that are subject to empirical testing and verification. But they are not merely descriptive; their essential function is to guide conduct. Value judgments can be both empirically warranted and action-guiding because they have an instrumental form. They say that if something were done, then certain consequences would follow, which would be liked or valued. Propositions of this form can be tested. The point of making such propositions is to decide upon a course of action that will solve a problem, where the proposition itself is part of the means by which the action is brought about (LJP 16–17).
    This feature of value judgments, I take it on your view, is part of what enables experiments in living to give us an empirical way to improve our ethical views.
    Scanlon, about two-thirds of the way through chapter 2 of his Locke lectures, has recently distinguished what he calls “pure” normative claims from “mixed” ones. He writes:
    Most of the claims we commonly think of as normative are not pure normative claims, but mixed normative claims. They involve pure normative claims but also make or presuppose claims about natural facts….
    In everyday English, even the claim, “She has a good reason not to do it, since it would hurt her sister’s feelings” is a mixed claim, since it cannot be true unless the action in question would in fact hurt her sister’s feelings….
    Pure normative claims do not depend on non-normative claims at all. Any such dependence has been subjunctivized away ….
    So I wonder if you agree with Scanlon about the distinction between normative claims that make or presuppose claims about natural facts and those that don’t. If you do agree with that, do you think your claims about experiments in living is limited to what Scanlon would call mixed normative claims and not applicable to pure normative claims?

  16. Hi David,
    Scanlon makes the same move as G. A. Cohen does in G. A. Cohen, “Facts and Principles,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 31, no. 3 (2003): 211-45. The idea is that we can ascend to a class of normative claims that are true in all possible worlds. Cohen outlines the basic method of doing so, which is to consider our moral intuitions in thought experiments that abstract from the empirical conditions in which we asserted our mixed claim.
    I am skeptical about this approach for two reasons. 1) Practical normative reflection does not require pure normative claims. 2) We have no reason to trust moral intuitions that we elicit in thought experiments very far removed from the conditions in which we have formulated our mixed normative principles.
    Point (2) goes back to my interest in the history of ethics. Our whole reliance on thought experiments in contemporary moral philosophy depends on the assumption that our current moral intuitions are reliable. Yet our intuitions have changed over time, sometimes drastically. Consider, for example, this intuition expressed by Hastings Rashdall, Oxford Fellow and student of Sidgwick: “[P]robably no one will hesitate [to agree that] . . . the lower Well-being . . . .of countless Chinamen or negroes must be sacrificed that a higher life may be possible for a
    much smaller number of white men.” *The Theory of Good and Evil*, 2nd ed. Vol 1, 237-8 (Oxford UP 1924). Today we think this intuition is outrageous, but for Rashdall it was obviously true.
    My point in bringing this up is not to sow skepticism about the whole enterprise of moral reflection. It is to point out that our current intuitions, just considered by themselves, have no particular claim to reliability. They were different in the past, and will be different in the future.
    Pragmatists don’t assume that our current intuitions already track some moral truth. Rather, pragmatists offer methods for improving whatever moral intuitions we start with. The methods can also allow us to assess our current intuitions relatively favorably (i.e., relative to previous intuitions) if we can see that they are the products of processes of improvement that were deployed, wittingly or unwittingly, in the past.
    At the very center of these methods is actual experiments in living, as opposed to thought experiments. Actual experiments are important, because our imaginations often run ahead of reality. We may imagine that living in accordance with some moral principle would be fantastic. But once we actually live in accordance with it we often find otherwise, either because it yields different objectively described consequences than we supposed, or our subjective experience of them is different than we supposed, or new circumstances arise that throw up problems that the principle doesn’t help us deal with.
    Often, moral intuitions that we *think* are pure, in fact rely on covert background assumptions about the world of which we are unaware. Research in psychology reveals that we do not have transparent access to all of the factors that influence our thoughts.
    Recognition of this allows us to formulate additional methods of improvement besides real experiments in living. We can investigate the cognitive biases that influence us, and consider whether certain conditions will block or counteract or remove the influence of these biases. Then we can engage in moral reflection in those conditions.
    To a certain extent, modern moral philosophy already contains an inchoate model of this. We are supposed to reflect in a calm, cool, manner. This idea supposes that emotions distort moral judgment. I am very suspicious of this claim. Emotions are our basic way of becoming aware of morally relevant considerations. The method of detachment has also historically been used by the privileged to dismiss the often highly emotional claims of the oppressed. It’s easy to be calm and cool if social institutions are rigged to make oneself comfortable and insulated from the claims and sufferings of others.
    These thoughts bring me back to the history of egalitarianism, and particularly the history of abolition. Here is a world-historical change in moral intuition, from nearly universal acceptance of the legitimacy of slavery to nearly universal regard of it practically as the paradigm of injustice. That shift was brought about through a lot of highly emotional contention in the real world, not through calm cool reflection on thought experiments. This seems to me to be a very important fact about how human beings come to improve their moral convictions. In retrospect it is possible to construct a smooth, calm path of reasoning to the current view. But ex ante things did not look so obvious at all. Research into how actual change in moral conviction occurs is important if we are to learn how to improve our current moral beliefs.

  17. Hi Prof. Anderson. Lovely to be able to interact with you here.
    Your new projects sound fabulous – I find your approach to history exciting and presume it will stand as a model to others much as your approach to contemporary social science in The Imperative of Integration has.
    Given your interest in abolitionism, let me begin by mentioning an important text that you may already know of but which is worth mentioning in case you don’t: Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (1787). For those of us who study Africana philosophy, this is a landmark text, perhaps the earliest extant work of political philosophy in the Africana tradition in the modern era. In an unpublished essay of mine, I have compared Cugoano and Locke, arguing that they share a commitment to justifying our natural freedom and equality through complementary religious and rational argumentation. But Cugoano holds a radical anti-slavery position that contrasts sharply with Locke, both the historical Locke who invested in the slave trade and endorsed it through writing the Carolina Constitution as well as Locke the theorist’s position on slavery. As you look at the gradual turn toward abolitionism, Cugoano’s early vigorous attack on slavery may be of considerable interest to you for a number of reasons (a few that come to mind: his reflections on the failure of the American Revolution to live up to its “vaunted claims of freedom”; his reply to the argument that West Indian slaves have it better than the poor in the British Isles; his comparison of slavery in Africa with slavery in the West Indies; his comparison of contemporary slavery with servitude under the law of Moses; his reflections on the justifiability of bondage for criminals; his reflections on the wrongs of European colonization of the Americas; his suggested plan of abolition and reparation; etc.).
    But to turn to a question, let me ask something about Douglass. In his famous 4th of July speech, there’s a remarkable section where he claims that “where all is plain there is nothing to be argued.” He goes on to argue for this lack of need for argument, building a case that all the claims abolitionists might be called upon to defend are implicitly or explicitly conceded by slaveholders and others who defend or are neutral concerning slavery. This leads him to conclude that “scorching irony, not convincing argument” is what’s needed during his time (and the paragraph where he makes this point is among the most rhetorically powerful in a speech well-recognized as one of the greatest in American history).
    I wonder what you make of this move by Douglass. Have you found other instances in the history of egalitarian thought where it is philosophically argued that to engage in philosophy about the matter at hand is useless, not merely because beyond talk there must be action but rather because it is simply ridiculous to imagine that there could actually be a contentious debate on the subject to be had in good faith? There are a number of points that Douglass suggests we should see as uncontroversial and it is interesting to wonder: which of these ought to be seen, by him or by us, as having been previously controversial but as having been adequately settled beforehand? Which are meant to be seen as completely intuitive, whether because of a previously achieved intellectual consensus or because of the common sense arising not from argument but from the development of a way of life or indeed because they are intuitive for all humans at all times and places?
    I don’t expect you to explore all that I have raised here but I was curious how this portion of the speech struck you and what it suggested to you about the nature of egalitarian thought.

  18. Hi Chike,
    Thanks for the Cugoano reference! One of the things I am interested in is contrasting canonical Enlightenment antislavery ideas with arguments from religious (Quaker, Evangelical) sources, and, crosscutting that distinction, contrasting white and black antislavery activists. You are right that the canonical Enlightenment writers such as Locke tend to be equivocal compared to other antislavery traditions, although Locke’s principles in the *Second Treatise* cannot support chattel slavery as it existed in the Americas, particularly not the inheritance of slave status from the mother.
    A major feature of my approach to the history of egalitarianism and to abolition in particular is to expand our notion of what sorts of activities can and ought to change our moral convictions. Principles of moral right and wrong are, practically speaking, principles for adjudicating our interpersonal claims–the claims we make on each other to do or refrain from doing things on account of others’ rights and interests. I am investigating claim-making itself as an instrument for challenging and shaping moral beliefs. Claim-making can take the form of pure moral argument. But that isn’t the only form it can take. I borrow from social theorist Charles Tilly the idea of “contention”, which encompasses a wide spectrum of modes of claim-making, from pure moral argument at one end to revolt and violent conflict at the other (so long as the violence is directed toward getting the other side to accept new claim-regulating institutions). In between we find a huge range of activities including mass petitions, demonstrations, litigation, boycotts, sit-ins, strikes, civil disobedience, and numerous other ways of contesting established claim-regulating institutions.
    One of the things we learn from the study of abolitionism in the U.S. was that pure moral arguments were not enough to induce change. The abolitionists’ arguments fell on deaf ears. Much more dramatic moves along the spectrum of contention were needed to change slaveholders’ minds. I read Douglass as arguing for such moves, and rightly so. The intransigence of the slaveholders was astonishing. Even in what one would have thought should have been easy cases–Lincoln’s generous offers of compensation to slaveholders in Delaware, where there were only a handful of slaves completely marginal to the state’s economy–antislavery agents met total uncompromising opposition.
    We moral philosophers have to face up to the reality that the force of reason is shockingly weak. You and Douglass are right that the issue is not only that moral change requires moving beyond talk to action, but that reason is useless when the other side is not reasoning in good faith. At the same time, the capacity of the human mind to engage in double-think, self-deception, and ideological obfuscation in defense of perceived individual or in-group interests or even ideological views not clearly tied to self-interest (think of certain extreme religious views) is vast. It may be impossible to reason with some people, but not necessarily because they are already perfectly aware of the truth and refuse to acknowledge it.

  19. Related to the theme of change in our moral convictions and “the force of reason” as “shockingly weak”:
    Appiah’s book The Honor Code (again, another text of which you might already be aware) contends that honor, shame, and related notions are much more important than appeals to reason for explaining a variety of moral revolutions: the end of foot binding, the end of dueling, the abolition of slavery. It’s not a book aimed principally at an academic audience and its ambitious scope (culturally, historically, linguistically) inevitably opens it up to criticism from more directions, but it includes some thoughtful approaches to a sprawling and difficult problem (i.e. explaining moral change). Given the last few posts, I thought that work at least deserved a mention.

  20. Hi Colin,
    Yes, Appiah’s book is important, as is the whole notion of honor in culture.
    This question of honor goes back to Andres’s concern about “mere socialization.” The issue is really one of social norms. Nearly every entrenched moral norm is underwritten by the same factor that keeps ordinary social norms stable: conditional expectations. Norms keep going because most people have a conditional preference to conform if enough others do, and everyone expects that everyone else will conform, and that some kind of sanction will be applied to nonconformists.
    In addition to this, there normally has to be some story that makes the norm seem sensible or justified, and there has to be a core set of true believers who conform for that reason and not just because everyone else is doing it or they fear sanctions from others for failure to conform. If there were no true believers, and everyone conformed for the sole reason that they falsely believed others thought the norm was right and were prepared to sanction nonconformists, then the norm would collapse under common knowledge that nobody thinks it makes sense.
    It is hard work to produce a common understanding that a norm makes no sense. When stakes are symmetrical, collective deliberation and decision can convince people of this and create normative change. This is how communities across Africa are gradually dropping the norm of female genital cutting. It’s not so much that they are subject to negative opinions from outsiders, as that they are recognizing from the inside, collectively, that the norm has bad consequences and that there are less damaging substitutes for its basic function, to ensure the eligibility of daughters for marriage. They are literally writing new social contracts to give up the practice. In this case, reason works, but only collectively, via shared understandings and decisions, not individually, because most people will not buck what they perceive to be dominant expectations.
    When the costs and benefits of a norm are asymmetrical and powerful group members reap the gains, are true believers, and have sanctioning power, it is much harder to dislodge norms even if a majority would like to do so. During Reconstruction, progressive coalitions of free blacks and less advantaged whites, constituting majorities in many Southern states, briefly made huge advances toward a more democratic order. The former slaveholding class retained its land and economic power, however, and was unwilling to accept defeat. They managed to reassert their hegemony and dismantle the gains of Reconstruction. But it should not be forgotten that this could only be done by means that disenfranchised millions of whites as well as nearly all blacks.
    True believers in unjust or dysfunctional norms can rarely be convinced by reason to change their ways if they have stakes in given norms. Others may be persuadable, but won’t go along with reason if the true believers remain in power and enforce their preferred norms. Jim Crow, like slavery, required quite a lot of undemocratic suppression of whites to maintain itself.
    Another way to put the point is that reason may be very weak at the individual level, but can be quite powerful if it manages to govern democratically organized, collective deliberation which changes people’s expectations of what other people want and are willing to do.

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