Issue Five

Published by: Eli Kanon

Reviewers: Amelie Benedikt, Robert Fischer, Dean Geuras, Robert O’Connor, Nevitt Reesor, Russell G. Moses


“A View on Coauthorship” by Brian DuBose Jr.

“The Idea of Becoming: A Dialect on the Will” by Pricilla Garcia

“The Hermeneutic Problem Concerning Values” by William Alexander Hernandez

A View on Coauthorship

Brian DuBose Jr.

University of Houston

There is a void, or lack of sufficient depth, to explain the correlation between the process of a work’s coming to being and the expressive content of said work in relation to authorship. It can be argued that discussing what entails a coauthored work, a multiply authored work, or quite possibly, a contingent property of authorization in a work, could lead to a fruitful explanation of the essentialism of the process-expressed content correlation. In this essay my aim is to present a thorough account of Sondra Bacharach and Deborah Tollefsen’s view on the difference between multiple authorship and coauthorship. Their essays “We Did It” and “We Did It Again” provide a constructive insight of Bacharach and Tollefsen’s view.[1] To fully show the applications, as well as possible shortcomings of their view, I also mention Paisley Livingston’s “On Authorship and Collaboration”[2] and Darren Hook’s “Authorship, Coauthorship, and Multiple Authorship.”[3] By examining the process-expressed content correlation argument of each, these pieces of philosophical literature will aid in my reasoning in whether Bacharach and Tollefsen’s view is successful.

The difference between multiple authorship and coauthorship according to Bacharach and Tollefsen is the way in which the authors coordinate. A joint work (coauthorship) is defined, in the Copyright Act of 1976, as “a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” It can be concluded that if an author’s contribution is removed, the work can no longer be perceived in the state it was before represented. A multiple authored work can be defined as a work consisting of contributed, separate and independent, works forming a collective whole.[4] These works can be seen to be joined unilaterally, opposed to being interdependent. These definitions are great, and may even seem clear cut concepts. However, contemporary philosophers seek to fill the void mentioned earlier with their own addition to these definitions.

Livingston makes the claim that artistic collaborations amounting to coauthorship requires a coordination of art-making intentions.[5] I would agree in the respect that members of a coauthorship should have an end result in mind, in which the collaboration is subjected. In the context of this essay, Livingston’s view can be held as the shared intentions view of coauthorship. Bacharach and Tollefsen argues that a conceptualization of coauthorship requiring shared intentions is too vague. Bacharach and Tollefsen’s view holds true that persons (active objects) are not authors by simply being means to which a work’s process is done.[6] These means could have intentions shared with others to complete a work, yet none of the work’s expressed content can be attributed to them. The required coordination of “art-making intentions” in Livingston’s view also implies that coauthors must have the end result, including all properties, in mind. Bacharach and Tollefsen logically deduce that a concept of coauthorship with this requirement, would be inadequate for most cases. “It would be unreasonable to require that coauthors jointly commit to making a work with particular properties ahead of time,” argues Bacharach and Tollefsen.

What follows is Bacharach and Tollefsen’s position as to what constitutes as membership in a plural subject group or coauthorship. In doing so, there is an immediate shaping of the idea of responsibility­­—namely, if coauthors are not required to jointly commit to a complete end result, then how are we to decide which contributors are in fact authors? Also, which contributions are relevant when considering the expressed content in a work?

Concerning the former, being a member of the group author of a work, Bacharach and Tollefsen adopt Margaret Gilbert’s plural subject theory[7] for their view of coauthorship versus multiple authorship. Gilbert’s condition on the formation of a plural subject calls for common knowledge of a joint commitment to a goal. There may be a hint of similarity between Gilbert’s common knowledge condition and Livingston’s shared intentions condition, but Bacharach and Tollefsen argues there is none. Where Livingston’s view implies coauthorship to consist of meshing sub-plans (back and forth intercourse of the expected expressed content of a work), Gilbert’s common knowledge condition only holds that the authors must only know that they are participants of a work. Best put, Bacharach and Tollefsen propose that in the case of the formation of artistic groups, the most basic joint commitment will be the commitment to create a work as a body. I believe this view is broad enough to capture some of the more extreme cases of coauthorship, such as improvisation and films composed by different directors.

Naturally, Bacharach and Tollefsen refocus their argument of coauthorship versus multiple authorship to the expressed content of a work. As before mentioned in Bacharach and Tollefsen’s view, coauthorship does not require shared intentions to complete a work in a certain fashion. Doing so does not differentiate between contributors and coauthorship. Additionally, Bacharach and Tollefsen makes the claim that coauthors could have unique, and often clashing, ideas of the expected expressed content of their work. The only requirement is that the individual artists need to have made joint commitments about the process of art-making—probably simply how to start and when to end the work. This obligation to the completion creates responsibility. In some works, it can be seen that “the aesthetic features resulting from the lack of meshing sub plans are often centrally relevant to the work’s meaning,” agrees Bacharach and Tollefsen in accordance with the view of Berys Gaut.[8] This reference heavily characterizes Bacharach and Tollefsen’s view. The differentiation of coauthorship from multiple authorship rests on the subjects’ knowledge of a joint commitment to finish a work together, and if each participant adds to the expressed content of the work.

I will now provide brief explanations of two topics that I believe entails coauthored works. Both topics also provide sufficient characterization of multiply authored works. Agency plays a key role in determining authorship. Secondly, an appeal to responsibility. “To be an author is to be an agent,” explains Bacharach and Tollefsen.[9] To an extent an author must have beliefs, desires, tastes, skills, and goals; their ideals are synonymous with who they are. These adjoining ideals in turn are reflected in their work as the expressed content. This ensuing expressed content must form a single purpose. I would agree that an author must also be able to create and take blame. In the case of the saboteur, their ideals are not harmonious with the groups, though the end date of a work is known by all. [10] Anything that hinders, not aiding, in the purpose[11] of a work is not creating or able to take blame, and therefore not an author.

If it is true that the expressed content is a congealment of ideals in a singularly authored work, then in order for a work to not be considered multiply authored, all participants’ ideals must be congealed and expressed as a single purpose. This can be seen in the creation of a new bread by multiple artisans, or possibly a rendition of a traditional piece by multiple artists. Coauthorship requires intercourse, a back and forth of ideals, with an agreement of the expected reflected expression of a work, in my opinion. A work that lacks inseparable contributions from any participant, by definition cannot be coauthored. Multiple separate contributions in a work entails that the work must be multiply authored. Each author would only be responsible for their contribution, not the work as a whole. A shared intentions view of coauthorship seems the most progressive and definitive.

Works Cited

Bacharach, Sondra, and Deborah Tollefsen. “We Did It: From Mere Contributors to Coauthors.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68.1 (2010): 23-32. Web.

Bacharach, Sondra, and Deborah Tollefsen. “We Did It: From Mere Contributors to Coauthors.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68.1 (2010): 23-32. Web.

Livingston, Paisley. “On Authorship and Collaboration.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69.2 (2011): 221-25. Web.

Darren Hudson Hick, “Authorship, Coauthorship, and Multiple Authorship,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 72 (2014): 147-156. Web.

[1] Sondra Bacharach and Deborah Tollefsen, “We Did It: From Mere Contributors to Coauthors,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68 (2010): 23-32. Bacharach and Tollefsen, “We Did It Again: A Reply to Livingston,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (2010).

[2] Paisley Livingston, “On Authorship and Collaboration,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69 (2011): 217-221.

[3] Darren Hudson Hick, “Authorship, Coauthorship, and Multiple Authorship,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 72 (2014): 147-156.

[4] These definitions are given in Darren Hick’s, “Authorship, Coauthorship, and Multiple Authorship,” p.153.

[5] Darren Hick’s, “Authorship, Coauthorship, and Multiple Authorship,” p.153.

[6] Sondra Bacharach and Deborah Tollefsen, “We Did It: From Mere Contributors to Coauthors,” p.23. This reference mentions Bacharach and Tollefsen argument of acknowledgement of the group. Also, the case of caterers on a film set.

[7] Sondra Bacharach and Deborah Tollefsen, “We Did It: From Mere Contributors to Coauthors,” p.29. Bacharach and Tollefsen provide an excellent presentation of their adaption of Magaret Gilbert’s plural subject theory.

[8] Sondra Bacharach and Deborah Tollefsen, “We Did It: From Mere Contributors to Coauthors,” p.23. Gaut provide a context of the restriction of authorship in which there must be a need be of relevant features,

[9] Sondra Bacharach and Deborah Tollefsen, “We Did It: From Mere Contributors to Coauthors,” p.31.

[10] Sondra Bacharach and Deborah Tollefsen, “We Did It: From Mere Contributors to Coauthors,” p.25. A full comprehension of the case of the saboteur, and his effects to a work.

[11] The purpose can also be regarded as the meaning.

A Dialectic on the Will

Priscilla R. Garcia

University of Houston


This paper aims to examine Nietzsche’s arguments regarding the errors of reason, false causality, and free will in his text “Twilight of the Idols” in order to determine what Nietzsche’s actual conception of what a well-constituted will looks like. I argue that he discusses these errors for a specific reason: so that we can identify them, avoid them, and ultimately, become better. In addition, it also explores two different interpretations in contemporary scholarship regarding Nietzsche’s conception of the will including those of Brian Leiter and David Emmanuel Rowe, who arguably take different positions regarding its meaning and implications. In his essay, “Nietzsche’s Theory of Will”, Brian Leiter offers a particular account regarding Nietzsche’s view on the subject of conscious agency, which involves an explanation of the phenomenology of willing and its lack of relation to causation. Meanwhile, David Emmanuel Rowe argues in his paper ‘Nietzsche’s ‘Anti-Naturalism’ in ‘The Four Great Errors”, against the naturalistic interpretations of Nietzsche, and emphasizes instead, the importance of the role that the idea of becoming plays.



The purpose of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols is to discover false ways of perceiving reality, by reevaluating them in order to determine whether or not these values or idols are worth having and keeping. Nietzsche does not seek to topple the old without creating anew, his vision is broader than that. He proposes that idols, which are hallow representations of an object of worship, be replaced with ideals that are able to function in a way that allows man to not only become better, but to become perfect. Nietzsche criticizes all systems of thought which hinder this goal, including the philosophical doctrines such as empiricism and rationalism, as well as the theological aspects of religion and morality, which he delineates as being either subject to error, or the cause of it. In addition, Nietzsche discusses the two prominent errors regarding the will that he seeks to expose and refute, including the will as a faculty and the error of free will. Nietzsche contends that man is not responsible for being constituted as he is, for his qualities or dispositions, because that is the result of his physiological conditioning, which is beyond his control. However, I argue that although Nietzsche attacks these understandings of the will, he does so in order to establish his own notion of will, that is essential to his whole argument.

The Error of Appearance

Nietzsche begins ‘Reason in Philosophy’ by discussing the idiosyncrasies of philosophers, which includes their lack of historical sense, and their hatred for the idea of becoming, that results in reason being a distorter of realities. In other words, he is addressing the state of philosophy as he finds it: as having a tendency to fall into error, due to the worship of idols and false ways of thinking which he seeks to draw attention to. For instance, the rationalists argue that the apparent world, or that which is perceived through sense data, is the result of an illusion brought about by the unreliability of the senses, while the the empiricists or materialists posit that the real world is physical, unified, and static or unchanging. In either case, Nietzsche finds these approaches to philosophy to be problematic extremes, which are prone to different kinds of error, or distorted ways of thinking. He explains that, “It is what we make of their evidence that first introduces a lie into it, for example the lie of unity, the lie of materiality, of substance, of duration . . . ‘Reason’ is the cause of our falsification of the evidence of the senses.” (Nietzsche 46). In other words, Nietzsche maintains that it is not the unreliability of our senses that is the result of the error, but the way in which we interpret sense data that causes the various lies he mentioned. This means to suggest that Nietzsche thinks the errors of appearance are due to an inability to correctly assess and interpret the world as it is, which is what he aims to construct in praising the idea of becoming. He elaborates, “Change, mutation, becoming in general were formerly taken as proof of appearance, as a sign of the presence of something which led us astray. Today, on the contrary . . . reason compels us to posit unity, identity, duration, substance, cause, materiality, being” (Nietzsche 47).

Nietzsche challenges these contrasting points of view when he asserts this, because it implies a subtle reversal in terms of the way philosophers understood the distinction between being and becoming. He explains that before appearance was becoming, which was later perceived to be something deceptive or erroneous due to, perhaps, a misinterpretation of reality.

The Distinction between Being and Becoming

“What is, does not become; what becomes, is not.” (Nietzsche 45).

The idea of becoming is significant for Nietzsche because it represents man’s potential, not what he ought to be, as religion and morality contends, but what he realistically could become. It entails a continual process of something which has not come into being, and paradoxically cannot be, because the moment it is, it ceases to become. David Emmanuel Rowe argues in his paper ‘Nietzsche’s ‘Anti-Naturalism’ in ‘The Four Great Errors”, against the naturalistic interpretations of Nietzsche, and emphasizes instead, the importance of the role that the idea of becoming plays. As Rowe explains, “There are two main aspects to becoming that need stressing. One is that it contains the idea that the actual world is one of chaotic flux, where things are in continual transition (WTP: ss. 526, 616); the other is that the world is one of relations, where everything is linked with everything else (WTP: s. 293).” (Rowe 259). In other words, the distinction between being and becoming is centered around the contrast between the concept of flux or movement, and its opposite. Rowe understands the first aspect of becoming as something that concerns the relation between material objects and causation, but also recognizes that there’s a kind of interconnection that cannot let the concept be static. He views the term becoming as, “consisting in a constant process, without start or end. There are no segments with which we can carve up this world—any such attempt would be a fabrication on our part and will be literally false.” (Rowe 259). In other words, the idea of becoming is central in Rowe’s account because it requires a different way of looking at Nietzsche, and what he might have meant in regards to the will, which prevents it from being causal in nature.

The Error of False Causality

Nietzsche explains that in so far as language is the means by which reason expresses itself, it is flawed, because it creates a false perspective in which there is a subject that presumably acts, and a deed or action, that functions as the predicate or object in sentences. He states, “It is this which sees everywhere deed and doer; this which believes in will as cause in general; this which believes in the ‘ego’, in the ego as being, in the ego as substance, and which projects its belief in the ego-substance on to all things– only thus does it create the concept ‘thing’” (Nietzsche 48). In other words, it is due to the structure of language that constructs this concept of ego as a subject that wills and acts according to his own desires and motives. It is this which perpetuates the idea that one causes the other, that an individual’s being is the cause of not only their actions, but of their reality or the way they see the world. That is, the understanding of the will which emerges from the concept ‘being’ is erroneous because it leads one to believe that the ego causes events. This error is known as the error of false causality, which involves the belief that human beings are causal agents in the act of willing, that actions are done by the individual, and asserts false causes to explain events that they are not actually responsible for causing. Nietzsche states, “The ‘inner world’ is full of phantoms and false lights: the will is one of them. The will no longer moves anything, consequently no longer explains anything—it merely accompanies events, it can also be absent.” (Nietzsche 60). The language Nietzsche uses here is interesting because it suggests that there was a point in time that the will was able to move and effect outcomes. However, he thinks that the way in which the will is currently conceived of, as having a causal relationship with events, is the result of erroneous reasoning.

Leiter On The Error of False Causality

In his essay, “Nietzsche’s Theory of Will”, Brian Leiter offers a particular interpretation regarding Nietzsche’s controversial views on the subject of conscious agency, which involves an explanation of the phenomenology of willing and its lack of relation to causation. He explains that according to Nietzsche, the experience of will possesses three components: the bodily feelings, the commandeering thought, and the meta-feeling of superiority that comes with identifying with that which commands, rather than obeys. (Leiter 3). Leiter quotes section 19 of Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”, which discusses the plurality of feelings that are present in every act of will, a distinction which involves moving towards or away from something, and suggests striving in one case and resistance in the other. This is significant because it creates the illusion of having caused an action according to the fiction of the typical conception of the will, which is mistakenly thought to dictate and take credit for actions it did not cause. Leiter argues, “If the error of false causality is a genuine error, then it follows that there is no free will. Only this second error implicates the phenomenology of willing, since it claims that we are in error in thinking we know what causation is based on our experience of the will” (Leiter 11-12). In other words, according to Leiter the error of false causality necessarily implies the absence of free will, because what occurs in the first is mistakenly assuming that we caused actions we weren’t actually responsible for causing. Since that is the case, Leiter concludes that there is no free will if a causal relationship of the will is not possible.

Rowe’s Response to Leiter

Although Rowe’s paper makes a significant impact highlighting the idea of becoming in Nietzsche’s argument, he also aims to analyze the arguments Leiter makes regarding these errors and suggests that Leiter has misinterpreted Nietzsche in several ways. For instance, regarding the error of false causation, Rowe argues that what Nietzsche meant by this error had more to do with the conception of cause and effect, rather than an inability to cause our actions. In other words, it consisted of a transition between different states of being that pertained to our beliefs about will and causation. Contrary to Leiter, Rowe explains that he does not assume to know the cause of Cornaro’s longevity, but instead explains, “by denying the distinction between doer and the deed Nietzsche is arguing from the error of free will to the error of confusing cause and effect, rather than in the opposite direction” (267). Without the distinction between the two there is no way of differentiating between different states of being, and consequentially, this leads to two very different explanations regarding the cause of the error of false causality.

The Error of Free Will

Nietzsche examines the error of free will as it arises in the context of Christianity, as the need to make one accountable for one’s actions, out of the need to make one guilty, and therefore, responsible not only for one’s actions, but their passions, and instincts, as well. He states, “The doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment that is of finding guilty” (Nietzsche 64). According to the morality perpetuated by religion, it was necessary that man be free to choose, and act a particular way, in order to be held accountable, and therefore indebted, for his actions. Nietzsche argues that the doctrine of will, along with the concept of free will, is an illusion that serves the interests of maintaining belief, and obedience to this fragile, dogmatic system. Nietzsche explains, “Men were thought of as ‘free’ so that they could become guilty: consequently, every action had to be thought of as willed, the origin of every action as lying in the consciousness” (64). In other words, the way in which free will is understood by religion is as a thing that is necessary to distribute punishment. Nietzsche counters this by asserting radical unaccountability, to remove the concept of guilt and punishment religion imposes on people for things that they cannot control. In other words, the reason Nietzsche suggests the polar opposite is because he holds that human beings do not will their actions in the typical sense that religion indicates, and that because of this, man is not responsible for his natural tendencies, which are due to his physiological conditions, that is actually responsible for causing his actions.

Leiter and Rowe: On the Error of Free Will

In Leiter’s interpretation of Nietzsche, he maintains that Nietzsche gives no argument regarding why free will is an error and, “The inference the reader is plainly supposed to draw is that the ‘error of free will’ follows from the errors about causation discussed in the preceding sections.” (Leiter 8). If that is so, that would make this particular error different from the others because it somehow logically follows from them. However, Rowe contests this view, arguing instead in favor of the ‘innocence of becoming’, and claims that in this error Nietzsche is solely concerned with causation in relation to the being and becoming distinction. He states, “thus section (7) has a dual aim: it must give an account of our continuing belief in free will and (as Leiter rightly points out) give a debunking account of the notion of free will . . . The other three were attempting to show an error in our reasoning, whereas the error of free will is only an error in our belief (in free will).” (Rowe 271). Considering this, it seems that, according to Rowe, the difference might be between errors in reasoning and mistaken beliefs. In regards to the free will error, Rowe is claiming that free will is not an error because of causation, but is an error due to belief. In terms of which one is correct, both make very different significant points about parts of Nietzsche’s arguments that serve a purpose, whether its explaining the errors or presenting an alternative way of looking at things.

Nietzsche’s Conception of the Will

In order to understand what I perceive Nietzsche’s actual conception of the will to be, requires a discussion on the psychology of the artist, and how a certain disposition is necessary to experience intoxication. An artist creates images of the world around them in order to transform it to mirror man’s perfection or ideal state of being. Nietzsche states, “The essence of intoxication is the feeling of plenitude and increased energy. From out of this feeling one gives to things, one compels them to take” (Nietzsche 83). In other words, intoxication involves this condition of abundance, like a cup that is overflowing, that an artist cannot help, but create according to his own vision of reality, which is often perceived as abstracting the main features in order to depict something better. Nietzsche attributes this process as being the result of idealization, which does not consist in removing qualities of a thing to make it perfect, but adding to them. That is, the merit to this type of intoxication is that it fulfills the requirements that are necessary for the creation of something great because it allows one to take what is present, and turn it into something else, which represents what one desires to achieve. To this end, Nietzsche holds that the value of egoism, or the act of putting one’s self and interests before others, can either be an asset or a deterrent depending on how its used. Given that Nietzsche claims man is not responsible for the qualities, temperament, and inclinations he possesses, it is significant to question under which circumstances an individual would accountable for these things. If it is clear that Nietzsche does not conceive of the will as a cause or faculty, what exactly does he think it is?

Nietzsche describes the two categories that each individual corresponds to either the ascending or descending life when he states, “If he represents the ascending line his value is in fact extraordinary—and for the sake of the life-collective, which with him takes a step forward, the care expended on his preservation, on the creation of optimum conditions for him may even be extreme.” (Nietzsche 97). It is clear that the distinction being made here represents the type of life one must can have in order to affirm one’s self, but this definition of the ‘will to power’ provides us not only with Nietzsche’s understanding of the will, which involves the concept of will as something that enables one to act in such a way in order to achieve the best conditions for himself. In addition to that, the second quality of will that Nietzsche seeks to reassemble is this notion of freedom, which he defines as, “the will to self-responsibility. That one preserves the distinct which divides us.” (Nietzsche 103). Nietzsche’s conception of freedom is significant because it reveals what he thinks freedom should be, something that holds one accountable for the actions they can control, instead of the way it has been corrupted by religion, morality, and the need to punish natural instincts. Nietzsche’s argues that what is necessary for a healthy notion of freedom, and consequentially morality, is that which engages the instincts rather than stifles and denies them. Although Nietzsche’s notion of freedom is a very warlike conception, which is hard won through experience and struggle that was overcome or conquered, I argue that this indicates that the notion of will is actually essential to Nietzsche’s larger argument because the reason he attacks, disputes, and refutes the distortions brought about by reason and these false perspectives of will and freedom is in order to establish his own values as preferable at attaining a particular kind of life.


To summarize, Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols” seeks to the tear down false ways of perceiving reality that is brought about by a corrupted form of reason, which is introduced through the medium of language, that results in distortion or falsehood, including false cause and free will. Nietzsche counters these errors by explaining the context in which they arise, and proposing his own solutions that fixes this crippled notion of will, and freedom, in order to restore the conditions of man’s life. Although Nietzsche makes a strategically convincing argument, the assumption that the will can never be the cause of one’s actions is problematic according to his own argument because he does not clarify or explicitly state that the will is essential to his argument. Therefore, I maintain that the concept will itself is significant in restoring the manner in which Nietzsche thinks man should conduct his life, as someone who aims at affirming, and seeks to become better, like the artist who possesses the correct disposition for creation, and the architect who builds grand structures. The will can only triumph if it is understood in the proper manner and used towards self-betterment.

Works Cited

Leiter, Brian. “Nietzsche’s Theory of Will.” Philosophers’ Imprint. Vol 7. No. 7. (Sept, 2007): 1-15. ProQuest. 3 July 2015.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Twilight of the Idols.” Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. Published by Peguin Books. Printed in England. 2003.

Rowe, David Emmanuel. “Nietzsche’s Anti-Naturalism in the Four Great Errors.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies. Vol 21. No. 2 (2013): 256-76. ProQuest. 3 July 2015.

The Hermeneutic Problem Concerning Values

William Alexander Hernandez

Graduate Student

University of Houston

In The View from Nowhere, Thomas Nagel refers to the empirical argument against the objectivity of values as “a poor reason to conclude that values have no objective reality” (Nagel 1986, p. 148). This paper will evaluate whether the empirical/disagreement argument against the objectivity of values is a poor argument or whether it makes a good case against the objectivity of values. This paper has three objectives:

  • Discuss Thomas Bennigson’s, John M. Doris and Alexandra Plakias’ arguments against moral realism.
  • Discuss Thomas Nagel’s view on the empirical argument.
  • Argue that it would be very difficult to make a good argument for antirealism based on empirical evidence.

I will proceed as follows: first, I will discuss what, in general, constitutes moral realism. Second, I will consider Thomas Bennigson’s argument against moral realism. In “Irresolvable Disagreement and the Case Against Moral Realism,” Bennigson argues that there are major irresolvable disagreements in values concerning our culture and the culture of the Yanomamo. The disagreements in values suggest that there are no objective values or morals. I will argue that there might not be a major difference between the Yanomamo culture and our own.   In the third section, I will discuss the argument set forth by Doris and Plakias. In “How to Argue about Disagreement: Evaluative Diversity and Moral Realism,” Doris and Plakias make a case against moral realism. Doris and Plakias suggest that there is empirical evidence of fundamental moral disagreement. I will argue that the empirical evidence might be unreliable. In the fourth section, I will discuss Nagel’s views on cultural differences and relativism. Nagel is not impressed by the empirical argument. I am in considerable agreement with Nagel’s position. In the fifth section, I will present my main argument against the empirical/disagreement argument. I argue that empirical evidence might not be strong enough evidence to support the antirealist’s position. Empirical evidence is not strong enough because the empirical evidence might not be objective. We interpret empirical information based on our own agendas. The empirical evidence can be biased.

Section One: Moral Realism—In General

There is diversity among moral realists concerning what constitutes moral realism, but there is also a common thread or unity among their diversities. There are certain claims that a moral realist makes about what moral realism is. These claims are:

  • Moral judgment claims are either true or false.
  • The moral judgments that are true are true independently of us (DeLapp 2013, pp. 11-29).

In other words, moral realism, in general, is the position that some fundamental aspects of morality or values are real or objective. These values do not depend on what we feel or think; rather, they are independent from what we think and our emotions. In general, a moral realist holds the view that judgments are “truth-apt” (Hurka 2014, p. 86).

Section Two: Bennigson’s Argument and My Interpretation

Before I begin, I will briefly mention that the empirical/disagreement argument is not a new kind of argument against moral realism. In the 1970s, John Mackie developed a sort of empirical/disagreement argument. Mackie claims that differences in moral judgments are “more readily explained by the hypothesis that they reflect ways of life than by the hypothesis that they express perceptions […] of objective values” (Mackie 1977, p. 37).   Here, I think Mackie is expressing the view that disagreements concerning values are evidence against objective values. Bennigson will make a similar claim.

Bennigson begins his argument by first illustrating that there are disagreements between the Yanomamo culture and our culture. In the Yanomamo culture, it is acceptable and admirable for a husband to shoot his wife in the leg for serving him dinner too late. Bennigson suggests that the Yanomami have their own set of norms. Our culture does not subscribe to the Yanomami’s set of norms. Thus, according to Bennigson, there is a major moral disagreement between American culture and Yanomamo culture. Such a disagreement, according to Bennigson, impugns the objectivity of moral facts or values.

Bennigson suggests that “rational resolvability” would be required in order to resolve the moral disagreement between cultures. Bennigson states, “If, for example, a certain Yanomamo belief is as well justified by Yanomamo standards as our conflicting belief is justified by our standards, then neutral justification requires some reason for holding that our standards are superior, such that the Yanomamo cannot make an analogous case, in their terms, for the superiority of their standards” (Bennigson 1996, p. 414). In other words, in order to resolve the moral disagreement between cultures, what is needed would be a superior neutral justification that could illustrate that one moral belief is superior to the other moral belief. Such a superior justification could then overturn the cultural justification.

Bennigson suggests that people who believe that there are objective values should prove that there are such objective values. Bennigson states, “given two rival sets of norms regulating social behavior, the burden of proof is on those who would maintain that one set of norms is objectively preferable. It is hard to see how this burden of proof could be met, unless the putative disagreements were rationally resolvable after all” (Bennigson 1996, p. 419). Bennigson goes on to make an argument for why cultural disagreements cannot be rationally resolvable.

I will not present Bennigson’s argument for why the disagreement between Yanomamo culture and American culture cannot be rationally resolved because I will argue that there is no major disagreement between these two cultures in the first place. There might not be a major moral disagreement between these two cultures because Bennigson uses a biased book to get information about the Yanomamo culture.   Bennigson uses a book by Chagnon in order to present the Yanomamo culture. However, Chagnon’s interpretation of the Yanomamo culture might not be accurate.   In the book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, Patrick Tierney challenges Chagnon’s depiction of the Yanomamo culture. Therefore, we might not know for certain that the Yanomami have radically different values than our values. The example that Bennigson suggests about the Yanomami husbands shooting their wives in the leg might be rare examples of violence, just as there are millions of husbands in the U.S. who physically abuse their wives.

Section Three: Doris and Plakias’ Argument and My Interpretation

Doris and Plakias use empirical evidence from anthropology and social psychology in order to make a case against moral realism. According to Doris and Plakias, the empirical evidence derived from anthropology and social psychology buttresses the position that there are fundamental moral disagreements among cultures; thus, it supports the antirealist’s position. These fundamental moral disagreements, according to Doris and Plakias, are held by many people, that is to say, they are widespread. Moreover, the fundamental moral disagreements among cultures cannot be resolved by pointing to a shared value. Such empirical evidence of disagreement, therefore, might undermine moral realism.

Doris and Plakias use what anthropologists call the “culture of honor” as an example to illustrate that there is a fundamental moral disagreement between Northern and Southern white males in the United States. A study done by Nisbett and his colleagues illustrate that Southern white males are more inclined toward violence than Northern white males. Doris and Plakias write, “Nisbett and Cohen (1996) maintain that patterns of violence in the South, as well as attitudes toward violence, insults, and affronts to honor, are best explained by the hypothesis that a culture of honor persists among contemporary White non-Hispanic Southerners” (Doris and Plakias 2008, p. 317). In other words, unlike Northern white males, Southern white males have their own views and are more inclined towards violent acts. Nisbett’s study supports the case for antirealism, according to Doris and Plakias, because it shows a fundamental moral disagreement between Northern and Southern white males.

Doris and Plakias suggest that the evidence presented by Nisbett and colleagues supports antirealism. Doris and Plakias say, “We think that the data assembled by Nisbett and colleagues make a persuasive case that a culture of honor persists in the American South […] We are therefore inclined to postulate the existence of a fundamental disagreement between (many) Northerners and (many) Southerners regarding the permissibility of interpersonal violence” (Doris and Plakias 2008, p. 319). In other words, Nisbett’s study is a persuasive study that supports antirealism.

According to Doris and Plakias, the fundamental moral disagreement between Northern and Southern white males does not have a “defusing explanation” (Doris and Plakias 2008, p. 319). A “defusing explanation” means that the differences can, in a sense, be explained away in order to suggest that there is no real distinction between the two cultures. The moral differences between the white men of the North and South do not have a “defusing explanation” which can explain away the differences. In other words, the disagreement between Northern and Southern men cannot simply be explained by pointing to the fact that the disagreement is the consequence of attitudes or the result of irrational thinking or the “imperfect rationality” by certain people (Doris and Plakias 2008, p. 311). Moreover, the difference is not a “disagreement about relevant nonmoral fact” (Doris and Plakias 2008, p. 320). Even if the Southerners and Northerners were to agree on non-moral facts, the moral disagreement would not disappear. The difference is fundamental. Therefore, Nisbett’s study is evidence of a fundamental moral disagreement, according to Doris and Plakias, which supports antirealism.

In order to support their claim, Doris and Plakias used empirical data that was gathered by Nisbett. Now I will look at one of the studies that Nisbett performed, according to Doris and Plakias. In his study, Nisbett analyzed the responses of 112 employers in the U.S. which suggested that Northerners and Southerners differ in their attitudes towards violence. Nisbett and Cohan created two different versions of a letter that was sent to employers in the U.S. One version of the letter suggested that the applicant had been convicted of manslaughter. This applicant had accidently killed a man who had said publically that he had had sex with the applicant’s girlfriend. The other version of the letter suggested that the applicant had been convicted of motor vehicle theft.   The study then shows, according to Nisbett, that Southern employers were more sympathetic to the applicant in the first version; that is to say, they were more sympathetic toward the applicant who had been convicted of manslaughter. Doris and Plakias write, “Nisbett and his colleagues assessed 112 letters of response, and found that southern employers were significantly more likely to respond sympathetically in response to the manslaughter letter than were northern employers” (Doris and Plakias 2008, p. 318). In other words, Nisbett’s study illustrates that Southerners react differently than Northerners when it comes to manslaughter.

However, I think that there are several problems with Nisbett’s study. The first problem with the study is that there is no large representative sample. Statistically speaking, the sample is too small. That is to say, we cannot use information from only 112 letters to show that Southerners are more sympathetic than Northerners. I am not claiming that there is a statistical error here; rather, I am claiming that anybody can manipulate statistics in order to provide empirical support for whatever claim they want to support. For example, if I wanted to show that men attend university more than women, I could support my claim by going to a Catholic University/seminary where I know that the majority of the students are men. Then, I could ask 112 students, “What is your sex?” The majority would respond that they are males. In this way, I would have empirical evidence and statistical proof to support the claim that I wanted to support. In a similar manner, Nisbett’s statistical evidence to support the claim could be manipulated. Therefore, we should impugn statistical evidence by asking the following questions: How many times was this test performed? Was the study performed by a third party in order to compare the data received from the letters? How were the 112 people gathered for the survey? Was it a random pool or a selected pool? Do we know whether or not some of these 112 people had relatives or friends who had been convicted of a huge crime? If so, this might explain their sympathetic view toward the person who was convicted of manslaughter. Why are 112 people large enough of a sample, statistically speaking, to support a claim that millions of Southern white males are more inclined to be more sympathetic towards serious criminal offenders than Northern white males? These questions call into question the reliability of the empirical evidence gathered by Nisbett.

My second critique concerning Doris and Plakias’ argument is that the empirical evidence provided by Nisbett and Cohen might not justify the antirealist position because (1) there are limitations to psychology and (2) other psychologists and anthropologists seem to disagree with the antirealist’s position. First of all, psychology might not accurately explain the world. Psychology might not provide us with an objective knowledge of how the world is; rather, it might give us one possible view of how the world is. The way that psychologists describe the world might not be accurate. Paul Vitz, a professor emeritus of psychology at New York University, says that there are serious attacks “on the basic legitimacy of psychology both as a therapeutic and as an explanatory discipline” (Vitz 1994, p. XVi). In other words, Nisbett’s psychological studies might not accurately express the truth concerning Northern white males and Southern white males. Secondly, some anthropologists and psychologists contradict what Doris and Plakias suggest.   Some anthropologists suggest that there are significant similarities among different cultures. For example, William B. Hurlbut, a professor at Stanford University, suggests that people in different cultures have similar attributes. Hurlbut states, “closer consideration of cultural differences and evidence from cognitive neuroscience is now giving us an awareness of the great extent to which all humans share a common neurophysiology that leads to basic similarities in our modes of consciousness and sociality. In perceptual interpretation, conceptual categorization […] there are remarkable similarities in individuals across cultures […] Moral thinking is inherent in the development of human consciousness” (Hurlbut 2006, p. 110). In other words, there are agreements in consciousness and moral thinking among different cultures. Hurlbut goes on to suggest that the disagreements among cultures are the result of free will and not the result of a lack of objective values. Such scientists’ views could undermine Doris and Plakias’ views.

My third critique concerns the term “widespread.” For a cultural disagreement to be fundamental, it has to be widespread. The disagreement cannot be based on a couple of people. But, who decides what is widespread? The global population is around 7.12 billion while the “widespread” population of Southern white males is not even 1 billion. Thus, this disagreement does not seem to be widespread.

Section Four: Thomas Nagel and My Interpretation

In The View from Nowhere, Thomas Nagel does not spend much time on the empirical argument. I think that Nagel does not spend much time on it because he believes that it is not a good argument. Nagel states, “I find the popularity of this [empirical] argument surprising. The fact that morality is socially inculcated and that there is radical disagreement about it across cultures, over time, and even within cultures at a time is a poor reason to conclude that values have no objective reality. Even where there is truth, it is not always easy to discover” (Nagel 1986, p. 147). In other words, Nagel accepts that there are disagreements among cultures; however, it does not threaten the objectivity of values. People might have different values because they might not have discovered objective values yet.

Section Five: My Main Argument

I have illustrated that there are possible problems with both Bennigson’s and Doris and Plakias’ arguments against moral realism. Now, I will turn to my major argument against the empirical/disagreement argument. As mentioned above, the antirealists have used empirical evidence from science in order to support the position that there are fundamental moral disagreements among cultures and that therefore there are no objective values. However, I will argue that there are certain problems with “empirical evidence.” Therefore, empirical evidence might not be strong enough evidence to support the antirealist’s position.

The first problem concerning empirical evidence is that empirical evidence is not always true or objective. Empirical evidence that is derived from science cannot be proven conclusively to be true. We only have to look at the history of science in order to know that this is the case. In science, there have been several “paradigm shifts” (Kuhn 1996, p. 66). For example, Newton’s theories have been shown to be wrong as the result of the discovery of quantum mechanics. In the past, scientists used to believe that there were only three dimensions in the world; most scientists now believe that there are eleven dimensions in the world. In psychology, there have been several paradigm shifts, so to speak. For example, Arno Gruen has shown that the Freudian method of getting psychological information does not work in most cases. Science is always changing. What scientists take to be true because of empirical evidence now could be shown to be false in the future. In a similar manner, the empirical evidence that suggests a fundamental moral disagreement among cultures might be overturned by new empirical evidence.  Therefore, I am prepared to reject all philosophical arguments premised on empirical evidence.

Secondly, I will argue that there is a hermeneutic problem concerning empirical evidence. The hermeneutic problem concerning empirical evidence is that the interpretation of empirical evidence is historically conditioned and therefore not purely objective. For example, scientists used to believe that men were smarter than women. These scientists interpreted men’s bigger brains as evidence that men were smarter than women. Such an interpretation of the size of the brain was shaped by a culture in which women were seen as inferior to men. However, most contemporary scientists would not interpret a larger brain as proof that men are smarter than women because we live in a culture in which women are seen as being on par with men when it comes to intelligence. This case shows that the way a person interprets anthropological evidence depends not only on the facts themselves but also on the person’s beliefs or ideology. The hermeneutic problem concerning empirical evidence is that the meaning we give to specific empirical evidence seems to be historically conditioned and not completely objective. What a study means or suggests depends upon a person’s interpretation of it. Science depends on interpretive knowledge and the way that we interpret empirical evidence can be adulterated by our culture.

Section Six: Conclusion

I have not made a proof for moral realism because that is beyond the scope of this paper. Rather, I have argued that empirical evidence is not strong evidence against moral realism. There are several problems with empirical evidence. The interpretation, for example, of anthropological evidence might depend not only on the facts themselves but also on the person’s beliefs. Thus, empirical evidence might not be purely objective or true. Empirical evidence, such as the evidence presented by Bennigson, can be biased. There are also open questions regarding the reliability of the empirical evidence presented by Nisbett in Doris and Plakias’s argument. Thus, I am in considerable agreement with Nagel’s position regarding the empirical argument against moral realism. I also believe that the empirical argument against the objectivity of values is “a poor reason to conclude that values have no objective reality” (Nagel 1986, p. 148).

Work cited

Bennigson, Thomas. 1996. “Irresolvable Disagreement and the Case Against Moral Realism.” The Sothern Journal of Philosophy Vol. XXXIV

DeLapp, Kevin. 2013. Moral Realism. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Hurka, Thomas. 2014. British Ethical Theorists from Sidgwick to Ewing. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hurlbut, William. “The Meaning of Embodiment: Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, and Spiritual Anthropology.” In Vitz 2006, p. 103-111.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolution. London: University of Chicago Press.

Mackie, John. 1977. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. London: Penguin Books.

Nagel, Thomas. 1986. The View From Nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press.

Plakias, Alexandra & John M. Doris. “How to Argue about Disagreement: Evaluative Diversity and Moral Realism.”

Tierney, Patrick. 2001. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Vitz, Paul & Susan Felch, eds. 2006. The Self. Wilmington: ISI Books.

Vitz, Paul. 1994. Psychology as Religion. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.


~ by texasphilosophical on July 31, 2015.

2 Responses to “Issue Five”

  1. Special Thanks to University of Houston’s Philosophy Department for supporting

  2. Hey, that post leaves me feeling folhiso. Kudos to you!

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