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What is a moral paradox?

First let’s see what a paradox is. Broadly speaking, there are two opinions. One is lax; it is common among non-philosophers, but occasionally comes up in philosophy as well. According to the lax view, a paradox (or the paradoxical – there is a distinction, but I will not make it here) can be anything perplexing, unusual, unexpected, or ironic. The strict view closely connects paradoxes to the idea of a contradiction. Mark Sainsbury in PARADOXES defines it thus: “an apparently unacceptable conclusion derived by apparently acceptable reasoning from apparently acceptable premises” (1996:1).

How do we decide between the lax and the strict views? There is no “conceptual police”, after all, and there is a lexicographical basis for both views. But while I hesitate to say that those who follow the lax view are “mistaken”, I think that there are philosophically compelling reasons to follow, more or less (I will make one big exception below), the strict view. There is, after all, no reason why things should not quite often surprise us, or seem odd, or ironic, so calling all such occurrences “paradoxes” is overkill. One suspects that such inflationary usage is widespread because it makes what the user is saying seem more exciting, but then this means that one is using the glow of “paradox” in the stronger sense to cover a much more mundane matter. If too much becomes paradoxical, then surely the idea of a paradox would lose its lustre. The notions of the curious, unexpected, surprising, ironic and so on are perfectly good and sufficient, and there is no reason to overuse the notion of the paradox, thereby causing it to lose its distinctive force. As we shall see, following the strict view about what is a paradox will also allow us to ask a number of interesting questions, such as which among some notorious moral problems are paradoxes, or why moral paradoxes are discussed so little. Such questions would be precluded if we were too permissive in our usage of the term paradox.

So, I think that it is important to remain more or less with something like Sainsbury’s definition. The only exception is what I have called in my recent book 10 MORAL PARADOXES “existential paradoxes”. I will elaborate on these in a later post but, basically, the idea is that in addition to the above strict type of paradoxes, there are also paradoxes where the conclusion is absurd, but this does NOT mean that we have made an error in our assumptions or in our argumentation (or perhaps in both), as Sainsbury’s definition implies. Rather, the absurdity lies in (moral, in our case) “reality”, which just IS absurd, and the paradox reveals this absurdity. A paradox, then, can also be an absurd conclusion derived by acceptable reasoning from acceptable premises. Of course we need also to be fairly strict in what we consider to be absurd; otherwise the laxity in what is considered a paradox will return through the back door.

Moral paradoxes are, then, paradoxes in the moral sphere (I don’t think that the “moral” brings up any distinct problems here). And paradoxes, I propose, are fairly distinct and not too common things, they are of two kinds, broadly combining Sainsbury’s definition and my addition.

This still leaves us with the task of distinguishing moral paradoxes from philosophical errors, disagreements, curiosities, puzzles and possibly other notions. But that will be the topic of my next post.


  1. 1. Posted by Jeff Huggins | September 27, 2007 2:14 am


    Thank you for the very interesting post. Some quick thoughts …

    First, your first point is, of course, one of semantics and usage. Most people probably (I assume) use the word ‘paradox’ loosely, i.e., in what you call the ‘lax’ version. However, I agree with you that the concept is most clear, and most interesting, in the more ‘strict’ sense. Many words are overused these days, and they tend to lose their impact or meaning. For example, here in the US, a very popular (and overused) word these days, especially in the media, is ‘provocative.’ I guess that many in the media feel that they have to describe this-or-that event as ‘provocative’ in order to cut through the clutter and gain anyone’s attention. The problem is that the clutter is as bad as ever, and nearly everyone has added yet another word (‘provocative’) to their pitches and stories.

    Back to ‘paradox’, although I haven’t read Sainsbury, I like his definition as you list it, i.e., “an apparently unacceptable conclusion derived by apparently acceptable reasoning from apparently acceptable premises.” That said, having not read your book yet (although I’ll look forward to buying it), I question whether truly valid reasoning, applied to truly valid premises, can lead to incorrect conclusions. Put another way, as far as I can tell, the word ‘apparently’ is a key part of the definition.

    If I understand your post correctly, you are suggesting that, in the case of ‘existential paradoxes’ (and I assume you include ‘existential [MORAL] paradoxes’ in that), one arrives at an ‘absurd’ conclusion without making any error in assumptions or argumentation. I look forward to seeing an example (in the moral realm) of such situation. Of course, whether or not that view is correct partly depends on one’s definition of ‘absurd.’

    I must say, thanks: yours is a very provocative post!

  2. 2. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | September 27, 2007 11:23 am

    Saul, thanks very much for the very interesting post! Perhaps you can give us an example or two here of existential moral paradoxes.

  3. 3. Posted by John Alexander | September 27, 2007 3:08 pm

    Very interesting post. I look forward to the next installment. I thought that a paradox also results when one has what one thinks is a sound argument for doing x AND also has what appears to be an equally sound argument for doing
    -x. The paradox results from our not being able to do both,although we have to do one, but the reasons for both seem equally compelling. This seems different then Sainbury’s definition. Am I mistaken?

  4. 4. Posted by Saul Smilansky | September 27, 2007 10:58 pm

    Thanks to all of you for the comments and kind words. I am grateful for the invitation to write in EE, and thought I’d start by making a number of posts about moral paradoxes, a topic on which I’ve been working for a while and that seems to me interesting, but that has been hardly discussed. This is in contrast to other areas of philosophy such as epistemology and logic where there is a huge literature about paradoxes and they are widely thought to be philosophically important.

    John – I think that you are talking about antinomies, and those should fit under Sainsbury’s definition. It doesn’t really matter whether there is one line of argumentation (premise-reasoning-conclusion) where the conclusion is apparently unacceptable, or two lines of argumentation with contradictory (and hence of course jointly unacceptable) conclusions.

    An example of an “existential paradox” – I will post in more detail on this topic, which also connects to Jeff’s important point about “apparent”, but not to keep you in suspense, I’ll briefly describe a paradox from my book about justice and the severity of punishment. I argue that given our typical normative and empirical assumptions about punishment (that deterrence is a main reason to punish, that it is reasonably effective, that some people deserve mitigated punishment because of the social conditions surrounding them, and that some (categories of) people require the threat of more severe punishment if the deterrence is to work often enough), then we end up with moral absurdity. To simplify, those very conditions that make some people (the underprivileged) deserve less punishment also harden them and so make it the case that they would require harsher punishment (if enough of them are to be deterred). Hence, the more one needs to be punished the less one deserves to be.

    This isn’t just a tension between deterrence and desert (which isn’t news) but a striking contrast from the very start. We might think that this is analagous to a passanger car, which is a compromise between safety, speed, gas consumption and so on, and so there is nothing absurd about our not being able to get deterrence and desert in perfect harmony. But I claim that the situation is much more grim, and that the right analogy would be a horror world in which if you love someone then he or she doesn’t love you (or the more you love someone the less s/he loves you). Such a world would be trully absurd, and tragic. And such I claim is the case with punishment.

    Now you might disagree with me on this paradox, but this isn’t the issue here, we want to understand what an “existential paradox” is (I will give a very different example in a later post, for those who don’t like this one). ASSUME that I am right here: the paradox does not follow, then, because we have made some mistake in our premises or reasoning, but the conclusion is still absurd. The paradox is not a mistake, so that we have to go back and examine our premises and/or reasoning for they must be faulty; rather, the absurdity reveals that moral “reality” is absurd (recall the analogy with the horror love world). The existence of paradox here does not mean that we have made some error, but rather helps us to understand what is going on; absurdity reveals reality.

  5. 5. Posted by Mike Almeida | September 28, 2007 1:34 am

    A paradox, then, can also be an absurd conclusion derived by acceptable reasoning from acceptable premises.

    Wouldn’t this make the conclusion of every reductio ad absurdum argument a paradox? Surely that’s not so, since the absurd consequence is just what we are aiming for in RAA’s. We can’t assume that an RAA is an argument from unacceptable premises, since that is what’s to be shown, not assumed. Maybe what would make it paradoxical is there being no obvious candidate for rejection post reductio. Or more weakly, there being no more likely candidate for rejection post reductio. But there is nearly always some premise that is the best candidate for rejection, even if none of them is a good candidate.

  6. 6. Posted by Jeff Huggins | September 29, 2007 10:59 am


    Thank you for your original post and followup post. Great topic.

    My thoughts tonight are these: If we ASSUME (as you put it) that the example paradox you use is correct in its premises and logic and is a genuine paradox (that is, if we assume that all premises are correct, and the logic is correct, so the conclusion is correct from those standpoints, but that the conclusion is obviously incorrect or contradictory with itself, i.e., absurd) then I’d agree (by virtue of the assumption) that such a paradox exists. If so, then depending on what is meant by each word, — and especially if there are several or many of these genuine paradoxes in the moral sphere — then one could possibly conclude (perhaps tentatively) that reality itself, or morality, is ‘absurd’ in that sense.

    If I understand your point correctly (and I might not be doing so?), then I’m with you so far, based on the assumption.

    That said, (and as you mentioned might be the case for some people), I’m not yet convinced that the particular example is a genuine paradox. In other words, I’m not yet convinced that all premises and all logic are correct and that they correctly lead to the conclusion as stated. It would take strong and deeply-valid “paradoxes” to lead to the large conclusion that reality itself, or morality, is “absurd” (again, depending on what you mean by the word). I realize that you will provide other examples, and I look forward to exploring them and learning from them. Although I won’t detail my observations and concerns regarding this particular example paradox tonight (I can do so later, or I’ll await the other examples), I’ll give a preview of some of the types of questions/concerns that enter into the matter (regarding the example given). They have to do with a combination of semantics; with the often helpful (but sometimes oversimplifying) need and practice of putting complex human dynamics into brief summaries (of three, four, five, or six words) as an abbreviated summary of the complex pattern, and then proceeding with logic that takes the simplified summary AS (i.e., in place of) the more detailed actual understanding; with combining the oversimplified premises with each other, and with the logic, to lead to an apparent conclusion, when what may be happening is that the type, degree, and nature of the simplifications made to each individual premise and reflected in the conclusion are different from each other; and finally with the overlooking (in some cases) of the wide variation in human beings that enter into the equation, sometimes, on such matters.

    I would agree that many times, given that we often simplify matters into abbreviated premises, and so forth, that if we forget about these simplifications, or don’t address them, or don’t take them into account in the logic and in the statement of the conclusion, then we can sometimes end up with paradoxes in an apparent sense.

    I also think that, in some cases, there is another possible issue: If one operates within an overall understanding/theory of morality that is ajar in important ways from the genuine nature and dynamics of morality, then even when one tries to word the premises in their full complexity, and even when one tries to apply careful and corresponding logic, one still may end up with bizarre conclusions on certain matters. In such cases, I’d suggest that we would not only need to carefully evaluate each premise, and any simplifications, and the logic (and any simplifications in logic), but also evaluate the overall moral paradigm we are applying (either explicitly or implicitly) in the matter, before we can then proceed to try to reach the conclusion that reality or morality is absurd (again, depending on what you mean by the word).

    I’m not arguing against paradigms in general, of course. I’m just suggesting that the word “apparent” still seems very important in the matter, I think, especially if by eliminating the “apparent” part of the definition we then take an (apparent) paradox as being so genuine, and so real, and so accurate, and so problematic, that several of them can show that the universe is “absurd.”

    On a more conceptual level (and admitting that the following statement is just a guess), I think it’s more likely that the universe itself has its own sort of “sense” to it, i.e., that there is an underlying “method to the madness”, but that we just don’t understand it clearly, yet. Thus, in my understanding of the word “absurd”, I think it’s more likely that, if we arrive at an absurd conclusion, it is more likely that one of our own premises is absurd, or our logic is absurd, or the overall paradigm that influences our logic is absurd, or that things merely seem absurd to us, than that the universe itself is absurd.

    Thanks again for the great posts. (And sorry if I’ve misunderstood important aspects of your propositions.)

  7. 7. Posted by Saul Smilansky | September 29, 2007 3:19 pm

    Mike – it is interesting to think about the connection between reductio arguments and paradoxes. I think that a good reductio operates by making it suddenly obvious that something (most likely a premise) must be given up, because the conclusion is simply unacceptable, and we then see that the premise is so much weaker by comparison. In “existential paradoxes” we go back and forth and still we cannot give up the premises and argumentation, and so we realize that we must swallow the conclusion. Unlike in a reductio, there is nothing we are willing to reject. So it seems to me that RRA’s and EP’s would typically “feel” very different (although surely sometimes we would need to think more before we figure what is going on), and we would need special reasons to call a RAA a paradox.

    Of my ten paradoxes only one is a reductio, “Choice-Egalitarianism and the Paradox of the Baseline”. Some of you might have come across it in Analysis a few years ago, or seen the replies. CE (or luck-egalitarianism as it is sometimes called) is the major post-Rawlsian liberal-egalitarian view. In a nutshell, it says that the moral baseline (of, say, income or resources) is equality, and any inequality requires justification, while the only form of justification is choice-based. So, if you end up worse off because you bet all your money on horse racing or voluntarily acquired an expensive taste, all the rest of us do not have to finance you, and your ending up worse off is o.k. CE seems attractive because it combines egalitarianism with a respect for individual choice and responsibility, and seems compatible with a market economy; thus it promises to be an egalitarianism we can live with. My argument (again to simplify) is based on the situation of Non-Effectives, people who for no fault of their own cannot earn anything under capitalism (say, because they are invalids who cannot produce anything others will be willing to pay for). The NEs, I argue, need – according to CE – to be indexed to Bill Gates (or whoever is the wealthiest person at the time). For, otherwise they will be worse off than Bill at no fault of their own (by definition, they had no pertinent choice), which CE cannot tolerate. All us productive and hard working(sic) effectives then have to finance the NE’s, while of course remaining much much less wealthy. And that (with some other similar consequences) is absurd, hence a reductio of CE.

    Now I thought at the time as to whether this is a paradox, and (partly because it can be presented in alternative ways as an antinomy and not a reductio) decided that it is. But I think that it is an unusual case, which works because the view that choice should be added seems so plausible, and because CE is such an established view. So, arguably it is still a paradox even though it is a RAA argument, but the typical RAA would just be a move in a philosophical discussion calling for a rejection of a premise, and hence destroying the paradox form right when the reductio is being made.

    Jeff – thanks for a very thoughtful post. I need to think more about all the things that you say (and I don’t think that you misunderstood my view). I am in fact inclined to agree with you. As I said in my first post, we should not be quick in calling anything a paradox, and clearly we must hesitate even more before concluding that it is an “existential paradox”. With a regular paradox the stakes lie just within the scope of the paradox itself, but (moral) EPs threaten morality itself. So certainly, we shouldn’t be happy about the thought of an EP, and we should try to get rid of it. But where we cannot, then perhaps we do have an EP, with all that this implies about morality. I’ll write more about these things later (and sorry if this post has been too long).

  8. 8. Posted by Jeff Huggins | September 29, 2007 4:42 pm


    Thanks again for this thread and your posts. I find the subject fascinating and helpful. And thanks for your comments.

    One of the reasons I’m finding it hard to accept the idea (though I look forward to further examples and discussion) of what I’ll refer to here as genuine moral EPs (i.e., as you say, without the word ‘apparent’ included several times in the definition) is that, given my views and understanding of morality, its dynamics, its ‘effective’ function, its origins, and so forth, conclusions that ‘threaten’ morality in the sense of suggesting that it doesn’t really exist, or that it’s absurd (in a strong sense of that word), are, to me, a bit like conclusions that would try to suggest that water doesn’t exist or that water is ‘absurd.’ Or, like my right hand doesn’t exist or that my left hand is absurd. We see these things (water, and our hands, and the hands of others) in action every day, and we understand that they are imperfect or in some senses odd, but we also understand that they do exist and that they do play important roles. And we understand (to a degree) why they exist. In any case, we don’t normally think of water or hands as being ‘absurd.’ And we don’t often argue that they don’t exist.

    You wrote, …

    “With a regular paradox the stakes lie just within the scope of the paradox itself, but (moral) EPs threaten morality itself.”

    I think this particular statement on your part is very well-put and captures the concern.

    Expanding (briefly) on my earlier post, I think one of the great values of apparent paradoxes (even those that are very hard to solve or resolve initially, or perhaps especially those) is that seeing them, wrestling with them, and ultimately resolving them actually helps us learn about, and improve, our premises, logic, overall paradigms, and understanding of the ‘nature’ and dynamics of morality itself. In other words, by so doing, we make our own (human) imperfect premises, imperfect logic, and askew paradigms less absurd, and in the process we get closer to understanding the un-absurd ‘nature’ and dynamics of what we call the broad topic of morality.

    That said, I look forward to further examples.

  9. 9. Posted by Saul Smilansky | October 2, 2007 3:51 pm


    Sorry for the delay in responding. I like your description of how the paradoxes can push us towards greater understanding. For now just two quick points in reply to your post. First, we should not think that the existence of a paradox is necessarily bad in every respect. I will claim that some of the moral paradoxes are beneficial, and that in fact we even need to enhance paradoxicality! Second, while philosophically the existence of a “real” paradox is problematic (potentially saying something unwelcome about the coherence or consistency of ethics), the damage, as I see it, will typically be more local and less severe than you describe. If everything were paradoxical then we would be in big trouble (assuming that this idea makes sense, and that we could tell), but in my view the paradoxes are narrower. In the book I compare them to black holes, that have a big effect in their surroundings, but (fortunately) do not cover the whole universe. So while many moral paradoxes are far from trivial, they don’t pose an overwhelming danger to morality.

  10. 10. Posted by Guy Kahane | October 3, 2007 5:20 pm

    Just two points:

    The first is that Sainsubry’s definition still seems a bit too weak. Most philosophical puzzles involve getting to a seemingly implausible conclusion from seemingly plausible premises. I think that what’s distinctive about paradoxes is that the appearances of both the acceptability of the premises (and reasoning) and of that unacceptability of the conclusion are very robust. But even this might be too weak if it referred only to how things appear to a particular thinker. In classical paradoxes, these appearances are very robust across the vast majority of thinkers. I suspect that this point is one reason why philosophers don’t often discuss moral paradoxes: in this area it’s harder to get such intertemporal and interpersonal robustness. (Is the truth of luck egalitarianism really so compelling to most people?)

    The second is about the very intriguing remarks about existential moral paradoxes. If such paradoxes existed and were irresolvable, would this mark something special about the moral domain? My own view on this is that the possibility of such irresolvable tension within our moral scheme indicates one way in which, contrary to common belief, meta-ethics can’t be as insulated from normative ethics. Roughly: A certain kind of moral realist can expect moral reality to make good sense. A certain kind of moral anti-realist (or naturalist realist) can’t really expect that.

  11. 11. Posted by Saul Smilansky | October 4, 2007 2:13 pm


    Interesting comments. On the last point, I don’t have a meta-ethical view to defend (I am one of those normative ethicists who keep working in the hope that the subject makes sense :). And I don’t think that moral paradoxes should only interest people of some narrow ME views. But it seems to me that we could have a fairly robust ME position, and yet think that some corners of morality are paradoxical. Perhaps it is just a rationalistic and/or a moralising bias to think that moral “reality” must always make sense, rationally, ethically and humanely. In other words, perhaps there is a robust moral reality, but it is sometimes weirder than we tend to expect.

  12. 12. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 4, 2007 4:25 pm

    Saul and Guy,

    Great thread and recent posts. A few comments:

    In my view, if an overall theory of morality is valid and accurate, it is unlikely to result in genuine moral paradoxes, i.e., those that are true and unresolvable and not just apparent. I could be wrong on that, of course. Put another way, such a theory, when faced with an apparent paradox, could eventually explain and resolve it.

    That said, this ability is much less likely, in my view, with overall theories of morality that are not rooted and grounded in the workings of nature itself, in an understanding of ‘human nature’, and in related matters, combined with sound logic, of course. It shouldn’t surprise us if one of those theories runs into situations that it can’t explain or resolve, at least at its boundaries but sometimes also right in the middle of itself. So, if we operate within an overall view of morality that is not accurate, and if we take that view as a given (either consciously or subconsciously, through our paradigms and assumptions), then some paradoxes can be expected that will seem real, genuine, and unresolvable within that theory. To resolve the paradox in such situations, one would need to refine (or reject) the overall theory.

    In response to one recent comment (one of Guy’s, I think), I think that there are (or should be) continuities between an accurate overall view of morality/ethics and views that focus on specific ethical systems, specific ethical problems, and etc. In some (but not all) senses, like gravity: The same force (or whatever it turns out to be) that causes a pin to drop to the floor on Earth (or seems to do so) is the force that keeps the planets in the solar system. In the realm of morality, of course, not all continuities are quite that smooth. But the smaller-scale dynamics, or specific dynamics, should be understandable within the context of the largest meta-dynamics, of course.

    Regarding another observation (involving the wide diversity of moral theories within philosophy), I saw on one of the philosophy e-mail lists recently a question about consensus in philosophy. One of the respondents commented something like this: that if there is consensus, then it’s not philosophy. Hhmmmmm. While I agree, of course, that philosophy should explore, experiment, and push forward the edges of understanding, it seems to me that the enterprise (philosophy) as a whole should involve not only exploration on the frontiers but also the building of a valid (hopefully) consensus body of understanding. Like science. For example, science is still exploring many unknowns about the universe, and Earth, and so forth, but science does now know (and accept as a strong consensus) the notion that the Earth is somewhat of a sphere, i.e., it’s not infinite, not flat, and not a cubic block.

    This (apparent?) lack of consensus within moral philosophy regarding some ‘basics’ (to pick a word, if such a lack of consensus exists) has substantial repercussions, I think. For example, given the growing scientific consensus regarding important aspects of global climate change, and (in contrast) given Exxon-Mobil’s grossly insufficient views and actions on the problem (in my view), is there enough consensus among a large number of leading moral philosophers to say to Exxon-Mobil that they are acting wrongly? For example, could 50 leading moral philosophers march on Exxon-Mobil’s headquarters, or could 200 leading moral philosophers place a full-page ad in The New York Times, to convey that message in a compelling way? I’m not asking whether they could (or should) do so, or whether they can afford the travel or the advert: I’m asking whether there is enough consensus among moral philosophers (regarding the nature of morality itself, and so forth) to make a compelling consensus statement that Exxon-Mobil is acting irresponsibly and wrongly on the matter?

    (Sorry for the digression.)

    In any case, as mentioned earlier, I think the exploration of paradoxes (whether they are apparent ones or real ones) is a very worthwhile endeavor.

    Looking forward to future posts.

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