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How can we tell moral paradoxes from non-paradoxes?

In my previous post I proposed that we follow a fairly clear understanding of what a paradox is. A paradox needs to have premises we agree with, leading through argumentation that seems impeccable, to an unacceptable (or reluctantly acceptable but truly absurd) conclusion. I shall assume this understanding of paradox henceforth. But in practice, deciding whether we have a paradox at hand is often not so simple. One reason is that the paradoxicality depends on substantive moral beliefs. Recall the paradox about justice and the severity of punishment that I outlined in the comments to my previous post: if (say) someone does not think that we ever need to mitigate the punishment of those from underprivileged backgrounds, or denies that deterrence is effective, then he or she will not accept all the premises that go into making the paradox. The only thing we can do then is to engage in discussion and try to show that those premises are plausible, and that our discussant should not really reject them.

Most philosophical discussions will not even reach the level of being a debate about a potential paradox, because there is too much disagreement. You might want to color my views on the morality of warfare or on euthanasia as “paradoxical” but, typically, this will just mean that you see them as counter-intuitive (and I will have a similar opinion about yours). We simply have conflicting views. I might even have an internal conflict: I may be torn between the consequentialist arguments for euthanasia (the relief of suffering) and against it (the danger of abuse). But that as well is no paradox, but rather uncertainty. I have more reason to believe that there is a correct reply, than that we have here an antinomy of undeniable arguments leading to two contradictory conclusions. In such typical philosophical disagreements, or internal uncertainties, we should avoid the temptation of describing matters as paradoxical. A paradox follows from SETTLED views that nevertheless generate an unacceptable (or absurd) conclusion, and typical moral disagreements (or internal uncertainties) do not meet these conditions.

Sometimes people will propose as paradoxes sets of claims that are not really paradoxes because they are based upon substantive philosophical MISTAKES. That, I think, is the case with the so called “Paradox of deontology”. Deontology might seem paradoxical in refusing to permit the bringing about of a better state of affairs in deontological terms (e.g. preventing five murders of innocent people through the murder of one innocent person). But this sense of paradox depends on the assumption that deontology must seek to minimize the number of murders. Once this is seen as a mistake (deontology simply forbids any such murder and is not concerned with the potential benefits) then the paradox disappears. One may still object to deontology for not adequately caring about the consequences, but that would be an external substantive moral critique, not a claim that deontology is paradoxical in its own terms. So one way to “get rid” of apparent paradoxes is to clear up the mistakes that generate them.

Sometimes people talk about paradox when all we have is a CURIOUS phenomenon. This, it seems to me, is the case with the so called “Paradox of hedonism”. It may seem surprising that we cannot always simply add to our sense of pleasure by directly aiming at it, and that hence more pleasure can be generated indirectly, by aiming at something else (such as achieving some worthwhile goal). Or maybe it isn’t so surprising (the evolutionary advantages here make, after all, fairly obvious sense). But in any case, even if this is curious, it is not a paradox.

Another category concerns what we can call PUZZLES. How can we accept, morally, the idea of mercy in contexts of justice? If justice were not done, then it would be not a matter of mercy but of correcting the injustice. If justice were done, then reversing the verdict must be unjust. Either way adding on mercy seems puzzling. Or take the idea of modesty. Modesty seems like a virtue, and the immodest are often criticized. But if a woman is clearly superior in certain respects, but has a modest opinion about herself, then what is going on? Is she simply stupid, and not realize her superiority? That hardly seems like a virtue. Is she self-deceptive? That, again, is nothing to be proud of. Puzzles such as mercy and modesty are important philosophically. But in order for them to be properly considered to be paradoxes, something more is needed. We need to accept that there is no resolution of the puzzle. Again, our views need to be “settled”. Alternatively (as with Julia Driver’s paradoxical “virtues of ignorance” approach to modesty) the proposed resolution itself is paradoxical, and if we accept it then we are in paradoxical territory. (I propose solutions to some of the paradoxes in 10 MORAL PARADOXES, but those solutions do not eliminate the paradoxicality, or even enhance it.) But it is plausible that there would be many philosophical puzzles that DO have a (non-paradoxical) solution; these as well are not, then, paradoxes.

Occasionally it will be hard to decide. How long do we have to wait before we can tell that there is no solution? And what happens if people disagree? A striking example is “moral luck”. Most people who have written about it think either that moral luck does not exist or, like Bernard Williams, that it does but that it is not paradoxical. I am inclined to think that it both exists and is deeply paradoxical, although that is a bigger dispute than I can tackle here. But, in any case, we can see why sometimes deciding whether a puzzle is indeed a paradox might be difficult, or contentious.

One final point. Recall our understanding of a paradox, which typically follows the form of an argument, with premises leading through reasoning to a conclusion. This means that there is plenty of room to disagree (about the premises, reasoning, or conclusion). Only if there is agreement then we might have a paradox. As a result, paradoxes are best made from the first person perspective: one realizes that he or she cannot reject the premises, sees no fault in the reasoning, but the conclusion is unacceptable (or is quite absurd). When paradoxes are being discussed, it hence often looks like an attempt to show the paradox to a skeptic. But this does not mean that the skeptic will have the last word – he might simply not see what is plainly there to be seen, or be merely stubborn. In less obvious cases, there will be room for reasonable disagreement as to whether we have a paradox.


  1. 1. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 5, 2007 4:16 pm

    Saul, thanks for the very informative and thought-provoking post. This is a great topic.

    One thought for now: If one takes a first-person perspective (that is, his/her own perspective), and if such person believes she/he indeed has run into a genuine (not apparent) paradox, then that person is still left with a question, aside from whether she/he convinces others that the paradox is genuine: “What do I do now?”

    There are at least two answers, and perhaps some others as well: First, the person could cement her/his view that the paradox is genuine, retain all premises, retain the reasoning involved, accept the existence of genuine paradoxes, avoid altering her/his overall moral theory, and move forward. OR, the person could revisit the premises (one more time, or twice, or …), revisit the reasoning, examine (deeply) the assumptions inherent in her/his overall moral theory and paradigms, enlist others to point out possible problems with either the premises or reasoning or paradigm, and so forth.

    For example, in the realm of science, Einstein and Darwin and Copernicus all saw (or perceived) ‘paradoxes’ in the contemporary prevailing theories and accepted ‘facts’ of their times. But, instead of accepting the prevailing theories and ‘facts’, they tested them, saw new paradigms, and broke through the old to the new. In a sense, a deep intuitive reluctance to accept the existence of genuine irresolvable paradoxes has been a prime motivator for the discovery of new and ever-more-accurate understanding. This doesn’t mean (or prove), of course, that genuine paradoxes don’t exist. It’s just one consideration.

    I look forward to a paradox to consider, and I think the topic (and your thoughts) are very helpful. Thanks.

  2. 2. Posted by Thom Brooks | October 9, 2007 1:28 pm

    This is an excellent and highly useful taxonomy, Saul. More evidence that you are the very king of paradoxes!

  3. 3. Posted by Saul Smilansky | October 11, 2007 6:31 pm

    Thanks to you both for the kind words. But Thom, I think that we should subsume the tiny kingdom of moral paradoxes under the Republic of Letters :)

    Just to make sure it’s not the dormative effect of my prose that’s breeding the silent consensus –

    The way I called some issues that are often thought to be paradoxes, to recall, was as follows: that the “pdx of deontology” is not a paradox but just a mistake, that the “pdx of hedonism” is no paradox but at best points to a curious feature of our world, and that mercy and modesty are also probably not paradoxes, although they are important and interesting puzzles. Any objectors please come forth before my next post/question.

  4. 4. Posted by Thom Brooks | October 11, 2007 6:41 pm

    I’m afraid I don’t object mainly because I find the distinctions (and subsequent diagnosis) compelling…even within a Republic of Letters.

  5. 5. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 11, 2007 8:33 pm


    To crystallize my comments and hypotheses from earlier, I question whether real, genuine, paradoxes exist in the realm of morality (that is, real unresolvable ‘existential’ moral paradoxes, rather than apparent paradoxes that can be resolved). But, I think that identifying and exploring difficult paradoxes is perhaps one of the best ways for us to refine premises, improve arguments, and shift (or completely alter) our larger assumptions and paradigms, for example, our basic understanding of morality, of humans, of the universe, and so forth. So, I think it’s a great and valuable endeavor. And, perhaps we will find that genuine un-resolvable paradoxes do exist, in the moral realm or other realms? I look forward to a specific example for exploration.

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