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What can we learn from moral paradoxes?

While each of the questions of my four previous posts in this series could be answered fairly decisively, this question is naturally more open. So I will be able to give only some indication as to why moral paradoxes matter, and why investigating them further should be worthwhile. But there is another reason why it is difficult to speak here with confidence: moral paradoxes, in the strict sense (as we explicated their nature in the first post) have been almost completely neglected. To the best of my knowledge, my recent book 10 MORAL PARADOXES is only the third book ever on this topic, at least within analytic philosophy (the predecessors, in a broad sense, being Derek Parfit’s REASONS AND PERSONS which introduces various paradoxes, and the late Gregory Kavka’s MORAL PARADOXES OF NUCLEAR DETERRENCE; both of them from the 1980s).

The neglect of moral paradoxes is important, and seeing this will at once give us the first reply as to what moral paradoxes might be able to teach us. The importance of paradoxes in other areas of philosophy (epistemology, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of science and so on) is manifest, with hundreds of books and papers available and more coming out all the time. While there are many survey articles, special journal issues, and numerous collections of papers devoted to paradox in these areas, and indeed often to some individual paradoxes, there is nothing similar concerning moral paradoxes. So something very ODD is going on here: either moral paradoxes are just as important within morality as logical or epistemic paradoxes are to philosophical logic and epistemology – in which case, the neglect of moral paradoxes is outrageous. Alternatively, there are major differences between morality and those other areas, which explain the stark difference in the role of paradoxicality – but here again we stand to learn something new and important (which we have yet to pay any attention to). I am inclined towards the first view, as I see no principled reason why moral paradoxes should matter less within ethics as compared to other philosophical fields. But even if this is not so, exploring the difference should be enlightening.

We have seen how the investigation of moral paradoxes should modify our view of paradoxes. Recall the standard definition of paradoxes that I discussed in the first post, that of Mark Sainsbury: “an apparently unacceptable conclusion derived by apparently acceptable reasoning from apparently acceptable premises” (PARADOXES, 1996:1). Like most researchers of paradox, Sainsbury thinks that the thing to do is to investigate the premises and argumentation, and look for the error that leads to the unacceptable conclusion. In principle there are no real paradoxes, it is simply our limitations that make us hold onto false premises, or reason inadequately. But if my case for the existence of “existential paradoxes” is plausible, then that view is too limited: there are cases where we end up with absurdity, but the fault lies neither with our premises nor with our reasoning; rather, the paradox reveals absurdity which is simply there. The paradox is not a mistake, it is a discovery.

Or consider Nicholas Rescher’s view. In PARADOXES: THEIR ROOTS, RANGE AND RESOLUTION (2001) Rescher claims that paradoxes arise from philosophical over-commitment. The way not to fall into paradox is to reduce our commitments, and not to hold so many beliefs. It is far from clear that this is an adequate recommendation even concerning those paradoxes that have a relevant structure. Recall my paradox about Justice and the Severity of Punishment: I do not think that the solution is to give up either on the idea of deterrence or on that of mitigating punishment; on the contrary, we ought not to give them up, even if that entails swallowing the paradoxical consequences. Giving them up would miss the lesson that we are being taught, about the strength of paradox and absurdity in the context of punishment. This becomes obvious in the Morality and Moral Worth paradox, where there is nothing to give up: clearly morality prescribes that we combat suffering and grave injustice, but doing so then threatens to eliminate the conditions which would bring forth the heights of moral worth. This is absurd, but that’s life. There is no mistake, nothing to correct and no over-commitment; morality is just (here) absurd. So, work on moral paradoxes should change the way we view paradoxes per se. It remains to be seen whether there are non-moral equivalents to “existential paradoxes”, (my mathematician friends, at any rate, are not averse to talking about mathematical equivalents).

So moral paradoxes can teach us about paradoxes. But what can they teach us about morality? Surely by now we should think that quite a lot. Derek Parfit’s population paradoxes, for example, are indispensable to our thinking about morality and future generations. I have mentioned only five and a half of the ten paradoxes in my own book (the punishment paradox I described is only half of the discussion in the relevant chapter). But we have become aware, in this series, of the paradoxical nature of Fortunate Misfortune, of the surprising force of the notion of integrity that leads to a widespread “your integrity or your job” argument (in Beneficial Retirement), of the absurdity of the relationship between morality and moral worth, of the antinomy of the Paradox of Moral Complaint, and of the moral mess that is punishment. Even someone who does not agree with my views on all these paradoxes will, I trust, think that we can learn from moral paradoxes about morality.

Moving to the more general level, there are many things that can be learnt about morality. (I explore this in more detail in chapters 11 and 12 of my book, “A Meta-Paradox: Are Paradoxes Bad?”, and “Reflections on Moral Paradox”.) I will briefly mention only two major examples, which have already been pointed out. First, the idea that there are “existential paradoxes” teaches us not only about paradox (as we saw earlier) but about morality: if I am right, then there are areas within ethics that are inherently (not only epistemically) absurd, with all that this threatens to imply about the ideal of a fully coherent and consistent ethical view. Second, we saw that some of those paradoxes are GOOD, so that we should not try to eliminate them, and indeed sometimes (as in Beneficial Retirement and Morality and Moral Worth) we even ought to enhance paradoxicality. Paradoxes, or at least some of them, are here to stay; sometimes, they are even good, and then we need to safeguard paradoxicality, and aim to make the world even more absurd.

This was my last post in this series; I hope that you have found things interesting.


  1. 1. Posted by Jeff Huggins | November 11, 2007 6:26 pm


    Thanks for the great series and focus on moral paradoxes. I have enjoyed following and participating in the topic.

    I agree with you that studying and understanding paradoxes can lead to important learning and substantial advancements in our understanding of morality. In fact, I think it’s a great approach to help us challenge some of our assumptions, examine evidence and arguments, consider conclusions, and move understanding forward.

    That said, although I’m very convinced, of course, that apparent paradoxes exist, I’m not yet convinced that true, genuine, ‘existential paradoxes’ exist, at least in the realm of morality, of the sort that might suggest that morality itself is, as you put it, “absurd.”

    I think that the value of studying and analyzing paradoxes, from the standpoint of advancing our understanding of the underlying subject (in this case, morality), comes substantially by assuming the viewpoint (or approach) that it is far more likely that we (humans, philosophers, scientists, etc.) need to examine and refine our premises, arguments, assumptions, inherited and current paradigms, and so forth than it is likely that reality or morality themselves are “absurd”, unless you mean ‘absurd’ in a slightly different sense than I understand it. For example, is the fact that humans often have to balance conflicting desires and needs “absurd”? Is the fact that most of the poll results on this site (e.g., The Kamm Poll) are not unanimous and, in some cases, are quite mixed, to be considered “absurd”? Is the rather basic fact that we are born into this world, and then die, “absurd”?

    I would argue that, by combining the latest scientific understanding of human morality with sound reasoning and with vital philosophical understandings, and by massaging and polishing that mixture—retaining that which makes sense and which coalesces, and refining or discarding that which doesn’t—we can better understand that which appears to be paradoxical, and we can advance our understanding of the subject (in this case, morality) itself. (By saying this, I don’t mean, of course, that we should ignore or discard valid evidence and/or sound reasoning. Quite the opposite.) If, after all that, we are forced to conclude in some way that reality and/or morality are “absurd”, then we will have concluded that genuine “existential paradoxes” do exist, or probably exist, but the process will also give us a much more specific and narrow understanding of what we mean by ‘absurd’ in this specific context. Maybe by understanding, narrowing, and precisely specifying what we find to be “absurd” with respect to a given matter, the sense of absurdity itself will be mitigated or go away entirely.

    In any case, the topic is an important one, and I look forward to reading your book.

  2. 2. Posted by Thom Brooks | November 12, 2007 10:58 am

    I agree with you, Saul, that we need to offer more attention to the importance of moral paradoxes and I think all of your points are very well taken. As a related suspicion, I would be unsurprised if a similar neglect of paradoxes were discovered in political philosophy or philosophy of law.

  3. 3. Posted by Saul Smilansky | November 13, 2007 7:58 pm

    Thanks to both of you for these comments and for your previous contributions.

    I agree, Jeff, that we shouldn’t rush to conclusions about the absurdity of (parts of) morality, but I am inclined that way as a result of my work on specific paradoxes. So the way to challenge my tentative but general claims would be to resolve or otherwise deal with some of the specific paradoxes I offer (I know that you have tried to do this in your own comments). While in general my philosophical temperament is not averse to theory, here I have definitely gone from the bottom up, and I will not easily give up my growing skepticism about the general coherence and consistency of morality unless specific paradoxes are shown to be other than I have claimed. But in any case I agree that more work is in order.

    Which brings us to Thom’s point. I don’t know enough about those areas but you are probably right (perhaps with the limited exception of things related to decision theory). The neglect of moral paradoxes is very odd. It becomes more odd if we reflect on the splendid example that Derek Parfit gave us, particularly in REASONS AND PERSONS. Some of his specific paradoxes have been of course discussed, and there seems to be some continuing work on population paradoxes and the like, but the model he provided was not really followed, in going after moral paradoxes in areas Parfit did not cover. Why is the pursuit of paradox so rare in ethics? I have speculated a bit on this in the introduction to my book. One explanation might be that people working in (say) the theory of knowledge or logic are more sure of themselves and of their field, and are hence not afraid of thinking about what might seem like mere games. Or perhaps morality itself is perceived at some level as such “serious business”, and paradoxes as a social or psychological threat, that we shy away from any hint of paradox. But surely the spirit of playfulness and risk-taking shown by the concern with paradox in other philosophical fields has born fruit.

    I have not mentioned all the work on moral paradoxes that I am aware of (Larry Temkin, for example, is doing really interesting stuff on transitivity). And I am sure that there is work on the paradoxical that I don’t know about (I would be grateful for any help here!). Finally, perhaps someone IS working on things that border on the paradoxical, but he or she have not recognized this so far, and maybe this discussion will make them more aware.

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