New York University
When assessed by an appropriate ethical standard, most of us usually behave quite acceptably. Or, so we generally judge. And, when assessed by an appropriate epistemological standard, most of us usually do quite well, too: First, we know many things about the world and, second, we're usually justified in holding those of our confident beliefs that aren't quite instances of knowledge. Or, again, so we generally judge. As we generally judge, then, both in our behaving and in our believing, things are usually quite acceptable.
As is familiar, philosophers have challenged these very common, and very comfortable, judgments. Without yet presenting the argument, here's an example from ethics: When we spend money on dinner in a fancy restaurant, instead of sending money to feed the starving, are we behaving in a way that, ethically, is acceptable? Even as we realize that making the donation is the ethically better thing to do, still, the ordinary supposition is, of course, that there is nothing wrong in our behavior. Not doing what is ethically better, we do what is, even so, ethically acceptable. But as Peter Singer and others have shown, it's possible rationally to motivate this: First, the common, comfortable thought may be properly questioned. And, second, sometimes it might be correctlyjudged that such costly pleasurable behavior isn't ethically acceptable.1 Now, what's most interesting about this is that, in motivating the harsh ethical judgment, the philosophers need employ, along with undisputed empirical facts, only some ethical ideas that, at least implicitly, are already widely accepted.
Again without yet presenting the argument, here's an example from epistemology: When you haven't been in your office for an hour, do you know that your desk is still there? The ordinary judgment, of course, is that you do. Even if you don't know this with the certainty that you know you yourself exist right now, still, you do know the thing. Not knowing them in a way that may be epistemically better, still, we do know ever so many things to be so. But as Peter Unger and others have shown, it's possible rationally to motivate this: First, the common, comfortable thought may be properly questioned. Second, sometimes it might be correctly judged that you never know any such thing2; indeed, sometimes we may correctly judge even that you aren't ever justified in believing any such thing.3 Again, what's most interesting about this is what, in motivating the harsh epistemological judgments, the philosophers employ. These ideas, too, are part of commonsense thinking.
Along with important differences, there may be a deep commonalty holding between these two sorts of dialectic, the epistemological and the ethical. As is my hypothesis, a main common point is a semantic one concerning the contexts in which we make, or grasp, particular normative judgments. Now, elsewhere, I've argued for this hypothesis: In many cases, the truth-value of a judgment about whether a person knows a certain thing depends on the context in which the judgment is made, or is grasped.4 Here, I'll argue for a parallel hypothesis: In many cases, the truth-value (or the acceptability) of a judgment about whether a person's behavior is morally permissible depends on the context in which the judgment is made, or is grasped.5
As with the epistemological-semantic hypothesis proffered before, so with the ethical-semantic hypothesis offered now: My argument is far from conclusive. Indeed, it consists only of observations that, more than does any rival of which we're aware, the hypothesis helps explain the (largely linguistic) behavior, and the associated thoughts and feelings, found with a certain large class of judgments. It's in this modest spirit, but also ambitious spirit, that we proceed.
Even in our rather materialistic society, a few work hard on behalf of the poorest and most wretched people of the earth. And a few give much of their money for the most worthwhile purposes, such as helping to prevent children from dying from easy-to-beat diseases. As most of us agree, these people are, certainly morally and perhaps overall, much better people than (almost all) the rest of us. As is no news, most of us aren't (morally) extremely good people.
What of our conduct, or our behavior? Because it's not wicked, and so on, most of the time, and to our credit, our behavior isn't extremely bad. But, and as the previous paragraph makes plain, most of the time our behavior isn't extremely good, either. So, we may agree on at least this: In terms of better behavior and worse conduct, pretty far from the great extremes, most of the time our own conduct lies somewhere in a vast middle ground: We could do a lot better and we could do a lot worse.
But, what of right, and permissible, and wrong? When confronted with any particular case of what a person might do, the main matter, it appears, is to get things straight about what's right, or at least what's all right, and what's wrong. As things generally appear, we must go beyond the merely comparative judgments of better and worse behavior to arrive at a more decisive assessment.6
Judging our behavior in more decisive terms, how does it shape up? Singer and others, I said, have argued that commonsense ethics helps deliver the conclusion that, throughout most of our lives, we behave wrongly. At first glance, this idea seems to have no chance of being correct. But the question may be a rather complex issue: For one thing, our common ethics may include at least pretty demanding principles, even infinitely many of them, which we may rarely notice. Second, while in infinitely many possible worlds these precepts will make hardly any demands on us, in the actual world some of them might require us to extend ourselves, or to deprive ourselves, to at least a moderate degree.
In discussing these principles, we'll think about how they might apply to you, a pretty typical agent. As will be helpful, we'll stipulate this: Apart from what's often (misleadingly?) called the ethics of benevolence, throughout your life you'll be doing everything that commonsense ethics ever requires of you. So, you won't ever be harming anyone; and you'll be keeping all your promises; and you'll be taking good care of all your children; and so on.
With that in mind, consider:
Cheaply Decreasing Limb Loss. Other things being even nearly equal, if at (nearly) insignificant cost to yourself you can (help) prevent one or more other people from each loosing at least one arm or leg, and if even soyou'll still be at least reasonably well off, then it's wrong for you not to (help) prevent such others from suffering such loss of limb.
Especially for the first stressed clause, concerning the tiny cost to the agent, even on its face this precept is just enormously appealing to moral common sense. And, owing to the second stressed clause, concerning continued good prospects for the agent, the precept's appeal is retained even for philosophical sophisticates: Not even sorites reasoning can yield that the agent's compliance with the maxim will ever, in any possible world, be extremely demanding on the agent. While its presentation may need changes, this precept's substance is part of commonsense ethics, which isn't, of course, an extreme libertarian morality.
Notice that, though the principle allows for their conspicuousness to you to endow certain people with a bit extra by way their having a moral call on you, the maxim doesn't find a very great deal to favor just those who strike your attention. Rather, when it comes to losing an arm or two, if you can so very easily (help) stop the terrible occurrence, then it's wrong for you to pass by those strangers in the dark or far away, not just those well lit or nearby. But, of course, at least this modicum of impartiality is, if not an absolutely central part, at least a part of commonsense ethics.7
Now, in this actual world of ours, it's only very rarely, it seems, that the likes of you and me, who aren't surgeons, even get a chance to do much about people losing their limbs. As it happens, then, and with very little cost to ourselves, we laymen seem to do quite well by Cheaply Decreasing Limb Loss.
Closely allied with that maxim is a yet more compelling precept:
Cheaply Decreasing Deaths. Other things being even nearly equal, if at (nearly) insignificant cost to yourself, you can (help) prevent one or more other people from each dying soon, while substantially raising the chances that they'll live healthily for years, and if even so you'll still be at least reasonably well off, then it's wrong for you not to (help) prevent such others from suffering such loss of life.
As does Cheaply Decreasing Limb Loss, this still more compelling maxim does not favor greatly just those who happen to be conspicuous to you. Perhaps even partly because of that, Cheaply Decreasing Deaths is just a stupendously compelling moral maxim.8 But, of course, the main reasons for its extraordinary grip are the most obvious ones: First, this maxim, too, has that first emphatic clause concerning the tiny cost to you. And, second, here we're not just talking about innocents just losing a limb or two; it's people losing their very lives. Third and finally, as the present precept also has that second emphatic clause concerning continued goodprospects for the agent, it gives an absolute guarantee that even full compliance with it won't ever be extremely demanding on you.
But, unlike what actually happens with regard to the prior precept, what actually happens with Cheaply Decreasing Deaths is this: Owing to the nature of the horrors facing so very many young folks in the actual world, and owing to the nature of the available means to decrease those horrors, we're (almost) always facing a chance to comply with, and a chance to fail to comply with, Cheaply Decreasing Deaths. So, as regards this yet more compelling precept, it's not obvious that our behavior usually measures up. As many of the details of this are worth confronting many times over, I'll quickly rehearse just of few of them now. First, a little bit about some of the horrors: During the next year, unless they're given oral rehydration therapy, several million children, in the poorest areas of the world, will die from - I kid you not - diarrhea. Indeed, according to the United States Committee for UNICEF, "diarrhea kills more children worldwide than any other cause."9
Next, a medium bit about some of the means: By sending in a modest sum to the U.S. Committee for UNICEF (or to CARE) and by earmarking the money for ORT, you can help prevent some of these children from dying. For, in very many instances, the net cost of giving this life-saving therapyis less than one dollar.10 (As almost all will agree, to the great majority of North Americans, and Western Europeans, and Japanese, and so on, this is a cost that's [nearly] insignificant.) But, how are you to get even a few dollars into the efficient hands? Saving you the trouble of doing even the least bit of research, I provide you with the address of a previously mentioned organization:
United States Committee for UNICEF
United Nations Children's Fund
333 East 38th Street
New York, N.Y. 10016
Now, you may send this effective group a modest sum, simply by mailing in, to that address, a check made out to:
United States Committee for UNICEF
And, you may earmark the funds for the purpose of fighting killer diarrhea, simply by enclosing a very short note. The note may simply read:
USE THE ENCLOSED FUNDS FOR ORAL REHYDRATION THERAPY.
So, even if you might not have known before, now you know how to do something, on any given day, that will help save the lives of other people. With both some sensible ethics and some empirical facts before us, we're well along a commonsense route to harsh ethical judgment of common behavior. Let's keep going: Well, as it's not in the past, today is one of thedays in which you can act. Have you sent anyone any life-saving money yet today? Perhaps. If so, that's fine. But, almost certainly, that's not the end of what, with regard to the desperately needy children, is morally required of you. For, of course, there's tomorrow to consider, and the day after that, and so on. With this thought firmly in mind, we're nearly ready for a nice application of Cheaply Decreasing Deaths.
Before we make the application, there's a partly practical and partly ethical question to consider. As each person's circumstances are different, this is a question that each of us must think through herself. Right now, I call on you to do that: On a typical day, how much money is the least amount that, ethically, you should send? Because we have a reasonable ethical understanding of our compelling ethical principle, the relevant answer will be a sum that's at least pretty high up in a certain vaguely indicated range. This is the range of all those precise-to-the- penny sums that each represent what is, for you, a (nearly) insignificant cost. So, among other things, your proper answer depends on many egocentric objective factors, such as your family responsibilities, your income, your assets, and so on, much of which might have been much affected by significant sums you've already given to save lives! Notknowing your particular situation, and trusting you to do your honest best, I leave the matter up to you.
To reduce uncertainty about all this, and to help you along, I'll present a simple, standard multiple choice format, with just four choices. Each member of Group 1 will send the short note and just $5, in the appropriate way and a bit later today, to the address displayed just above. A little higher up, Group 2's members will send $10 apiece; Group 3's will send $15 and Group 4's, including Leona Helmsley and even me, will each send a full $20. You are to you place yourself, as honestly as you can, in the highest group that pertains to your particular case. As I suspect, you can place yourself at least in Group 1.
For the sake of the argument, let's suppose that you did choose just Group 1. So, a bit later today, you'll send $5, along with the indicated short note, to 38th Street, saving some lives. To be hard on our argument, let's grant that, if you do even just this, then, with regard to conduct open to you on this present day, you will be fully complying with Cheaply Decreasing Deaths. On the other hand, if even while you are easily able to save lives you don't do this, and if you do nothing else of at least comparable moral importance, then today you'll behave wrongly. With only sad confidence, I'll say, and you'll agree, that, on the day you read thesewords, you won't do anything else of comparable moral importance. So, unless you soon do send (at least) a $5 contribution to 38th Street, your behavior today really will be wrong.
Although I doubt it, perhaps inspired by my words, you will soon send at least $5. But, will do you the same tomorrow, and the day after? Although you won't stop brushing your teeth daily, it's all but certain that, eventually, you'll give up this other routine, forsaking the world's most sickly children. Then, eventually, you'll behave wrongly at least almost every day for the rest of your life.
All of that is quite a good commonsense argument, I submit, to a very harsh judgment of your (probable future) behavior. Some, however, will think the reasoning to be unrealistic: "Really," they'll say, "who can bother to do that every day?" But, as can be made plain, words like these can't ever point to any serious objection. We need only observe that commonsense ethics allows for certain moral equivalences. Picking a naturally convenient time and a nice round figure, you may, instead of sending $5 to 38th Street each and every day, send 30 times the amount, or $150, once a month. Not even requiring much time or money for postage, there now won't be anything in what you're to do that's the least bit unrealistic, not on any reasonable interpretation of the term. Indeed,it's so very easy to make the practice completely routine. For example, you may send the $150 to 38th Street on the day that, by mail, you pay your (main) monthly telephone bill.
Will you send $150 to 38th Street this next month? If you so, then you'll save the lives of very many horribly diarrheic little children. Perhaps you will do that. Or, although it's unlikely, perhaps you'll do something this next month of comparable moral importance to the saving of these very many young lives. But, what about the following month, and the month after? Eventually, I'm afraid, and likely pretty soon, there will come a month when, from that month on, at least most months will not see you send a check to save so many children's lives. So, in all likelihood, starting at least pretty soon, you'll behave wrongly at least most months for the rest of your life. Shall we go on to get a parallel conclusion concerning your remaining years? Along with common sense, mercy suggests that we not.
Anyhow, by commonsense reasoning, we recently reached a second very harsh ethical conclusion. This was only to be expected. For if you will behave wrongly for (at least) almost all the days of the rest of your life, as we first concluded, then, from that and from such boringly familiar truths as that there are from 28 to 31 days in each month, itfollows that you'll behave wrongly for (at least) most of the months of the rest of your life. But, now, an interesting question arises: Starting pretty much from scratch, is there any commonsense ethical precept that may provide a quite direct route to our second conclusion? If our arguments are to be trusted, then our common morality had best include some such precept.
But, of course, our shared ethics does include (infinitely) many such principles. As we may agree, just as is Greatly Decreasing Limb Loss, one of them is:
Greatly Decreasing Deaths. Other things being even nearly equal, if at quite moderate cost to yourself, you can (help) prevent very many other people from dying soon, while substantially raising the chances that they will live healthily for years, and if even so you'll still be at least reasonably well off, then it's wrong for you not to (help) prevent such very many others from suffering such loss of life.
Because it speaks of very many folks losing their very lives and of a cost to you that's only quite moderate, the grip of this maxim is scarcely less firm than it's finer-grained cousin Cheaply Decreasing Deaths. Just so, these two maxims, along with (infinitely) many other precepts, form a family of maxims. According to commonsense ethics, a most sensible idea runs, often it matters precious little which member of the family is the maxim to which one most directly complies. (Very often, but not always,compliance with any maxim in the family will mean good compliance with all in the family). But, if we don't at least pretty directly comply with at least one of the precepts in the family, then, as we've been noticing, throughout most of our lives our behavior will be wrong.11
In the previous section, you ended up accepting a harsh judgment of your (probable future) behavior. But, unless you're very unusual, before reading this material, you didn't do that. Instead, at that earlier time, you accepted only a much more lenient judgment. Now, as things first appear, these judgments must contradict each other. On the contextual analysis to be developed, however, there really is no contradiction.
In the previous section, I established a context in which the standards for moral assessment were not ordinary standards, but were uncommonly high standards. While it's not clear exactly how I did this, in large measure it was by doing these eight effective things.
First, I articulated, and so brought to our attention, several behaviorally demanding, but intuitively appealing, ethical principles. Almost all the time, as I imagine, little that relates to precepts like these figures prominently in the contexts of our actual lives. Accordingly,almost always, our commitment to such principles is far from our attention. With the articulation of three of them, we changed that. This helped set a context ethically more demanding than most.
Second, I actually said that, if you contribute a rather modest amount of money to UNICEF, then you will save people's lives. Of course, sending in money to UNICEF is really very far indeed from being a paradigm case of saving people's lives. And, far beyond that, even this may well be true: Between the donors to UNICEF and the children saved by UNICEF's efforts, the causal relations may be far too "amorphous" for it to be true to say, of any of these donors, that she saved some children's lives. But, even if that is true, there's no detraction from the present point which, after all, is just this: Semantically proper or not, by my going ahead with that use of those terms, I made the UNICEF case look pretty much like ordinary cases of people actually saving people's lives. This also helped to set a demanding context.
Third, I actually said to you that, if you don't give a certain modest amount, $5, to UNICEF, then you will behave wrongly. By just saying this to you, I was able to raise the standards, slightly, from their more usual level. How was I was I able to do this? By trading on, what David Lewis has called rules of accommodation:12 Going by our most commonstandards, with which we began, my harsh judgement would not have been acceptable. So, straightaway, and going by our rules of accommodation, the context changed, the standards rose, and what I said became and was acceptable. Well, that's fine; but now a further question arises: How was I able to trade further on these conversational semantic rules; how was I able to keep you being sufficiently accommodating?
Fourth, by not asking too much of you too soon, I pretty much ensured that there would not be, in you, much resistance to my effort: While I began by allowing that the $5 contribution might be a one-shot affair, later I went on to make moves that cancelled any such suggestion. Trading on the momentum of the initial small rise, I said further things that got our ethical standards to rise further. This could happen because, in my presentation, I did not ask for any jumps upward that might well have generated resistance from you. Rather, I proceeded in a way that, apparently, was natural and acceptable: As is obvious, we often think about our behavior in terms of days, e.g., "What did you do today?" and "She just wasted her time yesterday." So, it was easy for me to make the day an acceptable period for consideration. And, for a whole day, $5 did not seem like much at all. So, naturally enough, and in a manner designed to meet with little resistance, I then suggested that you do this every day. Abit later still, I said that, equivalently, you might send in $150 each month. Now, especially at this pretty late stage, that amount did not appear too daunting. Proceeding in this way, I found little resistance in you and, so, there was much accommodation.
As I believe, this point is worth some emphasis: Consider what would have happened if I began by saying that, in order to avoid behaving wrongly this coming year, you must pledge, immediately and irrevocably, at least $1800 of your liquid assets, or of your coming year's income, to some such life-saving group as UNICEF. Most likely, I would then have done precious little to establish an ethically demanding context. Rather than having been accorded much accommodation, I would have generated a lot of resistance. Notice, too, that if I began by suggesting that you should mail in $5 not each day, but each minute, or even each hour, then, for much the same reason, I would have done little to set a demanding context. So, I didn't make any of those impolitic suggestions.
Fifth, I focused our discussion on your possible, and your probable, future behavior. Hardly at all did I even allude to your past conduct, let alone to the great failing we might have found for all those years. By going out of my way not to do anything even remotely like insulting you, Itook a path where, from these potential quarters, too, I'd find little resistance and lots of accommodation.
Sixth, as generally happens when you read, there was created, for you, a quasi-social context involving only two people, the writer and the reader. By saying that I should be in Group 4, the highest group, I professed that fully half of these two thinkers judged that he should, and would, try to conform to a quite high ethical standard. By saying that I would be content to think of you as being only in Group 1, the lowest group, I politely put you under some pretty significant quasi-social pressure: The least you could do, it then began to appear, was to live up to a much more modest ethical standard than the one deemed apt for me, your faithful author. So, especially for you, that also helped to set a demanding context.
Seventh, I presented you, in a reasonably politic way, with a fair amount of very specific information: I told you just what your few dollars really would do, namely, that they would help prevent several children from dying soon. And, very specifically, I told you how to get the money in place to help prevent horrible deaths. With this information provided, matters no longer seemed a vague question of what might, or might not, be done about desperately needy people. To the contrary, it was now aquestion of whether you yourself would do a certain specific thing, namely, send $5 to 38th Street, which would have a certain very specific effect, namely, several fewer children dying soon. The provision of this specific information helped to create a highly focused context, and a relevantly very practical context. This was a context in which, ethically, you were right there on the spot. So, this also helped set an ethically demanding context.
Eighth, even if it was in only moderately forceful terms, I kept referring to the awful plight of many poor little children. I didn't make such a reference just once; rather I made it several times over. Thus, their impending deaths, each so inexpensive to prevent, became the vivid focus of our discussion. That also helped.
Relating to this last point, there were certain things that I did not do, but that, had I done them, would have helped make the context demanding. Why didn't I do these other things? Well, in that I was just writing an essay, I was confined to using only words. But, of course, most of the time, contexts are not only, and are not even mainly, set by words. Rather, either entirely or mainly, contexts are usually set by non- linguistic factors.
If I'd shown you an hour-long movie focusing on the suffering children, and showing how some were saved from dying by the efforts of UNICEF, that would have been more effective than this mere writing. And, if I'd flown you to the worst parts of the world and you stayed there - right in the thick of things - for at least a week, then some of those children themselves would have greatly helped to set a terribly demanding context for you. (By the way, in this last sort of circumstance, in addition to helping set the context, those suffering children would actually have become part of your tough context.) So, being very limited in my means, I was only pretty successful, and not extremely successful, in attaining my goal.
As I trust, this section's remarks have told you plenty enough about why you might have recently been in an ethically demanding context. Anyhow, let's not get side-tracked by asking anything even much like: What, exactly, is a context? Nor even anything much like: What is it, exactly, that determines when a given person is in a certain context, rather than just being in other contexts? As regards the present essay, which makes not even a pretense toward being a study of the fundamental aspects of language, or of linguistic behavior, such perfectly general questions are perfectly irrelevant. For many, that's all quite plain. Formany others, perhaps some help is needed. So, being an accommodating fellow, here's some help.
Although there are doubtless many moral matters about which you and I disagree, there are some, surely, where our beliefs are the same. For one thing, we both believe that, other things being even nearly equal, it's wrong to cause someone to lose even one of his limbs. For another, we even believe that, modulo verbal niceties, Cheaply Decreasing Limb Loss is correct. Now, in certain contexts of very general inquiry, regarding the fundamentals of the propositional attitudes and those of mental content, it may be useful to wonder widely about the truth I just propounded: What, exactly, is a belief? And, what is it, exactly, that determines when a given person has a certain belief, rather than just having other beliefs? But, in any even somewhat narrowly focused context, like that of the present essay, it's pretty silly to ponder these highly general questions. And, just as with these terribly general questions about beliefs, so it is, too, with those terribly general questions about contexts.
Rationally not bothering with any such awfully general questions, we may reasonably agree about some far more specific matters. Even if not quite certainly, most plausibly one of them is this: Because I actually did work in at least the eight indicated ways, in the previous section I setan ethically demanding context. So, at the present juncture, this idea suggests itself: In large measure, it was because of this established demanding context that, at least for the time being, we found acceptable the noted harsh judgments concerning your behavior. But, then, even if only roughly, how did that work?
Central to any good account of this, there must be at least the sketch of a suitable semantic story. Happy to tackle central tasks, I'll now try to provide that.
As is my semantic hypothesis, many of the terms we use in our moral judgments have an indexical aspect to their semantics. Because these terms are thus indexical, they can be sensitive to the contexts in which they are used or understood. These morally useful terms include "right," "all right" and "wrong," "permissible" and "impermissible," "acceptable" and "unacceptable," as well as "ethical," "moral" and their antonyms. Of course, most of these terms, like "right" and "wrong," are very often used in utterances that have nothing to do with moral matters. But, as will emerge shortly, that doesn't affect my present points. For, at present, I'm concerned with the terms as they occur in sentencesstandardly used to assess, with respect to morality, people's conduct, or behavior.
As is common, in morally assessing your conduct, I may employ such widely useful words as these: What you did was all right. As is common, I may then have assessed your behavior in this contextually sensitive manner: What you did was, in respect of the conditions for acceptability determined by this very context, at least close enough, in order to be properly judged acceptable, to being in complete conformity with (a) certain standard(s) for acceptability, namely, with just the standard(s) whose prevailing right now is (or are) determined by this very context (of use, or of understanding).
In saying "What you did was all right," I may be assessing your behavior morally or I may be assessing it in another way. In a context where the judgment is not moral, then some standard other than morality is implicitly picked out; it might be the traffic laws of Idaho. When the assessment is moral, however, then it is morality that, implicitly, is indicated as the relevant standard. Now, although it wasn't done, this standard could have been indicated more explicitly. That would have happened if I had said, instead, something that, typically, is more pompous: What you did was morally all right. Preferring to be effectiverather than pompous fools, generally we leave out such explicit qualifiers as this "morally" and let context determine the relevant standard.
A point of clarification: On this account, there is nothing in the semantics of "all right," or even of "morally all right," that identifies morality with our commonsense ethics. Rather, my idea is this: In our ordinary moral thinking, we take commonsense ethics to be at least very much like, and thus to be a very good guide to the substance of, morality itself. By contrast, ethical deviants, including some admirable reformers, will take other (systems of) precepts to be much better guides. As it should do, the semantics of the terms leaves all this open.
An expository point: In most of what follows, I will assume that our commonsense ethics is a good guide to morality itself. Because I'm trying to understand some of our ordinary moral thinking, and its potential for issuing in harsh ethical judgments, this assumption is entirely appropriate.
A second expository point: Because our essay so largely concerns ethics, I will just specify that, generally, it's ethics, or morality, that's the standard of behavior that our essay's contexts pick out as relevant. That will greatly simplify exposition. For example, we may then express the import of the noted moral assessment in this notably simpler manner: What you did was, in respect of the conditions for acceptability determined by this very context, at least close enough, in order to be properly judged acceptable, to being in complete conformity with morality.
Besides picking out the relevant standard, context does something that, for our present topic, is more important: Context also determines what, relative to the standard selected, is close enough to complete conformity in order to be properly judged acceptable. Now, especially when morality is the standard, what is close enough can sometimes involve the complexities of competing morally relevant factors: How much of your available time should you spend with your sick mother, how much with your healthy but quite rowdy young children and, perhaps, how much - just by yourself alone - ecstatically playing your slide trombone? In such conflict cases, I suppose, you may be close enough when your behavior gives morally appropriate weight to each of the factors. In certain cases, the weight given may be fairly close to, but may not be in perfect congruence with, the weight that ethics itself assigns. (Or, it may be fairly close to, but may not fall within, the range of weights that ethics assigns.) Now, when contexts are sufficiently lenient, as rather often happens, that may be close enough. In such a lenient context, themoral judge, who may or may not be the agent himself, can correctly say: What you did was all right.
As regards our main topic here, we need say little about cases where there are competing moral considerations. For, as will be remembered, we have even stipulated this much: Beyond any possible obligations you might have to aid the world's neediest people, you will always be doing very well morally. So, in effect, we are dealing with what may be fairly counted as just a single dimension. And, as has been agreed, quite beyond the point needed for you to be reasonably well off, the more you give, the better is your behavior. Our question, then, is this: How good is good enough for your behavior to be ethically all right?
Possibly, your complete conformity with ethics might require two related things: First, it might be required that, beyond that needed for reasonable comfort and security, you give all the additional money you now have. And, second, it might also be required that, as they continue honestly to come your way, you continue to contribute any such additional money. But, as we have been suggesting, in order properly to avoid a judgment of wrongful behavior, perhaps you need not behave in complete conformity with ethics. Rather, perhaps you need only be close enough to complete conformity with morality. That is, in order for you to thwart ajudgment of behaving wrongly, you need only meet the level set by the context in which that very judgment is made, or is grasped.
In section 1, I set an ethically demanding context, which set a high level for the passing line. Since then, a fair amount was said that, as it happens, served to move us into somewhat less demanding contexts. Most of this happened in section 2, when I explained to you how I managed to create some very demanding contexts for us. And, a further downward slide was effected by the analytical points made just above in section 3. Nonetheless, as I'm pretty sure, you're still in a context that, by most usual sorts of reckoning, is at least a pretty demanding context. Why is that?
First, a certain phenomenon holds for a wide variety of discourse: Within a particular text or conversation, it's easier to get high standards in force than to get back to lower standards.13 For example, once there is in force a very high standard for being certain, or for being flat, or even for being rich -- all easy to bring about, then, if one remains in the same discourse, it's hard to get much lower standards to be in force. So, whatwe find in the present instance is just a particular case of a very general phenomenon. (As yet, nobody understands much about why there's this general asymmetry.)
Second, and in close relation to the foregoing, there's this: Since you read the words that set our most demanding contexts, not much time has passed. Because there will have been little fading of relevant memory, my messages will still be pretty near the forefront of your mind. Now, when there occurs the passage of much more time, this will cease to be so. At that point, most will be in very much the same sort of ethically lenient contexts that, for them, prevailed before they started to read this essay. But that will be then and, by contrast, this is now. As a help toward getting a better grip on contextual analysis, it will be worth our discussing these two points.
To a certain extent, as I have indicated, movement toward leniency can be generated by various replies to the writing that produced the demanding contexts. To some extent, the explanations and analyses provided in the previous two sections constitute such replies. Further, when read in a reverse sort of way, the explanations yield recipes for making more forceful replies. Just do the opposite of what I did when setting the demanding context. For example, you may say that there isnothing wrong in someone sending UNICEF a full $1000 a year, rather than $1800, and using $800 for an interesting trip.
As I recently suggested, however, the most effective way to obtain downward movement is not by way of any active reply at all. Rather, the best way is, first, to leave the context and, then, to allow yourself to be in different sorts of context. Building on this suggestion, you might avoid, for a long time, contact with discussions that create, or that maintain, tough contexts. As time goes by, your prevailing contexts will be much more lenient, the prevailing standards then being much lower.
Right now you may still be in a pretty tough moral context. So, right now you may judge that, for most of your life, you have behaved wrongly and, likely, you'll continue to do so. But, as is also likely, a month from now you won't make such judgments. Rather, with the ravages of time, a month from now you'll judge that, throughout most of your life, your behavior has been, and it will be, morally all right.
On our contextualist account, in making that judgment a month from now, you will not be making any false judgment, or any unacceptable judgment. Rather, because you will be in an ethically lenient context, you will then be judging quite correctly.
Not just with ethical discourse, but quite generally, in order to understand the import of a contextualist account, it's crucial to avoid committing a certain fallacy, which we may call the fallacy of conflating contexts: Although it's tempting to think the opposite, it can never be correct for you to say anything that is even remotely like this: "Today, when I am in a demanding context, I do wrong if I spend much on myself and give hardly anything to the neediest; but, a month from now, when I will be in a lenient context, I will do nothing wrong even if I spend much on myself and give hardly anything to the neediest." For any such crazy remark as that to be correct, it is required, among other impossible things, that the remark be made in a context that is, at once, both demanding and also not demanding. Just as there can't ever be a context of that sort, so a remark of that sort can't ever be correct. To make such crazy remarks, or to think contextualism implies them, is to commit the fallacy of conflating contexts.14
As I'll soon attempt to make plausible, there's an interesting parallel between the demanding ethical argumentation that we have encountered and, on the other side, certain demanding epistemological argument. Forthe attempt to make much sense, there's a central point about epistemological matters that we must keep in mind: Although only at a very much more moderate level, the same factors that find their epitome in our encounters with skeptical epistemological argument are also at work in many contexts of our lives.
As one conspicuous instance of this, what goes on in many American courts of law resembles, in this regard, what goes on in the writing and reading of certain philosophy books, and what goes on in many college classrooms. In those courts the attorney for the defense may use various rhetorical means to elevate the epistemic standards that are then in play with the jury members and that, as is the lawyer's hope, will in consequence still be in play, after he concludes his case and they convene for deliberation. This attorney's hope often may be reasonable, and may also be fulfilled. For, as is known, the jurors will convene only a day or so later, not a year or so hence. By drawing upon various dialectical considerations, the defense may sometimes get the jurors to have, for the meanwhile and relative to the case at hand, epistemic standards that are notably higher than is usual in such settings. When this is accomplished, then, even when there isn't even a small hole in the case against the defendant, still, the affected jury may accept that there is at least areasonable doubt regarding whether it was the defendant who committed the crime in question.
On the other side, one thing that the prosecutor means to do, at least implicitly, is to keep the jurors maintaining their more usual epistemic standards.15 When the prevailing epistemic standards are the appropriately more usual ones, as may rather often happen, and when a basis of very strong incriminating evidence is offered, then, even if the jurors might agree that there are some extremely far-fetched doubts as to whether the accused committed the crime, they will not hold that there is any reasonable doubt.
With these ideas in mind, we turn to discuss those contexts of ordinary life that involve certain philosophy books, and that obtain in many college classrooms. After all, at least during certain periods, philosophy is part of the life of very many quite ordinary people, in particular, many college freshmen and sophomores. Now, as must be sadly admitted, there are many very interesting, but rather abstruse, philosophic arguments whose impact most of these ordinary students never do feel. But happily, and in sharp contrast to that, the great majority of them do feel the impact of certain skeptical epistemological arguments.
According to these arguments, none of us ever knows anything to be so or, at the least, no one ever knows anything beyond his own present moment conscious thought and his own present existence. Now, as is familiar enough, the most widely forceful of these arguments involve the presentation of very far-fetched "skeptical hypotheses," or "skeptical alternatives," that contradict commonsense (explanatory) beliefs regarding one's experiences and (ostensible) memories. Vividly provided by Descartes, the most famous such hypothesis involves the postulation of an evil demon who might be responsible for all of one's experience and all one's ostensible memories.
Even if it may be only a reencounter, let's now encounter the forceful argumentation: For all you really know, all your experiences, and all your ostensible memories, are right now being caused in you by a powerful evil demon. And, for all you really know, this demon created you only a moment ago, complete with just these putative memories. If that is indeed the case, then absolutely everything will appear to you precisely as things actually do appear to you right now. Since this is so, and since you don't have any "over-arching" means to acquire knowledge, you don't know whether or not you are merely such a recently arrived, and such a perceptually blocked, being. Consequently, you don't know that you haveexisted for some years, or that there are any concrete things or people whose existence is independent of your own mind.
As familiar as they are forceful, arguments like these have, for centuries, received extensive discussion by philosophers. Many "refutations" of the arguments have been variously offered. As I suggested in an earlier essay, those responses badly misrepresent the import of the skeptic's moves.16 There, I offered a different way to understand the challenges from skeptical argumentation, one that also helps in understanding the force of effective responses to that challenge. What did I say?
First, there was this suggestion, useful on a wide variety of views: Someone's knowing something to be so has (indefinitely) many aspects; not all of them, but many of these aspects are best understood as matters of degree, a good example being the aspect of how (close to being absolutely) certain of the thing is the person who might know. Second, and related, there was this widely useful idea: Only in the absolutely perfect case of knowledge - which case perhaps might never actually obtain - will it be that all of these aspects be satisfied in the very highest degree.17
With these widely useful thoughts in mind, I then went contextual: When someone attributes knowledge to someone, be it to himself or to another, then the statement that he then makes is to be semantically evaluated with reference to that statement's context. So, suppose I standardly say, "You know you're wearing pants." Then, in attributing knowledge to you, my words are to be semantically evaluated along some such line as this: In respect of the conditions for acceptability determined by this very context, you are (at least) close enough to the perfect case of knowing (that something is so) for you to satisfy these very conditions in regards to this very attribution to you of the knowledge that you are wearing pants. In order to be as clear as I can about the matter, I'll add that the acceptability in question is the acceptability to the people who are in the indicated context of the indicated knowledge attribution as being true.
Even as our language itself does its part, and even as "the non- linguistic world" also serves, so I myself do my key part in contributing to the fact that, rather often, my knowledge attributions are indeed true: I create, or I maintain, contexts where there predominate just such epistemic interests as will serve to ensure obligingly low standards for passing, for being close enough to the perfect case of knowing.
All that being so, good contextualists can make most sense of the intriguing moves from the usual to the unusual: When engaged in his (overly) ambitious philosophical quest, Descartes did not have, as his dominant interests, the sort of interests that, even in his own life, were usually the dominant ones. For, at these times, the great thinker was fairly embroiled in a quest for complete, absolute and perfect objective certainty. At these times, Descartes's epistemic standards were extraordinarily high standards. As our account nicely has it, relative to such extraordinarily high standards, none of us will ever know (more than hardly) anything.
When someone (innocent of philosophy) first reads Descartes's passages, then, through the force of the encountered writing upon her, those high standards may then become her own standards. At that time, even if at hardly any other time, it may be very difficult for the reader correctly to think "I know a fair amount about the world." But, at ever so many other times, the same person has much lower standards in force. At these other times, it may be easy for her correctly to think "I know a fair amount about the world."
In a general way, the main points of the traditional dialectic have just been presented. As I trust, it will also be useful to encounter a fewdetails: In advancing his argument, Descartes gets us strongly to fix on some such complex aspect of knowledge as this: An aspect to the effect that, at least in the perfect case of knowledge, the savvy subject should (1) be in the best possible position to (2) rule out as not so - sure, should know to be not so, but, that's all right - (3) any proposition, or any situation, that is logically incompatible with the thing the subject is to know. By introducing his evil demon hypothesis, that's one crucial thing that he accomplishes.
With this aspect so strongly in mind, you may very quickly come to think you know nothing beyond your present moment thought and existence. For, jamming you up in three related ways at once, Descartes gets you into an enormously demanding context: As it then quickly appears, you can't rule out any of the very far-fetched competitors at all, let alone your ruling out any of them absolutely, let still further alone your so conclusively ruling out all of them. And, as it then also comes to seem, you are never in even a modestly good position for getting any competing hypotheses, whether very far-fetched or whether only quite mundane, to be even the least bit less likely. Just so, Descartes gets you into a context where epistemic standards are about as high as can be. So, at thispoint, it won't even be correct for you to say that you're justified in believing you're wearing pants.
Heaping one benefit on another, good contextualists can also make best sense of the most effective moves from the unusual back to the usual: Put down your Descartes, and close the book. Think not of evil demons, nor of any other such far-fetched scenarios, like brains in vats. Instead, think only of very much more mundane matters. Further, and somewhat in the manner of G.E.Moore, you may stoutly state that you're wearing pants, thus representing yourself as knowing that you're wearing pants.18 Shortly, you may find yourself in a quite different context, where the standards for knowing are much lower. At this later time, it may be easy for you correctly to think that you know you're wearing pants, and it may be very easy for you to correctly think that, at the least, you're justified in believing you're wearing pants.19
Largely motivated by the idea that we be able to explain two closely related things, I've tried to make sense of the traditionally trying epistemological dialectic: (1) In a certain way, there's something right, or at least something all right, in what the skeptic does and, at times, gets us to do. (2) In a closely related but quite opposite way, there's also something right in our making ordinary attributions of knowledge. As wasplain, in trying to make sense of this dialectic, I used a contextual account of epistemic terms. If I had some success, then, by now, there's fair support for a leading idea: Both in ethics and in epistemology, progress is made by way of the hypothesis that centrally useful normative terms have a contextually sensitive semantics.
To help further this suggestion, it will be useful to make more explicit a rather extensive parallel between, on the one side, the ethical argumentation presented earlier in our essay and, on the other side, the epistemological discourse encountered in the just previous section.
First, just as certain ethically useful words, like "your buying those pants is all right," may be best understood in terms of the ideal of perfect conformity with absolutely all of ethics, so certain epistemically useful words, like "he knows he is buying those pants," may be best understood in terms of the ideal of perfect conformity with the absolutely perfect case of knowledge. Second, just as the ethically useful words are semantically sensitive to the context of their then current use or understanding, so the terms of knowledge are also sensitive to context. Following directly upon these two, there is this third point: On the one side, a given ethicaljudgment that is standardly made with the morally useful words requires, for its truth, or for its acceptability, that, as regards closeness to the morally ideal case, the subject be above (only) whatever particular passing line that judgment's own context then establishes. And, on the other side, a particular epistemic judgment requires, for its truth, or for its acceptability, that, as regards closeness to the epistemologically ideal case, the subject be above (only) whatever passing line its own context then establishes. From these three points, there arises the parallel between the dialectical situations.
Following Peter Singer and others, we may encounter ethical argument of the sort that, in the very encountering of its typical instances, certain contexts are established the very establishment of which ensures that certain uncommonly high ethical standards are in force. Now, when there are these encounters, then, generally, we correctly think that, hardly ever, or perhaps even never, are we close enough to perfect conformity with absolutely all of morality for us to behave in a way that is morally permissible.
Following Descartes, and a younger Peter Unger, we may encounter relevantly parallel epistemological argument. This will be argument of the sort that, in the very encountering of its typical instances, certainother contexts are established the very establishment of which others ensures that certain uncommonly high epistemological standards are in force. So, when there are these other encounters, then, generally, we correctly think that, hardly ever, or perhaps even never, are we close enough to perfect conformity with the absolutely perfect case of knowledge for us to know.
In both cases, the argumentation presented tends to elevate, in us who typically encounter and appreciate it, the standards in question. In both cases, the standards are raised to such uncommonly high levels that we never, or hardly ever, are up to those levels. According to our own then current judgment, and as we properly help to make so, in both cases we wind up getting a failing score. And, finally, all of this may be true even while, in both cases, something else also remains true: In the absence of any (currently still effective) encounter with the arguments, generally the context will be quite different. Just so, and as much more commonly happens, in both cases we may properly help to create, or help to maintain, contexts where the levels for passing are much lower. So, in both cases, most commonly our own correct current judgments are that we get passing scores with respect to the normative matters judged.
Even placing to the side its obvious application to patently indexical expressions, like "here" and "last week," a contextual semantics is by no means confined to certain terms that are especially useful in ethical and in epistemological assessments. To the contrary, there's a multitude of contextually sensitive terms. Conspicuously, these include a large battery of "positive" adjectives to which, in some early work, I gave the name absolute terms.20 Having often discussed positive absolute terms, like "flat" and "certain," it will be less tedious, and more instructive, to focus on a "comparative," or relational, absolute term. So, we'll briefly discuss when, in respect of various matters of degree, two items are equal, or the same.
For you and me to be equal in height, for instance, we must be exactly equal, and absolutely equal, in height. Being even extremely nearly equal in height will not do; indeed, our being so very nearly equal actually entails that we are not the same height. Rather, we must be a perfect case of two who are the same height.
As philosophers, we want to make good sense of our flexibly instructive use with these central comparative terms. And, as sensible philosophers, we want to count as true many of the positive judgmentsthat we make with the terms. In order to do both at once, we take a contextual approach to their semantics.
Consider a judgment standardly made with "This table is the same weight as that table." Now, as is pretty certain, one of the two tables has at least several more protons and neutrons than the other. So, as is pretty certain, any extremely high standard for sameness of weight will mean trouble for the truth of this ordinary judgment. But implicit reference to context saves the day: According to the standards for sameness of weight determined by the context of this very judgment, the two indicated tables are close enough to the perfect case of two items being equal in weight.
Similar remarks apply to the truth of, and also to the relevant instructiveness of, not only many ordinary judgments of sameness, but also many such judgments of difference. Regarding height, length, weight, age, and so on, the most basic point in the area is just this double- barrelled idea: If extremely high standards are always in force, then, first, judgments of sameness will (almost) always be false and, second, the corresponding judgments of difference will (almost) always be both trivially true and hopelessly uninstructive.
There are ever so many areas in which reference to context operates in various ways, including our two normative areas. Well enough, just oneethical case makes the point: From two seats in Shea Stadium, for example, select two typical citizens. As we suppose, in all other respects, these two people are morally fine and, to boot, they are equally so. At the same time, neither does much for those in direst need. Now, over their lives, there is some difference between them in this regard. But, in many contexts, the tiny difference may be ignored. In these contexts, you can correctly say that, morally, the behavior of each is, neither better nor worse, but is the same as the other.
As should be noted, there are limits to the range of situations for which contextual factors have a semantic impact: Suppose your shorter fence is just ten feet long while your longer fence is fully ten miles long. To make our point clearly, suppose we refer to the shorter fence with the relevantly neutral term, "this fence," and we refer to the longer fence with "that fence." This, then, is the point: Providing the lengths of the fences don't change, there is no context where you can correctly say that this fence is the same length as that fence.
The point about these limits is not itself limited to philosophically banal cases. As well, it applies to ethical and epistemological assessments. First, ethics: Take any gruesomely familiar case of cold- blooded killing for the sake only of, and resulting only in, the agent's ownfinancial gain. There's no context in which we can correctly say that such behavior is morally permissible. Next, epistemology: Take your average stranger from Peru, who hasn't the slightest idea even who you are, or where you are, much less any idea whether you're wearing pants. Then, there's no context in which we can correctly say that such a person knows that you're wearing pants.
Even after familiarity with the foregoing discussion, some will feel that, in contextualism, there's something wildly too subjective, or relative. While I won't try fully to explain this persistent feeling, I think I can provide a pretty good explanation, good enough for contextual analysis in ethics to receive serious consideration. Making a reasonable division, there are three main parts to this.
The first part concerns a very wide variety of the terms that I've said have a contextually sensitive semantics. As the main point here pertains to all these terms, for the sake of clear exposition I'll discuss it with reference to a very simple and familiar instance: In the case of sameness of length, I believe, contextualism really does provide the truth of the matter. But that's certainly not how things first appear. Rather,the initial appearance is this: Because questions of length are entirely objective matters, completely independent of what anyone thinks or wants, the truth-value of any judgment to the effect that two physical objects are the same length is completely independent of what anyone wants or thinks. So, the truth, or the proper acceptability, of any such judgment will never depend on any speaker's interests or context.
We have a proclivity, I'm suggesting, to think that fully objective matters are somehow invulnerable to, and are not susceptible of, certain sorts of judgment. These are judgments that have, as factors appropriate to their semantic evaluation, what people may say or think about those matters. In other words: As we are prone confusedly to view the subject, the very objectivity of the matters renders them impervious to being judged in any even modestly subjective way.
Because we often think of ethical matters as fully objective, this proclivity may work, as well, in ethics. Just as it may create an unfavorable appearance for a contextual treatment of "This fence is the same length as that fence," so it may create a bad one, too, for our treatment of "What you are doing is morally all right." Wherever it's at work, this proclivity is to be resisted. With an injunction to be vigilant, the first part of my explanation is over.
The second part concerns what I take to be another sort of confusion. As some might think, our contextual account implies rampant relativity, and rampant subjectivity, with regard to factors that influence context and, thus, with regard to which contexts are most suitable for us: If someone strongly wants to make correct particular judgments of a lenient sort, for example, then, with nothing to stop him, he can just become most involved with those factors that will establish, for him, suitably lenient contexts. On the contextualist account, then, he will be correct in making those lenient judgments. But, surely, this is far too relative, and far too subjective, an account of the matter.
What is confused about this line of thinking? Perhaps there are two confusions here, one blatant and the other more subtle. The blatant confusion is this: As someone might think, if he can only get himself often to be in ethically more lenient contexts, then that will ensure that his rather uncaring behavior will, somehow, be ethically better behavior than it now is correctly judged to be. This can no more happen, of course, than someone can improve his behavior by having it called "extremely good" by people who do not know what he is doing, or by people who are very careless about the ethical judgments that they make. And, it can no more happen than the lengths of two objects can be made to converge byhaving them called "the same" by many people. In other words, this can never happen.
The more subtle confusion lies in the idea that contextualism entails that, regarding the factors that influence our contexts, there is nothing that can make it better for us to favor some and to avoid others. There is no such implication. Rather, just as we can make intelligent distinctions regarding other pervasive aspects of our lives, we can do that regarding the formation of, and the maintenance of, our contexts. As regards the formation of our beliefs, for example, we can distinguish between cogent arguments and merely rhetorical devices. And, in the beliefs that we form, we can allow ourselves to be influenced much more by the former than by the latter. In this way, we can, indirectly but intelligently, manage to foster behavior that's conducive to satisfying our desires and to promoting our values. Although the point is less familiar, it's just as true that we can distinguish intelligently with regard to the various factors that influence contexts and, thus, with regard to which contexts prevail in our lives. Contextualism or no contextualism, if you strongly care about being very ethical, then, as a sensible person, you'll take care more often to set for yourself ethically demanding contexts, and not allow yourself to be, so very often, in quite lenient contexts. In thisway you can, even more indirectly but just as intelligently, manage to foster behavior that's conducive to satisfying your highly ethical desires and to promoting your highly ethical values. Of course, the main points here are scarcely confined to ethical matters; rather, they pertain to any area of concern.
Finally, I offer the third part of my explanation: Consider our thoughts about what things are intrinsically important, in any serious sense of the term. Surely, people's having long happy lives, rather than short miserable ones, is one of these things. Now, as I suggest, perhaps most of us have a certain psychological tendency: We tend to persist in taking a matter to be fully independent, or to be in no wise dependent upon context, in (rough) proportion to how important the matter appears to be. Perhaps, the remaining difficulty we are having about that same old feeling arises, in largest measure, from just such a tendency. If that is so, then, just as we should expect, this following will be our psychological situation: It may persistently appear to us that the statement that it is morally all right for you to do nothing to prevent those children's deaths just cannot be a judgment that, semantically, is properly evaluated with respect to the context in which it is made or grasped.
Though it may now be more intense, still, what we have here is just that same old feeling about dependence on context. And, as far as the mind's eye can see, for all its intensity, there's nothing much behind this feeling of too much subjectivity.
In closing let me offer a perspective that is hardly confined to philosophy, or to dialectical encounter, but that fully extends to the great bulk of our lives. Though philosophy is an important activity, there are certain other things that are much more important. Indeed, far more important than ever learning (more of) the truth about ethics, or about epistemology, is even this: There should very generally and commonly prevail, among us human beings, certain contexts that, as a sad matter of fact, are very uncommon. For, when these contexts prevail, we'll be living on a much higher moral plane.
Hand in hand with this, as we may hope, there will be what is so terribly important: Even according to the (contextually referenced) moral assessments of us who will be living on this decently high moral plane, and who will be applying such higher moral standards, our behavior should be morally all right. For, as we know all too well, the likely alternativeto our living on such a decently high moral plane is not some close second best. Very far from that, the likely alternative is a lot like the present situation. And, this amounts to our living in a sort of moral swamp: As though we are all in a protective fog emanating from a swamp, we keep ourselves, and each other, largely indifferent to the widely known, but dimly seen and felt, suffering of others.
For this obfuscating fog, we can't see our way out of the swamp. Now, to get out of the swamp, we'll likely need breakthroughs in our social arrangements. But can philosophy be of any help here? My hope is that it can. When presented in an encouraging manner, perhaps contextual analysis will help not only some philosophers, but also some socially powerful people, to see clearly what's really so important. If this should happen, then, indirectly, philosophy will help to create, and to sustain, a reasonably decent world.21
1. The original argument is in Singer's, "Famine, Affluence and Morality," Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1972. A more recent argument is in chapter 8 of Singer's Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1979. Also see James Fishkin's, The Limits of Obligation, Yale University Press, 1982.
2. The mention of my name here is meant to provide a euphonious parallel, and I hope a humorous parallel, with my friend Peter Singer. As is obvious, many philosophers have done very well at establishing such skeptical contexts long before I ever existed. The most seminal of these is Rene Descartes, whose name, unlike mine, has little in common with Singer's. Most famously, Descartes does his job in his Meditations. Much less famously, I do mine in "A Defense of Skepticism," The Philosophical Review, 1971 and in Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism, Oxford University Press, 1975.
3. Among many places in the literature, arguments for this are in chapter 5 of Ignorance.
4. A fairly early discussion of knowledge and context is Fred Dretske's "The Pragmatic Dimension of Knowledge," Philosophical Studies, 1981. Although I was being too much of a radical about questions of knowledgeand skepticism, still, as far as treating contexts is concerned, I go beyond my friend, Dretske, in my Philosophical Relativity, University of Minnesota Press, 1984. (See, most especially, Chapter 2, section 4.) To date, perhaps the fullest discussion of the contextual approach to knowledge remains my quite conservative "The Cone Model of Knowledge," Philosophical Topics, 1986 In later notes, this last will be called "The Cone."
On the general matter of contextual semantics, the seminal work is David Lewis's "Scorekeeping in a Language Game," Journal of Philosophical Logic, 1979, reprinted in his Philosophical Papers, Vol.I, Oxford University Press, 1983. In later notes, this will be called "Scorekeeping," and I'll refer to the reprinting.
5. As the bracketed expression concerning acceptability indicates, the discussion of this paper does not assume that (positive) moral judgments are ever true, although I myself think that such judgments often are true, just as common sense has it. Whatever her metaethical view, the intelligent reader can readily cast my ideas in terms she finds most congenial.
6. In a fine recent book, Common-sense Morality and Consequentialism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985, Michael Slote shows a keen awareness ofthis feeling. His fairly radical response to it is that, at least in our ethics of benevolence, we might best proceed no longer to pay much attention to right and wrong. Instead, we may just rank, as judged by their consequences, the actions open to an agent at a time. (Elsewhere in the book, Slote also offers some less radical responses.) Perhaps we may view this as a step toward the present treatment. So viewed, the idea seems less radical.
7. How well does this precept stand up to our responses to examples? As hard work shows, it stands up very well indeed: In an addition to what I've found in the literature, in the past couple of years I've devised several hundred relevant cases. As a study of response to the cases makes clear, except insofar as a factor may contribute to needy stranger's salience to the respondent, which happens only sometimes, a respondent is not much moved even by such factors as these: whether the poor stranger is in an emergency, by whether the stranger is in the respondent's community, by whether the respondent is the only one who can help the stranger, and so on. Indeed, as the study shows, except for contributions to conspicuousness, respondents aren't much moved by such other factors even when, say, ten are presented together! As I intend, the best of thisbig business will appear in my book-in-progress for the Oxford University Press, which is tentatively titled The Illusion of Innocence.
8. See the just previous note.
9. I take this quote from a letter of appeal from the Committee that I received in the fall of 1989.
10. In their Christmas mailing, a month or two later, UNICEF said "Your $40 Holiday Gift of Hope could help provide 400 doses of Oral Rehydration Salts to save children from dehydration caused by diarrhea - the number one killer of children worldwide." Well, that's ten cents a dose. Allowing for overhead costs, for possible exaggeration, and so on, let's quarter this claim. So, we figure that it takes 40 cents to save a child's life.
While there's been some significant inflation over the last four years, near the end of 1993, when I'm writing the most recent of these sentences, the price of this great bargain, at least, remains very much the same. So, year in and year out, it's a tremendous opportunity to help reduce serious suffering very substantially to which so very many of us so consistently give a pass.
11. Often, when I present the argument, people try to avoid the conclusion by coming up with alleged facts. But, even if they should obtain, such facts will be irrelevant. Representative of others, perhaps the mostfrequent response is this complaint: "If these children do not die now, then, later, they will produce yet more children. So, we will help create a situation where, in the future, there will be even more children painfully dying. So, if we do nothing to prevent the present children from dying, we will not behave wrongly." This is badly misguided: Suppose that, during one of the few years when there is no serious nutrition problem there, you are travelling in a very poor country and you come across a child on the verge of drowning in a wading pool. Even with the idea of "future overpopulation" in mind, is it morally permissible for you not to pull her out? Of course, not.
12. See "Scorekeeping," 240 ff.
13. See "Scorekeeping," 245.
14. In his "Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 1992, this fallacy is lucidly discussed by Keith DeRose. For this discussion, see part III of DeRose's paper, "The Objection to Contextualism".
15. As would be shameful, the prosecutor may try to get the jurors to have, for the meanwhile, uncommonly low epistemic standards. If she is successful, then even pretty skimpy evidence may be considered, by the jurors, as being enough to mean there is no reasonable doubt.
16. See a lot of "The Cone."
17. As noted in "The Cone," some conditions of knowledge are not relevantly matters of degree. Nor are they relevantly sensitive to context. The most conspicuous of these are, first, that the being who is said to know must exist and, second, that what he is said to know to be so must be so. Does fictional discourse mean trouble for this idea? No; at the relevant level of interpretation, fiction must be understood as conforming to these conditions.
18. For an account of how our assertions involve us in representing ourselves as knowing, and not just as correctly believing, see chapter 6 of Ignorance.
19. In much more detail, this is discussed in section 3 of "The Cone."
20. The first dubbing occurred in "A Defense of Skepticism," cited in note 2.
21. Many people helped me with this paper. While I cannot mention them all, I should publicly give thanks to Jonathan Adler, John Carroll, Keith DeRose, Mark Johnston, Shelly Kagan, David Lewis, Heidi Malm, Michael Otsuka, John Richardson, Stephen Schiffer, Roy Sorensen and Robert Stalnaker.