Help with an example

I’m reworking some sections of my sovereignty paper and am stuck trying to think of a case that adequately illustrates a point I’m trying to make. Read on if you’re interested in helping.


David Estlund (2008) makes a distinction between hopelessly realistic and hopefully realistic moral theories, where the first specifies moral standards that could possibly be met but aren’t likely to be realized and the second specifies moral standards that are likely to be met (and thus trivially possible). The point I want to make is that Estlund’s distinction cuts across the conventional ideal/non-ideal theory distinction, where an ideal theory specifies a just state of affairs assuming full compliance with the specified standards and a non-ideal theory specifies a just state of affairs assuming partial compliance. The reason I think these distinctions are cross-cutting is because it seems plausible to have two sorts of hopeless theories, one that specifies moral standards that are possible (but not likely) for every individual to meet together (i.e., a hopelessly ideal theory) and one that specifies moral standards that are equally possible (but not likely) for any individual to meet, but not possible for all individuals to meet together (i.e., a hopelessly non-ideal theory). My full analysis is summarized in the table. I’m looking for an example that illustrates the bottom-left quadrant.

Hopeless Hopeful
Ideal Posits standards that are possible (but not likely) for all individuals to meet together Posits standards that are likely to be met assuming full compliance is probable
Non-ideal Posits standards that are equally possible (but not likely) for any individual to meet but not for all individuals to meet together Posits standards that are likely to be met assuming full compliance is improbable

My first instinct was to go with Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. But this only shows that it is possible for all individuals to meet the standards of rationality while the choice yielded by the collective decision procedure fails to meet the standards of rationality. This doesn’t illustrate my point because it remains possible for every person to meet the standards of rationality together.

The other sort of case I thought of (with some help from Sam and Jason) was a theory that specifies that all parents have an obligation to bring their children up to some minimal capability threshold. Strictly speaking, it’s possible that any parent meet this standard. But, given moderate assumptions about the adequacy of current resource levels, it could be impossible for all parents to meet this standard together.

But I’m not satisfied with this case because it’s controversial to say that resources are so scarce as to preclude the possibility of everyone reaching a minimal capability threshold. If push comes to shove, I’d be willing to stipulate the required resource scarcity to make my point, but I’d like a case that is as realistic as possible. (A more realistic, or less controversially realistic case would make my argument as strong as possible.) I think it would also be interesting just to collect several of these sorts of cases (for future reference).

So, two questions. First, does it seem plausible that there be realistic cases of the sort I’m looking for? Second, can you think of any off the top of your head?

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11 Responses to Help with an example

  1. Dustin says:

    Hi Dave. I confess I don’t agree with what you say here:

    “If push comes to shove, I’d be willing to stipulate the required resource scarcity to make my point, but I’d like a case that is as realistic as possible. (A more realistic, or less controversially realistic case would make my argument as strong as possible.)”

    Why should a “realistic” case make the argument any stronger? Would Gettier’s argument have been any stronger if it had started out, “So my real-life friend Jones owns a Ford…”?

    If there is a problem with your example, I don’t think it has anything to do with it not being “realistic”. It seems to me that the real worry is over whether in such a situation it would really be true that all parents have an *obligation* to bring their children up to some minimal capability threshold. It doesn’t seem to me that they would. In fact, the general sort of case you seem to be looking for is one in which everyone has an obligation to phi in a situation where it is impossible for everyone to phi (although for anyone, it is possible for that person to phi). Intuitively, it doesn’t seem like there could be such a case. The closest thing I can come up with is a case where each person has a more specific, conditional obligation–namely, the obligation to phi as long as not enough people are phiing as to make it impossible for one to phi. It seems like there’s a sort of strengthened/generalized ought-implies-can principle at work here.

    Anyway, those of my off-the-cuff thoughts. Where am I going wrong?

  2. nate charlow says:

    I don’t follow, Dustin. The conditional obligation yields an unconditional obligation now, since it’s currently not the case that enough people are phi-ing to make it impossible to phi (since for every x, it’s possible for x to phi). Everyone’s under this unconditional obligation, since everyone’s under the conditional obligation, and we all live in the same world. And yet it’s impossible for everyone to meet this obligation together, since the situation where everyone phi’s isn’t possible.

    An actually plausible case: everyone’s obliged to take public transportation whenever doing so would be easier on the environment. But if everyone met this obligation, then lots of people wouldn’t be able to take public transportation — Ann Arbor only has so many buses, after all.

  3. Dustin says:

    Nate, yes, that was silly of me. I retract: I don’t think that people are under that conditional obligation.

    Concerning your case, Nate, it is possible in plenty of senses of “possible” that everyone take public transportation. Of course you’ll reply with something like “not in the salient sense”, but I confess I don’t know what that is. Moreover, is everyone really obligated to take public transportation? I think not. Perhaps the more relevant question is whether enough people are obligated to take public transportation such that it is impossible for that many people to take public transportation. Again, I think the answer is “no” in plenty of senses of “possible”. In any case, I think it is clearly possible in narrower senses of “possible” than the narrowest sense of “possible” in which it is possible for everyone to raise their children up to some minimal capability threshold.

  4. David says:

    Dustin: A realistic case would make my argument stronger because I’m not simply arguing for a conceptual distinction (as Gettier was), but am trying to make a conceptual distinction and then argue that this distinction usefully classifies plausible moral theories. In my case, an empty quadrant in the 2×2 means the proposed distinction is unhelpful even if there remains a logical distinction.

    In any case, I’ve revised the 2×2, which has made it much easier to think of examples. The first proposal was unduly restrictive in specifying the contents of each box. The new classification looks like this (I have to simply list the different types since I don’t seem able to put an html table in the comments):

    Hopeless ideal: Posits standards that are merely possible (i.e., possible but not likely) but only assuming full compliance
    Hopeful ideal: Posits standards that are likely to be met but only assuming full compliance
    Hopeless non-ideal: Posits standards that assume only partial compliance but remain merely possible
    Hopeful non-ideal: Posits standards that are likely to be met and only assume partial compliance

    My original post was asking for examples of theories that posit hopeless non-ideal standards. With the new classification, coming up with such examples is much easier. To name one: the eradication of absolute global poverty is possible under partial compliance, but remains highly unlikely.

  5. dtlocke says:

    Logical distinctions are *always* helpful. But I think I see your point.

    However, why not argue in two stages: first argue for the conceptual distinction–that is, argue that it is possible to have a true moral theory in each quadrant–then argue that, in fact, there are true moral theories in each quadrant. I think this will help both you and your reader pinpoint potential problems with the argument (“Oh, I see you accept the conceptual distinction, but are merely arguing that, in fact…”).

    Also, I think I have been a little confused by your use of the term “moral theory”. This definitely is not my area, but I would have thought that the phrase “applied moral theory” more accurately captures what you mean. In my use of the phrase, moral theories are either true or false, and *necessarily* so–this is why I was having trouble understanding how you could want a moral theory which was actually true as opposed to one which was merely possibly true. But applied moral theories, on the other hand, can of course be contingently true, since they are implications of the moral theories (necessary truths) together with the more prosaic facts (contingent truths).

    Or no?

  6. David says:

    Dustin: I think you’re missing the point of what I’m trying to do. Nothing I’ve said hinges on the truth of any theory. I’m interested in classifying moral theories according to various descriptions of the sorts of standards they posit, not according to whether the theories are necessarily or contingently true (or false). Whether the demands are the right demands (i.e., whether the theory is true) is unrelated to the point I’m making.

    To illustrate: I take my task to be similar to the one of classifying metaethical theories as ‘cognitivist’ vs. ‘non-cognitivist’ or ‘naturalist’ vs. ‘non-naturalist’ or ‘realist’ vs. ‘anti-realist’ without any regard for whether any theory that falls into one of these categories is true. These three metaethical distinctions track along different dimensions, enabling us to set up a few two-dimensional classifications or a single three-dimensional one. The task of placing moral theories into these two-dimensional or three-dimensional slots need not take up the issue of whether the theory in question is true; it need only take up the question of whether the theory’s content fits the description of the appropriate slot.

    Similarly, I’ve identified two different dimensions along which moral theories can be classified in the relevant literature: the ideal/non-ideal distinction, which tracks the extent of compliance assumed by the theory, and Estlund’s hopeless/hopeful distinction, which tracks the possibility and probability that a theory’s standards could/will be met. The task I’ve undertaken is to figure out whether these dimensions cut across each other, thus setting up a two-dimensional classification of moral theories. Finding examples of theories that fit into the resultant slots only requires me to attend to the content of the theory, not evaluate the truth of its claims.

  7. dtlocke says:

    “I… am trying to make a conceptual distinction and then argue that this distinction usefully classifies *plausible* moral theories.” (emphasis added)

    “Whether the demands are the right demands (i.e., whether the theory is true) is unrelated to the point I’m making.”

    Yeah, I think I am missing the point of what you’re trying to do. Are you looking for examples of plausible (=likely to be true) moral theories or not?

  8. dtlocke says:

    And again,

    “Finding examples of theories that fit into the resultant slots only requires me to attend to the content of the theory, not evaluate the truth of its claims.”

    That’s what I initially thought. But then why are you concerned with the “plausibility” of the theory?

  9. dtlocke says:

    Hmmm… perhaps you are concerned only with whether the “partial/total compliance” assumed by the moral theory is plausible, not whether the moral theory itself is plausible. Is that right?

  10. David says:

    Ok, I guess I was a little sloppy in my last comment. I’m not wholly unconcerned with whether a theory is plausibly true because being able to put plausible contenders for a true moral theory into the 4 slots gives the classification additional critical edge. What I meant to do was clarify my use of ‘moral theory’ by showing that the classification itself wasn’t concerned with whether a theory was necessarily or only contingently true (which I thought you were implying with your suggestion that ‘applied moral theory’ captured what I’m trying to capture).

    Am I making any sense yet?

  11. dtlocke says:

    Well, the fact that you were looking for a moral theory that was plausible (= plausibly actually true), as opposed to merely possible (= possibly true), made me think that you meant “applied moral theory” since moral theories, as I use the phrase, are true if possibly true (because they are either necessarily true or necessarily false).

    Maybe it will help if I note that by “possible” here I mean metaphysical possibility (“it counterfactually might have been that…”) not epistemic possibility (“we can’t rule it out that…”).

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