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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 December 2016

Geoffrey Brennan
Philosophy, University of North Carolina, and the Australian National University; Political Science, Duke University
Geoffrey Sayre-McCord
Philosophy, University of North Carolina


G. A. Cohen famously argued that fundamental normative principles (for example, concerning justice) are “fact-free” in such a way that their truth is independent of non-normative facts. For our purposes here, we take Cohen’s claim as given. Our focus is on what might be thought of as the “other side” of this issue — on whether the non-normative facts that determine what might be feasible for us to accomplish are value-independent. We argue that they are not, that people have reason to think that the normative properties of different possible options can and sometimes do have a crucial impact on their feasibility. In other words: facts about feasibility are partially dependent on Cohen’s “fact-free moral principles.”

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2016 

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1 Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 76 in The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, as Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787, two volumes (1788), by J. and A. McLean.

2 In the case of economics, these are different combinations concerning which the agent has no preference, that is, concerning which the agent is indifferent (hence the label “indifference curves”). In other cases, these are different combinations that the relevant criteria treat as normatively equivalent (and so properly a matter of normative indifference, whether or not the agent is actually indifferent).

3 One might think of feasibility in either of two ways: (i) as binary, so that things are either feasible or not, depending on whether they are possible, or (ii) as coming in degrees, so that the upper limit is fixed by what might possibly happen, but then, within that limit, distinctions are drawn between what is more, and what is less, feasible in light of the decreasing probability that they would come about, if the agent were to choose them. We are relying on (ii).

4 Cohen, G. A., “Facts and Principles,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 31 (2003): 244–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 Our thought is that the facts about value that have their most obvious impact on feasibility (as opposed to on the value of the feasible options) do so through their impact on peoples’ behavior-relevant attitudes — their beliefs, desires, and other attitudes that influence what they do.

6 In limiting our attention in this way to normative features of which people are aware, we are not thinking that their only impact is via such an awareness. It may well be that, for instance, injustice gives rise to resentment, which affects behavior, even when people are not aware of the injustice as injustice. We are simply leaving such possible cases to one side in order to focus on instances where injustice has its impact through its recognition.

7 Broome, John, Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012).Google Scholar

8 Though here we shall focus exclusively on the aspects relevant to our particular thesis.

9 Broome here focuses on the “distribution of resources between generations,” but we are disposed to focus on the distribution of resources between rich and poor across the globe at a time. Our reasons for doing so are twofold: first, we think that this aspect is more significant normatively than the distribution between present and future generations; second, we think that this aspect involves more pressing challenges for feasibility. However, we have deliberately cast the discussion of Broome’s argument in terms that would accommodate either interpretation.

10 Broome, Climate Matters, 40.

11 Ibid., 45.

12 It might be, for instance, that if I paid II not to emit greenhouse gases, I would be better off than if the emissions continued and II would be better off than if it continued generating the gases.

13 Broome, Climate Matters, 47.

14 Ibid., 48.

15 Ibid., 47.

16 Our own view is that precisely because the crucial obstacles relate to what people are willing to do, it is worth at least keeping in mind the extent to which experience, argument, and interest, regularly shift what people are willing to do. These features of our situation are potentially changeable through our own actions.

17 That is, unless something changes that shifts the sacrifices the move from E∼S to E&S would involve.

18 We have assumed that E&S is the best available option. If there is an even better option, the same considerations we have offered against going for E∼S rather than E&S would tell against going for E&S rather than the even better option.

19 A normative analysis that supposed otherwise, that treated the normative facts as irrelevant to what people might be brought to believe, seems hopelessly implausible on its face and raises serious doubts about what the point of the normative analysis could possibly be, other than shear manipulation.

20 Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (London: A. Millar, 1751)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sen, Amartya, “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6, no. 4 (1977): 317–44Google Scholar; Becker, Gary, “Nobel Address: The Economic Way of Looking at Behavior,” Journal of Political Economy 101, no. 3 (1993): 385400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 To take a Broomean example, they may be induced to buy carbon offsets because they think that considerations of justice demand it.

22 See Sen, “Rational Fools”; and John McDowell “Virtue and Reason,” The Monist 62 (1979): 331–50.

23 Perhaps we should emphasize that the issues here are more behavioral than they are a reference to the form and content of the normative judgments themselves or the preferences informed by them. It would be entirely possible for an individual to have a “preference” for behavior in accord with some deontological requirement and for such conformity to be an argument in her utility function.

24 Roughly, the probability that there will be an exact tie among all other voters.

25 Or more generally any case in which the chooser’s choice is effectively determinative over the outcome.

26 The line of reasoning here was originally directed at raising doubts about any theory of voter behavior that extrapolated directly from market behavior (as early “public choice theory” tended to do), but it has a much broader application.

27 For relevant evidence see, for example, Anthony C. Little, Robert P. Burriss, Benedict C. Jones, and S. Craig Roberts, “Facial Appearance Affects Voting Decisions,” Evolution and Human Behavior 28 (2007): 18–27.

28 The best outcome for any one nation taken on its own will almost certainly be that in which other countries reduce their emissions while the nation in question does not reduce its emissions. The only instance in which that would not be the case is where the country’s actions have significant effects on the actions of other countries — so that, for example, Australia’s signing on to, and abiding by the terms of, an international carbon reduction treaty will only make sense in national terms if doing so influences other countries to do the same. One might have some doubts as to whether Australia’s impact on other countries’ behavior is so marked.

29 See Geoffrey Brennan, “Climate Change: A Rational Choice Politics View,” Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 53, no. 3 (2009): 305–322; and for an extended treatment of the “expressive account of voting,” Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky, Democracy and Decision (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

30 Veblen, Thorstein, The Theory of the Leisure Class [1899] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).Google Scholar

31 As Smith puts it in one place, “the sole advantage of . . . wealth and greatness” lies in their reasonableness as “subjects of vanity,” Adam Smith, (1759/1984) The Theory of Moral Sentiments [1759], ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. MacFie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1984), IV.1.8.

32 For an extended discussion see Brennan, Geoffrey and Pettit, Philip, The Economy of Esteem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

33 We might of course still make the judgments in question and so think some things are, in fact true, without thinking we are justified in thinking so. But in cases in which we think our judging something to be the case is insensitive to whether it is as we judge, we must view its truth (assuming it is true) as a matter of luck.

34 In putting normative judgments in the category of judgments that claim things are a certain way, we are rejecting a familiar, but we think manifestly inadequate, account of normative “judgments” as being simply expressions of taste or attitude that do not represent things as being a certain way. At the same time, we see as completely within the scope of our argument any view, including many expressivist views, that see their success as depending on being able, with expressivist tools, to capture and fund the idea that normative judgments do represent the world as being a certain way and purport to be true. This ambition is at the heart of the quasi-realist attempt to revive the inspiration behind emotivism and similar noncognitivist views.

35 Perhaps it is worth stressing that this is a requirement on one’s view of one’s own judgments, if one is to see them as justified. There is no problem in thinking that someone else’s judgments are justified (given the evidence available to her) while also thinking that they do, in fact, free-float from the truth. What is ruled out is her thinking that her own judgments free-float from the truth while also counting as reasonably seeing her judgments as justified.

36 Just as many people through the ages and now know precious little about, say, how we manage to see the world. They view our visual judgments as often justified by our visual experience, even as they have no idea how cones and rods, and the judgments we make on the basis of their being stimulated, are affected by various wavelengths of light.

37 One mildly contentious way to put this is to hold that the truth of our judgment must figure as part of the best explanation of our having made it. But one might think of appropriate sensitivity in a different way.

38 See Sayre-McCord, , “Moral Theory and Explanatory Impotence,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. XII (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 433–57,Google Scholar for a discussion of a way to understand when our judgments are appropriately sensitive to the facts they concern in terms of those facts figuring as part of the best explanation of the judgments having been made. Our argument does not turn on accepting this particular understanding, though.

39 We might, of course, see other people as justified in holding their views, given their other views, but also think that they are wrong in the judgments they have reached, or that their grounds are misguided, despite being such that given their situation such grounds justify the judgments in question.

40 We see this as a real risk incurred by ideal theory done without any accompanying attention to considerations of feasibility and cost. Just a risk, of course, but one against which it is well worth safeguarding.

41 The book could of course be understood as a kind of cri de cœur. But that interpretation does not sit comfortably with the detailed recommendations for action that the book contains — for example, the purchase of offsets, or aiming for “efficiency without sacrifice” for “pragmatic” reasons.

42 We take it that normative considerations are likely to have more influence in some settings than others — specifically in settings where relevant features of action are relatively public; and in democratic electoral settings. But we do not develop here the reasoning that supports such assumption. That lies elsewhere — in Brennan and Pettit, The Economy of Esteem, and Brennan and Lomasky, Democracy and Decision, in particular.

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