Kieran Setiyainterviewed by Richard Marshall.


Kieran Setiya is a chillin’ philosopher in Pittsburgh. He’s thinking hard about knowing right from wrong and has written a book about this coming out soon. He wrote a book called Reasons Without Rationalismand wonders whether moral theory corrupts youth. He wrote about knowledge of our intentions in the recent seminal book Essays On Anscombe’s Intention. And he has a thing for baseball, including a link on his site to the now defunct Fire Joe Morgan. Groovy.

3:AM:I want to ask you first about your work on intentional action and then discuss your approach to moral philosophy. So can you first give us here at 3:AMa little bit of the background context to your approach to intentional action. Could you first just introduce us to G.E.M. Anscombeand her book Intention, which Donald Davidsoncalled the most important work on this topic since Aristotle. Now that might be a surprise to many outside of the philosophical community. Anscombe is not a household name, unlike her teacher and friend, Wittgenstein. Indeed it may well be the case that people are more likely to have heard of Davidson than Anscombe. Yet she was a formidable thinker, very original, and a woman to boot. Could you say why you find her work impressive and important to you, and maybe say why you think she isn’t yet a household name?

Kieran Setiya:Anscombe begins her book by making an obvious connection: intentional action has something to do with reasons. When you act intentionally, you can ordinarily say why you are doing whatever you are doing: "because I am writing a book"; "in order to impress my friends"; "because he killed my brother." This connection has been common ground in the philosophy of action, though the details are contested. Anscombe's originality lies in two things.

First, that she was addressing this topic at all. In an essay published the year after Intention, Anscombe complained that "it is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking." If you want to know what it is to act well, hadn't you better know what it so to act intentionally at all? If you want to know what the virtues are, hadn't you better know what a trait of character would be? When Anscombe wrote Intentionin the 1950s, the theory of action was not a going concern. She made it into one – though there are still moral philosophers who ignore or neglect philosophical psychology. Anscombe conceived Intentionas a first step in filling the gap.

Second, Anscombe's own account of intentional action involves some pretty striking claims. One is that we have a kind of spontaneous knowledge – knowledge that does not rest on observation or inference – not only of our own mental states, but of what we are doing, what is actually happening out there in the world. Another is that intentional action and its explanation by reasons resist assimilation to explanation by efficient causes or natural laws, the only kinds that are countenanced by natural science. There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in the reductive naturalist's philosophy.

Why is Anscombe not a household name? Few philosophers are: they mostly write for each other, in ways that are hard to access for those without a philosophical education. But Anscombe is difficult even for professional philosophers: she is notorious for it. There's a lot in her work I don't understand, and I find it painful to read. Unlike Davidson, who is also difficult, her ideas don't form a system one can readily generalize, they don't have uses or applications that would give them a presence outside of philosophy. And they run against the intellectual spirit of the times, which is reductionist and naturalistic to a fault. Even in philosophy, Anscombe's influence has been limited. The reprinting of Intentionten years ago did something to change that, but I don't she will ever have the impact of more systematic figures.

3:AM:So the problem of intention is interesting but its significance is sometimes difficult to grasp. To me it seems that the issue is about finding a place for intentions, those things that answer the ‘why’ question – in a way that is consistent with the realm of nature where why questions don’t arise. Mind and world have to be part of the single scientific enterprise and intentions are peculiarly resistant to this enterprise. Jerry Fodoronce wrote in a review of John McDowell’s Mind and Worldthat "conflicts between the scientific image and, for example, the claims that moral theories make, or theories of agency, or theories of mind, are real possibilities. If they arise, it’s the other views that must give way; not because the ‘scientific method’ is infallible but because the natural realm is all the realms there are or can be. All that ever happens, our being rational included, is the conformity of natural things to natural laws." Do you think this is the reason why intention is so important a topic and why it is also so difficult?

KS:Right, here you are picking up on one of the big claims of Anscombe's book: We can't reduce intentional action to the occurrence of an event whose efficient cause is a mental state; and the explanation of action by reasons is not explanation by natural law. Intentional action doesn't seem to fit within the scientific image of the world. How can we put them together?

But Anscombe's other claim is just as compelling and equally mysterious. How can we have spontaneous knowledge of what is happening outside our own minds? How can I know, not on the basis of observation or inference, that I am managing to voice these words, not just meaning to do so? Although it may seem puzzling, the idea that we have such knowledge reflects some pretty mundane facts about intentional action. As Anscombe points out, if you don't know that you are doing something – "What? I am talking out loud as I type?" – you can't be doing it intentionally. Likewise, if you only know you are doing something because you happened to notice it, or if you infer or predict that you are doing something on circumstantial evidence, you can't be doing it for reasons. It appears to follow that if you are doing something intentionally, or for reasons, you know you are doing it, and your knowledge doesn't rest on self-observation or theoretical inference. There are tricky exceptions to this, but I think it captures something deep about the ordinary case of intentional action and that we need to make sense of it somehow.

So, those are two reasons why "action theory" is philosophically engaging: it presents puzzles about the manifest image of the world and about the scope and nature of self-knowledge. Solving these puzzles would tell us something deep about our place in nature. But action theory also matters for the reason I gave a moment ago: because intentional action is a central focus of moral philosophy. At our most ambitious, we might hope that a proper conception of agency would be a foundation for ethics, a source of ethical principles in something like the way a proper conception of a functional kind – knowledge of its function – would tell us what it is for that kind of thing to function well. At our less ambitious, we might hope that a proper conception of agency would help us to avoid moral and ethical mistakes. That is basically my view.

3:AM:You have approached intentions from the perspective of actions. So, how do you go about explaining intentionality in action?

KS:By temperament, I am attracted to compromise; I tend to see some truth in both sides of a dispute. (In philosophy, the result pleases no-one.) Like Anscombe, I think we have spontaneous knowledge of what we are doing intentionally, at least in the ordinary case. To express this knowledge is to express one's intention in acting: "I am typing at the computer"; "I am writing a book." But I draw a conclusion with which true Anscombeans would be unhappy: that intention is a mental state, involving belief, that motivates intentional action. Like Anscombe, I think acting for a reason is "having an answer to the question 'Why?'" – an explanation of what one is doing that gives one's reason for doing it. This explanation belongs in the content of one's intention. "What are you doing?" "I am typing at the computer." "Why?" "Because I have a deadline to meet." Unlike Anscombe, I don't think this requires a kind of explanation that is irreducibly different from the ones invoked by natural science. A lot of my work has been devoted to showing how we can domesticate Anscombe's insights about knowledge in intention and knowledge of reasons, how to make sense of them without metaphysical or epistemic extravagance.

3:AM:How does your approach answer a scientistic challenge, say from the likes of Alex Rosenberg, who might argue: look, there are no ‘why’ questions in science, because nature isn’t purposeful. So explaining intentions is explaining something that really isn’t there. Intentionality is just an illusion that evolution has selected for?

KS:It is one thing to doubt that there is teleology or purpose in nature, if one excludes psychology: Talk of functions in biology is metaphorical or false. It is another to doubt the teleology of intention and intentional action, to take an eliminative stance to psychological explanation, as such. That is a notoriously difficult view to comprehend. Its advocates cannot regard themselves as believing its truth or as defending it for reasons. They cannot make sense of what they are doing.

My attitude to the metaphysics of mind – how intentional psychology fits into the scientific image – is one of relaxed indifference. I don't have a reductive view to offer. But unlike some, I don't see in-principle objections to reductionism, as there might be if the kind of explanation involved in psychology were radically different from explanation elsewhere – for instance, if it had to invoke irreducible norms of reason and rationality. I have argued that this isn't so. In consequence, the issue of reductionism is much less pressing for me than it is for others. If psychology needs to be reduced, it can be; if it can't be, I am much more confident that it is real than that it needs to be reduced.

3:AM:One aspect of your approach, and that of Anscombe and Davidson and McDowell, that makes me lose my way, is its commitment to science and rationality (on the one hand) and the claim that a teleological explanation is somehow obvious, transparent, not open to observation or inference but just a brute thing (on the other). If this other thing was spooky and unscientific then I’d find it easier to grasp, but you don’t want rationality and the mind to be spooky. It’s as if dualism would make more sense of what you’re doing really, but you’re committed to natural laws that won’t permit spooks. I’m sure this can’t be right, but I notice that you’re not a fully committed Anscombean; so I wondered if you could help suggest reasons why this whole philosophical approach can strike some readers as being difficult to grasp. After all, Wittgenstein and Anscombe both are pretty terrific writers who are intense, terse and often difficult to follow. (Of course, I might be just looking for excuses – it could just be me!)

KS:I think you are on to something important here, which I have tried to anticipate in pulling apart the two threads in Anscombe: spontaneous knowledge of what one is doing intentionally, and the idea of irreducibly normative or teleological explanation which is found, in different ways, in Anscombe, Davidson, and McDowell. I am sympathetic to the former, not the latter. That is one of the ways in which I am, as you say, not a "fully committed Anscombean."

There is a question for the "fully committed" that you frame, very helpfully, as an objection: what is so great about replacing the Cartesian dualism of mind and body with a dualism of the "space of reasons" and the "space of natural laws"? (The language derives from Wilfrid Sellars.) The answer, I take it, is that the objections to Cartesian dualism made by Davidson and McDowell are not arguments for reductionism. A simple way to put this: for these critics, the problem with Descartes is not dualism, as such, but a mistake about the sort of duality we confront. The Cartesian tries to substitute kinds of stuff for kinds of explanation or understanding and consequently obscures the nature of the mental. This leads to further mistakes, about privacy, self-knowledge, and other minds.

There is a different motivation for questioning Descartes, perhaps more prevalent these days, which is reductive naturalism. If this is your point of departure, distinguishing the space of reasons from the space of laws will seem to miss the point: there is only one kind of explanation, just as there is only one kind of stuff. That might explain the obscurity or elusiveness to which you are responding. Of course, Anscombe and Wittgenstein are difficult to read for other reasons, too: their writings are epigrammatic, condensed, and multi-vocal in ways that make them frustrating and hard to pin down.

3:AM:Your work on morals is fascinating. I have been reading the recent scholarship about Wittgenstein by James Conantand Cora Diamondwhere they argue pretty convincingly that Wittgenstein didn’t produce two opposing philosophical theories. They suggest a greater continuity between the Tractatusand the Philosophical Investigations.And Conant links him to Kierkegaardand a shared attempt to produce works that would help people live a good life. The therapeutic approach opposes a fully realised, propositional formula or set of principles to achieve this. They talk about ‘soul sickness’. This seems to be a starting point for understanding your own approach to moral philosophy and the question ‘Why should I be good?’ Am I right in suggesting this connection?

KS:That's an interesting angle. I would separate two aspects or kinds of philosophical therapy: one aims to change how people live, the other treats philosophical problems not by giving answers but by exposing them as illusory or confused. I am wary of the first ambition, but I cautiously embrace the second. One of the central idea of my first book, Reasons without Rationalismis that a common understanding of the question "Why be moral?" is misconceived.

If you are asking "Why be moral?" you might be asking whether so-called "moral virtues," such as justice and benevolence, are really virtues, whether they are really ways of being good. That is what Callicles does in Plato's Gorgias. But it has seemed to many philosophers that the question can be interpreted in another way, as conceding that you have to be just and benevolent in order to be good, and asking "Why be good?" Why should I act as an ethically virtuous person would act, if that is not what I want to do? I argue that the second question makes no sense. It assumes that we can interpret the concept 'should' as denoting a standard for action distinct from the standard of ethical virtue or good character, a standard by which they can be challenged. What could this standard be? A while back, I mentioned the ambitious thought that principles of reason might derive from the nature of agency, that a criterion for how we should act might fall out of what it is to act intentionally. In Reasons without Rationalism, I show that we can make sense of "Why be good?" as a substantive question only if this ambitious project can be made to work. And I argue that it can't. There is no standard for how one should act apart from the standard of ethical virtue or good character. In that sense, the question "Why be good?" is a target for philosophical therapy, not direct response.


3:AM:So your position is a version of moral particularism. Before saying what it is and how you argue for it in Reasons Without Rationalism, can you say something about the two dominant approaches to moral philosophy that your position opposes, namely, the deontic reasoning approaches and the consequentialist approaches. You recently wrote a paper entitled 'Does Moral Theory Corrupt Youth?' which I think helps us grasp some of your ideas.

KS:The term "consequentialism" in fact originates with Anscombe, though its meaning has been transformed. The basic idea is that, for consequentialists, whether an act is right or wrong depends entirely on its consequences, what it happens to bring about. What is more, the consequences must be evaluated "impersonally": it can't matter to right and wrong action whether you are the agent of an outcome or how you relate to it, only what the outcome is, described in ways that do not mention who you are. In this sense, utilitarianism is the paradigm example of a consequentialist moral theory. What matters is the sum total of utility, or pleasure over pain, regardless of whether it's yours. "Deontologists" reject consequentialism: they formulate rules and principles that try to articulate when and why it is wrong to bring about what is, from an impersonal standpoint, the better outcome. For instance, it might be wrong to kill one person in order to save five, even though more people live. Imagine a physician who decides to operate on a healthy patient, taking his organs and causing his death, in order to give life-saving organ transplants to five other people. This seems grotesquely wrong. As you can tell if you think through the example, it is not easy to state principles that explain why, and not always clear when they conflict with consequentialism. These debates become very intricate very fast.

3:AM:So what is moral particularism as you construct it and how does it improve on the alternative approaches?

KS:What interests me is not so much the content of particular consequentialist or deontological views and the differences between them, but the approach to moral thinking that is characteristic of the moral theorists who develop such views. The methodology looks like this: start with "moral intuitions" – moral claims that just seem true, or that reflect what Rawlscalled one's "considered judgements" – and try to build a systematic body of principles that balances fidelity to intuition with simplicity, power, and explanatory depth. Where this system supports moral intuitions, they are justified; where it conflicts with them, they are undermined; and it can tell us what to do where intuition is silent. The overall picture is a generalization of Rawls on "reflective equilibrium."

Looked at in one way, the model I have just described can seem inevitable, and it is often treated that way in moral philosophy. What can we do but start from what seems right to us or what we confidently judge? And where should we go but towards ever greater coherence? But I think it is profoundly flawed. One way to see this – the way I pursue in the paper on corrupting youth – is through a dilemma, which can be put like this. Question: in constructing an ethical view, should we give other people's intuitions the same weight that we give our own? If so, the path of reflective equilibrium will take us from conflicting intuitions to mistakenly sceptical results. If I meet someone whose intuitions tell him that self-interest is the only ethical virtue, I shouldn't lose faith in morality; nor does it matter if the people whose intuitions tilt this way are numerous, or if their views have the same internal coherence as mine. On the other hand, if we give our own intuitions more weight, when we have no independent reason to suppose that they are more reliable, we fall into a kind of "epistemic egoism." It is as if we are assuming, without evidence, that we are more likely to be right, that moral reality is more available to us than to those with whom we disagree, regardless of what beliefs we actually form!

In my view, the idea of reflective equilibrium as a theory of justification for moral belief turns on a confused analogy of moral thinking with scientific theory. The problem is that moral intuitions are not like observational data; systematic coherence does not play the same role in ethics that it plays in science. This is one of the ways in which my view is particularist: it is opposed to a certain kind of theory construction in moral philosophy.

As a footnote, I should say there are other conceptions of particularism in ethics. The term is most closely associated with Jonathan Dancy. He claims that the possibility of moral thought and judgement does not depend on the provision of moral principles or the codifiability of the moral landscape. This has some affinity with the opposition to theory I just described, but it is not the same thing. On one interpretation, Dancy's point is metaphysical: it doesn't follow from the nature of ethics that its content can be codified. That might be true, but I think it's largely irrelevant. Even if ethics could be codified, that wouldn't vindicate the epistemology of the moral theorist; and even if it can't, the epistemology might be right. On a second interpretation, Dancy's particularism is a doctrine in moral psychology, that practical reasoning is possible, and can go well, without relying on moral principles. I think that's true, and I argue for it – in fact, for a more radical claim – in Reasons without Rationalism. But again, it's distinct from my objection to moral theory and from the epistemological turn of my most recent work.

3:AM:So how do we know what it is to be good, if we can't use moral theory? What if my model of virtue is Pol Pot, a mass murdering political tyrant? Without moral intuitions to rely on, how can you show that I am making a mistake? Your forthcoming book is called Knowing Right From Wrong. Does it answer this question?

KS:Sort of. The book attempts to show how moral knowledge is possible in the face of radical disagreement. A pivotal thought is that the standards of justification in ethics are "biased towards the truth." There is no ethically neutral, Archimedean point from which to assess the justification of ethical beliefs. Instead, the basic measure of such beliefs is the standard of correct moral reasoning – a standard that is subject to ethical dispute. When I am confronted with someone who believes that self-interest is the only ethical virtue, it is not just that I am right and he is wrong, but that I am reasoning well about ethics and he is reasoning badly: my beliefs are warranted and his are not. This story doesn't rest on epistemic egoism, since what justifies me is not that my beliefs are mine, but that they are based on reasoning that tracks the truth.

So, yes, I have a story about how I can be justified in thinking that I am right about ethics and that those who disagree with me have got it wrong, if I am in fact right. What I don't have is a way to show that they are making a mistake – except by appealing to standards that they won't accept. It would be nice if we could do that, but we can't.

3:AM:We’re living at a time of intense managerialism and bureacratisation of the work place and our lives generally seem to be continually supervised. The description of a ‘control society’ by Deleuzeseems apposite where we are all constantly being examined, scrutinised, categorised. Rules and principles for organizing people abound. Moralising discourses seem to be everywhere and many find them insidious, depressing and oppressive in the same way as the work regimes are. In this kind of society, edicts to be good can be terribly controlling and destructive rather than liberating and authenticating. Is your moral particularism an attempt to rethink the way we think about ourselves to address this problem? It seems a powerful counterblast to this control society scenario. Or am I way off in thinking this?

KS:That's a hard question! It would make me happy to believe that my approach to moral theory is in some way liberating. But if it is, I don't know how to show it. I find political theory baffling, and I haven't managed to relate my investments in politics to my work as a moral philosopher. The connections you are drawing are ones I have to yet to think through.

3:AM:Connected with the last question, it seems that your approach has consequences for how we might learn to be good. Do you think that this is the case and that it would make us have to reevaluate our whole selves in a way that the other moral systems don’t?

KS:In The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdochsaid that moral philosophy must answer the question, "How can we make ourselves better?" I find that challenge haunting because it is not at all clear to me that it can. One way to see the problem is this: if I am right about moral epistemology, deep mistakes about the content of morality entail mistakes about how to engage in moral reasoning that will obstruct any rational improvement in one's moral view. In effect, there will be moral blindspots.

A useful comparison here is with a standard problem for ideology critique: any hegemony worth its salt will ensure that its ideology includes epistemic principles that prevent it from being debunked even by what is in fact compelling evidence. So what can you do? There is no way to gain leverage for a movement of the necessary kind.

In a way, then, the answer to your question is yes: in order to become good, when we are not, we have to reevaluate our whole selves, our standards for how to reason as well as our particular moral beliefs. But that is a problem, not a solution – in part a political problem. And again, it is one by which I am stopped short. What I take up in Knowing Right From Wrongare more abstract, less practical issues about the nature and source of ethical knowledge, and its relationship to substantive human nature.

3:AM:Another figure you have found important, and again this is a topic I think helps flesh out your approach, is Melville’s Bartleby. Can you say what it is about this figure that you find appealing?

KS:Bartleby is something of an inkblot: it is possible to read into his deflated agency a whole array of philosophical puzzles, about perceiving the reality of other people, about integrity and truth, about alienation and capitalism. On the reading that most grips me, Bartlebypresents a picture of intentional action that severs its connection with reasons: "I prefer not to" is not an answer to the question "Why?" In the end, though, I suspect that all of these readings are false. In a beautiful book, The Silence of Bartleby, Dan McCallrefutes a whole slew of interpretations. He sees the very desire for symbolic capture as a kind of violence against Bartleby that takes his silence away from him. It is Bartleby's silence, his refusal to justify himself, or to be interpreted by us, that I value most of all.

3:AM:Your work is doing what I think most people believe philosophers should be doing: asking the hard questions and going deep. John Searle, however, recently complained that although he found much of contemporary philosophy clever, and much of it arguing things that were likely to be true, he didn’t find much of it illuminating. Are there other philosophers – contemporaries as well as those of the past, who you find illuminating?

KS:I don't agree with Searle. I find a lot of recent philosophers illuminating – so many that it is hard to name just a few. In metaphysics, I have learned most from Cian Dorrand Kit Fine; in epistemology, from Ralph Wedgwoodand Timothy Williamson. The moral philosophers to whom I return most often, apart from Anscombe, are Thomas Nagelin The Possibility of Altruism, Iris Murdoch, and Bernard Williams. My greatest historical influence, by far, is David Hume, with the proviso that everything you think you know about him – that he is an instrumentalist, a sceptic, an early emotivist – is wrong.

When I went to graduate school in the mid-90s, I thought I would work on metaphysics with David Lewis. In my second year, I took a seminar with Harry Frankfurt(now famous for On Bullshit) in which we read Christine Korsgaard's book The Sources of Normativity. Frankfurt was relentlessly and amusingly critical. I took it upon myself to defend her views. In any case, I was hooked. My topic changed from the nature of persistence through time to the intersection of action theory and ethics. Although I have ended up as a critic of Korsgaard, myself, I am deeply indebted to her work.

3:AM:And finally, outside of philosophy, what books, films, music have you found inspiring or suggestive for you? Are there any particular works that have directly or indirectly influenced your philosophical arguments?

KS:I got into philosophy as a teenager through reading H. P. Lovecraft, who wrote pulp fiction in the 20s and 30s and who pioneered the now-familiar trope in which apparently supernatural phenomena are exposed as alien science. It's a philosophical move and Lovecraft was interested in philosophy. I began to read the thinkers he liked – an eclectic mix of Lucretius, Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell– and went on from there. For all its flaws, I still think Lovecraft's short novel, At the Mountains of Madness, is quite wonderful. There are also visual artists whose work I have found inspiring: Antony Gormley, among others. His explorations of embodiment and agency strike me as extraordinary instances of philosophical art.

3:AM:And finally, finally, Frederick Stoutland, who has sadly died, made an fascinating personal confession during writing the introduction of the book Essays on Anscombe’s Intentionin which your essay appears. He said that the writing of the introduction led him to change his mind about some of the arguments of Donald Davidsonand that in a subsequent essay he was much more sympathetic to Davidson than in the intro. Of course, the fact that he said this in the introduction is already a little paradoxical. But it led me to wonder whether you have ever changed your mind through engaging with an idea, not just a little but decided that you had been wrong? I guess I’m interested in this because Stoutland’s change of mind struck me as rare. And surely it shouldn’t be? What do you think?

KS:That is a wonderful question! When I first came into contact with philosophers, I was stunned by how opinionated they seemed to be. I had expected tremendous self-criticism and thus self-doubt; what I found was an excess of confidence. Now, some of this is stylistic, the thought being, I suppose, that a good way to test ideas is to advocate them forcefully in blunt discussion with forceful advocates of alternative views. But some of it is pathological. And I honestly doubt whether the confrontational style is worth it. Even when dispassionate, it can be unpleasant and unconstructive. (I say this without the pretence of being innocent, myself.) In any case, this style makes it more professionally embarrassing to change one's mind, which might in part explain why philosophers don't, or don't appear to, very much. A more respectable motivation is that it is hard to do philosophy without fixed points. If everything is up for grabs, the intellectual vertigo is too extreme. The only way to get anywhere is to take some things for granted, which then become so entrenched in one's thinking that it is impossible to dig them up.

If I had to cite a case in which I have changed my mind in a substantive way, it would be this. Until quite recently, I was sure that there is no hope for a relativistic understanding of ethical truth. At the same time, I believed that ethics could be objective, and objectively known, without God. In philosophy, this is pretty orthodox: things cannot be made right or wrong by God's arbitrary whim; and if his will is not arbitrary, it must appeal to independent standards of right and wrong. While I still doubt that God is involved in the metaphysics of morality, I now believe he matters epistemologically. Although its framework is atheistic, the secret doctrine of Knowing Right From Wrongis that there can be knowledge of absolute ethical facts only if that knowledge is explained by God. Since I don't believe in God, I am more open than I ever was to the prospect that ethical facts are objective without being absolute – independent of particular societies, but not wholly independent of us – and I am much less confident in rejecting social relativism. I find these conclusions uncomfortable, and I am not at all sure of them; they reflect a radical shift in how I think about a fundamental part of moral philosophy.


Richard Marshallis still biding his time.