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Oct 7 23

The Frege-Geach Problem (wonkish)

by Bill Meacham

Back in 1965 British analytic philosopher Peter Geach published an insightful and engaging paper titled “Assertion,” which has been the source of a certain amount of controversy ever since. Geach, a professor of Logic, maintains that the same proposition has the same meaning whether or not it is asserted as true, a view he attributes to Frege. He goes into quite a lot of detail about the context, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, in which certain statements are made and how to represent them in logical form. If you like that sort of thing, as I do, it’s quite entertaining.

The controversy comes from a short section near the end:

The theory that to call a kind of act “bad” is not to describe but to condemn it is open to similar objections. Let us consider this piece of moral reasoning:

If doing a thing is bad, getting your little brother to do it is bad.
Tormenting the cat is bad.
Ergo, getting your little brother to torment the cat is bad.

The whole nerve of the reasoning is that “bad” should mean exactly the same at all four occurrences—should not, for example, shift from an evaluative to a descriptive or conventional or inverted-commas use. But in the major premise the speaker (a father, let us suppose) is certainly not uttering acts of condemnation: one could hardly take him to be condemning just doing a thing.(1)

By “not to describe but to condemn” he refers to the meta-ethical view called “non-cognitivism,” that moral statements do not express propositions and thus cannot be true or false. They don’t express propositions because they don’t refer to objective moral facts; there are no such things say the non-cognitivists. Instead they express the speaker’s attitude and are equivalent to statements that are either merely emotional (“Boo to killing!”) or prescriptive (“Don’t kill!”).(2)

Ever since, Geach’s argument has been known as the “Frege-Geach Problem” even though Frege himself knew nothing of it. In a recent issue of Philosophy Now magazine, Justin Bartlett explores the issue in some detail.(3) I’m pleased that the magazine has published letters in response from both me and my colleague, Mark Gold.(4) Here they are, Mark’s first.

Letter from Mark Gold

Justin Bartlett questions non-cognitivism in ethics by referring to the Frege-Geach Problem. (“The Cognitive Gap” Philosophy Now Issue 156, July/July 2023) If “Killing is wrong” amounts to no more than “Boo to killing” then a seemingly valid argument turns out to be nonsense, he says. The valid argument, taken in a cognitivist interpretation, is this:

P1: Killing is wrong.

P2: If killing is wrong, then getting your little brother to kill is wrong.

C: Therefore, getting your little brother to kill is wrong.

Substituting equivalent phrases, he says, we get this:

P1: Boo to killing!

P2: If ‘Boo to killing!’, then getting your little brother to kill is wrong.

C: Therefore, getting your little brother to kill is wrong.

Proposition 2 makes no sense, so therefore non-cognitivism must be false.

But Bartlett doesn’t take the substitution far enough. To be consistent he ought to equate “Getting your little brother to kill is wrong” with “Boo to getting your little brother to kill.” Doing so yields this argument:

P1: Boo to killing!

P2: If ‘Boo to killing!’, then ‘Boo to getting your little brother to kill.’

C: Therefore, ‘Boo to getting your little brother to kill.’

On the face of it, this seems valid. One might object that “Boo to killing” is not a truth-apt proposition and hence cannot play a role in logical inference. Very well, we can replace “Boo to killing” with the proposition “I strongly disapprove of killing” and “Getting your little brother to kill is wrong” with “I strongly disapprove of getting my little brother to kill.” The argument then becomes this:

P1: I strongly disapprove of killing.

P2: If I strongly disapprove of killing, then I strongly disapprove of getting my little brother to kill.

C: Therefore, I strongly disapprove of getting my little brother to kill.

The latter is a valid argument and poses no problem for the non-cognitivist.


Mark Gold

Letter from Bill Meacham

The epistemological argument between moral cognitivism and non-cognitivism (“The Cognitive Gap,” Philosophy Now issue 156) parallels the ontological argument between moral realism and anti-realism. The realists say that moral properties such as rightness and wrongness are mind-independent parts of objective reality. Hence, propositions about them can be true or false because they refer to things that actually exist. Anti-realists say that moral properties have no objective reality; they are mere human constructs or at best mistaken ideas and have no objective referent. Hence propositions about them can be neither true nor false, so they must be mere expressions of our emotions or at best admonitions to behave in a certain way.

The arguments for moral anti-realism are strong. One of them, the Argument from Queerness cited by the late J.L. Mackie (Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, 1997) asserts that if there were objective values they would be entities of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Moral entities such as the wrongness of murder or the obligation to tell the truth are neither physical nor mathematical/logical, but have characteristics of both. Like mathematical/logical entities but unlike physical objects, they lack perspective, mass, extension in space, velocity, acceleration and color. Like both mathematical and physical objects, they persist in time. If someone thinks murder is wrong today, that person will most likely think it wrong tomorrow. Like physical objects but unlike mathematical/logical entities, moral entities seem to change over time. Slavery was common and accepted in ancient Greece and Rome; today we find it morally wrong. Unlike both, moral properties intrinsically motivate us to act. We may wish to pick a nice, ripe apple, but it is our hunger that motivates us, not anything intrinsic to the apple.

So moral entities do indeed appear to be queer in Mackie’s sense. They are not real in the familiar way that physical objects are, nor in the way that mathematical/logical entities seem to be. They have some characteristics of both and one characteristic, that they inherently motivate us, shared by neither. If moral realism means to be real in the manner of physical objects or of mathematical/logical entities, then moral realism is false and moral anti-realism, true.

But that’s not the whole story. There is another way to be real.

Following John Searle (The Construction of Social Reality, 1995) I assert that moral properties and entities are socially constructed institutional facts. There are quite a number of such facts. Searle mentions money, property, marriages, governments, tools, restaurants, schools and many others. They exist only because we believe them to exist. Take money for instance. Bits of paper with certain markings on them are money—that is, media of exchange and stores of value—not because of their physical characteristics but only because human beings use them as money and have rules that govern their use as money.

Ontologically, the manner of being of moral entities is to be socially constructed. They exist independently of any particular person, but they are not independent of conscious agents altogether as physical and (arguably) mathematical/logical entities are. Moral entities are socially constructed within a community of practice, a social group, a culture or a society. Within such a community or society, everybody agrees (more or less) on what they are, everybody treats them the same way and everybody acts as if they are real. Just as there are consequences for the way we deal with physical objects, there are real consequences for the way we abide by moral rules or not, namely the reactions of others in the community. So, for members of such a community they are real. The ontological status of morality is that it is a socially constructed reality.

Recognition of this fact cuts through the debate about moral realism. As with many conceptual issues, this one depends on definitions of terms. If “real” means to be real as physical entities are, then moral anti-realism and non-cognitivism are true. If “real” means to be real in any fashion at all, then they are false and their opposites, realism and cognitivism, are true.

The issue has practical as well as theoretical implications, which space does not permit me to pursue here. Please see my “Reassessing Morality” at


Bill Meacham

(1) Geach, pp. 463-464.

(2) Wikipedia, “Non-cognitivism.”

(3) Bartlett, “The Cognitive Gap.”

(4) Philosophy Now, Issue 157, August/September 2023, p. 47. Online publication as of 7 October 2023.


Bartlett, Justin. “The Cognitive Gap.” Philosophy Now Issue 156. Online publication as of 1 September 2023.

Geach, P.T. “Assertion.” The Philosophical Review, Oct., 1965, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Oct., 1965), pp. 449-465. Online publication as of 6 October 2023.

Mackie, J.L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Wikipedia. “Non-cognitivism.” Online publication as of 7 October 2023.

Sep 5 23

A Physicist on Free Will

by Bill Meacham

Last time I criticized some of Sartre’s ideas about free will but didn’t address whether we even have free will in the first place. Sartre thinks we do, but his view is not shared by everyone. In particular, many think that we have no free will because the world is entirely predetermined. This idea has been set forth recently by Sabine Hossenfelder, a particle physicist and a popularizer of physics for the layperson.

Book cover - Existential Physics

I am not qualified to evaluate her competence as a physicist, but I can attest that her recent Existential Physics is a highly readable and entertaining account of what physics tells us about a number of issues. One of them is whether we have free will. She asserts that we do not because the world is deterministic. Our choices and decisions she says, although seemingly made freely by us, are actually the result of interactions of the physical elements of which we are composed, and these elements obey fixed laws, so our actions and decisions are predetermined. Let’s go through her argument.

We start with the observation that the world contains regularities:

We implicitly assume nature is uniform, constant, and reliable in its proceedings. The laws of nature don’t suddenly change. If they did, we wouldn’t call them laws.(1)

Now, there are some philosophical questions about what the laws of nature really are. Are they just simple regularities? Are they elements in deductive theories that enable us to make accurate predictions? Are they somehow metaphysically necessary regularities?(2) For our purposes, we don’t need to decide. They enable us to understand and control our environment, and that’s good enough. In practice we rely on the assumption that nature is predictable, and so far that assumption has worked out just fine, so we continue to rely on it.

The next step in the argument is called “reductionism” or “materialism.” It’s the idea that, as Hossenfelder says,

things are made of smaller things, and if you know what the small things do, then you can tell what the large things do. There is not a single known exception to this rule. … The behavior of a composite object (for example, you) is determined by the behavior of its constituents—that is, subatomic particles.(3)

And that’s that, according to this argument. All of our behavior, including our decisions, is determined by inexorable laws of nature because the behavior of big things is determined by their constituent small things, and the tiniest things we are made of obey fixed laws.

Except they don’t. Or rather, they do, but some of the laws are only probabilistic. At the level of very tiny things, the quantum level, events are indeterminate. We can’t predict the outcome of a single quantum event, only its statistical probability. Hossenfelder, of course, recognizes this fact—”The future is fixed,” she says, “except for occasional quantum events that we cannot influence.”(4)—but thinks it doesn’t matter. We can’t change the laws of nature, and we can’t influence quantum events, so we have no choice in what happens.

Her dismissal of occasional quantum effects is crucial to her argument, but it is a mistake. At the macroscopic level of everyday experience, certainly, whatever quantum events that may happen have such a minuscule effect that they are safely ignored. But quantum events happen in the brain, as she recognizes:

… deep down all our brain processes are quantum processes ….(5)

She doesn’t go into details, and there is more than one theory about such processes. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff cite quantum collapse in microtubules inside neurons.(6) Henry Stapp cites calcium ions in quantum-scale neuronal channels.(7) Whatever the details, quantum effects do take place in our brains. Of course submicroscopic events trigger larger events, which are then causally determined. But the initial events, the beginnings of chains of causality, are indeterminate. That means that our thoughts and behaviors are not fully determined in advance.

Does that indeterminacy mean that our will is free? Hossenfelder thinks not. She says

… there is no “will” in quantum randomness ….(8)

In this she agrees with psychologists Joshua Green and Jonathan Cohen, who say

If it turns out that your [actions are] completely determined by the laws of physics, the state of the universe … and the outcomes of myriad subatomic coin flips, your [action] is no more freely chosen than before. Indeed, it is randomly chosen, which is no help ….(9)

But neither she nor they are looking for will in the right place. The concept of will does not apply to submicroscopic physical events or even to macroscopic entities like neurons. The concept of will applies at a higher level of explanation, namely that of persons. By a “higher level of explanation” I mean what Hossenfelder calls an “effective model.”

An effective model is one that leaves out irrelevant detail. Her analogy is a topographical map with extremely fine detail, having contour lines at a scale of an inch or less of elevation between them, which would show individual cracks and pebbles. You could then zoom out to show the contour lines at 5 or 10-foot intervals of elevation or even more. At a zoomed-out level you lose a lot of detail, but the 5-foot scale would be more useful for planning drainage in a landscape design, and at a 100-yard scale you could plan a hike through mountainous terrain. You pick your scale according to what you want to accomplish.

At these zoomed-out levels

… you have what physicists call an effective model. This model is not fundamentally correct [because some information is left out], but it is good enough at the level of resolution you are interested in. …

It is typical of an effective model that the objects and quantities central to it are not the same as those in the underlying theory; they usually do not even make sense in the underlying theory.(10)

That’s the case with human will, whether free or not. When we consider human action and will, we find things that are best described by using a different effective model, that of personal agency. The patterns of beliefs, desires, aversions and intentions that we ascribe to ourselves and others are at a higher level than the individual neural events which underlie them, and they obey different laws. One of the working assumptions of personal agency is that people can make free choices. The fact is, we all act as if we have free will, regardless of what we say we believe about it. We don’t try to convince a customer to buy our product or a friend to go with us to a concert by altering their brain chemistry. Instead we appeal to their motives and desires, perhaps to their pride or some other emotion, to convince them to make the choice we want.

Pragmatically it makes sense to consider our will as free, regardless of the subatomic and neural events that underlie our behavior. I suspect Hossenfelder would agree with me so far. The agential model is good enough at its applicable level of resolution. But, she would ask, is our will really free? That is to say, is there a way to calculate, deduce or conceptually connect the low level to the high in a rigorous way? Reductionism means that

the behavior of an object can be deduced from (“reduced to,” as the philosophers would say) the properties, behavior, and interactions of the object’s constituents …. (11)

Can we reduce, she would ask, agential properties to those of subatomic quantum events?

Not at present, certainly, and I don’t know whether we will ever be able to. But there is a way to think about the issue that nevertheless seems plausible. Hossenfelder would call this way of thinking “ascientific,” meaning that the scientific method can’t tell you whether or not it is correct.(12) I call it “metaphysical,” meaning that it goes beyond physics to deal with things that physics can’t.

My ascientific, speculative, metaphysical view is that quantum indeterminacy in the brain enables our will to be free. The crux is that what matters is not the outcome of a single quantum event, but the overall pattern of many of them. What appears to be random when you look only at individual events reveals patterns when you look at them in aggregate. Micro-units of quantum indeterminacy cohere into larger arrangements that are not random. Consider a pointillist painting, which consists of distinct dots of pigment. If you look at it up close, all you see is random dots. When you view it from afar, you see identifiable forms and shapes, recognizable objects and patterns. In our case, these patterns are agential.

But what causes (if that is the right word) random events to cohere into agential patterns? What explains such behavior? The process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead provides the answer.

I have written about Whitehead’s metaphysics elsewhere, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. Please refer to my book How To Be An Excellent Human and my essays “Dead or Alive?” and “A Whiteheadian Solution to the Combination Problem“. In brief, Whitehead agrees with modern physics that things are made of smaller things. His insight is that the smallest of them, which we refer to as subatomic “particles,” are better thought of as a series of events, which he calls “actual occasions;”(13) and these events are not only detectable by other entities but are also, in a minimal way, aware of their surroundings. This theory is a variety of panpsychism. As I like to say, everything that has an outside has an inside too.

Whitehead intends his categories of explanation to apply both to the quantum level of reality and to the world revealed by our unaided senses. In our everyday world it is undeniable that, unless we are asleep or sedated, we are aware of our surroundings and remember our past. And, of course, others can be aware of us. So Whitehead posits that the smallest entities are also, in a way, aware of their surroundings and of their own past as well as being detectable by other entities. Whitehead calls them “occasions of experience.”(14) The tiniest actual occasion is structurally similar to a moment of rich human experience, albeit in a primitive, attenuated form. What we think of as a particle is actually a temporal series of these actual occasions. A single electron is a series of momentary electron-occasions that form an enduring object much like the momentary frames of a movie form a continuous picture. And that enduring object experiences its world.

Yes, this idea is quite anthropomorphic, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Instead of trying to figure out how conscious beings arise from dead particles, we assume that it works the other way around and the particles are minimally conscious.

So let’s get really anthropomorphic. Imagine that you are a calcium ion in a neuron just arriving at a vesicle full of neurotransmitters.(15) Do you proceed to strike (i.e., be detectable at) a site that will trigger the release of neurotransmitters to the synaptic cleft? Or do you strike somewhere else? Or do you just hang out and wait for a bit? It depends on how you feel. Just as a person might pick vanilla or strawberry ice cream depending on nothing more than what they feel like having in the moment, you as a calcium ion just do what you feel like doing.

And what determines what you feel like doing? The feelings of all the other quantum events and enduring objects in your vicinity.

A critical part of Whitehead’s account of how reality works is that feelings “leak” from mind to mind. Whitehead has a technical term—he calls it “prehension”(16)—for the process by which each actual occasion comes into being by incorporating into itself elements, both physical and mental, of its predecessors and its surroundings. The upshot is that an elementary particle is not like a little billiard ball being pushed around. It is more like a succession of tiny agents deciding what do next. The mental aspect of these tiny agents, these actual occasions, combine into a greater mental whole just as the atoms, molecules and cells combine into a greater physical whole. And that greater whole, especially in the case of us humans, obeys agential laws as well as physical ones. The beliefs, desires and choices of the whole exert a downward influence on the tiny events that make it up. Although the neural events are individually random, as a whole they conform to the larger agential pattern.

Hossenfelder might well sneer at this idea. She says “If you say ‘holism,’ I hear ‘bullshit.'”(17) But despite this account of free will being not experimentally confirmable there are reasons to believe it true.

Crucially, this account is not in conflict with the physics of elementary particles. Any individual quantum event in a neuron is indeterministic. Given the possibility of causing a nerve impulse to fire, it might and it might not; we can’t tell in advance (even if we could observe it without destroying the organism it’s a part of, not to mention causing an unintended collapse of its wave function). Only when we look at the interaction of many of them do we find patterns that make sense in agential terms, including the belief that our will is free.

This account, bare bones as it is, conflicts with no physical laws, contains no internal contradictions and supports the very useful attribution of mental states, desires, beliefs and free will to ourselves and other people. Thus it is reasonable to believe it.

Our will is indeed free. Now it is up to each of us to figure out what to do with it.

(For a more detailed account how our will is free, please see my free ebook, How To Exert Free Will.)


(1) Hossenfelder, Existential Physics, p. 38.

(2) Bain, “Laws of Nature.”

(3) Hossenfelder, p. 82.

(4) Hossenfelder, p. 125.

(5) Hossenfelder, p. 113.

(6) Hameroff, “Consciousness, Cognition and the Neuronal Cytoskeleton.”

(7) Stapp, Mindful Universe, pp. 30-32. I discuss Stapp’s theory in more detail in Meacham, “The Quantum Level of Reality.”

(8) Hossenfelder, p. 130.

(9) Greene and Cohen, p. 1777.

(10) Hossenfelder, p. 85.

(11) Hossenfelder, pp. 82-83.

(12) Hossenfelder, p. 113.

(13) Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 32.

(14) Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 221.

(15) Meacham, “The Quantum Level of Reality.”

(16) Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 28-29, 32, 35.

(17) Hossenfelder, p. 83.


Bain, Jonathan. “Laws of Nature.” Online publication as of 1 September 2023.

Greene, Joshua and Jonathan Cohen. “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B (Biological Sciences), Vol. 359 No. 1451, pp. 1775-1785. Online publication as of 7 March 2013. Available at as of 3 September 2023.

Hameroff, Stuart. “Consciousness, Cognition and the Neuronal Cytoskeleton – A New Paradigm Needed in Neuroscience.” Frontiers of Molecular Neuroscience, 15:869935. doi: 10.3389/fnmol.2022.869935. Online publication as of 1 September 2023.

Hossenfelder, Sabine. Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York: Viking, 2022.

Meacham, Bill. How To Exert Free Will. Available online at

Meacham, Bill. “The Quantum Level of Reality.” Online publication

Stapp, Henry P. Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2007.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Harper and Row Harper Torchbook, 1960.

Jun 29 23

The Anguish of Freedom

by Bill Meacham
man trudging, gloomy background

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity contains an extensive taxonomy of ways people try to avoid what she calls “the anguish [one] feels in the face of [one’s] freedom.”(1) Throughout her work she cites “the anguish of freedom”(2) as a reason for various approaches to life that fall short of genuine freedom. But what is this anguish? And what is her concept of freedom? To answer these questions, we need to look at Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. De Beauvoir and Sartre were colleagues, and her work is in many ways a continuation of his monumental tome.

On the face of it, the phrase “the anguish of freedom” seems peculiar. We can understand the anguish of captivity, but a person released from prison or freed from the threat of being locked up would more likely feel happiness or relief than anguish. The meaning of “freedom” here, however, is not physical but metaphysical; we are talking about free will. To say that our will is free is to say that at least in some cases we ourselves, not something other than or external to us, choose what we do and strive for.

Sartre agrees, but takes a very extreme position. He is a radical libertarian (in the philosophical sense, not the political). He thinks our choices are not determined in any way, neither by physical causality nor by prior motivation. Here are some representative passages from Being and Nothingness:

[A person] escapes from the causal order of the world and extricates himself from the glue of being.(3)

In conceiving, on the basis of my perceptions of the bedroom that he lived in, the person who is no longer in the bedroom, I must necessarily perform an act of thought that cannot be determined or motivated by any antecedent state ….(4)

Freedom is the human being putting his past out of play ….(5)

… my motives [are] inefficacious ….(6)

… [psychological] tendencies are actualized with my cooperation, … they are not forces of nature … by constantly deciding on their value, I lend them their efficacy ….”(7)

According to Sartre our will and our choices are not determined by the causal order of the world, nor by our psychological tendencies nor even by our motives. They are not determined by any antecedent state at all!

Now, we can certainly criticize this concept of freedom of will. If our choices are not determined at all, then they are in effect random. But if our actions are caused by randomness then we are just as unfree as if they were caused by determinism. This is quite a radical conception. To see how radical, let’s focus on what Sartre does with this concept. His view leads to him to assert that if we truly realized our radical freedom, we would be in anguish.

He asks how our freedom appears to us. Remember, he is working in the tradition of Phenomenology, which attempts to describe first-person experience just as it is without preconceptions. He asks “What form does this consciousness of freedom take?” He replies,

It is in anguish that man becomes conscious of his freedom or, alternatively anguish is freedom’s mode of being as consciousness of being; it is in anguish that freedom is … in question for itself.(8)

His argument for this surprising assertion is in the form of illustrative examples. One is that of walking along a narrow ledge. Anguish is different from fear, he says, in that fear is of something in the world but anguish is about oneself.

Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am frightened not of falling into the precipice but of throwing myself into it. A situation that provokes fear, insofar as it threatens to change my life and my being from the outside, provokes anguish to the extent to which I mistrust my own reactions to this situation.(9)

He elaborates.(10) You are on a narrow ledge and you are afraid of slipping on a stone or of the ground crumbling beneath you. To avert such an eventuality you pay close attention and take care; you watch for loose stones and stay away from the edge. In doing so you apprehend yourself as a physical object, one among many. Your fall, if it happens, will be determined by causes external to you.

But you are also a free agent; you might, of your own free will, decide instead to jump! Your strategies for preventing a fall “do not appear to [you] as determined by external causes,” he says.(11) You think of other possible behaviors such as failing to pay attention, running heedlessly or thinking of something else, and decide to avoid them. But “no external cause will set them aside. [You] alone [are] the permanent source of their non-being.”(12) These possible events might still happen—not just the loose stones, which are not in your control, but your strategies for avoiding catastrophe, which are. Knowing that your choices are totally free, neither determined by the past nor by your own motives for self-preservation, you feel anguish.

I grasp these motives … as insufficiently effective. At the very moment when I apprehend myself as horrified of the chasm, I am conscious of this horror as not being determining in relation to my possible behavior. … I realize that nothing can oblige me to take this action [of being careful not to fall].(13)

Once you realize your essential freedom, Sartre says, you feel anguish. Anguish doesn’t prove we are free, but it is “a specific way of being conscious of freedom.”(14) So how come we don’t feel it all the time? Because many of our actions are habitual and because most of the time we don’t need to think about what we are doing; we just do it. Anguish arises only when we reflectively notice that we are free, not when we are unreflectively engaged in action.(15)

He gives another example. He is writing a book. As he writes, the words become sentences and the sentences, paragraphs. They have a momentum of their own. Once he gets started, he tends to keep going, possibly pausing for a while, but in anticipation of starting up again. No anguish is involved. But the paragraphs become chapters and eventually a book, and the work as a whole is an occasion for anguish.

This work is a possibility in relation to which I can feel anguish: it really is my possible, and I do not know if I will continue it tomorrow …. I have been “wanting to write it” but nothing, not even what I have been, can force me to write it.(16)

And that is the anguish of freedom. You just don’t know whether what you do in the future will be at all consistent with what you have done in the past. Maybe you will jump off a cliff. Maybe you will abandon a cherished project to which you have devoted lots of time and energy. Heck, maybe you will abandon your whole life and go live under a bridge. Anything is possible; and that, says Sartre, is occasion for anguish.

But is it? Do these examples make sense? My opinion is that they don’t; they are so far-fetched as to be almost absurd. Sartre purports to describe a feature of human reality generally, “a permanent structure of the human being.”(17) I think it’s more likely that what he describes is idiosyncratic to himself. Few of us, I think, would feel anguish in these situations.

Let’s take the second one first. Why should the idea that you might suddenly abandon a cherished project cause you anguish? Why is the idea so troubling? Perhaps the fear is that something alien to your habitual ways of being might suddenly erupt. The abandonment would be a radical disruption of yourself. Anguish would be an appropriate response. But is it probable?

Your considering the idea is a form of what I call second-order thinking, which others call metacognition or self-awareness. You can easily entertain such a thought. Maybe the words just aren’t coming today and you feel frustrated. Maybe you find that you have other, more pressing things to do. Or maybe you are just bored with the whole thing. Those scenarios are plausible, but would not, I think, provoke anguish. Your actually being in anguish about the possibility would be a second-order distrust of your first-order self. If the abandonment happened, you would be like a whole different person. Most of us do have some ego-attachment to who we think we are. Certainly a sudden disruption would threaten that attachment. But it’s not very likely.

Equally implausible is the scenario of being in anguish while hiking on a narrow ledge. The odds of being there on the cliff in the first place are very slim, but let’s ignore that. It’s ludicrous for most of us to think that we would suddenly kill ourself. It’s not a realistically probable outcome and not something you need to worry about. It’s unlikely that you would even think about it. And if you did think about it, it is unlikely that you would be in anguish about the possibility. I asked a friend about it, and she said that the possibility of stepping off a tall building had occurred to her once, but she didn’t feel any anguish and quickly put it out of her mind. I venture to guess that the same would be true for most of us.

Sartre is looking at what software developers call “edge cases,” things that happen only at extreme ends of the range of possibilities, such as maximum and minimum values. If your user is to enter a number between one and ten, you would test what happens when they enter 0, 1, 10 and 11. It’s useful to consider edge cases to avoid unexpected results, but most often we are concerned with normal cases, things that most people are likely to encounter.

Here’s a non-edge case: You anticipate getting some ice cream and you imagine ordering vanilla. As you think about it, you prefer vanilla. But you know that you might change your mind when you actually order it. You might get something else, chocolate or strawberry perhaps. Does that possibility give you pause? Do you feel anguish about it? Probably not. The stakes are low, and if you even think about it, you trust that your future self will make a good choice.

Consider all the proto-humans that lived a long time ago. The ones who cowered in existential anguish over every choice failed to survive long enough to leave offspring. We, descendants of those who did not suffer such anguish, aren’t built that way.

All this is to say that Sartre greatly exaggerates the prevalence of the feeling of anguish. The idea that anguish is universally a response to recognizing one’s freedom is clearly false. It is not a feature of human reality generally, only of a few psychologically unstable individuals.

The idea makes sense only if you buy into Sartre’s notion of freedom, that we are radically undetermined by any past causes, psychological tendencies, motives and the like. If that were the case, then it might make sense to worry about whether we would suddenly do things completely out of character as if we were possessed by some evil spirit. But Sartre’s examples are so outlandish that they serve as a kind of reductio ad absurdum and render his notion false.

Are we then not free at all? No, our will is indeed free, but it is subject to constraints. Causality, tendencies and motives as well as, crucially, our beliefs and desires are far more efficacious than Sartre would have us believe.(18) Sartre is right in emphasizing our capacity for second-order thinking (although he uses quite different language). Observing ourselves and thinking about ourselves allow us to step back mentally, appraise what we are up to, consider possible consequences and decide what to do. In such appraisals we remember our valued projects and our will to live. We might recognize that theoretically we have the ability to abandon our past, but we see no reason to do so and quickly move on.

Our capacity for self-reflection does give us an ability that Sartre evidently does not recognize, however, the ability to choose our response to our freedom. Yes, we can choose to be in anguish, but we can equally well choose take delight and comfort that we are not mere puppets.

A different and more cogent assessment of our freedom comes from a Sufi teacher:

Freedom of will … is strictly speaking continuous opportunity to do good, no matter how many the shortcomings or how often the repetition of serious mistakes.(19)

Far from occasion for anguish, our ability to make free choices can engender hope. We don’t have to be stuck in harmful behaviors. Our freedom can give us the great satisfaction and even exhilaration of knowing that we are each, as the poet says, master of our fate and captain of our soul.(20)


(1) de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, near the end of Part I. (The online version has no page numbers.)

(2) Idem, throughout Part II.

(3) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 59

(4) Idem, p. 64.

(5) Idem, p. 65.

(6) Idem, p. 72.

(7) Idem, p. 107.

(8) Idem, p. 66.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Idem, pp. 67-70.

(11) Idem, p. 68.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Idem, p. 69.

(14) Idem, p. 72.

(15) Idem, pp. 74-75.

(16) Idem, p. 76.

(17) Idem, p. 74.

(18) Please see Meacham, How To Exert Free Will for a fuller treatment.

(19) Lewis, The Sutra on the Three Hundred and Sixty Aphorisms, PDF p. 12.

(20) Henley, “Invictus”.


de Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. On-line publication, URL = as of 21 June 2023.

Henley, William Ernest. “Invictus.” Available online at as of 28 June 2023.

Lewis, Samuel L. The Sutra on the Three Hundred and Sixty Aphorisms. Online publication as of 21 September 2018.

Meacham, Bill. “How To Exert Free Will.” Online publication Amazon Kindle edition,

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Tr. Sarah Richmond. New York: Washington Square Press/Atria, 2018.

May 23 23

On religion and other topics (video)

by Bill Meacham

A few weeks ago I was featured on an online TV show called Created In The Image Of God. Here’s the link:

Not surprisingly a lot of it is about religion, but the show covers other topics as well, such as the difference between goodness and rightness and whether our life has any meaning. Much of it covers my personal approach to life and religion, including the impact on me of my daughter’s death and my subsequent communication with her. The host tells a fascinating story about his seemingly miraculous escape from death, and we discuss faith and the right to believe. If you like a more conversational approach to philosophy than my usual discursive essays, please have a look.

Feb 16 23

Life Has No Meaning. So What?

by Bill Meacham
person walking into the distance

Philosophy is supposed to be able to address broad and important issues such as the meaning of life. Philosopher Rivka Weinberg’s provocatively-titled paper “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad” is one such attempt. The question is both universal and personal. What is the meaning of life, but in particular what is the meaning of your life? Does your life have meaning? Is it meaningful? Weinberg thinks not, not because she knows you or anything about you but because she thinks nobody’s life has any meaning.

First, let’s be clear that we are not talking about meaning in the sense of the meaning of a word or sentence. If I ask what “perspicuous” means, the answer is “clearly expressed and easily understood.” If I ask what “Schnee ist weiss” means, the answer is “Snow is white.” But if I ask what life means, there is no corresponding answer because life is not a word or sentence. It doesn’t have that sort of meaning. Some have said that the question has no answer because it doesn’t make sense; it’s a kind of category error to attribute meaning to life. But Weinberg says it does make sense; she just doesn’t like the answer.

In her view, meaning is more like purpose. When we ask about the meaning of life, we want to know the purpose or point of living. It’s a way of asking Why in terms of motivation. We often ask someone why they are doing something. Why are you going to the store? To get some eggs. Then we can ask a further Why question. Why do you want to get eggs? Because I’m hungry (and want to alleviate my hunger). Each Why becomes more general. Why do you want to alleviate your hunger? Because hunger is painful and I don’t want to feel pain. In trivial cases the questions can eventually become divorced from everyday reality. Why do you not want to feel pain? Because it hurts. At this point you might feel like you are talking to a toddler.

Other motivational Why questions seem more salient to the human condition. Why are you sending money to Doctors Without Borders? Because I want to help earthquake victims. Why do you want to help earthquake victims? Because I want to alleviate their suffering. Again, each Why becomes more general, but now the answers are not so trivial. Why do you want to alleviate their suffering? What is the point of alleviating suffering? You might answer that you feel compassion for people who are hurting, and compassion is a painful state for you because you feel their pain. You might answer that you want to build your character to become a generous sort of person, because that would be a better way to live than not. You might answer that you want to be recognized as a good person (in which case you need to let others know that you are donating). You might answer that you feel obliged to do God’s will, who orders you to love your neighbor. Whatever the answer, it gets closer to something ultimate, something you might consider the meaning of your life.

Weinberg observes that in both trivial and morally significant cases, the purpose or point of an activity is something you value that is external to the activity itself. A point in this sense is a valued end(1), and “valued ends are external to the projects toward which they are directed.”(2)

What’s valued is not just the activity. Alleviating your hunger is different from going to the store. Alleviating suffering is different from donating money to a worthy cause. Such activities are called “telic,” meaning that they aim at some end or goal, such as getting eggs or alleviating suffering. (The term comes from the Greek telos, which means end result; by extension it means goal or purpose.) The value is found in something external to the activity. Some other activities, such as going for a walk, are called “atelic.” Their aim is the activity itself.(3) But even in those, the value is not the same as the activity. Your goal in going for a walk might be enjoyment or health or companionship (if you walk with somebody else), but it’s not just to go for a walk.

In such activities and many more you find meaning or purpose or value in what you do. Weinberg calls such meaning “meaning in life.”(4) Even meaning in a cosmic sense—your impact on the cosmos, your role in the grand scheme of things, or the purpose assigned to you by God or some such—is part of meaning in life.(5) But she’s concerned with something else, the meaning of life as a whole. The former sort of meaning she calls “Everyday Meaning” and the latter, “Ultimate Meaning.”(6) “Ultimate Meaning refers to the point of leading a life at all. Why bother …?”(7) And she says that there is no reason to do so, no point in it, no ultimate meaning.

The reason is simple. For things that have everyday meaning, meaning in life, the activity and the goal are both in your life. It is you who go to the store to get eggs, and you who eat them. It is you who donate money and you who alleviate suffering. But to ask about ultimate meaning, the meaning of life is to ask about a valued end distinct from your life as a whole, and there isn’t any. “There can be no end external to one’s entire life since one’s life includes all of one’s ends.” Therefore “leading and living one’s life as a whole cannot have a point.”(8)

Think of it this way. In your life you can at least imagine how it would be to achieve your goal—ending world hunger, say—even if you don’t actually succeed. But once your life is over, you won’t be around to see whether your life goal has been achieved. If you imagine it, you are imagining yourself still alive. But you’ll be dead, so there will be no goal for you. (If you believe in life after death, then the idea is the same. You’ll still be alive but in some other, spectral, realm until you finally die or get sublated or whatever. If you believe in reincarnation, then the idea is still the same; you’ll be alive in another body until you get annihilated into nirvana.) So it makes no sense to think that your life as a whole has any purpose, end or goal. It’s pointless.

Life is pointless, not just because you, in your limited viewpoint, can’t find a point, but because metaphysically there isn’t one to be found.

Well, that sounds plausible, if a bit disturbing. Weinberg makes two claims in her paper, (a) that life is pointless and (b) that we should be sad that it is so. I’ll return to the second point shortly, but let’s stay on the first for a moment. There are some ramifications to consider. One is that in her view one’s life is one’s project or enterprise. But maybe it’s not.

She makes the assertion over and over again. “Why bother with the project, effort, or enterprise of life?” she says. “What is the valued end of running a human life?”(9) “We lead one entire life as an effort or enterprise of its own.”(10) “We are all human and we all, to some degree, put effort into running our lives as an effort or project of its own.”(11)

It’s quite a strong claim to assert that we all do that. The obvious objection is that we don’t all do so. Does an impoverished Afghan wife run her life as a project? Does a homeless vagrant on the streets of Sao Paolo do that? How about a demented person locked up in a psychiatric hospital? More likely, they just try to get by. Not all of us have enough sense of agency to even view our lives as our projects, although I think it would be good if we did.(12)

Weinberg recognizes the objection but dismisses it.

We are not merely alive, like a bacterium or even a rat; we lead lives, we run our lives as a sustained effort or enterprise, often attempting to fit its pieces together into a purposeful whole. Not entirely, of course. We may live for the moment sometimes but a life led that way all the time would likely seem fragmentary, incoherent—not only pointless, but centerless, agentless; not a truly human life.(13)

This seems suspiciously like a “No True Scotsman” argument, one that improperly excludes a counterexample.(14) If you don’t run your life as a project or enterprise, you aren’t truly human, she implies. That’s a dangerous way of thinking. Once you exclude some people from being truly human, you may feel justified in treating them badly, even to the point of exterminating them, as Hitler did with Jews. At any rate, if such a person had no sense of a meaning of their life, it would not be because such a meaning is metaphysically impossible. And lacking such a sense, they would have no reason to be sad about it.

A similar consideration is that her account of human agency seems to require that we view our life as a narrative, a story in which we are the protagonist. But some of us don’t think of ourselves that way. She notes “the importance that the narrative trajectory of a human life plays in leading a meaningful life”(15) and cites several thinkers to that effect. But not everyone views their life that way. Galen Strawson says that he and numerous others are “episodic,” lacking in overall narrative. Their lives are a succession of incidents that do not hang together as a whole story.(16) Presumably such people would find no reason to look for the meaning of their life as a whole. I don’t suppose that Weinberg would consider them as lacking true humanity even though she thinks their lives would be fragmentary and incoherent. They are true humans, but they are not bothered by their lack of ultimate meaning.

These considerations throw doubt upon her second assertion, that we should be sad that our lives don’t have any ultimate meaning. Her title asserts that “we should be very, very sad”. But what is the nature of this Should?(17) It’s certainly not a legal requirement. It doesn’t seem like a moral obligation; we are not commanded to be sad. Is it a prudential thing, that we should be sad about this tragic state of affairs because indulging in that emotion will lead us to greater fulfillment or flourishing? No, it’s hard to see how being sad about something you have no control over would fulfill you or bring you happiness.

More likely it’s a form of social convention, almost etiquette. She talks about being fitting and making sense. “It is fitting,” she says, “to be sad to recognize that leading and living a life is pointless.”(18) “It makes sense to be saddened [and] disappointed that there’s no valued end to leading a life at all.”(19) “Discovering that leading life itself … is pointless should make us sad because it is a fitting response to the facts.”(20) It is fitting because all our other projects, the ones within our life, have a point or purpose, but the project of being alive in toto doesn’t. That one is an outlier; so, asserts Weinberg, it is fitting to be sad about it.

None of these reasons make sense to me. Some people might miss having a point or purpose to life and be sad about its absence, but there are other equally good responses.

We’ve seen that those who have no sense of ultimate meaning don’t feel sad about the lack. Are we to say that they should have a sense of ultimate meaning in order not to be a deficient human being? We’ve already dealt with this issue and found that it’s not an appealing way of thinking. In their case, paucity of affect seems quite fitting.

Those whose lives are episodic may recognize that there is no such thing as ultimate meaning for their lives, but don’t consider that state of affairs a defect. Their appropriate response is indifference.

Some people are just innately cheerful about things. They don’t mind missing out on ultimate purpose. That seems an appropriate response to their situation. Don’t worry, be happy.

I think the Stoics have the best response. Epictetus says “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”(21) The idea is to pay attention to what you have some control over and not aggravate yourself about what you don’t. You don’t have any control over whether your life has any ultimate meaning, so don’t be sad about. Instead, be detached.

Weinberg alludes to this approach to life and finds it lacking. “Why be sad about life’s pointlessness? Is that not also pointless? You might think that lamenting life’s pointlessness is futile, and itself pointless, like crying for the moon. If you can’t do anything about it, why bemoan it?” Her response is telling: “Uh, because it’s sad.”(22)

But that’s no response at all! It merely restates the premise that is at issue. Nothing is sad in and of itself. Something is sad only for a person or some people. The Kansas City Chiefs recently beat the Philadelphia Eagles in an American Football match. No doubt fans in Philadelphia were sad, but fans in Kansas City were elated. Which was the appropriate, fitting response? Neither one in abstraction; both in the concrete. We need to look at the context. In the context of Kansas City fans, elation was quite appropriate; in the context of Philadelphia, sadness was. The Kansas City fans perceived the outcome as happy, and the Philadelphia fans perceived it as sad. Both were right from their point of view. Weinberg’s assertion that the pointlessness of life is sad begs the question. It’s sad only if you think it is. But why think it is?

This is where the Stoics have an edge. They advise us to figure out what we have control over and what we don’t, and to have no concern about the latter. Epictetus says

Examine [whatever bothers you] … by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.(23)

Stoicism, like most ancient Greek schools of philosophy, took the ultimate goal of life to be eudaimonia, a state of happiness, fulfillment or flourishing. One of the things that interferes with being happy is being emotionally agitated. And one of the primary ways we get emotionally agitated is by reacting to things we have no control over. So if you want to be happier, quit reacting. You do have control over that.

There’s a lot more to Stoicism than this, of course: an account of how the world works and the place of human beings in it; ideas about what is fully in our control (our thoughts, judgments and actions) and what is not (pretty much everything else); a list of virtues and a corresponding list of vices; advice about how to practice being less reactive and more serene; and more. If you want to find out more, an internet search will bring up quite enough to keep you busy.

According to Weinberg, we have no control over the meaning of our life because there is no such thing. Feel free to be sad about it if you like, but know that you’re being sad about the absence of something that can’t possibly exist and hence over which you have absolutely no control. If you persist in that attitude, you are actually being foolish.

That said, most of us do want some sense of purpose. We like feeling a connection with something larger than ourselves and having some purpose or meaning within that context. OK, no problem. There’s no shortage of things within life to dedicate ourselves to: truth, justice, climate resilience, animal welfare, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, healing the sick, raising self-reliant kids. I’m sure you can think of more. If we can’t have ultimate meaning, a meaning of our life, we can at least find everyday meaning, meaning in our life. So, the Stoics would say, quit wasting your time with useless sadness and get on with something worthwhile.


(1) Weinberg, “Ultimate Meaning,” p. 2.

(2) Idem, p. 4.

(3) Idem, p. 3.

(4) Idem, p. 7.

(5) Idem, p. 5, footnote 16.

(6) Idem, p. 5.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Idem, p. 1.

(9) Idem, p. 5.

(10) Idem, pp. 7-8.

(11) Idem, p. 8.

(12) See Chapter 20, “The Human Virtue” in my How To Be An Excellent Human.

(13) Weinberg, op. cit., p. 8.

(14) Wikipedia, “No true scotsman.”

(15) Weinberg, op. cit., p. 13.

(16) Strawson, “Against Narrativity.”

(17) See my “Ways to Say ‘Should’,” chapter 22 of How To Be An Excellent Human and at

(18) Weinberg, op. cit., p. 1.

(19) Idem, p. 8.

(20) Idem, p. 10.

(21) Weaver, “Stoic Quotes.” Epictetus, Discourses, Book Four, Chapter 4.

(22) Weinberg, op. cit. p. 21.

(23) Epictetus. The Enchiridion, Section 1, paragraph 4.


Epictetus. Discourses. Tr. Elizabeth Carter and Daniel Kolak. Online publication as of 13 February 2023.

Epictetus. The Enchiridion. Tr. Elizabeth Carter. Online publication as of 15 February 2023.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Meacham, Bill. “Ways to say ‘Should’.” Online publication

Strawson, Galen. “Against Narrativity” in Real Materialism and Other Essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2008. Available on line at as of 3 March 2012.

Weaver, Tobias. “Stoic Quotes: The Best Quotes From The Stoic Philosophers.” Online publication as of 13 February 2023.

Weinberg, Rivka. “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad.” Journal of Controversial Ideas. 2021; 1(1):4. Online publication as of 6 February, 2023.

Wikipedia. “No true scotsman.” Online publication as of 14 February 2023.

Nov 7 22

Sartre, Positionally

by Bill Meacham

Whenever you are conscious, you are conscious of something. Phenomenologists call this feature of being conscious “intentionality,” which means being aimed at or directed toward that something, whatever it may be, which they call the “intentional object.” “Intentionality” and its adjectival form, “intentional,” come from a Latin phrase meaning to aim an arrow; they are technical philosophical terms. Take a look at your own experience and you’ll see what they mean. This feature of being conscious is fairly obvious and non-controversial.

More controversial is what a great many phenomenologists assert: that in addition to being conscious of the intentional object, you are in some less focused way conscious of being conscious. I disagree and have explained my disagreement in some depth elsewhere.(1) One of the earliest and most forceful advocates of this position is Jean-Paul Sartre. In this essay I evaluate Sartre’s argument. (Spoiler alert: I find it lacking.)

In the introduction to his monumental Being and Nothingness Sartre says that

every positional consciousness of an object is at the same time a non-positional consciousness of itself.(2)

That’s not the clearest sentence ever written. What is a consciousness? What does it mean for it to be positional or not? I find Sartre’s obscure language quite aggravating. He sounds profound, but you don’t quite know what he is talking about. And when you figure it out, you find that he is wrong, as we shall see.

In order to decide whether Sartre is right, we have to know what he means by these terms, “consciousness” (“conscience” in the original French) and “positional” (“positionnelle”).(3) Let’s take “consciousness” first.

The term is ambiguous. It can refer to all sorts of things, from a state of being unsedated to the ground of all being. I’ve addressed this deficiency in another paper.(4) For now, we’ll focus on Sartre’s usage.

At one point he seems quite clear:

We said that consciousness is the knowing being in his capacity as being and not as being known.(5)

We don’t need to know in detail what Sartre means by “being” and “being known” to understand that “consciousness” means a conscious entity, a person or perhaps an animal. But if we substitute “conscious entity” for “consciousness” in the sentence cited above, we get this:

Every positional conscious entity of an object is at the same time a non-positional conscious entity of itself.

That makes no sense, so “consciousness” must mean something else. My best guess is that it means an episode or state of being conscious. If so, the sentence becomes this:

Every positional episode of being conscious of an object is at the same time a non-positional episode of being conscious of itself.

That is a bit awkward—what is a positional episode?—, so we might rephrase it as follows:

Every episode of being positionally conscious of an object is at the same time an episode of being non-positionally conscious of being conscious itself.

Both of these are somewhat opaque. Perhaps the meaning will become clearer when we understand what “positional” means. For Sartre, it is an adjectival form of the verb “to posit.” He says

All consciousness, as Husserl has shown, is consciousness of something. This means that there is no consciousness which is not a positing of a transcendent object ….(6)

This usage of “posit” is metaphorical. Usually the term refers to something linguistic, a step in an argument. It means to assume something as a fact or to put something forward as a basis of argument.(7) So how does being conscious of something posit that thing?

This is where Sartre builds on Husserl’s legacy. Phenomenological reflection reveals that there is a cognitive element in every moment of perceiving something. When you see a tree, for instance, you see colors and shapes but you also subliminally interpret those colors and shapes as a tree. The interpretive element, which Husserl calls “noesis”, is as much a part of your experience as the colors and shapes, but usually we don’t pay any attention to it. Analogously to positing a proposition as a basis for argument, when we perceive a tree we posit the tree as the intentional object we are seeing. Sartre calls it a “transcendent” object because it transcends or goes beyond what is immediately given in experience, the sense-data and the interpretive noeses. Husserl’s term is “noema.” Again, I discuss this in detail elsewhere.(8)

Being conscious of something such as a tree positionally means that we posit it as what we are conscious of. We take it to be an object apart from us. Figuratively speaking, we are over here, and we (again, subliminally) posit or suppose that what is over there is a tree. We take a position with respect to it; or, which amounts to the same thing, the tree is seen to be in a position with respect to us.

Fine, but what about “non-positional”? Well, it must indicate something that we do not posit, something that we do not take as an object, something with respect to which we do not take a position. Objects of which we are non-positionally conscious are those in the periphery or background of our experience rather than being in focus. Some examples are physical feelings that we do not attend to, such as the feeling of the shoes on our feet or the ambient sounds around us; fleeting emotional reactions to things we encounter; the experience of highway hypnosis in which we pay little or no attention to the surroundings but nevertheless navigate the road successfully; and many more. Clear and distinct perception is only one end of a continuum, at the other end of which are vague and indistinct presentations, emotional and physical feelings, and finally subliminally or subconsciously presented objects that we can become focally conscious of only with the greatest difficulty. Such objects in the periphery are what Sartre calls non-positional.

The question is whether, paraphrasing Sartre, something that can be referred to as being conscious of being conscious is always and necessarily present in the unattended-to periphery of our experience. My answer is No. It is not the case that every episode of being positionally conscious of an object includes at the same time being non-positionally conscious of being conscious. In my own experience I find that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I argue for this thesis in some detail elsewhere.(9) In this essay I just want to examine Sartre’s evidence.

He gives as an example counting cigarettes:

If I count the cigarettes which are in that case, I have the impression of disclosing an objective property of this collection of cigarettes: they are a dozen. This property appears to my consciousness as a property existing in the world. It is very possible that I have no positional consciousness of counting them. … Yet at the moment when these cigarettes are revealed to me as a dozen, I have a non-thetic consciousness of my adding activity.(10)

“Non-thetic” means roughly “non-positional.” When we pay attention to something, our intentional object is like the thesis of an argument, the main thing being focused on. “Non-thetic,” obviously, means the opposite, something not focused on.

Here Sartre describes his own experience, and we have no reason to doubt him. While he focuses on the items being counted, his activity of counting is present in his experience in the background. And that background acquaintance with his activity, he says, is what enables him to report what he is doing.

If … anyone should ask, “What are you doing there?” I should reply at once, “I am counting.” This reply aims not only at the instantaneous consciousness [i.e. moment of being conscious] which I can achieve by reflection but at those fleeting consciousnesses [moments of being conscious] which have passed without being reflected on, those which are forever not-reflected-on in my immediate past. …(11)

The “instantaneous consciousness” achieved by reflection is simply noticing that he is counting. (Or that he was just now counting, since now he is thinking about counting rather than actually doing it.) He says that his background acquaintance with his activity in moments just past is what enables him to answer. So far, so good, but then he attempts to universalize the situation.

It is the non-thetic consciousness of counting which is the very condition of my act of adding. If it were otherwise, how would the addition be the unifying theme of my consciousnesses [moments of being conscious]? In order that this theme should preside over a whole series of syntheses of unifications and recognitions, it must be present to itself, not as a thing but as an operative intention …. (12)

By “syntheses of unifications and recognitions” he means the noetic, interpretive element in moments of being conscious by virtue of which our experience seems to be continuous. He says that he would not even know that he has been adding if not for the “non-thetic consciousness of counting,” by which I think he means the appearance of his activity of counting in the background or periphery of all the things present to him in his experience. His intention to count the cigarettes is operative, meaning not focused on but having an effect nevertheless.

But notice that he does not claim that he actually finds an appearance of counting in the periphery of every experience that results in knowing how many items there are. He says such an appearance “must be” there. It is an assumption, not a phenomenological observation.

The assumption of a background, or non-positional, appearance of counting is an explanation of how he is able to answer the question. But it’s not the only possible explanation. Sartre asserts that he must have been conscious of his experience, i.e. known what he was doing, all along in the background. Another explanation is that he could simply have recognized it based on tacit prior knowledge.

Suppose that you are concentrating on something: reading a book, perhaps, or fixing a broken pipe or working a difficult puzzle. Your attention is focused on the book (or more precisely the story or argument in the book), the pipe or the puzzle. Someone asks you what you are doing, and you tell them. How do you know? You have a flash of recognition. Perhaps that recognition comes from having been peripherally aware of your activity of concentrating. Or you could just as well simply see what you are doing and recognize it because of prior knowledge. You have read other books, fixed other things, worked other puzzles. Your knowledge of doing those things does not have to have been phenomenally present in the dim background while you were reading, repairing or working. What you know is tacit; you don’t pay attention to it, and you might not even be able to articulate it.(13) But you know it nevertheless.

We are seeking an explanation of how someone knows what they are (or have just been) doing when asked. We have two alternatives: (a) having been non-positionally conscious of it all along and (b) noticing it when asked and recognizing it based on tacit knowledge. How shall we choose? The best explanation is not that every episode of being conscious of something includes at the same time being non-positionally conscious of being conscious. Sometimes that may be true, but often it is not, at least in my experience. So I think Sartre is wrong.

One’s own experience is key to the whole question. I assert that I, the author, am not always non-positionally conscious of being conscious. Others assert not only that they are, but that everyone is, including me and you, dear reader. There’s no way to decide objectively which is true. The best each of us can do is to examine our own experience and decide for ourself.

As fascinating as the question is for some of us, no doubt it is pretty much irrelevant to most. But the activity of examining yourself is not irrelevant. Knowing yourself is key to a fulfilled and happy life. If you want such a life, examine yourself, exercise the distinctively human function of self-reflection and find out who and what you are.



(1) Meacham, “Being Conscious of Being Conscious.”

(2) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. liii.

(3) Sartre, Lêtre et le néant, p. 19. The sentence in French is “toute conscience positionnelle d’objet est en même temps conscience non positionnelle d’elle-même.”

(4) Meacham, “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).”

(5) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. li.

(6) Ibid.

(7) as of 3 November 2022. See also and

(8) Meacham, “Under The Hood.”

(9) Meacham, “Being Conscious of Being Conscious.”

(10) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. liii.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Wikipedia, “Tacit knowledge.”



Meacham, Bill. “Being Conscious of Being Conscious.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).” Online publication and as of 2 November 2022.

Meacham, Bill. “Under The Hood.” Online publication

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. Available online at as of 27 April 2020.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Lêtre et le néant: Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. Corrected edition with index by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1943. Online publication
as of 12 October 2022.

Wikipedia. “Tacit knowledge.” Online publication as of 5 November 2022.

Aug 6 22

AI Sentience

by Bill Meacham
Digital AI face

Could an artificial intelligence (AI) be sentient? How could we tell? A recent opinion piece in the New York Times claims that AIs are not sentient.(1) The article raises an interesting question but does not adequately answer it, in part because it conflates sentience and intelligence and in part because its language is confused. Here is an example of the confusion:

There is no evidence this technology is sentient or conscious — two words that describe an awareness of the surrounding world.

This sentence is little more than a tautology, since in English “conscious” and “aware” mean the same thing.(2) It basically says that “sentient” means “conscious” and “conscious” means being conscious.

Here is another:

Sentience — the ability to experience feelings and sensations — is not something easily measured. Nor is consciousness — being awake and aware of your surroundings.

So sentience is the ability to experience — that is, the ability to be conscious of — feelings and sensations, and being conscious is (substituting equivalent words) being awake and conscious. That doesn’t tell us much.

Confused as this language is, we can agree that “sentient” means being conscious. But in what sense? Does it mean having the capacity to be conscious or actually being conscious during some period of time? Or both? Clearly if something has no ability to be conscious, it can’t be conscious in any given duration of time, so let’s say it means both. The author is claiming that AIs have no capacity to be conscious and are never conscious of their world. Unfortunately, he offers little evidence for his assertion.

Before we get there, let’s dispose of a related question, whether an AI can be intelligent. Here is a definition of intelligence:

The ability to learn — the ability to take in new context and solve something in a new way — is intelligence.

Obviously many AIs are intelligent, albeit artificially so. That’s the whole point of the AI enterprise, to create things that can learn and solve problems in a new way. When Google Assistant or Alexa hears what you say and gives a relevant and useful response, that’s AI at work. And we can judge how intelligent they are by the relevance of their responses. Siri, for instance, comes in a poor third in such a contest. But are they conscious?

We need to distinguish two aspects of being conscious, first pointed out many years ago by philosopher Ned Block.(3) He calls them “phenomenal consciousness” and “access consciousness,” which I prefer to restate as being conscious in phenomenal mode and being conscious in access mode. In phenomenal mode we see colors and shapes, we hear sounds, we smell aromas, etc. In access mode we have ideas or mental representations of what we are phenomenally conscious of, and these ideas enable us to do something with it, such as reason about it, say something about it or take some action on it. We are able to do these things with something of which we are phenomenally conscious because we have a representation of it in our mind.

In most cases the phenomenal aspect and the access-enabling aspect occur together. That’s why many use the term “conscious” to mean both. But some AIs are clearly conscious in access mode even though we doubt that they are conscious in phenomenal mode. An example is a self-driving car or a robot. Such devices detect and respond to their environment. They can make decisions, for instance whether to stop or proceed or to slow down or speed up. They can speak; think of Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. But we doubt that the world appears to them phenomenally in any way at all.

And that’s the issue at hand, whether AIs can be truly phenomenally conscious. Are they — can they be — conscious of things in phenomenal mode, as we are when we are awake and alert? Does a world appear to them as it does to us?

The problem is that we can tell only inferentially. As the author says, whether something is sentient is “not something easily measured.” We have no direct access to someone else’s mind, let alone the mind of an AI. Hence, we can only ascertain the presence of mind from behavior.

Unfortunately, the author cites as evidence researchers who seem to conflate sentience, the ability to be phenomenally conscious, with intelligence.

“A conscious organism — like a person or a dog or other animals — can learn something in one context and learn something else in another context and then put the two things together to do something in a novel context they have never experienced before,” Dr. [Colin] Allen of the University of Pittsburgh said. “This technology is nowhere close to doing that.”

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology who is part of the A.I. research group at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed. “The computational capacities of current A.I. like the large language models,” she said, “don’t make it any more likely that they are sentient than that rocks or other machines are.”

The argument seems to be that current AIs are too dumb to be conscious. But that doesn’t follow at all. Plenty of conscious organisms are quite stupid.(4) Lack of intelligence is no evidence for lack of ability to be conscious, nor for failure to actually be conscious at any given time.

More likely, although not stated explicitly, is that the author and the researchers he cites are a bit narrow minded. They think that only living organisms can be phenomenally conscious and arrangements of silicon and metal obviously can’t. But that is just prejudice. We think other people are conscious because they are like us, and we know that we are conscious. Animals such as dogs and cats appear to be conscious because they behave like us and we can imagine inhabiting their point of view and seeing the world as they do. There are certain limits to such imagination, of course. Can we imagine how the world would appear to a bat?(5) Or an amoeba? It is even harder to imagine being an AI. But reality is not limited to what we can imagine.

A more plausible reason for doubting AI sentience, not mentioned by the author of the New York Times piece, is that a certain complexity of material substrate — neurons and brain cells in living beings — seems to be required for an organism to be conscious. And the more complex that substrate, the more vivid and intense the world appears to the organism and the more intelligent is its repertoire of behavior. On this view, because AIs lack such a complex substrate of living cells they can’t be conscious. But perhaps such complexity can be mirrored in non-living form. Perhaps it’s not the nature of the material substrate that counts but the complex patterns embodied in the substrate.

The authors disparage science fiction and accuse AI zealots of failing to distinguish science fiction from reality. But science fiction has much to offer. Consider the novels of Iain Banks known as the Culture Series. They are set in a utopian, post-scarcity society of humans, humanoid aliens and advanced superintelligent AIs living in artificial habitats spread across the galaxy.(6) The non-human AIs are characters in the stories as much as the humans are. They give every indication of being not only highly intelligent but also quite conscious of their world.

If such a world were to come to pass, we could distinguish between AIs and humans only by means of their appearance, not by whether they were sentient or not. That time has not yet come, but it may well be on its way. We may agree that today’s AIs most likely aren’t sentient, but we have no infallible way to decide for sure. And we certainly can’t be sure that future AIs won’t be. A bit of humility is called for here, as well as a sense of wonder, which underlies science fiction and philosophy both.




(1) Metz, “A.I. Is Not Sentient.” All quotations unless otherwise cited are from this article.

(2) The English language has two terms that mean roughly the same thing, “conscious” and “aware.” The former is from a Latin root, and the latter is from Old Saxon. (See, “Conscious” and “Aware.”) Many other languages have only one: “bewusst” in German and “consciente” in Spanish, for instance. The two English terms are interchangeable. The only exception to using them interchangeably is that sometimes “aware” connotes being informed or cognizant in a way that “conscious” does not. If you want to say that someone knows the rules, “She is aware of the rules” sounds better than “She is conscious of the rules.” But that is not the meaning in the sentence quoted.

(3) Block, “On a confusion about a function of consciousness.”

(4) Unattributed, “Top 10 Dumbest Animals in the World.”

(5) Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”

(6) Wikipedia, “Culture series.”



Block, Ned. “On a confusion about a function of consciousness.” Behavioral And Brain Sciences (1995) vol. 18, pp. 227-287. Online publication as of 6 August 2022.. “Aware.” Online publication, as of 4 May 2016. “Conscious.” Online publication, as of 4 May 2016.

Metz, Cade. “A.I. Is Not Sentient. Why Do People Say It Is?” Online publication as of 6 August 2022. If that link doesn’t work, try this one instead:

Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 435-450. Online publication as of 29 April 2015.

Unattributed. “Top 10 Dumbest Animals in the World.” Online publication as of 6 August 2022.

Wikipedia. “Culture series.” Online publication as of 6 August 2022.

Jun 21 22

Moral confusion about abortion

by Bill Meacham

The controversy about abortion—whether it should be permitted or forbidden and under what circumstances—illustrates the problem with what I call the Rightness paradigm of ethical reasoning.(1) The Rightness paradigm frames discourse about what we should do in terms of what is right or wrong according to certain rules. It includes rules of law and etiquette as well as morality,(2) but my focus here is on morality. We will get to the details presently.


First, consider some recent findings about the effects of forbidding women to get abortions. Researchers tested the hypothesis that abortion harms the women who have them and found, to the contrary, that “in general, abortion does not wound women physically, psychologically, or financially. Carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term does.”(3) The researchers conducted a rigorous study, known as the Turnaway Study because it studied women who were turned away from abortion clinics. Most states ban pregnancy after a certain time, typically when the fetus is thought to be able to survive outside the womb. The researchers interviewed women who had an abortion shortly before that date and women who were turned away after. Both sets of women wanted the abortion, but one set was denied it and forced to carry the pregnancy to term. Both sets were similar in terms of demographics and socioeconomics, so the studies were “apples to apples.” The researchers recruited nearly 1,000 women to be interviewed every six months for five years. The results were striking.

Women who had their abortions generally did not regret having an abortion at all.

Afterward, nearly all said that termination had been the right decision. At five years, only 14 percent felt any sadness about having an abortion; two in three ended up having no or very few emotions about it at all. “Relief” was the most common feeling, and an abiding one.(4)

But women who got there too late and had to continue their pregnancy experienced an extraordinary range of bad effects.(5)

  • They were more likely to end up in poverty, had worse credit scores and were more likely to go through bankruptcy or eviction.
  • They were less likely to be in a good romantic relationship after two years and in fact were more likely to be with an abusive partner.
  • They were more likely to end up as a single parent.
  • They had more trouble bonding with their infants, were less likely to agree with the statement “I feel happy when my child laughs or smiles” and were more likely to say they “feel trapped as a mother.”
  • They were less likely to have aspirational life plans.
  • They were in worse health, having more hypertension and chronic pain.
  • Their children were less likely to hit developmental milestones and more likely to live in poverty.

And there are other deleterious effects on a woman’s health, particularly when she gets pregnant repeatedly in a short period of time, as is likely when abortion is unavailable. One expert called pregnancy “the ultimate stress test.” Possible complications include sciatica, pica, preeclampsia, perineal trauma and gestational diabetes. The lower the woman’s socioeconomic status and the darker her skin, the more likely she is to suffer from one or more of these ailments.(6)


In view of this rather depressing list of harms to women who want abortions and can’t get them, how can abortion opponents maintain their position? They do so because their morality tells them they must. The most common justification for opposing abortion is the following:

1. Murder, the intentional killing a human being, is wrong.

2. An unborn fetus is a human being.

3. Therefore abortion, the intentional killing of an unborn fetus, is murder and is wrong.

Now, there are a number of ways to counter this argument. The most obvious is to deny premise 2 by asserting that an unborn fetus is not a full human being, but merely a potential one. Oddly, since most abortion opponents are Christian, there is actually biblical support for this position. Exodus chapter 21, verses 22 and 23, says

When [two or more] parties fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life ….(7)

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg comments

Two people are fighting; one accidentally pushes someone who is pregnant, causing a miscarriage. The text outlines the consequences: If only a miscarriage happens, the harm doer is obligated to pay financial damages. If, however, the pregnant person dies, the case is treated as manslaughter. The meaning is clear: The fetus is regarded as potential life, rather than actual life.(8)

This counter-argument depends on reframing what we consider to be the facts of the case. Other arguments in essence stipulate the facts but disagree about the moral implications.

For instance, we can assert that while killing a fetus is indeed wrong, it is even more wrong to deny a woman her freedom of choice. To force her to carry the fetus to term against her will is to make her a slave, an ultimate injustice. This is a typical form of argument in moral disputes. When one rule contradicts another, we have to rank them. The criteria for ranking are a matter of further dispute, however. In this case moral intuitions are in conflict; the intuition that the rules must be obeyed conflicts with the intuition that our actions must be fair.

A very influential essay by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson makes a slightly different argument based on notions of fairness. Imagine, she says, the following:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. … Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?(9)

The analogy, of course, is with a fetus attached to its mother and dependent on her for life. After carefully teasing out many variations of the scenario she concludes that the answer to her question is No:

I am arguing only that having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body — even if one needs it for life itself.(10)

The fetus, in other words, has no right to take over a woman’s body even for its continued existence. The woman has the right to terminate the relationship.

So far we have listed fairness arguments. Another has to do with prevention of harm. In view of the well-documented litany of ill effects of forced pregnancy listed above, many might argue that the danger of harm to the woman and her children outweighs any rights the fetus may have. That’s because their moral intuitions concerning avoidance of harm are stronger than their intuitions concerning respect for authority. But others obviously disagree because they have different moral intuitions. Again, moral intuitions are in conflict.

Moral intuitions

Moral intuitions are a key factor in the abortion controversy, so let’s take a closer look at them. They are ubiquitous. We all make moral judgments rapidly and without deliberative thought. We have an instinct for morals, a moral sense that seems to be built in. Most often our moral judgments are gut reactions that come first when we face a quandary, and we formulate reasons for our judgments afterwards. There are plausible evolutionary explanations for our sense of morality. We are ultra-social; we can’t survive in isolation and depend on our group for support, so we have evolved to have a finely tuned sense of how to get along.(11)

Moral judgments have specific cognitive, behavioral and emotional characteristics. Cognitively, the rules they evokes are taken to apply without exception. Prohibitions against rape and murder are believed to be universal and objective, not matters of local custom; and people who violate the rules are deemed to deserve condemnation. Behaviorally, we do in fact condemn moral offenders and praise those who obey the moral law. Emotionally, when our sense of morality is triggered, we feel a glow of righteousness when we abide by the rules, guilt when we don’t, a sense of anger or resentment at those who violate the rules and a desire to recruit others to allegiance to them.(12)

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has identified six domains of moral intuition, which he calls “Moral Foundations.” We all have a sense of morality, but different people have different intuitions in varying degrees.(13)

  • Caring and the Prevention of Harm. We feel an impulse to care for people who are needy, vulnerable or less fortunate than we are.
  • Fairness and Reciprocity. We want to make sure that people get what they deserve and don’t get away with more.
  • Ingroup Loyalty. We evolved as members of small tribal groups and are keenly attentive to threats or challenges to the group.
  • Authority and Respect. We feel an impulse to show respect to persons of higher rank and to treat subordinates protectively.
  • Purity and Sanctity. This one is the instinct to avoid contact with things or people we view as unclean or impure.
  • Liberty and Oppression. We have a visceral revulsion to those who dominate and misuse others.

Clearly, what’s going on in disagreements about abortion is conflict among these moral intuitions. The anti-abortion people are all about authority and respect. Moral rules are real, they say, and we are obligated to obey them, especially the one about murder. The laws have been handed down by authorities, in particular the God of Christianity, and we must respect them. The pro-choice folks feel more strongly about fairness and prevention of harm than about obedience to authority, and many feel a great distaste for being forcefully dominated. Both sides have a strong admixture of ingroup loyalty. The whole situation is a recipe for disaster.

The problem with the Rightness paradigm of morality is that there is no way to adjudicate moral disputes. We have no objective way to determine what the moral rules are. If there is some question about how tall the Eiffel Tower is, we can look it up and find the answer (300 meters, excluding antennas).(14) If there were some further question, we could go measure it. If there is some question about what follows from two premises, A implies B and A, we can consult the rules of logic and know that the conclusion is B. Anyone with suitable training and expertise can verify both physical and logical claims. But the same can’t be said for morality.

Morality is in a different ontological category. Moral rules are not real in the way physical things are, nor in the way logical and mathematical objects are. Instead, they are socially constructed. I’ve written a whole essay about this topic; here’s a summary.(15)

Social construction

Socially constructed facts are those that exist only because we agree that they exist. Some examples are money, property, marriages, governments and political boundaries. There are many more, and we could not live together without them. Take political boundaries. There is no bright line painted on the ground between, say, Texas and Louisiana. Laws and governance are different on each side of the border only because we all agree that they are. Or money. We take bits of paper or metal with certain markings on them to be media of exchange and stores of value, but their physical properties alone do not enable them to be used as money, even in the case of precious metals. They are money only because human beings use them as money, accept their use as money and have rules that govern their use as money.

Moral rules are like that. They exist independently of any particular person, but they are not independent of conscious agents altogether as physical and (arguably) mathematical/logical entities are. Moral entities are socially constructed within a community of practice, a social group, a culture or a society. Within such a community or society, everybody agrees (more or less) on what they are, everybody treats them the same way and everybody acts as if they are real. Just as there are consequences for the way we deal with physical objects, there are real consequences for the way we abide by moral rules or not, namely the reactions of others in the community. So, for members of such a community they are real.

And that’s why the controversy is so intractable. Each side thinks their moral intuitions and beliefs reflect reality and should be applied to everyone. If someone disagrees, they think that person must be mistaken or deluded at best or at worst downright evil. Neither side can persuade the other, so the conflict just goes on and on.

What can be done?

Fortunately, the situation is not hopeless. If you are of a philosophical bent and realize that morality is socially constructed, you have the freedom to examine your morality and change it if you like. That is easier said than done, of course. We can’t do away with having a sense of morality altogether. But we can see it for what it is, not a perception of an immutable set of laws external to us but an expression of who we are in community with others. If an element of our morality does not serve us—if it causes us to contract into fear or anger at those whom we consider enemies, or it causes us to miss out on opportunities for learning, or it stunts our growth so we fail to achieve our full potential—then we can, with patience and some help from others, change our moral outlook to become more inclusive, loving and compassionate. If we choose this path, it will not be because we have a moral obligation to do so (we don’t) but because it enhances our life and makes us more fulfilled and happy. I call this approach the Goodness Paradigm, which evaluates actions and policies in terms of their anticipated or hoped-for benefits rather than their adherence to moral rules.(16)

The culmination of this approach, which I call the Goodness Ethic, looks at benefits not just to each of us individually but to all concerned. It recognizes that everything is connected to everything else and that nothing exists in isolation. A change in an organism affects its environment, and a change in the environment affects the organism. So it makes sense to change our environment to be more nurturing for everyone involved, including us. Then we will thrive. The Goodness Ethic advises us to work for the good in all things. We are all in this life together, so let’s make it good for everybody.(17)

That’s on a personal level. It’s advice for enhancing your own life. But what about effecting societal change? What about changing abortion laws and policies to reduce the harms and injustices caused by rigid prohibitions against the procedure? Philosophers can be rightly criticized for living in ivory towers divorced from real life. I’m no exception, so all I can do is offer some ideas that seem sound to me.

One of my teachers has said that you can’t talk somebody into changing their mind, but sometimes you can listen them into it. Get to know people who think differently from how you do. Listen to them with empathy rather than arguing with them. Repeat what they say in your own words to make them feel heard. Find areas of agreement. Get enough emotional support for yourself to be able to keep doing this when the effort gets uncomfortable. There’s no foolproof recipe here, but the fundamental thing is to remember that deep down the person you are talking to is not your enemy no matter how much it might feel that way.(18)

The fact is that we are all connected. The hope is that we can recognize that fact and get along with each other. The way to do so is to open our hearts with compassion.


(1) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”

(2) Meacham, “Ways to Say ‘Should’.”

(3) Lowrey, “The Most Important Study in the Abortion Debate.”

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Grose, “Pregnancy Can Affect the Body Forever.”

(7), “Exodus.”

(8) Ruttenberg, “My Religion Makes Me Pro-abortion.”

(9) Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” pp. 48-49.

(10) Idem., p. 56.

(11) Haidt and Joseph, “Intuitive Ethics.”

(12) Pinker, “The Moral Instinct.”

(13) Haidt, The Righteous Mind, pp. 123–127, “Moral Foundations Theory,” and pp. 170–176, “The Liberty/Oppression Foundation.” See also


(15) Meacham, Bill, “Reassessing Morality.”

(16) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”

(17) Meacham, Bill, “This Goodness Ethic.” See also “Permaculture Ethics” and Part II of “Reassessing Morality.”

(18) Some resources include Barker, “This Is How To Change Someone’s Mind”; Brooks, “A Gentler, Better Way to Change Minds”; Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training; Gordon, Leader Effectiveness Training. The latter two give specific verbal techniques for fostering understanding. See also The Re-evaluation Counseling Communities, “Re-evaluation Counseling” for how to get emotional support.


Barker, Eric. “This Is How To Change Someone’s Mind: 6 Secrets From Research.” Online publication as of 20 June 2022.

Brooks, Arthur C. “A Gentler, Better Way to Change Minds.” Online publication as of 20 June 2022.

Gordon, Thomas. Leader Effectiveness Training. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1997 and 2001.

Gordon, Thomas. Parent Effectiveness Training, revised edition. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2019.

Grose, Jessica. “Pregnancy Can Affect the Body Forever. Have Abortion Foes Reckoned With That?” Online publication as of 18 June 2022.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Haidt, Jonathan, and Craig Joseph. “Intuitive ethics: How Innately Prepared Intuitions Generate Culturally Variable Virtues.” Daedalus, Fall, 2004, Vol. 133, No. 4 (Fall, 2004), pp. 55-66. Online publication as of 12 September 2017.

Lowrey, Annie. “The Most Important Study in the Abortion Debate.” Online publication as of 18 June 2022.

Meacham, Bill. “Permaculture Ethics and the Chain of Benefits.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “Reassessing Morality.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “The Goodness Ethic.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “Ways to Say ‘Should’.” Online publication

Pinker, Stephen. “The Moral Instinct.” New York Times, January 13, 2008. Online publication as of 13 January 2008.

Ruttenberg, Danya. “My Religion Makes Me Pro-abortion.” Online publication as of 18 June 2022. “Exodus.” Online publication as of 18 June 2022.

The Re-evaluation Counseling Communities. “Re-evaluation Counseling.” Online publication as of 20 June 2022.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Autumn, 1971, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1971), pp. 47-66. Online publication as of 11 September 2021.

Apr 25 22

Under The Hood

by Bill Meacham

In order to understand the subjective self, it will be helpful to look “under the hood,” so to speak, at how episodes of being conscious are structured and how they work.(*) The subjective self, according to William James, is a person’s “inner or subjective being, [their] psychic faculties or dispositions.”(1) The subjective self, along with the physical self and the social self, is one aspect of the empirical self, our self as known to us and to others.

A standard method of investigating the subjective self, at which James was quite adept, is through introspection. A more rigorous way is phenomenology. I have discussed phenomenology elsewhere; here is a brief summary.

Phenomenology is biasless reflective examination of experience. It is a species of introspection, but it differs from introspection done from within what Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology as a method, calls the “natural attitude,” the naive taken-for-granted outlook on the world that most of us occupy most of the time.(2) In the natural attitude you presuppose that the objective world exists even when you are not conscious of or thinking about it. To adopt a phenomenological attitude, you set aside questions of whether and in what way the world and things in it exist. That’s the biasless part. You don’t assert that they don’t exist, and you don’t assert that they do. You just examine in some detail your experience of them.

There is a difference between naively and straightforwardly experiencing something, say seeing a tree, and phenomenologically reflecting on that seeing. In the naive experience your attention is directed toward the tree. Certain interpretations or ideas about what you are looking at are present, but only operatively, in the background or “margin” of experience.(3) I mean interpretations such as that the object is a tree, that it is out there in the world perceivable by everyone, that if one walks around it one sees the other side, etc. Something is operative if it is present in and influencing the course of experience, but not focally, not in the spotlight of attention. “Operative” is contrasted to “thematic,” which means “present explicitly” or “focally attended to.”(4)

If you reflect on your experience of seeing a tree phenomenologically, you can make these operative interpretations thematic. You can notice them attentively along with the tree subjectively experienced through them. Thus you can apprehend the tree in a broader context, the context of the subjective elements that occur in your viewing of the tree.

Phenomenological reflection on an experience reveals the whole experience, not just its focal object. Husserl says that “reflection makes an object out of what was previously a subjective process.”(5) What was only operative, only in the background, in the original, un-reflected-upon experience becomes available for attentive inspection when you reflect on the experience.

And what do you (any of us) find there? Three components, which Husserl calls hyletic, noetic, and noematic.

The hyletic component is what Bertrand Russell and others in the analytic tradition call “sense data”: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses, roughnesses, and so on.(6) Husserl uses the Greek word for matter, hyle to mean the same thing.(7) Accordingly, I sometimes call it the material aspect of what we are conscious of. There’s quite a bit to say about the material qualities in experience, but that’s for another time, perhaps.

The noetic element, from the Greek nous, which means mind or intellect,(8) is what enables us to see discrete objects instead of mere colors and shapes. In a previous essay I used the “rabbit-duck” image, which can appear to be either a rabbit or a duck but not both at the same time, to illustrate the noetic element in episodes of being conscious. Another such image is the Necker Cube, a simple wire-frame, two dimensional drawing of a cube with no visual cues as to its orientation.(9)

Necker cube

If you look at it one way, you see it from the top. If you look at it another way, you see it from the bottom. But you don’t physically move in order to look at it in the two different ways. Something in your mind interprets it one way or the other. Husserl calls that mental something a “noesis” (plural “noeses”).(10) Noeses are cognitive elements that contribute significance to our experience such that we experience an orderly and coherent world of discrete objects, people, events, institutions, etc., instead of a chaotic flux of sensation. We can notice their effects in special cases, but we don’t usually pay attention to the noeses themselves. If we adopt a phenomenological stance, we can.

Husserl uses a related word, “noema” (plural “noemata”) to refer to the intentional object of our thought or perception, the tree in our example above. It is derived from a Greek word meaning “thought” or “what is thought about”.(11) Mind thinks by means of noeses, and what it thinks about are noemata. By “intentional object” I mean the object that the thought or perception is aimed at or directed toward. (“Intentional” comes from a Latin phrase meaning to aim an arrow at; it’s a technical philosophical term.)

The noema is the intentional object constituted from hyletic sense data by means of noeses. It is not the same as an actual physical object. The two views of the Necker cube are two different noemata. The pattern of black lines on a white background is the actual object that provides the hyletic component.

A woman I know was walking across her ranch one day and stepped over a vacuum cleaner hose. Then she thought “That’s odd. What is a vacuum cleaner hose doing here?” She turned and looked and saw that it was a snake. (Fortunately, she was wearing boots.) The snake had a grey and black pattern like the one on her vacuum cleaner hose at home. Before she recognized that it was a snake, her noeses had constituted their hyletic data into the noema that she perceived as a hose. Was it actually a hose? No. Did she really see a hose the first time? Yes, she did. That’s the power of noeses; they make us see things, often accurately but sometimes not.

But why should we care about this level of detail about what goes on in our experience? Well, the hope is that understanding will lead to wisdom.

Phenomenological investigation doesn’t initially come easy. In edge cases like the rabbit-duck and the Necker Cube the noetic elements are obvious, but in most of our everyday experience they aren’t. Adopting a phenomenological stance is a practice, and like any practice it works only if you do it. The more you do it, the better you get at it. But why make the effort?

Because in doing so you strengthen your ability to observe yourself in many ways, not just phenomenologically. Self-observation—which I call second-order thinking(12) and others refer to as meta-cognition or self-awareness—allows us to exert some control over who we are. We are a mixture of what Simone de Beauvoir calls freedom and facticity.(13) Facticity is just what we are and have little control over: the color of our eyes, how tall we are, the particular history that led us to where we are now. Our freedom consists in our ability to examine that facticity, to decide to change it if we can, and to go ahead and make the change.

Here’s a simple example. Suppose you have injured your shoulder, and it is stiff and painful. It lacks mobility. That’s a fact; it just is what it is. Your physical therapist prescribes certain exercises to loosen it, but it hurts to do them. That’s also just a fact. Your inclination is to avoid the exercises because they hurt. But you do them anyway, gritting your way through the pain, because you know that in the end the shoulder will have full mobility and function and won’t hurt anymore. That knowledge is the key to your freedom to change your body and improve your quality of life.

Here’s another, perhaps more cogent, example. Noeses are basically ideas that operate in the fringes or margins of our experience. The way we think of the world and what we believe to be true of it are highly influential factors in our perception of it. Being ideas, when made thematic and thought about our noeses are amenable to critical judgment. If we change our thoughts and beliefs, we change our perception of reality. And in doing so, at least in certain cases, we can actually change reality itself.

For instance, many people of European descent in Western industrialized nations feel uneasy, fearful or distrustful in the presence of someone with darker skin. That feeling is not the result of a reasoned judgment. It’s the result of social conditioning. Until you notice it, your perception of a person of color as menacing is constituted by noeses over which you have no control. They are a facticity. But once you notice your reactions and decide that they do not serve you well, you can change them. You can start by learning more about the history and psychology of racial tensions and by learning more about the cultures of the various people of color that you encounter. You can make efforts to get to know such people. You can discharge painful emotions that lock in your ideas and reactions. By changing your ideas, you change your noeses. People of color no longer appear menacing or distasteful. And in your interactions with them, they might begin to see you in a better light and change their behavior towards you.

This works a lot better in the social realm than in the physical realm. Confronted with a physical obstacle you may wish it away, but it won’t move by itself. In the social realm, however, you can change yourself and, with a bit of luck perhaps, change the way others perceive and act toward you.

The key to success is self-awareness. Inscribed on the temple to Apollo at Delphi were the words “Know Thyself.”(14) Phenomenology is one way to exercise this most human virtue.


(*) The phrase “under the hood” means something that is not immediately visible or obvious. It comes from the age of internal combustion engines and refers to the hood of a motor vehicle, which covers the engine.

(1) James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, chapter X, p. 296.

(2) Husserl, Ideas, section 27, tr. Kersten, p. 51. Boyce Gibson translates the phrase natürlicher Einstellung as “natural standpoint.”

(3) Husserl, Ideas tr. Boyce Gibson, p. 107.

(4) Zaner, The Way of Phenomenology, p. 115.

(5) Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, p. 34.

(6) Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chapter 1.

(7) Husserl, Ideas tr. Boyce Gibson, pp. 226-228.

(8) Encyclopedia Britannica, “Nous.”

(9) Wikipedia, “Necker cube”.

(10) Husserl, Ideas, pp. 228, 230-231.

(11) Wikipedia, “Noema.”

(12) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, Chapter 20, “The Human Virtue.”

(13) deBeauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity. See also my summary of the book at

(14) Wikipedia, “Delphi.”


De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. On-line publication as of 6 October 2011.

Encyclopedia Britannica Online. “Nous.” Online publication as of 19 April 2022.

Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations. Translated by Dorion Cairns. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas Pertaining To A Pure Phenomenology And To A Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book: General Introduction To A Pure Phenomenology. Tr. F. Kersten. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1983. Online publication as of 24 October 2015.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Translated by W. R. Boyce Gibson. New York: Collier Books, 1967.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. Online publication as of 16 November 2020.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy (Project Gutenberg edition). Online publication as of 8 July 2018.

Wikipedia. “Delphi.” Online publication as of 10 May 2013.

Wikipedia. “Necker cube”. Online publication as of 17 April 2022.

Wikipedia. “Noema.” Online publication as of 10 April 2022.

Zaner, Richard M. The Way of Phenomenology. Pegasus Books. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Publishing Co., 1970.

Mar 23 22

Utilitarianism Fails

by Bill Meacham

One of the tools of contemporary analytic philosophy is the thought experiment, an imaginative scenario intended to help us clarify our concepts. Here’s one from Philippa Foot:

We are about to give a patient who needs it to save his life a massive dose of a certain drug in short supply. There arrive, however, five other patients each of whom could be saved by one-fifth of that dose. We say with regret that we cannot spare our whole supply of the drug for a single patient, just as we should say that we could not spare the whole resources of a ward for one dangerously ill individual when ambulances arrive bringing in victims of a multiple crash. We feel bound to let one man die rather than many if that is our only choice.(1)

The concept to be clarified here is moral. Foot assumes that saving five lives rather than one is obviously the morally correct thing to do. But is it?

John Taurek argues that there are cases in which it would be perfectly OK to save one instead of many. Suppose the one is a friend of the person dispensing drugs, and the others are strangers. Taurek thinks that it would be permissible to give it to the one:

Suppose this one person, call him David, is someone I know and like, and the others are strangers to me. I might well give all of my drug to him. And I am inclined to think that were I to do so I would not be acting immorally.(2)

In other words, his personal preference would override the moral obligation. But that means that the moral obligation would be, as he says, “feeble indeed,”(3) so feeble that perhaps it doesn’t even exist. Perhaps there is no moral obligation to save the many rather then the one.

Here we have conflicting moral intuitions. Foot thinks it is morally obligatory to save the many rather than the one, and Taurek disagrees. Is there a way to tell who is right?

Taurek goes on to spin out several variations of the scenario in hopes of further clarifying the issue. What if the one is on the verge of discovering some wonder drug or negotiating a lasting peace? Saving his life (let’s just assume for the moment that the person is male) would have greater benefit to humanity than saving the five, so we should save him. Or what if the one person is just an average guy, but the others are unworthy or deficient in some way. Maybe they are known criminals or brain-damaged infants. Would that change the situation?

Such considerations muddy the water, however. To really clarify the issue we need to compare apples to apples, considering the cases ceteris paribus, as philosophers say, all else being equal. Let’s assume that there is nothing special about any of the people involved. Then further variations of the thought experiment might shed more light. The way these experiments work is to take a situation and vary the details and see what emerges.

What if there were only one other person instead of five? Then there would be no moral obligation to favor one over the other. If that one person were our friend, it would certainly be OK to give the medicine to him. If we knew neither one, then we could just flip a coin. There would be no moral issue at all.

But the case of one versus many seems to be different. Many people, Foot among them, think there is an obligation to save the many because, in Taurek’s words, “it is a worse thing, other things being equal, that these five innocent persons should die than it is that this one should.”(4)

Let’s pause for a moment here to look at the language Taurek uses. We’ve been talking about moral obligation, which is in what I all the Rightness paradigm. It uses the terms “right” and “wrong” and their synonyms to evaluate actions.(5) The Rightness paradigm has to do with moral imperatives, rights and obligations; and these are couched in terms of what is right to do or refrain from doing. Now Taurek gives a justification for the supposed obligation in terms of goodness (“a worse thing”). Clearly he is referring to a Utilitarian view, that what one ought to do, morally, is to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people.(6) Goodness language is different from rightness language, and we need to look closely to see if the intersection of the two actually makes sense.

To this end, Taurek tweaks the thought experiment slightly:

Suppose the drug belongs to your friend David. It is his drug, his required dosage. Now there are these five strangers, strangers to David as well as to you. Would you try to persuade David to give his drug to these five people? Do you think you should? Suppose you were to try. How would you begin? You are asking him to give up his life so that each of the five others, all strangers to him, might continue to live.(7)

The Utilitarian view is that David should indeed give up his life because five deaths are worse than one. (This assumes that death is a bad thing, which we can dispute, but let it go for now.) We tell David that making five people die is a worse outcome than just one. And he responds, “Worse for whom?” His own death is worse for him, and the death of each of the five others is worse for that person. But so what? David says,

I wouldn’t ask, nor would I expect, any of them to give up his life so that I, a perfect stranger, might continue to live mine. But why should you, or any of them, expect me to give up my life so that each of them might continue to live his?(8)

Taurek frames the controversy in moral (rightness) terms. He says that in keeping the drug for himself David wrongs no one. None of the five has a legitimate claim on the drug, and so the five together have no right to demand it. And this justifies his own giving the drug to the one rather than the many:

If it is morally permissible for David in this situation to give himself all of his drug, why should it be morally impermissible for me to do the same? It is my drug. … I violate no one’s rights when I use the drug to save David’s life.(9)

But Taurek is no different from anybody else in this regard.

And so I feel compelled to deny that any third party, relevant special obligations apart, would be morally required to save the five persons and let David die.(10)

So, what to do in this situation? Taurek suggests just flipping a coin.

Why not give each person an equal chance to survive? Perhaps I could flip a coin. Heads, I give my drug to these five. Tails, I give it to this one. In this way I give each of the six people a fifty-fifty chance of surviving. Where such an option is open to me it would seem best to express my equal concern and respect for each person. Who among them could complain that I have done wrong?(11)

At this point many of us might balk. Regardless of such casuistry, isn’t the suffering of the many five times worse than the suffering of the one? Taurek’s answer is No, it is not worse in any absolute sense. There is no absolute goodness or badness here, only goodness or badness for individuals.

Taurek’s problem with Utilitarianism is that individuals are separate beings, and you can’t sum up their pleasures or pains. Let’s assume that the death of any of the six would cause suffering, not for themselves because they’ll be dead, but for their friends and family. The death of five would cause more people to suffer than the death of one. But, says Taurek,

Suffering is not additive in this way. The discomfort of each of a large number of individuals experiencing a minor headache does not add up to anyone’s experiencing a migraine. In such a trade-off situation as this we are to compare your pain or your loss, not to our collective or total pain, whatever exactly that is supposed to be, but to what will be suffered or lost by any given single one of us.(12)

The death of one is no better or worse than the death of any of the five, and you can’t compare the one with the five as a whole because you can’t really add up the suffering of the five individuals. So Utilitarianism doesn’t work to justify saving the many rather than the one.

And that is Taurek’s conclusion. We are under no obligation, he says to save the many rather than the one. (He doesn’t think that we must save the one rather than the many, only that we may.) If we have no personal interest in the outcome—if none of them are friends, for instance—then we might as well flip a coin. And yet, rational or not, most people think that saving the many is what we should do. Flipping a coin feels a bit cold.

Let’s stop and take stock of the argument so far. What have we learned?

First, that intuition is a poor guide to reality. Which should we save, the one or the many? Some of us have the intuition that we are obliged to save the many. Others think we are not so obliged. The problem is that there’s no way to tell which intuition is right; there’s no objective measurement, nothing we can observe to answer the question. (The lack of a reliable method is evidence for moral anti-realism, the idea that there are no objective moral values or normative facts at all, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Another thing we have learned is that we can’t get a satisfactory answer to the question within the Rightness paradigm. Taurek tries. He does a good job of deflating the Utilitarian position and argues cleverly on legalistic grounds, looking at who is wronged and who has a valid claim, that we are not obliged to save the many. But recent research shows that by far the majority of people when faced with an actual dilemma, not just a thought experiment, do in fact act to save the many.(13) The Rightness paradigm can’t deal with this fact other than to figuratively throw up its hands and say that people aren’t rational. Which is true, but we aspire to be.

Fortunately, we are not stuck with this conundrum. There is another way to think about problems such as this, to frame the discussion in terms of goodness rather than rightness.(14) The Goodness paradigm, as I call it, uses “good” and “bad” rather than “right” and “wrong” to evaluate actions. It frames issues of what to do in terms of harms and benefits, that is to say, consequences, rather than moral rules. And an ethic rooted in the Goodness paradigm not only tells us that we should try to save the many but also gives us reasons why. But first we have to understand a bigger picture.

One of the basic facts about all things and persons is that everything is related to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. A change in an organism affects its environment, and a change in the environment affects the organism. This is easy to see in our case. We humans are creatures whose essence is Mitsein, as Heidegger puts it, being-with.(15) It’s not merely that we sometimes or even often find ourselves in the proximity of others. Rather, in every facet of ourselves we find a connection with other people. Ethologists call us “obligatorily gregarious.”(16) We must have ongoing and extensive contact with our fellows in order to survive and thrive.

Here’s how this idea plays out in the conundrum of whether to save the one or the many. In fact, there is a way that the suffering of the many is additive. We feel empathy for others; we can imagine their pain and feel it, in an attenuated form, as if it were our own. Of course, there are limits. We easily feel empathy and compassion for individuals and small groups, probably for evolutionary reasons, that we evolved to live in tribes of 20 or 30 or so. It’s harder to feel empathy for a great many people such as those injured in a mass disaster. We get compassion fatigue.(17) But for a group of five, we certainly do feel their pain, and it is greater than the pain of only one. That’s why we feel an urge to save the many.

Given that everything is related to everything else, the Goodness Ethic, as I call it, advises us to try to maximize the good in all situations and to maximize what is good for all concerned.(18) It gives this advice because as we maximize the good of everybody and everything in the environment, we thereby promote our own health as well. This is enlightened self-interest, as opposed to unenlightened self-interest, which seeks to maximize one’s own welfare without regard to the effects of one’s actions on others. Commonly called “selfishness,” such an unenlightened approach is actually self-defeating.

Although similar, this is not Utilitarianism, which we have seen doesn’t give an adequate answer. Utilitarianism, even though expressed in terms of consequences, is actually a form of rules-based ethics. It’s in the Rightness paradigm, not the Goodness. For the Utilitarian, the amount of benefit or harm determines the moral rightness of action, and we are to maximize benefit because it’s our moral duty.

The Goodness paradigm, on the other hand, says no such thing. We are advised (not commanded) to maximize benefit because it’s better for us. So, yes, we should save the many, not because it’s our duty but because in doing so we become better humans.


(1) Foot, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect,” p. 9.

(2) Taurek, “Should The Numbers Count?”, p. 295.

(3) Idem., p. 298.

(4) Idem., p. 296.

(5) Meacham, “The Good and The Right.”

(6) Wikipedia, “Utilitarianism.”

(7) Taurek, “Should The Numbers Count?”, p. 299.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Idem., p. 301.

(10) Idem., p. 303.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Idem. p. 308.

(13) Engber, “Does the Trolley Problem Have a Problem?”

(14) Meacham, “The Good and The Right.”

(15) Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 160, translator’s footnote 2.

(16) de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, p. 4.

(17) Dholakia, “How Long Does Public Empathy Last After a Natural Disaster?”

(18) Meacham, “The Goodness Ethic.”


de Waal, Frans. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Dholakia, Utpal. “How Long Does Public Empathy Last After a Natural Disaster?” Online publication as of 18 March 2022.

Engber, Daniel. “Does the Trolley Problem Have a Problem?” Online publication as of 18 March 2022.

Foot, Philippa. “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect.” The Oxford Review No. 5 (1967), pp. 5-15. Online publication,SP09/foot.pdf as of 12 March 2022. Reprinted in Foot, Virtues and Vices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 19-32).

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, Harper-SanFrancisco, 1962.

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and The Right.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. “The Goodness Ethic.” Online publication

Taurek, John M. “Should The Numbers Count?” Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer, 1977),
pp. 293-316. Online publication as of 2 March 2015.

Wikipedia, “Utilitarianism.” Online publication as of 18 March 2022.