Category Archives: Philosophy

Time for a Tea-Party? The U.S. Politics of Ressentiment

This is one of my favourite university assignment topics – intertwining my two favourite subjects; politics and philosophy.  This context of this assignment was October 2013; Obama was the POTUS, and the US Ultra-Right wing Tea Party groups were ‘rising up’.  The issues in the USA now reminded me of this assignment – and I realised how it was still quite applicable in the age of “MAGA” and Donald Trump.


Fellow Patriots! It’s time to stand up and “Take America Back!”[1]

There was once a ‘land of the free and home of the brave’[2], where men were judged not by their level of education, but by their hard work and productivity.  They were exceptional people, with an exceptional purpose.  However, this idyllic, mythical history is not the world in which the US Tea Parties call home.  Since the 1960s, the ‘pace of contemporary social, cultural, economic, and political change [has been] unprecedented’[3]; this world is increasingly filled with egalitarianism, sexual liberation, differing cultures and moral values.  As their myth is challenged by this reality, they feel threatened, and become disillusioned.  Democracy, the government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’, has seemingly failed them.  The State is no longer the neutral, impartial arbiter, but now has become an agent of minority interests.  Their great nation has been weakened by ‘un-Americans’.  Their identities, based on these myths and moralities, have been profoundly affected by modernity, leading them to an anomic dissonance caused by the realisation of transience, the ‘it was’[4].

These factors demonstrate what Nietzsche called ressentiment, and it is the task of this essay to provide a narrative explaining ressentiment, particularly its manifestation in the contemporary extreme-right conservative ‘Tea Party’ movement in the United States of America (US), which originated in 2009 with a ‘carefully planned “spontaneous” outburst of anger’[5] over economic and social issues[6].   It will be shown that this ressentiment has been directed at the State through an articulation of ressentiment nationalism; the State has been perverted from the inside, and has become ‘un-American’.

The US was formed around a national mythos of a Promised Land, and an American Exceptionalism.  These myths were based on a ‘White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP)’ ethnic core[7].  The ‘Promised Land’ for an ‘Ethnic Christian Nation’ was a deeply religious myth rooted in the beliefs of the population of the ‘New World’ of Early American history[8].  Between the first colonial arrivals, and the War of Independence; civil society was inextricably intertwined with the protestant religion[9], and one’s place in this society was ordained by God[10].  This new nation was granted by God, a ‘new Canaan’ and was thus sacred; a new Eden, which would succeed or fail according to the actions of the ‘American Adam’[11].

This ideology became embedded with the Puritans, and ‘Protestant Work Ethic’, then so with ‘The Spirit of Capitalism’[12].  Through hard work, they could obtain the ‘Promise’ of America – the ‘American Dream’: unlimited progress, social mobility, wealth[13].  This connection of social life with the religious ideology of the early American colonies was, in Weber’s thought, suggestive towards an ‘ascetic ideal’[14], which promoted the idea of working hard and saving money to prove God’s Grace; supporting the poor through taxation was seen as going against God’s purpose; ‘Unwillingness to work [was] symptomatic of the lack of grace[15].  This emergent ‘American’ identity was bolstered by the events around the ‘Great Awakening’ and the Revolution.  They were the ‘chosen people’ of God[16], who would dominate the land[17], and, without falling prey to immoral intellectualism[18], would create the ‘city on the hill’ that Winthrop, and later Regan, articulated[19].  Much as then, today this manifests as the laissez-faire individualist, allowing the capitalist ‘marketplace’ to be the determinant of one’s moral worth.

Furthermore, America would not be party to the ethnic strife of the Old World; their focus on individualism and liberty meant they could be the civic, cosmopolitan ‘smelting pot’ which transformed diverse individuals into ‘Americans’[20].  Unlike Europe, America was unburdened by the hierarchy and identity formed from a ‘common history’[21]; instead, one could be ‘American’ through adopting the ideology[22].  This myth suggested that America was the land of the noble, common people[23], brought together by a civic ideal and unhindered by ‘ethno-cultural nationalism’[24].  The tensions between their demanded individualism and the community of ‘Americans’ was discarded by the belief that no single culture would be dominant; each new arrival would be subtly changed by the ‘natives’, as would the natives be subtly altered.  The American nation thus could be truly diverse[25].  This was the ‘egalitarian, populist’ America, where their unique political history, with the importation of Locke’s political philosophy, and the ‘republican’ safeguards on democracy[26] made the US doubly special:  all were endowed with natural rights, and so were equal[27], and this equality plus the diversity of the people made majority rule work.

This established the idea of the ‘American Nation’ as ‘Exceptional’.  The nation’s ‘ideology [could] be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire’[28].  These ideals were enshrined in the US Constitution, and as has been seen, stemmed from their history.  Even as the emphasis on religion declined, with the avowal of secularism, the constructed national imagination promoted the idea that ‘America’ had a great purpose: to advance their republic, and be the model of the world[29].  These were the myths ‘of origin, history and destiny’[30] that formed the basis of their nationalism.

The ‘Glorious Past’ represented by this mythologised history no longer exists, if indeed it ever did.  It has been washed away by the new social milieu.  On one side, the various rights movements and immigration significantly affected social demographics[31]; since the womens rights, and civil rights movements, Women, African-Americans, and Immigrants from diverse countries are now capable of full citizenship[32], rather than the implicit, and sometimes explicit, discrimination allowed[33].  The projected demographic changes in American society, via birth-rate of minority groups, and legal (and ‘illegal’) immigration have suggested that by 2050, ‘whites will become a minority’ in America[34], which challenging the supremacy of the ‘White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP)’[35] ethnic core[36].  Likewise, the rising secularism and religious pluralism in the US has highlighted the divide between the past, and the present. On the other side, industrialisation and globalisation have destabilised the mythological notion of the adaptable, self-made, self-educated, self-reliant man[37], and replaced it with a [white] ‘wage slave’[38].  The days of the yeoman farmer, or even skilled manufacturing, are gone.  Rising wealth inequality, and job losses through corporate outsourcing overseas have eroded the great promise of America[39], and the bureaucratic state is ubiquitous[40].

Ressentiment and the US Tea Party

Ressentiment is an enduring, reactive attitude towards a hostile external stimulus experienced by the marginalised or powerless[41].  It is fertile amongst ‘[p]eople who yearn to be someone else’[42], or perhaps somewhere or some-when else[43].  Nietzsche argued that ressentiment was the basis of ‘herd’ morality[44], where the ‘plebian masses’ would band together against those who were truly noble.  The narrative includes three ‘character types’: Nobles, Slaves, and Priests.

On Nietzsche’s account, the noble’s morality was given under the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ dichotomy, where the ‘good’ was defined by, and expressed as, what they did and wanted; they actively assert themselves in the world, expressing themselves fully and honestly.  They ‘are’ the expression of their ‘will to power’, and act in a manner that is life-affirming.  Their morality affirmed the self; their qualities they had, like power, wealth, health, and ‘all things that involves vigorous, free, joyful activity’[45]. They were ‘good’; ‘Bad’ was merely an afterthought – it was whatever was ‘not good’.  Whilst not perfect, the nobles did not suffer from their lack, or feel thwarted in achieving their goals.

The Slaves, the ‘plebeian masses’, are poor, sick, or weak.  They are ‘bad’ in that they are ‘not good’, i.e., not ‘noble’.  Whilst barely existing in the nobles’ conception of the world, the slaves’ entire existence is framed in reference to the nobles.  They feel both admiration and hatred for the nobles; they believe they neither have their attributes, nor have the ability to get them.  Being unable to relieve the resultant anger and envy, they turn it inwards, where ‘hatred grows to take on a monstrous and sinister shape’[46].  This is ressentiment; ‘an emotion that does not promote personal excellence [like in the ‘noble’ morality] but rather dwells on competitive strategy and thwarting others’[47].  The Other[48] is perceived as all powerful, while they are ‘powerless to express these feelings actively against the person or social stratum evoking them… [This leads to] a continual re‐experiencing of this impotent hostility’[49].  Their belief that they are lacking causes them to repress their ‘whole negative impulse’ towards the source of their pain, which enables the detachment of ‘negative sentiment’ from its initial object, and the absorption of other qualities into these sentiments[50].  The ‘slaves’ resign; they cultivate their grievances, revel in their ‘ressentiment complaints’, and take comfort in blaming and shaming the ‘evil Other’, their ‘imagined revenge’.

There is one other class – The transitional ‘priestly caste’.  In Nietzsche’s narrative, the priest is a subset of the nobles, and so shares some ‘noble’ traits, but due to their desire for the power of the nobles, and their ‘incurable’ impotence[51] in achieving it, they also share the ressentiment of the slaves[52].  They hold this impotence responsible for the loss of their political supremacy.  Unlike the ‘slaves’, the priests cannot resign themselves to their impotence, because like the nobles, they see ‘themselves to be of a higher rank’, and so, unlike the slaves, expect to be able to realise their goals[53].  This makes them all the more dangerous; those of the noble morality had no requirement for cunning[54], but, in a backhanded compliment, Nietzsche writes that ‘[a] race of such men of ressentiment will inevitably end up cleverer than any noble race’[55].  They are willing to wait for their revenge, and they don’t forget.

The interplay between these three classes is Nietzsche’s ressentiment argument.  While modernity has been threatening for many in the US, those who identify with the ‘Tea Party’ movement feel particularly distressed over the path their ‘nation’ is taking.  Their ‘grassroots’ membership predominantly consists of older, educated, white, middle class, Christian men[56] with ‘internally generated’, ‘ethnic pride’[57] of their nation. It is an almost ‘primordialist fantasy’[58] of the ‘American Nation’; they see themselves as the ethnic descendants of the ‘Founders’, who are ‘the greatest group of Americans to ever live’[59].  They envision themselves as heirs to a proud, wholly ‘American’ culture, as well as the inheritors of strong civic values[60] which had been vindicated across US history; they[61] had conquered and tamed the New World[62], ‘settled’ the ‘European’ wars by their moral leadership and might[63], and had become the ‘leader of the free world’[64].  They were the ‘beacon on the hill’ that Winthrop saw them becoming[65].

The new nobility which has taken over US society since the civil rights movement has displaced the culture which the Tea Party supporters hold dear; their identities are tied into this idea of the nation, and the challenge to the hegemony of their cultural ideals, and a relative loss of cultural and economic power, is anomie-inducing.

“[E]very sufferer instinctively looks for a cause of his distress; more exactly for a culprit, even more precisely for a guilty culprit who is receptive to distress – in short, for a living being upon whom he can release his emotion … on some pretext or other: because the release of emotions is the greatest attempt … at anaesthetizing on the part of the sufferer … In my judgment, we find here the actual physiological causation of ressentiment  … in a yearning … to anaesthetize pain through emotion”[66].

The State, which once protected and entrenched their privilege and control, has been unable to maintain this stance in a post-civil rights world.  Their privileges have been equalised and spread to previously subjugated groups, leading to a downward trend in their position, relative to these other communities[67].  The loss of their imagined nation to this ‘usurper’ nation makes them feel angry, and they feel powerless to act.  Instead of recognising this as the ‘equality’ espoused by their treasured constitution, they perceived this as marginalisation, or discrimination against them[68].  “[I]t’s not the past that’s a ‘foreign country’”, writes Lepore, ‘[i]ts the present’[69].  They feel ashamed that they could do nothing to stop this decline, and admiring, because it hasn’t seemed to fail, despite its faults[70].  There is also a sense in which they admire the capacity of the State to provide them with benefits[71] – and resent the power this gives over them.  Theirs is an ‘orientation to the outside’[72], with an inability to face the existential pain of transience.  Despite the vocal impression of the Tea Party as the ‘voice of the nation’, their support is small.  Without significant backing, there will be no ‘anaesthetisation of pain’ via political channels.  They must be satisfied with their ‘imaginary revenge’, labelling any and all liberals, particularly the President, as ‘un-American’.

The ‘priestly caste’, the Tea Party Leadership, feel this pain also; the changes to society have been profound, and the necessity to ‘pander’, in varying degrees, to public opinion limits their capacity to roll-back or reshape the US in their own image.  However, they cannot be satisfied with mere ‘imaginary revenge’.  It is the priestly caste which acts as the catalyst for the ‘slave revolt in morality’, a ‘radical revaluation of their values… an act of the most deliberate revenge’[73].  They turn ressentiment creative; it at once negates all noble values, and replaces them with that of the ‘slave morality’.  It says ‘NO!’ to whatever is not of it; the hostile, evil ‘Other’ is to blame for their place in the world.  The priestly caste rejected ‘the aristocratic value equation (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = blessed)’[74], and replaced it with a slave morality where ‘those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good’[75]!  They no longer would see any good in those former values; they deigned them evil, and could thereby deign themselves ‘good’ since they did not possess them.  Since they, the Tea Party, don’t have the power to enact their will over the people, power over people must be evil.

The priest, via his respected image amongst the masses, also has the power to change the focus of ressentiment.  The ressentiment sufferers are

[F]righteningly willing and inventive in their pretexts for painful emotions… they rummage through the bowels of their past and present for obscure, questionable stories that will allow them to wallow in tortured suspicion, … they make evil-doers out of friend, wife, child and anyone else near to them. ‘I suffer: someone or other must be guilty’ – and every sick sheep thinks the same. But his shepherd … says to him, ‘Quite right, my sheep! Somebody must be to blame: but you yourself are this somebody … one thing has been achieved by it, the direction of ressentiment is… changed[76].

In turning ressentiment, the priest can manipulate the energy of the slaves toward the priest’s ultimate goal; a return to power, and their expected glory.  Their ressentiment can be directed inward, so as to consolidate a community of sufferers who will learn and pass on the priests values; this is clearly highlighted in statements by the TeaPAC:

Our mission is to restore a limited, constitutional government through effective, ongoing citizen participation. As citizens, we must accept ultimate responsibility for what has happened and what will happen in the future[77].

They direct the ressentiment inwards, citing the lack of ‘professional citizens’[78], in order to keep the ressentiment festering, and impress their value structure.  Since Tea Party supporters tend to be more authoritarian, libertarian, and nativist, as well as more fearful of change[79], the direction by their leaders provide a measure of security.  However, it also allows the ‘priests’ to manipulate them by simplifying all the issues into an ‘evil Other’– the State –, vs. the ‘moral Us’, and providing simplified solutions to fix any and all problems.

Since the nature of the modern world is such that ‘most people [have] few spaces for the joys of agency’, through a ‘national self-identity linked to a valorized and idealized nation-state’, and participation in nationalist causes[80], people could feel empowered, rather than powerless.  Populist politicians, including the Tea Party ‘priests’ have been able to mobilise the ressentiment nationalism of this group by appealing to their sense of belonging; their ‘nation’ is under siege by forces outside the ‘real’ American Nation[81]. Those forces are not merely construed as external to the State, but of it, and within it; they are the ‘undeserving poor’ who live off ‘our hard earned taxpayer dollars’; the ‘illegals’ who come in and take jobs, homes and welfare; in fact, anyone that doesn’t fit to their narrow sense of who the ‘real Americans’ are.  Even the State itself is evil – it has given itself powers in excess of what the founders intended.  These Others are construed as immoral merely through this ‘persuasive definition’[82] of them as such. This implicitly and explicitly directs the ‘slaves’ ressentiment outwards, providing a route for collective action[83]. They call for an ‘American Jeremiad’[84], identifying their idyllic past, the immoral present, and promoting a return to their beloved ‘America’.

This essay has argued that the U.S. ‘Tea Party’ movement exemplifies the attitude that Nietzsche described as ‘ressentiment’.  Their slogan, to ‘Take Back America’ is, in a sense, an attempt to take America back in time, and from, those they see as gaining, via illegitimate means, the fruits of their, and their forefathers, labours.  Seeing themselves as the rightful inheritors of the ‘American Dream’, enshrined in a series of national myths, the ‘Tea Party are sufferers of ressentiment railing against the States’ inability to manage the pace and direction of cultural and economic change.




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[1] Or its other variation ‘Take Back America’: Tea Party Campaign slogan.  See “TeaPAC: About Us,” TeaPAC,

[2] From the US national anthem, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.

[3] Wendy Brown, “Specters and Angels at the End of History,” in Vocations of Political Theory, ed. J.A. Frank and J. Tambornino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 25.

[4] ‘It was’: that is what the will’s gnashing off teeth and loneliest tribulation is called.  Helpless against what has been done – of all things past it is an angry witness.  Backwards the will cannot will: that it cannot break time and time’s inordinate desire,- that is the will’s loneliest tribulation […] That time does not run backwards, this is its anger; ‘That Which Was’ – this is what the stone it cannot roll is called. Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Wayne, Thus Spake Zarathustra, (New York: Algora Publishing, 2007), 107.

[5] Lauren Langman, “Cycles of Contention: The Rise and Fall of the Tea Party,” Critical Sociology 38, no. 4 (2012): 470.

[6] “Cycles of Contention: The Rise and Fall of the Tea Party,” Critical Sociology 38, no. 4 (2012).

[7] Eric Kaufmann, “American Exceptionalism Reconsidered: Anglo-Saxon Ethnogenesis in the Nation, 1776 – 1850,” Journal of American Studies 33, no. 03 (1999); see also Matt A. Barreto et al., “The Tea Party in the Age of Obama: Mainstream Conservatism or out-Group Anxiety?,” in Rethinking Obama, ed. J. Go (Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2011), 10.

[8] Kaufmann, “American Exceptionalism Reconsidered: Anglo-Saxon Ethnogenesis in the Nation, 1776 – 1850,” 442.

[9] Ibid.

[10] J. Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,”  Collections of the Massachusetts historical society, no. 3rd series 7 (1630/1838),

[11] Ibid; S. Bercovitch, The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America  (Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Incorporated, 1993), 8, 9; R.W.B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955).

[12] M. Weber, Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. T. Parsons, Routledge Classics (London: Routledge, 2001).

[13] In the thought of many, this was obviously granted by the grace of God; whereas idleness would lead one in a downwards spiral into poverty, due to ones personal failures and lowering in the eyes of God. Erich Fromm discusses this in To Have or to Be?  (New York: Continuum, 2005).

[14] Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Ch5:159.

[15] Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

[16] S. Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad  (University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 105; See also Thomas  Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Lillian Goldman Law Library,

[17] Bercovitch, The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America, 32.

[18] See Cotton, cited in R. Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life  (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012), 46; Sowell argues that the ‘common man’ triumphed against the ‘presumptions of the arrogant.  See T. Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice  (New York: Free Press, 2001), 187.

[19] Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity”; Ronald Regan, “Remarks Accepting the Presidential Nomination” (at the the Republican National Convention, Dallas, Texas, August 23 1984), sourced at:

[20] Emerson, as cited in Kaufmann, “American Exceptionalism Reconsidered: Anglo-Saxon Ethnogenesis in the Nation, 1776 – 1850,” 452.

[21] David Brown, Contemporary Nationalism: Civic, Ethnocultural, and Multicultural Politics  (London: Routledge, 2000), Ch 3; see also S.M. Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword  (W.W. Norton, 1997); and Thistlethwaite, in The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective  (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1963).

[22] American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, 1-3.  This is also part of the critique of American Exceptionalism.

[23] M. Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History  (Cornell University Press, 1998), 1.

[24] Brown, Contemporary Nationalism: Civic, Ethnocultural, and Multicultural Politics, Ch 3.

[25] Though, this idea of course has been challenged.  See Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, 154; A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), Ch 14.

[26] See James Madison, “The Federalist Papers No. 10: The Union as a Safeguard against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” Lillian Goldman Law Library,

[27] Thomas Jefferson et al., “The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776,” ibid.

[28] Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, 1.

[29] This can be seen in POTUS Wilson, and his ‘moral imperative’ to make the world ‘safe for democracy’, in Woodrow Wilson, “Request for Declaration of War” (at the Joint Session of the Two Houses of Congress, Washington, April 2 1917), sourced at: 7.

[30] Lauren Langman, “The Social Psychology of Nationalism: To Die for the Sake of Strangers,” in The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism, ed. G. Delanty and K. Kumar (London: SAGE, 2006), 74.

[31] Barreto et al., “The Tea Party in the Age of Obama: Mainstream Conservatism or out-Group Anxiety?,” 10.

[32] In theory, even if this is still sometimes lacking in practice.

[33] Slavery being the most prominent example of explicit discrimination; there is also the lack of women’s political and personal rights, and lack of institutionalised anti-discrimination even against Catholics, or the Irish to consider.  Bart Motes, “The Tea Party Wants You to Call Them Racist,” (2010),; Joan Dowlin, “The Tea Party Movement Vs. The Civil Rights Movement,”  The Blog(2010),

[34] Jeffrey S.  Passel and D’Vera Cohn. “U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050 “. (Washington DC: Pew Research Centre, 2008),

[35] Kaufmann, “American Exceptionalism Reconsidered: Anglo-Saxon Ethnogenesis in the Nation, 1776 – 1850.”

[36]Barreto et al., “The Tea Party in the Age of Obama: Mainstream Conservatism or out-Group Anxiety?,” 10.

[37] Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, 342.

[38] See M.J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy  (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), Ch 6, esp. 172-173.

[39] Henry Blodget, “Here’s the Biggest Problem in the American Economy,”  Business Insider Australia(2012),

[40] W. Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity  (Princeton University Press, 1995), 68.

[41] Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), GM1:7-10. Scheler, as cited in Lita Crociani-windland and Paul Hoggett, “Politics and Affect,” Subjectivity 5, no. 2 (2012): 166.

[42] J. Portmann, When Bad Things Happen to Other People  (Taylor & Francis, 2000), 119.

[43] It is interesting to ask the meaning of the Tea Party wish to ‘Take America Back’? To when? From whom?

[44] Nietzsche, Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, GM7-10.

[45] Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition.

[46] F. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals : A Polemic., trans. D. Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), GMI:7. Parts of this translation are more eloquent.

[47] Robert Solomon, “Nietzsche Ad Hominem: Perspectivism Personality and Ressentiment Revisited,” in The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, ed. B. Magnus and K. Higgins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 210.

[48] Scheler suggests that ressentiment ‘is not in the same sense tied to definite objects… On the contrary, this affect seeks those objects, those aspects of men and things, from which it can draw gratification’.  See M. Scheler, Ressentiment  (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Marquette University Press, 1994), 30.

[49] Merton, in Jock Young, “Moral Panic: Its Origins in Resistance, Ressentiment and the Translation of Fantasy into Reality,” British Journal of Criminology 49, no. 1 (2009): 12.  Following Reginster, I disagree with the final portion of the Merton quote.

[50] Panu Minkkinen, “Ressentiment as Suffering: On Transitional Justice and the Impossibility of Forgiveness,” Law and Literature 19, no. 3 (2007): 521.

[51] Bernard Reginster, “Nietzsche on Ressentiment and Valuation,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57, no. 2 (1997): 8.

[52] Nietzsche, Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, GMI:6-7.

[53] Reginster, “Nietzsche on Ressentiment and Valuation,” 287 – 288. See also note 9.

[54] However, it ought to be said that those of the ‘noble’ morality did not see this lack as an obstacle to obtaining their values.

[55] Nietzsche, Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, GMI:10.

[56] Barreto et al., “The Tea Party in the Age of Obama: Mainstream Conservatism or out-Group Anxiety?; Langman, “Cycles of Contention: The Rise and Fall of the Tea Party.”

[57] David Brown, “The Ethnic Majority: Benign or Malign?,” Nations and Nationalism 14, no. 4 (2008): 771; Adams calls this ‘racial pride’, in J.T. Adams and H. Schneiderman, The Epic of America  (Transaction Publishers, 2012), 46.

[58] Matthew Levinger and Paula Franklin Lytle, “Myth and Mobilisation: The Triadic Structure of Nationalist Rhetoric,” Nations and Nationalism 7, no. 2 (2001): 177.

[59] Glenn Beck, as cited in Jared A. Goldstein, “The Tea Party Movement and the Perils of Popular Originalism,” Arizona Law Review 53(2011): 849.

[60] Brown, “The Ethnic Majority: Benign or Malign?,” 772.

[61] At least, they were descended from those who did – see Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined  (London: Penguin Group, 2011), 521. for an interesting discussion on these lines.

[62] D.H. Murdoch, The American West: The Invention of a Myth  (University of Nevada Press, 2001), 18.

[63] Woodrow Wilson, “President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points,” Lillian Goldman Law Library,; Truman, in J. Fousek, To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War  (University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 19-23.

[64] To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War, 130.

[65] Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity”; Regan, “Remarks Accepting the Presidential Nomination.”

[66] Nietzsche, Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, III:15.

[67] Though this trend is merely relative; substantively, the Tea Party Supporters are still economically better off. Liah Greenfeld and Daniel Chirot, “Nationalism and Aggression,” Theory and Society 23, no. 1 (1994): 85. suggest this is an inspiration for ressentiment.

[68] Gary Younge, “Race Is Central to the Fear and Angst of the Us Right,” (2013),

[69] {Lepore@137}

[70] There has been admitted failure on both Democrat and Republican sides.

[71] “Hands off our Medicare!” is an odd placard noting Tea Party philosophy, yet when queried, they defend their receipt of government benefits by claiming that they deserved it because they paid into the system.  See Paul Briand, “Average Tea Party Member Is Baby Boomer,”,

[72] Keith Ansell-Pearson, Carol Diethe, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche : ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), GMI:10.

[73] Nietzsche, Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, GMI:7.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, GMIII:15.

[77] “TeaPAC: About Us”.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Andrew J. Perrin et al., “Cultures of the Tea Party,” Contexts, Spring 2011, 74.

[80] Langman, “The Social Psychology of Nationalism: To Die for the Sake of Strangers,” 72.

[81] The ‘garrison nationalism’ discussed in Brown, “The Ethnic Majority: Benign or Malign?,” 783.

[82] Stevenson, in John Hill, “The Grammar of Restorationism,” The Australasian Catholic Record 88, no. 2 (2011): 179. Daly defines ‘persuasive definition’ as a definition which ‘gives a new conceptual meaning to a familiar word without changing its emotive meaning; and which is used with the conscious or unconscious purpose of changing the direction of people’s interests’.  Ibid.

[83] Nietzsche, Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, GMIII:15,20; Patrik Aspers, “Nietzsche’s Sociology,” Sociological Forum 22, no. 4 (2007): 484.

[84] Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad.


Principlist and Particularist Ethics: Strengths and Weaknesses

What kind of person do we aim to be? Persons of principle, who (aim to) uphold a set of standards, a ‘moral code’?  Perhaps we aim at being someone who is sensitive to situations, with no set rules, but determining right or wrong depending on each new situation they find themselves in? This will depend on whether you think rules or principles are essential, or whether the specific facts of an individual situation has greater import, when considering whether an action is moral.  This is the argument between moral principlists[1], and moral particularists.  After a brief introduction to the problem, two key principlist positions, Kantian deontology and Utilitarianism, will be explored along with particularism to find the strengths and weaknesses of these positions.  It will be shown that in spite of the strengths of principle-based theories, particularism still poses a significant challenge to them.

Principle based ethical systems claim that there are one or more true, general, and universal principles that are ontologically prior to action, and which serve as guides or directives on ethical behaviour.  Without principles, they suggest, there can be no morality, for there would be no standards by which they can be determined[2].  While they disagree on the content and structure of an ethical system, two of the most recognised principle based systems are Kantian Deontology and Utilitarianism.  Each of these ethical systems provide methods of judging actions based on their observance of a general principle.  They are the ‘moral reasons’ for acting in any particular case, which may be held to be a priori, known through reason alone, or known a posteriori, through experience of similar cases.  Regardless of any additional features, whenever a ‘moral reason’ appears, this will always have the same moral value, moral ‘polarity’[3].  That is, for a Kantian, false-promising will always be morally wrong; perhaps for a Utilitarian, buying expensive cars instead of donating to charity would be.  They share a demand for application of a principle[4] in each scenario one finds oneself in, though may disagree on specifics[5].

Particularists disagree with this principle approach.  Rather than a rule being ontologically prior, a moral particularist suggests that moral reasons are particular to their context, and are ontologically prior.  Rational moral judgement, under particularism, does not depend on a ‘suitable provision’ of principles[6]. the moral reasons for an action can also be affected in polarity by their relations and wider interconnections[7].  What might have been a ‘moral reason’ for acting in one case, may not have the same relevance, or support the same polarity in another case.  While a principle of ‘don’t cause pain’ might indeed suggest a good moral reason not to hit your mother with a bokken[8], in another case, causing pain in this manner might be morally neutral[9].  There are also cases whereby causing pain is the morally right action; when encountering a gunman threatening to kill a group of people, hitting the gunman’s[10] arm with a bokken will certainly cause pain, but in that situation, it would be morally required.  Perhaps an onlooker, seeing the event from a distance, may see you hit your mother with a bokken, and evaluate your action as immoral, without seeing the gun in her hand that threatened the others present; likewise, we may also retain some moral guilt for this act, despite the circumstances[11].  What is apparent though, to a particularist moral agent fully cognisant of the context, is that the same action ‘causing pain’ has switched polarity based on a holism of reasons; it must be evaluated based on the situation, not against a general rule.

Strengths and Weaknesses of these Views

Both principlism and particularism have several strengths and weaknesses.  A principle based ethical system is seen as having universals which are rationally calculable and objective.  To their credit, and to the extent they match our expectations, these strengths make principle based theories very attractive. However, principle based systems are also heavily criticised for failing to factor for complexity, being too rigid in their demands, and too impartial.  For its part, particularism is accused of not having the strengths of principles based morals.  It does not have the capacity for universals, cannot straightforwardly guide action, and is not objective, but subjective; the very antithesis of principles based theories.  However, these weaknesses can be forceful strengths: while not offering a universal, it highlights the natural complexity of human endeavour; while generally more difficult to apply, and more labour intensive, particularism can offer a more satisfying outcome through a comprehensive and sensitive consideration of the situation; and while less objective, particularism can factor for the inherent nature of human relationships.  To the extent that principle based theories do not match our moral expectations, particularist ethics can.  These are the key elements which will be unpacked here.


The moral directives of principlist theories submit that they are action-guiding for all moral agents, and all times, regardless of self- or other- interests.  These universals are grounded for Kant, in universal reason, and for Utilitarians, in a shared capacity for pleasure and pain.  This universalism offers a degree of certainty in moral judgment, and, since it is grounded on alleged shared capacities, it is universally applicable.  In this realm, however, there are some differences between the principlists.  For Deontological principlists, the situation, culture, and historical position one finds oneself in bears little to no influence on the morality of an action; theirs is a universal, duty- and intention- based doctrine.  It is for this reason that Kant outlines the Categorical Imperative’s (CI) edict against making false promises[12].  According to Kant, One cannot universalise a maxim that suggested false promises were morally permissible, because it is not rational, nor does it respect individual autonomy.  It would remove the very institution of promising.  For teleological principlists, as a consequentialist doctrine, the situation will affect the morality of an action; False promising, contra Kant, can be morally permissible if the expected positive outcome is sufficiently good, based on the Utility Principle.  However, the principle will still be universalisable to any and all others in a situation that is relevantly similar; similar situation will have a similar ‘right’ action.

To a particularist, as briefly outlined previously, this view is false.  Each situation is new; the features are never completely the same.  While they may be small or great, the ‘[d]ifference[s], idiomaticity, singularity, exceptionality’ are the hallmarks of real life situations[13].  The Universals, if they exist, attempt to pronounce a clear judgement, subsuming any and all particulars within a singular situation under an overarching universal principle.  However, this is rarely appropriate; in all but the most banal situations, principles cannot suffice alone, and it is in banal situations that we do not have need of the guidance from a principle[14].  Real situations don’t conform or reduce naturally to cases[15]; principles, even by their proponents, are modified and adjusted[16].  This leads to problems of application, discussed in the next section.

This also leads to the question of where the universals came from; under these principlist views, as mentioned, universals are known a priori through reason, or a posteriori through a shared experience of pleasure and pain.  However, particularists recognise that both of these universals assume a key point; rationality and shared features rely upon particulars.  Particular instantiations of rationality point to a universal shared feature, not the other way around: ‘[e]very concept originates through our equating what is unequal’[17].  Seeing one thing as equal to another, ‘[tying] down […] a single item [that] is carried over and used to refer univocally to other items which are not identical with the original one’[18] serves to emphasise certain aspects, whilst hiding others.  Principles force a narrow viewpoint, and miss the distinct features of particular situations, and can further exacerbate problems of power; framing issues in a specific way points to one principle, though looking at it through another lens can privilege another.  Subsuming the particular can have deleterious effects on morality.  At their best, principles can merely signpost possible moral reasons or relevance of situational features[19].

Application / Calculation of Morality

Principle based theories are often lauded for being easy to apply.  There is a clear system in place for judging right from wrong.  They provide of a degree of certainty about what is ‘right’ which impacts greatly on humanity; these principles are, broadly speaking, the basis of law and government, and follows the contours of a common approach to moral argument[20].  For a Kantian Deontologist, their moral reasoning process to enable good moral decision-making consists of measuring an action against the Categorical Imperative (CI); provides an effective and simple method for determining the moral worth of an action– simply measure an action against the principle, and obtain an answer.  If I want to know whether withholding information when trying to sell my car would be morally permissible, I merely need only to consider the first two formulations of the CI.  Perhaps considering the first formulation, ‘act only on the maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law’[21], perhaps you could rationalise that, at least in the realm of car sales, withholding information is already a universal law[22].  However, the second formulation of the CI will remove any doubt, and subjective bias; one could not be acting ‘as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only’[23] by the universalisation of this act, because it removes the autonomy and respect for persons which this formulation stands to guard.  I would be duty-bound to give a full and honest sales pitch.  Similarly, if perhaps I am a Utilitarian preparing a last Will and Testament, I may want to determine who to leave my riches to; perhaps I like the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, but I also think that UNICEF does important work worldwide.  As a Utilitarian, I could calculate the moral worth of these options; all I have to determine is which would provide the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’[24].  It would seem I am morally bound to willing my riches to UNICEF.  These principles provide a rational defence for a specific moral judgement, by an appeal to the principle(s).

It is often this ‘calculation’ or ‘programmed response’ factor that, while supposedly making moral decisions easier, disturbs particularists.  This ‘principled irresponsibility’[25] takes moral agency out of the equation, and ignores the real complexity of each individual situation.  Real world situations are singular, not identical with one another.  While it may be correct to say that they share some similar features, this ‘looking away’[26] from the particulars of each situation is, to a particularist, of considerable concern.  As Caputo suggests, the use of principles can lead to an ‘abdication of responsibility’[27], leaving moral judgement to simply determine the action that ‘comes out’ of a formulaic response to inputs, and come what may.  Rather than principles which create moral responses, following principles can lead to immoral outcomes.  Consider the scenario often directed against Kant:

A friend of yours comes to you for help, due to being chased by an alleged murderer.  Your friend is, by all accounts, innocent of any crime.  Not wanting your friend to be murdered, you provide a place for them to hide, and so you know where this hiding place is located. Shortly after, the alleged murderer comes to your door and asks you where your friend is[28].

According to Kant’s principlism, lying is always morally wrong[29], so you must either refrain from saying anything, with its possible ramifications, or tell the truth, and face those consequences.  This certainly does not follow common moral reasoning, and particularism offers us an explanation.  Lying to someone in one situation, say, for personal gain[30], would likely be morally wrong[31]; however that same action, in the case of the murderer at the door, would be morally right.  The valence of lying has a moral reason in favour of performing the action.  A Utilitarian would not necessarily agree with Kant on this issue, since theirs is a consequentialist doctrine, and their emphasis is on maximising the welfare of the greatest number; a Utilitarian would perhaps say it was fine to lie in that situation.  However if the murderer subsequently threatened to replace his original target (your friend) with a family in the next town, whom you have never met, then Utilitarianism would also demand you give up your friend[32].  Particularists point to the difficulty of moral application of a formula; it is never as easy as it appears because multiple different cases can appear to be relevant.  Principles, even by their most ardent proponents, are modified and adjusted in application, and it is at this point, personal judgement then becomes necessary to determine which principle to apply.  This can be affected by our perspective, and serve to demonstrate our own bias.  It becomes possible to restate a maxim in such a way that your desired end is approved[33]; as Caputo suggests, this can make principles become simply a means to ‘getting our way’; a ‘thinly disguised weapon of the will to power’[34].

However, this is not to say the particularist doctrine can, alone, fully meet the challenge of a complete theory, replete with an understanding of what the relevant moral reasons in any given situation might be.  This makes application of a particularist ‘moral calculus’ difficult for individuals looking to determine their right course of action, as well as problematic for analysis of action post-event.  This is a significant hurdle for particularism, which, in its current form, essentially amounts to a ‘critical theory’[35] of principlist ethical systems.  This difficulty, however, does not suggest that we should appeal to principles, because it ethics is too difficult;

Objectivity, Subjectivity and (Im)Partiality

Objectivity is seen as very important for morality, and so is another clear strength of principle-based ethics.  Both Kantian deontology and Utilitarianism suggest this as a matter of course.  As discussed previously, the first formulation of the CI maintains that only actions which could be universalised can be moral.  Furthermore, the second formulation of the CI ensures the absolute autonomy and respect for individuals that comes from impartial application of principle; no exceptions for yourself or anyone else.  Likewise, Utilitarianism informs that all are ‘to count for one, and none more than one’[36].  The objectivity, impartiality and egalitarianism of these theories are seen as a significant strength; it tells us that there is no provision for placing individual desires, over that of the desires of others.  One’s desire to sell a car does not outweigh the desire of the buyer to purchase a car that meets their needs; nor does one’s desire for an expensive car outweigh the greater good from purchasing a good bicycle and investing the excess funds into a benevolent society.  Principle based theories do not favour any one person over another, and avoids the subjective special pleading of a moral agent attempting to shirk their responsibilities.

This argument, against ‘partiality’, ‘special pleading’ and ‘backsliding’ can be a problem for particularism.  Firstly, the partiality of particularism is criticised, claiming that special treatment of persons based on their relationship to you is immoral.  On this view, morality requires universality, and so should be applied equally to all.  However, just as the framing of an issue can lead to particular decisions on the appropriate moral principle to use, framing the issues in an alternate way can point to a problem with impartiality.  A particularist viewpoint would generally disagree with the impartiality requirement at all.  Consider the impartial view: If a building is burning, with your partner, and an aloof, but brilliant scientist acquaintance who has just now found a cure for some insidious disease still inside and you could only save one of them, the greatest good would demand you ignore your partner’s pleas, and save the scientist, since they would offer greater value to the whole[37].  In the utilitarian calculus, humans are atomistic and need to be radically egalitarian; it expects us to place no value on those close to us. However, humans are not as atomistic as is assumed, and perhaps desired by principlist views; dependence and interdependence are key features of our existence.   Particularist views might instead call for a partialist stance, where those who stand in particular relations are afforded a greater degree of care[38].  Any moral system based on reference to rules and principles alone (and which thus discounts the emotions and intuitions, including empathy, as well as the proper satisfaction in doing good both immediately and habitually) is unliveable and necessarily leads either to hypocrisy or to the abandonment of morality itself[39].

Secondly, ‘special pleading’ suggests that the recognition of differences between cases can allow, or even promote the assumption that one has greater importance than another; almost a reversal of Kant’s CI.  Principles are supposed to stop, to provide a bulwark against this sort of attitude.  However, as Dancy suggests, instead of appealing to principles to allay bias in moral judgement, it rather should demand better moral judgement from moral agents[40].  While this is as yet an insufficiently developed area in moral particularism, it is unlikely that a principle based morality would not face this same issue; as has already been demonstrated, a deontological principle can be wielded to produce any desired outcome, and likewise, with a utilitarian view – all that is required is fudging the numbers, and since these individual ‘moral calculations’ are not public, then there is no guarantee of fidelity to the situation.  Dancy suggests that we implore self-critique[41], and while flawed, the appeal to principle cannot solve the problem either.  A promising direction for improving this in the direction of particularism is the use of features of other systems, in particular, the Virtue Ethics of Aristotle[42].

Backsliding suggests that a lack of principles would be liable to cause a failure to meet moral obligations all too often; responsibility for action would wane[43].  This is an interesting criticism, particularly when considering what it is to meet responsibilities under Kantian deontology.  Reflect that, under the dutiful nature of Kant’s doctrine, only acts done from duty have moral worth.  Our responsibilities are based on duty; compassion, generosity, and love may be fine things, but they cannot be moral things[44].   This stands in opposition to common conception of morality; acting in a certain way from a sense of obligation does not normally inspire moral praise[45] – in fact, in some positions, merely acting from duty can inspire moral blame, because it fails to demonstrate adequate sentiment for those other persons[46].  The divorced parent who collects their children once a fortnight and provides financial support for their care, for the sake of duty, does not often seem to be exemplars of moral virtue; on the contrary, it is the dutiful nature of their acts which serve to make them seem etiolated[47].  Particularists may be suggesting that the person of principle ‘has lost sight of the person among the general rules; perhaps indeed he is insufficiently aware of what the rules are for’[48].  Backsliding, if it so consists in seeing a duty but failing to carry it out, may not always be a negative; it could be neutral.  Even where it is negative, as in a case of failing in a ‘duty’ to act, other factors can provide information that modifies moral judgement; the person may lack of empathy, misunderstand the situation, inappropriately assist, or feel helpless.  If we happen onto a scene where someone is filming an assault, our initial reaction might suggest that the recorder is immoral; questions may be asked about why they have failed to intervene.  However, the act of recording an event like this could have greater potential value, than a failed attempt at rescuing the person – particularly where the physical conditions are seriously threatening.  It may simply be that the person felt unable to intervene, and so began recording in order to provide evidence to the police.  An intervening moral agent might simply have been assaulted or killed in addition to the initial victim, and so been unable to provide evidence of who committed the act, and what happened.  A duty to act, under Kantian deontology, still requires a determination of what a duty consists of in any particular situation.  A duty to help provides no guidance on what constitutes aid towards rescuing a person being attacked.  Purely relying upon principle will not be sufficient.

This essay has provided a brief discussion of the principlist and particularist systems of ethics, in conjunction with their strengths and weaknesses.  It has shown that the principlist systems, often lauded for being universal, easy to apply, and objective, and for those reasons are used in various streams of modern thought, have significant flaws; they fail to recognise the complexity in human life, they are more difficult to apply than is often suggested, and they are too impartial, and can lead to inappropriate judgements.  The particularist stream of thought has been shown to conform to many of our common, pretheoretical notions of morality; an understanding of context, the inability to apply single rules, and the need for recognition of our significant dependent and interdependent relations.  This approach too, has problems, which need to be dealt with more fully.  What is apparent, is that there is still scope for a great deal of improvement in our ethical theory, and that this theory will need to be focused on improving judgement, rather than providing an endless list of maxims, or impersonal appeals to calculation.


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[1] For my purposes, ‘Principlist’ is someone who follows a principle-based ethical system (principlism), following the use in Peter  Shiu-Hwa Tsu, “Moral Particularism,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2013 ),  Literature sometimes also uses the term ‘moral generalists’, as in Elijah Millgram, Ethics Done Right: Practical Reasoning as a Foundation for Moral Theory  (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 178..

[2] Shiu-Hwa Tsu, “Moral Particularism.”

[3] J. Dancy, Ethics without Principles  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[4] Kantian Deontology’s Categorical Imperative has three formulations; there are doubts about whether these three ‘formulations’ constitute a monist or pluralist principle theory.  See Robert Johnson, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2012 ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012),

[5] Jonathan Dancy, “Moral Particularism,” ed. Edward N.  Zalta, Spring 2009 ed.Ibid. (2009),

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Japanese wooden sword, used for non-lethal, but still dangerous sword training.

[9] Perhaps bokken practice with your mother as a training partner.  It is not clear that causing pain is a morally relevant or necessarily charged factor in this sort of situation.

[10] Or woman – no gender implicit in this usage of (hu)‘man’

[11] This highlights an essential difference in the values of actions – between the ‘evaluation’ and ‘guiding’ functions of an action; Joseph Raz, “The Truth in Particularism,” in Moral Particularism, ed. B. Hooker and M.O. Little (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 60.

[12] Immanuel Kant, “The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals [1785],” in Ethical Theory: A Concise Anthology, ed. Heimir Geirsson and Margaret R. Holmgren (Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press, 2000), 120 – 25.

[13] John Caputo, “Against Principles: A Sketch of an Ethics without Ethics,” in The Ethical, ed. E. Wyschogrod and G. McKenny, Blackwell Readings in Continental Philosophy (Oxford: Wiley, 2003), 171.

[14] “Against Principles: A Sketch of an Ethics without Ethics,” in The Ethical, ed. E. Wyschogrod and G. McKenny, Blackwell Readings in Continental Philosophy (Oxford: Wiley, 2003), 175.

[15] “Against Principles: A Sketch of an Ethics without Ethics,” 172.

[16] The consequences of which will be discussed in the section ‘Objectivity, Subjectivity and (Im)Partiality’

[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870s (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities P International, Inc., 1997).

[18] Lawrence M. Hinman, “Nietzsche, Metaphor, and Truth,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 43, no. 2 (1982): 187, 88.

[19] Dancy, “Moral Particularism; Caputo, “Against Principles: A Sketch of an Ethics without Ethics,” 173,75.

[20] The common tendency to consider a general rule, and measure moral permissibility from it; “I promised to do the dishes, so I must do them” – the unstated ‘principled’ premise is ‘I must fulfil my promises’.

[21] Kant, “The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals [1785],” 120.

[22] Irrationality aside.

[23] Kant, “The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals [1785],” 124.

[24] J Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), 4 of 21, para I.1, note 6., with associated considerations, Chapter IV, para IV2-IV; John Stuart Mill, “Utilitarianism [1863],” in Philosophy: The Big Questions, ed. R. J. Sample, C. W. Mills, and J. P. Sterba (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 385-89. Whilst Mill suggests greater moral worth in the higher pleasures, than the lower ones, it is highly unlikely he would allow for higher pleasures to take greater precedence over basic needs.

[25] Caputo, “Against Principles: A Sketch of an Ethics without Ethics,” 172.

[26] J. Dancy, Moral Reasons  (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 63-63.

[27] Caputo, “Against Principles: A Sketch of an Ethics without Ethics,” 172.

[28] Reformulated version of the ‘Inquiring Murderer’ case by Constant, in Immanuel Kant, “Appendix I:  On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives,” 4th revised ed., Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works on the Theory of Ethics (London: Kongmans, Green and Col, 1889),

[29] This, of course, has been questioned, for example, in Helga  Varden, “Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door . . .  One More Time: Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis,” Journal of Social Philosophy 41 no. 4 (2010).However, as the author herself noted, this is not the traditional interpretation.

[30] Like above in the ‘false promise’ issue.

[31] Though a particularist would not generalise this, since there may be cases where lying for personal gain could be morally right.

[32] Utilitarianism is strictly impartial, as discussed in the next section

[33] M.W. Baron, “Kantian Ethics,” in Three Methods of Ethics: A Debate, ed. M.W. Baron, P. Pettit, and M. Slote (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 73.

[34] Caputo, “Against Principles: A Sketch of an Ethics without Ethics,” 172.

[35] In a broad sense: see James Bohman, “Critical Theory,” ed. Edward N.  Zalta, Spring 2013 ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2013),

[36] J.S. Mill, Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical, vol. 3 (Boston: William V. Spencer, 1865), 388; sometimes called the ‘equal consideration of interests’, pace Peter Singer, “Equality for Animals,” in Practical Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 48.

[37] Reconstruction of Godwin’s thought experiment W. Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, (London: J. Watson, 1842), 60.

[38] M. Slote, The Ethics of Care and Empathy  (New York: Routledge, 2007), 21.

[39] John M. Rist, Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 120.

[40] Dancy, “Moral Particularism.”

[41] Ibid.

[42] This relates to a future topic of personal interest – joining Particularism with Virtue Ethics for moral education.

[43] Dancy, “Moral Particularism.”

[44] Kant, “The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals [1785],” 115; Lawrence Blum, “Against Deriving Particularity,” in Moral Particularism, ed. B. Hooker and M.O. Little (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 207.

[45] “Against Deriving Particularity,” 213.

[46] Caputo, “Against Principles: A Sketch of an Ethics without Ethics,” 179.

[47] Rist, Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality, 121.

[48] Ibid.

Failed Revolutions: Hungary, 1956 and Czechoslovakia, 1968

Stalin’s death in 1953 sparked a new era in Cold War relations.  In spite of a leadership battle, the Soviets embarked on a series of reforms which began a thaw in East-West relations.  Khrushchev emerged as the leader in the Kremlin, and then in February 1956, gave a speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in which outlined his intent to carry out reforms towards ‘de-Stalinisation’.  Khrushchev inspired ‘de-Stalinisation’ of the Soviet bloc led to an increased hope for political and social change.   This speech sparked hope for political change, particularly in Eastern Europe.  This commitment to reform and move away from the ‘terror’ policies was tested in Poland between June and October that same year; riots and strikes occurred, and instead of being violently suppressed by a Soviet invasion, various concessions were granted[i].  The perception of success gave reformist communists, and the populations of the Eastern European nations hope, and increased expectations.  However, popular uprisings, like those seen in Hungary during 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, were crushed by a show of Soviet force.  

This show of force was the proximal cause of the failure of these revolts. There was a confluence of factors in the ultimate causes of their failure, so to find the ultimate cause(s) of their failure, it is necessary to consider the requirements for success.  The formation of the Post war world into two primary blocs was ‘the cornerstone of East-West relations’[ii], which led to the necessity of either Soviet benevolence, or support from the West in order for these revolts to succeed.  The Hungarian Uprising and the Prague Spring did not occur in a political vacuum; various preconditions and contemporary events played a role in the failure of these revolts. Nevertheless, three factors stand out: the geopolitical reality of the two rebellious States, the lack of outside support, and the increasingly radical demands of the population.  These three factors meant the revolts were doomed to failure.  First though, a brief outline of the two revolts.

The Revolts

On October 23, 1956, a peaceful student demonstration was held in Budapest, Hungary, in support of Polish reform.  As the crowd swelled to about two hundred thousand Hungarians, the demonstration quickly turned into a riot, and neither the AVH[iii], nor the Hungarian military could regain control[iv].  Erno Gero, Party Secretary in Hungary, formally requested Soviet military aid, which saw Soviet tanks in Budapest the next day.  Meanwhile, Imre Nagy, the former Prime Minister, was returned to the government in an attempt to placate the rebels.   Nagy called for a cease-fire on the 28th, and promised Soviet withdrawal, which was effected by the 30th October.  This, as it turned out, was not to last.  The Soviet Presidium, meeting 30th October, initially decided to withdraw and declared their willingness to negotiate with the new Hungarian government, however on 31st October the Presidium changed its mind; overnight they had decided to intervene.  The 1st November saw Nagy call for independence and a withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, and when the Soviets re-entered Hungary on the 4th November, Nagy pleaded to the UN to support Hungary’s independence.  No significant support was provided, and the Soviets crushed the revolt; the fighting lasted until the final wave of suppression on the 10th November.

Twelve years later, another reform project started in Czechoslovakia, this time much more organised.  The ‘Prague Spring’ was an ‘eight-month-long experiment’[v] to humanise socialism, modifying it to suit Czechoslovak conditions.  It came about after the loss of internal KSC[vi] party support for the then leader in Czechoslovakia, Antonin Novotny, due to a lack of positive economic and political reform. In early 1968 the ‘Stalinist’ era leader was ousted with the consent of Brezhnev, then Soviet Premier, who refused to support Novotny. Replacing him as First Secretary of the KSC was Alexander Dubcek, and soon after as President by Ludvik Svoboda.  This prepared the ground for Dubcek’s ‘Action Program’, a series of liberalisations including removal of censorship, some privatisation and greater democratic processes.  These reforms were instituted across several months, beginning in February – March 1968, Repeated warnings for moderation and limits by the Soviets had been ignored, and an increasingly demanding population had caused concern; a conservative wing in the government ‘invited’ the Soviets to put down the reformist government August 20-21, 1968.

Geopolitical concerns – The ‘buffer zone’ and a ‘contagion’

At the end of World War Two (WWII), The Soviet Union had been invaded several times in their recent history, and so, they demanded a ‘buffer zone’[vii] of communist friendly states over which they would have influence.  Based on agreements and military reality, the Soviets had achieved de facto control of Eastern Europe; the West allowed the ‘Iron Curtain’ to descend[viii].  McCauley suggests that this bipolarity formed out of WWII actually created a situation where each side, through ‘either passive acquiescence or more active measures’, supported the other in maintaining the status quo.

In 1956, Khrushchev was concerned that a departure from Hungary would leave holes in Soviet defences.  The Hungarian Uprising only occurred the year after Austria’s independence and the Belgrade Declaration[ix], so the possibility of Hungarian independence was unthinkable.  Hungary played a vital role in facilitating communication and control over the southern Communist states.  It was a link to Tito’s Yugoslavia, and helped ensure Yugoslavia was not isolated from the Soviets, which would risk closer ties with the West, and Western expansion.  Furthermore, the Suez crisis created an additional problem; knowing their limited capacity to act in the Middle-East at the time[x], the additional loss of Hungary would appear as though they were on a retreat from Empire – that they would not only be seen as weak in the Suez crisis, but as though they had given it up to the ‘imperialists’[xi].  Czechoslovakia also held a crucial location for the Soviets.  Not only did the State border the Soviet Union, but was a direct link to Western Germany; if Czechoslovakia was lost to Communism, then once again, the Soviets would have to be concerned over West-Germany, and Western invasion.  The loss of Czechoslovakia would also limit the capacity for communication between northern and southern Communist states[xii].

Both Khrushchev and Brezhnev were under pressure from within the CPSU, and in the other Communist states to take a hard line in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.  There was still a strong conservative wing in the CPSU, and noting that the after Stalin, the CPSU restored a significant degree of ‘collective leadership’[xiii], pacifying this group was a factor in securing these two States by force.  These two states had defied Soviet policy, and their reforms risked encouraging the populations in other Communist states.  Against Hungary in 1956, the neighbouring states were near unanimous; many states offered troops to quell the Uprising[xiv].  In 1968, it was predominantly East Germany and Poland offering strong arguments for Soviet intervention[xv].  At least part of this support was to avoid the possibility of a contagion – of revolts.  Both Khrushchev in 1956 and Brezhnev in 1968 were trying to avoid allowing these revolutions to spark a ‘snowball’ effect[xvi]. There was a great concern, not unjustified[xvii], that surrendering one satellite state under these sorts of conditions would set off a chain reaction of revolts; the Hungarian Uprising began itself as a protest in support of Polish concessions.  Further demonstrations occurred in the Soviet Union[xviii], and in this way, the intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia can be seen as sending a message to the whole of the Eastern Bloc that they remained under Soviet influence.

Increasingly Radical Demands in an Unprepared Leadership

Noting that they were geopolitically positioned in the Soviet sphere of influence, the demands made by the rebelling population were extreme; they were both idealistic and far-reaching[xix].  Furthermore, the demands became increasingly more fervent and radical as it progressed[xx]; the reform movement was outpacing the attempts to appease.  This was exacerbated by the lack of party control over the population and the media, and a failure of the leaders themselves.

In Hungary, the students’ organisation MEFESZ included the withdrawal of all Soviet troops; the reorganization of the government under Imre Nagy’s leadership; free elections for a new multi-party national assembly; various economic reforms; the rehabilitation of all victims of past injustices; and full freedom of speech and press[xxi].  Nagy was ‘reformed’ to the Communist leadership, but lost the initiative in managing the demands of the rebels, and selling reforms to Moscow[xxii].  Lack of firm leadership as the revolution gathered pace led to a loss of confidence by Moscow; rather than subduing the uprising, Nagy was attempting to keep pace with the accelerating events and increasingly radicalized popular demands[xxiii].

In Czechoslovakia, the Dubcek ‘Action Plan’ was really quite modest, but was seen as having wider potential[xxiv]; this was seen as positive by those supporting the reforms, and negative by those against them.  The reforms included removal of censorship, economic reforms towards a mixed economy, and the breakup of the unitary state into two.  When, on June 27, Czech intellectuals produced a two-thousand-word manifesto that advocated civil disobedience in order to ensure the continuation of the reform movement, even to the point of using weapons[xxv], this alarmed the anti-reformists in the Czechoslovak government, as well as the Soviets[xxvi].  For Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, it was very much a case of the offers of liberalisation provided simply prompted desire for even more liberalisation.

There was a distinct lack of forward thinking on the part of the leadership, particularly noting that they knew the system and their ‘comrades’ in the Soviet Union.  Events had resulted in unrealistic demands and expectations from the rank and file of the Revolt, producing a situation that the Soviets could probably not accept.  Many of the insurgents were determined to achieve their goals immediately, rather than settling for ill-defined negotiations that, once under way, would be subject to delay or derailment[xxvii].  They were idealistic, rather than pragmatic and patient[xxviii].  However justified they were, as valid as their claims may have been, as understandable the frustration, and as appealing their idealism, they should have tempered their enthusiasm.  The demand for ever wider reforms and the unwillingness to compromise or be patient with particular demands placed significant stress on the reformist government.  The necessity of placating the public, and the commitment to a new way, meant that they were unwilling to call for temperance, or use their power to halt insurgency.  A degree of self-censorship may have lessened the severity of the suppression, or removed its necessity by highlighting the lack of a threat the reforms actually posed.

(Lack of) Western Intervention

The only exit from Soviet Influence would seem to be with Western support; with plenty of reasons for the Soviet Union to interfere, there was still one possibility that gave pause: Western intervention.  Even before their entry into WWII, the US and Great Britain had signed the ‘Atlantic Charter’, highlighting a commitment to ‘freedom’ of peoples[xxix].  This was further bolstered by the commitment to the provision of political, military and economic assistance to nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces, as indicated by the Truman Doctrine[xxx].  Still further, the United States zealouslypromoted their doctrines of ‘liberation’ and ‘rollback’, rather than mere ‘containment’[xxxi].  However this would be shown as purely propaganda, in their response to the crisis in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.  In spite of this rhetoric, and the highly propagandist messages broadcast by the Western sponsored radio[xxxii], It was made very clear that the West would not support the Hungarians, even to the point of then President Eisenhower personally contacting the Soviets to ensure this was understood.  Bekes argues that the US administration was duplicitous in their policy; while being committed to these ideals in theory, they were thoroughly pragmatic to the point of immobility in practice.  They recognised the implicit international status quo that was firmly established by 1956, and they had no intentions of challenging this system[xxxiii].

After events in Hungary, Western propaganda decreased in intensity.  However in the 1960s there were moves towards ‘bridge building’ between the West and Czechoslovakia[xxxiv].  This, and Czechoslovakia’s geopolitical location in Europe, which shared borders with NATO West Germany, meant there was more of a chance the West would become involved.  Brezhnev   was concerned about risks of the conflict extending beyond Czechoslovakian borders, and becoming involved in a much bigger war than was necessary[xxxv]. However, then US President Johnson preferred to aim for a modus vivendi with the Soviets, focusing instead on setting up the SALT talks; the US was also otherwise distracted with the Vietnam War[xxxvi].

The West’s involvement in the both crises consisted of speeches which highlighted solidarity with the people, but refusal to intervene[xxxvii].  The West was not willing to provide support the liberation of these nations in Eastern Europe; ‘Defections from one sphere [of influence] would be exploited by the other only when it was clear that the first either could not or would not reassert control. Hence, the United States took advantage of departures from the Soviet bloc of Yugoslavia […]; it did not seek to do so in the case of Hungary in 1956 [or] Czechoslovakia in 1968’[xxxviii]


Both Hungary and Czechoslovakia were integral to the Soviet Union’s ‘security’, and the loss of one, or both, would cause significant problems for it.  The leadership in both revolts failed to manage social and political expectations and the enthusiasm of the population and the radical demands noting their position in Eastern Europe quickly became threatening to the Soviet Union.  After attempting political measures to rein in the satellite states, the Soviets decided to intervene militarily to quell resistance.  Since the Western priority was taking tentative steps towards détente, support from the West was not forthcoming.


[i] Though there was a degree of violence internally, suggesting the capacity of the government to control dissent was a factor in Soviet non-intervention. Johanna  Granville, “Poland and Hungary, 1956: A Comparative Essay Based on New Archival Findings,” in Revolution and Resistance in Eastern Europe: Challenges to Communist Rule, ed. Kevin McDermott and Matthew Stibbe (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 59.

[ii] Csaba Bekes, “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Great Powers,” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 13, no. 2 (1997): 51.

[iii] AVO (Allamvedelmi Osztaly), 1946-1950 / AVH (Allamvedelmi Hatosag), 1950-1956 – State Security Department.  Johanna Granville, “From the Archives of Warsaw and Budapest: A Comparison of the Events of 1956,” East European Politics & Societies 16, no. 2 (2002): 536, 39., note 47

[iv] In the case of the military, many were also unwilling to try; many ‘defected’ to support the revolt Granville, “Poland and Hungary, 1956: A Comparative Essay Based on New Archival Findings,” 61 – 62.

[v] Mark Kramer, “The Kremlin, the Prague Spring, and the Brezhnev Doctrine,” in Promises of 1968: Crisis, Illusion, and Utopia, ed. V. Tismăneanu (Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press, 2011).

[vi] KSC (Komunistická strana Československa), the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia

[vii] Alan K. Henrikson, “Distance and Foreign Policy: A Political Geography Approach,” International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de science politique 23, no. 4 (2002): 455 – 56.

[viii] Bruce Kuniholm, “The Origins of the First Cold War: Methodologies, Values, and Their Implications for East-West Relations,” in The Cold War: Past and Present, ed. R. Crockatt and S. Smith (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987), 45 – 49.

[ix] FERENC A.  SZABÓ, “Hungary’s Geopolitical and Geostrategic Situation at the Time of the Revolution and Fight for Freedom of 1956,” Academic and Applied Research in Military Science (AARMS) 5, no. 4 (2006): 704; Csaba Békés, “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Declaration of Neutrality,” Cold War History 6, no. 4 (2006): 480.

[x] Brian McCauley, “Hungary and Suez, 1956: The Limits of Soviet and American Power,” Journal of Contemporary History 16, no. 4 (1981): 794-95.

[xi] Cold War International History Project (CWIHP), “Stenographic Record of a 4 November 1956 Meeting of Party Activists,”  Istochnik 6(2003),

[xii] J.R. Short, An Introduction to Political Geography  (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), 76.

[xiii] J. Valenta, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision  (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 17.

[xiv] SZABÓ, “Hungary’s Geopolitical and Geostrategic Situation at the Time of the Revolution and Fight for Freedom of 1956; Amir  Weiner, “The Empires Pay a Visit: Gulag Returnees, East European Rebellions, and Soviet Frontier Politics,” The Journal of Modern History 78, no. 2 (2006): 352.

[xv] Valenta, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision, 23.

[xvi] Kramer, “The Kremlin, the Prague Spring, and the Brezhnev Doctrine.”

[xvii] Protests occurred in support of both Hungary and Czechoslovakia in various places across the SU and East Europe.  Valenta, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision, 24.

[xviii] Weiner, “The Empires Pay a Visit: Gulag Returnees, East European Rebellions, and Soviet Frontier Politics,” 354-59.

[xix] C. Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt  (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2006), 158.

[xx] Laura Cashman, “Remembering 1948 and 1968: Reflections on Two Pivotal Years in Czech and Slovak History,” Europe-Asia Studies 60, no. 10 (2008): 1648.

[xxi] Document 24, in C. Békés, M. Byrne, and J. Rainer, “The” 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents  (Central European.University Press, 2002), 188.

[xxii] Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, 150.

[xxiii] Granville, “From the Archives of Warsaw and Budapest: A Comparison of the Events of 1956; Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, 217.

[xxiv] J. Valenta, “The Soviet Union and East Central Europe: Crisis, Intervention, and Normalization,” in Communism in Eastern Europe, ed. T. Rakowska-Harmstone (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1984), 334.

[xxv] Mitchell Lerner, ““Trying to Find the Guy Who Invited Them”: Lyndon Johnson, Bridge Building, and the End Ofthe Prague Spring*,” Diplomatic History 32, no. 1 (2008): 92.

[xxvi] {Valenta@40

[xxvii] Mark Kramer, “New Evidence on Soviet Decision-Making and the 1956 Polish and Hungarian Crises,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 8-9, no. Winter (1996/1997): 368.

[xxviii] Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt.

[xxix] Lillian Goldman Law Library, “Atlantic Charter August 14, 1941,”

[xxx] “Truman Doctrine: President Harry S. Truman’s Address before a Joint Session of Congress, March 12, 1947,”

[xxxi] McCauley, “Hungary and Suez, 1956: The Limits of Soviet and American Power,” 779.

[xxxii] Radio Free Europe, Voice of America; space precludes significant discussion.

[xxxiii] Csaba  Bekes, “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution in World Politics,”  The Hungarian Quarterly 36 no. Summer (1995),

[xxxiv] In particular, trade/economic links with the US, but also wider social links; Lerner, ““Trying to Find the Guy Who Invited Them”: Lyndon Johnson, Bridge Building, and the End Ofthe Prague Spring*; John G. McGinn, “The Politics of Collective Inaction: NATO’s Response to the Prague Spring,” Journal of Cold War Studies 1, no. 3 (1999): 177.

[xxxv] Valenta, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision.

[xxxvi] Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision, 129-31.

[xxxvii] E.g. Dulles, as cited in McCauley, “Hungary and Suez, 1956: The Limits of Soviet and American Power,” 784.

[xxxviii] J.L. Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War  (Replica Books, 2001), 239.


Békés, C., M. Byrne, and J. Rainer. “The” 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents. Central European.University Press, 2002.

Bekes, Csaba. “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Great Powers.” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 13, no. 2 (1997/06/01 1997): 51-66.

Békés, Csaba. “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Declaration of Neutrality.” Cold War History 6, no. 4 (2006/11/01 2006): 477-500.

Bekes, Csaba “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution in World Politics.”  The Hungarian Quarterly 36 no. Summer (1995): 109-21.

Cashman, Laura. “Remembering 1948 and 1968: Reflections on Two Pivotal Years in Czech and Slovak History.” Europe-Asia Studies 60, no. 10 (2008/12/01 2008): 1645-58.

Cold War International History Project (CWIHP). “Stenographic Record of a 4 November 1956 Meeting of Party Activists.”  Istochnik 6, (2003): 63-75. Published electronically November 04, 1956.

Gaddis, J.L. The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War. Replica Books, 2001.

Gati, C. Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2006.

Granville, Johanna. “From the Archives of Warsaw and Budapest: A Comparison of the Events of 1956.” East European Politics & Societies 16, no. 2 (May 1, 2002 2002): 521-63.

Granville, Johanna “Poland and Hungary, 1956: A Comparative Essay Based on New Archival Findings.” Chap. 4 In Revolution and Resistance in Eastern Europe: Challenges to Communist Rule, edited by Kevin McDermott and Matthew Stibbe, 57 – 77. Oxford: Berg, 2006.

Henrikson, Alan K. “Distance and Foreign Policy: A Political Geography Approach.” International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de science politique 23, no. 4 (2002): 437-66.

Kramer, Mark. “The Kremlin, the Prague Spring, and the Brezhnev Doctrine.” In Promises of 1968: Crisis, Illusion, and Utopia, edited by V. Tismăneanu, 285-370. Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press, 2011.

———. “New Evidence on Soviet Decision-Making and the 1956 Polish and Hungarian Crises.” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 8-9, no. Winter (1996/1997): 358-84.

Kuniholm, Bruce. “The Origins of the First Cold War: Methodologies, Values, and Their Implications for East-West Relations.” Chap. 3 In The Cold War: Past and Present, edited by R. Crockatt and S. Smith, 37-57. London: Allen & Unwin, 1987.

Lerner, Mitchell. ““Trying to Find the Guy Who Invited Them”: Lyndon Johnson, Bridge Building, and the End Ofthe Prague Spring*.” Diplomatic History 32, no. 1 (2008): 77-103.

Lillian Goldman Law Library. “Atlantic Charter August 14, 1941.”

———. “Truman Doctrine: President Harry S. Truman’s Address before a Joint Session of Congress, March 12, 1947.”

McCauley, Brian. “Hungary and Suez, 1956: The Limits of Soviet and American Power.” Journal of Contemporary History 16, no. 4 (October 1, 1981 1981): 777-800.

McGinn, John G. “The Politics of Collective Inaction: NATO’s Response to the Prague Spring.” Journal of Cold War Studies 1, no. 3 (1999/09/01 1999): 111-38.

Short, J.R. An Introduction to Political Geography. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

SZABÓ, FERENC A. . “Hungary’s Geopolitical and Geostrategic Situation at the Time of the Revolution and Fight for Freedom of 1956.” Academic and Applied Research in Military Science (AARMS) 5, no. 4 (2006): 704 – 13.

Valenta, J. Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

———. “The Soviet Union and East Central Europe: Crisis, Intervention, and Normalization.” Chap. 11 In Communism in Eastern Europe, edited by T. Rakowska-Harmstone, 329-59. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1984.

Weiner, Amir “The Empires Pay a Visit: Gulag Returnees, East European Rebellions, and Soviet Frontier Politics.” The Journal of Modern History 78, no. 2 (2006): 333-76.


Justifying Assassination: Heydrich and the Just War doctrine

Operation Anthropoid, the mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, is simultaneously seen as one of the bravest and one of the most terrible acts of Czech defiance during World War Two (WWII).  The event was marked by extreme reprisals by the Nazi regime which has led to an ongoing debate over the legality and morality of the assassination.  After a brief look at the scenario which led to the assassination, followed by an outline and explanation of the basic principles of the Just War doctrine, it will be demonstrated that under the circumstances, In spite of the devastating reprisals, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich was justified.


The Czechoslovak nation was born out of the ashes of the First World War, in accordance with Section VII of the Versailles Treaty[1], and would virtually disappear two decades later, in the lead up to World War II.  The Nazi regime exploited unrest in the Sudetenland[2], a majority German speaking area on the shared borders with Germany, to gain cause for invading Czechoslovakia for their industrial capacity and natural resources[3].  The major 5 European powers, in order to attempt ‘appeasement’, passed the ‘Munich Agreement’ without consulting the fledgling State, providing Hitler with the Sudetenland. This land also contained significant Czech border military defences.

After the Munich Agreement, Nazi Germany occupied the Sudetenland.  Slovakia broke away from the Czech lands, forming their own fascist government, and forming an alliance with Germany.  Shortly after, in contravention of the Munich Agreement, and Article 81 of the Treaty of Versailles[4], Nazi Germany forced agreement[5] with the interim President into subsuming the Czech lands into the German Reich as the ‘Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’.  This was quite obviously not what was desired by Czech citizens, and several resistance groups formed and attempted passive and active resistance measures such as intelligence gathering and civil disobedience to indicate displeasure with the status quo[6].  There is some evidence that resistance activities were having more effect, and increasing in number around the time of Operation Barbarossa[7], however, according to MacDonald, much of this resistance work was uncoordinated, and ineffective.  Furthermore, the quantity of resistance activities had been exaggerated for political purposes on both sides[8].

For the Government in Exile, headed by Benes, it was exaggerated for favour with the Allies; on the German side, it prompted a regime change in the Protectorate, from a ‘diplomatic’ von Neurath[9] to Reinhard Heydrich – a regime change that had deadly consequences for many, and subjugation under oppressing terror for others[10].  After several years of exile, working with the Allies, and attempting to inspire resistance at home, Edvard Benes and Frantisek Moravec developed a mission to convince the allies that Czechoslovakia was worth saving.  Two men from their small military were selected and trained for the mission in Britain, in conjunction with SOE, then were parachuted into the Protectorate on 28/29th December 1941[11].  Their task: the assassination of the Reichsprotektor, Reinhard Heydrich.

The plan did not go smoothly, but finally, on 27th May 1942, these two men attempted to assassinate the Reichprotektor. Whilst the attack initially appeared unsuccessful, injuries sustained by Heydrich in the attack led to his death on 4th June.  The reprisals were swift and severe; it is estimated that around 5000 people lost their lives, two villages, Lidice and Lezaky, were targeted, and in the case of Lidice, completely wiped off the map.  These reprisals have led to an ongoing debate over the relative worth of the assassination, and whether it can be justified.   The ‘Just War’ doctrine can give the tools to investigate this possibility.

Just War Doctrine

The Just War doctrine is an ethical calculus to determine the moral standing of a war, the Jus Ad Bellum, and particular conduct within that war, the Jus in Bello. It begins from the assumption that war is wrong, and from this, attempts to proscribe specifics on when, and how, a state may wage war.  The requirements of Jus Ad Bellum are that the conflict is: authorised by a legitimate authority; for a ‘Just Cause’; as a ‘last resort’ when other methods have failed, or are unable to be tried; undertaken with the ‘right intention’; when the war is amenable to success; and there is proportionality between the positives and negatives. Proportionality is also a requirement of Jus in Bello, the rules of conduct within the conflict, as are the requirements to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, conformity to law[12], and refrain from ‘reprisals’, a like-for-like abuse of jus in bello[13].


WWII was entered into with the agreements freely made between the allies, in response to the threat, and conduct of Germany.  There is no suggestion of incorrect authorisation for the larger context of WWII.  However, there may be some qualms about recognising the authority of ‘President’ Benes to order the Heydrich assassination.  President Benes resigned his post in 1938 under pressure from Germany, and went into voluntary exile prior to the annexation of the Czech lands.  He was replaced by Emil Hacha, who, following the Munich Agreement, and the secession of Slovakia, was coerced by Hitler into authorising the annexation of the remainder of the Czech lands.  Hacha remained in his post, largely as a figurehead; however this would present a prima facie case against the authority of Benes.

At the outbreak of WW2, Benes sought recognition as the leader of a Czech government in exile.  He managed the military actions of the Czech servicemen who had left during the takeover, as well as the negotiation of resistance activities in the Protectorate.  Together with other Czechs who had escaped, Benes formed a Government-in-Exile, and sought recognition by the Allies as the continuation of legal Czech Government.  With some hesitancy over legal status, Benes was recognised by France and Britain as the legal government of Czechoslovakia.  Based on the recognition of his Government-in-Exile, his former status as President, and the popularity of him at home[14], it would seem credible that Benes was suitably authorised to conduct military action against a hostile aggressor.

Just Cause and Last Resort

If it is granted that President Benes had the requisite authority to conduct war on behalf of the Czechs, the next consideration of the Just War principles is the reason for the conflict – and further, the reason for the particular action taken.  According to the Just War theory, a state may only engage in war ‘for a just cause’, which is usually limited to the resistance of aggression.  This can include defence of one’s own state, that of another, or punishment for a grievous wrongdoing[15].  Likewise, war should only be undertaken if all other possible avenues for peaceful resolution have been attempted, that is, as a last resort.

It is relatively uncontentious that WWII, on behalf of the Allies, was a war of self-defence that was only entered into after other diplomatic means had failed[16]. The Czechs had already attempted to use defence treaties with other nations as a disincentive to the Germans. They also did not contest the Munich Agreement, even though they were not party to the negotiations.  Arguably this was the most important attempt at diplomacy in the war; even the acceptance of German occupation was done with the intent to avoid mass casualties in war.  However, with the German response to occupation, and the severe repercussions of any act of civil disobedience, there was little hope of any alternative to a peaceful resolution of the occupation.

The appeasement was unsuccessful; following the annexation of the Sudetenland, Germany put pressure on Slovakia to secede, and then contravened the Munich Agreement, as well as the Treaty of Versailles, in occupying Czech lands.  Furthermore, the actions taken by both Reichsprotektors, but in particular Heydrich, not only killed and detained Czechs, but also placed the remainder constantly under threat. Therefore, it is clear to see that the Czechs had just cause, in defending their state from an aggressor.  More arguable is their just cause to punish, as in recent literature, the right to punish is considered eroded[17].  As noted by both Moravec and MacDonald, the primary service the Czechs were providing to the Allies was intelligence; they had largely steered clear of placing their people at greater risk than they already were – the decision of the Czech Government in Exile was clearly the last option available, and not a desired one[18].

Proper Intention

The proper intention, for the resort to war, is the aim to prosecute the states just cause.  According to the Just War theory, ‘[u]lterior’ or ‘irrational’ motives are inadmissible as motivation[19].  To determine whether the Czech decision to engage in assassination for the proper intention, it is necessary to consider the writing of Frantisek Moravec.  In his memoirs, he tries to give an account of the Government in Exile’s reasoning for the assassination.  He tells of two primary reasons: to highlight meaningful resistance to the Nazi regime, and to re-spark resistance efforts[20].  Both of these reasons aim at prosecution of a just cause – that of defending what was left of the Czech state from a hostile force.  However, these intentions can also be otherwise construed, particularly in the choice of assassinating Heydrich; ‘meaningful resistance’ in this context can be considered a purely political or punitive motive, just as ‘re-sparking the resistance’ can be seen as undertaking to intentionally risk harm to non-combatants.  This is an inherent difficulty in determining intent, and is difficult to resolve, since it ‘is largely based on perception and context’, and those using assassination as a policy tool ‘will deny they were motivated by politics’[21].  However, it should be noted that the presence of multiple motives does not necessarily delegitimise an attempt at self-defence[22].  Nor does it necessarily preclude defensive actions based on the probability of success.

Probability of Success

Just War theory aims to prevent needless deaths in service to a lost cause, and so under this theory, a state should only resort to war if the probability of success is high.  This would seem to indicate that the Czech leadership in exile may have ‘entered’ the war unjustly.  Nevertheless, there is some moral scope to consider even ‘hopeless’ actions to be undertaken in pursuit of justice, just as there are cases where inaction could be considered immoral[23], as the ‘success’ criterion fails to take into consideration the nature of the threat.  In some cases, the threat will justify an attempt that may not have immediate, measurable success[24].  In the case of WWII, against an aggressor with significantly greater power, the probability of success in war was quite low for the Czech nation, indeed, but for errors made, this point could have allowed the Nazi regime to overtake Western Europe.

Jus Ad Bellum


Proportionality must be considered at two stages in the Just War doctrine; as a feature of Jus Ad Bellum, and that of Jus in Bello.  Under Jus Ad Bellum, proportionality requires that the positive outcomes must be weighed against the expected negative outcomes, which includes foreseeable consequences to non-combatants.  The war must only take place if the benefits are proportional – the positives should exceed the negatives.

The main contention against the assassination is that the consequences outweighed the benefits.  Any attempt to justify the assassination will have to deal with the question of value: Was the life of one man, Heydrich, worth the lives of some 5000 civilians?  It is difficult to suggest, in considering the proportionality rule, that reprisals were an unforeseen side effect; resistance groups in Bohemia/Moravia had attempted to have the assassination called off due to what they saw as likely horrific consequences[25]. While it was clear to Benes and Moravec that reprisals would be severe, the answer must be yes.  They could not have foreseen the events that happened, nor can anyone see what may have happened in absence of the assassination.

While it is indeed possible that some of those targeted in reprisal may not have died, it is difficult to argue that if the assassination not taken place, then the majority would not have been targeted under some other auspice.  This is especially relevant noting that the figures suggest around 3500 of the some- 5000 people targeted in reprisal were Jews.  As Gerwarth explains, persecution of Jewish people in the Czech lands ‘had begun immediately after the German invasion’[26].  With an estimated 80,000 Jewish people killed from the Bohemia/Moravia area alone[27], it is difficult to claim the 3,000 Jews killed in reprisal would have escaped Nazi plans[28].  Likewise, with the infiltration of the underground in the Czech lands[29], every day brought the resistance members the chance to be discovered and either killed or detained.

Based on his previous positions and his actions while Reichsprotektor of Bohemia/Moravia, there was little doubt his influence and tactics would not continue – wherever he was positioned.  Heydrich’s task was not diplomatic, but one of combat[30], aimed at ridding the Protectorate of resistance, and increasing output for war efforts. Had he lived, it is entirely possible that his next position would be in France, which would have severely curtailed resistance there. Furthermore, noting his developing rapport with Hitler, he may have played a significantly greater role in the development of the war, and the efficiency of the holocaust[31].  Even granting that they died because of the assassination, which is not entirely uncontentious[32], the blame still cannot be morally ascribed to the Government-in-Exile in toto.  As Hauner has put it,

… those who argue that sparing Heydrich could have saved thousands of lives must also face the fact that every day of his service to the Third Reich meant the further perfection of the Nazi killing machine and the a more ruthlessly efficient genocide. By killing one of Hitler’s ablest lieutenants, the brutal regime and its collaborators were shaken, and the occupied peoples of Europe given hope[33].

There was a war going on: militaries were being decimated to defend their lands, and liberate those already forcibly taken; men, women and children were being killed or sent to concentration camps for arbitrary reasons; and even in areas under German rule, there were people risking, and losing their lives to resist the Nazi regime[34].  While being unsuccessful in its aim to re-spark the resistance, they did prosecute their main goal – meaningful resistance to an aggressor.  It removed not only the ‘local tyrant’, but also someone Hitler considered ‘irreplaceable’[35].  The assassination further enabled the continuity of the Czechoslovak state post-war, and removed the ‘stigma’ of dishonourable collaboration[36].

Jus in Bello

Proportionality and Discrimination (Non-Combatant Immunity)

Proportionality refers to the means, and degree to which a combatant may use force.  Under Jus in Bello, those in combat must only use only sufficient force to achieve their aims.  It would be unjust, therefore, to use nuclear weapons to terrorise a nation into unconditional surrender.  The assassins who killed Heydrich clearly fulfilled the requirements of proportionality for Jus in Bello; they killed only who they were sent for, using the minimum force required to complete their task, and did not kill another combatant, even when under threat[37].  The ‘assassins’ took great pains to minimise casualties amongst non-combatants; only targeting Heydrich, and firing warning shots into the air to avoid civilian incursion into the area.  This also shows their action to be just, under the requirement to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.


The legality of assassination is usually the most difficult to overcome, since it appears to depend on how you present it.  There is sometimes a distinction made between assassination, seen as killing someone, particularly a civilian, for political motives, and ‘targeted killing’, defined as the elimination of a military threat[38].  Hauner even considers labelling the assassination of Heydrich as ‘state-sponsored terrorism’[39], which is aligned closer to how the ‘assassins’ themselves saw their actions[40].  However, there is not such a clear demarcation between these titles. Heydrich, for example, was clearly: a public figure in the Protectorate killed in part for political purposes, i.e. regime change; a combatant killed in part for defence from aggression and prevention of further oppression; and was a tyrant killed by the ‘resistance’ for his tyranny.

However the assassination is labelled, it is necessary to consider international law of the time. The Hague Conventions, Section IV, Article 23 states that ‘[i]n addition to the prohibitions provided by special Conventions, it is especially forbidden […] [t]o kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army’[41].  Since combatants are traditionally marked by visual indications of allegiance, such as uniforms or insignia, and the assassins were in civilian clothes, this has led some to believe there is a prima facie case for the illegality of the Heydrich assassination; ‘treachery’ is usually seen as akin to giving an enemy cause to believe you were not a threat and since the assassins were not wearing uniforms, they gave the illusion of being civilians.  However, as noted by Parks, the prevailing conditions in WWII often required the reliance on local resistance members, not uniformed military[42], and following the Heydrich case, this deficiency was recognised, and prompted a number of states to clarify their ‘law of war manuals’ to ensure that activity by resistance movements was not precluded.  Furthermore, as a legal combatant, Heydrich had no claim to immunity from attack[43], and as noted by Spaight, surprise is not a form of treachery[44].

No Reprisals

This final requirement is based around the idea that ‘an eye for an eye leaves us both blind’[45].  For an act to be a ‘reprisal’ in this context, it must be a violation of jus in bello in retaliation for another’s previous violation[46].  This rule acknowledges that tit-for-tat abuses of law do not lead to positive, peaceful outcomes.  This is also a common issue with the Heydrich case; assassination, being viewed with its negative connotations, is seen as an abuse of law in retaliation – ‘because he did it first’[47].  However, as seen in the previous section, assassination is a contentious description in itself, and that the Heydrich assassination could, in our modern terms, take on either one of the two other descriptions.  If we grant the outcome of the previous section, that it was not an unlawful act, it is clear that while we may consider the act ill-advised, it was certainly not a reprisal in the Just War sense.

While acknowledging the terrible loss of life which came as retribution for Heydrich’s death, It has been shown, using the Just War doctrine, and relevant historical data that the assassination was justified through the satisfaction of the requirements of Jus Ad Bellum and Jus in Bello.  While it did not achieve all its aims, it was a brave, perhaps ill-advised attempt to remove a tyrant, to stand up against an aggressive regime, and to ensure the continuity of a state that was hard won.


Bikár, František. “Czech Senator Warns against Hatred, Racism, Nationalism, Xenophobia.” (2013).

Brownlee, Kimberley. “Civil Disobedience.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta.

Burian, Michal , Aleš  Knížek, Jiří  Rajlich, and Eduard Stehlík. Assassination: Operation Anthropoid 1941-1942.  Prague: Ministry of Defence of the Czech Republic – Military Information and Service Agency (AVIS), 2002.

Canestaro, Nathan. “American Law and Policy on Assassinations of Foreign Leaders: The Practicality of Maintaining the Status Quo.” Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 26, no. 1 (2003): 1 – 34.

Geary, Dick. “The Nazi State and Society.” In Hitler and Nazism, edited by Dick Geary, 37-61, 1993.

Gerwarth, Robert. Hitlers Hangman: The Life of Heydrich.  London: Yale University Press, 2011.

Gould, Harry D. “What Happened to Punishment in the Just War Tradition?”. Chap. 4 In Ethics, Authority, and War: Non-State Actors and the Just War Tradition, edited by Eric A. Heinze and Brent J. Steele, 73 – 100. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Gross, Michael L. “Killing the Innocent: The Dilemma of Terrorism.” Chap. 8 In Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Assassination, and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict, 178 – 204. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Hauner, Milan. “Terrorism and Heroism: The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.” World Policy Journal 24, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 85-89.

Hays Parks, W. “Executive Order 12333 and Assassination.” edited by Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Army. Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2002 (Reproduction).

Knoepfler, Stephen “Dead or Alive: The Future of U.S. Assassination Policy under a Just War Tradition.” New York University Journal of Law & Liberty 5, no. 457 (“?

Lillian Goldman Law Library. “Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague Iv); October 18, 1907.”

———. “The Versailles Treaty June 28, 1919: Part III.”

MacDonald, Callum. The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. 1st ed.  New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. 1989.

Meisels, Tamar. “Targeting Terror.” [In English]. Social Theory and Practice 30, no. 3 (2004): 297-326.

Moravec, F. Master of Spies: The Memoirs of General Frantisek Moravec. Bodley Head, 1975.

Orend, Brian. “War.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2009.

Statman, Daniel. “The Morality of Assassination: A Response to Gross.” Political Studies 51, no. 4 (2003): 775-79.

Statman, Daniel “On the Success Condition for Legitimate Self‐Defense.” Ethics 118, no. 4 (2008): 659-86.

[1] Lillian Goldman Law Library, “The Versailles Treaty June 28, 1919: Part III,”  Section VII.

[2] Callum MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 1st ed. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), 45, 49.

[3] Robert Gerwarth, Hitlers Hangman: The Life of Heydrich  (London: Yale University Press, 2011), 218.

[4] Lillian Goldman Law Library, “The Versailles Treaty June 28, 1919: Part III”.

[5] MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 64.

[6] The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 108.

[7] Gerwarth, Hitlers Hangman: The Life of Heydrich, 221.

[8] MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 78.

[9] The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 62; Gerwarth, Hitlers Hangman: The Life of Heydrich, 219.

[10] MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 107-18.

[11] Michal  Burian et al., Assassination: Operation Anthropoid 1941-1942, (Prague: Ministry of Defence of the Czech Republic – Military Information and Service Agency (AVIS), 2002), 44; MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 128; Interestingly, the testimony in F. Moravec, Master of Spies: The Memoirs of General Frantisek Moravec  (Bodley Head, 1975), 202. claims a scheduled departure in ‘late April’.  With several sources corroborating the December date, the given month is considered to be a mistake.

[12] Brian Orend, “War,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2008 ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009), In using the basic outline found here, I have merged 3 duties into one, so as to cover them all in a single discussion of ‘legality’.

[13] Ibid.

[14] MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 102-03.

[15] Orend, “War.”

[16] Even considering the justifiable concerns over the severity of sanctions in the Treaty of Versailles post-WWI, as discussed in  Lillian Goldman Law Library, “The Versailles Treaty June 28, 1919: Part III”.

[17] Harry D. Gould, “What Happened to Punishment in the Just War Tradition?,” in Ethics, Authority, and War: Non-State Actors and the Just War Tradition, ed. Eric A. Heinze and Brent J. Steele (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 73.

[18] Moravec, Master of Spies: The Memoirs of General Frantisek Moravec, 197; MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 71, 92-98; see also Milan Hauner, “Terrorism and Heroism: The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich,” World Policy Journal 24, no. 2 (2007): 86.  Hauner claims that Heydrich was the turning point in this policy.

[19] Orend, “War.”

[20] Moravec, Master of Spies: The Memoirs of General Frantisek Moravec, 196.

[21] Nathan Canestaro, “American Law and Policy on Assassinations of Foreign Leaders: The Practicality of Maintaining the Status Quo,” Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 26, no. 1 (2003): 11.

[22] Tamar Meisels, “Targeting Terror,” Social Theory and Practice 30, no. 3 (2004): 306-07.

[23] Daniel  Statman, “On the Success Condition for Legitimate Self‐Defense,” Ethics 118, no. 4 (2008): 666; Kimberley Brownlee, “Civil Disobedience,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2010 ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[24] Daniel Statman, “The Morality of Assassination: A Response to Gross,” Political Studies 51, no. 4 (2003): 778.

[25] MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 156.

[26] Gerwarth, Hitlers Hangman: The Life of Heydrich, 220.

[27] František Bikár, “Czech Senator Warns against Hatred, Racism, Nationalism, Xenophobia,”,

[28] This is not to suggest the loss of Jewish life is unimportant, merely that noting the anti-Semitism at the heart of Nazi Germany intended the expulsion/extermination of the entire Jewish population, that these people would have been targeted even had the assassination not provided the opportunity to purge them.

[29] MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 113; see also Gerwarth, Hitlers Hangman: The Life of Heydrich, 227.

[30] Hitlers Hangman: The Life of Heydrich, 226.

[31] MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 165-66.

[32] Meisels, “Targeting Terror,” 318, 21-22.

[33] Hauner, “Terrorism and Heroism: The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich,” 89.

[34] Resistance movements were dealt with harshly when found. Dick Geary, “The Nazi State and Society,” in Hitler and Nazism, ed. Dick Geary (1993), 40-42.

[35] MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 182.

[36] The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 200-04; see also Statman, “On the Success Condition for Legitimate Self‐Defense,” 667.

[37] MacDonald, The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, 172.

[38] Stephen  Knoepfler, “Dead or Alive: The Future of U.S. Assassination Policy under a Just War Tradition,” New York University Journal of Law & Liberty 5, no. 457: 467.

[39] Hauner, “Terrorism and Heroism: The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.”

[40] Burian et al., Assassination: Operation Anthropoid 1941-1942.

[41] Lillian Goldman Law Library, “Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague Iv); October 18, 1907,”

[42] W Hays Parks, “Executive Order 12333 and Assassination,” ed. Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Army, Memorandum of Law (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2002 (Reproduction)), 5.

[43] “Executive Order 12333 and Assassination,” ed. Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Army, Memorandum of Law (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2002 (Reproduction)), 3.

[44] as cited in Canestaro, “American Law and Policy on Assassinations of Foreign Leaders: The Practicality of Maintaining the Status Quo.”

[45] Orend, “War.”

[46] Michael L. Gross, “Killing the Innocent: The Dilemma of Terrorism,” in Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Assassination, and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 191-95.

[47] Meisels, “Targeting Terror,” 306-07.

The mind-brain Identity thesis: Problems and solutions

What is the mind, which gives humans this rich conscious experience, and how is it related to physical bodies?  This ‘true nature’ of the ‘mind’ has intrigued man for centuries, and even now, with a much greater knowledge of the world, the answer still eludes those searching.  Many attempts have been made to answer these existential questions, and although none have been completely successful, there are theories regarded as more plausible. One such theory is the ‘mind-body identity thesis’, a fully materialist theory which claims that all mental states are physical states.  Like all theories, it has come against considerable opposition, with objections ranging from alleged contradictions of Liebniz’s law, through to problems of representation and identity.  The identity thesis (arguably) has a sound response to these objections, and so offers a clear, rational, and logical theory to answer the problem of how our mind and body are connected.  However, there are still some weaknesses that have not yet been recognised as successfully overcome.  In this, at least, the identity thesis is not alone; there are still problems with all other alternatives.  The problems faced by the identity thesis will be explored, along with its best responses.  Firstly it is necessary to explain the identity thesis, and place it in the wider context of theories of mind.

The identity thesis is a fully materialist theory claiming the contingent[1], a posteriori[2] proposition (Blackburn, 2008a, b, Carruthers, 1992) that all mental states and events are physical states and events (Carruthers, 1992); they are in fact referring to the same thing (Carrier & Mittelstrass, 1995).  Two versions of the theory can now be identified, largely in response to objections from several competing theories which to an extent has divided Identity theorists.  The ‘strong’ version of ‘type identity’ claims general types of mental states will be consistent with general types of physical (brain) states, while the ‘weak’ version, ‘token’ identity[3] has the lesser claim that each individual mental state will correspond with an individual physical state.  Lowe (2004) illustrates this ‘type/token’ distinction with the word ‘tree’, which contains 4 letter tokens, but only three letter types – t, r and e (p. 48).

There are several other contenders attempting to answer the mind-body problem; to place the identity theory among its challengers, short descriptions of the main objectors are provided here.  Antithetical to the identity thesis are the various dualist theories which posit two distinct ‘pieces’ to conscious beings – a physical body and a non-physical mind.  Other criticisms come from other theories with a materialist grounding, like functionalism, which ‘characterises mental states with the causal roles they play in determining how a subject behaves in different circumstances’ (Lowe, 2004, p. 45).  A range of objections to the identity theory will now be discussed, along with how these objections are mitigated (Carruthers, 1992, Heil, 2004, Crane, 2003).

The first set of objections stem from alleged contradictions of Liebniz’s law[4]; the issues of ‘certainty’, ‘privacy’ and ‘value’.  The responses here show Carrier and Mittelstrass’ point that unacceptable results are found from ‘extreme’ use of this principle. (1995, p. 83).

Certainty is primarily a dualist objection which stems from Descartes (Lowe, 2004, p. 11); it is essentially that ‘I’ am unable to be ‘certain’ of any physical states, but ‘I’ am able to be certain of my experiences; therefore by Liebniz’s law, conscious experiences cannot be equal to brain states (Carruthers, 1992).  However, the identity theory contends that since ‘I am certain’ is clearly intentional, this use of Liebniz’s law is fallacious (Carruthers, 1992, Carrier & Mittelstrass, 1995).

The ‘privacy’ argument claims that brain states are ‘public’ (not private), but conscious states are private, therefore conscious states are not identical to brain states.  This argument has problems of its own.  Carruthers (1992) notes an inherent ambiguity in this argument, since the meaning of ‘private’ can imply two different contexts; it can be understood as either a problem of ownership, or a problem of knowledge (Carruthers, 1992, pp. 139-140).  If privacy is taken in context of ownership then the argument is unsound, as the premise claiming that brain states are ‘public’ is false, since only ‘I’ can own my brain states.  If the context of this is taken as ‘private knowledge’ then this argument suffers from a fallacious use of Liebniz’s law, similarly to the certainty argument (Carruthers, 1992, p. 139, Taylor, 2005, p. 153, Heil, 2004, pp. 80, 85).  Further, Carrier and Mittelstrass inform that the ‘privacy’ of these mental states is simply by virtue of our ‘acquaintance’ with them, and that the ‘conscious awareness’ of these mental states ‘[do] not imply knowledge’ (Carrier & Mittelstrass, 1995, p. 85).

The value argument relates to the capability of assigning ‘value’ to mental states.  The argument contends that while mental ‘conscious’ states can have value, in that they can be good or bad, no brain ‘merely physical’ states are able to have a value (Carruthers, 1992, p. 40).  Carruthers (1992) points out that a response will ultimately depend on the context of this objection, since it is questionable that ‘physical’ states cannot be subject to value claims.  If the claim is that the physical states do not have value, because it is the intent behind the physical event, then this appears to be fallacious, since it appears to use Liebniz’s law in an intentional context.

Another category of problems faced by the identity theory are qualitative aspects of consciousness.  These objections are seen by David Chalmers as constituting the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness (Heil, 2004, p. 164).  Within this category, there are two main arguments: the sensory experience of colour, and ‘felt’ sensations.  Both these ‘problems’ stem from subjective experience, which, as Heil (2004) notes, must be allowed for in a theory attempting ‘to make minds parts of a single reality’ (Heil, 2004, p. 87).  This makes the issue of qualia to be one of difficulty, and of importance to fully document in order to make the identity theory successful.

The ‘experience’ of “what it is like” (Nagel, 2005) to see “x” colour’ is seen as a problem for the identity theory, since we have no way of knowing how someone else views a colour.  We would not know what it was like for someone else to ‘see red’.  Similarly, the second problem of ‘what it feels like’ is based around the subjective nature of ‘felt sensations’; that even with ‘complete knowledge’ of the physical (brain states), we would not be able to ‘know’ how it feels to have those experiences.  This is often the basis for considering there must be something more than just our physical selves; however it should be noted that many of these issues are similarly problematical for dualist theories.

The identity thesis has several responses to these problems.  The first relates to an apparent linguistic propositional error, in which the objectors treat sensation and visualisation experiences as a particular individual thing, or a property of the thing (Carruthers, 1992, Heil, 2004).  According to Carruthers (1992), this is incorrect; since no experience has a particular colour, or a particular sensation, it is simply the way in which the mind processes visual and sensory input.  This can be a particular brain state; the key is in understanding representation, which, as Crane (2003) notes, is a problem for both materialist and dualist theories (Crane, 2003).  This representation issue is an ongoing one.  The issue of complete knowledge, however, can be responded to by understanding that the proposition is flawed; there are two types of knowledge, factual (propositional) and practical (recognitional).  Carruthers vehemently states that there is no amount of factual knowledge that can provide ability; a person must be able to apply the factual information into the appropriate field, effectively requiring the practice in having those physical states, and being able to recognise them as what they are.

The ‘qualia’ problem is related to the intentionality problem.  Conscious states are seen as unique, they are intentional or representational states, whereas no ‘merely physical’ state can be intentional in its own right.  Detractors invoke Liebniz’s law, to conclude that conscious states cannot be identical to brain states.  This is indeed problematical for the identity thesis, since the argument is valid.  However, it can be postulated that the argument may yet prove unsound, since while the intentional status of conscious states can be accepted, the soundness of the argument hinges on the acceptance of physical states intentionality.  This, however, is currently unable to be answered; though again, it should be noted that no other theory (and in particular, dualist theories) have yet been able to answer this either.

Another issue for the identity thesis is spatial position; if all mental (conscious) states, like thoughts are physical states, then they must have a spatial position.  The argument however claims that since conscious states are not attributed spatial positions, but brain states must have them, then conscious states cannot be identical.  However, there is no real reason why they could not be, with a little more research.  Carrier and Mittelstrass (1995) inform that this is simply a result from a ‘conflict between the materialist and the everyday manner of speaking’ (1995, p. 84).  The current non-use of language for this purpose is not because of an implicit ‘wrong’; it is just a ‘peculiarity of everyday speech’ (Carrier & Mittelstrass, 1995, p. 84).    If the possibility of attributing spatial positions to thoughts is accepted, it becomes possible to investigate the brain event which corresponds to those thoughts, and the location of those particular brain state changes, and then it would be possible to nominate this spatial position.

An interesting argument against the identity theory is Putnam’s Multiple Realizability argument, which claims that ‘all mental kinds are ‘multiply realized’ by distinct physical kinds’ (Bickle, 2008).  The general view of Putnam’s claims is that it puts forward against the ‘type’ identity thesis that it is conceivable that a form of life could exist in the universe which is capable of being in a particular mental state, without being in the same physical state as the identity theorist would assume (Bickle, 2008, Heil, 2004, Lowe, 2004, Ravenscroft, 2005).  The argument states that if a mental kind is multiply realizable by distinct physical kinds, then it cannot be identical to any specific physical kind – however, as the multiple realizability thesis states, all mental kinds are multiply realizable by distinct physical kind.  Therefore, it follows that no mental kind is identical to any specific physical kind (Ravenscroft, 2005, Bickle, 2008).  The identity theory has a number of responses to this argument; there is the option to follow Lewis (as cited in Bickle, 2008) in claiming that this does not remove the option of restricting claims to ‘domains’, since reductive physicalism has always been domain based (Bickle, 2008).  Alternatively, as several theorists have done, recent successes in neuroscience can be alluded to; success from neuroscience would not be expected if there was no continuity of ‘neural mechanisms’ (Bickle, 2008).  Yet we do expect some continuity across species, and have been able to apply successes from other species to humans.  This neuroscience evidence suggests that ‘psychological functions are not as radically multiply realized as … suggest[ed]’ (Bickle, 2008).  Shapiro (Bickle, 2008) also provides another option to overcome this problem – with the claim that a case of multiple realizability must be argued, since the ‘realizing kinds’ must ‘genuinely differ in their causally relevant properties’.  If there is no difference, then there is no multiple realizability; However if there is difference, Shapiro argues that they are not the same kind, and so there is no multiple realizability (Shapiro, as cited in Bickle, 2008).  In effect, the multiple realizability argument is severely weakened in its claims against the identity thesis.

The final hurdle to the identity theory is that of ‘necessary identity’.  Kripke’s identity argument (Kripke, 1981, 1983) is recognised to be a very powerful argument against materialism (Skokowski, 2007).  Kripke contends that ‘identity is not a relation which can hold contingently between objects’ (Kripke, 1981); all identities are necessary, even where they are found a posteriori; they only give the appearance of being contingent.  This is seen as a serious problem since the identity theory attempts to identify as a contingent proposition, which, in Kripke’s view, is impossible; he calls upon identity theorists to ‘explain away’ the appearance of contingency. As Papineau (2008) acknowledges, this is hard for the materialist to do, since it does in fact seem possible that the identities of mental states and physical states could have been different (Papineau, 2008).  The identity thesis has not been able to reply with a sufficiently powerful argument, but there are several responses.  Carruthers (1992) argues that identity theorists must deny the ability to successfully imagine particular feelings; the imagined states are not more than qualitatively similar (Carruthers, 1992).  Smart (Smart, 2011) responds that the ‘rigid designator’ in Kripke’s argument appears ‘highly contextual’, this rigid designator could both appear to match and appear to differ depending on the context in which we place it.  While these do not respond fully to Kripke’s argument, they do go some way to reducing its full force.

The identity thesis is far from perfect, and this essay is by no means comprehensive; space has only allowed the coverage of a brief introduction to the identity thesis, along with a superficial discussion of the main objections to the theory.  It has been shown that the essential nature of the identity thesis is that the mind and body are not distinct; this is expected to be further supported through neurological research.  The many problems faced by the identity theory were discussed; while issues of apparent contradiction of Leibniz’s law appeared easily solved, and only of minor consequence; Others, like the problems of qualia and necessary identity are highly significant, and require serious attention.  However, in spite of the problems it faces, the identity thesis is capable of responding to those objections, and provides a coherent and logical philosophical position which can explain, and assist scientific researchers with a research program.




Bickle, J. (2008) ‘Multiple Realizability’ in E. N. Zalta, (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,Stanford University, [online], available:

Blackburn, S. (2008a) ‘necessary/contingent truths’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy,Oxford University Press, [online], available:

Blackburn, S. (2008b) ‘a priori/a posteriori’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy,Oxford University Press, [online], available:

Carrier, M. & Mittelstrass, J. (1995) Mind, brain, behavior : the mind-body problem and the philosophy of psychology, Berlin:Walter De Gruyter Inc.

Carruthers, P. (1992) ‘Mind and Brain’ in Introducing Persons: Theories and Arguments in the Philosophy of Mind,London: Routledge, 131-156.

Crane, T. (2003) The Mechanical Mind: A philosophical introduction to minds, machines and mental representation, 2nd ed., London:Routledge.

Heil, J. (2004) Philosophy of Mind: A contemporary introduction, 2nd ed., London:Routledge.

Kim, J. (2005a) ‘The identity theory of mind’ in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy,Oxford University Press, [online], available:

Kim, J. (2005b) Physicalism, or Something Near Enough, Princeton:Princeton University Press.

Kripke, S. (1981) Naming and Necessity, Oxford:Blackwell.

Kripke, S. (1983) ‘Identity and Necessity’ in S. Davis, (ed.) Causal Theories of Mind: Action, Knowledge, Memory, Perception, and Reference Berlin: Walter De Gruyter Inc.

Livingston, P. M. (2004) Philosophical History and the Problem of Consciousness, New York:Cambridge University Press.

Lowe, E. J. (2004) An introduction to the philosophy of mind, Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Moser, P. K. & Trout, J. D., (eds.) (2005) Contemporary materialism: a reader, London:Routledge.

Nagel, T. (2005) ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ in S. Cahn, (ed.) Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology,2nd ed.,  Oxford University Press, [online], available:

Papineau, D. (2008) ‘Kripke’s Proof That We Are All Intuitive Dualists’, London Philosophy Papers,  available:

Ravenscroft, I. (2005) Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide, New York:Oxford University Press.

Skokowski, P. (2007) ‘Is The Pain In Jane Felt Mainly In Her Brain?’, The Harvard Review of Philosophy, 15, 58-71.

Smart, J. J. C. (2011) ‘The Mind/Brain Identity Theory’ in E. N. Zalta, (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,Stanford University, [online], available:

Taylor, R. (2005) ‘The Mind as a Function of the Body’ in S. Cahn, (ed.) Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology,2nd ed.,  Oxford University Press, [online], available:

[1] A contingent truth is one that is not ‘necessary’; that is, it could have been different.

[2] a posteriori refers to the requirement for empirical experience to ascertain this knowledge, as oppsed to a priori knowledge which can be developed conceptually.

[3] ‘Strong’ and ‘Weak’ here are not value claims; instead they refer to a kind of purity; ‘Strong’ is the more ‘pure’ form, along with its ‘diluted’ counterpart; however this ‘dilution’ should not necessarily be considered negative.

[4] Leibniz’s law contends the identity of two entities implies the sameness of their properties – identity implies indiscernibility.

Change & Motion in Pre-Socratic Philosophy


The Pre-Socratic philosophers were involved in a search for the true nature of reality.  One of the questions they looked for answers to was the problem of change.  On one hand, change seems obvious; sensory experience provides ample evidence for change.  On the other, change is a denial of stable identity and knowledge.  The primary two philosophers who wrestled with this problem, Heraclitus and Parmenides, positioned themselves at opposite ends of a continuum; at one end, with change as a ‘constant’, there is Heraclitus, while at the other end, with a total unity, and only apparent change, there is Parmenides.  Through an examination of their remaining fragments, their arguments for, and against change will be highlighted, and some interesting similarities mentioned.  To close, a brief summary and evaluation will be presented.


Change is fundamental to Heraclitus’ system, however his thoughts are as interconnected as his theory.  To enable a full appreciation of his change doctrine, mention must be made of his epistemological stance and his views on ‘the one and the many’ (McKirahan, 2010, p. 129).  This will proceed into his discussion of change, and the Logos which orders it.

Heraclitus leans towards empiricism; he tells us that ‘All that can be seen, heard, experienced – these are what I prefer’ (DK22B55, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 115).   The correct use of the senses can provide useful information, which must then be analysed through the understanding of the Logos.  This is because some, even after they have heard the truth, are like the deaf; they fail to comprehend (DK22B34, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 114).  Sensory experience must be supplemented through the Logos, which is ‘common’ to all, just as thinking is. (see DK22B2 & DK22B113, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 112, 114).  To speak with understanding, one must rely upon this Logos (see DK22B114, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 117).

‘Listening ….. to the Logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one’ (DK22B50, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 116); however this unity is not a simple one.  It is a unity comprised of many interconnected parts, and can be separated and re-formed.  Things taken together are whole and not whole, <something that is> being brought together and brought apart, in tune and out of tune; out of all things there comes a unity and out of a unity all things’ (DK22B10, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 116).  While it is important to see the diversity in the nature of things, it is just as necessary to see the unity which underlies it.  Likewise, it is important to see the diversity within the apparently unified whole.  These connections are not always obvious, however this does not deny their power (see DK22B54, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 117).

This unity in diversity concept is highlighted in several statements made by Heraclitus.  Whilst seeming to be contradictory, by looking for the unapparent connections, through changing perspective, the unity becomes apparent.  While ‘the road up and down is one and the same’ appears contradictory, by understanding it in context of perspective between two places, the contradiction dissipates, and the unity becomes clear.

Heraclitus also brings the world’s dichotomous nature to the fore.  Without knowledge of injustice, it would be impossible to understand what justice is.  Without disease, health would be unappreciated; without hunger, satiety would be meaningless (see DK22B23 & DK22B111, in McKirahan, 2010).  This is not just a feature of language; it is a fundamental opposition driving change.  All things come to be through opposition, though a constant, equal exchange like ‘… goods for gold, and gold for goods’ (DK22B80, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).  This is a constant feature of the cosmos; ‘… the ever-living fire is kindled in measures and extinguished in measures’ (DK22B30, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120), just as the turnings of the cycle of elements are exchanged for one another, in the same ratios  (DK22B31, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).  This constant war of all things is entirely necessary (DK22B80, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).

This constant cycle of change and motion, with opposites constantly vying for supremacy, is epitomised in Heraclitus’ river fragment ‘Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow’ (DK22B12, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 118).  While the identity of the river is somewhat constant, this quote suggests that the rivers very identity relies upon the constant flow of water.  The river could not actually be a river if it was not constantly in motion (Kirk & Raven, 1957, p. 194).

The change Heraclitus sees has both randomness and order.  While ‘the most beautiful kosmos is a pile of things poured out at random’ (DK22B124, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 117), there is an underlying unified order, the Logos.  The logos, therefore, also represents Heraclitus’ ultimate metaphysical principle, in addition to being an epistemological one.  It is an incarnation of ‘the ever-living fire’, the true nature of the soul, the ultimate power, and the law which judges (DK22B66, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 120, 141).

For Heraclitus, then, the cosmos is in a constant and dynamic cycle of change and motion.  However this view was challenged by the arguments put forward by Parmenides, who considered rational thought to be superior to sensory experience.  This rationalism led him to the belief that there was no becoming, only ‘what-is’, which remained static.


Change and motion are impossible for Parmenides.  To understand why, his epistemological position must be considered, along with his distinction between reality and the world of appearances.  Then his argument on the true nature of reality will be presented, leading into a discussion of his argument against change and motion.

Parmenides rejected the notion that the senses could be used to gain true knowledge, which places him firmly with the rationalists.  He considered the senses to be a source of illusion, causing the ‘real world’ to appear different to its actual nature.  His goddess warns him not to follow the path which his senses lead him, as this will send him to the path of mortal opinion, instead of Truth.  For truth, he must ‘not let habit, rich in experience, compel [him] along this route to direct an aimless eye and an echoing ear and tongue, but judge by reason the much contested examination spoken by me. (DK28B7, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147).  This is not a typical goddess; he is not asked to blindly follow her dictates, but instead is required to critically evaluate the reasoning she provides, and judge by reason.

The path travelled by sensory experience is the world of appearances, to be understood as the ‘mere opinions of mortals, in which there is no genuine conviction’ (DK28B1, in Smith et al., p. 31).  This route allows all manner of incorrect assumptions, including the belief that it is possible to know ‘what is not’.  However, it is impossible to ‘know what is not […] [or] declare it’ (DK28B2, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 146, 154).  Instead of this path, he is told he should follow truth.

The truth is ‘that what-is is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, unique, steadfast, and complete’.  It has no beginning, nor end, because this would require it to come from ‘what is not’, that is, nothing; there is also no reason for it to begin at one time, as opposed to any other (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147).  These comprise the first components of the argument against genesis, that ‘nothing comes from nothing’, and an early form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.  Parmenides’ goddess follows this up with the impossibility of generation; since if something came to be, then this would mean there was a time where it did not exist, and would require creation ex nihilo.  This argument can be summarised as follows:

  1. Nothing can come to be or cease to be
    1. If it did, must be a time when it did not exist
    2. If it did not exist at a prior time, it must have been created from nothing
  2. Ex nihilo nihil fit (nothing comes from nothing)
  3. There is no sufficient reason for anything to begin at any one time, as opposed to any other
  4. what-is is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, unique, steadfast, and complete

The goddess goes on to claim that this totally unified reality is indivisible, because it is entirely the same as everything else.  There is no space, no gaps; ‘what is draws near to what is’ (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147) and it is motionless, ‘without starting or ceasing’ since without a coming to be, or passing away, there is no change; and motion is essentially a type of change.  This is essentially the refutation of change and motion; it could be standardised as follows:

  1. There can be no change
    1. Change implies difference from one time to another
    2. There is no difference, it is entirely the same, and indivisible.
  2. There can be no movement
    1. Movement implies a ceasing to be (in one place) and a coming to be (in a different place)
    2. There is no space within ‘the limits of great bonds’ (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147)

This leads us to the conclusion that change and motion cannot exist, since they entail difference and a ceasing to be of one kind, and a coming to be of a different kind.  This is impossible, because Being is inviolable (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147), and genesis is impossible from nothing (Kirk & Stokes, 1960).


From the outlines above, the differences between these two accounts of change are highly visible, though it makes it easy to draw the conclusion that Heraclitus and Parmenides have nothing in common. However they do have some commonalities, even if they use these towards opposite ends.  Two similarities which become apparent are the distinction between appearance and reality, and the necessity of the conservation of mass and energy.

Firstly, both Heraclitus and Parmenides drew a distinction between appearance and reality. Heraclitus found that ‘humans are like the inexperienced’ when trying to understand him, and the Logos (DK22B1, in McKirahan, p. 112), just as they are unable to grasp how a bow, ‘though at variance with itself, it agrees with itself’ (DK22B51, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 116).  This is similar to the conception found in Parmenides Proem, where his Goddess tells him that there are different conceptions of reality; a ‘Truth’, and the way of mortal opinion (DK28B1, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 145,146).  This is compounded by the lack of judgement that the mortal ‘hordes’ have, in their inability to use reason (DK28B6, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 146).

Secondly, Heraclitus and Parmenides both appear to agree with an early conception of the ‘law of the conservation of mass and energy’, though they take this concept towards opposing ends.  Heraclitus uses the idea of conservation several times; firstly with the notion that the elements are transformed in accordance with the measured ratio of its quantity prior to transformation (DK22B31, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120), and secondly, that the cosmos is kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures (DK22B30, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).  While all things change, or are transformed, these are done in equivalent measures.  Parmenides, on the other hand, uses the concept of conservation to argue against generation or perishing.  With the unspoken premise that there is something which exists, any generation or perishing would mean creation ex nihilo, or perishing into what-is-not.  Since Parmenides believes he has provided strong reasons for discounting these possibilities, the essential unity of being must be conserved eternally, and so discounting any possibility of change or motion.


There are substantial difficulties in analysing the Presocratics, not least the fragmentary nature of their writing.  Heraclitus and Parmenides each offer individual challenges, with the lack of explicitness in their writing, it becomes possible to put forward various alternative interpretations.  However, their contribution to science and philosophy has been profound.  They presented new ways of thinking, highlighting the ways in which the world is viewed, and forcing a reinvestigation of those beliefs.  They challenge all of science and philosophy to account for their findings, and the fact that these ideas, in some respects, are still relevant to ongoing discussion on the possibility of change after more than 2000 years is testament to their worth.




Curd, P. (2009) ‘Parmenides and After: Unity and Plurality’ in M. L. Gill & P. Pellegrin, (eds.), A Companion to Ancient Philosophy, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 34 – 55.

Curd, P. & McKirahan, R. D. (2011) A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia, 2nd ed.,  Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Co.

Graham, D. W. (2008) ‘Heraclitus: Flux, Order, and Knowledge’ in P. Curd & D. W. Graham, (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 169 – 188.

Kirk, G. S. & Raven, J. E. (1957) The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection Of Texts, London: Cambridge University Press.

Kirk, G. S. & Stokes, M. C. (1960) ‘Parmenides’ Refutation of Motion’, Phronesis, 5 (1), 1 – 4.

McKirahan, R. D. (2010) Philosophy before Socrates: An Introduction with texts and commentary, 2nd ed.,  Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Co.

Roochnik, D. (2004) Retrieving the Ancients: An Introduction to Greek Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Smith, N., Allhoff, F. & Vaidya, A. J. (2008) Ancient Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary, Blackwell Readings in the HIstory of Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.



Hume vs. the Rationalists

For referencing Hume’s work, I have adopted what appears to be the standard form of paragraph notation, with the letter ‘T’ (for the Treatise) or ‘E’ (for the Enquiry) along with the paragraph number where available.


Hume’s ‘empirical project’ was an attempt to dispense with uselessly abstract rationalist metaphysics which posited ideas beyond what could reasonably be known, and encourage a new ‘science of man’ to replace it.  The key part of this project was to support sense-experience as the source of knowledge about the world, in direct opposition to claims of the rationalists who appeal to innate and a priori knowledge of the world.  The implications of Hume’s project had far reaching effects, particularly highlighted in relation to Hume’s attack on the notion of causation.  First, there will be a brief discussion of Hume’s ‘empirical project’, and its position in the Rationalist vs. Empiricist divide.  This will be followed by Hume’s theory of ideas. Finally, we will consider Hume’s arguments on causation, considering the radical change from the rationalist position.

Hume’s Empirical Project, and Rationalism vs. Empiricism

Hume’s ‘empirical project’ was a reaction against rationalist metaphysics.  The crux of the debate was over epistemology; the nature of our sources of knowledge.  It is a question about how we know certain propositions. A Rationalist view generally considers it possible that some knowledge is certain and immutable; because some, or all of our knowledge can be discovered ‘a priori’, without experience, whether this is ‘innate knowledge’, ‘innate concepts’ or through ‘intuition [and] deduction’ deduction’ (Markie, 2012).  Consider Descartes’ innate ideas of himself as a thinking thing, as well of his idea of God (Descartes, 2008, pp. 18, 37).

However, Hume considered the Rationalist argument to be generally inconsistent, and sometimes completely incompatible (Dicker, 1998), even though this knowledge was supposed to be known beyond doubt, a priori.  Instead of this ‘false’ metaphysics (E, S1.12 Hume, 2007), Hume proposed a new ‘science of human nature’ (E, S1.1) which would provide satisfaction in knowing what it is possible to know (E, S1.13) but also would curb the excesses of the ‘abstruse philosophy’ which has ‘sheltered… superstition’ (E, S1.17).  This would be an empiricist view, which did not rely upon these notions, claiming instead that humans are essentially born as a ‘tabula rasa’ (Locke, 1690), a blank slate, upon which all knowledge is written by way of experience, ‘a posteriori’. As Scruton (2002) notes ‘there can be no concept except where there is experience’ (p. 123).  However, Hume goes even further, to argue that our beliefs in such things as causation, substance and self are purely inferences that we draw, rather than certain knowledge.  This has profound effects on the possibility of metaphysics as a discipline; Hume’s new science, should it succeed, would largely discard rationalist metaphysics. To begin his project, he considers the nature of experience, and the origin of our ideas.

Hume’s theory of ideas

We experience through perception: our perceptions of the mind are divided into two ‘species’ which are differentiated by their ‘force and vivacity’ (E, S2.3). ‘Impressions’, the more forceful of our perceptions contain ‘all our sensations, passions and emotions’ (T, 1.1), whether they be ‘outward’ from sensation, or ‘inward’ from reflection. while ‘Ideas’ are the ‘less lively perceptions’ belonging to the memory or imagination that we are conscious of when we reflect upon impressions (E, S2.3).  Both ‘species’ can be further subdivided as simple, that ‘admit[s] of no distinction nor separation’ (T, or complex, formed from two or more simple ones, and can be ‘distinguished into parts’ (T,; see also Merrill, p. 32).  Following from this, Hume sets as his ‘one general proposition, that all our simple ideas in their first appearance are derived from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent’ (T1.1.1.7 in Hume, 2009).  This is often called the ‘copy principle’ (Fieser, 2011; Morris, 2009), in that simple ideas are ‘copied’ from simple impressions.

Consider this piece of paper; the visual experience of deciphering shapes on the page, the tactile sensations from the feel of the paper in your hand.  Once you place it down, and are no longer directly experiencing the direct sense impression of the paper, you have the reflective capacity to form ideas in your mind of the paper, where you can bring back an image of the paper and recall these sensations.  In this case, you could even break down the idea you have of the paper into the particular ideas about its texture, colour and the ‘inward’ sensations of how you felt reading it.  You do not ‘experience’ ideas, they are memories of experience, and can be built upon in the imagination.  Perhaps you combine your idea of this paper, and your ideas of error, and create an idea in your imagination of this paper covered in red crosses! From multiple simple ideas, a complex idea has formed in the imagination, even though this object does not exist (yet).  However, the reverse is also true; by considering our ‘complex’ ideas, whether from memory or imagination, we can break them down into their component parts to find the ‘impressions’ from which they are derived.  It is through this method that Hume claims we can identify whether our ideas have meaning.

When we want to determine whether a term or concept has meaning, ‘we need but enquire, from what impression is that supposed idea derived?’ (E, 2.9) If we are unable to find its simple impression, then ‘this will serve to confirm our suspicion’ (E, 2.9) that they are meaningless.  Our ideas are not simply the materials of thought, but also the arbiters of meaning (Noonan, p. 93).

So, to consider the limits of human reason, Hume divides it into two categories.  The first, ‘Relations of Ideas’, concerned with definitions and mathematical-logical relations, allows some ‘intuitively certain’ knowledge.  However, this knowledge is limited in scope to demonstrable propositions which do not assert or imply the existence of ‘non-abstract identities’ (Dicker, 1998, pp. 36, 37, 39) because they simply show the relations between entities.  Consider mathematics; the proposition that 1 + 2 = 3, and we find that all this statement tells us is the relations between these three numbers (E, 4.1.1).  The second, ‘Matters of Fact’ are truths about the world which either assert or imply existence (Dicker, 1998, pp. 36, 37, 39); however these can only be obtained through experience.  That this keyboard will work this afternoon is a matter of fact; from considering that it is working as I type this, I induct from this the ‘fact’ that it will work later today; however this proposition can be falsified, because unlike the demonstrably true ‘relations of ideas’, there is no contradiction in this proposition.  This separation of ‘knowable propositions’ (Dicker, p. 36) has been termed ‘Hume’s fork’ (see Dicker; Merrill; Fieser).

These matters of fact are connected through various relations; our knowledge of the world relies upon assuming a regular ‘association of ideas’ (T, 3.8; E, 3).  This association of ideas centres around three ‘principles of connexion’ (E, 3.2) which allow for ‘transitions in thought … [and] explaining belief’ (Noonan, 1999, p. 73); ‘Resemblance’, where an impression prompts an idea of something which it resembles; ‘Contiguity in time or place’, where an impression prompts an idea of a further idea which was encountered at a similar time, or in a similar place; and ‘Cause or Effect’ (E, 3.2;  see also Noonan, 1999, p. 71).  The causal relation is the most important of these, because all of our reasoning concerning ‘matters of fact’ are founded on it, and it is the only one of the three relations which ‘can be traced beyond our senses and informs us of existences and objects, which we do not see or feel’ (T, 3.2; E, 4.4).  This brings us to our investigation of how Hume’s project radically shifted the understanding of causal relationships, against the rationalists.


The Rationalists had different conceptions of the nature of causality; Descartes’ takes it to be innate (Markie, 2012), Leibniz would present it as a form of ‘pre-established harmony’ between two ‘created’ substances (78, 79 in Leibniz, 2010; Bobro, 2009).  Both of these thinkers also allow for the interaction of their deity, which was also generally conceived to be the ‘first cause’.  What is common between them is that they all considered causal relations to ‘have an objective necessity’ that could not entertain doubt, as this notion did not come from sense-experience (Wilson, 2004, p. 267).  Hume, using his new theory of ideas, challenges: the possibility for innate ideas, through the empirical claims that ideas stem from experience, which determines its possible content; and also challenges the justification of causal relationships using ‘objective necessity’.  It is to this challenge on causal relationships that we now turn.

As discussed earlier, Hume claimed that all ‘matters of fact’ were grounded in experience, and depended on causal reasoning (E 2.2.14 in Hume, 2007, p. 23).  We also noted his claim that any attempt to go beyond the current contents of our sense experience requires considering the cause-effect relationship.  So, he endeavours to find the empirical evidence for our ‘knowledge’ of cause and effect.  Directly against the rationalists, he claims that we ‘know’ that a priori reasoning will not give us this knowledge (E, 4.6) since the effect is ‘totally different from the cause’ (E, 4.9).  With many different possible outcomes for any particular event, and no foundation for the preference of any particular outcome in ‘reason’, experience is required.  Any a priori attempt to ‘reason’ the effect from the cause without experience will mean inventing or imagining the event, and with nothing in the cause will be ‘entirely arbitrary’ (E, 4.11).

With the rationalists being denied innate ideas, and been dealt a strong blow to their understanding, Hume’s project continued.  Since the foundation of all reasoning concerning causal relations was experience, He wanted to know how it was that we come to our conclusions.  His answer was our experience of ‘constant conjunction’ of our ideas over a period of time (T,  However, while we may observe two events that occur in conjunction, there is no way for us to know the nature of their connection. Consider this essay once again; if its author had developed a complex idea of ‘red crosses on marked essays’, and was aware of a constant conjunction of events, whereby at each instance of an ‘essay submission’ event previously, the author received red crosses, the author may infer based on the submission alone, that this essay will also be returned with red crosses.  Hume makes this explicit as two propositions:

‘I have found that such an object has always been attended with such an effect, and I foresee, that other objects, which are, in appearance, similar, will be attended with similar effects’ (E, 4.16)

We often implicitly assume the ‘Principle of the Uniformity of Nature’ (Lorkowski, 2010), in that we expect tomorrow to be like it was today.  However, is not contradictory to conceive of a change because there is nothing implicit in the first object that makes it necessary for a particular effect. It is for this reason that Hume considers inductive reasoning, whereby we generalise a conclusion based on a particular, to be weak; it leads to what is often known as the ‘problem of induction’ (Lorkowski, 2010). Hume claims we have no reason to appeal to past experience, because

‘reason can never show us the connexion of one object with another, tho’ aided by experience, and the observation of their conjunction in all past instances … it is not determined by reason, but by certain principles, which associate together the ideas of these objects and unite them in the imagination’ (T,

Rather than good reasoning, Our notion of causation is actually a ‘custom or habit’ (E 5.6; E 7.30).  Our belief of causation is formed by ideas  becoming ‘enlivened’ (E, 5.15) by a new impression that bears a relation to it.  While this belief stems from our very nature (E, 5.22), it is unfounded and meaningless according to his verification principle.  In spite of all this, Hume allows that we can still use induction, like causation, to function on a daily basis as long as we proportion the effect to the cause without ascribing qualities in excess of what can be known (E, 11.12; 12.25; 12.26).


Hume’s empirical project presents a strong challenge to rationalist metaphysics, showing us that we are, perhaps, not as rational as we once supposed, and the world is not as ordered as we assumed.  While the rationalists offered certain knowledge, at least for their own ‘brands’ of rationalism, Hume’s empiricism requires us to be uncertain, and always being aware of our limits.  For Hume, the Rationalist metaphysics was unacceptably abstract, and, in their denial of sense-experience, were contradictory.  With causation being so heavily implicit in our daily life, realising that we are much more creatures of habit rather than ‘rational animals’ goes some distance to show that appeals by the Rationalists for ‘innate ideas’ and a priori knowledge are unfounded; our knowledge is neither sure, nor as well grounded as the rationalists have posited.


Bobro, M. (2009) ‘Leibniz on Causation’ in E. N. Zalta, (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,Spring 2009 ed.,  [online], available:

Descartes, R. (2008) Meditations on First Philosophy: with Selections from the Objections and Replies, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford:Oxford University Press.

Dicker, G. (1998) Hume’s Epistemology and Metaphysics: An Introduction, New York:Routledge.

Fieser, J. (2011) ‘David Hume (1711-1776)’ in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,[online], available:

Hume, D. (2007) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford:Oxford University Press.

Hume, D. (2009) A Treatise of Human Nature, The University of Adelaide Library [online], available:

Leibniz, G. W. (2010) The Monadology, Adelaide:The University of Adelaide Library.

Locke, J. (1690) ‘Book I: Innate Notions’ in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,[online], available:

Lorkowski, C. M. (2010) ‘David Hume: Causation’ in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,[online], available:

Markie, P. (2012) ‘Rationalism vs. Empiricism’ in E. N. Zalta, (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,Summer 2012 ed.,  [online], available:

Merrill, K. (2008) Historical Dictionary of Hume’s Philosophy, Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements, No. 86, Maryland:The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Morris, W. (2009) ‘Meaning(fullness) Without Metaphysics: Another Look at Hume’s “Meaning Empiricism”’, Philosophia, 37 (3), 441-454.

Noonan, H. W. (1999) Routledge philosophy guidebook to Hume on Knowledge, London:Routledge.

Scruton, R. (2002) A Short History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Wittgenstein, Routledge Classics, 2nd ed.,  New York:Routledge.

Wilson, F. (2004) ‘Empiricism: Principles and Problems’ in W. Sweet, (ed.) Approaches to Metaphysics,Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 265 – 300.


‘Sapere Aude!’ Kant and the Public/Private Distinction

“Sapere Aude! […] Have the courage to use your own reason!” (Kant, 1997, p. 83, my emphasis)

Kant is economical: In this short quotation, he indicts society, credits them with universal reason, and calls them to action. The quote suggests that every individual1 has the capacity for reasoning; they simply lack the courage and will to do so; this, according to Kant, implicates us in a ‘self‐incurred tutelage’ (p. 83). Kant presents Enlightenment as the escape from this immaturity; all that was required was the freedom to ‘make public use of one’s reason’ (p. 84). However, everywhere there were limits on freedom; some constraints were necessary to maintain public order. The acceptable, and useful constraints on freedom could be found within a distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’2 reason (pp. 84‐85). This distinction rests largely upon the degree of exclusivity, publicity, and emancipation from higher authority.

Kant sees society as immature, limiting itself to following the dictates of ‘benevolent’ authority figures who demand from ‘all sides, “Do not argue!” (p. 85), but adhere to ‘statutes and formulas’ without questioning (p. 84). Instead of developing their own abilities, they have abandoned them; they have allowed themselves to become comfortable and safe with ‘a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, [and] a physician who decides my diet’ (p. 83). Kant likens this acceptance to a herd of domesticated cattle, made dumb, placid and timid; afraid of a danger made to appear serious by the ‘guardians’ who wanted to retain their control (p. 83), yet in reality was considerably less. In this ‘easy’ life, there was no real need for an individual to exert their own will or their own reason; the road to an easy life only required the money to pay for it (p. 83). However, in this ‘easy’ life, there would be no way to ‘extend knowledge,[or] purify […] errors’ (p. 87), a condition which, according to Kant, would be a ‘crime against human nature’ (p. 87).

Kant did not impose a definition or rules for correct reason; this is viewed as an avoidance strategy; he did not want to provide a new ‘authority’ for society to follow, to inculate himself as another guardian. Instead, he was focused on encouraging the proper way to use our ‘natural gifts’ because true reform could not come from a ‘revolution’ (p. 84). Enlightenment must therefore proceed gradually because revolution merely replaced ‘old prejudices with ‘new prejudices’. This is why a single individual may not be extricated from dependence on their ‘benevolent guardians’ through this process, but the wider society could become more enlightened (p. 84).

Turning to Kant’s distinction between public and private reason, it is important to avoid being misled by these terms; ‘Public’ and ‘Private’ are used in specific ways. For Kant, ‘Public’ reasoning was used to highlight the open and inclusive nature of the reasoning process, the wide social network it was publicised to, and also necessity for the individual to be speaking in their ‘own voice’ (p. 86). Conversely, ‘private’ reasoning was closed and exclusive, in some ways limited in its publication, and was carried out as a subject to the will of another (p. 86). What is clearly seen here is a demarcation between the ‘modes’ or ‘roles’ which an individual has. In an Enlightened age, every individual will use both of these forms of reasoning dependent on their circumstances.

An individual using the ‘public’ form of reason stepped into the role of a scholar disassociated from their socio‐political milieu. Regardless of rank, this individual could openly criticise, discuss, and consider alternatives to policies and matters with which they were concerned. A citizen in this role would be active, and use their courage to provide the public with ‘all of his carefully tested and well‐meaning thoughts’ (p. 86) about errors being made. Private use of reasoning, however, was markedly different. This kind of reason is used within the constraints of an organisation, where you have a specific function within that organisation. Only those in charge have the capacity to determine process, and criticism or discussion is highly limited. While in this ‘private’ mode, citizens can think ‘what [they] will, but obey!’ (p. 85).

A similar dichotomy occurs with the publicity aspect. When utilising ‘public’ reason, the necessity for a broad audience is highlighted. Kant specifically highlights this using terms such as a ‘readership’, and a ‘society of world citizens’, and ‘the reading public’ (p. 85). Public reasoning aims at reaching the widest possible audience, specifically to encourage diverse opinions. There is also a sense here that Kant implies the capacity for publicity for posterity, with the unacceptability of unceasingly binding a society (p. 87). To the contrary, private reasoning limits its reach to a specific group, for a specific duration, and only while those within the binding of the institution remain.

The final and most important dichotomy occurs in the degree of emancipation from higher authority. For an individual to use public reason, requires them to be speaking from their ‘own person’. Contrast this with the conformity required by individuals limited to private reason, required to carry ‘out the orders of another’ (p. 86). Consider this in light of one of Kant’s typical examples, modified for these purposes. There exists a tax collector, call her Ann. Ann, using her capacity for ‘public’ reason, submits articles to various journals highlighting her understanding of the inconsistencies and inequality in a newly implemented tax regime. However Ann, in her position as tax‐collector has no capacity for arguing; she must accept her duty passively and obey the law as it currently stands.

For Kant, this ability to reason and argue, whilst obeying, is the epitome of enlightened behaviour. Through the individual act of courage by ‘throwing off the yoke of tutelage’, and free use of public reason, courage in others would be stimulated (p. 84). Through this engagement with others, giving and receiving cognitive challenge and through reflection and response to alternate viewpoints, all parties, including those who remain on the outside of the interchange, are provided the opportunity to progress in their path toward enlightenment.

In order to create a mature, enlightened society, it was necessary to have the courage to use the ‘natural gifts’ (p. 84) within all, rather than relying on various authority figures to simply tell us what is right, healthy or true. This is characterised as a social process of Enlightenment; a continual progression towards freedom, a means, as well as the end for human nature (p. 87). it was essential that the use of ‘Public’ reason was completely free, as the right, indeed the duty of society was to progress toward enlightenment (Kant, p. 87). However, constraints on ‘Private’ reasoning could be implemented without blocking public enlightenment, since one acts as a passive actor, a ‘cog in the machine’ (p. 85); this temporary constraint would be offset by their ability to use public reason.


Kant, I. (1997) ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment 2nd ed.,Trans. Lewis White Beck. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

1 Indications within the text suggest a gender-neutral reading is possible; this neutral reading could be challenged in conjunction with other work by Kant. This is a topic for a separate essay.

2 ‘Public’ and ‘Private’ reason used in this paper relate to Kant’s usage in Kant, I. (1997) ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment 2nd ed.,Trans. Lewis White Beck. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Metaphor: Davidson IS the analytic Nietzsche

Metaphor… Would a concept with any other name sound as deep, as meaningful?1 Though what is this depth, this meaning, which we understand in hearing a metaphor? Theories surrounding metaphor abound, and many exist on either side of a supposed analytic / continental divide. However, this divide often creates unfortunate misunderstandings and misrecognition of similarities. Consider the work of Davidson and Nietzsche; the accounts of metaphor expounded by both of these thinkers appear counterintuitive; on one hand, Davidson’s theory of ‘no separate meaning’ seems to miss the mark, and yet Nietzsche, with ‘everything is metaphor’ seems to go too far. Instead of assuming opposition, these thinkers will be considered, in order to find relevant similarities, particularly focusing on the meaning of metaphors, their truth, and their interpretation. These issues have seemed to present an insurmountable gap between these two theorists; if all language is metaphorical, and there is no ‘truth’, it would indeed appear that Davidson and Nietzsche could never be reconciled. However, while not fitting perfectly, they are not so far different as they have been portrayed. Perhaps through unpacking these theories, it will become possible to see that Davidson is the analytic Nietzsche; even if this metaphor is too strong, a new appreciation of these thinkers will be achieved.

Davidson ‘What Metaphors Mean’

Davidson is often criticised2 for his ‘causal’ theory of metaphor3. Under Davidson’s theory, metaphors are the ‘dreamwork of language’, in that they evoke thoughts and affects which come down to interpretation. Metaphors ‘mean what the words, in their most literal interpretation, mean, and nothing more’4. Contra ideas of metaphysical ‘Forms’, meaning is not found at an ‘ultimate or pure reality’5. Meaning, for Davidson, particularly with regards to metaphor, is grounded in the experienced world, and is triangulated between agents and objects. Metaphor, like language, is grounded in its use. Davidson is denying the existence of a message to decode, a ‘hidden meaning’ within a metaphor; Metaphors are non‐linguistic, in that it generates affect in the receiver, like a ‘bump on the head’6, forcing us to see something as another7. Metaphors are the sentences which prompt recognition of a resemblance between dissimilar things they cause the speakers and hearers to ‘see [something] as’ another, rather than ‘seeing that something is the case’8. This however, is not meaning; none of the affects can be found in the metaphor. As Davidson tells it, this is a ‘common error’, that of attaching the content and affect which ‘a metaphor provokes […] into the metaphor itself’9. Instead, he argues that “what metaphor adds to the ordinary is an achievement that uses no semantic resources beyond the resources on which the ordinary depends”10.

In order to ‘meaningfully’ communicate with one another, Davidson considers it is necessary to recognise a common language11, and usage; their most literal interpretation is a maximisation of agreement, a ‘principle of charity’12 between the sender and receiver. Davidson’s emphasis on ‘literal’ stems from his expectation that all sentences must have truth values. Davidson assumes that we initially try to interpret statements literally, expecting truth in our interactions, and when a statement is made which seems false, trivially true, or nonsensical, we search out a ‘hidden’ meaning. Since this, along with the general use of a phrase as a metaphor as ‘beyond literal’, metaphors are considered ‘false’; they usually affirm identity relations between disparate things, generally held to be unrelated. This distinction between literal and figurative language is important to Davidson, because without being able to contrast the usual, or literal understanding of a sentence, he claims that ‘all sense of metaphor would evaporate’13. He claims this because of two related features: active literal meaning, and the nonparaphrasability of metaphor. First, Davidson claims that the common meaning behind our phrases must remain ‘active’:

Whether or not metaphor depends on new or extended meanings, it certainly depends in some way on the original meanings; an adequate account of metaphor must allow that the primary or original meanings of words remain active in their metaphorical setting14.

Second, for Davidson, a ‘good’ metaphor cannot be paraphrased, because we find that ‘there is no limit to what a metaphor calls to our attention’15. Any attempt at paraphrase will fail to capture everything the metaphor brings to attention16. Also, by considering the non‐propositional nature of the metaphor content, there can be no singular, correct paraphrase. This, for Davidson, is the key reason why metaphors cannot contain ‘cognitive content’; if a metaphor truly gave information, then that information could be paraphrased into ‘literal’ or propositional language.

Nietzsche ‘On Truth and Lies in a Non‐Moral Sense’

Nietzsche describes the very act of being aware as a metaphorical process:

[A] nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is
imitated in a sound: second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping
of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one17

Metaphor is the ‘carrying over’ of words used in one sphere, to a different one. It gives us no knowledge; we have only the metaphors we create to express our interpretation of our subjective experience, what we see, and the ways in which we understand the world. However, we have forgotten that this is all that the representations of the world are. We tell ‘truths’ with metaphors. However, Nietzsche claims that this truth is simply:

A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms […]. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins 18.

In saying that truth is metaphor Nietzsche is saying that the truths we claim to know are simply inventions, substitutions that were made so long ago that they have been forgotten, and they are not actually part of some objective ‘reality’. Our language is seemingly unfit for articulating experience; our language cannot give us truths about an objective reality, to reach an understanding of a ‘thing in itself’19. Human understanding and knowledge is feeble, because it is man‐made; instead of understanding the nature of things, we are simply seeing a limited human perspective. The possibility of expressing ‘the correct perception’ of reality is impossible; all we are capable of is speaking ‘the usual metaphors’ if attempting to speak ‘truth’, or using rhetoric and persuasion through other metaphors. Truth is anthropocentric – objective truth is unattainable because there is always language, and humans in the way. Knowledge of ‘actual reality’ is impossible. However, this perspectivism is not without some alleviation of this; no single perspective is absolute, and yet some perspectives are better than others. it is possible to have a ‘better’ perspective, closer to ‘truth’, by submitting our impressions, and ideas to constant questioning and reinterpretation20 by ourselves and others:

There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival ‘knowing’; the more affects we are able to put into words about a thing, the more eyes, various eyes we are able to use for the same thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of the thing, our ‘objectivity’21

We form concepts based on our perspective, and claim knowledge of things as they really are. However, all our concepts are formed from metaphor; metaphors are ‘what the intellect presents as ‘truth’22, even though ‘[e]very concept originates through our equating what is unequal’23. We see one thing as equal to another and subsume the particular in generating universals. This also means, for Nietzsche, that there is no ‘literal’ language, or perhaps, avoiding dogmatism, that we are unable to know what is literal.

[W]e believe we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we only possess nothing but metaphors for things – metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities24.

For Nietzsche, concepts are formed through either omitting, or downplaying the differences between objects, as in the case of the leaf25, or the cherry‐picking of similarities between them, as in ‘analytic’ or ‘continental’ philosophers; leading to a word once ‘tied down to a single item is carried over and used to refer univocally to other items which are not identical with the original one’26.


In this analysis, I want to argue against the idea that Davidson and Nietzsche’s accounts of metaphor are antinomic. I would like to present some points toward bridging the gap between these two thinkers.

An area of contention between Davidson and Nietzsche is their apparent differences with regards to the status of metaphor; where Nietzsche claims all language is fundamentally metaphor, and Davidson requires there to be literal language. However, consider this more closely. What is it that Davidson requires of literal language? Davidson is claiming is that the meanings of words depend on common language, specifically how the words are used in a community of speakers. Davidson admits that there are a lot of ‘dead metaphors’27 that are subsumed into ‘literal’ language. In Nietzschean terms, he is referring to the speaking of ‘truths’ as ‘the usual metaphors’28. This is all Davidson actually needs; a pragmatic ‘truth’, a triangulation between a speaker and hearer, and the object of discussion29.

The matter of ‘Truth’ also concerns both of these thinkers, and is also held as a significant difference between Davidson and Nietzsche. Davidson presents a theory of metaphor which is based around ‘T Statements’ and ‘Radical Interpretation’30, suggesting that we can assign truth values to speech31, and further, that when attempting to interpret someone, we should use the ‘principle of charity’32; Nietzsche seems to consider any ‘truth’ difficult, bordering on impossible to achieve. However, this is an oversimplification of their views. While Davidson indeed does place truth as a cornerstone of this theory, this is not a ‘metaphysical’ truth, but instead a pragmatic one. Wheeler33 claims that while there is a necessity for truth conditions in Davidson, this is often overplayed; He considers Davidson’s position that truth need not be known34; it could be argued that the idea of truth being used is simply what passes for ‘truth’ in a community of speakers35. Nietzsche would have less of

an issue with this proposition, since what he was arguing against was the idea of ‘truth’ as a metaphysical ideal, an entirely objective ‘truth’ about a ‘thing in itself’36. Nietzsche holds that our language cannot provide any ‘absolute truth’37, and, since reality is mediated through human experience and language, anthropomorphic truth cannot be known to correspond to reality38. Seen above, his perspectivism, allows ‘better’ perspectives from a collection of perspectives, getting closer to the idea of objectivity.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism too, counts towards Davidsons idea of non‐paraphraseability leading to the impossibility of misinterpreting a metaphor. If we accept that all language is interpretation, a thesis both of these thinkers would accept, then perspectivism allows us to understand why one cannot paraphrase, or misinterpret a metaphor; the metaphor speaker has no control over the interpretation of the listener, and cannot determine what the listener will ‘hear’. While Davidson doesn’t necessarily accept perspectivism, he does accept the requirement for triangulation, and operation under a ‘principle of charity’, assuming maximum agreement in translation, and indeed, speech generally39. These would permit a measure of bridging between the two theorists, allowing common ground from which to build.

The objective behind this essay was to take the usual opposition of these two thinkers and attempt a bridging of the apparent ‘analytic/continental divide’. The metaphor I began with was ‘Davidson is the analytic Nietzsche’; while obviously a metaphor, in an essay on metaphor, it is worth clarifying that it is not intended that this be taken literally, in claiming identity relations between Davidson and Nietzsche; neither is ‘cherrypicking’ intended, as was alluded to in Nietzsche’s explanation of concept formation. Instead, the objective was to show that the constant opposition put forward often swings too far in the opposite direction. The concepts ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ are as Nietzsche said – the equation of particulars into universals – which serve to both emphasise certain aspects, whilst hiding others. This essay has attempted to begin the process of balancing the viewpoints, and bring them together on the metaphorical ‘level playing field’, where we can indeed see Davidson as an analytic Nietzsche.

Word Count: 1846 (minus long quotations)


Davidson, Donald. “The Folly of Trying to Define Truth.” The Journal of Philosophy 93, no. 6 (1996): 263‐78.

———. “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Chap. 13 In Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

———. “What Metaphors Mean.” In On Metaphor, edited by Sheldon Sacks, 29 ‐ 45. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979.

Hinman, Lawrence M. “Nietzsche, Metaphor, and Truth.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 43, no. 2 (1982): 179‐99.

Malpas, Jeff. “Donald Davidson.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy edited by Edward N. Zalta Stanford: Stanford University, 2012

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition. Translated by Carol Diethe. edited by Keith Ansell‐Pearson Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

———. “On Truth and Lies in a Non‐Moral Sense.” Translated by Daniel Breazeale. In Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870s, 79 ‐ 97. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities P International, Inc., 1997.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, and Jacques Derrida. “Translators Preface.” Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In Of Grammatology. Baltimore, Maryland: JHU Press, 1998.

Wheeler III, Samuel C. Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Wheeler, Samuel C. “Language and Literature.” Chap. 7 In Donald Davidson, edited by Kirk Ludwig, 183 ‐ 206. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. 2nd ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963.

1 The allusion here, barely concealed, is to Shakespeare, well known for the use of metaphor.

2 Works by Lakoff & Johnson, cognitive linguistics, in addition to various philosophers with their own theories.

3 Jeff Malpas, “Donald Davidson,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, vol. Winter, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford: Stanford University, 2012 ),

4 Donald Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean,” in On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979). 30.

5 Samuel C. Wheeler III, Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 91.

6 Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean.”

7 This is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s ‘duck-rabbit’, in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963).Space precludes full discussion, however I would like to note that Wittgenstein could provide several bridges between Davidson and Nietzsche.

8 Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean.”

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Space limitations preclude a discussion of Davidson’s ‘Radical Translation’, which itself has some impact on metaphor interpretation.

12 Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

13 “What Metaphors Mean,” 32.

14 Ibid.

15 “What Metaphors Mean.”

16 Ibid.

17 Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870s (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities P International, Inc., 1997).

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Essay 3, 12; p.87.

21 Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 87.

22 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Jacques Derrida, “Translators Preface,” in Of Grammatology (Baltimore, Maryland: JHU Press, 1998).

23 Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense.”

24 Ibid.

25 “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” 83.

26 Lawrence M. Hinman, “Nietzsche, Metaphor, and Truth,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 43, no. 2 (1982): 187, 88.

27 Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean.”

28 Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense.”

29 Radical Translation, triangulation, in Malpas, “Donald Davidson.”

30 Ibid.

31 Samuel C. Wheeler, “Language and Literature,” in Donald Davidson, ed. Kirk Ludwig (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 186.

32 Malpas, “Donald Davidson.”

33 Wheeler III, Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy.

34 Ibid; see also Wheeler, “Language and Literature,” 186.

35 Donald Davidson, “The Folly of Trying to Define Truth,” The Journal of Philosophy 93, no. 6 (1996): 278.

36 Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense.”

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 Malpas, “Donald Davidson.” Space precludes full discussion of the implications of Radical Translation for this item.

Moral Responsibility In a Deterministic World?

Current thinking suggests that all events have causes; whether a god created the universe, or an unstable energy source led to a “big bang”, the universe that exists, has a cause. Likewise, it seems absurd to suggest that this essay, or the decision to write it, was uncaused; it seems plausible to trace the origin of this essay to its cause, and just as plausible to recognise the antecedent factors, and prior causes for that cause, continued ad infinitum. However, this leads to determinism, which incompatibilists consider antithetical to any notion of moral responsibility. To be ‘morally responsible’ for an event is to be an appropriate subject for praise or blame based on a decision to act in a certain way, in a particular situation.The incompatibilists claim there is no sense in which we can be held morally responsible in a deterministic universe, because both species of incompatibilism accept the requirement for categorical free will in an account of moral responsibility. However, moral responsibility can be preserved; a compatibilist would argue that an agent doesn’t require such a strong form of freedom, and further, that moral responsibility actually requires determinism. A discussion of the incompatibilist positions and terms will be provided, and then the requirements for moral responsibility will be discussed, and libertarian concepts challenged, finally highlighting the compatibilist solution.

First, consider determinism. Determinism is the incompatibilist thesis that, given the past and the laws of nature at any given time, there is only one possible future. However, it is also important to note that determinism is not the same as Fatalism, which suggests that certain events are ‘fated’, regardless of how humans act. In principle, determinism would allow, with all the relevant knowledge, a prediction of all the effects from any action, including human behaviour.

[I]f, as we say, determinism is true – then our actions, as physical events, must themselves be determined. […] [O]ur every deed and decision is the inexorable outcome, it seems, of physical forces acting at the moment, which in turn is the inexorable outcome of the forces acting an instant before, and so on, to the beginning of time.

The reasoning at work is just that of cause and effect, which is essential to the conduct of daily life. Determinism is largely assumed; if someone is deliberating between choices, then they are usually considering the options in light of the outcomes of each choice; they assume particular results to follow from those actions. If the world did not follow general laws, there would be much less capacity to deliberate on choices, because the outcomes would be more uncertain. The determinist, however, sees this progression of causes to effects to be incompatible with moral responsibility, because it sees determinism as undermining the required kind of freedom to act, and the required kind of ownership of action.

Libertarians agree that there is an incompatibility between moral responsibility and determinism; their response is, instead of denying responsibility, to claim that humans are free, in the important sense, and so determinism must be false. The kind of freedom and ownership of action required for incompatibilists is categorical; it requires the ability to have ‘done otherwise’ with the same input conditions, and the capacity to be the ultimate source of our actions. According to this view, people are free to choose from ‘a garden of forking paths’; we are sufficiently indetermined to allow us the capacity to choose between genuine options. If the clock could be reset, the exact same preconditions could have generated a completely different choice; this is the ‘principle of alternate possibilities’. Further, it is claimed that people, in spite of not having a choice of social environments or genetics are sufficiently originative; free choices and actions are ‘self-forming’, allowing ultimate responsibility. At least some choices in life must be free, with ‘no processes or forces at work’ before the choice that made it inevitable that it would be made in a particular way.

Two conditions are seen as required for moral responsibility; ‘control’ conditions which set out the requirements that an agent is are able to control their behaviour, and a ‘knowledge’ condition, which sets forward that an agent must know of the responsibility, and see the connection with their behaviour. To demonstrate these conditions, consider university study: it is widely known that in order to succeed at university study, a student must study and submit assignments; a lack of study is ‘known’ to cause particular effects (low grades, failures). Ostensibly, one enters university in order to succeed to some degree, so it seems that to enter university obligates one to study. These points fulfil the knowledge condition. However, if one didn’t know study was required, or didn’t realise their lack of study would have particular effects, then their responsibility would be diminished.

Additionally, a university student seems ‘obviously’ capable of a free, (and for libertarians,) undetermined choice between at least three options: To work hard, to do the bare minimum, or to do nothing. This is the expectation of ‘control’. Besides the causal outcome of each of these options, this student might receive praise for being ‘hard working’, ambivalence for doing the minimum, and blame for doing nothing. The ‘moral’ judgement which attaches appears to be based on which option was taken. However, if the same university student had a gun pointed at their head, with the order to refrain from their work, presumably they would not be an appropriate subject for blame, because they had ‘no other choice’. The outcome would simply be determined by their situation. Moral responsibility appears to depend on the capacity to choose between alternative options; an agent must be able to do otherwise. However, if Determinism is true, then no agent could do otherwise than they did.

The compatibilist responds to these issues. Firstly, It can be argued that even without the capacity to do otherwise, an agent can still be held morally responsible for their actions. Consider ‘Frankfurt’ examples; these examples highlight that even without alternative options, we would still hold people morally responsible for their actions. Consider the aforementioned university student; Imagine the student was unknowingly implanted with a computer chip that allowed a mad scientist to control their actions. The mad scientist doesn’t want the student to do their work; while sure that the student will follow their lazy nature, the chip is insurance. If the student decided to do their study after all, the chip would activate, causing the student to change their mind. However, the chip never gets activated – this student chooses not to study. Even though the student didn’t have any other choice, this student still appears morally responsible for their actions; the capacity to ‘choose otherwise’ must not be a sufficient one.

Additionally, the idea of a ‘free choice’ in the sense of an ‘undetermined’ choice is not really going to do the work that a libertarian wants. If a choice is undetermined, in the strong way a libertarian holds it to be, then this choice will be little more than chance, and not the controlled decision we expect for moral responsibility. Responsible decisions are made based on the information at hand, with an understanding of the situation, and an agents’ place in it; if a choice was made without reference to an individuals goals, history and knowledge, then there is no reason to expect a random event to present the moral choice.

The Libertarians can take this further, with their ‘origination’ requirement; perhaps if undetermined choices cannot alone satisfy for responsibility, then perhaps the notion of ultimate origination will. According to Kane, a person develops their character through ‘self-forming’ choices, which give them grounding to be the ‘ultimate originator’ of their actions, giving them complete control over choices made from that ‘self-formation’. However, the compatibilist would argue against the capacity for origination; the kind of control which this demands is inexplicable, tantamount to a miracle.

Libertarian views on the requirements for moral responsibility are incoherent, and, according to Stace, are actually simply based on a ‘semantic problem’. Free will is required for moral responsibility, but free will is not what the incompatibilists claim. Free doesn’t mean undetermined, the opposite of free isn’t determined, it is ‘constrained’. Consider this current essay. Surely there is freedom to choose to continue reading, or choose to stop. Presumably there are no external constraints or internal compulsions, and therefore the decision is completely your own, whether this is a deterministic universe or not. The fact that all actions have causes does not imply coercion; a free act comes from psychological states in the agent. This means moral responsibility remains open because actions are free if they are voluntary, that is, where they stem from the individual, and their beliefs and wants, rather than coercion from outside.
The agent could have performed a different action if they chose to, and so their choice determines their moral responsibility, even if antecedent conditions would need to be different in order to make a different choice.

Since moral responsibility requires knowledge, of both the situation, and the agent’s place in it, and a degree of control over the action, then moral responsibility can be preserved in a deterministic universe. Free action does not require the incompatibilist version of freedom, which shows in the account above as insufficient, incoherent, and even impossible; it only requires the capacity to act in accordance with the knowledge requirement, and according to voluntary acts stemming from the individual.