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What properties of a thesis make it defensible

Theorizing Ethical Supervenience Many philosophers hope to make significant arguments about ethics using ethical supervenience as a premise. However, there are many distinct ethical supervenience theses that philosophers might be interested in.

Understanding the differences between these theses can help to clarify which of them deserve our allegiance. It is also important because different supervenience theses will support quite different arguments about ethics.

To begin, it is worth briefly characterizing certain core features of supervenience relations, as they are now standardly understood in metaphysics see, e.

Supervenience relations are typically understood as relations between pairs of classes of properties. Consider the claim that a certain class of properties—the A-properties—cannot vary without the B-properties also varying. In this claim, we can call the A-properties the supervening properties, and the B-properties the subvening or base properties. Supervenience what properties of a thesis make it defensible are covariance relations that have three logical features: The claim that supervenience is reflexive means that every set of properties supervenes on itself: The claim that supervenience is transitive means that: The claim that supervenience is non-symmetric means that supervenience is compatible with either symmetry A supervenes on B and B supervenes on A; as in the case of the ethical and itself or asymmetry A supervenes on B but B does not supervene on A; as may be the case between the biological and the microphysical.

For example, for a time it was quite common both in metaphysics and in ethics for supervenience to be assumed to be or to be used as a proxy for an asymmetrical dependence relation. This is a point about terminological clarity, not a substantive barrier to discussing such asymmetric relations. It is no barrier to characterizing other relations that ensure asymmetry or explanatory power, if doing so is of interest.

  • Underneath the research question or aims, you'll see 'Argument' or 'Central narrative';
  • It is far from clear that we should accept all of these theses, and a substantive question how to assess each of them;
  • For more on logical truths, see the entry on logical truth.

For example, one could name the asymmetric relation that holds when A supervenes on B but B does not supervene on A. Or one could name the relation that holds when the supervenience of A on B is accompanied by an adequate explanation.

Thesis argument maps

More recently, many philosophers have suggested that a certain asymmetric dependence relation—grounding—is of central importance to our metaphysical theorizing. For discussion, see the entry on metaphysical grounding. Given the standard contemporary regimentation, however, supervenience claims state a certain pattern of covariation between classes of properties, they do not purport to explain that pattern, as a grounding or superdupervenience thesis would compare DePaul 1987.

This point is crucial to several arguments from ethical supervenience, as we will see below. These clarifying remarks put us in a position to introduce four central questions that can be used to develop alternative supervenience theses: How can we best characterize which properties the ethical properties supervene on?

Should we characterize the supervenience of the ethical in terms of facts about individuals, or about whole possible worlds? What is the modal strength of the supervenience relation? Thus far I have introduced ethical supervenience as a thesis about what there is; is it better stated as a commitment concerning combinations of our ethical attitudes? The next four subsections consider these questions in turn.

Before turning to these questions, it is worth briefly highlighting a different issue: A survey of the literature provides a variety of suggestions: Both the nature of each of these categories, and the relationship between them, are controversial.

For example, some philosophers will question the normative authority of morality, while others will think of normativity as a very broad tent, including any rule- or convention-governed activity, such as chess or etiquette. This entry will not explore these interesting issues. Instead, it will provisionally assume that the significance of supervenience is similar for each of these classes of properties.

For the sake of uniformity, the entry will focus on ethical properties throughout. Somewhat surprisingly, the idea of ethical supervenience can be made to seem plausible despite the fact that it is difficult to provide a characterization of what the ethical supervenes on that is at once uncontroversial and theoretically interesting see Section 5.

  • The remainder of this section examines some of these resources;
  • A natural question at this point concerns why such a grounding relationship holds;
  • A supervenience thesis can be made more precise along each of these dimensions, and together the options discussed in this section constitute a dizzying space of possible ethical supervenience theses;
  • Reflect on your overall thesis structure.

This section briefly sketches the options for characterizing what the ethical supervenes on, and some difficulties that these options face. The thesis used to introduce supervenience above—Initial—suggested that the ethical supervenes on the natural properties.

This is the most common way of characterizing ethical supervenience in the literature.

Thesis structures

However, there are at least two difficulties with this idea. The first difficulty is ambiguity: The second difficulty is that on many conceptions of the natural there will be counterexamples to Initial.


For example, many philosophers want to contrast natural properties with supernatural properties. Even if we assume that there are no actually instantiated supernatural properties, we might allow that such entities are possible. But this might in turn seem to suggest that two possible states of affairs could be naturalistically identical, but ethically different.

For example, they might be different because of ethically significant interactions between supernatural beings Klagge 1984, 374—5; for some complications see McPherson 2015, 134—5. This sort of worry might lead one to reject the common assumption that the ethical supervenes on the natural as misguided; instead, one might propose that the ethical supervenes on the non-ethical.

This might seem promising: However, there is an important worry about this way of characterizing the supervenience base compare Sturgeon 2009, 70—72which can be brought out briefly by example. Some philosophers are sympathetic to ambitious reductive hypotheses about ethics. On one such example, the ethical property of goodness is just identical to the property of pleasantness. Because identicals have all of the same properties, this would entail that pleasantness is an ethical property.

  • Because ascriptive supervenience theses are about judgments rather than relations between classes of properties, they are quite different from the ontological supervenience theses we have considered thus far;
  • Underneath the research question or aims, you'll see 'Argument' or 'Central narrative';
  • There are several possibilities, of which four are worth emphasizing;
  • Or one might think that all ethical truths are grounded in certain fundamental ethical truths that are relational;
  • Languages are either inter-translatable and hence not radically different from ours, or incommensurable and beyond our ability to recognize them as languages Davidson 1974;
  • The general strategy can also be applied to the structural question:

Together, the points entail the conclusion that two worlds could differ from each other solely in an ethical respect: This is inconsistent with the supervenience of the ethical on the non-ethical, but it is not clear that we should be prepared to dismiss out of hand the assumptions that generate this conclusion. This might in turn lead us to think that there can at least be reasonable controversy concerning the supervenience of the ethical on the non-ethical.

One can avoid this problem by proposing that the ethical supervenes on the distribution of all of the properties. But this formulation purchases plausibility at the price of triviality. Ethical differences are differences, so there can obviously be no ethical difference without some difference. In light of its triviality, this sort of supervenience thesis fails to identify anything in ethical supervenience that is of philosophical interest.

An influential alternative way of characterizing what the ethical supervenes on begins with a distinction in language. We can then ask about the relationship between the properties that are picked out by these two sets of predicates.

Frank Jackson has argued that this allows us to state an ethical supervenience thesis: However, the detour through language faces significant challenges.

Supervenience in Ethics

One challenge concerns the expressive power of a language like ours: A second challenge questions whether the distinction between description and evaluation is characteristically a distinction in the semantic properties of various of our predicates, as Jackson assumes.

On one contrasting view, evaluation might instead characteristically be a pragmatic property of whole speech acts see Sundell, ms. In the face of these difficulties, some philosophers have sought to develop accounts of the base property that are substantive enough for ethical supervenience to do dialectical work, but avoid some of the difficulties just sketched.

For example, it has been proposed that the ethical supervenes on the non-ethical or descriptive Ridge 2007. And, in the context of discussing arguments concerning supervenience and non-naturalism, it has been proposed that the ethical supervenes on the set of properties that are not ethical properties as those are understood by the non-naturalist McPherson 2012. As this brief survey makes clear, it is not yet entirely clear how to characterize what the ethical supervenes on, in a way that makes the ethical supervenience thesis both plausible and theoretically interesting.

Now that the difficulties here have been made clear especially by Sturgeon 2009this is an important potential locus for future research. For our purposes, it will be convenient to distinguish four of the most influential formulations. The literature on supervenience contains several other variations; see the entry on supervenience for an excellent introduction, from which this entry adopts some of the formulations below.

That entry also has very helpful discussion of the contrast between supervenience and certain other metaphysical relations with which it is often associated. The contrast between supervenience and the closely-related notion of entailment, discussed in section 3. One important structural distinction concerns whether a thesis concerns the properties of individuals individual supervenience thesesor is cast in terms of the character of whole possible worlds global supervenience theses.

The ethical properties globally supervene on the base properties just in case: For any [possible] worlds w1 and w2, if w1 and w2 have exactly the same world-wide pattern of distribution of base properties, then they have exactly the same world-wide pattern of distribution of ethical properties cf. Individual supervenience theses are so-called because they explicitly state patterns of instantiation of properties by individuals rather than across whole possible worlds.

Individual supervenience theses are distinguished depending on whether the covariation they claim is localized within a single possible world weak individual supervenience thesesor extends across a set of possible worlds strong individual supervenience theses. The ethical properties weakly supervene what properties of a thesis make it defensible the base properties just in case: Necessarily, if anything x has some ethical property F, then there is at least one base property G such that x has G, and everything that has G has F cf.

The ethical properties strongly supervene on the base properties just in case: Necessarily, if anything x has some ethical property F, then there is at least one base property G such x has G, and necessarily everything that has G has F cf. The crucial difference between Strong and Weak supervenience is the second necessity operator in Strong: To make the difference here vivid: By contrast, strong supervenience states that there is some base property that covaries with rightness in every possible world.

Consider another important individual ethical supervenience relation, inspired by Brian McLaughlin 1995, 24 but stated less technically: If two possible entities are alike in all base respects, they are alike in all ethical respects. However, Section 2 below will show that if we reinterpret the modalities involved, these theses will no longer be equivalent.

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However, one can use such talk to discuss importantly different modal standards: The aim of this section is to briefly orient readers to the general ideas associated with each of these notions. To begin, consider some examples: All bachelors are bachelors Nothing can travel faster than light Atoms of gold contain 79 protons Pain is bad On one traditional gloss, a sentence is logically necessary if it would remain true given any uniform and grammatically legitimate reinterpretation of the non-logical expressions of that sentence.

Sentence 1 is a promising example: For more on logical truths, see the entry on logical truth. By contrast, 2 is not a logical truth: However, 2 is a promising candidate to be conceptually necessary.

Sentence 2 is a traditional example. The notion of analyticity is famously controversial; for discussion, see the entry on analytic-synthetic distinction.