Raff Donelson: Being Pragmatic About Ethics

The Interviewee of the Month is Raff Donelson. Raff has recently completed both his PhD and JD at Northwestern University and is now Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University.


Hi Raff! Can you tell us why did you become a philosopher? And why did you start working on legal and moral philosophy?

Raff: My interest in becoming a philosopher began during my undergraduate days at Williams College.  I took my first philosophy course during my freshman fall.  It was a course on ethical issues in death and dying.  I was particularly interested because my Uncle Gregory died about a week before I matriculated at Williams and because my Aunt Carolyn, who I loved very dearly, was terminally ill.  I thought that taking the class would help me process these events, and it did.  Carolyn, who passed away after my first year at Williams, died in part because she needed a lung transplant.  That led me to write my honor’s thesis on organ transplantation.

Thus, the beginning and end of my philosophy experience as an undergrad were shaped and inspired by loss and grief.  Thankfully, however, my experience of philosophy has largely been one of bliss.  Like other philosophers, I like abstract thinking, solving puzzles, and feeling like I’m having conversations with great minds across time.  I also really like that philosophy is a big tent, where people do a vast number of things and have a wide array of skills; philosophy is a field that prizes being clever and deep, creative and methodical, iconoclastic and commonsensical.  I saw this even as an undergrad, and I was hooked.

I started my philosophical career, as it were, in moral and legal thought, and this is where I’ve stayed.  Why? Well, frankly, this is because I cannot shake the thought that moral and legal philosophy is the stuff that matters most.  My rule has been to read just enough history and M&E to be able to produce decent value theory.  Of course, as it turns out, that’s quite a lot!

You have done some work on the definition of Punishment. What are your views on the topic? In particular, can you tell us why do you think it is important to do philosophical work on the definition of punishment?

Raff: I have been at work fashioning a view of punishment that US courts can use when adjudicating constitutional provisions that implicate the notion of punishment.  In particular, I have argued that we should understand punishment to include (a) any sufficiently serious harm imposed by someone acting under colour of law with a retributive purpose and (b) any sufficiently serious harm that befalls a punished or incarcerated person if that harm is intentionally inflicted by those acting under colour of law or if the harm would have been prevented, had state officials exercised an ordinary standard of care.

I should be clear that the understanding of punishment I recommend is one I offer largely on pragmatic grounds. I have doubts about the existence of an abstract kind called punishment, about our epistemic access to such a thing, were it to exist, and about why that abstract kind should control our behaviour. For these reasons, it seems more productive to try to settle on an account of punishment which will enable courts to respond to the grave moral wrongs that accompany incarceration in the US.

This pragmatic stance you’ve taken in relation to the definition of punishment also seems to be present in other things you’ve written. Can you tell us what is the view you call ‘Ethical Pragmatism’?

Raff: Ethical Pragmatism is the view that we should carry on our practice of moral deliberation without attempting to discover first-order moral facts. The view is pragmatist in two senses. First, the view asks us to conceive of ethical inquiry as a non-descriptive (or non-mirroring) enterprise: an answer to a moral question is right, not insofar as it tracks reality, but insofar as it furthers our project of coping well with the world. Second, the arguments for Ethical Pragmatism are pragmatic: I argue for Ethical Pragmatism by trying to show that it would be bad or unhelpful to aim at discovering first-order moral facts.

I should also say that “Ethical Pragmatism” is also the name of my first paper defending this view. It was just published this past summer in Metaphilosophy.  In that paper, I offer just one reason for adopting Ethical Pragmatism. The argument is roughly this.

(1) If EP is wrong, we could have no reason to engage in moral deliberation over whether to φ if we knew the moral truth about whether to φ.

(2) [Elaborate thought experiment which shows that we could have reason to engage in moral deliberation over whether to φ even when we know the moral truth about whether to φ.]


(3) It is not the case that EP is wrong.

Two things: first, if ethical pragmatism is true, then I wonder how would we know if our project of coping well with the world is itself morally good? Given the characterisation of EP you’ve offered and assuming this is a moral question, it strikes me that the EP-tist’s answer would be circular. How would an EP-tist respond to this worry? Second, your argument for EP seems to suggest that there are cases where we might have reasons not to do what morality requires. Is that  right? And could you give  an example where you think this is the case?

Raff: I’ll take these questions in reverse order.  Yes, we might have reasons to refrain from doing what morality requires, depending on what morality requires. Picture that story from Genesis in which Abraham is commanded to kill his child. On one interpretation of that story, morality might require one to (intend to) kill one’s child when the child has committed no wrong, when there is no exigency, when no one would even benefit from the child’s death. If that situation were one that accurately reflected the moral facts, we would have reason to disobey.

Now, how do we know not to kill Isaac? Or more broadly, why should we feel assured that the ways we’ve found to cope with the world are really the good ones?  Is all we can say, “It looks good by my lights”?

In a certain sense, yes, that’s all we can say.  If we accept that, for any moral proposition p, p’s truth is not a dispositive consideration in determining whether to act in accordance with p – which is what the Isaac case should allow us to see – then we are floating free, left to our own devices, as it were.  If we become Ethical Pragmatists, there is no final court of appeals to tell us that our answers are good.

In another sense, no, we can say more than “Looks good to me.”  We can use all the tools moral philosophers have employed for ages to get beyond the parochial.  Once we have a particular judgment about how to cope with one bit of the world, we can test it.  We might use clever thought experiments. We might try to develop arguments for our judgment, to see if our judgment is entailed from premises that seem unassailable. We might consider how our moral heroes like Socrates, Kant, and Bentham would have viewed this judgment. All of these methods are ways of playing one of our judgments off another, and so, in the end, it is circular. But this is the best we have, whether we conceive of moral inquiry as truth-tracking or as coping with the world.

Any ongoing or future projects that you can tell us about?

Raff: I’ll briefly mention two projects. First, I’m currently at work on a new argument for Ethical Pragmatism. This argument focuses on the fact that we have lot of commitments about the logic of moral deliberation.  For instance, we think that if we judge that a moral state of affairs p supervenes upon a natural state of affairs q at t1 and if q remains true at t2, we should continue to judge that p at t2.  Do we have any ground for this besides a pragmatic ground?  I suspect not.

Second, I have a forthcoming piece about police violence against Blacks. I argue that we should understand the interaction between police and Blacks as a Hobbesian state of nature.

In your view, what are the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of pursuing an academic career in legal and moral philosophy?

Raff: The most rewarding part of a career in legal and moral philosophy is getting paid to do work that I find both interesting and socially useful. I get to think about cool things and help students to think, write, speak, and listen in a civil, sharp way.

The most challenging part of any academic career these days is the neo-liberalisation of the Academe, particularly in the US.

Any advice to those who are starting a career/graduate school in philosophy and to those who are just entering the job market?  

Raff: To those just starting out, I have two pieces of advice. First, read widely, including things that you don’t think you’re going to like. If you like Rawls, look at some anarchist thought. If you like Sartre, read some Davidson. If you like Aristotle, you might be irredeemable, but check out some Hume. You have your dissertation and really your whole life to become a specialist. But becoming a well-rounded and broadly educated philosopher is both an invaluable project and something that gets harder and harder to start as time goes by. Second, learn another living language well enough to read philosophy in that language.

If you’re on the job market, bon courage and celebrate every good thing that happens along the way.

When you are not doing philosophy…?

Raff: When I’m not doing philosophy, I’m usually doing law. When I’m doing neither, I like film, travel, pop science magazines, and playing cards and board games.

To finalise, could you list three books in philosophy that have influenced your views and two books outside philosophy that marked you in some significant way?


Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

  • Rorty’s book is the source of my anti-mirroring project both in ethics and in legal philosophy. He tries to show us that thinking of the task of inquiry as an attempt to mirror the world is optional and probably a fool’s errand with no chance of success. I’m still not as radical as Rorty, but I’m moving that way.

Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity

  • Sources is my favorite book in metaethics. What Korsgaard calls “the normative question” is a question that prefigures all of my work. Korsgaard essentially asks, supposing that there are non-trivial normative truths, what gives the normative domain the authority/justification to demand that we act in accord with those truths? (Korsgaard actually asks the question more narrowly, confining the inquiry to morality, but there seems to be no reason for cabining the question. For any alleged truth about what we should do, we can ask what justifies that truth’s claim to obligate us.) Korsgaard and I disagree about how to answer the normative question. While Korsgaard has a kind of voluntarist answer, I have a kind of negative answer. Korsgaard (in Sources) said that the source of the authority/justification of normative truths is the rational will. In fact, the rational will also makes all the normative truths that there are.  On my view, nothing could serve as the authority/justification of all normative truths. Normative truths, as such, do not have authority over us. Even though I have a negative answer to the normative question, I think it’s one of the most pressing questions in philosophy.  It was in asking it that I saw my way to the position I occupy today.

Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong

  • Mackie’s book is famous because of the arguments in the first half of the book. There one finds his famous arguments from queerness and from disagreement which are supposed to establish the truth of moral error theory, the view that our moral discourse commits us to moral properties that don’t exist, since there are no moral properties. Though I felt moved by Mackie’s arguments, I’ve always been struck even more by the structure of the book.  After he tells you that there are no non-trivial first-order moral truths, he then proceeds to tell you that we should do x, refrain from y, etc. Performatively, Mackie is telling us that ethical inquiry is worthwhile, even if there are no moral properties. This I endorse wholeheartedly.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

  • Bratya might be the greatest novel ever written. Its greatness owes to the fact that the basic plot is amazingly simple while its numerous, intricate subplots are brilliantly interwoven. When one adds to that the wonderful exchanges about God’s existence and the memorable characters – what else can a novel do? Since people of greater aesthetic sensibilities of spoken about the literary qualities of the work, I’ll just mention my favorite character. It’s the father, Fyodor Karamazov. I relate to him. Though he is a scoundrel at times, he’s funny, self-possessed, and doesn’t take himself too seriously. These qualities make him way better than Aloysha (who’s not funny), Mitya (who is not self- possessed), and Ivan (who takes himself far too seriously). The only character who is close to Fyodor is Smerdyakov. Fyodor is funnier, but I guess Smerdyakov had the last laugh.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

  • Reading this book first made me think that the American criminal justice system is indelibly stained with racism. The beating of Rodney King, the police trying to frame O.J. Simpson, the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, and even growing up as a Black man in America – none of this was enough to allow me to see this. Alexander’s powerful book offered a narrative that served to explain all of those things and more. Like Alexander says of herself before she began the book project, I was naïve. This book was my awakening.