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Logical and Epistemic Foundationalism About Grounding: The Triviality of Facts and Principles


In this paper, I seek to undermine G.A. Cohen’s polemical use of a metaethical claim he makes in his article, ‘Facts and Principles’, by arguing that that use requires an unsustainable equivocation between epistemic and logical grounding. I begin by distinguishing three theses that Cohen has offered during the course of his critique of Rawls and contractualism more generally, the foundationalism about grounding thesis, the justice as non-regulative thesis, and the justice as all-encompassing thesis, and briefly argue that they are analytically independent of each other. I then offer an outline of the foundationalism about grounding thesis, characterising it, as Cohen does, as a demand of logic. That thesis claims that whenever a normative principle is dependent on a fact, it is so dependent in virtue of some other principle. I then argue that although this is true as a matter of logic, it, as Cohen admits, cannot be true of actual justifications, since logic cannot tell us anything about the truth as opposed to the validity of arguments. Facts about a justification cannot then be decisive for whether or not a given argument violates the foundationalism about grounding thesis. As long as, independently of actual justifications, theorists can point to plausible logically grounding principles, as I argue contractualists can, Cohen’s thesis lacks critical bite.

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  1. This paper was written before the publication of Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality (2008). So far as I can see, nothing of any significance has changed. I refer to the earlier papers throughout.

  2. Cohen talks about constructivism in Facts and Principles, where he means it to pick out views in which principles ‘gain their validity through being the output of a privileged selection procedure’ (Cohen 2003, p. 213). Since that deliberately leaves it open whether there is some deeper metaphysical explanation of their validity, I prefer to use the term contractualism.

  3. As such, then, it is the claim that justice is non-regulative and not the foundationalism about grounding thesis which is relevant to discussions about ideal and non-ideal theory, since those discussions are not about grounding but what one’s principles are supposed to regulate.

  4. This is complicated by Cohen’s acknowledgement of a personal prerogative of unspecified size which considerations of justice do not directly apply to (see for example Cohen 1992, p. 302). Since I do not actually address the justice as all-encompassing thesis here, this complication is not relevant.

  5. Cohen here says that the person ‘would affirm [the more ultimate principle] whether or not [they] believed [the factual claim]’ (Cohen 2003, p. 216: italics added). This must be wrong: it equivocates across Cohen’s later distinction between epistemic and logical priority (see Cohen 2003, p. 227). I discuss the case in more detail later in this paper.

  6. It is possible that this is problematic for Cohen. If the principle explaining why pain being bad means we should try and prevent it is tautological, then presumably the fact ‘pain is bad’ is definitionally equivalent to the fact ‘we should try to prevent pain’. Asking for a further principle to ground that equivalence, rather than expose it, might then be redundant. Cohen’s response here would presumably be that the fact is no longer a fact, but a principle. This might make the thesis at question metaphysically controversial though.

  7. Cohen states ‘I will find [holism] challenging only if the contemplated opponents are able to provide an illustration of how a change in one’s view of a principle can alter one’s belief about the sort of fact that they think supports principles’ (Cohen 2003, p. 224, his italics). Surely showing a change in one’s view of a principle ought to alter one’s belief about the sort of fact supports principles on Cohen’s own view. This may be something to do with Cohen conceiving of holism as challenging the requirement that all chains of grounding must have a terminus. Instead, I would have thought that holists need to show that a change in the facts alter principles.

  8. It is possible that Cohen, in understanding holism as a thesis about logic and not justification, is equivocating across the logical-epistemic priority divide here as well. However, since I am not either an epistemologist or a metaphysician, I do not wish to press this point.

  9. The clarity of mind requirement Cohen uses (see Cohen 2003, p. 215) probably also equivocates across the distinction, since logical grounding is not sufficient for belief and so why I hold the normative beliefs I do will not be explicable using chains of syllogisms in the way Cohen seems to demand.

  10. I am not sure what to make of this idea. Surely if there are preceptor-independent moral values, they just are, and are not dependent on anything else.

  11. At the very least, in order to avoid this conclusion, Cohen would have to endorse some pretty controversial claims about what counts as fact.

  12. If utilitarians cannot talk about values other than utility. This is Cohen’s example (see Cohen 2003, p. 240).

  13. That is, the part of the rest of the paragraph from which the first statement is taken, and claims about utilitarianism and slavery (Cohen 2003, pp. 238–239).

  14. The fact that ‘justify’ and its cognates in that passage should be replaced with ‘grounds’ and its cognates just shows how pervasive Cohen’s equivocation over the distinction between logical and epistemic priority is.

  15. Without support, it would be an implausible ultimate principle, but all ultimate principles are implausible without support, and Cohen’s thesis says nothing about that kind of support.

  16. For example in Political Liberalism, Rawls describes the original position as a ‘point of view… from which a fair agreement between persons regarded as free and equal can be reached’ (Rawls 2005, p. 23).

  17. For example, see this description of the original position in A Theory of Justice: ‘the purpose of [its conditions] is to represent equality between human beings as moral persons, as creatures having a conception of their good and capable of a sense of justice’ (Rawls 1971, p. 19).


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Correspondence to Robert Jubb.

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I received the proofs of this paper on the day that G.A. Cohen died. Above all, I would like to note how much I owed him, not only as a source of intellectual clarity, admittedly usually through disagreement, but also as someone who gave far more time and support than I had any right to expect when I was first a graduate student. So much of what I have achieved, I would not have achieved without him. I should also acknowledge the support of the AHRC, who funded the doctorate which this paper is taken from and during which it was written, as well as my supervisor, Stuart White, who as ever a judicious critic. Likewise Patrick Tomlin. Earlier versions of the paper were presented at Pavia and Oxford, and I would like to thank the audiences there for their helpful comments.

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Jubb, R. Logical and Epistemic Foundationalism About Grounding: The Triviality of Facts and Principles. Res Publica 15, 337 (2009).

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  • G.A. Cohen
  • Facts and principles
  • Contractualism
  • Constructivism
  • Rawls
  • Justification