June 6, 2012, by Jonathan

Michael Gove might benefit from doing some philosophy

One thing philosophers do well is draw distinctions. One of those distinctions is between justification and explanation.

One aspect of this distinction concerns the scope of these notions. Almost all events can be explained (this extends even, perhaps, to the Big Bang, see: A Universe From Nothing | Lawrence Krauss). Why did the volcano erupt? Well, the pressure built up, you see, and the rock was cracked at this point and… Why did the shelf collapse? Well, you see, someone put a bowling ball up there and the shelf was meant for ornaments, you see, and…

And so on. In each of these cases we answer the ‘why?’ question by citing causes: a build-up of pressure; the placing of a bowling ball. Explanations often explain by citing causes.

Things get more complicated when we consider a special type of event: human actions. For example: smoking a cigarette, bowling a googly, urinating in the street. These can be explained, most usually by citing their causes (a taste for nicotine; a desire to take a wicket; too much alcohol). But they can also, in some but not all cases, be justified. Whether an action is justified is a matter of its normative status: whether it ought to be done, or is OK or permissible. To justify an action is to offer good reasons in support of it, that make actions of that kind OK, permissible or even obligatory. By contrast, whether an action can be explained is just a matter of the way things are: to explain is to offer causes; these don’t make actions OK, permissible, they just tell us how and why the effect occurred. (The justification/explanation distinction is therefore one aspect of the ought/is distinction, made famous by Hume’s dictum that you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ – see Hume’s Treatise Book III, section 1: Early Modern Texts – David Hume Philosopher.)

So human actions are interesting cases, because we can attempt both to explain and to justify them.

Not all attempts are successful. Some actions cannot be justified. These include urinating in the street, defacing gravestones or any acts of prejudice. It is a sad fact that these actions are so prevalent. We signal their lack of justification by condemning them – condemnation precludes justification.

But explanation (citing causes) is different from justification (citing good reasons). Humans are part of the causal order and even human actions have causes. It is these causes that criminologists are concerned with when they investigate to roots of criminal behaviour, and journalists are concerned with when they dig into the personal background of serial killers. Prejudice too can be the result of a particular type of upbringing, misinformation, drunkenness, embedded irrational fears, or other, more nebulous (but no less real) social factors. Investigating the causes of unjustifiable acts can be vital in understanding how to stop those acts happening in the future. More particularly, understanding the factors that give rise to prejudice is of vital importance if we are to construct societies that eliminate the conditions in which prejudices can grow.

So when Michael Gove claims, about the totally unjustifiable prejudice of anti-Semitism: “To suggest that anti-Semitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre” he is missing an important distinction. Condemnation is incompatible with justification, but compatible with explanation. We must condemn, in the strongest possible way, religious (or racial or sexual) prejudice – by doing this we signal that such prejudice lacks any possible justification, it is immoral, and (dare I say it) morally wrong.

But if we really want to eliminate prejudice, of all kinds, we need to understand its causes. And to understand its causes, we need to know what those causes are, that is, to explain why the unjustifiable prejudice occurs in the first place. Once we have this sort of understanding our condemnation can be more effective, because we can work towards a world not just where we condemn all that we ought to condemn, but where the need for condemnation itself disappears, because prejudice is eradicated. Hopefully that is a goal that we can all agree on.


Neil Sinclair


Posted in EthicsExplanation