Skip to content

Event Summary: Thomas Hurka’s 2023 Uehiro Lectures

Written by Joseph Moore

Last week, 4-8 March 2024, Professor Thomas Hurka, the Chancellor Henry N. R. Jackman Distinguished Professor of Philosophical Studies at the University of Toronto, delivered the 2023 Annual Uehiro Lectures in Practical Ethics, entitled ‘Knowledge and Achievement: Their Value, Nature, and Public Policy Role’. The lecture series was rescheduled from the previous year but was well worth the wait.

Lecture 1

In Monday’s lecture, ‘Knowledge and Achievement #1: Their Value and Nature’, Hurka defended analyses of knowledge and achievement, drawing enlightening parallels between these two objective, perfectionist goods. On his account, knowledge is justified true belief where the facts that make the proposition true also explain why the belief is justified. An achievement, meanwhile, is the competent and successful realisation of an intention, where this competence explains the success. Hurka interprets both justification and competence probabilistically: justification consists in possessing evidence that renders the believed proposition conditionally more likely, competence in knowing and employing the means that make success most likely. Despite the structural parallels between knowledge and achievement, Hurka considers them distinct goods, unlike some virtue epistemologists who treat knowledge as an instance of achievement. The main difference lies in their direction of fit. In the case of knowledge, the truth about the world explains the justification in the knower’s mind, whereas, in the case of achievement, the competence in the achiever’s mind explains their success in the world.

Hurka adduced a number of different advantages of his proposals. By his own lights, the analysis of achievement is fairly representative of the recent literature on the topic, but extending the parallel analysis to knowledge purports to explain a unique constellation of oft-accepted intuitive verdicts to established problem cases in the theory of knowledge literature, such as Gettier cases, lottery cases and thermometer (i.e., modal safety) cases. Like any account of knowledge in this tradition, it does not solve every problem case on its own (e.g., fake barn and deviant causal chain cases) and additional theoretical machinery may be necessary. But by connecting truth and justification (rather than belief) by a relation of explanation (rather than causation), Hurka’s theory of knowledge does seem to improve on some counterfactual and causal views. In support of both analyses, moreover, is how they promise to explain the value of knowledge and achievement in similar ways and especially in comparison to other nearby goods. True beliefs and realised intentions, for instance, may have some value on their own. Justification and competence are each valuable as exercises of our rational capacities, whether theoretical or practical. But when the distinct goods of truth and justification, or success and competence, are related by explanation in the right way, the resultant complex may have more value than the sum of the values of each of its component parts. Hurka’s theory thus promises to tell us not only what knowledge and achievement are but also why we should value them so highly as such.

Lecture 2

On Wednesday, in ‘Knowledge & Achievement #2: Degrees of Value’, Hurka delved deeper into the value of these two goods. Not all instances of knowledge or achievement are equally valuable. Knowledge and achievement are more valuable when they are more significant, rather than trivial, and Hurka proposes that purely formal generality is the sole criterion of significance. He posits two, again parallel, kinds of generality for each of our two goods. Knowledge is more intrinsically general when its content concerns more objects in more times and places, as scientific laws concern more objects than facts about particular objects, and more relatively general when the knower actually employs the knowledge to explain more truths. Similarly, achievement is more intrinsically general when the goal involves more people and objects in more times and places, and more relatively general when more subsidiary goals are achieved as means to the final goal. The underlying pattern, then, is that knowledge and achievement are each more significant, and therefore more valuable, in virtue of creating a kind of unity out of diverse elements.

To this core proposal, Hurka added a number of clarifying details, though largely in the spirit of plausible suggestions rather than essential commitments of his account. So, for example, he suggested that relative generality may contribute more to value than intrinsic generality. Knowledge may be more general and valuable in virtue of explaining more varied and more precise truths, and in virtue of more complex explanatory structure among the subsidiary truths so explained (and similarly for varied, precise and structured means to achievement). Justified or true beliefs that fall short of knowledge may also be better for their explanatory generality, may even qualify as a kind of ‘understanding’. Hurka also suggested that the generality and value of an achievement at a given time depends on the number and variety of goals pursued as means at all times in the achiever’s life and not simply at the time of evaluation – though the same idea may be less plausible in the case of knowledge.

Amidst all the suggested addenda, however, two firm commitments serve to distinguish Hurka’s views from some other, nearby views – and here, in contrast to the first lecture, achievement is the greater point of contention. First, while more general achievements will often also be more difficult in terms of the effort or willpower required to succeed, generality and difficulty are distinct. Difficulty is a more subjective criterion in the sense that it depends on the achiever’s capabilities, while generality does not and is therefore more objective. Hurka favours the value of generality over difficulty, in opposition to Gwen Bradford’s effort-based account in her 2015 book, Achievement. Second, generality is a purely formal criterion that does not depend on the independent value – moral or otherwise – of the objects or truths known or goals pursued. It is not better to know about good things than about bad things, holding fixed their explanatory generality. And more controversially, achieving a morally good goal might be no more an achievement, and have no more value as an achievement, than achieving an evil one (again, all else equal). Hurka certainly thinks morally neutral goals, such as the victory conditions in games, can make for achievements just as valuable as those of morally good goals. The greater overall value of a morally good achievement over the morally neutral one must instead be located in its morally virtuous motivation or the greater value of its effects.

Lecture 3

Finally, Hurka turned to more practical application in Friday’s lecture, ‘Knowledge and Achievement #3: Policy Implications’, integrating his theory of generality and perfectionist value with politically perfectionist policy. Political perfectionism is distinct from Hurka’s value perfectionism. It is the view that a state may or should promote particular conceptions of the good or good life, rather than opt for ‘liberal’ neutrality between competing reasonable conceptions. Hurka dismissed popular arguments for political liberalism and instead attempted to defend political perfectionism by drawing out plausible potential implications for policy. While one might associate state promotion of controversial goods with paternalism, oppression, inegalitarian economic distributions or radical hierarchy – such as Aristotle or Nietzsche might have extolled – Hurka strove to show that his theory has the tools to avoid such outcomes. For one, Hurka supposes that there are many reasons to reject coercive state promotion, so he only defends non-coercive promotion, such as government subsidies. Further, he does not think the state should prioritise only first achievements or the most general knowledge, but rather the overall sum of value across all instances of knowledge and achievement. So, many, less general instances distributed across the population may very well be superior to more significant instances among a privileged few.

Hurka also claims as an advantage that his perfectionism justifies government support of the arts, general education, meaningful work and even a more egalitarian economic distribution. Surprisingly, the justification for arts funding does not rest (solely) on artistic achievement – that would only justify promoting the production of art but not, for instance, its display or performance for the public. Instead, Hurka appeals to aesthetic value and aesthetic appreciation of that value. He proposes to analyse aesthetic value also in terms of generality, of unifying diverse elements, and appreciation as something like knowledge of (and perhaps pleasure in) that generality. Governments should also support universal and general education for the intrinsic value of all instances of knowledge. Highly general truths in sciences are of obvious value on Hurka’s view, but he also thinks knowledge in the humanities and arts can have sufficient generality and value, perhaps partly in virtue of special value in self-knowledge and, by extension, explanations relevant to one’s self, relations, community, species, etc. States should promote meaningful work over ‘bullshit jobs’ for their value as more complex and general achievements, independently of their added social or economic value. Hurka also suggested that this might partly justify market economies and entrepreneurship, on the grounds that these widely distribute economic choice, goal-setting and, thus, achievement. Finally, Hurka’s perfectionism might support egalitarian distributions because highly general achievements require material security, so people should not be allowed to fall below a minimum threshold of meeting their basic needs. Conversely, there are many valuable forms of knowledge and achievement that do not require vast resources, so there may be diminishing marginal value of resources with respect to these perfectionist goods.

There is an admirable degree of complexity, variety and precision on display in Hurka’s theorising about knowledge, achievement and perfectionist policy. Partly as a result of this complexity, there are many places where interlocutors might object or seek to correct. But even if some parts of Hurka’s perfectionist theory fail the truth condition to count as knowledge, his account and its presentation are no doubt advancing our collective philosophical knowledge. And moreover, these lectures, along with Professor Hurka’s career and body of work, are certainly quite valuable achievements – both intrinsically good and good for those of us here in the Oxford Uehiro Centre.

The Uehiro Lectures will be published as a book by Oxford University Press.

Share on