Esotericism, part II

Many of you will likely recall my post last fall on esoteric normative theories. That was a wonderfully provocative discussion, one I’d like to pursue further.  In particular, I’d like to get a handle on the history of esotericism as an objection to normative theories, in the hope that I can distill out whether there is a single objection here or many; whether the objection is logically independent of other objections that can be made to normative theories; what force, if any, such an objection has; etc.

The comments made in response to my post suggested that the general
line of criticism ‘that such-and-such a theory is esoteric’ was
familiar to many people.  But surprisingly, I can’t track down many
examples where a philosopher criticizes a normative theory in quite
these terms. I found no references to this objection (or at least to it posed in the language of ‘esotericism’) in either the Philosophers’ Index or in Google Scholar.  So I seek your help: Can you identify examples of normative theories being criticized on the grounds that they’re esoteric?  (Of course, they need not use that language.) Thanks!

5 Replies to “Esotericism, part II

  1. One place to start is Parfit’s _Reasons and Persons_, Part I, “Self-Defeating Theories.”

  2. Sturgeon’s paper, “What Difference Does it make Whether Moral Realism is True?” turns the objection on its head, claiming (if I remember right) that anti-realist approaches have no room for theories like esoteric utilitarianism. But that means that they cut off ab initio a normative position that at least ought to be on the table.
    Why think they have no room for such a view? Because esoteric utilitarianism grants that utilitarianism is correct, but says that it has low or negative ACCEPTANCE value. But anti-realists can’t draw such a distinction. For them, he argues, acceptance value is all there is!
    I dispute this in “Must a Moral Irrealist be a Pragmatist?” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol.33, No. 2,April, 1996
    I’m sure you’re already aware of Williams on “government house utilitarianism,” in FOR AND AAGAINST.

  3. Ben Eggleston’s dissertation, which is accessible through his webpage (, will be a good resource for you. Just click on ‘unpublished papers’.
    I also like this older paper, which is not in his bibliography: Piper, Adrian M., 1978. “Utility, Publicity, and Manipulation”, Ethics 88(3): 189-206

  4. Sidgwick raises the following as a worry for utilitarianism: “there is no doubt that the moral consciousness of a plain man broadly repudiates the general notion of an esoteric morality…and it would be commonly agreed that an action which would be bad if done openly is not rendered good by secrecy” (Methods of Ethics, IV.v.3; p. 489-90 of the Hackett edition). His actual view is a bit more complicated, though. He says that utilitarians should opt for a second-order esotericism: the esoteric parts of utilitarianism should themselves be kept fairly secret.
    At any rate, he’s aware that esotericism is an important criticism of utilitarianism. I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the discussion about esoteric morality comes ultimately from Sidgwick.
    Rawls’ publicity condition amounts to a prohibit on esoteric moralities, and he uses this to criticize utiltitarianism. Since utilitarianism would only be better than the two principles if it were esoteric, no permissible version of utilitarianism is superior to the two principles. See Chapter III, Section 29 (p. 158 in the revised edition).

  5. In addition to the questions concerning a general esoteric morality (e.g. utilitarianism), there may of course be views that defend esoteric moral practices within certain spheres, or about particular topics. In my book Free Will and Illusion (OUP 2000) I claimed that, for a variety of reasons, it would be better if most people continued to believe in libertarian free will, although there are very good reasons to believe that that is a false belief.

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