Minds and Machines

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 27–46 | Cite as

Computation, Coherence, and Ethical Reasoning

Original Paper


Theories of moral, and more generally, practical reasoning sometimes draw on the notion of coherence. Admirably, Paul Thagard has attempted to give a computationally detailed account of the kind of coherence involved in practical reasoning, claiming that it will help overcome problems in foundationalist approaches to ethics. The arguments herein rebut the alleged role of coherence in practical reasoning endorsed by Thagard. While there are some general lessons to be learned from the preceding, no attempt is made to argue against all forms of coherence in all contexts. Nor is the usefulness of computational modelling called into question. The point will be that coherence cannot be as useful in understanding moral reasoning as coherentists may think. This result has clear implications for the future of Machine Ethics, a newly emerging subfield of AI.


Coherentism Ethical reasoning Foundationalism Machine ethics Practical reasoning Underdetermination Robot ethics Unsupervised neural network 



I wish to thank Andrew Bailey, Pierre Boulos, and Paul Thagard for comments and questions during the early stages of the work that eventually lead to this paper. I would also like to thank the participants at both the Dartmouth AI@50 conference (July 2006) and the North American Computing and Philosophy Conference (August 2006) for valuable input. For financial assistance during the writing of this paper, I am indebted to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


  1. BonJour, L. (1985). The structure of empirical knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Guarini, M., & Boulos, P. (2005a). Can ECHO support TEC? In H. R. Arabnia & R. Joshua (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2005 International Conference on Artificial Intelligence (Vol. 2, pp. 676–681). Las Vegas: CSREA Press.Google Scholar
  3. Guarini, M., & Boulos, P. (2005b). Problems with simplicity and analogy in ECHO and TEC. In L. Magnani & R. Dossena (Eds.), Computing, philosophy, and cognition (pp. 99–112). London: College Publications.Google Scholar
  4. Hare, R. M. (1981). Moral thinking: its levels, methods, and point. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  5. Holyoak, K., & Thagard, P. (1995). Mental leaps: Analogy in creative thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  6. Millgram, E. (2000). Coherence: The price of the ticket. The Journal of Philosophy, XCVII, 2, 82–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Millgram, E., & Thagard, P. (1996). Deliberative coherence. Synthese, 108(1), 63–88.MATHCrossRefMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  8. Nowak, G., & Thagard, P. (1992a). Copernicus, Ptolemy, and explanatory coherence. In R. N. Giere (Ed.), Minnesota studies in the philosophy of science, volume 15: Cognitive models of science (pp. 271–309). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  9. Nowak, G., & Thagard, P. (1992b). Newton, Descartes, and explanatory coherence. In R. A. Duschl & R. J. Hamilton (Eds.), Philosophy of science, cognitive science, and educational theory and practice (pp. 69–115). Albany: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  10. Sosa, E. (1997). Reflective knowledge in the best circles. The Journal of Philosophy XCIV, 8, 410–430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Thagard, P. (1998). Ethical coherence. Philosophical Psychology, 11, 405–422.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Thagard, P. (1992a). Computing coherence. In R. N. Giere (Ed.), Minnesota studies in the philosophy of science, volume 15: Cognitive models of science (pp. 485–488). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  13. Thagard, P. (1992b). Conceptual revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Thagard, P. (2000). Coherence in thought and action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  15. Thagard, P., & Millgram, E. (1995). Inference to the best plan: a coherence theory of decision. In D. Leake & A. Ram (Eds.), Goal-driven learning (pp. 439–454). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of WindsorWindsorCanada

Personalised recommendations