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Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. C.F. Gethmann

Institut für Philosophie
Stichwort: Kongress 2008
Universität Duisburg-Essen
Universitätsstr. 12
45117 Essen

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Urs Allenspach, M.A. (Zürich, CH) - Curriculum Vitae
Evaluative Comparison & Complex Comparative Concepts


If comparing the possible consequences of alternative courses of action is accepted as an essential part of practical rationality, the boundaries of the possibility of such comparisons remain a crucial field of investigation. Arguably, a choice between incomparable items is beyond the sphere of the rational and irrational. Rather would we call it “a-rational”. However, by simple catenations of choices between incomparable items (similar to money pump arguments) we obtain clear cases of choices that are not a-rational but irrational. An apparently innocent phenomenon turns into a heavy problem for justified decision taking.

In 1997 Ruth Chang sparked a debate on the structure of evaluative comparison. In a series of papers, she informally argues for the existence of comparative concepts that comprise two independent comparative considerations – the traditional better-than-or-equal and a new on-a-par. Typically, parity applies to items traditionally thought as incomparable, items which are evaluatively very different. For instance, a career as a scientist and a career as a lawyer. Yet, the parity-relation is thought to hold only under an additional condition which guarantees that parity is independent of the other comparative consideration in concern. Introducing parity would reduce the number of choices between incomparable items. Therefore, such a new value relation would also raise hopes to reduce the number of a-rational and irrational choices.

Little thought had been spent before on the possibility that the extensional structure of a comparative concept could be more complex than an n-dimensional relation on a set of items. Of course, there exist complex concepts in the sense of concepts which are derived from two or more primitive ones. Natural science is full of them, e.g. density as defined by length and mass. However, what about comparative concepts involving more than a single independent comparative consideration as inspired by Chang?

All alleged instances of parity have been questioned in recent literature, albeit predominantly not systematically or even on a formal level. The specific question whether chang-ean parity exists has not been tackled satisfactory, neither has the general one of how complex comparative concepts are to be understood.

I will foremost argue for an analysis of complex comparative concepts, which shows that their existence depends on how we build our scientific language. Secondly, I will show that the specific phenomenon of parity – if existent – must be uncovered by a semantic analysis of terms of evaluative comparison. Such an analysis would most prominently have to shed light on the relationship between covering values and contributory values. As opposed to Chang’s method of conceptual reasoning, this semantic venture cannot be undertaken without some basic axiological disclosures: No talk about the comparability of items without talk about the structure of values.

The systematic structural investigation into the phenomenon is important in particular when it comes to deliberations on how irrational catenations of choices between items on a par can be avoided. I hope to apply the idea of complex comparative concepts in order to clarify the conception of sustainability and to tackle applications in the field of climate policies.

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Curriculum Vitae von Urs Allenspach, M.A.

  • Bis 2007: Philosophie, Mathematik, Deutsche Sprachwissenschaft (Universität Zürich). Abschluss: lic. phil
  • Development and application of comparative methods in climate-related land use decisions. (ETH Zürich)
Derzeitige Universität oder Institution:
  • ETH Zürich
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