Incommensurability and vagueness in spectrum arguments: options for saving transitivity of betterness

Toby Handfield, Wlodek Rabinowicz

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14 Citations (Scopus)


The spectrum argument purports to show that the better-than relation is not transitive, and consequently that orthodox value theory is built on dubious foundations. The argument works by constructing a sequence of increasingly less painful but more drawn-out experiences, such that each experience in the spectrum is worse than the previous one, yet the final experience is better than the experience with which the spectrum began. Hence the betterness relation admits cycles, threatening either transitivity or asymmetry of the relation. This paper examines recent attempts to block the spectrum argument, using the idea that it is a mistake to affirm that every experience in the spectrum is worse than its predecessor: an alternative hypothesis is that adjacent experiences may be incommensurable in value, or that due to vagueness in the underlying concepts, it is indeterminate which is better. While these attempts formally succeed as responses to the spectrum argument, they have additional, as yet unacknowledged costs that are significant. In order to effectively block the argument in its most typical form, in which the first element is radically inferior to the last, it is necessary to suppose that the incommensurability (or indeterminacy) is particularly acute: what might be called radical incommensurability (radical indeterminacy). We explain these costs, and draw some general lessons about the plausibility of the available options for those who wish to save orthodox axiology from the spectrum argument.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2373-2387
Number of pages15
JournalPhilosophical Studies
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Axiology
  • Incommensurability
  • Indeterminacy
  • Inferiority
  • Spectrum argument
  • Superiority
  • Temkin
  • Transitivity
  • Vagueness

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