Normative theories are occasionally criticized for being esoteric. A theory T is esoteric iff (T is true (or correct, or superior to its rivals, etc.), but it is better that T not be generally believed or accepted.) Examples of allegedly esoteric philosophical theories include:
• "Sophisticated" utilitarianisms: These theories distinguish between utilitarianism as a decision procedure and utilitarianism as a criterion of rightness, and might argue that utility is better maximized if some people people neither use the utilitarian standard as a decision procedure nor even accept or endorse that standard. If the theory were not esoteric, it may well be self-defeating.
• Political anarchism: Even though it is false that we have any obligation to obey the state as such (apart from the justness of its laws and directives), it is better that people in general believe they have such an obligation.
• Ethical egoism: Even though what we ought to do is always to pursue our self-interest, egoists would prefer not know or believe this.
One initial observation: "It is better that T not be generally
believed or accepted" can be cashed out different ways. Sometimes
esoteric theories are defended on terms internal to the theory, i.e.,
that the theory is better implemented or realized if it remains
esoteric (such as in sophisticated utilitarianism and ethical egoism).
But other times, the esotericism is defended by appeal to some other
normative concern; in the case of political anarchism, it is better
that people not accept or believe the theory not because the theory
would be better realized if we did not believe it, but because of an
independent normative worry, such as fear of social disorder.
I’m curious whether esotericism is a fair criticism of a normative
theory — whether there is a single criticism here, and what force such
criticisms may have. Initially, I can think of three reasons to
suppose that esotericism is fair criticism:
• Ethics of belief: Belief should strive to be true. An esoteric theory denies this, and so should be rejected.
• Stability: Esoteric theories do not result in stability. The best
way to esnure that a theory is realized in practice is for people to
believe and accept it. We get no benefits from the true theory if few
people believe it. (I gather this is the force of a lot of
contractualist and Rawlsian thinking about publicity, which I gather is
the denial that estoeric theories are acceptable.)
• Immorality: It is immoral — or at least morally wrongheaded — to
endorse esotericism in a theory. Genuinely moral agents do not simply
act in accordance with, or in ways that promote, the normative ideals
proposed by a given theory. They must instead act in accordance with
the theory because they realize the theory is true and gives them
reasons to act. Virtue theorists, Kantians, and others with
agent-centered conceptions of morality might find this line of thought
In any case, I’d be curious to know if anyone has thought carefully about these issues.