Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Non-spooky Moral Realism

I suspect that many people are tempted towards moral skepticism/nihilism (i.e. the meta-ethical view that there are no objective moral truths) because they don't want to be committed to the existence of 'queer' moral entities (as per Mackie's famous objection).

But I think that's a misleading way to frame the issue. The central question of meta-ethics is not about the world and whether it contains entities of a special sort. Instead, it concerns our practical reasoning, and whether some answers to normative ethical questions ('What am I to do?' 'How to live?') are better than others. So we do best to approach meta-ethics from an epistemic, rather than ontic, angle.

Put most simply, the question is whether our moral judgments can be improved. There's nothing particularly 'spooky' about answering in the affirmative. On the contrary, it seems entirely plausible that my evaluative beliefs (just like the rest of my beliefs) are not as coherent and unified as they possibly could be. My idealized self would see room for improvement -- inconsistencies to iron out, etc. So we can make sense of there being a gap here between belief and truth, i.e. between what my actual moral views are, and what they ought to be -- what they would be if I were to reflect more carefully.

So, don't worry about whether moral entities "exist". We don't need any such things in order to secure the kind of objectivity or 'moral realism' that matters. All we need is for there to be more or less reasonable answers that could be given to moral questions. As I like to say:
Philosophical truth just is the ideal limit of a priori inquiry; it does not answer to the sort of independent reality that might sensibly be considered beyond all epistemic reach. Whereas physical facts are made true by existing things in the world, philosophical facts are made true simply by the fact that they are what ideally rational agents would believe.

27 comments:

  1. Okay so this is a very good framing of an important question in meta ethics but I'm going to exercise my pedantry over calling this the 'core' question or the 'real issue' or whatever. Whenever you I hear language like this *not* embedded in a historical discussion of the literature, it sets of the 'advocacy disguised as description' alarm.

    The core question of sub-discipline x (if there is one at all) is just whatever question has been at the centre of debate which went on under the name 'x'.

    In the case of meta-ethics, if it's not historically correct to say the ontic question is the one 'core' question then it's certainly level pegging with any other question in metaethics.
    And while the focus in metaethics may have shifted to reasonableness and moral progress, it's open to consideration that this was due to the very success that the wierdness argument and others have enjoyed...

    Less pedantically, I'm not sure you could do away with the ontic question and just do metaethics without it. Either moral speach-acts are ontologically committing or they aren't, and if they are they either have reference magnets or they don't. You can still rank moral talk for reasonableness by being quietist about this but (apols for the old, crude analogy) you could also rank theological talk by putting atheism on hold - all else being equal some is certainly more intelligent than the rest. You should *want* to say something about the old questions about truth-aptness and truth-makers of moral judgements as well as their internal or comparitive reasonableness: to blithely ignore them sounds to me (and apologies again) just a little bit too Anglican.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Huh.

    I would have thought that ideal rational agents would believe the philosophical truths because they're true.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Am I correct in understanding that you're taking a basically coherentist position then?

    ReplyDelete
  4. So on your view:
    Nothing has value, and no acts are, in themselves, wrong? That seems like a big bullet to be biting. It seems to me that we ought to say that things like happiness are, in their own right, valuable.

    I've never understood the queerness objection. Here's an adapted quote from Strawson on a different topic:

    "there are very good reasons for thinking that there is more to space than we know or can understand. Even when I put aside the (already weighty) points that physical space is non-Euclidean, and is itself something that is literally expanding, and the non-locality results, I can't fully understand how space and time can be interdependent in the way that they demonstrably are. We are also told on very good authority that gravity is really just a matter of the curvature of space; and that string theory is an immensely promising theory of matter that entails that there are at least ten spatial dimensions."

    And the idea of objects having value is somehow more queer than this?

    ReplyDelete
  5. But to all the people who are outside the field I guess fields look like they get weirder and weirder.

    But take philosophy, each person builds up a net of arguments to make sense of the world and the result is a bit confusing and surprising - but only because it is being used to tackle such marginal cases. The average "Joe" is blissful in his ignorance so to speak.

    Quantum mechanics like physics and biology and so forth before it, isn't really weird - once you start to understand it you realize what you previously thought is what is weird.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Crab - sorry if I was unclear. I meant 'core question' to be unabashedly normative, not merely descriptive. I say this is the most important question in metaethics. I agree that, historically, it hasn't "been at the centre of debate". I just think that it should have been!

    Paul - yeah, you could see this as a form of coherentism. (Or perhaps Peircean constructivism.)

    Alex - No, what makes you think that I'm committed to the view that "nothing has value"? I say that things have value just in case we would conclude this at the end of inquiry. (That is, if this evaluative belief is a member of the maximally coherent and unified belief set.)

    ReplyDelete
  7. 'what makes you think that I'm committed to the view that "nothing has value"?'

    This:
    'The central question of meta-ethics is not about the world and whether it contains entities of a special sort. Instead, it concerns our practical reasoning'

    Isn't value an entity in the world of a special sort? You can say that claims about value are warranted, assertible, or whatever. But the passage quoted seems to quite obviously imply that value is not a property of objects in the world. According to you, there is no thing that has the property of being valuable.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I say that things have value just in case we would conclude this at the end of inquiry.

    I take this to be pretty uncontroversial -- it has the ring of tautology that ideal rational agents will, at the end of inquiry, come to believe the truth.

    But you seemed to be defending the considerably stronger and more controversial claim that moral truths consist in their status as being what ideal agents would come to believe.

    On this view, you get to keep moral facts, but 'realism' is a pretty misleading name. You're the kind of moral realist who denies that any moral propositions are objectively true.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Alex - The quoted passage doesn't imply any such thing. It merely implies that metaethics isn't about whether there is any 'thing that has the property of being valuable.' The latter claim may still be true, as I think such property-talk is really just a long-winded restatement of the assertion 'X is valuable', which is certainly truth-apt on my view. (Subtract properties, and the remainder is true about value.)

    Jonathan - "You're the kind of moral realist who denies that any moral propositions are objectively true." That's exactly backwards. I'm very much an 'objectivist', in the sense that I uphold the gap between belief and truth. I think that some answers to moral questions are really, truly, better than others. That's the only sort of 'realism' that matters, to my way of thinking. (But you might say I'm the kind of objectivist who is not a 'realist' on some ontological, world-involving interpretation of what it takes to be a realist. That's fine; my point is that I want to sidestep that old debate entirely.)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Sounds to me like you should be a moral nihilist yourself.

    Start with this principle. It is rational to believe P only if, to the best of your knowledge, P is a better answer to the question of whether P than not-P is.

    Ideally rational agent 1 believes P. Ideally rational agent 2 believes not-P. Their disagreement is then brought to their attention. Because both realize that truth consists in ideal-rational belief, they realize that the other's answer to the question of whether P is just as good as their own answer. So neither answer is better. So it would be irrational for them to retain their beliefs.

    I claim that for any normative proposition, an ideally rational person could both believe or disbelieve it. After all, coherence is a structural property of a body of beliefs. Whether a set of beliefs is coherent depends not at all on the contents of the beliefs, and entirely on the entailment relations between the various beliefs.

    If you are right that moral truth just is ideal-rational belief, then ideally rational agents would have no normative beliefs.

    Hence no moral truth.

    ReplyDelete
  11. In the comments of the final linked post, you endorse Alex's proposal that we "take the methods of a priori inquiry as primitive." Do you still endorse this? Do these avoid the spookiness objection? Or are they naturalistic, perhaps psychological? If they're psychological, why prefer them? How do we deal with conflicting psychological tendencies in a priori inquiry?

    ReplyDelete
  12. After thinking more about it over dinner: while your claim has a certain plausibility in metaethics, as a general metaphilosopohical thesis, it's very hard to see how it would work out in detail. Most immediately, I'm curious to know how you'd reconcile it with your anti-scientism and anti-reductionism (views which I'm sympathetic to, if not always for the same reasons). It also seems that eventually, your analysis could be forced into being circular or self-contradictory, especially as you try to apply it to metaphilosophy, which seems itself to be a type of philosophy.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I agree with Jack. Ideally rational agents are not going to agree.

    I want to be happy. I don't like pickles. I don't have to eat pickles for my physical or social well-being. Therefore, I ought not eat pickles.

    That's rational because I am applying logical methods to facts, but the facts are my personal preferences. As long as ideally rational agents have differing preferences they will not reach the same moral conclusions. They may rationally reach the conclusion that they should establish a treaty or social contract, but they may rationally conclude they should go to war. One ideally rational agent may conclude that he can think faster than the other agent, so he should mount a preemptive attack.

    Now, I agree that rational exploration of morality is advantageous for both individuals and groups. I disagree that morality can be objective in anything more than description about satisfying desires.

    ReplyDelete
  14. maybe it rests on a basic utilitarian assumption that one can sum preferences (and subtract and multiply and all those other things that ensure unique mathematical outcomes to problems).

    So you and I get in an argument and Richard proposes a solution that has the best outcome for both of us, but not the best outcome for either of us individually*. I presume Richard thinks that is the idealized outcome and you probably not so much.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hallq - yeah, I think we have to take the norms of rational inquiry (non-contradiction, simplicity, coherence, etc.) as primitive. But they don't seem objectionably 'spooky' to me. What do you think?

    You'll have to elaborate on why what I've said here needs to be "reconciled" with anti-scientism. I don't see any tension.

    Re: circularity, I think that's inescapable, but not necessarily bad. (Better to have a self-confirming theory than a self-contradictory one, no?)

    Jack - your scenario is incoherent. Suppose (for sake of reductio) that it's true that there are multiple maximally coherent beliefs sets. As a logical truth, this will be knowable a priori, so the ideally rational agents will already have taken this fact into account in forming their beliefs. So meeting each other provides no new information. If they are irrational afterwards, they must have been irrational all along, which contradicts the premise that they are ideally rational agents. So there are not multiple maximally coherent belief sets. You cannot have two ideally rational agents with different beliefs.

    Doctor Logic - some preferences are irrational. I make the stronger claim that ideally rational agents will not have differing preferences. (If you have a distaste for pickles, and no positive reason to eat them, then every rational agent will prefer that Doctor Logic not eat pickles.)

    P.S. I discuss the convergence question more here.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Richard, you've misunderstood my argument. I have supposed that your view is correct, that what makes a moral proposition true is that an ideally rational agent believe it, and claimed that from this supposition we can show: moral nihilism.

    Here is the argument. Suppose that what makes a moral proposition true is that an ideally rational agent believes it. Let P (not-P) be a moral proposition. An ideally rational agent could believe P iff an ideally rational agent could believe not-P; this because coherence depends not at all on the content of the beliefs, and entirely on the entailment relations between the beliefs. As a consequence, if an ideally rational agent could believe P, then an ideally rational agent could believe not-P. If an ideally rational agent could believe P and another ideally rational agent could believe not-P then there are multiple maximal coherent belief sets. --><--. So, an ideally rational agent could not believe P. But P was chosen arbitrarily. So an ideally rational agent could not believe any moral proposition (on pain of irrationality).

    We sort of agree. *You cannot have two ideally rational agents with different beliefs.* Exactly! This is why, supposing that what makes a moral proposition true is that an ideally rational agent believes it, ideally rational agents could not have any beliefs about morality.

    Hence: moral nihilism.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Jack - your argument makes no sense to me. Why think that coherence is merely a matter of entailment relations? (I'm not talking about mere logical consistency here.) Aren't you just assuming the non-uniqueness of maximal coherence from the start, and hence begging the question?

    More generally, I don't understand what your reasons are for claiming that "An ideally rational agent could believe P iff an ideally rational agent could believe not-P", nor why this doesn't overgeneralize to the non-moral case (or to the moral case even on views other than mine). Maybe you can clarify.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I presume if you have two world views each logically consistent within themselves that all things being equal (to pick one of the 'norms of rational inquiry[NRI]') the one that is simpler would get the title of idealized view etc and that it would just be a matter of plugging the world views into the NRI formula.

    A bit like utilitarianism (and facing some of the same issues) but at a meta level.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Richard,

    An ideally rational agent could believe P iff an ideally rational agent could believe not-P; where P (not-P) is a moral proposition.

    Why wouldn't this be the case?

    If we think of rationality as a matter of coherence and unification (like Smith) then I do think that this bi-conditional generalizes to all (or many) beliefs that are not empirically criticizable. It's just more of a problem for you.

    Take two agents, one who believes that abortion is morally wrong and the other who believes that abortion is not morally wrong. Then start idealizing without altering their beliefs about the moral status of abortion. We can add to their beliefs and alter their other beliefs so as to make their belief set ever increasingly coherent and unified. (Perhaps we also alter their desires, since what desires one has is a contingent matter). Are you claiming that one of these agents can be perfectly idealized and the other cannot? In virtue of what?

    Is there something intrinsically irrational about believing either that abortion is wrong or that abortion is not wrong? If not, I see no reason to reject the bi-conditional above.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Abortion is a controversial case, obviously, but I see no reason whatsoever to assume that the idealized pro-life worldview is just as coherent as the idealized pro-choice worldview. (Otherwise, I wouldn't be pro-choice.) Compare trying to build up a worldview around the empirically irrefutable premise that I am the only conscious being. You end up committed to various ad hoc or arbitrary principles, that the opposing view does a better job of avoiding. Or so I would claim.

    We're getting pretty far afield here, but just out of curiosity: what's your conception of rationality? How do you avoid universal skepticism about a priori truths?

    ReplyDelete
  21. Doesn't your account of the normativity of morality presuppose some sort of normativity in epistemology? And if so, what is your account of the normativity of epistemology? Is it a non-naturalist account, where non-natural epistemic properties like justification and reasonableness supervene on natural properties like truth and reliability and the like? Or is your account a naturalist one, or an expressivist one, or an error-theory, etc.?

    In other words, don't the same old metaethical issues crop up all over again, this time at the level of epistemic normativity?

    ReplyDelete
  22. I find it more than a little dubious that either the pro-lifer worldview or the pro-choicer worldview is more COHERENT.

    Even in your other case I think you could have a perfectly COHERENT worldview on which one of your beliefs is that you are the only conscious being. If you couldn't have a perfectly coherent worldview containing the belief that you are the only rational being, then what are we to say in the case of the lonely conscious agent in a world full of zombies. Does rationality forbid him from believing that he is the sole conscious being even though he is? Strange.

    I think the punch line of all of this is that rationality is more than coherence and unification.

    I definitely want to break the tie between truth and coherence. An ideally coherent agent could believe many false things.

    I'm not sure if I want to break the tie between truth and rationality. It depends on what is built into rationality. Is part of being rational believing what's true? In any case, I avoid skepticism by reversing the direction of fit. There are the truths. Rationality aims to believe those, and perhaps ideal rationality succeeds in believing all of the truths. But what makes the truths true is not at all agent (or ideal agent) dependent.

    Skepticism is avoided because being agent independently true makes an answer better than another potentially otherwise equally rational-qua-coherent answer.

    ReplyDelete
  23. "what are we to say in the case of the lonely conscious agent in a world full of zombies. Does rationality forbid him from believing that he is the sole conscious being even though he is?"

    Of course! (It's hardly news that a world can be set up in such a way as to systematically mislead rational agents. The BIV world would be another example. Or a world where emeralds are actually grue, rather than green. And so on.)

    "I think the punch line of all of this is that rationality is more than coherence and unification."

    Like what? (I'd be fine with that if it were true -- my post here appeals to ideal rationality and a priori inquiry, whatever that may be. It's just that coherence and such seems to be the best account on offer.)

    "I definitely want to break the tie between truth and coherence. An ideally coherent agent could believe many false things."

    That is so on my view too. There is only a tie between coherence and necessary truths. On contingent matters, the world may fail to co-operate (as noted above).

    "In any case, I avoid skepticism by reversing the direction of fit."

    Taking truth for granted merely solves the metaphysical problem of nihilism. You are still left with the epistemic problem of skepticism. If ideally rational agents could just as well believe P or not-P, then internalist justification is impossible. So I think we should reject the antecedent. You certainly haven't given any reason to think it's plausible. All you've done is assert that you disagree with me on this point.

    "Is part of being rational believing what's true?"

    No, as noted above, it's a platitude that evidence can be misleading, improbable events can occur, and hence the rational thing to believe may turn out false.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Oh no. Something has going horribly awry!

    Whether a thing has a moral worth depends entirely on whether an ideally rational agent would think that the thing has moral worth. An ideally rational agent would form the same beliefs about people and their moral worth as she would form about Earth-dwelling zombies and their moral worth, according to your comments above.

    So surprise: whether a thing has moral worth depends not at all on whether the thing is conscious. Yikes.

    I meant: break the tie between coherence and truth as it comes to necessary matters.

    Good point about skepticism.

    ReplyDelete
  25. You misunderstand my view.

    "Whether a thing has a moral worth depends entirely on whether an ideally rational agent would think [given the contingent base facts] that the thing has moral worth"

    Ideally rational agents will agree that conscious agents have moral worth and zombies don't. So that settles that. They may simply be ignorant of whether that guy is a (valuable) person or a (valueless) zombie. That's no problem for my view.

    P.S. It belatedly occurs to me that I have an old post on 'Rational Pluralism' that would be a better place to continue this conversation.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Having been redirected here from your more recent post, i feel that there is a lot wrong with your arguments. Namely, you build Kantian rationalist assumptions into your argument without justification and move far too fast across the territory. To wit:

    1. "I suspect that many people are tempted towards moral skepticism/nihilism"

    Firstly, skepticism and nihilism are separate things. I am a meta-ethical skeptic in that I believe moral "truths" are projections of deeply held sentiment rather than perceptions of external truth/constructs of reason. I am not an ethical nihilist, because for example I think that murder is wrong (And to re-iterate what I wrote yesterday, I am not a relativist, either).

    Secondly, I don't think many people are tempted to either skepticism or nihilism (the latter especially, being the view that there are no ethical values whatsoever). I think most people tend towards moral objectivism. But that's an empirical question.

    2. "The central question of meta-ethics is not about the world and whether it contains entities of a special sort."

    Says who? You have done nothing to establish this, you've just stated it. Mackie thought that the central issue is about the world and what it contains - you've done nothing to refute him, merely asserted that "I think that's a misleading way to frame the issue", declining to say why.

    3. "Instead, it concerns our practical reasoning, "

    Says Kant, but I disagree. You can't just *assert* that metaethics is fundamentally about practical reasoning (I think there are good arguments to show it's about sentiment and projection). There is no argument here, just rationalist assumptions.

    4. "and whether some answers to normative ethical questions ('What am I to do?' 'How to live?') are better than others. "

    Well that on its own seems correct - but it is in no way necessarily connected to practical reasoning. I, an ethical subjectivist, believe some answers to normative ethical questions are better than others. For example, to the question "is it acceptable to open fire on nursery school children with the intention of killing them" I believe the answer "no" is ethically more favourable than the answer "yes", ceteris paribus. But I don't think it has anything to do with "practical reasoning".

    5. "So we do best to approach meta-ethics from an epistemic, rather than ontic, angle.

"

    Crikey, where did THIS come from? One minute you are talking about whether ethical questions admit of some answers which are better than others, the next you are invoking knowledge. There may be such a thing as "ethical knowledge" (though what exactly it would consist of is a large bone of contention) but how that relates to the question of whether ethical questions admit of better or worse answers is an enormous question, pretty central to metaethical debates. You can't just bung the word "epistemic" into the argument - what work do you think knowledge is doing here?

    6. "Put most simply, the question is whether our moral judgments can be improved. "

    Now we are suddenly back to whether ethical questions admit of better or worse answers, albeit in view of their improvement.

    Although I fail to see what this adds to the case for moral objectivism - Hume, the classic proponent of ethical subjectivism, was all for ethical improvement (he called it moral education, and meant the rearing of children to behave well in civilised society).

    7. "There's nothing particularly 'spooky' about answering in the affirmative. "

    No there isn't anything "spooky". But so what? There's nothing "spooky" about this, either:

    1. My cat is fat
    2 Therefore all cats are fat.

    But it's still a very very bad argument.

    And where did the term "spooky" come from - and what on earth could it refer to?

    8. "On the contrary, it seems entirely plausible that my evaluative beliefs (just like the rest of my beliefs) are not as coherent and unified as they possibly could be. My idealized self would see room for improvement -- inconsistencies to iron out, etc. "

    I'm not sure what this is supposed to be 'on the contrary' to, exactly, but nonetheless, I am intruiged to know why you think your "ideal" self would so desire consistency and coherency? This is a question Nietzsche was keen to ask of us all - and the answer wasn't very flattering.

    9. "So we can make sense of there being a gap here between belief and truth, i.e. between what my actual moral views are, and what they ought to be -- what they would be if I were to reflect more carefully.

"

    I can't keep up. Things have just moved too fast. What has your previous argument got to do with there being gaps between beliefs and truths? What work is the assumption of a 'perfect' wholly coherent self doing? And what does *any* of this have to do with moral objectivism?

    10. ".

So, don't worry about whether moral entities "exist". "

    I wasn't worrying. Mostly because I was trying to work out what your previous 5 sentences had to do with moral entities - incidentally, when did we decide on what they are/were? But now that I am worrying about whether they exist, i'm not seeing why anything you've written previously should stop me worrying. Damn, those moral entities (whatever they are) could be coming for me RIGHT NOW!

    11. "We don't need any such things in order to secure the kind of objectivity or 'moral realism' that matters. "

    Pray tell, what do we need? And by the way, could you take a second to inform us which moral realism it is that matters, and how exactly it is that it matters (and why the others - whatever they are - don't?)

    12. "All we need is for there to be more or less reasonable answers that could be given to moral questions. '

    But this (apart from not really following on from the previous sentence) does nothing to secure objectivism over subjectivism.

    If you are using the term "reasonable" in a technical sense meaning 'pertaining to the faculty of reason', then you have done nothing to establish why ethics is based on (practical) reason. You are just importing Kantian rationalist assumptions without arguing for their establishment.

    If you are using the term "reasonable" in a pejorative sense, meaning "acceptable", then this does nothing to secure objectivism over subjectivism. As a subjectivist, I think a more reasonable answer to the question "should I torture cats for fun?" is "no", as oppose to "yes". But that has nothing to do with practical reason and/or moral objectivism.

    12. As for your final extended quote, it sounds very grand, but it's a bit hollow when examined closely.

    "Philosophical truth just is the ideal limit of a priori inquiry" - says who? and why?

    "it does not answer to the sort of independent reality that might sensibly be considered beyond all epistemic reach." - interesting Kantian assumption about the noumenal realm. But as a sceptical Humean in matters epistemological as well as ethical, i'm unmoved by this sort of gesturing at a "what we cannot know of" realm.

    "Whereas physical facts are made true by existing things in the world" - depends on your theory of truth. Last time I checked, analytic philosophy was a rabid mess on the subject of truth.

    "philosophical facts are made true simply by the fact that they are what ideally rational agents would believe." - more unargued Kantianism. What is an ideally rational agent? What is a philosophical "fact"? What is the connection between the two which renders one 'true' (whatever that means)?

    And finally, what on earth does this rationalist proclamation have to do with ethics?


    OK, that was fairly cutting. Please don't take it personally - it's just I remember my days of academic analytic philosophy as being something of a bear pit (and I rather enjoyed baiting the bears).

    And after you dismissed my last comment with a link to this post, I was hoping for a substantially better argument than i've found...

    ReplyDelete

Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)