Saturday, March 19, 2011

A reason by any other name...

One fairly common objection to moral realism is that facts and properties can't be inherently prescriptive in the right kind of way. As Williams puts the non-cognitivist's argument (in 'Ought and Moral Obligation'), "if [a moral claim] just tells one a fact about the universe, one needs some further explanation of why [we] should take any notice of that particular fact." The objection may be pressed especially strongly against the non-naturalist, since it at least makes sense to care, however contingently, about natural properties like health and happiness. But, the critic may ask, why would we ever care about some non-natural property Q? On this way of looking at things, to identify reasons with some non-natural property Q would essentially undermine our practice of caring about reasons. One may make this vivid by way of an example: Suppose that gratuitous torture had the non-natural property Q that moral realists talk about. Would you then want to engage in gratuitous torture? Surely not...

However, I think this objection is badly misguided. Firstly, note that the normative supervenes on the non-normative, so gratuitous torture (i.e. where there are no instrumental benefits to so acting), if actually unjustified, could not possibly have a different normative status. Insofar as we consider it a priori that gratuitous torture is wrong, it's not clear that we can even make sense of the scenario we're being invited to consider here.

Secondly, a subtle point: To avoid moral fetishism, ordinary agents should not care directly about the property of rightness (or being a reason) itself; rather, they should care about the right-making features (or those natural properties which possess the non-natural property of being reason-giving). In other words: normative properties are higher-order properties. They tell us which first-order features we should care about. And it is those first order features, not the normative properties themselves, that are the proper objects of our moral concern. The significance of the normative properties is more indirect: they provide the standard for whether, in caring about and responding to some (natural) considerations and not others, we are caring about, and responding to, the right considerations.

With that clarification out of the way, we may still ask: why care about those natural features that happen to have this non-natural property Q? Isn't possession of a non-natural property just completely irrelevant to the importance of (say) relieving suffering?

Well, no. Of course, if all you know is that some feature has "some non-natural property Q" then you can't, from that uninformative description, tell the significance of this. So let me restate the previous questions in a more transparent way: "Why care about those natural features that have the property of being worth caring about? Isn't possession of the property of being worth caring about just completely irrelevant...?" When stated this way, the questions seem silly.

The critic may object that it's my use of the normative words 'worth caring about' (or 'being a reason', etc.) that's doing all the work here. And (they may add) that's cheating. If normative realism is true, then normativity should reside in the properties themselves, and not just our way of thinking and talking about them.

Fair enough. But it's a mistake to start from our uninformed grasp of some generically described "non-natural property", and from there interpret realists as saying that reasons are nothing over and above whatever uninteresting arbitrary property we previously picked out. It's not as though non-naturalist realists want to reduce normative properties to some independently identifiable non-natural property. (Open Question Arguments refute supernaturalist reductionism no less than naturalist reductionism.) Rather, the central claim of moral non-naturalists is that normative properties are distinct from all the properties we learn about elsewhere (cf. property dualism about qualia). It would go a bit too far to say that normative concepts are the only way to refer to normative properties -- obviously indirect discourse is possible, e.g. "the property that Richard last referred to" -- but we can at least say that the nature of normative properties can only be fully grasped via normative concepts. Even if one manages to refer to a normative property in some other, indirect way, one cannot grasp the nature of the property by such means. It remains opaque. (Again, much like property dualists hold of phenomenal concepts and phenomenal properties...)

This raises interesting questions about the nature of normative concepts, and how it is that they pick out the non-natural properties that they (according to realists) do. But that's a topic for another day. For now, I simply want to defend non-naturalist realism from the charge that the non-natural properties it posits cannot be normative. It's true that independently identifiable properties can't be inherently normative: our agreement on this point is precisely why we're not metaethical naturalists! But the critic has not yet done anything to show that there cannot be inherently normative properties that can only be transparently grasped by means of our normative concepts. And that's all that the non-naturalist is committed to here.


  1. "[L]et me restate the previous questions in a more transparent way: "Why care about those natural features that have the property of being worth caring about? Isn't possession of the property of being worth caring about just completely irrelevant...?" When stated this way, the questions seem silly."

    I'd think for those who doubt non-natural properties can be normatively relevant the questions seem silly just as long as the property "being worth caring about" is natural. Presumably learning that X is worth caring about tells us there is reason to care about X (even if - the moral fetishism point - X's having the property "worth caring about" is not itself the reason to care about X). But if "worth caring about" is a non-natural property, different in kind from the properties we learn about through the sciences, then why should learning that fact about X (as opposed to the fact that X increases happiness or health) persuade us there is a reason to care about it? Analogously: if there were some non-natural property "being the best scientific theory" and I learned Y instantiated it, I would not thereby be persuaded to accept Y; I'd need to know what it predicts, how simple it is, and other natural facts. Those would do all the work, just as they do in the moral case.

    Of course, it is absurd to think that learning that X has the property "being worth caring about" should not persuade us that there is reason to care about X. But that just goes to show that the property "being worth caring about" isn't non-natural.

  2. Angus, once we put aside the moral fetishism point, I'm not sure what further objection remains. I agree that the things that are worth caring about are natural -- health, happiness, etc. And the ordinary way of being reasons-responsive is to just directly respond to these natural reason-giving features. But we can also appreciate the significance of a more abstract (and not transparently natural) fact, namely that such-and-such natural feature is worth caring about. (And similarly, I think, in the epistemic case. I could tell you that a proposition warrants belief, without telling you the natural features in virtue of which it is so warranted.)

    Given that our normative concepts do not (as per the Open Question Argument) appear to pick out any (independently identifiable) natural property, why would it be such a problem if this appearance turned out to be accurate? It's a puzzling objection.

  3. I'm not really sure how we go about appreciating the abstract and not transparently natural fact that such-and-such is worth caring about. Unless you can tell me something about this fact that makes it reasonable for me to care about it (e.g. that it reduces to the judgment that my fully informed self, with a maximally coherent desiderative set, would advise me to care about it), I'm inclined to ignore it altogether. The naturalist can give me such a theory, the non-naturalist cannot.

    The non-naturalist might say: but you've just committed yourself to the view that, possibly, you have no reason to care about what is worth caring about (if it turns out that the property being worth caring about is non-natural), which is absurd. But if it cannot turn out that the property being worth caring about is non-natural (for example, because if it were non-natural it would not warrant us in the belief that we have reason to care about the natural feature on which it supervenes) then this reply is a non-starter.

  4. It's not generally the case that people "ignore" normative claims until such a time as they have secured a naturalistic metaethics. My point is that, prior to doing any metaethics at all, most folks have the normative concept of something's being good or worth caring about. Such people are often (and quite intelligibly) motivated by the thought that something is worth caring about; and this thought is not cognitively or analytically equivalent to any thought involving purely naturalistic, non-normative concepts. (Here I assume you're not an analytical naturalist.)

    So, I dunno, maybe you're an exception to the rule, and you really never have been motivated by a normative thought that wasn't transparently (to you) reducible to a descriptive thought. But that would be most unusual. And this standard practice strongly suggests that it's really not any kind of pre-theoretic datum that only natural facts could ever be relevant to choice and deliberation. You could keep on insisting on such a principle nonetheless, of course, and there's probably not much I could say in the face of such insistence. But I must confess to finding it rather baffling.

  5. Richard,

    Do you think that analyses of moral properties must be, for lack of a better term, caring conservative? Consider an analogy.

    I regard the matter of WHETHER I COULD HAVE WON THE ELECTION as a matter worth caring about, even though I lost the election. Then, Lewis offer his counterpart theoretic account of modality on which individuals are worldbound. I conclude conditionally: If Lewis's theory of modality is correct, then the matter of WHETHER I COULD HAVE WON THE ELECTION is not worth caring about (because my counterparts are not *me*). So I reason modus tollens to the falsity of counterpart theory. Counterpart theory is not caring conservative: learning about counterpart theory, supposing that it is true, alters which modal facts I care about.

    The same sort of objection might be put to the non-naturalist. I regard the matter of WHETHER IT IS GOOD TO HELP PEOPLE as a matter worth caring about. Then, the non-naturalist offers her account of goodness. I conclude conditional: If non-natural is true, then the matter of WHETHER IT IS GOOD TO HELP PEOPLE is not worth caring about (because...?...). I reason modus tollens to the conclusion that non-naturalism is false. The threat is that non-natural is not--I hate this name--caring conservative, and hence false.

  6. Hi Jack, sure, I think this is a worry to take seriously: an acceptable metaethical theory cannot render it unintelligible to care about normative properties, or to see them as normatively significant. (After all, if something has no normative significance what claim does it have to being a normative property?)

    What I reject is just the claim that non-natural properties couldn't be normatively significant. In other words, I wonder about the "because...?..."


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