Friday, March 15, 2013

Immoral Nihilism?

It's often thought that one's metaethical views are more or less independent of one's first-order moral views.  Anti-realists can still value other people's welfare, want to prevent the innocent from suffering, etc.  But is this enough?  An argument I owe to Helen suggests it may not be.  Anti-realists can of course have benevolent preferences, and be disposed to blame people who act malevolently, but there is something they're missing: They can't accommodate the moral datum that other people really matter -- matter simpliciter, "from the point of view of the universe", as opposed to merely mattering to them, personally, in light of their contingent preferences.  And, the argument goes, there's something morally disreputable about the more superficial attitude to which (consistent) anti-realists are limited.  Positive regard should not be something we choose to bestow upon others; it is something they are owed, in light of the kinds of beings they are.  The worry is, in other words, that anti-realists must regard their good will as too... optional.  They fail to really see people as mattering in themselves.

Does that seem right?  Expressivists and "quasi-realists" seem likely to want to deny it, insisting that they can endorse all the same first-order norms as moral realists.  "People do matter, and deserve to be regarded with respect," they will say, by which they mean that they endorse norms of treating people as if they matter and deserve to be regarded with respect.  But going through the motions is surely not the same as really believing these things, and it seems plausible that morality (or genuine respect for persons) calls for the latter, over and above the former.

What do you think?

14 comments:

  1. Blackburn has written about this sort of accusation many times, particularly in his reply to Egan's sharp formulation of it (http://www.phil.cam.ac.uk/~swb24/PAPERS/Egan%20final.htm). Suffice to say, he doesn't think this problem is quite as difficult as you make it out to be. A die-hard quasi-realist is just going to say that your own fist-pounding invocation of the word "really" adds nothing to the content your moral language, it's just a way of emphasizing or underscoring your view.

    It's becoming very common to hear this accusation (Parfit loves it, for example), but it's not so common to hear exactly how it can be stated in non question-bagging terms. If the objection itself assumes that moral language can be used to represent the objective deliverances of some transcendent perspective, the expressivist can dismiss it, because it is premised on the very view (descriptivist realism) that the expressivist theory begins by denying.

    There is also, I think, an illicit slide from the view that one's preferences are subjective to the claim that they are optional. I am fully aware of the fact that my opposition to (for example) sexual assault is, trivially, mine. There is no valid logical move which gets one from this alone to the thought that I could drop that opposition on a whim.

    Finally, something to think about: The quasi-realist casts moral thought as unavoidably first-personal, conducted from within values and standards that you already accept. This is parallel to the Quinean position in epistemology, which views epistmic activity as proceeding from within the knower's standards. Quine's position does not lead him to epistemic nihilism or relativistic idealism, nor do any other positions which rely on this 'Neurath's Boat' model of cognition. As Davidson claims, a belief can only be evaluated on the basis of another belief, and there's nothing wrong with that. Blackburn is simply saying the same thing about attitudes.

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    1. Yes, that's what a die-hard quasi-realist is going to say. But it doesn't seem (at least to me) very convincing. Of course moral language can be used to attribute objective moral properties -- perhaps mistakenly, if the error theorist is right to think that there aren't really any such properties, but the expressivist's attempt to reinterpret what the realist even means just seems... well, I'll be polite and stick with "unconvincing". (So, I'm okay with "begging the question" against that aspect of the view. It's the metaphysical thesis of anti-realism I'm interested in, not the linguistic thesis of expressivism, which strikes me as a total non-starter.)

      "Blackburn is simply saying the same thing about attitudes."

      In epistemology and ethics both, one can accept a "Neurath's Boat" (/reflective equilibrium) methodology whilst thinking that there's a further fact of the matter as to whether our best attempts to implement this methodology will actually end us up in the right place.

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    2. "In epistemology and ethics both, one can accept a "Neurath's Boat" (/reflective equilibrium) methodology whilst thinking that there's a further fact of the matter as to whether our best attempts to implement this methodology will actually end us up in the right place."

      I suspect that if you put this to Blackburn, he would ask you what there is in his theory that leads him to deny this. He's a slippery guy. :)

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  2. On the whole, I agree with Vanitas.

    Though I was inclined to see the argument you present less as a version of Egan's objection, and more as a version of David Lewis' view of quasi-realism: that it amounts to a form of fictionalism. You write that quasi realists endorse norms of treating people *as if* they matter and deserve respect, (but do not *really* believe that people matter and deserve respect). That sort of distinction, though, is exactly the sort of distinction that quasi-realism is premised on denying; the quasi-realist thinks that believing that somebody deserves respect just is a matter of being disposed to treat them in various ways. Maybe that's a bit crude, but I think it's fair to think of the quasi-realist as a sort of functionalist in the philosophy of mind, who holds that moral judgments can be understood functionally, and that their main functional role is guiding behavior (though she needn't be a behaviorist; she can allow that their functional roles also include interacting with other mental states).

    So when you say that there's something objectionable about merely being disposed to act in all possible circumstances *as if* somebody deserves respect, while not *really believing* that somebody deserves respect, the quasi-realist will deny that you have drawn a genuine distinction.

    As an aside, I don't think it's mere stubbornness when I say that I have no idea of what "mattering from the perspective of the universe" is supposed to amount to. The universe does not have a perspective. It is not a conscious being. I know this talk is supposed to be metaphorical, but I don't know how to unpack the metaphor, and I think that when you try, you'll end up just straightforwardly begging the question against a quasi-realist, who will unpack the metaphor in quasi-realist terms (maybe they'll say that thinking that somebody matters from the perspective of the universe is a matter of, e.g., blaming people who don't treat them with respect, or of regarding with horror and "guilt-tinged aversion" the prospect of one's treating them poorly).

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  3. I guess I would come at this from another direction. If there were moral principles that "matter from the perspective of the universe," what's that to me? I'm not the universe. Going along with these supposedly "objective" standards seems far more optional to me than my own values. Admittedly, I perhaps only think this because, like Daniel (or J. L. Mackie before us) I don't really understand what "mattering from the perspective of the universe" could be. But if so, well, I sincerely don't understand that, so here I am.

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    1. It may be an unhelpful metaphor. But hopefully you have some genuinely normative concepts. You can conceptually distinguish, e.g., the descriptive question of what you do value/desire from the normative question of what you ought to value/desire. And that's really all there is to it. Some things matter, intrinsically, in the sense that any agent whatsoever -- regardless of their contingent psychological quirks -- ought to care about them. Thus understood, your question -- effectively, "Why care about what ought to be cared about?" -- answers itself.

      If that isn't intelligible to you, then fair enough, I guess you're not in my target audience here. One needs a grasp of the robust realist's moral concepts before one can answer whether it seems morally deficient to fail to apply these concepts (instead restricting oneself to the psychological concepts of personally valuing, etc.).

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    2. Hmmm. I certainly grant the existence of meta-desires and meta-values. If "objective" just means "endorsed at a meta-level," then of course I believe in objective values in that sense. But I didn't think that was what "objective" meant. On the other hand, I do think that meta-endorsement plays a very important role in moral thinking. Thanks for bringing that up; it seems likely to me that some of the genuine issues which are misleadingly categorized as involving realism in ethics are actually concerned with meta-level coherence (a very complicated topic indeed; not surprising that it should generate confusions!)

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    3. Nothing you said about the "robust realist's concepts" in reply to Aaron is something that expressivists and quasi-realists deny of their normative concepts--they are quick to distinguish themselves from constructivists, and are happy to say, e.g., that there are things that any agent whatsoever, regardless of their contingent psychological quirks, ought to care about/shun. While both Alan Gibbard and Sharon Street are classed as anti-realists on some taxonomies, they say very different things about, e.g., ideally coherent Caligulas, or ideally coherent anorexics, or (ideally coherent) future Tuesday indifference.

      So distinguishing the descriptive question about what you do value/desire from the normative question of what you ought to value/desire is really "all there is to it", then it's not clear that expressivists/quasi-realists should be part of the target. Or at least, if they still are, you'd have to argue that their way of trying to capture the distinction doesn't work (as Egan does). But you can't just say that's all there is to it, as if they don't try to capture the distinction.

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    4. Daniel - right, my comment there was specifically responding to Aaron's "what's it to me?" worry.

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  4. I'm sympathetic to the Blackburnians here, but assuming there is something to people "mattering in themselves" (but not in the quasi-realist sense), I'd have thought there are some anti-realists who are actually more admirable than their realist counterparts. Consider the anti-realist who has been thoroughly (but reluctantly) persuaded by error theoretic considerations, but decides to treat others as if they "really matter" anyway because he desperately wants that the universe instantiates the requisite normativity, and is outraged and heartbroken that it does not. I think I'd admire this anti-realist --- who is totally committed to treating others as if they really matter despite thinking that treatment is not rationally commanded --- more than a realist who has "one thought too many."

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  5. I don't think anti-realists need to deny a distinction between believing people deserve respect and acting as if they deserve respect. Anti-realists can instead argue that they really do believe that (some) people deserve respect. They would just say that "really deserving respect" cannot mean "deserving respect from the perspective of the universe as a whole" or maybe just that "really deserving respect" is not truth-evaluable.

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  6. Also, Richard, I wonder if your argument amounts to a rejection of consequentialism. If you agree that the moral anti-realist can act in all the same ways as the moral realist, but merely lacks some propositional attitude, then you can't be judging the moral worth of that attitude in terms of its consequences. You might say that the moral realist does act in some ways which are different: specifically, the moral realist avows moral realism. But does the mere avowal of moral realism produce a greater good (or reduce more suffering) than the avowal of moral anti-realism? If we are to be consequentialists, I think you need to find a bigger behavioral difference between moral realists and moral anti-realists to convince me that one is of more moral worth. If you were prepared to reject consequentialism, however, then your argument might be more persuasive. The moral anti-realist would do the same things as the moral realist, but would presumably be regarding people as means, and not just as ends. This would be a problem for a deontologist like Kant.

    I think some moral anti-realists might be open to a limited reading of Kant, though. A moral anti-realist could believe that people are ends in themselves, and that there are facts in the universe which make it so. They might even say this it is so in all possible universes. The argument could be that dignity is a necessary aspect of rational agency, which itself is a prerequisite for social contracts. Moral anti-realists can say it is impossible to conceive of rational agents without dignity. Thus, there is a fact of the matter which makes people ends in themselves.

    I can see two ways the moral anti-realist can go about this. One is to claim that personhood is not a natural kind, and that there is no fact of the matter about whether or not an organism is (or should be treated as) a person. The other option is to claim that there is no fact of the matter about whether or not we should recognize the dignity of any particular person. So, the moral anti-realist can say that all persons have dignity, but the universe does not determine what is or is not a person. Or the moral anti-realist can say that there are objective persons, but there is no objective reason to respect the dignity of any particular person. In both cases, the moral anti-realist does genuinely believe in the dignity of persons. However, their moral attitudes do still admit of contingencies. But this does not seem so morally suspicious. It seems fair to suppose that personhood is not a natural kind. It also seems fair to suppose that there are circumstances in which a person loses their moral right to have their dignity respected. Neither of these views suggests that the moral anti-realist is being too superficial in their attitudes or insincere in their behavior.

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    1. "you can't be judging the moral worth of that attitude in terms of its consequences"

      Right. I'm a consequentialist about acts, but whether other attitudes are rationally warranted or "fitting" is a different question from whether they maximize value. See, e.g., my old post on evaluating character.

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    2. It looks like you've indicated a plausible dilemma for consequentialists, and your approach to a resolution is interesting. I wonder if your approach invites a certain criticism of its own: If you adopt consequentialism with respect to acts, but deontology or virtue ethics (or something else?) with respect to character, then aren't you requiring two different senses of the term "moral?" If your approach is correct, then when we speak of an act as moral or immoral, we can't mean the same thing as when we speak of a person as moral or immoral. That isn't necesasarily a problem, I guess, but it could seem counter-intuitive to a lot of people.

      For example, what happens when we consider cognitive processes as acts? If the intentional cognitive processes which constitute a persons character are also acts, then your position requires that you evaluate them in terms of their consequences. (I take it as a given that intentional cognitive processes are at least partially constitutive of character, or else it wouldn't make sense to condemn or praise a person for their character.) If you acknowledge that the consequences of moral anti-realism can be good (even just as good as the consequences of moral realism), then your view leads us to evaluate the same thing--the character of the moral anti-realist--as both moral and immoral. You can justify that by claiming that it is moral in one sense of "moral," but not moral in another sense of "moral." Is that how you would proceed?

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