Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Possibly Wrong Moral Theories

In 'The Normative Irrelevance of the Actual', I explained why it doesn't matter whether a putative counterexample to a moral theory is actual or hypothetical in nature, on the grounds that first-order moral theories can be understood as (implying) a whole raft of conditionals from possible non-moral circumstances to moral verdicts.  But there's another, perhaps more intuitive, way to make the case, based on the idea that some counterfactually superior moral theory should be superior, simpliciter.

Consider Slote's sentimentalism.  According to Slote (2007, 31), wrong acts are those that "reflect or exhibit or express an absence (or lack) of fully developed empathic concern for (or caring about) others." The relevant kind of empathic concern is not some kind of a priori theoretical posit, such as universal love, but rather is tied to our actual natural dispositions to favour those near and dear. (This is crucial to secure his desired anti-utilitarian verdicts.)  But this raises the obvious worry: what if our "natural" empathic dispositions turn out to have racist or otherwise clearly immoral built-in tendencies?

Slote responds: “The ethics of empathy may here be hostage to future biological and psychological research, but I don’t think that takes away from its promise as a way of understanding and justifying (a certain view of) morality.” (p.36)

But, I suggest, if we know that there is a possible situation in which sentimentalism is not the correct moral theory, then we can ask ourselves what the correct moral theory in that situation would be. And once equipped with that correct possible moral theory—one that provides an independent justification for rejecting racist or otherwise immoral sentiments even when sentimentalism cannot—then we may wonder what we need sentimentalism for. What is stopping that counterfactually correct moral theory from also being the actually correct moral theory?

Perhaps there are some moral theories that give plausible verdicts only in a certain counterfactual world, and are no longer plausible when we apply them to our world (or others).  So, fine, discard those clearly inadequate theories.  Still, given the entirety of logical space to choose from, we should be able to find a theory that yields the desired results in our world as well as in the counterfactual world where it is superior to sentimentalism (or whatever merely contingently plausible theory we are considering).

So, if a moral theory is merely contingently plausible, we can find a better option out there.  Being possibly wrong, in this sense, suffices to establish that the moral theory is actually wrong.


  1. I like the argument, but knowledge seems to be doing a lot of work here -- in effect, it's suggesting that when we already know that there possible situations in which a moral theory will be wrong, we can use that to discover a moral theory that will be more right. But surely this is not so clear when we are talking about any but the most basic counterfactual situations? One could also have a view in which there are possible areas of life that will just be confusing because they are at the limits of our actual ability to have coherent moral judgments, or that we just don't know enough about some of these possibilities to say what would be going on, for instance. Or there could be something analogous to a preface paradox: yes, someone might say, we might be able to think of possible cases in which we can come up with isolated reasons to be puzzled or to worry about the results in counterfactual cases, but given what we actually have to build moral theories with, we don't actually have any better overall moral theory available. That our best moral theory might have anomalies in counerfactual worlds wouldn't necessarily affect its being our best moral theory.

    Has anyone given an argument that there must be a moral theory that is not merely contingently plausible? I don't know what to think of the view, but it strikes me that there would likely be some who, faced with this argument, would at least be tempted to say that all moral theories could be merely contingently plausible -- no Grand Unified Theory, just a lot of local theories that do well for a particular domain and less well for others.

  2. I agree with and like this argument. We can imagine worlds where our sentiments are clearly leading to false moral judgments, and we would recognize them as such. But the tools we employ to recognize an immoral sentiment are rooted in contingency. If you changed a few facts about how things are, those tools would vindicate the opposite judgments. Doesn't it sound madly hubristic to declare confidently that we now happen to have counterfactual intuitions about values that are perfectly calibrated to the truth, so that we can reliably recognize which sentiments would be ethically misleading? How did we come by this superpower?

    This looks like an argument for moral skepticism, but I'm no moral skeptic. The answer to skepticisms is usually to find some principle to take as epistemically foundational. Much more interesting than moral skepticism is the argument about what's the best principle for which to pound our fist. Here we have many options, all of which are bad-but-not-worse-than-skepticism. Sentimentalism is one of these. Sure, it looks especially bad in a world where our sentiments are homophobic and racist. But maybe we live in a world where our capacity to recognize the badness of bad sentiments is completely miscalibrated, and if you think it's not, you're epistemically out on just as thin a limb as the sentimentalist (or Euthyphro).


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