Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Normative vs Metaethical (constitutive) Wrong-making

Melis Erdur, in 'A Moral Argument Against Moral Realism', asks "whether it makes moral sense to take the dictates of some independent reality to be the ultimate reason why genocide is wrong." (p.7) She continues:
[S]urely, the existence of an independently issued verdict – if there were such a verdict – that genocide is wrong would not be the main or ultimate reason why it is wrong. Genocide is wrong mainly and ultimately because of the pain and suffering and loss that it involves – regardless of whether or not the badness of such suffering and loss is confirmed by an independent reality.

It's a mistake to think that moral realism implies that possession of the mind-independent property of moral wrongness is the "ultimate reason why" an act is wrong, in the ordinary (normative) sense of "reason why".  It's a common mistake, though.  Matt Bedke writes something similar (though I gather from correspondence that he doesn't really intend it to be read this way) in 'A Menagerie of Duties?': "Is it because they are causing [...] pain that the action normatively matters in the way it does, or because there is some non-natural property or relation at play? Surely the former." (p.197)

As I respond, in my non-naturalism paper (the remainder of this blog post is an extended quote from pp.12-14):

A question like "Why is it wrong to cause gratuitous pain?" can be read in two ways. The most natural reading situates it as a question in first-order normative ethics. This is to ask: What are the wrong-making features of such actions? Which of the (natural) properties in this situation are the normatively significant ones--the ones that do the justifying (or that explain why a certain action is unjustified)? Here the non-naturalist can happily agree with Bedke that it's the causing of pain that's of central normative significance here, and that explains why "the action normatively matters in the way it does."

Non-naturalism is not a first-order normative theory, after all. It instead addresses the (more obscure) metaethical question: What does the wrongness of the action (or the badness of the pain) consist in? Simple answer: The wrongness of the act consists in the act's possessing the property of being wrong! Not a particularly informative answer, perhaps, but it's a central thesis of non-naturalism that normative properties are sui generis. This view eschews the kinds of ambitious metaethical explanations offered by constructivists and others. There is, on this view, no deeper explanation of what wrongness is to be offered. The purely normative properties are bedrock, and the basic normative truths are brutely true. One may or may not like this aspect of the view, but the crucial point for now is just to note that it's compatible with any first-order normative explanations (of which acts "normatively matter" and why). The constitutive sense in which possessing the purely normative property of wrongness is what "makes" wrong acts wrong (in the sense that this is what it is for an act to be wrong) is distinct from, and not in competition with, the normative sense in which certain natural properties are "wrong-making" features.


  1. Hi Richard, this is a nice post and I agree with a lot of it. I wonder though whether the distinction you rely on between what it is for an action to be wrong and what it takes for an action to be wrong is accepted by your opponents. Maybe they think that there is no more to what it is for an action to be wrong than that it has what it takes. Insofar as we can codify wrongness in naturalistic terms (with our normative theory of wrong-making features) we have thereby characterised some natural property - and, the naturalist says, that is the property of being wrong.

    Now I take it that in the paper you have a response to this line, which is Parfit's idea that we need to accommodate normative facts of the form, "this natural fact - the possession of the aforementioned natural property - is a normatively important one". But the naturalist has a good reply to this argument: a posteriori identity claims can be informative. It is a fact, and informative, that Hesperus = Phosphorus, but this just requires a conceptual distinction rather than a metaphysical one. So there's nothing obviously weird about communicating that the natural property picked out by the correct normative theory is normatively significant just by saying that it is identical to the property of being wrong; and of course that doesn't require the positing of any non-natural properties. So the "Ethical Idlers" argument does seem convincing to me overall, absent some compelling reason to distinguish the "what it is" from the "what it takes" in this case.

    1. Hi Daniel, I think the conceptual distinction suffices to defang these arguments, because it shows that the non-naturalist (or realist more broadly) isn't committed to treating normative properties as more important than "pain and suffering and loss", as Erdur puts it. Indeed, a non-naturalist can't collapse the distinction, so any argument that starts from that premise is question-begging in the most blatant possible way, and so can't function as an argument against non-naturalism.

      (I do say more about Jackson's version of the "Ethical Idler" worry in my paper, which I think is an importantly different argument from the sort of moral objection discussed in this post. In response to a more distinctively theoretical worry about what the point of these further properties would be, I discuss the meta-ethical -- as opposed to normative -- role that they play. Insofar as we want to know what metaphysically distinguishes a normatively significant property like painfulness from a normatively inert property like liquidity, I don't think it helps much to say that painfulness is self-identical. Liquidity is self-identical too, after all. So is happiness, for that matter. There's no metaphysical difference between naturalism and nihilism; the difference between the two views is merely semantic.)

      For more on the broader issue of why a posteriori identities are no help to metaethical naturalists, see my old post 'Against Synthetic Ethical Naturalism' (funnily, I seem to have been sympathetic to analytical naturalism at the time of writing!) -- or, more recently, 'Information and Parfit's Fact-Stating Argument'.

    2. Thanks Richard, this is helpful, I'm having a look at those other posts, and associated comments. Two quick points:

      One way of hearing the Erdur argument is as showing that we shouldn't be *looking* for a *metaphysical* distinction between normatively significant properties and normatively insignificant ones, precisely because metaphysics doesn't help with normative explanation (and the real question is why we should care about one property more than the other, which is a normative question). And insofar as all we can say (if we accept brutalism) is, "The wrongness of the act consists in the act's possessing the property of being wrong", it isn't clear to me why anything metaphysical is going on here - the trivial thesis here tells us nothing about the *nature* of the property of being wrong.

      On metaethical naturalism and a posteriori identity, I think I agree with everything you say at least in the first post *as a critique of Boyd-style Cornell realism*. That is, I agree that something like the Moral Twin Earth objection is decisive against that view. But Cornell realism really has two components: a metaphysical commitment to moral properties being natural properties, and a meta-semantic commitment to moral terms/concepts being like natural kind terms/concepts. As I see it, the Moral Twin Earth objection only targets the meta-semantic component. But expressivists like Gibbard (and me) can accept the metaphysical thesis without accepting that meta-semantics. As an expressivist I locate the intrinsic prescriptivity of wrongness in the concept, so I hold with the naturalist that there is no metaphysical distinction between wrongness and natural properties. (I think this goes back to the different ways Mackie and Hare understood objective prescriptivity.)

    3. Ah, yes, I wasn't thinking of expressivism! Don't really have any argument against that view; just find it unsatisfying, personally.


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