Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Ambiguously Normative Testimony

Suppose that a reliable Oracle tells us that there's a non-natural property shared by most but not all of the things we antecedently believed to be bad (and that no other non-natural property more closely tracks our beliefs about badness).  What's a non-naturalist to do?  Should we conclude that the Oracle is talking about badness, and revise our normative beliefs accordingly?  Or revise our belief in non-naturalism so that no normative revisions are necessary?  Presumably it depends upon the details, i.e. how confident we are in the normative belief that would be revised vs how confident we are in our non-naturalist metaethics.  I'd certainly sooner give up my non-naturalism than believe that torturing animals is okay, for example.  But I think there are at least some cases where it'd be reasonable to revise my moral beliefs instead (e.g. if the alternative view struck me as substantively plausible enough to be a serious contender for being the moral truth of the matter, even if it wasn't what I was antecedently inclined to believe).

In his new paper, 'A Dilemma for Non-Naturalists', Bedke argues that this makes me immoral.  In this blog post I want to establish two things: (1) that some such moral belief revisions can be perfectly reasonable and innocuous, and (2) that the fundamental structure of the 'dilemma' has nothing to do with non-naturalism.  It can be generalized to apply regardless of one's metaethical view.

The key feature of the scenario is that it seems to the agent independently likely (bracketing any concerns they have about the implied moral revisions), but not certain, that the property the Oracle is talking about is the normative property of badness.  I call such testimony "ambiguously normative".  Ambiguously normative testimony does not require non-naturalism.  Consider the following two scenarios:

(A) The Oracle tells you that one of your concepts is such that its true extension is as follows: [she goes on to list all the things you antecedently believed to be bad, with one exception, as before].  How confident should you be that the concept she's talking about is your concept of badness?  Is there any chance you should revise your moral beliefs on the basis of her testimony?

(B) The Oracle tells you that she flipped a 100-sided die.  If it landed on any of 1 - 99, she uses 'F' to mean bad.  If it landed on 100, then she's using 'F' to mean something different.  She goes on to tell you that [all those things as listed before] are F.  How confident should you be that 'F' means bad? Is there any chance you should revise your moral beliefs on the basis of her testimony?

Clearly, scenarios A and B are puzzles for everyone, not just non-naturalists. That is, there is a general puzzle about how we should respond to ambiguously normative testimony.  One can generate specific cases that are only ambiguously normative for non-naturalists, but that doesn't create a special problem for non-naturalists, unless there's some reason to think that the correct general solution won't carry over to that specific case.

Bedke (in section 2.1) argues as follows for the immorality of revising our moral beliefs on the basis of testimony regarding non-natural properties:
The repugnance is similar to the repugnance of thinking that someone’s pain does not matter because they have a particular genetic heritage, or certain color of skin, or because the winds on Mars are swirling in one way rather than another. Just as we morally should not change our normative views about pain based on those considerations, so too we should not change our normative views based on the presence or absence of a non-natural property. [...] It makes one’s moral views objectionably hostage to a peculiar metaphysical fortune. One should not have moral views that aim to track the patterns of a non-natural realm, however those patterns turn out.

Of course, we should not think that any non-natural property is a necessary bad-making feature (without which the natural stuff is insufficient to qualify as mattering), the way the cartoon racist thinks of skin color. But non-naturalists don't think that.  We think that the features identified in our axiology -- pain and such -- are sufficient for badness.  Since we think badness is a non-natural property, we thereby also think that pain and such are sufficient for having a non-natural property.  But it's the pain, not the property of badness, that provides the normative explanation of the state's badness. (Badness is what the pain is qualifying for, not what does the qualifying.)

It's also important to stress that non-naturalists don't "aim to track the patterns of a non-natural realm, however those patterns turn out."  Our credences in animal torture being okay, even conditional on whatever non-natural patterns you like, can be as low as you like.  We may be certain of some bedrock normative assumptions, and less than certain of our non-naturalism, and hence be willing to give up our non-naturalism in the event that no non-natural pattern is available that matches what we know about badness (say).

There's a formal sense in which, for as long as we accept non-naturalism, we aim to have moral beliefs that "track the pattern of a non-natural realm." But this means no more than that (i) we aim to track badness, and (ii) while we accept non-naturalism, we believe badness to be a non-natural property.  There is nothing so obviously objectionable about this.

Similar claims about formal aims can be made regardless of one's metaethical views.  There's a formal sense in which, inasmuch as we believe that 'F' denotes badness, we aim to have moral beliefs that track the things the Oracle asserts are F.  But this sort of merely formal "tracking" of a mere placeholder for normativity surely cannot be objectionable.  We obviously don't believe (in cartoon-racist-like fashion) that others only matter when and because they have the semantic property of being referred to in this way by the Oracle.  To attribute such a pattern of concern to us would reveal a serious confusion about the nature of these merely formal aims.

But that isn't to say that such formal tracking is entirely toothless (or "maximally fragile", as Bedke suggests on the non-naturalist's behalf, towards the end of section 3).  Sometimes revising moral beliefs on the basis of ambiguously normative testimony may be called for.  Just consider a view that you antecedently reject but nonetheless consider a "live candidate" for taking seriously: prioritarianism, say.  If the Oracle told me that there is a non-natural property that closely matches my normative beliefs, but matches prioritarianism even better, I would take that to be grounds for concluding (i) that the Oracle is talking about a normative property, and hence (ii) prioritarianism is (somewhat surprisingly) the correct normative view.  (I suggest a more complex example, involving chickens, survival, and personal identity, in my old post on 'Intelligible Non-Natural Concerns' -- this also made it into section 1.1 of my paper, 'Why Care About Non-Natural Reasons?')

And again, if you aren't a non-naturalist, you can consider a more neutral form of ambiguously normative testimony, along the lines of scenarios A or B above.  Suppose that the Oracle reports something about a superficially non-moral domain (e.g. concept extension), but (i) it seems independently likely that she's actually referring to badness, just indirectly; and (ii) if so, the resulting ethical claims are substantively plausible, even if not ones you were antecedently inclined to accept. In such a case, it seems to me perfectly reasonable for you to conclude that she really is referring, indirectly, to badness, and hence the resulting ethical claims are correct.  Indeed, what basis would you have for thinking otherwise?  Do you think it is impossible to refer indirectly to badness?  Or are you so certain of all your normative beliefs that you cannot imagine revising any of them on the basis of (seemingly extremely reliable) indirect testimony?

[All this is really just to expand upon footnote 17 of my old paper, but it seems worth expanding upon!]

[Cross-posted to PEA Soup]


  1. Isn't this just a nonreligious version of the Euthyphro dilemma? Are things good because of possessing a cetain non-natural property, or do they possess that non-natural property because they are good?

    Of course, this question is going to sound a lot dumber if I had replaced the phrase "a certain non-natural property" with the word "goodness".

  2. Related to this, would you still endorse the arguments below the 2nd and 3rd (bolded) questions in this old blog post, if I systematically replaced the word "God" with "the non-natural property of goodness?" and "the religious" with "non-naturalists"? I suppose we should also replace "commands" with "morally obliges"; and "benevolent" with something like "asociated with human flourishing"...

  3. Hi Aron! I don't think the analogy works. God has an independent essence that is then wheeled in to explain morality (etc.), so we can question whether it can do so in much the way that Moore (through his Open Question Argument) challenges the ability of natural properties to play this role. No such corresponding challenge can coherently be made against the non-naturalist, as I explain in my old paper, because we are not wheeling in any independently specifiable property and then attempting to identify it with goodness. Rather, we start with goodness itself and simply posit that it is sui generis: not identical to any non-normatively specifiable property. Since natural properties are all non-normatively specifiable, the claim that normative properties are sui generis entails that they are non-natural.

  4. Thanks for the link; I enjoyed reading the paper.

    I agree that if our original definition of a property is normative, then there is of course no further "open question" about its normativity. I further agree that if an entity is specified in a purely non-normative manner (e.g. by a physical description in terms of Standard Model fields) then there IS indeed an open question about its normative properties.

    But I think there is a logical gap in section 1.2, when you try to move from saying that if a property has:

    "no essence capable of being captured or adequately characterized in non-normative terms at all"

    that it must therefore belong to the class of:

    "purely normative properties: properties that are normative, and nothing else."

    But this does not seem to follow, any more that saying a ball is not entirely-red would imply that it is entirely not-red. It seems logically possible that a property might be both descriptive and normative, in a way which cannot be reduced to either a purely descriptive property or a purely normative property. (To some extent your footnotes 5 and 6 each grapple with different aspects of this issue, but I don't think either footnote rules out what I'm saying here.)

    In fact, I would question whether ANY property can be purely normative in the sense required. After all, in order to be relevant to human decision-making, a normative property must itself be able to possess the property "caused-to-exist-by-a-person". (For example, if a chicken suffering in confined quarters has the normative property of wrongness, then for Factory Farmer Jones to be morally responsible, we need to be able to say that his actions caused the wrongness in question to exist, and that if he had done something else it would not exist.) But participating in causality relations seems to me to be a pretty significant form of extra metaphysical baggage which goes beyond the purely normative aspects of the property. (More generally, any attempt to explain metaphysically where normative properties come from, would presumably need to appeal to some sort of grounding relation that plausibly goes beyond the purely normative aspects of the property. For example, in footnote 9 you seem open to the idea that certain sorts of normative entities can ground other sorts of normative entities.) So I'm skeptical about whether there are any purely normative properties.

    And if a normative property can participate in causal relationships on the "effect" side, is it really so obvious that it can't also participate on the "cause" side? At least, it is unclear to me why the former would be any more innocuous than the latter, from the perspective of arguing that the property is "purely normative".

  5. Richard,
    To bring the discussion back around to the religious question, I think that most traditional religious philosophers would probably disagree with your assertion that:

    "God has an independent essence that is then wheeled in to explain morality"

    I don't see how you came to this conclusion. How would you know that (assuming he exists) God's essence is independent of morality? Most systematic theologies probably mention that God is "righteous" or "holy" or "good" in the first page of description. If we take that as part of the characterization of his essence, then of course that essence is not independent of morality.

    Let's try for a different definition of God which makes no obvious reference to ethics. Suppose we try: "God is that being which grounds the existence of all other beings, with their respective properties". This seems pretty essential to the monotheistic notion of God. (Assuming that "grounding" is an acyclic relation, there could be at most one such being. I also note that this definition does not actually specify what the essence of God is; but only says that, whatever it is, it grounds everything else.)

    Now, normative properties are examples of properties. Therefore, it would NOT in fact be an Open Question, given this definition of God, whether such a God would ground morality or not. He obviously would, because (by definition) he grounds everything. You might reasonably question whether a being with that description could exist, but not whether it would ground normative facts if it did exist!

    One might retort that this argument implies *that* God grounds morality but does not in any way show *how* God grounds morality. But I think it is quite common for philosophical arguments to show that some proposition P is true, without showing how P is true. (Indeed, the Open Question argument for non-naturalism about ethics (or consciousness) provides an example of such a P, since it shows that ethics cannot be grounded in a natural property, without actually giving any nontrivial account of how ethics IS grounded, other than to say it must be non-natural.)

    In the case of e.g. the Standard Model of particle physics, we know how to describe it mathematically, in a way that seems to be entirely non-normative. This is what opens the door to a Moorean Open Question argument, that physics cannot ground ethics. But God is usually defined, not by a set of equations, but rather in a more metaphysical way; so you have to work harder in order to show that no moral implications can follow. (And if getting the argument off the ground requires giving an satisfactory and complete characterization of God's essence, then most classical theists would probably say that the task is impossible; because the human mind is not actually capable of grasping God's essence, but only reasoning to its existence based on its effects.)


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