Posts Tagged ‘metaethics’

Dichotomies in Metaethics

There are two types of people in this world: those who like dichotomies, and those who don’t. This post is for the former.

Metaethics is riddled with dichotomies. And, unhelpfully, they often cut across each other in unpredictable ways. On top of that, not every metaethicist employs the terms in the same ways, meaning some dichotomies are rendered differently in different texts.

So, here is my understanding of the key dichotomies in metaethics (with my preferred options). I’m not entirely sure I have characterised them all correctly, or that I’m not missing any salient points. Please feel free to criticise or revise this list in the comments:

Realism vs. anti-realism

  • Realism: moral facts exist
    • Often cashed out as objective prescriptive facts
      • “objective, intrinsic, prescriptivity” (Mackie, 1975 – who, by the way, thought these facts didn’t exist)
    • Or facts about a property of goodness in things/actions
    • Example proponents: G.E. Moore, M. Smith, P. Bloomfield, a (disappointing) heap of others
  • Anti-realism: moral properties don’t exist
    • Example proponents: Mackie, Joyce, Greene
  • I fall within this camp as I don’t believe objective, prescriptive moral facts exist, and use evolved moral psychology to show why we might erroneously think the do

Cognitivism vs. non-cognitivism

  • Cognitivism: moral utterances are statements of fact and have truth values
    • Eg: “murder is wrong” is either true or false
    • A descriptive semantic thesis about moral discourse, not a prescriptive or ontological thesis about moral statements
    • Strong cognitivism: as above but the facts are cognitively accessible
  • Non-cognitivism: moral utterances are statements of affect or preference and don’t have truth values
    • Example proponents: Blackburn, Ayer, Stevenson
  • I consider this a spurious distinction as everyday moral discourse is muddled, and most moral utterances have a cognitive and an affective component: moral intuitions (immediate impressions of permissibility/impermissibility of an act) are typically non-cognitivist; while the post-hoc rationalisations of moral norms are typically cognitivist

Naturalism vs. non-naturalism

  • Naturalism: a form of cognitivism and realism that states that moral properties exist and they are natural properties or moral statements are rendered true or false by facts about natural states of affairs
    • Facts about happiness (Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer) or about neurological states (Sam Harris)
  • Non-naturalism: a form of cognitivism and realism that states that moral properties exist and they are non-natural properties
    • Example proponents: G.E. Moore
  • I reject both these formations as they’re dependent on moral realism. Instead I adopt an anti-realist naturalism that says moral phenomena are analysable in purely naturalistic terms, but this alone doesn’t imply any binding normativity, similar to Joshua Greene, Michael Ruse (I think…) and the so-called Duke Naturalists

Internalism vs. externalism

  • Internalism: moral beliefs are intrinsically motivating
    • It’s somehow contradictory to believe that ‘x is good’ and yet have no inclination towards doing ‘x’
    • Example proponents: Michael Smith
  • Externalism: moral beliefs are not intrinsically motivating and require some other impetus to motivate moral behaviour
    • It’s possible to believe ‘x is good’ and not be motivated to do ‘x’
  • This is another dichotomy I reject as I take a softer psychological approach that suggests moral norms are not bindingly prescriptive nor intrinsically motivating, although we are often internally emotionally motivated to act in accordance to the norms to which we subscribe (akrasia not withstanding), and we want people to behave like this, but we often need ‘external’ motivation, such as threat of coercion, to motivate conformity and prevent bouts of akrasia

Absolutism vs. relativism

  • Absolutism: there is one moral standard that is fixed
    • Applies without contingency
    • Can be objective (fixed by facts in the world or God’s will)
    • Can be subjective (fixed by the whim of an authority)
  • Relativism: moral standards are indexed to some value
    • Indexed to culture, group of people, environment etc
    • Can be objective (x group/circumstances always implies y morality)
    • Can be subjective (x group/circumstances can choose y or z morality)
  • I am absolutely not an absolutist, rather more a pluralist along the lines of David Wong, where there I argue there are many ways of solving the problems of social living that morality is constructed to solve, but there are better and worse ways in different environments, and there are clearly some very bad ways

Categorical vs. hypothetical

  • Categorical imperatives: moral norms are binding regardless of an individual’s ends or desires
  • Hypothetical imperatives: moral norms are binding contingent on an individual’s ends or desires
  • I fall into the hypothetical camp, with norms binding hypothetically, contingent on our desire to serve our own interests in a social context, given the assumption (usually true) that acting in accordance with the constructed moral code will advance our own interests better than the alternative of not acting in accordance with a moral code

Not even sure if the last one is strictly metaethical, or more a normative ethical thesis. But hey.

Moral Dynamics

One of the privileges of being a philosopher is you can create new terms, define them how you please, and damn be to any conventions that would have the term used otherwise. So, I’ve created a few new terms – well, at lease one is new.

Here they are, in conceptual order:

Moral Diversity: the phenomenon I’m interested in understanding and explaining, namely the existence of persistent and intractable differences of opinion over what is considered good and bad, and the norms that promote good behaviour.

A key element of Moral Diversity is moral disagreement which, if it truly is intractable, poses a problem for any realist, objectivist or generally monist approach to ethics. I would suggest that Moral Diversity is a very real phenomenon, although I acknowledge that I could be proven wrong.

Moral Ecology: the notion that moral norms are not hard-and-fast rules but strategies employed to foster in-group cooperation and out-group competition, and these norms emerge in response to the environmental conditions around them, which includes the strategies employed by other individuals and communities.

As there is no one set of norms that best promotes in-group cooperation and out-group competition in all environments, and there is no one set that forms a stable equilibrium within one environment, and because new norms will inevitably emerge and compete with existing norms, there will always be a pluralism of norms that interact in a dynamic way.

I argue that Moral Ecology is the best way to understand morality as a natural phenomenon and to explain the existence of Moral Diversity.

Moral Dynamics: the study of the moral norms within a particular environment, ostensibly with the intention of finding the optimal set of norms that will form the most stable equilibrium and which yields the aggregate outcome closes to the Pareto optimal level, while resisting invasion by new norms and behaviours, particularly ones that are inclined towards defection.

If Moral Ecology is the correct way to understand morality as a natural phenomenon, the Moral Dynamics is a new approach to studying morality, not to find the single best hard-and-fast set of rules that works in every situation, but to find the different and dynamic sets of norms that work in different environments.

OK, rip in to them.

Religion’s Odd Relationship with Atheism

It almost beggars belief that many self-proclaimed so-called moral experts of the modern world – men and women of cloth, such as rabbi Adam Jacobs – exhibit such a shocking ignorance of modern ethical and evolutionary theory.

Jacobs penned a piece for the Huffington Post recently that could serve as a template for the gross misunderstanding of how atheism and morality are related. Quoth Jacobs:

The most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes?

Sigh. He might as well be saying “because there’s no edict from God over the rules of cricket, you can just give yourself a century and refuse to leave if you’re caught out.”

Just because it isn’t written in the bible, doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules to cricket (cricket nihilism). And it doesn’t mean you can play by whatever rules you choose (cricket egoism).

Once you’ve chosen to play, you’re obliged to play by the rules, or you face the consequences. You’re thrown out of the game or, if your transgression wasn’t so obscene, you’re politely censured and threatened that if you do it again, you’re no longer welcome on the pitch.

Morality is a game, not unlike cricket in this respect. The only thing is, playing the game is to everyone’s advantage; playing the game advances our interests, both biological (selfish gene theory) and psychological (preference utilitarianism).

And it’s a matter of empirical fact that virtually everyone already wants to play the game. In fact, the whole point that Dawkins was trying to make with the selfish gene theory is that playing nice is a form of self-interest, and evolution has already primed us to play nice.

The only subjective element is that we’re not bound – logically or by divine will – to play the game. We can rationally choose not to. But if we do, we suffer the consequences and are censured by all those who do play nice.

So it’s actually not in our long-term interests to do “whatever one’s heart desires at any moment” because in such a society, I wouldn’t get much of what I desire at all. Instead, it’s far more in my interests to play nice.

This has all been said before many, many times. It’s disappointing that pontificating individuals like rabbi Jacobs haven’t read or understood it. And it’s even more disappointing that they spread misinformation about atheism and secular morality.

And then he says stuff like this:

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine.

In fact, he has it entirely backwards. He has his philosophy because of the evolved moral proclivities we’re already equipped with. Evolution and moral naturalism can explain everything, even why people might mistakenly believe in moral super- or non-naturalism.

I don’t mind people disagreeing with the details of how morality works, or arguing over the nuances of evolution or anti-realism. But I do mind people getting on their high horse and dismissing those poor deluded atheists based on uninformed and vacuous arguments.

Moral Meltdown

When Scott Stephens invited me to pen something on the ethics of nuclear power, I must admit I winced.

I mean, I’ve written for the ABC about morality after god, about the muddle of multiculturalism and about how moral nihilism can actually be a good thing (no pun intended), but the ethics of nuclear power is as starkly real an issue as the previous are abstract.

Still, it was an interesting exercise, and one that forced me to reflect on what ethics is all about. Lofty ruminations on normative theories or metaethics is all good and well (or perhaps not for the latter; my feelings on metaethics are already well known). But ethics is ultimately about applied ethics. It’s the application of the theory to the real world where things get really crunchy.

And I must say, it strikes me how little I hear philosophers talking about applied ethical issues these days. Here we are, with a nuclear crisis unfolding in front of our very eyes, a nuclear debate is heating up, and where are the philosophers?

Back around the time of World War I, Bertrand Russell was more than a pontificator, he was an agitator. He wrote profusely about war, not only in academic circles, but for the general public. He even went to prison as a result of his pacifist stance.

You don’t see that kind of philosophy in action any more.

It seems as though the philosophy community today is largely obsessed with technical and theoretical problems, and with responding in academic journals to arguments against x, where x is their preferred theory. Yet they don’t seem terribly engaged with the very subject matter of ethics in the first place: humanity.

The real world offers a slew of moral dilemmas that can test even the most robust moral theory. Philosophical moral dilemmas, like ye olde trolley dilemmas, are good for rarefying one particular element of a moral theory and placing it, and our intuitions, under stress. But real world dilemmas are different.

Moral philosophy has largely been seeking the right answer to morality. The single approach to discovering moral truth; the single value or set of values upon which all others are based; the normative system that lends justification to our moral utterances.

But morality in the real world isn’t absolute. Even if there is one set of ‘right’ values, unless everyone can agree what they are, then we’re forced to behave either as inquisitors, and impose our truth on others, or we must accept pluralism, and have a modicum of tolerance for dissenting views.

After all, moral action isn’t a theoretical debate, it’s a drive to motivate behaviour. And it’s a time-limited endeavour.

Writing about the ethics of nuclear power reminded me of these important lessons. And I hope that while I continue to study and write about ethics, they’re lessons I don’t forget.

Why Moral Subjectivism Doesn’t Imply Moral Relativism

I seem to spend an awful lot of time defending my moral anti-realism from claims that without objective moral values, then morality is merely subjective.

However, this equivocates over two possible senses of ‘subjective.’

Given I don’t believe there are objective moral values, I do subscribe to a subjectivism of sorts. However, it’s not the subjectivism that says ‘what is right and wrong is entirely down to what I believe is right and wrong at the time.’ This kind of subjectivism slides easily into mad-dog moral relativism, a kind of free-for-all where the justification for any moral norm is that I believe it to be so.

That’s not the kind of subjectivism I’m in to.


Of Metaethics, Error Theory and What Morality Really Is

I’ll say it again: doing metaethics is a dreadful way to spend one’s time. Yet, here I am. Doing metaethics. For, like doing tax returns and scrubbing the bathroom, there are some unsavoury endeavours that are necessitated by our chosen course of life. And as my chosen course involves walking the paths of ethical theory, I’m forced to wade through the swamps of metaethics from time to time. So, don your galoshes and on with the show.

I stated recently that Sam Harris ought to be a moral anti-realist, and in shifting to such a stance, he’d lose little and gain much. Namely, he’d lose the mad-dog moral naturalist realism that insists that science can determine human values – and in doing so, evaporate the ire of the manifold philosophers who’ve criticised this aspect of his approach.

What he’d gain is an ability to talk about moral facts, or facts that pertain to making a moral judgement. This has got me into some metaethical strife, according to Richard Wein. Why? Because I’m getting all error theorist on Harris’ realism, yet I’m still talking about moral facts. But, if error theory and anti-realism are to be taken seriously, then moral statements are all false. The only point in continuing to talk about them as if they’re real is to pretend they’re real, a la moral fictionalism.

Let me elaborate. And brace yourself, this is going to get metaethical.


Morality, Health and Sam Harris

There’s a lot to like about Sam Harris‘ views on morality. In fact, I suspect that even his most vocal critics agree with him on a vast majority of what he has to say. His advocacy for a scientific engagement with morality is warmly welcome, as is his commitment to go beyond the old God versus no-God debate to suggest a positive agenda to build a secular morality devoid of supernatural meddling.

But there’s one sticking point  – one to which Harris continues to apply glue – and one against which people like myself and Russell Blackford continue to rebound. That is Harris’ commitment that science can describe morality all the way down.

Harris suggests that science doesn’t stop at the descriptive waters edge, but that it extends as far as being able to establish our fundamental values. His brand of bald naturalistic realism is not only extreme but, in my opinion, overshoots his objective. And in doing so receives criticism that distracts from the merits of his view.


Moral Rules or Moral Strategies

I’ve been struggling to articulate an aspect of my unfolding story of morality as shaped by evolution, and one of my key criticisms of moral realism. And I think I might have stumbled on a metaphor that expresses this point.

Moral realists often talk about the reality/objectivity of moral facts. ‘It is wrong to kill an innocent person’ is true or false, and moral enquiry is about figuring out which of these moral facts is true, and then translating them into norms, like ‘you should not kill and innocent person.’

Cricket is almost as complex as morality.

Moral anti-realists often suggest that the facts and their corresponding rules aren’t real/objective, just like the rules of cricket: there’s nothing written in to the fabric of the universe that necessitates that a ball caught on the full by a fielder gets the batsman who struck it out. But all the players tacitly agree on the rules before engaging in the game, so one can still make meaningful assertions about whether someone ought to be out or not after being caught on the full.

I’m sympathetic to this anti-realist response, but I don’t think it captures precisely my objection to moral realist talk.

Instead of talking about moral norms as the binding rules of the game – the inescapable rules to which one must adhere if they’re to play – I prefer to talk about norms as strategies for winning the game.

The rules set the winning conditions, and I agree they are tacitly agreed upon before playing, although there’s still room for debate about them in detail and there will likely always be borderline cases and ambiguities that can be argued over.

These rules might set the conditions of play, but the bulk of moral norms constitute strategies of play. And there’s no one strategy that works best in every circumstance. Even if we could come to total agreement on the rules, there’d still be room for diversity of strategies.

That’s not to say that some strategies are measurably worse than others. And some are downright appalling and are clearly unlikely to help you succeed. There are also some that break the rules, and they’re just not on.

But there will inevitably be a diversity of strategies to choose from, and which one succeeds depends not only on the strategy itself but the environment in which it’s played – and that environment includes the strategies employed by the other team, if you will.

Some moral realists would balk at this notion. Take Judith Thomson’s Moral Assessment Thesis:

Moral Assessment is pointless unless it is possible to find out about some moral sentences that they are true. I take the idea that morality is ‘objective’ to be, at heart, the idea that this condition is met. (Judith Thomson in Harman & Thomson, 1996, p.67).

Strategies aren’t true or false. But that doesn’t make talking about them pointless. There’s nothing true or false about putting in a fourth slip or employing a right-arm pace bowler around the wicket against a right-handed batsman, but it’s not pointless talking about doing so.

We’re all playing the game of life, and we tacitly accept the basic goals and rules of the game – that we’re all attempting to advance our interests within the broad framework of the laws of nature – but there are many strategies we might employ to advance our interests. Cooperation is one, and a bloody good one at that.

So, instead of talking about moral facts and moral norms as being these fixed and immutable things, if we talk about moral strategies we open the door to talking more fluidly about them.

Granted, one might be able to construct a version of realism that sets a few basic factual ground conditions, like declaring some fundamental intrinsic values, and then allows a pluralism of strategies to promote those values. I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to do so, but you could.

So yeah. Not sure if the metaphor of cricket is terribly helpful, but I find I’ve long been thinking about morality as a system of strategies for enhancing cooperative and cohesive behaviour rather than about moral facts of binding norms, and this could be one way to make that point. Dunno. You tell me.

Why Moral Philosophers Aren’t More Moral Than the Rest of Us

Brace yourself. Or sit down. Or both. Eric Schwitzgebel and compatriots have uncovered a startling revelation: professional ethicists don’t behave any more morally or courteously than non-ethicists.

Full abstract of their paper:

If philosophical moral reflection tends to promote moral behavior, one might think that professional ethicists would behave morally better than do socially comparable non-ethicists.  We examined three types of courteous and discourteous behavior at American Philosophical Association conferences: talking audibly while the speaker is talking (vs. remaining silent), allowing the door to slam shut while entering or exiting mid-session (vs. attempting to close the door quietly), and leaving behind clutter at the end of a session (vs. leaving one’s seat tidy).  By these three measures, audiences in ethics sessions did not appear, generally speaking, to behave any more courteously than did audiences in non-ethics sessions.  However, audiences in environmental ethics sessions did appear to leave behind less trash.

I love it. But it’s actually not a startling revelation at all. In fact, it just lends weight to a point that myself and many others have been making for quite some time, that abstract moral reasoning is quite far removed from the nitty gritty mechanisms that govern and steer moral behaviour.

It’s like saying that couch potatoes who studied a booklet on the rules of basketball were found to be less proficient at shooting hoops than individuals who have practised shooting hoops.

Moral behaviour is a practice. It is knowledge-how, not knowledge-that. One can know that lying to cover up a misdeed is wrong without being very good at putting that knowledge into practice.

Certainly, an increased awareness of the knowledge-that and being practised in moral deliberation might help with particular moral conundrums, such as moral dilemmas, where various positions need to be weighed up. But these moral dilemmas often pit one value against another, or one morally undesirable outcome against another – like whether to kill one innocent individual to save five. A knowledge of moral philosophy might help someone navigate this difficult conceptual terrain.

However, even with moral dilemmas, there’s no guarantee that a moral philosopher, once they’ve come to their conclusion about the most moral course of action, would be any more inclined to carry it out. Say they decide the moral thing to do is sacrifice one innocent to save five – could they do it? Could they kill an innocent person in ‘cold blood’? Could they act contra to their deep-seated emotional proclivities?

The situations observed in the paper above are also different from the moral dilemmas that philosophers love oh so much. These situations observed are simply where a moral – or socially desirable/responsible – action is pitted against a self-interested or lazy action. If asked, many of the professional ethicists at that conference would probably agree that slamming the door or leaving trash is not morally ideal behaviour. But what they lacked was either the willpower to prevent their actions or the desire to act morally in that situation.

Moral behaviour is directed by very different psychological mechanisms than moral deliberation. We should no more expect professional ethicists to be virtuous as we would a gymnastics coach to be able to pull off a flawless floor routine.

Sam Harris Doesn’t Get Morality

It’s all in Russell Blackford’s illuminating and comprehensive review of Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape.

Harris’ big mistake is his utter contempt for metaethics. Now, I’m on record as stating that doing metaethics is a dreadful way to spend one’s time. And so is doing your tax. But, sadly, there are few metaethicists who bill by the hour to whom one can outsource one’s metaethical labours.

Harris’ broader project – one to which I’m sympathetic – is done a disservice by his refusal to engage with moral philosophy and metaethics, at least beyond engaging to the point of skimming the surface and dismissing it out of hand (although one could claim I’m doing the same with Harris’ work – but hey, if I’m wrong, someone’ll tell me – it’s the internet, after all).

Metaethics has a propensity to get bogged down in minutia, and to argue around in circles about questions of arguable import. But the very difficulty of meteathics is suggestive that morality is a more complicated phenomenon to understand that it appears at first blush. Harris would do well to pause to listen to philosophers before disagreeing with them. In fact, some philosophers, such as Blackford, are trying to help advance Harris’ programme.

Ultimately, as Russell says, Harris’ book will be a Good Thing because it’ll advance the discussion about morality. Even if Harris’ work is flawed, he makes some good points, particularly about encouraging a productive engagement between philosophy and science when it comes to morality. Hear hear.

Hopefully, The Moral Landscape, will inspire a second generation of books that respond and build on Harris’ ideas. Blackford has suggested he might pen one himself (go for it man!). What does seem clear is that we’re emerging, slowly, from the miasma of 20th century metaethical debate, and we’re gaining momentum towards developing a robust, functional and empirically-aware secular moral framework. And that is possibly one of the most important things humans can work on right now.

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