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Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club Message Board › Moral realism debate

Moral realism debate

Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 461
I'm going to use this thread for Andrew and I to discuss our upcoming debate on moral realism. Specifically, Andrew will defend a version of moral realism (perhaps similar to that espoused by Charles Taylor) and I will defend a version of moral anti-realism.

To start things off, below is a message Andrew sent me:

If you had to place Taylor in the traditional taxonomies, I think he's leans towards moral realism, cognitivism, and anti-naturalism. In particularly, he attacks the traditional Humean picture of human psychology where there are motivationally inert beliefs on one hand, and subject-focused desires on the other. His most powerful (in my view) arguments in favor of moral psychology start with a phenomenology of human action, in which "strong evaluations" inevitably play a role. It's most concisely stated on p58-60:


1. You cannot help having recourse to these strongly valued goods for the purposes of life: deliberating, judging situations, deciding how you feel about people, and the like. The 'cannot help' here is not like the inability to stop blinking when someone waves a fist in your face, or your incapacity to contain your irritation at Uncle George sucking his dentures, even though you know it's irrational. It means rather that you need these terms to make the best sense of what your'e doing. By the same token these terms are indispensable to the kind of explanation and understanding of self and others that is interwoven with these life uses: assessing his conduct, grasping her motivation, coming to see what you were really about all these years, etc.


2. What is real is what you have to deal with, what won't go away just because it doesn't fit your prejudices. By this token, what you can't help having recourse to in life is real, or a near to reality as you can get a grasp of at present. Your general metaphysical picture of "values" and their place in "reality" ought to be based on what you find real in this way. It couldn't conceivably be the basis of an objection to its reality.


The force of this argument is obscurely felt even by non-realists. It comes in the confused sense that espousing the projection view ought to have a devastating effect on first-order morality. This is the sense that everyone has before they are got to by philosophical rationalization, that what they count with as they live--goods and demands they make--is flatly incompatible with a projection view. To go along with this sense, a projectivist would have to reject morality altogether, as this is usually understood, i.e., as a domain of strong evaluation. But most non-realists are reluctant to take this rote. They themselves are committed to some morality, and they also have some distant sense of my point 1, that one couldn't operate this way. Even Mackie doesn't follow through on his error theory and propose that we stop moralizing or do so quite differently.


So they try instead to show how non-realist theory is compatible with our ordinary moral experience. This is the point of Blackburn's 'quasi-realism', which he defines as "the enterprise of showing how much of the apparently 'realist' appearance of ordinary moral thought is explicable and justifiable on the anti-realist picture." But here they impale themselves on the other horn of a dilemma. They make non-realism compatible with moral experience by making this experience somehow irrelevant to it, by making the determinants of this issue of the status of the good lie elsewhere. But that runs against my point 2.


If non-realism can't be supported by moral experience, then there are no good grounds to believe it at all. The non-realist would have to get down to the detail of the moral life, and show in particular cases how a projective view made more sense of them, if he were to convince us. But we have seen how the logic of our moral language resists this kind of splitting.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 463
Andrew,

I'm having some difficulty understanding the full ramifications of Taylor's view in terms of the moral realism debate, but I have only read a little of Sources of the Self. Here are some objections I have - some of which admittedly may be based upon an imperfect understanding.

1) Taylor writes about inescapable moral frameworks. The moral anti-realist could concede that to be the case - without difficulty I think. Taylor then seems to suggest that because these frameworks are inescapable they are "real" or as near to reality as one can get. However, that is not the sense of "real" that the moral realism debate typically addresses. Moral realism is about the ontological status of morality, not whether or not we by necessity use moral frameworks.

As an analogy, consider scientific vs pre-scientific thought. It may very well be the case that certain pre-scientific ways of thinking about the world are inescapable -but this does not that these correspond to anything "real" in the philosophical sense. These ways of thinking, although inescapable, could be shown by science to not correspond to anything real. So the moral realist is saying essentially that the morality is real in the sense that the entities postulated in our best scientific theories are real, not that it is real in the sense that it is unavoidable in our thought.

Now the evolutionary debunker of morality would say that these frameworks are inescapable precisely because they are evolutionarily programmed, perhaps modified by specific cultural circumstances.

2) Taylor talks about the phenomenology of moral experience. I think it is very difficult to argue for or against anything here. This seems to be largely in the realm of moral psychology rather than philosophy. I'm not sure how I could argue one way or the other about "strong evaluations".

3) Taylor might concede that moral frameworks, although inescapable from the individual's perspective, may vary culturally. If so, I'm not sure why this is not just a form of moral relativism.

4) Taylor talks about the "projectivist" - this term is not commonly used in meta-ethics - Taylor seems to be talking about non-cognitivism, or specifically expressivism. The expressivist believes that moral judgments are not beliefs but expressions of desires. This is largely because in the Humean theory of motivation, beliefs do not motivate. This seems to me, phenomologically, quite reasonable. On introspection, it seems that if I come to believe something, this does not motivate me, unless I have some desire already in place. So I'm not quite sure what Taylor's argument is against this theory of motivation? I don't really see the point of the other horn of Taylor's "dilemma". What exactly is the dilemma the expressivist is supposed to be face? The expressivist probably doesn't worry that our moral experience is "irrelevant" because the expressivist contends that we are wrong if we think our moral experience suggests that our moral judgments are beliefs. Now maybe it is "inescapable" to think of moral judgments as beliefs, or even "strong evaluations" but I don't think the anti-realist is worried about that (see point 1).

So Taylor seems to be arguing for things that most people, including anti-realists, could or would just agree with without difficulty. His sense of "real" doesn't seem to be what most analytic philosophers are arguing about in the moral realism debate. Interestingly, if you look at Victor's writeup for the upcoming meetup on dualism, it seems that Taylor's argument is like Victor's for "minimal dualism". Minimal dualism is something that probably no one would disagree with, but doesn't seem to capture what most analytic philosophers are arguing about.
Andrew S.
user 42377212
Seattle, WA
Post #: 1
Gene,

Thanks for the thoughtful response. As you’ll see, I’ve written quite a lengthy reply, and that is part of the reason why it took me so long smile I hope you’ll forgive the volume—you asked very good questions, and appropriately addressing them requires expanding the scope of the original argument. I broke it up into separate responses, based on what I was replying to.

-Andrew
Andrew S.
user 42377212
Seattle, WA
Post #: 2
Taylor writes about inescapable moral frameworks. The moral anti-realist could concede that to be the case - without difficulty I think. Taylor then seems to suggest that because these frameworks are inescapable they are "real" or as near to reality as one can get. However, that is not the sense of "real" that the moral realism debate typically addresses. Moral realism is about the ontological status of morality, not whether or not we by necessity use moral frameworks.
Taylor is indeed trying to say that there is a connection between something being “inescapable” (phenomenologically) and “real” (ontologically). So if something is inescapable to subjects in principle, he says, it makes sense to call it real. There is the intention, at least, of talking about the same thing--the ontological status of morality. That’s why he says “Your general metaphysical picture of "values" and their place in "reality" ought to be based on what you find real in this way” (emphasis mine).

I think Taylor is offering a transcendental argument similar in form to the kind that Kant likes to make. The point is to establish some kind of truth about the world-as-it-is-possible-for-any-subject-­to-experience (which, unless you believe in “things-in-themselves,” is all we could ever mean by “real”) by looking into the necessary conditions of what it would be to be a subject in the world.

I believe arguments of this form can potentially be valid and sound. (Of course, as Kant’s notorious argument about the a priori necessity of Euclidian geometry applying to the physical world shows, there are also many bad arguments of this form). Do you disagree? Maybe you could help me understand where you think this one goes wrong.
Andrew S.
user 42377212
Seattle, WA
Post #: 3

Consider, on the other hand, what it would be like to be a subject who rejected all strong action-guiding criteria. The stuff this theoretical agent would be rejecting as illusion would include the usual suspects, like: “I should act to reduce suffering by other conscious agents,” (consequentialism) “I must always respect the autonomy of other agents” (deontology) “I should be a good father” (virtue ethics). But it would also include things like “I should act to further my own well-being” or “I should act on the thing I most strongly desire.”

How would such a subject deliberate? What would his internal dialogue about what to do sound like? How would he figure out what to do? You might say that he would just do whatever he felt like, and that’s probably true. However, in doing what he felt like, he couldn’t really deliberate or reason about it. That would involve, at a minimum, his accepting a principle like “I should act on the thing I most strongly desire,” which is exactly the sort of thing we supposed he rejected.

So if having this internal dialogue about our own actions presupposes a commitment to at least some kind of the principle like the ones above, then we could say that having commitments to at least one of these principles is really unavoidable if one is going to have an experience of thinking practically about one’s actions. By “thinking practically” I mean thinking that has the aim (and ability) to issue conclusions that actually affect (and explain) what the agent does. Another way to put this is that our experience as practically deliberating agents just doesn’t make sense without a belief in at least some kind of strong practical principle—that such principles can’t be dispensed with if we are going to continue to go on having the kinds of experiences that we evidently do have.

You might ask: How “unavoidable” is this kind of experience to an agent? Perhaps we could imagine some kind of rational being who only exercises theoretical reason in comprehending a value-neutral world, but never uses reason or deliberation to make decisions about what to do. Perhaps he’s some kind of floating mind-in-a-void that doesn’t have the capacity to act at all. Or perhaps he does act, but his reason doesn’t play any role in determining or explaining the things he does—he never asks questions or uses language to figure out what he is going to do, he simply does it.

I think these kinds of agents would be almost unrecognizable—to the point where it would be doubtful whether they were really reasoning at all. As John McDowell writes in Mind, Value, and Reality: “we cannot make sense of a creature’s acquiring reason unless it has genuinely alternative possibilities of action over which thought can play.” (p170) Automatically acting on whichever desire is preponderant is not the same thing as reasoning.

Even if such an agent is theoretically possible, it doesn’t look at all like any recognizable human agent. We do have the experience of thinking about our actions in a way that issues in decisions about what to do. An existentialist character, such as Jean Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea, is maybe the closest we can come to having an experience of what it would be like phenomenological to try to deny all of these principles. But even, then, I would argue, Sartre basically smuggles in a few principles, like the “nobility of facing up the world as it truly is”, and it is only these unacknowledged principles that allow Roquentin to continue to go on (apparently) practically deliberating.

For more detail on this whole argument, see “What is Human Agency?” in Taylor’s Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1. I have an extra copy of this book that I can lend you at the next meeting.

Andrew S.
user 42377212
Seattle, WA
Post #: 4
Taylor talks about the "projectivist" - this term is not commonly used in meta-ethics - Taylor seems to be talking about non-cognitivism, or specifically expressivism.
I think you’ve correctly discerned the meaning of the term “projectivist”, so this might be unnecessary, but FWIW, I’ve seen this term used by a variety of analytic philosophers, including Blackburn (to describe a class of theories that he likes) and John McDowell (the opposite). I think Taylor’s position is very close to McDowell’s. See his essay “Projection and Truth in Ethics” in Mind, Value, and Reality. Taylor wrote a review of this book that mostly expressed his agreement. For a more critical tone on McDowell, see the chapter on McDowell in Alexander Miller’s Introduction to Metaethics. I was first introduced to the term from that book.

I’d be interested in defending a few McDowell’s essays in Mind Value and Reality, because I think they offer additional, compelling arguments in favor of the same conclusion I’ve been defending here. If you’d like to read and critique them, I think that could make our discussion more fruitful. Here’s a list of the choicest:

  • “Projection and Truth in Ethics”
  • “Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?”
  • “Might There Be External Reasons”
  • “Values as Secondary Qualities”
  • “Projection and Truth in Ethics”
  • “Two Sorts of Naturalism”

Alternatively, I could give an exposition of my understanding of them to kick things off.
Andrew S.
user 42377212
Seattle, WA
Post #: 5
Taylor talks about the phenomenology of moral experience. I think it is very difficult to argue for or against anything here. This seems to be largely in the realm of moral psychology rather than philosophy. I'm not sure how I could argue one way or the other about "strong evaluations".
If evidence from moral phenomenology factors into a good philosophical argument, as I believe it does above, that seems to suggest that moral phenomenology is relevant to philosophy. But everything turns on the details. I suppose there are philosophical positions (which might be broadly labeled “naturalist”) where moral phenomenology seems ancillary to what is real, because the “real” world is considered to consist of value neutral facts, which makes moral attitudes appear to be just another set of facts to be studied by the appropriate discipline (in this case psychology). Taylor (and McDowell) would claim that this position is based on unexamined assumptions that turn out not to have much support. So I’m sure we can judge whether moral phenomenology is relevant to philosophy, until we can judge the validity and soundness of the arguments that make use of it.
Andrew S.
user 42377212
Seattle, WA
Post #: 6
Taylor might concede that moral frameworks, although inescapable from the individual's perspective, may vary culturally. If so, I'm not sure why this is not just a form of moral relativism.
You’re correct to notice out that just because it might be established that each individual must necessarily make use of “strong evaluations” (i.e. evaluations that are not subject-indexed), that doesn’t tell us anything about which of these evaluations might be “true” or “false”. If, for example, there aren’t compelling rational arguments to establish which particular “strong evaluations” are true, there might be a diversity of opinions about the ethical/moral among people, and no way in principle of resolving the disputes with reasons that everyone would recognize just by being rational.

If this were the case, the argument goes, maybe it would be best to view each of the commitments of each of the rational agents as only apparently “strong”—in reality, the intractable diversity of opinion would have shown them to be really subject-indexed. In other words, relativism and projectivism are vindicated after all.

A few points here, which I’m drawing from several separate sources:

First, Taylor admits the possibility that the strongly valued goods might be intractably plural and contentious. He writes “Unlike the other attempts to relativize the good that I discussed above, I think this is a real possibility. There may be different kinds of human realization which are really incommensurable. This would mean that there would be no way of moving from one of these to the other and presenting the transition without self-delusion as either a gain or a loss in anything. It would just be a total switch, generating incomprehension of one’s past—something that could in principle only come about through intimidation and brainwashing. I think this is a real possibility, but I doubt if it is true” (Sources of the Self, p61).

Taylor’s position is that relativism is a possibility, but only if there’s really no way of understanding or relating between one tradition to another. And the “relating” here isn’t just in the narrow sense of presenting deductive arguments to a minimally rational person. When you, with one perspective on strongly-valued goods, encounter another person/culture with a different perspective on strongly-valued goods, you can still be confident that the good’s each of you see aren’t simply relativized to each of you if there exists some way of communicating and sharing the perspective between you. If the only way to communicate is by “intimidation or brainwashing,” then maybe we have a case of genuinely relative values.

Second, I think if you look at the collective body of inherited ethical wisdom from many different traditions, I’m not convinced that the perspectives held by most people in history really are that intractably diverse. I have in mind CS Lewis’ survey of different cultures in The Abolition of Man where he tries to establish some kind of common human wisdom that he calls the Tao. Of course, there are definitely some extreme outlier opinions which have been popular in various cultures from time to time, but if you interpret these as pathologies and look at things broadly, I don’t think it’s crazy to say that sincere, reasonable human beings, though they may differ somewhat by culture in their perspectives—really are, in spite of this, engaged in a debate about the same thing.

Finally, I’ll just mention, without going into detail, a great argument that McDowell makes in his essay “Might There Be External Reasons?” He defends the idea that there are “external reasons”—things that a subject would be reasonable for a subject to that aren’t dependent on the “motivational set” that the subject has to have. This argument lends some plausibility, I think, to the thought that even though there may be a diversity of opinions about the good, an even if we can’t necessarily use universal deductive reason to convince absolutely every one of our view of the good, there’s no problem with supposing that there really is some “fact of the matter”—an external reason, that we are articulating and believing in.
Andrew S.
user 42377212
Seattle, WA
Post #: 7
The expressivist believes that moral judgments are not beliefs but expressions of desires. This is largely because in the Humean theory of motivation, beliefs do not motivate. This seems to me, phenomologically, quite reasonable. On introspection, it seems that if I come to believe something, this does not motivate me, unless I have some desire already in place. So I'm not quite sure what Taylor's argument is against this theory of motivation?
I think you’re correct to point out the affinity between Taylor’s perspective and an anti-Humean theory of motivation. I agree with you that a Humean psychology seems quite a natural explanation to us moderns—it’s almost like it’s in the water, and we’re fish. The thought might be that we can “just see” that beliefs can’t motivate by looking at a bunch of cases within ourselves, and observing that we’re not motivated unless we have a desire. But I think the purported objectivity here is a mirage. In many (though not all) cases, desires don’t present themselves as independently cognizable objects, yet we’re still motivated. In these cases, the only reason why a modern person thinks he has a “desire” that’s doing the motivated, is because he’s already (circularly) committed to the idea that all motivations must be (sometimes hidden) desires. Consider the following passage from McDowell’s “Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?”:

Suppose, for instance, that we explain a person’s performance of a certain action by crediting him with awareness of some fact that makes it likely (in his view) that acting in that way will be conducive to his interest. Advertising to his view of the facts may suffice, on its own, to show us the favorable light in which is action appeared to him. No doubt we credit him with an appropriate desire, perhaps his own future happiness. But the commitment to ascribe such a desire is simply consequential on our taking him to act as he does for the reason we cite; the desire does not function as an independent extra component in a full specification of his reason, hitherto omitted by an understandable ellipsis of the obvious, but strictly necessary in order to show how it is that the reason can motivate him. Properly understood, his belief does that on its own.

Andrew S.
user 42377212
Seattle, WA
Post #: 8
I don't really see the point of the other horn of Taylor's "dilemma". What exactly is the dilemma the expressivist is supposed to be face? The expressivist probably doesn't worry that our moral experience is "irrelevant" because the expressivist contends that we are wrong if we think our moral experience suggests that our moral judgments are beliefs.
It’s probably easiest to understand the “second horn” by starting with the first.

The idea here is that the projectivist’s position threatens to “undercut” our belief in the everyday strong evaluations that we all use to make sense of our lives—the goods we pursue and the demands we make on other people. For example, you might argue that the emotivist position leaves no place for a principled difference between a demand for justice and a demand for revenge. A common thought might be that justice would be what the person really deserved, while revenge is just a natural (over)-reaction to someone hurting us. But emotivism, the argument goes, wouldn’t let us draw a principled distinction here—demanding justice would be another feeling like revenge, with no recourse to an ethical “reality” to explain to ourselves why justice was privileged. If someone felt the desire for revenge were stronger than the restraint imposed by justice, it would be hard to talk him down using the emotivist framework.

One option would be for the emotivist to simply admit that justice isn’t privileged over revenge, but most would rather take the tack of explaining how we can go on behaving as if it were (metaphysically) privileged, yet still believe emotivism is true. And the only way to do that is to break the connection between what our moral experience seems to suggest (that there is a principled explanation for why justice is privileged over revenge), and what the correct picture of ethical (un)reality is (emotivism). This would be to suggest that our moral experience counts for nothing in determining which metaethical theory is true.

The emotivist is then committed to supplying some other, independent kind of argument in favor of his theory. And this possibility is precisely what Taylor is skeptical about. His point (2) is that the only good arguments that exist to establish conclusions about metaethical frameworks, are the ones that take phenomenological ethical experience as a starting place and ask which presuppositions allow us to “make sense” of this experience (see above).

This is a big claim, I’ll admit. It’s possible that there is some independent considerations, like the truth of the Humean theory of motivation, that argue for emotivism (or some other theory). Taylor believes, but does not state here, that these arguments are circular, and tend to assume the thing their trying to establish. (see above) Which “independent” arguments of this sort do you think are the most promising/powerful? If there is a good argument here, it has the potential to undermine Taylor and McDowell’s positions. I’d be interested in defending them, though.
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