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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 #: 516
Andrew,

I've been a busy lately and will be going on vacation for the next 2 weeks. I will definitely reply to your insightful comments when I get back.

Gene
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 535
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.
The Kant analogy is helpful. I think that this runs the risk of talking past one another, as in Kant's schema, many phiosophers might say that it is "things-in-themselves", (as you mention) which are actually "real". At this point, it is difficult to see where to go next if there is not an agreement about what one means by realism. Now if one were to agree that inescapable moral frameworks are as "real" as we are going to get, the next question would be - what would be the argument against this view - to argue that in fact we do not use inescapable moral frameworks?
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 536


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.


To follow up on my last post, one way to argue against inescapable moral frameworks would be by way of thought experiment. One can certainly imagine entities which can act in fairly sophisticated ways without moral frameworks. This might include certain animals, real or imagined, or future machines. In the free will debate, many philosophers are uncomfortable with the notion of an agent as it seems anti-naturalistic. Again, we run into the problem of the definition of realism. If a machine could eventually acquire agency, if this comes via a purely naturalistic (perhaps weakly emergent) manner (e.g., it might be emergent, but a Laplacian demon could derive it from the basic programming and facts about the environment/history), does the machine thereby have a "real" moral framework? Or does "real" require that the machine can now identify something that is out there in the world, akin to the nature of discovering a generally accepted scientific truth?
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 537


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.
Moral realism based upon the existence of external reasons (i.e., independent of what desires one might have) may be the most popular form of non-naturalist moral realism - its espoused for example by Parfit and Scanlon. So this might be the best line of argument, although it seems a bit unclear to me what the ontological status of an external reason is (they are usually taken to be basic and somewhat inexplicable in terms of other factors).
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 538
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.
There are emotivist approaches to this, for example, Blackburn's quasi-realism, or Alan Gibbard's very detailed work. For the purposes of a debate, I suspect these would be a bit too complex though :). The basic idea behind emotivism isn't hard to explain to a non-philosophical audience though - if moral judgments motivate, and beliefs do not motivate (without desires), then moral judgments must not be beliefs. Now one could argue that certain beliefs do motivate independents - namely moral beliefs, which provide external reasons independent of ones desires.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 539
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.
I'd like to read McDowell's book and Taylor's essay if you would be willing to lend them to me at a future meetup. For the purposes of debate, I think it is best to identify a few discrete arguments, readily comprehensible to an audience without philosophical background, and go from there. That is why I think Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism is a good debate topic, it is a single discrete argument.
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