Follow up to: Will the Real Moral Realism Please Stand Up?
In a previous essay, I had just started to answer the question about whether or not moral statements communicate something that can sometimes be true by way of summarizing “moral realism”. Moral realism, strictly speaking, is this view that moral statements not only can be true, but occasionally are true.
However, there are many different senses on what kind of truth morality is, and many different definitions of “moral realism” take the possibility of truth further to also include that morality is discovered instead of made, belief-independent, desire-independent, irreducible to nonmoral facts, involves intrinsic value, and/or applies universally to all people in all situations. Yes, this is very confusing.
Currently, my view is that moral statements are a subset of normative statements, in which a standard is chosen to evaluate action, and there things are better or worse relative to that standard. If you need to go more in depth, read through the series and/or refer to the executive summary. I’ve already argued that while moral statements certainly have strong emotive and declarative components, they can be sensibly reduced to descriptive facts about how an action or state of affairs relates to a standard and thus normative statements (of which morality is a subset) can be true or false.
So, now I’d like to finish up by deciding if my view can be best characterized with the “moral realism” label or the “moral anti-realism” label. In doing so, I will spring board off of a debate between two Australian philosophers. The first philosopher is Stephen Finlay, who you may know as the person who came up with end-relational theory, the meta-ethical view I have been arguing for. The second philosopher is Richard Joyce, a philosopher who is famous for arguing for moral anti-realism (aka error theory).
Joyce’s Error Theory
The debate is played out in the following four articles (all PDFs):
“The Error in Error Theory” by Stephen Finlay
“The Error in ‘The Error in Error Theory’” by Richard Joyce
Errors Upon Errors: A Reply to Joyce by Stephen Finlay
“Enough With The Errors: A Final Reply to Finlay by Richard Joyce
Finlay starts off by defining Error Theory as follows:
(1) Presupposition: moral judgments involve a particular kind of presupposition which is essential to their status as moral;
(2) Error: this presupposition is irreconcilable with the way things are
Finlay argues that together (1) plus (2) is enough to conclude Error Theory. The problem is that moral judgments require something special from the moral realism ledger (like some sort of belief-independent/desire-independent universally binding ethic, such as a categorical imperative) and this special property does not exist.
Typically, moral realists respond by what Joyce calls the “head-on” approach, attacking Error and saying that this special property, contra Joyce, actually does exist. Instead, Finlay takes the more unusual route by attacking Presupposition, agreeing that special realist properties don’t exist, but moral language can continue without them and it still can make sense to condemn people.
Much of the nature of error theory ends up in contention in this debate, and we witness two excellent and humorous philosophers basically talk past each other on this issue. Finlay talks about the “particular kind of presupposition” (special property) needed to make morality work, but then focuses only on absolutism, or the idea that morality is universally binding, whereas Joyce mentions that even if morality did not require absolutism, it was still dependent upon some silly property somewhere else down the road.
Still, Finlay attacks the view that morality requires absolutism nonetheless. (For this essay, I will take it as an obvious given that absolutism is false and Error is true.) But how? Finlay launches a two-pronged attack to demonstrate that moral language can be used even without assuming that such language is somehow magically binding on everyone. The first is that there are many instances where moral language makes use of a relation to implicit and explicit ends (end-relational theory), and the second is that even if moral language currently was in error, it could be salvageable.
Absolutism and Relativism in Current Moral Language
It has been relatively uncontroversial in meta-ethics that end-relational normative statements (“If you want to get the mail, you ought to go to the mailbox” or “If you value life, you ought not murder”) are valid and empirically true. What is in contention is whether or not these statements can be adequately considered “moral”. Though philosopher Phillipa Foot once tried to, rightly in my opinion, argue for morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives [PDF] (before recanting and changing her mind in favor of some Aristotelian meta-ethic), Joyce argues that moral conversation in the real-world is not similarly end-relational / hypothetical, but instead is categorical and assumed to be universally binding — in other words, absolute.
Deceptive Moral Talk
However, as we’ve seen before, moral talk can be deceptive, and people can easily leave off ends that they are otherwise implying, simply for rhetorical effect. Joyce is correct in stating that many moral utterances are made with the expectation that the speaker shares the end in question, however, this does not imply that the end in question is absolute (ore vene meant to be absolute), instead merely widespread.
For example, imagine sitting down next to someone for a game of Chess. Chess has rules about what moves ought to and ought not happen (with regard to the rules of chess) and there is a strong expectation that when you sit down wit someone to play Chess, that the opponent will play by these rules of Chess. Same is true with many people who have made rules for life; following the explicit social contract (what is legal and illegal) and the implicit social contract (not being a jerk, etc.).
A good portion of the Finlay – Joyce debate hinges on whether Finlay’s view can make sense of blame. Following this expectation that other people will uphold the social contract, however, it seems that it can. Joyce argues that if moral relativism were true, we would have no basis by which to judge Hitler to be evil.
However, this is not the correct type of relativism required by Finlay’s theory — instead, we can pick a standard, and note that Hitler is judged evil by that standard whether he likes it or not. In End-relational theory, things are relational to ends, not the whims of the people being evaluated.
Joyce goes on to further point out, however, that we don’t mind when our personal ends are set back by someone defeating us fair and square, but do get huffy when our personal ends are set back by someone defeating us by cheating, even if we were set back by an identical amount. However, this too seems explained by noting that people don’t necessarily expect their ends to be fulfilled, but do have a strong expectation that they should be treated fairly, and condemn unfair treatment under a preferred moral standard of theirs. And this expectation seems widespread and fundamental enough to be considered reasonable.
Getting even more into this, perhaps the anger deployed by people in response to an unfair scenario (or a scenario just generally perceived as immoral), the act of getting angry is an act of using a social pressure to try to get the malcontent to reform (and thus no longer be treated negatively). When we find someone who’s actions we seek to reform, we threaten anger, and then follow through when it is needed as a punishment.
Thus a blanket condemnation of Hitler as evil is really applying a standard against Hitler that one reasonably expects a wide variety of people will share, which is entirely consistent with Finlay’s position.
Absolutism and Motion; Absolutism and Witches: Arguments by Analogy
While talk about blame or omitting ends does not seem to require absolutism (or some other special property) as Joyce may argue, it’s worth pointing out that even if this line of reasoning were for some reason discarded, there still is another reason to find error theory to be erroneous that doesn’t involve current moral dialogue at all.
Instead, Finlay draws on an analogy: back when people thought the Earth was stationary, they discussed motion in absolute terms — a boat was sailing away from the coast and the coast was staying put. Now that we know the Earth moves around and know about the theory of relativity, we no longer can have any notions of absolute distance. Yet, discussions about motion do not need to be stopped altogether; they could be easily adapted to the new findings. Now, motion would be talked about largely the same, with the exception that it was always relative.
We can carry this analogy home by comparing it to absolute morality — many people thought that morality was absolute and universally binding on everyone, however we then found out this wasn’t the case. However, this doesn’t mean that talk about morality is doomed, because we could easily switch over to an end-relational framework and continue our moral discussions without thinking that we broke an epistemic commitment somewhere down the line.
On the flipside, however, Joyce argues that a better analogy to apply is one of a “Witch”. Here, the word “witch” would refer to a woman in the village who had magical powers. However, such magical powers clearly don’t exist, so we advance an error theory against witches. Following the stationary Earth example, however, couldn’t we simply change the meaning of “witch” to that which does exist — the woman in the village who the villagers perceive to have magical powers?
Joyce argues that such a switch in language is absurd because witches don’t exist. Likewise, we shouldn’t make an analogous shift in our moral language, because changing it would be confusing and the underlying properties don’t exist. Instead, talk about morality is just committed to a fundamental error and none of it is ever true (though it is truth-apt).
In my next essay continuing this normativity series, I’ll settle the debate in favor of an easily workable moral discourse, lay out my opinions for how moral discourse should be like both analytically and persuasively, and tie it all together in a way needed to answer all of the following questions:
Do moral statements like “Abortion is wrong” actually communicate something that is truth-apt?
If yes, do moral statements communicate something that can sometimes be true?
If yes, are moral statements justified by appealing to descriptions of the world?
If yes, are these descriptions something other than people’s opinions?
If yes, which descriptions should we specifically focus on?
I’ll also make the final decision on where I fall on moral realism and moral anti-realism, plus the commentary needed to make the distinction seem very silly.
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