Finlay and Joyce on Moral Discourse

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.).

 

Blaming Someone

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.

-

I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.

On 14 Nov 2012 in All, Normativity. 21 Comments.

21 Comments

  1. #1 joseph says:
    22 Dec 2012, 3:27 am  

    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

    I haven’t read the PDFs yet, initially I didn’t understand Joyce’s point, isn’t it something like
    You could judge Hitler by something fairly normal (and overly simple), like people caused to die, and say something like “If Hitler wanted human life to flourish he ought not have killed all those people”.

    On the other hand, if you were yourself an anti-semite, you might say “Jewish people were a blight on the German population, Hitler ought have killed them”.

    Finlay’s view doesn’t tell us which is moral.

  2. #2 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    22 Dec 2012, 6:21 pm  

    I think that’s precisely the point of Finlay (and my) view — from a meta-ethical perspective, there’s no way to tell which view is moral.

    If the problem is one where me and the anti-semite share the same value of human flourishing (or the flourishing of all animals) but then have an empirical dispute over whether Jews are destructive of human flourishing, then that can be resolved by pointing to the conclusive empirical evidence that Jews are no more destructive than any other race or class.

    If the problem instead is a clash of values — I value all flourishing whereas the anti-semite values the flourishing of all animals except the Jews, I might point out that it is odd to make such an arbitrary exclusion and condemn the person for being, well, anti-semitic, there’s no actual way to resolve this dispute. We just have different ethical theories. (Now of course, this doesn’t mean I have to accept the anti-semitic position.)

    …Indeed, this seems pretty similar to the debate between whether we should value just human flourishing or all flourishing.

    I’ll write something about moral disagreement soonish to wrap this up further.

  3. #3 joseph says:
    22 Dec 2012, 9:29 pm  

    then have an empirical dispute over whether Jews are destructive of human flourishing, then that can be resolved by pointing to the conclusive empirical evidence that Jews are no more destructive than any other race or class

    When I was thinking about this (and I don’t want to elaborate, as the arguments involved are horrific) I thought that an anti-semite would interpret all empirical evidence in such a way to blame the jewish people.

    Another thought was there is, again though horrific, a genetic justufication for killing all (or in a patriarchal society) all the males, of a “rival” social group, then then argument becomes one over whether you view humankind as a single entity, or as bereft into various tribes etc (this seems to be the view of white supremacists).

    My thoughts were you might be able to argue down a contractarian line, that if you yourself were born into small….i do hope this isn’t racist….religious-cultural entity like the jewish people, the Romany people etc, you would not wish to be discriminated against yourself, so a moral contract would disclude racism.

  4. #4 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    22 Dec 2012, 11:11 pm  

    I thought that an anti-semite would interpret all empirical evidence in such a way to blame the jewish people.

    That one can interpret empirical evidence incorrectly does not make them correct.

    ~

    My thoughts were you might be able to argue down a contractarian line, that if you yourself were born into small….i do hope this isn’t racist….religious-cultural entity like the jewish people, the Romany people etc, you would not wish to be discriminated against yourself, so a moral contract would disclude racism.

    You could try to make that reasoning; it seems similar to what Rawls aims for in his notion of an “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance”. However, it seems enough to point out that since I’m clearly not Jewish or Romany, there’s no reason for me to refrain from discriminating solely on the basis that I could have been Jewish or Romany.

    You can point out the apparent and arbitrary inconsistency, but people don’t *have* to go for it.

  5. #5 joseph says:
    22 Dec 2012, 11:39 pm  

    That one can interpret empirical evidence incorrectly does not make them correct.

    Yes, taken as a given, but as with quantum interpretations, “proving” that yours is correct is problematic.

    You can point out the apparent and arbitrary inconsistency

    Isn’t pointing out that it is an arbitary inconsistency enough, even if you lack a means to enforce it? Much like you can show someone where they’ve gone wrong with a mathematical solution, but you can’t MAKE them solve the problem correctly.

  6. #6 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    22 Dec 2012, 11:49 pm  

    Yes, taken as a given, but as with quantum interpretations, “proving” that yours is correct is problematic.

    Of course. That’s why I’m not trading in the business of proofs and certainty, but probability and likelihood. As horrible as it may sound, I can’t be absolutely *certain* that Jews aren’t a blight on the community that deserve death. I can, however, be pretty damn close to certain.

    And even if I weren’t, it would take a whole additional round of justification for Holocaust as an optimal solution.

    ~

    Isn’t pointing out that it is an arbitary inconsistency enough, even if you lack a means to enforce it? Much like you can show someone where they’ve gone wrong with a mathematical solution, but you can’t MAKE them solve the problem correctly.

    That’s an interesting line of thought, for sure, and one I’d be sympathetic to. It certainly would make by business of utilitarianism a lot easier. However, I still don’t think inconsistent people are mistaken with regard to their values unless they also value being consistent and non-arbitrary with their ethics. (Luckily, most people do value that, or at least claim to.)

  7. #7 Stephen R. Diamond says:
    26 Dec 2012, 7:20 pm  

    Peter,

    You can point out the apparent and arbitrary inconsistency, but people don’t *have* to go for it.

    You still think “apparent and arbitrary inconsistency” is a bad thing in ethics. This is a moral realist holdover, enough so to make you essentially a moral realist.

    The whole point of moral principles is making arbitrary distinctions because they’re practically useful. Hypocrites are people who disregard their own distinctions, not people whose distinctions are “arbitrary,” a characterization that seems possible to make only from a realist perspective. It is arbitrary from your own perspective, in which case it is hypocrisy; it is arbitrary from the point of view of natural simplicity, then this is compelling only if you believe morality is something to get right, so that Occam’s razor applies.

  8. #8 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    27 Dec 2012, 1:37 am  

    You still think “apparent and arbitrary inconsistency” is a bad thing in ethics. This is a moral realist holdover, enough so to make you essentially a moral realist.

    Thinking apparent and arbitrary inconsistencies are bad is not a moral realist holdover; thinking that everyone has a binding reason to be consistent in a thoroughgoing way is a holdover. My values don’t like arbitrary inconsistencies.

    ~

    The whole point of moral principles is making arbitrary distinctions because they’re practically useful. Hypocrites are people who disregard their own distinctions, not people whose distinctions are “arbitrary,” a characterization that seems possible to make only from a realist perspective. It is arbitrary from your own perspective, in which case it is hypocrisy; it is arbitrary from the point of view of natural simplicity, then this is compelling only if you believe morality is something to get right, so that Occam’s razor applies.

    I don’t think it’s the case that one man’s arbitrariness is another man’s practical distinction. Indeed we all make distinctions. I, for one, only care morally for those things with the capability to suffer. And perhaps all these distinctions are arbitrary on some level — I mean, why don’t I care morally about things lacking the capacity to suffer? I just don’t.

    But on the same side of the coin, people like the racist who doesn’t grant moral worth to black people, the person who eats meat daily but would recoil at horror at the thought of eating his dog, someone suffering from Future Tuesday Indifference, or anyone who claims that the value of a life is millions of dollars yet won’t send $2500 to save one — all these people may not be doing anything wrong from a meta-ethical perspective, but appear intuitively off and could perhaps be criticized for some inconsistency or making a distinction without any reason for that distinction, regardless of whether they care.

    Additionally, if moral realism is false, as I think it is, then I’m allowed to condemn people on the basis of pretty much whatever I want. Condemnation is not something that is correctly or incorrectly applied from a meta-ethical perspective. And I choose to condemn people who don’t care for the suffering of all those who can suffer. I recognize that other people may have different values, but I don’t have to accept them.

  9. #9 joseph says:
    27 Dec 2012, 4:34 am  

    Aren’t we all presuming internal consistency to any ethical system we discuss? If not how can we attempt to reason about it as such? So if somebody’s ethical system is internally inconsistent it can be judged irrational without reference to morality itself (real or not). Then that individual must decide whether he/she values rationality.

  10. #10 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    27 Dec 2012, 4:48 am  

    Aren’t we all presuming internal consistency to any ethical system we discuss?

    In “Too Many Moralities” I outline a requirement for internal consistency, but all you really have to do is refrain from invoking entities that don’t exist (like gods or categorical imperatives) and have an explicit, defined, and followable standard.

    So something like “maximize the welfare of everyone except black people” is internally consistent (insofar as welfare is defined and calculatable). Same thing with “minimize the welfare of everyone, impartially” (note also the lack of arbitrary distinctions there!). So I don’t think requirements of internal consistency get us exactly as far as we’d like to go…

    ~

    Then that individual must decide whether he/she values rationality.

    Yes. That’s also what I’m getting at; someone could reject rationality, or at least a specific component of it. But I don’t even think rationality demands utilitarianism, it just demands an unbiased implementation of a particular internally consistent utility function.

  11. #11 joseph says:
    27 Dec 2012, 4:53 am  

    I’m discovering I’m somewhat at odds with purely consequentalist moral theories; I’ve heard Thomas Nagel (?)wrote regarding a sort of mixture of deontic and consequentalist theories…

  12. #12 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    27 Dec 2012, 4:56 am  

    What kind of odds are you at? What do you consider wrong or unintuitive about them? And if you can find Thomas Nagel’s mixture, I’d love to read it.

    I once was really interested in deontic-consequentialist mixes, and even spent some time trying to make my own, but couldn’t make anything or find anything that I found more satisfying than regular utilitarianism, as weird of implications as it may have…

  13. #13 joseph says:
    27 Dec 2012, 5:03 am  

    My basic intuition, or opinion, which may very well be wrong as it is largely baseless, is something like the way in which a result is achieved has a moral component, not the be-all and end-all, but not without value. For instance I think if one hundred lives are saved/deaths are prevented as a result of conscious effort, that is better than an incapable supervillain accidentally ssving a hundred lives due to an unforeseen conseqence of a failed plan to induce suffering.

  14. #14 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    27 Dec 2012, 4:15 pm  

    For instance I think if one hundred lives are saved/deaths are prevented as a result of conscious effort, that is better than an incapable supervillain accidentally saving a hundred lives due to an unforeseen conseqence of a failed plan to induce suffering

    I think this makes some sense from a consequentialist perspective — it certainly is better to have heroes rather than villains for long-term consequences, because the next time the villain acts we might not be so lucky. I’m reminded of Michael Dickens’s “Sustainable and Unsustainable Good”.

  15. #15 joseph says:
    27 Dec 2012, 8:48 pm  

    it certainly is better to have heroes rather than villains for long-term consequences

    Somewhat off the cuff thinking but I suppose that’s one resolution, adapted to a reductionalist account, as that’s how I tend to think i.e.

    “(If psychological states can be reduced to patterns on neurones with altered firing potentials, linked together in a certain way) there may be ‘good’* psychological states that have an association with increased causation of good consequences.”

    *Good being defined as a net increase of life with a lowered level of suffering for these purposes.

    Another example that non-theists (of varying stripes) oft mention is something like:

    A/ Someone does something good, saves a baby say, without consideration with their own well being.
    B/ Someone else also saves a baby, but only because they fear God will send them to hell if they don’t.

    Are both people, and/or acts, to be considered equally moral?

  16. #16 joseph says:
    27 Dec 2012, 8:57 pm  

    …and then if psychological state B was associated with an increased frequency of good* acts when compared to psychological state A, could psychological state B argued to be morally superior?

  17. #17 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    29 Dec 2012, 12:45 am  

    If it were hypothetically stipulated that the fear of God was always a more reliable way to get people to maximize utility, then I think I would support putting the fear of God into those people who still believe or are capable of believing, or at least not do anything to oppose religion.

    However, it seems clear to me that, in reality, religion has at best a very marginal effect at making people more likely to do good, that people can and easily are “Good Without God”, and that religion can perpetuate a fair amount of harms. Thus the reason why your thought experiment might feel off to you is that you’re stipulating something to be true hypothetically that is not actually true — selflessness should always be a more reliable motivation toward long-term goodness than theism.

    I recommend Hare’s two-level utilitarianism as a decision procedure to implement in daily life to support utilitarianism. As for what motivational / psychological state would be best, I’m not sure, though I doubt it’s theism. (Though the optimal state might require some sort of non-theistic delusional belief, like moral realism.)

  18. #18 joseph says:
    29 Dec 2012, 4:01 am  

    Thankyou I promise to read it.
    I think the question can be posed again, without reference to religion:

    A/ A morally good* act is performed selflessly.
    B/ The same morally good* act is performed for selfish reasons.

    *Good being defined as previously.
    Is there any moral difference morally.

  19. #19 joseph says:
    29 Dec 2012, 4:05 am  

    Blah…moral difference morally? I won’t be winning any awards for stuff what I do write.

  20. #20 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    30 Dec 2012, 4:27 am  

    If the actual acts brought about identical consequences, there is no difference in the goodness of the acts themselves (from a utilitarian perspective).

    Another point of confusion, however, comes from how an act can be good, but not be praiseworthy (this was a point of contention in a long discussion between Cl and me). We wouldn’t want to praise the person with selfish motives because this itself would be a bad act, since it would re-enforce more selfish motivations which tend to not lead to morally good acts.

    This can be seen not only in terms of sustainable vs. unsustainable good, but also can be seen as a solution to the problem of moral luck (really, the two concepts are the same). Given that selfish motivations tend to rarely result in good acts but selflessness does, the selfish person was merely lucky, and we shouldn’t praise luck, because it very likely will backfire next time.

  21. #21 joseph says:
    3 Jan 2013, 2:53 am  

    I would like to say something like:

    In circumstance A a good* act was performed due to good* intentions.
    In circumstance B a good* act was performed without good* intentions.

    I wonder what the difference between your use of praiseworthy, and my use of good comes down to, they seem superficially alike.

    Also it is making me consider some moral theories, both atheistic and theistic.
    In the atheistic corner, some moral systems are based on rational self-interest, contractualism is a nuanced example.
    In the theistic corner, showing my Christianish background, some versions of Chrisitanity emphasize (is using that ‘z’ and Americanism?) works as a way to salvation, in that way harmonising the prudential with the moral, again all moral acts could be said to have a selfish component. Of course other groups (and I’m dealing with the extremes) seem to place greater stock in faith without works, though there seem to be some challenges to that approach too.

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