Should Michael Ruse be an error theorist?

Michael Ruse has been in one of his frequent dust-ups with people whom he regards as purveyors of “scientism”, etc., etc. It gets a little complicated trying to track back through the debate to see who was responsible for its train-wreck quality, so I’ll avoid that today. However, it led Ruse to claim that there are various domains where objective knowledge can be found without using the methodology of science.

I don’t disagree with that, as far as it goes. First, there is no such thing as the methodology of science. Science has refined various techniques for exploring the cosmos beyond what I (not in an especially original way) call the middle world – the world that is spatially more or less in scale with us, and which is about as old as human texts, buildings, etc. However, science does not have a monopoly on any of its techniques. They are also available to, and sometimes useful to, humanities scholars, among others. Indeed the dividing line between the humanities and the sciences is rather arbitrary, and is set for pragmatic reasons rather than because they are totally isolated from each other in the methods that they use.

Second, the humanities have their own distinctive techniques for finding out stuff. These are available to scientists as well, and to anyone else, but some of them would be useful to today’s professionalised institution of science only in weird fictional scenarios. For example, someone wanting to discover new knowledge about Greek literature would do well to learn ancient Greek. But doing so is unlikely to help a team of twenty-first-century particle physicists. (I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to imagine some weird scenario in which it just might be.)

I don’t doubt that there are facts that we can find out without doing anything distinctively scientific. Sometimes, doing so will require the use of challenging scholarly techniques that are more distinctive of the humanities – techniques that can sometimes require much talent and training. Mastering ancient Greek or seventeenth century English prosody is not straightforward, but it is needed to engage in certain scholarly inquiries and draw plausible conclusions.

But none of this was Ruse’s approach. Instead, he named mathematics, morality, and philosophical epistemology as fields where there are objective truths to be found by non-scientific methods. These are all controversial examples, and I’ll set aside the first and last. I hope I’ve established that I don’t believe all truths that we can discover are available to us only by distinctively scientific means.

What, then, about morality? Relying on the existence of objective moral truths to disprove “scientism” seems like a case of defending a not-terribly-controversial conclusion using a highly controversial premise. To labour the point, we find out many things about the middle world without relying on distinctively scientific methods. But are there objective moral truths that we can learn through some non-scientific methodology? I very much doubt it.

It does, of course, depend on what you mean by “objective” – clearly enough, there are truths that take this form: “Among the Martians it is regarded as immoral to bury your parents without first eating their flesh.” There are plenty of truths about the standards of behaviour adopted in particular societies, or cultures, or sub-cultures. But are there truths about standards of behaviour that transcend (or somehow lie outside of) human subjectivity, human cultural institutions, and the like, standards that simply bind us to act in certain ways in the nature of things, and irrespective of our desires?

The trouble is that Ruse himself doesn’t think that. In his latest contribution to the debate, he pretty much concedes this by writing: “You may complain that this is not enough. You want a firmer foundation—meaning you still want some outside foundation—for morality. I cannot give you that.” Okay, but if that’s his position he is saying that people who imagine that there are moral claims with some sort of “outside foundation” are in error. The only question is how pervasive that belief is, and how far it is built into our moral language and thinking. Presumably he realises that it is pretty common, in which case our ordinary moral language and thinking is, to some extent, shot through with error.

That might not take Ruse all the way to moral error theory, if the latter is the position that all first-order moral claims are just false. That (or some refinement of it) is how contemporary metaethicists usually conceive of moral error theory, though its leading twentieth-century exponent, J.L. Mackie, arguably did not go so far. In any event, Ruse should at least concede that his view is somewhere on the way towards moral error theory and is not an objectivist theory at all. On Ruse’s own account, there are no truths about standards that simply bind us in the nature of things. Thus, there is no body of such truths to be discovered through non-scientific methods.

Once again, there may be truths about the standards of various societies, etc. I’m sure there are. There may also be truths about which of these standards we should support, given our deeper values, goals, sympathies, etc., though the word “we” is very tricky here – do all of us reading this really have the same deeper values, goals, sympathies, etc.? I rather doubt it. There may also be truths about deeper values, goals, etc., that we tend to share, but once we reach that point we’re getting into areas where science may, indeed, have much to say, along with the humanities. As I said above, the boundary between them is rather arbitrary in any event, and it tends to break down with these sorts of philosophical inquiries.

All very strange. Since Ruse rejects objectivism as metaethicists usually understand it, what was his point about morality in the first place?

To be fair to him, some people do seem to get very upset at the idea that we are able to find out stuff through means that are not especially scientific. So, yes, I suppose they have a scientistic tendency. Some commenters in the blogosphere react to harmless statements about the humanities and everyday observation almost as if science’s honour is at stake. But I doubt that anyone is seriously guilty of scientism as people like Ruse conceive of it. And even if someone is guilty of such an error, it’s easy enough to point out simple examples to them: e.g., discovering some historical fact by translating an ancient document. If the person then defines “science” so broadly as to include such an activity, we are now involved in an argument about semantics. You don’t need to tie yourself in metaethical knots, as Ruse does, to make such points.

Leave a comment ?


  1. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Very interesting post.

    Perhaps someone can explain what is meant by
    “first order moral claims”.


  2. Sure. Basically, I mean claims like is “X-ing is morally wrong”, “Y-ing is morally required”, and so on. It gets a little complicated because it might be difficult for a moral error theorist to claim “Z-ing is morally permissible” is false. Problems like that lead to refinements. Some error theorists will just want to say that such statements are “not true”, example. Or they may have some other way of handling it.

    But the general idea can be conveyed like his. Let’s assume that “X-ing is morally wrong” means something a bit like, to a first approximation, “X-ing is prohibited by a standard that just applies in the nature of things.” If a moral error theorist thinks that’s about right as an account of the moral semantics, she will probably conclude that all statements of the form “X-ing is morally wrong” are false … because she thinks that there are no such standards. (She might still support punishing X-ing, socially discouraging it, etc.)

    Moral error theorists will have no trouble with the idea that there are true second-order moral claims. E.g. “All first-order moral claims are false” might be a true second-order moral claim. I hope that distinction is clear now, or at least clear enough.

    There are other complications, such as how to handle “thick” moral claims like, “X-ing is cruel.” This seems to have a mix of moral and non-moral subject matter, and the non-moral subject matter (the practice may cause pain, for example) may be uncontroversially true.

  3. There’s a lovely point to be drawn here, which Ruse might have done much better to start out with: We figure out, early in life, what the local cultural standards that will come to constitute our morality are by a process that might be “scientific” is some ways, but isn’t science (we learn by similar processes that God exists, that there are transcendent moral standards, and that our dead ancestors continue to watch over and protect us). We gain objective knowledge about the structure of our own culture by largely unconscious observation, empathy, and motivated reasoning, and yes, the capacity to do this is something that evolved, without fixing any moral specifics for us.

  4. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Why would there be a problem with saying “Z-ing is morally permissible” is false?

    When you say that claims may be not true, but not be false, do you mean that they are nonsense?

    It seems that claims are be true, false or nonsense (neither true nor false.), so if “Zing is morally permissible” is not true, but on the other hand, it is not false, it must be nonsense.

  5. amos asked:

    ‘Why would there be a problem with saying “Z-ing is morally permissible” is false?

    ‘When you say that claims may be not true, but not be false, do you mean that they are nonsense?’

    Is ‘Shut the door!’ true or false? Is it nonsense?

  6. My point being, although moral claims are “claims” in the sense that we expect them to be legitimised, that is we expect or demand reasons to be provided for or against them, they might still be prescriptions, or expressions of desire, or any of a variety of claims that are neither true nor false.

  7. Russell,

    Ruse seems confused and equivocal about morality. As you point out, his argument against “scientism” requires him to assert the existence of objective moral facts. Yet he calls himself a “moral non-realist” and sometimes sounds like one.

    In the past I think he has leaned even further towards non-realism, writing in (in 2010) that morality is “really subjective” and “an illusion”. But when it really matters he makes the assertions of a moral realist. He made some such assertions in the present article, but he was even more explicit in his previous one:

    “I want to say that what Jerry Sandusky was reportedly doing to kids in the showers was morally wrong, and that this is not just an opinion or something “based on subjective value judgments.” The truth of its wrongness is as well taken as the truth of the heliocentric solar system….As evolved human beings, the rules of morality are as binding on us as if we were the children of God and He had made up the rules….So that is why what Jerry Sandusky allegedly did was wrong – really and truly wrong.”

    I was about to write that, apart from invoking God, you can’t be any more realist than this. But that qualification was nugatory. According to Ruse his morality is as real as God-given morality. Ruse’s only justification for calling himself a “non-realist” seems to be that he’s not actually invoking God or any other “external” dictator of morals.

    What’s more, Ruse either gives no argument in support of his moral realism (I refuse to call it anything else) or commits a crude fallacy of equivocation:

    “…I think morality is a product of evolution through natural selection… My position is that evolutionary biology lays on us certain absolutes. These are adaptations brought on by natural selection to make us functioning social beings. It is in this sense that I claim that morality is not subjective.”

    Ruse seems to be conflating two senses of “morality”: (1) the human faculty for making moral judgements; (2) the set of true moral facts. It’s fairly uncontroversial to claim that the human moral faculty is a product of evolution. But Ruse seems to parlay this into the claim that moral facts are made true by evolution.

    The original question was not whether there are moral facts, but how we can know such facts: by science or some other way. Yet Ruse has not addressed that question at all. He merely makes some moral judgements and asserts without argument that they are facts, but not empirical facts.

    It really rankles to see Ruse present such a travesty of philosophy while adopting such a condescending tone towards non-philosophers who are considerably less confused about the subject than he is.

  8. Russell, when I saw this post of Ruse’s, I thought maybe it might link up with what you’ve said about there being more options than naive moral realism and crude relativism.

    Ruse’s statements may be a bit confusing, but I’ve also got the feeling he may be a bit of a kindred spirit to you there.

  9. s. wallerstein (amos)


    You may be on to something.

    However, why would “X is morally wrong” and “Y is morally required” both be false (according to Russell’s explanation) and “Z is morally permissible” be neither true nor false (according to the same explanation)?

  10. Searle points out that there’s a distinction between ‘ontological objectivity’ and ‘epistemic objectivity’. The former refers to things that exist regardless of the operations of our minds; the latter, to whether or not these claims can be objectively justified. Since everybody (barring evangelicals and Cornell realists) believe that there are no mind-independent facts about morality, Ruse evidently means ‘epistemic objectivity’.

    If you accept this distinction, then it will take a lot of mental gymnastics to show that someone like Ruse needs to adopt the idea that all moral claims are false. For that to work, you’d have to be operating with a strong realism about truth, where moral truth-makers are only tied to things that exist independent of the mind.

    Well, if we say nuts to that, then Ruse is in the clear. And I say nuts to that. Good news for Ruse, I guess.

    Anyway. I don’t understand what’s interesting about these dust-ups, apart from the fact that they take place in the spotlight where The Important People say mean things. It’s more interesting to think about the deeper questions on our own. One further question is, “What makes us think that morality is even epistemically objective?” Inspired by a nicely compact comment Ophelia made, I argued, “independence from the will”.

  11. I think all the points Russell makes in this article, are pretty robust! Ruse may need to re-adjust some positions…

  12. Hi Amos

    ‘Shut the door!’ is not true, not false, not nonsense and not, of course, a claim. It’s an imperative and one can indeed analyse supposed moral ‘claims’ that way. One might hold that people are mistaken if they think they are saying anything truth-apt when they make moral talk. This is non-cognitivism, and one variant of it is prescriptivism. A proponent of that would translate “eating meat is immoral” into “don’t eat meat!” and so it remains meaningful but neither true nor false. But this is not what Russell is talking about.

    Russell is talking about an error theory and an error theorist is a Cognitivist. He says moral claims are exactly what they appear to be – they are attempts at making factual claims about the world. But the error theorist asserts that they systenaticaly fail to be true in something like the way assertions made in astrology fail to be true.

    According to the error theorist, it seems I should say that claims like “non-consensual sex is immoral” and “saving drowning children is morally obligatory” are false because acts do not really have any such properties. And this seems to work out fine roughly speaking. But apparently there are some technical reasons why it is better to say they are “not true”.

    Exactly why this is so or why considering the case of “Z-ing is morally permissible” might make this fact more apparent is something I’m afraid I can’t really you with. One rather hopes Benjamin or Russell or Richard might step in here but it is to do with dealing with an apparent failure of reference – such as one might encounter in a claim like “Sherlock Holmes smoked a pipe” which one does not want to say is false – and the need for the error theorist to keep his position clearly distinguished from that of the non-cognitivist.

    Sorry I can’t be any more help.

  13. A bit to respond to here, but just on Jim’s point – there may be reasons why “false” is not quite the right word. I’m not sure I buy into all those reasons, so I don’t especially want to sort out what they are, let alone defend them, and maybe the example I used wasn’t a good one, now I think about it.

    But it was just a peripheral point and kind of a place-holder if anyone turned up here and said, “We error theorists don’t necessarily say false – we may use slightly different formulations.”

    Ruse does seem to be a cognitivist. I.e. he seems to think that first-order moral claims are truth-apt. If they are not, there are no truths to be discovered – are there? That seems to undermine his whole position unless he says a lot more. (I suppose he could say that the truths are truths about what moral commands we should give, or something, but he then needs an account of “should” and to deal with the problem of “we”.)

    If that’s right, there’s still a question as to what moral semantics he adopts. If he’s a cognitivist, he owes us an explanation of what first-order moral claims such as “X-ing is morally wrong” really mean. If he thinks they somehow refer to, or make assertions about, objectively binding standards, he’s going to have to say that they are not true, as he doesn’t think any such standards exist. In that case he’s an error theorist.

    He might be able to avoid going all the way with error theory via some sort of sophisticated subjectivism or relativism, but if so he owes us a story about it, and he needs to tell us what roles science and the humanities play in that story.

  14. Jim expressed things beautifully. But how do you make sense of the cognitive contents of moral claims, despite the apparent failure of reference?

    Here’s how. Ruse can just take a page from Searle and say something like the following. First-order moral statements are not indicative, but still possess cognitive contents. That’s because there are two classes of statements that possess cognitive contents: those that have the illocutionary form of the indicative (the word-to-world direction of fit), and those that possess the form of the declarative (the double-direction of fit). And moral claims possess the logical form of the declarative.

    What does that mean? It means, the claims represent a state of affairs as true, and they succeed in that representation by virtue of representing those states as true. For example, the minister says, “I now pronounce you man and wife”, and hence it becomes true, just because he said so. Truth comes out of nowhere, just like magic.

    So if it were to turn out that moral claims are declarative, then it would turn out that the reference doesn’t fail, after all — it succeeds, just because it is the kind of claim that has the authority to succeed once an attempt is made (under the right conditions, what Austin called ‘felicity conditions’). It is true that “Murder is wrong” because we say it is wrong, under the right conditions. (Never mind what those conditions actually are — it’s the business of meta-ethics to tell us.)

    But if you’re really committed to error theory, you’d have to go out of your way to question whether or not there is such a thing as the illocutionary form of the declarative. If you read that sentence as if non-cognitive, you would say, “Aha, that’s actually a second-order claim, composed of two tacit claims that are indicative and imperative”. You’d have to argue that “You are now man and wife” is a composite of two tacit first-order claims: (1) “I order everyone to regard them as man and wife”, plus (2) “By virtue of (1), you are now man and wife”. The error theorist could then say, “Since we deny (1), (2) doesn’t follow, and so the claim is false”.

    Sounds good, right?

    [sound of needle scratching off record] No. The analysis adds a lot of excessive background analysis to the literal content of what is said. The minister’s claim certainly has normative force, or oughtness, but that doesn’t mean that the claim is a literal order. It is more that the authority is granted or presupposed by the audience, and not explicitly asserted. It looks like we are positing more content than we ought to.

  15. Here’s the crucial point a la Wittgenstein on Scientism…

    In this context consider the statement that, “the verification principle, underpinning logical positivism (and scientism),implies that only empirically supported or analytically logical statements are meaningful. All else is meaningless or false.” However this statement is itself metaphysical and not subject to empirical or analytical verification. Scientism is thus as hopelessly axiomatically faith based as are some religious faiths. Hence it is either meaningless or false in its own terms.

    We can consider that it is possible to arrive at true conclusions by means other that the scientific method. However this statement will not be rendered true/false by means of the scientific method.

    Consider the statement, “it is possible for humans to empathize with other humans by intuitive knowledge of the common human condition” Shall we say this humanist statement is false?

  16. “If the person then defines “science” so broadly as to include such an activity, we are now involved in an argument about semantics.”
    I’m glad someone pointed this out, because I do wonder how much of the scientism discussion is arguing semantics of what should reasonably be called “science” and how much is over-extending how far science can reach. Especially when the other ways of knowing that are given I’m not sure if any of those accused of scientism would disagree with. The accusation seems to reach a much broader condemnation than is warranted, obscured by minor points quite external to the pronouncements made under what could be considered “science”.

  17. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Hello Jim:

    Thanks for the explanation.

    I understand and agree with Russell’s claim that there are no standards in the nature of things which bind us.

    Morality is a human institution, much as laws are.

    When we talk about morality, we seem to be doing much the same thing as when we talk about laws.

    I can understand that morality and laws have an imperative force: that “murder is wrong” could be “translated” in many instances into “don’t murder”.

    So when I say “murder is wrong”, it could also be “translated” as “I consider murder to be wrong” or “in my society murder is considered to be wrong” or “in all human societies studied until now murder is considered as wrong”.

    Now I get confused. Russell says that “murder is wrong” is not true. If he means that there is no fact in the nature of things such that murder is wrong in the way that there is a fact in the nature of things such that water freezes at O degrees celsius, I agree with him, but I don’t understand what the game is, so to speak, that is, why he needs to say that “murder is wrong” is false rather than pointing out that there is no fact in the nature of things such that “murder is wrong”.

  18. Hi Amos,

    There are a number of naturalistic ways you could construe 1) “torturing children just for fun is morally wrong” and end up with a true statement. But I think it is quite natural for ordinary people to think that 1) is true regardless of how you feel about it, how your society acts or all previous societies have acted and that none of those things capture what 1) means. I think many people do think of 1) as akin to “the earth revolves the sun” and think of it as just as objectively and mind-independently true. And indeed I think many people would sooner doubt the movement of the Earth than they would 1). But all that could make 1) true in this sense would be correspondence to some non-natural ‘moral fact’.

    Now if you stick to the spirit in which 1) is generally made, and you conclude that there just are no queer non-natural ‘moral facts’ ‘out there’, then you are forced to conclude that “torturing children just for fun is morally wrong” is false (or untrue) because what is required to make 1) true (in the spirit in which it is intended) just does not exist. And probably you will want moral talk scrapped because it just is not saying anything true about the world.

    This is not how most people want to go of course, they all want to keep on using 1) and philosophers work very hard to try to find some way for it to be true (or at least still worth saying). But you could say this is just akin to redefining “God” or “exists” just so you can keep on saying “God exists” because you don’t like the idea of saying its false and losing this way of talking. After all the true statements that you could re-interpret 1) to mean could just be stated outright without holding onto 1).

  19. s. wallerstein (amos)


    Thanks once again for the clear explanation.

  20. I would call a “claim” anything that can be reasonably contested. Thus two examples of non-claims might be ‘Shut the door!’ and ‘Chocolate is lovely!’. Two examples of (non-factual) claims might be ‘the Model T was better than the Edsel’ and ‘This soup needs more salt’.

    Those examples of claims aren’t true or false in any ordinary sense of the word, because although they need to be defended with reasons, their defence is relative to the goals of the people who utter them.

    I would argue that moral claims aren’t true or false either, but we are misled by the surface grammar of ordinary language to suppose they are, because the appeal to reasons mirrors the appeal to epistemological reasons of the sort we normally associate with factual claims. The crucial difference is with moral claims we appeal to shared desires rather than shared beliefs.

  21. Yes, thanks Jim. You’re explicating some of the points I’m trying to make more clearly than I am. Maybe I should hire you as a ghost writer.

    Ben, I think the sorts of arguments used by Searle fail (Mackie does a good demolition job on one version of this in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong).

    Setting aside the nuances of Searle’s own position, opposition to error theory is going to be in a lot of trouble if it has to resort to the idea of performative utterances. Sure, I can say: “I promise to buy you a drink” and it is now true that I have made a promise. The parliament can enact a law, using some verbal formula, and it’s true that the law is now enacted and now has the appropriate force (e.g. the courts will (probably) enforce it). Similarly when someone with requisite authority says, “I now pronounce you man and wife.”

    But my duty to buy you a drink is now a duty that depends on the institution of promising, which is all too escapable by someone who doesn’t care about it but is willing to exploit it. The legal force of the statute depends on certain legal institutions. Likewise the legal validity of the marriage.

    Thus, performative utterances can certainly bring about certain kinds of institutionally constructed facts. But if moral facts are institutionally constructed facts of this kind then they are certainly not facts about standards that transcend our desires and institutions. For reasons such as Jim said a few comments up the thread, that is going to worry most people. In fact, it will worry them a lot.

    Consider a legal norm such as “Smoking powdered banana skin is prohibited.” Is it objectively binding? Well in one sense – it really will be enforced against you if you breach it and this becomes known and whoever has the power to drag you into court can be bothered. But are you somehow bound to obey it in the nature of things, whatever your desires – even if you can get away with not being caught, even if your desire-set is such that you’d rather get the benefit of breaking the law rather than the benefit of avoiding the punishment, etc.? There is a sense in which the bindingness of law is all-too-escapable.

    If moral norms such as our norms about not torturing babies for fun were institutional norms of some kind, analogous to our legal norms, I think the error theorist would be sitting pretty. It would look as if our moral norms are something very different from what most people think they are, and the only issue would be how much the erroneous thinking of most people infects moral language.

  22. Interesting. Haven’t read Mackie on Searle.

    It’s certainly true that there’s a big leap from social ontology to moral ontology. So even if Searle is right about the institution of promising, it’s not obvious that his lessons say anything about the objectivity of moral norms. As (I think) you’re indicating, it only produces relativism.

    Got two concerns.

    First, I’m inclined to think that moral relativism is preferable to error theory. If there was no way of building a bridge between moral and social ontology, then we’d be better off counting moral claims as modestly true than as claims that are pretentiously false. So even on the face of it, it is not the case that the error theorist is sitting pretty; they’re sitting ugly, albeit in the company of other uglies.

    Second, I doubt that the issues you’re concerned with — the deep questions of ontology — are resolved through semantics, of all things. Suppose, for the moment, that the semantics of a moral claim are the same as the semantics of a social claim: suppose both are declaratives. Would that necessarily mean that we can wiggle out of moral claims in the same way that we can wiggle out of social claims? I don’t see why, unless you have a prior investment in there being a semantic difference between the two kinds of claims, as opposed to a broadly pragmatic one. So the worry that a declarative view leads to relativism might be spurious.

    And I think it is spurious. I think moral claims have the underlying semantic structure of the declarative: the double-direction of fit. However, these two kinds of claims derive their authority from different places — they have different felicity conditions. The felicity conditions for social claims are context-relative. The felicity conditions for moral claims are more mysterious.

    Once you accept that cognitivism is correct, and moral claims are truth-apt, a whole new debate is opened up. The question is, under what conditions are moral claims assertable (their felicity conditions)? And what is it that makes moral claims true? To cut to the chase, I think the answer is, “they are assertable when they are authoritative, and they are made true by virtue of their authority” (respectively). So where does moral authority come from, and is there such a thing? In my view, that’s the mystery to be solved.

  23. Ben, as I think you concede this amounts to a kind of sophisticated relativism. I don’t know how much of my stuff you read, but I do generally put in a caveat about how some kind of sophisticated relativism may yet be true.

    But you can’t avoid moral semantics. If moral claims are truth-apt, we need to have some notion of what they actually mean before we can say whether they are true or false. I think that the error theorist is sitting pretty because on the face of it moral claims seem to be making claims about things being permitted or demanded, or encouraged or discouraged, or merely permitted, by some kind of standard that transcends our institutions, etc. Now, the sophisticated moral relativist may be able to show that that superficial impression is wrong, that the meaning is something else, something less … um, transcendent.

    But I think the sophisticated moral relativist is going to have to do a lot of clever talking, and he or she had better do some empirical work to get an idea of what is really conveyed to people by moral claims.

    In some moods, I’m actually attracted to a kind of sophisticated moral relativism, though one rather different from yours (more along the lines of Jesse Prinz’s views). In other moods, I think that the meaning of moral claim is actually rather vague or inchoate, with people not necessarily distinguishing between some sort of claim that’s relativised to the assumed values of the group or a claim that is supposed to transcend them. In that case, the truth may be some sort of mixture of what someone like, say, Mackie thinks and what, say, Prinz thinks. The points that divide them may not have a clear answer.

    At the end of the day, maybe that’s what I really do think – I dunno. But even if so, it won’t help Ruse very much.

  24. I don’t know your views on morality in detail, no. I’m also ignorant of Dr. Prinz’s views on morality. Double-ignorant, then.

    (I did notice that in a recent post you seemed to reject categorical imperatives. I suppose that implies that all imperatives are hypothetical, and hence is to some extent relativistic. I’m on board, because that kind of non-absolutism about morality is not the kind of relativism that anyone ought to worry about.)

    Anyway. I think that we do know what moral claims literally mean. At the level of semantics, moral claims have the same conditions of satisfaction that institutional claims do (the double-direction of fit). Yet moral claims have different effects than institutional claims, because moral claims may be imbued with an authoritativeness that transcends a particular culture or context, while local institutional claims cannot. In other words, there is nothing about the semantics of ‘murder is wrong’ that imbues it with a context-transcendent quality; that is value added, quite apart from the literal meanings of concatenation of words strung together into a well-formed sentence.

    There is a sense in which we are being ‘misled by grammar’, as Jeremy Bowman said above. But we are not being misled in the way he suggested — it’s not that moral claims purport to be about the world, and fail because they’re just about desires. Rather, moral claims purport to be institutional facts, but are actually grounded in more than just convention. What makes moral claims distinctively moral is that they have an aura of philosophical depth, worldly sophistication, and timelessness that makes them especially apt at guiding the creation of institutions. And that has nothing at all to do with surface grammar; it has to do with underlying reasons for speaking, the authoritativeness of the claim. (Again, my thoughts converge with Bowman’s in this respect.)

    Ruse is only as troubled as the issues are troubling. Since you’ve raised issues that aren’t troubling, he ain’t in trouble! The burden is on those who find ‘error theories’ plausible to motivate the idea that there’s something interesting and distinctive about the semantics of moral claims that is essential to their literal meaning, and not to the pragmatics of speaking.

  25. Benjamin wrote:

    “moral claims purport to be institutional facts”.

    I don’t follow you here. Could you explain what you mean by ‘institutional fact’?

  26. Not sure what Ben means by it, exactly, but examples of institutional facts would include: “The queen can move any number of squares, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally (according to the rules of chess)”; “It is bad manners to eat with your knife in your left hand (according to the rules of etiquette)”; “Abortion is a crime (according the the laws of some relevant jurisdiction)”; “Homosexual conduct is wrong (according to Victorian social mores)”.

  27. Hi Jeremy,

    By ‘institutional fact’ I believe what Benjamin has in mind is a type of fact that can only obtain if there is a society.

    So I suppose what he is saying is that moral claims purport to be about the norms generated by us being in a society, a society being the type of thing that requires conventions. The latter are the type of thing that a society requires a set of. But a society does not require a particular set (or else they would not be mere conventions). What side of the road we drive on is a matter of convention – it doesn’t matter which is chosen but we need to pick one or tuther in order for a driving society to work. You have a duty to drive on a given side of the road but only because that it is the convention that obtains in your society. And moral claims, according to Ben, purport to be about the norms generated by our having such conventions and thus a society.

    But, of course, Ben is saying that really this is not what moral claims are about at all.

  28. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Could I ask one more question please?

    What is meant by “sophisticated moral relativism”?

    Thank you.

  29. I’m largely with Russell on this, though my door is less open to sophisticated relativism than his. I’m prepared to accept that there are relativist elements in moral discourse, and occasionally they may predominate. But I’m convinced that moral discourse is predominantly non-relative.

    It seems to me that moral relativism implies that the following behaviour be plausible:

    A: [Sternly] You wicked person. You shouldn’t have done that!
    B: That’s irrelevant to me because I don’t accept your moral standards [or whatever moral standards A is relativising to].
    A: OK, my mistake, I assumed you did.

    I just don’t see that as consistent with the way people normally behave.

  30. s. wallerstein (amos)


    Actually, the situation that you mention does occur.

    Someone says that abortion is immoral or wicked or sinful, and I respond that it isn’t.

    I can give reasons why I don’t consider abortion to be wicked, but from experience, I’ve learned that my reasons justify my own position in my own eyes and those of others who are pro-choice, but never convince those who are against the right to abortion.

    So we are left with two diametrically opposed views of what is wicked in the case of abortion.

  31. Hi Amos,

    You can listen to Simon Blackburn talking about moral relativism here – he also brings up his own quasi-realism which some think of as promising approach.

  32. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Thanks, Jim.

    I’ll give it a listen.

  33. s. wallerstein (amos)


    Blackburn did not convince me.

    He says that the fact that moral disagreements matter deeply to people, unlike disagreements about tastes in food, indicates that there is “something” behind them.

    First of all, differences about trans-subtantiation used to matter deeply to people, to the point that they killed each other about them, but that does not show that
    there is “something” behind differences about trans-subtantiation.

    However, on another level, I agree that there is something behind differences about values.

    Let’s take abortion. Abortion matters to women, not because it is right or wrong, but because it permits sexually-active women to exercise their sexuality and it permits women for many reasons, career, studies, other projects, to not dedicate their lives to child-raising.

    Prohibiting abortion matters to patriarchal males because it allows them to control female sexuality and thus, keep women under their thumb.

    Thus, the moral disagreement about abortion is on some level a clash of interests.

    Now, our values form an integral part of the identity, of the self-concept of most people, and most of us will defend our self-concept unto the last drop of blood.

    We feel that when we defend our values, we defend our “selves” and on some level, we do.

    Thus, differences in values do matter deeply, there is something behind them, but that something is generally differences in interests (of gender, of class, of nations, of generations) and as I said, our need to defend our sense of who we are, a sense which is very tied to our values.

  34. “there is no such thing as the methodology of science”

    The “scientific method” is a well-known phrase. As far as I know, it is also defined and understood.


  35. Hi Amos,

    Well, I suppose one might say the “something” behind the strength of the differences about trans-subtantiation stemmed from morality. That’s why they killed each over it – because they felt there was a very serious moral requirement to have the right practices and beliefs about God etc. it was a theological dispute but obviously it was taken to have grave moral import.

    Abortion matters to a lot of women because they think it is thoroughly immoral – you’ll find the ‘pro-life’ groups lead with women at the front and rear. I don’t think men who disapprove of abortion are consciously thinking about anything to do with patriarchy – they too just think and feel it is profoundly immoral just as pro-life women do. Abortion matters to pro-choice women because it permits them to have certain choices in life and they think it is their moral right and the right of all other women. Pro-choice women are deeply concerned that other women share those rights too – they think it is deeply immoral to deny another woman that right to choice. (And it is in the interests of most men as far as they are concerned that abortion is legal – men have been trying to talk women into having abortions for along time).

    One can talk about the different social, historical, political, religious etc causes behind why people think abortion or denying the right to abortion or what have you are immoral. I think that is what you are getting at, but I don’t think you are explaining morality in so doing. I think you are only speculating about how it came about that people thought x, y and z were immoral. Our values are indeed integral to us but they are (partly and importantly) moral values. I don’t think morality is simply a matter of conflicting interests. There is something quite distinct about how you feel when you want x and somebody else gets it in what you concede is a ‘fair’ way and how you feel otherwise – the sense of the morality is what makes that difference.

    Or so it seems to me.

  36. I’d say Jim’s got it. [Edit: Jim @ 8 AM.]

  37. s. wallerstein (amos)


    Of course there are historical explanations that the wars of religion were not “really” about religion (transubstantiation), but about economic or geopolitical interests, that they were often fomented by Machiavellian princes or Popes, who had zero interest in theological questions.

    That is true about today’s culture wars too, but I grant that most people on both sides of the abortion debate consider that the other side is wrong PERIOD, that a woman’s right to choose (or a fetus’s right to live) are part of the nature of things just as the earth revolving around the sun is.

    I don’t believe that a woman’s right to choose is part of the nature of things just as the earth revolving around the sun is. I assume that you don’t either.

    What’s the next step then in making sense of the disagreement about abortion?

    You don’t buy my genealogy of the abortion question: that it’s “really” about controlling female sexuality. O.k. Genetic fallacy and all that.

    On the other hand, I don’t believe (and I gather that you don’t believe) that there is any one answer to the question of whether abortion is right or wrong PERIOD, although obviously, we can say that, say, a proper utilitarian analysis, such as carried out by Peter Singer, shows that abortion is right.

    However, that just puts the argument one step back to whether Singer’s premises are correct or not.

  38. S, if I can just butt in here. When we’re talking about the meaning of what is being argued about in the abortion debate, I think there is room for a wide range of agreement about what the claims mean, even amongst those with radically different world-views. Both pro- or anti-choice advocates can claim that they are saying things that are true, and the things they say made true because they are authoritatively recognized as such.

    It’s just that they have different notions of authority. e.g., in the community of atheists, that authority might be ‘the common good’; in the community of evangelicals, it might be ‘divine command’; for Nietzsche it might be ‘the will to power’; for Hobbes, natural law and the will of the sovereign. But it really doesn’t matter what the authority happens to be, for the purposes of understanding the semantics of the claim. The authority should be considered to be a placeholder, filled in by a person’s wider worldview, irrelevant to the literal meaning of what is said.

    So it’s hard to see how, in the abortion debate, a person who makes first-order moral claims is failing to act as an authority (or is in deference to any authority) over the question of women’s sexuality. Pro-choice advocates certainly are — they defer to the authority of the would-be mother. Anti-choice advocates would defer to the authority of the unborn child.

    Of course, having a position with respect to the proper authority for some question is not necessarily the same as exerting ‘control’. But control can certainly be involved.

  39. On the scientific method thing – there’s a popular myth that there’s a definable and distinctive scientific method. Usually when people try to define this they basically mean hypothetico-deductive reasoning. You put forward a conjecture or hypothesis about what it going on, then you test it and see whether it is falsified. That will often require doing some sort of experiment. Hypotheses that continue to pass the test (i.e. they are not falsified by experiment) are considered corroborated, and may eventually be accepted as so robust that they are more or less unproblematically accepted as true.

    Karl Popper notoriously made much of this, and some scientists will tell you that it’s a good description of practice in their fields.

    However, the hypothetico-deductive method is not used only by scientists – we all use it every day in trying to solve the various puzzles that confront us. Moreover, scholars in the humanities rely on it all the time (as do plumbers, the police, anyone you care to name who is trying to find things out). The thing about science is that it uses the hypothetico-deductive method much more systematically and precisely than is done elsewhere.

    At the same time, when you look at what scientists actually do and how they actually argue they are not confined to hypothetico-deductive argument. All the same kinds of arguments are available to them as to the rest of us. Often they will rely on an explanation being the simplest available, or on it being suggested by converging and more-or-less independent lines of inquiry. Often they can just and look at stuff, often with the aid of instruments, rather than having to argue from indirect hypothetico-deductive reasoning.

    More generally, the methods of nuclear physicists are not likely to be very like those of, say, paleontologists or those of zoologists. All of them may do a lot of hypothetico-deductive reasoning (but so do we all) but what they actually do with their time won’t look much the same.

    So yes, when we think of what makes science distinctive from, say, he humanities, one of the things that is distinctive is a very strong emphasis on hypothetico-deductive reasoning backed up with the use of experiments, and made as precise as possible (usually aided by sophisticated mathematics and precision apparatus). But scientists can draw on whatever methods are likely to work in the cases before them, and nothing stops the rest of us doing these sorts of things where appropriate. It’s a matter of emphasis and degree, which leaves the boundaries of what is science and what is some other sort of inquiry rather fuzzy.

    E.g., should archeology as it’s practised these days belong to the sciences or the humanities? There are still good reasons to assign it to the humanities, but it is going to involve a lot of the sorts of reasoning and evidence gathering that we think of as distinctive of science.

  40. @ Ben – this “proper authority” thing is rather puzzling. If everyone is a proper authority on behavioural standards, that leads to an extreme subjectivism. I have a feeling that I’m misunderstanding you somewhere along the line, but your view seems to me to be sufficiently esoteric that I don’t see how it can be account of the message that people actually receive when they hear moral claims made by others. And we don’t get to control the meanings of our utterances – by and large, our utterances mean whatever message they tend to convey within our linguistic communities.

    As near as I can make out, you think that “Abortion is morally wrong” means something like “I deem abortion to be forbidden” or “Abortion is forbidden by my standards” or “I hereby forbid abortion”. If so, someone else can respond, “What’s that to me?” The act of forbidding may be authoritative as far the utterer is concerned, but there is no reason in any of the above for anyone hearing it to accept that authority unless she actually wants to (perhaps she values pleasing this particular person or something). We are a long way from these sorts of moral claims even purporting to be binding on anyone.

    I’m probably wrong about you’re saying, though. I’m just trying to get my head around what you think a very standard first-order moral claim, such as “Abortion is morally wrong” actually means.

  41. Steve Merrick said:-
    “there is no such thing as the methodology of science”
    The “scientific method” is a well-known phrase. As far as I know, it is also defined and understood.
    I agree. It is like saying “there is no such thing as the methodology of football.”

  42. lol, Don. You made the point more succinctly than I did.

  43. s. wallerstein (amos)


    I hope that I’m not over my head here, but if Ben is saying that morality is often a question of which authorities one trusts and accepts, I agree.

    I don’t accept the Pope’s moral authority.

    I accept Peter Singer’s moral authority.

    Of course, since I also accept the moral authority of other thinkers, for example, Spinoza, Nietzsche and Marx, at times they contradict one another and I have to decide between them.

    However, at least in my case, which may be totally idiosyncratic, I weigh one authority (there are others than those listed above, including some whom I know personally) against another to see what is right and wrong, within the context of this council of authorities.

    That is, for me (and once again I may be idiosyncratic or worse) deciding what is moral is carried out within the context of a dialogue with an imaginary community of authorities.

    Why do I accept them as authorities? For a number of reasons. They confirm what I already believe intuitively or in a confused way; they speak to my interests; they ratify my sense of self; they ratify my sense of reality; they cut through the bull-shit or what I see as bull-shit

    I have very little to say about morality to those who accept the Pope as their moral authority. We are not in dialogue with one another, at least not about abortion or homosexuality.
    (We would agree that murder is wrong, etc.)

    There are limits to community of those whom I can talk “morality” with.

  44. I didn’t mean to say that everyone who makes a moral claim is an authority. I mean to say that everyone who does so competently will claim they have that authority, or speaks on behalf of someone with that authority.

    Here’s what I mean by the purported ‘authority’ of a claim:
    a) It is a claim established by a force or agent(s) who are worthy of deference;
    b) The claim provides you with a desire-independent reason for action by virtue of that authority. In other words, we’re all externalists when it comes to the semantic purport of moral claims.

    So a first-order moral claim, like “Abortion is morally wrong”, means something like this: “The moral authority deems abortion to be impermissible”.

    If something like that view is correct, then questions concerning relativism and absolutism are irrelevant to semantics, because they don’t figure into the literal contents of what is said. As far as surface meaning goes, all that is implied is that you need to bend your knees to some mysterious, unspoken steward of morality. If we ask for further clarification, we might get all kinds of different answers, including e.g., subjectivism and absolutism. The subjectivist will say, “I only have a reason for action so long as I acknowledge that authority”, while the absolutist will say, “I have a reason for action regardless of whether or not I or anyone acknowledges that authority”.

  45. On the question of there being “no scientific method”: there is surely no method of coming up with a good hypothesis (other than imagination, creativity, etc.). But there are methods that might be described as “pseudo-scientific”. For example, the use of induction/extrapolation in statistics strikes me as having the superficial appearance of rigor combined with no real science at all. If some methods are pseudo-scientific, then complementary methods might be scientific, however broad and varied though that category may be.

  46. Russell, something you wrote earlier started me thinking, and helped me clarify my own thoughts. You wrote:

    In other moods, I think that the meaning of moral claim is actually rather vague or inchoate, with people not necessarily distinguishing between some sort of claim that’s relativised to the assumed values of the group or a claim that is supposed to transcend them. In that case, the truth may be some sort of mixture of what someone like, say, Mackie thinks and what, say, Prinz thinks. The points that divide them may not have a clear answer.

    I’m not sure that the distinction you’re referring to is even a meaningful one. What can it mean to say that I’m “relativising” a moral claim to a set of moral values?

    1. Much of the time our moral judgements are instinctive, not based on conscious deliberation. In that case they’re not based on deduction from moral propositions, but instead arise (in part) from mental states that we can call “moral values”. In this sense, my moral claims arise (in part) from my moral values much as my claims about the physical world arise (in part) from my pre-existing beliefs about the world. It seems to make little sense to describe such processes as “relativising”.

    2. Sometimes our moral judgements have an element of conscious deliberation (though arguably this is mostly rationalisation after the fact). In that case I may partially deduce a moral claim from other moral propositions. This could be described as relativising the claim to those propositions. If the prior propositions are those I assume to represent the values of my group, then this could be called relativising the claim to the values of the group. But I would say, first, that relatively little of our moral judgement is based on such conscious deliberation. Second, I’m unlikely to relativise to a moral proposition that I don’t agree with, so mostly I will be relativising to my own values, and the fact that they are also the group’s seems incidental.

    Either way, I think moral claimants are mostly just basing their moral claims on their own moral values. Talk of “relativising” doesn’t seem to be useful to understanding the process.

    What is it then that makes moral claims seem universally binding? I think it’s just the affect that moral claims have on us, and what motivates us to make them. I think the acceptance of a moral claim causes the creation of structures that motivate us and make us feel a sense of obligation. To the extent that we feel a sense of obligation, we project that sense of obligation onto other people, and expect them to feel it too. I think it’s that projection that causes people typically to apply their moral claims universally and deny any subjectivist or relativist restriction of scope. In a sense, the fact that the universal binding of moral claims is felt so deeply is not just evidence of their universally binding quality, it’s what gives them that quality. This could be called a “functionalist” interpretation. Anyway, that’s my current theory, for what it’s worth.

  47. Ben, you say that “Abortion is morally wrong” means “The moral authority deems abortion to be impermissible”.

    I think this is overly complex. It also has the problem that would be defining moral wrongness in terms of the word “moral” which is left undefined. I doubt that ordinary people think that the impermissibility of, say, torturing babies for fun, is something that can be “deemed” – they think it’s wrong. I need to get back to Richard (and first I need to absorb what he is saying), but, unlike Richard I can imagine, at least for the sake of argument, that the folk consider it wrong by their standards rather than by inescapably binding or authoritative standards, or, perhaps that they don’t ordinarily make that distinction. But I doubt that it’s something that the folks think can be deemed or not deemed wrong (unless perhaps they are divine command theorists who are pushed to this implication of their theory).

    Now if you said that “Abortion is morally wrong” means “Abortion is forbidden by the authority concerned” or “… forbidden by the standards concerned” you’d have reached a definition that I could have more sympathy with. Here, the speaker is not distinguishing whether or not the standards or the authority possess an authority that is inescapably binding. The speaker may believe that such authority exists, but the belief does not get expressed straightforwardly in the claim, and so the claim is not false from the start in the way that textbook error theorists believe.

    If something like this is a reasonable approximation, textbook error theory is not quite right. However, original error theory may still be right – by “original theory” I basically mean Mackie’s views. Mackie believed that the error is pervasive, but he didn’t necessarily believe that it straightforwardly renders all first-order moral claims false, because he thought that the meaning of these claims is rather messy.

    So, the view of Mackie himself still emerges as more or less true. If the speaker and listener are not making the distinction, at least one of the meanings that is floating around in the discussion in practice is going to be false, and this is going to be pretty ubiquitous in moral language. Not only that, even if the thought that there is inescapably binding authority is not straightforwardly expressed in first-order moral claims, that thought is still ubiquitous in human societies, so many (perhaps just about all) people are going around with the error in their heads. If that’s right – and I think it pretty clearly is – a form of moral scepticism is right, even if it doesn’t quite take the form of textbook error theory.

    It gets worse. If the meaning of “abortion is morally wrong” is that abortion is forbidden by the authority or standards concerned, what are those standards? In a small-group discussion among friends, perhaps there really are standards “concerned” in the sense that everyone accepts them. This might even apply all the way across a small culturally-closed society.

    However, if we think that there are “standards concerned” once we go out in public we are in for an unpleasant surprise. There are no standards that are inescapably binding, and I’d be very sceptical about a claim that there are standards, at least very comprehensive ones, that we all accept de facto (Michael Ruse might argue differently … I haven’t yet read his reply to the original post). If moral claims are claims about standards concerned, then, at least usually, they are going to make claims about something that doesn’t actually exist. In which case a form of error theory is prevailing after all. “Abortion is forbidden by the standards concerned” will be fail to refer because there will be no “standards concerned”.

    And it gets even worse. In some small group we could get a person saying “Abortion is morally wrong”. If this means “Abortion is forbidden by the authority or standards concerned” what happens if everyone nods along? Perhaps it really is forbidden by the authority recognised by the people concerned (perhaps a religious declaration) or by their tacitly agreed standards. In which case the claim, expressed in that context on that occasion, is true.

    But people who don’t think abortion is morally wrong are going to be resistant to the idea that “Abortion is morally wrong” is true when expressed in one context (when spoken in a group of like-minded people who share standards that would forbid abortion) and false in other contexts. They are going to think it is false simpliciter. This applies to any other example you care to choose. Which suggests that we really do seem to have some kind of commitment to moral language being about some standards that are binding on us all, not just about standards that are at large in a particular conversation and in that sense the standards concerned. And we don’t seem to have that commitment kind of collaterally to our actual language.

    Which suggests that the textbook error theorist is sitting a bit prettier after all.

  48. Thanks for your thoughts Russell.

    The first thing to keep in mind is that I deny that moral claims have any unique semantics, as distinct from other kinds of institutional claims (like promises and so on). There is no such thing as a moral sentence; there are only declarative utterances that have a moralistic aura around them. So when I add the word “moral” to “moral authority”, it’s not circular, because I’m not trying to define a moral sentence. The entire thesis is that the “moral” part is pragmatic speaker’s meaning, value added on top of the sentence’s meaning. I referred to “moral claims” above, but that equivocates between pragmatics and semantics; from now on, to be clear, I’ll refer just to rightness-claims.

    The second thing — when I read what I wrote a second time, it seems that you might be right, and the ‘authority’ clause does seem to be adding too much content. I think that’s because I’ve made a simple idea seem more complex than it should be.

    As far as I know, it was Sidgwick’s idea that rightness claims are authoritative. He argues that “in the recognition of conduct as ‘right’ is involved an authoritative prescription to do it”, by contrast, “when we have judged conduct to be good, it is not yet clear that we ought to prefer this kind of good to all other good things”. (See, Methods of ethics)

    So rightness claims purport to be authoritative, in at least the sense that they provide definite direction to one’s actions. When I say, “You ought to do this”, I am not just giving you an interesting suggestion, or saying “It would be good to do this”. Rather, there’s a sense of to-be-doneness in a rights-claim. And ‘authority’ is just a clumsy way of talking about the to-be-doneness quality of rightness claims — the sense that they’re not to be ignored, that the effective course of action has been decided, that the instruction is to be followed.

    So, sure, it’s unlikely that “ordinary people think that the impermissibility of, say, torturing babies for fun, is something that can be “deemed” – they think it’s wrong”. “Deemed” was an unfortunate language choice on my part. The point, though, is that people surely think that the claim, ‘torturing babies for fun is wrong’, is a directive that provides us with closure when confronted with the question, “Should we torture babies for fun?”. It provides us with definite instructions for action, and these instructions purport to be worthy of deference. If a pro-torture advocate says, “That claim is false”, the falsity is based on the idea that the instructions are not worthy of deference.

    The rest of your concerns, starting from the paragraph that begins “It gets worse”, are largely non-semantic, and hence are consistent with the view I’ve been propounding. They have more to do with the meta-ethics of moral and political philosophy, or moral realism/irrealism, and less to do with the philosophy of language. Moral skepticism might be right or wrong, but it doesn’t bear on the semantics of rightness-claims.

  49. Russell,

    I need to get back to Richard (and first I need to absorb what he is saying), but, unlike Richard I can imagine, at least for the sake of argument, that the folk consider it wrong by their standards rather than by inescapably binding or authoritative standards, or, perhaps that they don’t ordinarily make that distinction.

    I’m looking forward to your reply, Russell. But I also think I need to make my meaning clearer.

    My point was not primarily about what people think or say about their moral judgements. It was about what’s going on when they make moral judgements. I’m suggesting that people’s tendency to express any of the views you mention has little relevance to how they make moral judgements (neither affecting how they make moral judgements, nor telling us how they make moral judgements). It may, however, relate to how they apply their moral judgements.

    On the subject of how moral judgements are made, I think we just have to say that people base their moral judgements on a set of moral values (overwhelmingly their own). Saying that those moral judgements are “relativised” to those moral values seems to be making a meaningless distinction. That’s not denying the possibility that the folk might express relativist views. I’m questioning whether relativist views are meaningful and coherent.

    If I’m right, the significant question here is not about how people make their moral judgements. (The rough answer to that question is easy: they base their moral judgements on their moral values.) I think the significant question is about how and why people apply their moral judgements. I suggest that people have a deep motivating state which causes them to apply their moral judgements in a universal way (and this is what gives moral claims their “inescapably binding” quality). Empirical evidence could show me wrong. We could, for example, see people generally exempting other groups from moral judgements, on the grounds that they have different values.

    I’m prepared to consider a scenario where the folk generally express relativistic views on moral discourse. But even if that were the case I might still end up with an error theory, because I doubt that there can be a coherent relativistic moral language.

  50. P.S. On further reflection, Russell, I think I need to draw attention to an apparent ambiguity in your language. When, for example, you posit (hypothetically) that “the folk consider it wrong by their standards,” you could mean several things.

    (1) You could be saying something about how the folk make moral judgements, i.e. that the process of making a judgement involves some sort of relativising to their standards (whatever that might mean).

    (2) Or you could be saying something about the way the folk express their moral judgements, e.g. that they say, “That’s wrong by my standards”.

    (3) Or you could be saying something about how the folk explain their moral judgements, e.g. that they say, “My judgements of wrongness are only by my standards.”

    Or perhaps you’re saying something else altogether.

    My last comment took your meaning to be of type (3). But I’ve also addressed (1). I don’t think I need to address (2) separately.

  51. “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.”

    – Bertrand Russell

    As atheists perhaps we do have to face up to reality in a way Nietzsche & Sartre acknowledged. We can’t ditch the notion of God and pretend that continuing to believe in queer moral facts is any more respectable. The error theorist might look around and view a great deal of moral philosophy in much the same way as Dawkins views Theology. Perhaps we should indeed be eliminativists about much of this moral talk and force ourselves to face up to reality in a way that Betrand Russell couldn’t.

  52. Sure we can! You can refute the idea that ethical claims are subjective, while still ditching the ‘God’ and ‘queer moral facts’ theories. That’s because they’re two different things: claims and facts.

    A light ought to go off and klaxons ought to blare when we recognize the difference between the objectivity of claims (epistemic objectivity, or knowable by third-persons) and the objectivity of facts (ontological objectivity, or mind-independence). Rightness-claims purport to be objective as claims, and hence they are truth-apt. But just because they’re truth-apt, that doesn’t mean that what makes the propositions true is their capacity to map onto mind-independent facts.

    If the reverse seemed true for Russell, it was because Russell had fallen victim to his own penny-pinching semantic theory, which was too austere to do justice to expressions that held the logical form of the declarative.

  53. Relativism (beyond the realm of mere description) is, and always was, obvious twaddle. No matter how ‘sophisticated’ it gets. I don’t doubt that you can show certain moral theories to be incoherent, or that you can persuade people committed to a given theory that their belief that ‘x is morally wrong’ is wrong by their own lights or that their moral position leads to conclusions they themselves cannot stomach. Nor do I doubt that by appealing to our moral emotions – and I don’t doubt that there are distinct emotions quite deserving of the name ‘moral’ – one can persuade others to reduce suffering or that philosophy – and rather more obviously – science can tell us how best to achieve that goal or a set of goals that includes it.

    But much as I have fought against it, it seems that truth and reason demand that we must embrace the death of God and the death of objective morality. And on account of this much of moral philosophy, along with theology, seems quite fit for the flames (aesthetics should have gone there long ago). I say all this in a spirit of angst, as one who has given up on faith, and not in the form of clear-headed philosophical argument. I don’t want philosophy to be reduced to being the handmaiden of science, a way of dealing with pre-scientific questions and a methodology for clearing up conceptual confusion. And I do not want “we should not torture children just for be fun” to be no more than an expression of opinion backed up by nothing but a strong and common ‘gut’ feeling. But it seems that this is so.

    And sophisticated moral talk seems suddenly to leave me cold, no better than sophisticated theology – there is nothing real for it to be about except emotions. Error theory and eliminativism seems the only intellectually respectable and honest way to go.

    Not that honesty appears to have any intrinsic value any more.

    This is all rather depressing, as it ‘should’ be. But such is how it seems to me.

  54. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Can I say something that may sound cruel?

    Most of our basic (that is, intuitive) moral sense is simply what Freud calls the superego, the sense of what is right and wrong that we learned from our parents (and others) when we were very young.

    When we venerate our basic moral sense, we really are defending our up-bringing, our selves, insofar as our selves, who we are, is a product of our milieu, our families and yes, our genes.

    So our defense of our intuitive moral sense can even be seen as bit narcissistic, since rather than defending some abstract and lofty principles, as we imagine, we defend who we are.

  55. Jim–

    But much as I have fought against it, it seems that truth and reason demand that we must embrace the death of God and the death of objective morality… I say all this in a spirit of angst… And I do not want “we should not torture children just for be fun” to be no more than an expression of opinion backed up by nothing but a strong and common ‘gut’ feeling. But it seems that this is so.

    Well it’s certainly admirable to concede a conclusion that you want to reject, so long as you concede that conclusion through honest reasoning. But you’re just asserting a position, without encountering competitor positions that succeed in making sense of the widest variety of considerations that are salient to the issue.

    And sophisticated moral talk seems suddenly to leave me cold, no better than sophisticated theology – there is nothing real for it to be about except emotions.

    Fine, but that doesn’t matter. The true is not the same as the real. Claims are not the same as brute facts. Claims can be made true by institutions, just as much as they can be made true by brute facts.

    You can, of course, adopt an eliminativist position towards human social institutions. If that’s what you are, then I release you in peace to be an eliminativist about morality. So, e.g., perhaps you might adopt the quiet dignity of Bokonon from the novel Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut, and regard most societies as granfalloons. But that has nothing to do with the death of the invisible admiral of the sky, it’s because you’ve lost confidence in your ability to trust other people.

  56. S, that was not cruel at all. I think you’re very close to the heart of it. Morality does involve the self, in relation to others, and what ought to be done.

    The trouble is with the ‘narcissism’. That can’t be exactly right. Morality involves necessity, and necessity involves more than just the random grab-bag of contingent characteristics that make up a personality at any given moment. It is, instead, about who we need to be.

  57. Hi Ben,

    As stated I wasn’t presenting my thoughts ‘in the form of clear-headed philosophical argument’. Just expressing angst and a loss of faith. The moral error theory that people said I explained so well just seems rather more convincing than anything else I’ve read or written. Sorry I just don’t find your arguments convincing. I daresay we can redfine ‘moral’ so we can put it to use in true sentences but this only seems to save a word. If I try to adopt the open mind we ask of the theist it just seems apparent talk of morality as it is naturally construed is so thoroughly confused as to be best dropped.

    Still, perhaps I can live with a fiction or find some form of ethic.

  58. Richard, the main point that you seem to be pressing against me is that there is something puzzling about making moral judgments relative to our values or desires.

    I don’t understand why you find this so puzzling. We’ve discussed it before, and it seems that up to a point, at least, the idea is fairly straightforward.

    If I make an ordinary, non-moral judgment of value, that judgment will, at least as a rule, be made relative to certain requirements, desires, etc., that I assume my interlocutors share, at least roughly.

    Thus, if I say, pointing, “This is a good knife,” I mean that it has the sorts of properties – sturdiness, sharpness, ability to retain its edge, and doubtless others – that the people involved in the conversation want in a knife in order to meet the requirements that we have of knives (or of this kind of knife, or of this kind of knife in this sort of context). Doubtless when I judge the knife is good I do so somewhat intuitively, but I have learned to judge knives based on what the people around me want in a knife – what sorts of properties in a knife will meet the sort of desires we have in a knife.

    However, if I think about it I don’t insist that my judgment that the knife is a good one is binding on someone else who does not want a knife to have the same properties, perhaps because she has different requirements in a knife, which might be based on different desires about what to do with knives and much else.

    So when we say that a knife is a good one, we may, as it were, “see” the knife as good, as if goodness is something like a physical property that the knife either has or lacks (and which someone can be simply wrong about). But we don’t take this “seeing” very seriously – at least not these days in culturally open societies.

    There can be genuine, factual questions at large in a conversation about whether the knife has the properties that we all, in the conversation, expect in a knife: sharpness, etc. So someone could be right or wrong about whether the knife has the properties that are expected in a knife to in order meet the requirements in question, which are, in turn, based on our shared desires. There is an objective fact of the case as to whether or not the knife is sharp. But whether the knife is “good” is a trickier proposition: it depends on the desires of those involved in the discussion.

    In a sense, moral judgments could have been like that. When we say that someone is a “good” person we might mean that this person has a certain mix of properties – perhaps kindness, courage, intellectual honesty, loyalty, among others – that are needed to meet our requirements in how the people around us will act, those requirements will be based on our desires. We could then admit that other people, may have different requirements about how they want the people around them to act, based on having different desires about the outcomes of human actions, and so on.

    The point that I often make is that the folk, even the well-educated folk, don’t seem to think this way about a good (i.e. morally virtuous) character or about a good (i.e. morally required or morally praiseworthy) act. There seems to be a resistance to thinking in this way about specifically moral goodness. It’s as if there’s no entitlement for people to have different desires and requirements in this area (and perhaps there’s a psychological explanation for why we tend to think this way).

    I think we have evidence that in the knife case people will tend to go in one direction – of course the knife is only good by our standards, which means it has certain properties that enable it to meet our requirements, which are based on our desires. The knife is good only relative to the desires of the people involved in the conversation. It is not good in a sense that binds all people irrespective of their desires. I think most people who have thought about it will admit something along these lines, though they may express it in vague says such as saying it’s a “matter of opinion” whether or not one knife is better than another. At least sometimes this means there is no judgment of the issue that binds us all, irrespective of what we actually want.

    I often use the example of a car, where desires can clearly vary quite a bit. It’s not all that difficult getting people to realise that there are no standards of what is a good car that transcend people’s car-related desires and that, accordingly, bind us all, irrespective of our desires. We tend to think that talk about discussion of the merits of cars can be perfectly rational, but that is only because, in practice, people who car about cars do tend to have a lot of commonalities in their car-related desires, and hence in their car requirements, and hence in the properties that they expect or hope that a car will have. All the same, even though we think that discussion of car-merit is perfectly rational, we also think that there is room for legitimate disagreement, even if all the empirical facts are agreed. That area of legitimate disagreement tracks back to the fact that we do not have – and there is no reason why we must have – precisely the same car-related desires.

    The point is, the folk don’t think of morality like this. Or so it appears. And yet, there seems to be no reason in principle why we couldn’t think of the goodness of a person’s character or the goodness of an act in much the same way.

    That’s the error. If by “Abortion is morally wrong” all we meant was “Abortion has the properties that disqualify it from meeting our requirements for the relevant class of acts” then this could, in a certain conversational context, be true. This would be making a claim about abortion that relates it to “our” requirements (the requirements of the people in the conversation), which are based on “our” desires.

    But somone who thinks abortion is morally wrong is unlikely to relativise the claim to the shared desires of the group in that way, even if we push her. More likely she thinks, and is arguably saying, something like: “Abortion is forbidden in the nature of things” or it is “forbidden by inescapably binding standards”. She won’t think that a different person, in a different group, can make a legitimate claim that abortion is morally permissible – she thinks is Just Wrong, somehow inescapably and transcendently forbidden.

  59. Russell,

    Thank you for going to the trouble of replying at such length. I think we’re talking at cross purposes, but I’m sure that’s my fault for not making myself clear. I hope you won’t mind (you’ll probably be relieved) if I leave it there, instead of trying to clarify myself further. The point I was making wasn’t a very important one. I just thought you might find it interesting.

  60. Jim,

    I daresay we can redfine ‘moral’ so we can put it to use in true sentences but this only seems to save a word.

    We don’t ‘redefine’ moral in this way. This is a proposal about what rightness claims meant in the first place.

    Here’s what it comes down to. If you accept the proposal that “‘In baseball, after three strikes you’re out’ is true”, and if you accept that the same can be said of all rightness claims, and you accept that moral claims are rightness claims, then you’re not an error theorist. There is no more room for maneuvering.

    I suppose one might feel disappointed that this analysis dismisses the idea that moral sentences (like “Murder is wrong”) are semantically distinct from other rightness/wrongness claims (like “Picking your nose is wrong”). But then you’d have to tie a lot of your philosophical hopes into an understanding of the literal meanings of words, as opposed to their broader significance as speech acts.

  61. I don’t doubt that there are facts that we can find out without doing anything distinctively scientific.

    And what would an example of such a piece of objective knowledge be?

  62. s. wallerstein (amos)

    A fact that we can find out without doing anything scientific:

    I have a headache.

  63. Nice try, but I was specifically asking, and Russell specifically talking, about objective knowledge.

  64. The proposal, “I am sitting on a bed typing on my laptop”, is objectively justified and true without being justified in any distinctively scientific way. It is objective because multiple independent sources of evidence are brought together to explain what I’m up to right now.

  65. And you will notice that even your language is very suggestive of something that is typical of scientific inquiry, viz. independent evidence and trying to explain something.

    But I suspect that we’ll have to clarify one or two concepts in order to make any headway. First, I would suggest we call ‘science’ not just what can go on in a laboratory, since that would seem a little arbitrary as well as unduly limiting. Personally, I would put forward as a tentative definition something like “the critically rational pursuit of progressively better explanations of the phenomena of reality”. Second, I think we should exchange the “not distinctively scientific” for a “substantially different from scientific inquiry”, as that would make explicit what kind of argument is required: one that shows exactly how a purported path to objective knowledge differs in a substantive way from science. I suppose (always subject to correction, of course) that Russell would agree that for his statement to be subjected to critical assessment it is necessary—in true Popperian fashion—to reduce as much as possible the wiggle-room for any confirming arguments.

  66. Ben,

    I know that what is sincerely intended is a proposal about what (moral) rightness claims really mean. But I don’t find the proposal at all convincing. I appreciate you will have good grounds for arguing as you do and that much of it will be above my level of competency to judge. But if we were debating “this house believes that error theory is probably right” my vote would have gone with Russell.

    I shall away and play backgammon and try to reconsider the matter at a later date.

  67. Russell:

    it’s easy enough to point out simple examples…. e.g., discovering some historical fact by translating an ancient document. If the person then defines “science” so broadly as to include such an activity, we are now involved in an argument about semantics

  68. Sure. Everyday knowing is substantially continuous with science. Also, sure, science isn’t just what happens in the lab — it ranges over all kinds of methods, including naturalistic observation. And, agreed, your definition is a not bad attempt, because it highlights the importance of inference to the best explanation in a critical society.

    This is consistent with saying that you can know things without doing something distinctively scientific. That’s not because science and common knowledge are different ways of knowing, so in that sense (and only that sense) it would be misleading to say that everyday knowing is substantially different from scientific inquiry. Rather, science and common knowledge are distinct because there’s a point where methods that are distinctive of all forms of science (e.g., Mill’s methods) are otiose when it comes to everyday facts. The distinction is tangible, but superficial.

    Popper’s falsification criterion only succeeds as a training exercise in weeding out one particularly grandeloquent kind of wishful thinker. It’s a great tool for distinguishing between critical thinkers from uncritical ones. But it’s not a very effective line to draw between science and pseudoscience, because a lot of pseudoscience will pretend to be falsifiable.

  69. » Benjamin S. Nelson:
    Rather, science and common knowledge are distinct because there’s a point where methods that are distinctive of all forms of science (e.g., Mill’s methods) are otiose when it comes to everyday facts. The distinction is tangible, but superficial.

    But how exactly are they distinct? I would, for example, assert that even a question such as whether or not my partner loves me is basically one that we can answer by using the same general methods that science uses: we look for certain patterns of behaviour, try to falsify the hypothesis, and upon failure of enough attempted falsifications we tentatively accept the hypothesis. And this is not a romanticization of what we do, it is what we actually do if we’re serious: we look for things that shouldn’t happen if the hypothesis were true, like the person getting mad at us when we confess a minor misdeed, and construe situations in which the expected behaviour would be very hard to explain under a different hypothesis (‘If you really love me…’).

    Popper’s falsification criterion [is] not a very effective line to draw between science and pseudoscience, because a lot of pseudoscience will pretend to be falsifiable.

    Of course they will, which is why Popper said a lot more about this criterion than is commonly referred to in such discussions. (See his Conjectures and Refutations, or this PDF excerpt.)

  70. I’d say the difference primarily has to do with the complexity of the kinds of evidence involved. My various senses (sight, touch, etc.) provide me with basic forms of evidence. Contrast that with the evidence that scientists use, which is more complex.

    Consider this proposal: “Broca’s area is involved in the processing of language in some important way that has yet to be well understood.” We believe this because when investigating the areas of the brain that are involved in processing syntax, we have studies of aphasias, fMRI studies, developmental studies, and so on. These forms of evidence are complex, based on all kinds of tacit assumptions: about the reliability of the testimony of the experts, the ability of fMRIs to map onto patterns of neural firing, modularity as a working hypothesis of what there is to be explained, etc. That’s more complex evidence than just “I see it”, “I touch it”, etc.

    You’re right to suggest that there’s a sense in which everyday reasoning comes naturally to us, when we’re serious at answering some question. We try to solve problems through the process of parallel constraint satisfaction. The problem is that parallel constraint satisfaction doesn’t guarantee that a person will try to make a minimal explanatory effort. And making a minimal effort at explanation is far from being a scientist.

    Also, your example poses a special problem: that your efforts at explanation are capable of annihilating the phenomenon you’re trying to explain. Ask enough questions about your spouse’s inner mental states and you might soon find that she doesn’t love you at all, precisely because so much shallow probing is insufferable. It is a perverse fact about the human experience that we often have to take your trust in the other person as a form of evidence that they are trustworthy.

  71. Peter, am I really supposed to be stumped by your question? You sound as if you think science’s honour is at stake if it is possible – shock, horror! – for someone who is skilled in ancient languages to discover what happened on some occasion (by translating documents, or inscriptions on monuments, etc.).

    But the honour of science does not depend on the humanities being helpless to discover new knowledge.

    And sure, if you stretch the word “science” so that it includes looking out the window and seeing that it is not raining; translating an ancient text to find what was the Mardukians’, say, version of events in some battle or other; or reading a novel and discerning that a certain character has been coded as the villain … then, yes, as you expand your definition of “science” to cover all these things it eventually becomes a trivial truth that all knowledge is obtained through science.

    Trivial truths are not very interesting either to philosophers or to, say, university administrators deciding whether a particular program of study should be allocated to the Faculty of Science or the Faculty of Humanities and Liberal Arts … or to a prospective student working out whether to do a science degree or a humanities degree.

    Ordinary people and humanities investigators find out facts about the world all the time. The techniques that they use are available to scientists. Science is not limited in the sense of being unable to call on other kinds of expertise as needed.

    Conversely, the techniques used and developed by scientists are available to humanities scholars. E.g. historians now use carbon dating, DNA testing of ancient human remains, geophysical surveying, and all sorts of other apparatus and procedures more associated with scientific investigation.

    There are continuities between the sciences and the humanities, as I said, and there’s a big grey area between what falls into the humanities and what falls into the sciences. In the end, there is really only one “way of knowing” … but there are many techniques for finding out stuff, and many practical issues about what techniques are distinctive of, say, the sciences, as opposed to the humanities. (There are also characteristics that are typical of both.)

    There are distinctions between the sciences and humanities that have histories behind them and continue to serve useful practical purposes. Science is not some kind of ahistorical phenomenon (nor is what we call the humanities an ahistorical phenomenon); and we are not helpless in finding characteristics that tend to be distinctive of the science, as opposed to the humanities.

  72. Sorry – some of that sounds a bit too snarky.

  73. It seems to me there is often a tendency to assume that there is no useful distinction to be made unless it’s a precise one. There is no precise demarcating line between scientific inferences and other categories of rational inference, and all categories of rational inference have a lot in common. So some people feel they must extend the meaning of “science” to include all rational inferences.

    But fuzzy distinctions are ubiquitous in natural language. (I would go further and suggest that they are inevitable in any language capable of explaining the observed world.) The distinction between “child” and “adult” is a fuzzy one. There is no precise demarcating line between the two categories (except for certain institutional purposes such as the law), and they have a lot in common. But the distinction is a useful one, and it would be unhelpful to insist that we must refer to all people as “adults” (or all as “children”). Similarly, the distinction between science and history (for example) is a useful (if fuzzy) one, and it’s unhelpful to insist that historians be called scientists.

    I think those who want to use “science” to refer to all rational inferences are motivated by an important observation: the continuity of all categories of inference. Those on the other side of the familiar divide (I’m trying to avoid any pejorative labels) tend to resist the idea of such continuity, and I think it’s useful to reject their misguided attempts at demarcation. But that doesn’t require us to go to the opposite extreme and deny that there is any useful distinction to be made. The middle road is to say that there are useful distinctions to be made (between science and history, science and philosophy, etc) but they are fuzzier than many people think.

    I’m sure that those who insist on the broad sence of “science” don’t use it that way consistently. They don’t actually call historians “scientists”, for example. They are just adopting the broader sense in the context of a limited range of discussions. Creating a new sense of a word without a very good reason leads to unnecessary misunderstandings and conflation of meanings. It makes effective discussion more difficult.

  74. Peter, am I really supposed to be stumped by your question? You sound as if you think science’s honour is at stake if it is possible – shock, horror! – for someone who is skilled in ancient languages to discover what happened on some occasion (by translating documents, or inscriptions on monuments, etc.).

    Not at all. Neither do I think that a discussion is a competition in which the goal is to score points (or stump other people), nor do I think that this is about somebody’s or something’s honour.

    What I am interested in is good explanations and helpful distinctions between different terms. In order to understand what the humanities scholar does when she tries to find out whether person X was real and said or did something specific, it is of some interest to find out whether what she does differs substantively from what other scientists (palaeontologists, say) do. And insofar as we claim to arrive at objective knowledge, I think that no such substantive difference exists. At least I haven’t seen any arguments to convince me otherwise.

    …if you stretch the word “science” so that it includes looking out the window and seeing that it is not raining…

    I don’t actually think that that’s what I am doing. If I suggest that the question of whether Julius Caesar really existed and was a Consul in Rome is a scientific question, I am doing exactly the same thing as Richard Dawkins when he says that the question of whether the God Hypothesis is true is undoubtedly a scientific question.

    What’s more, if I look out the window and perceive that it is not raining (sadly, a counter-factual in my neck of the woods), this is specifically what I thought we were not talking about, i.e. it is not objective knowledge but a subjective perception. Epistemically, it is pretty much on the same level as so-called revelation. We may have some warrant to call this ‘knowledge’, but it is certainly not objective knowledge—i.e. we know that we perceive something, but we do not thereby know that something to be true independently of ourselves.

    Sorry – some of that sounds a bit too snarky.

    Which would rather suggest that it was you who saw something’s or somebody’s honour at stake, shouldn’t you think? 😉 (Not trying to stump or score, just banter. 🙂 )

  75. » Richard Wein:
    I’m sure that those who insist on the broad sence of “science” don’t use it that way consistently. They don’t actually call historians “scientists”, for example.

    I do, actually. That’s why the term ‘historical sciences’ exists, and rightly so, I think. But as always, science is as science does. To the extent that historians want to gain objective knowledge, I would suggest they have to use recognisably scientific methods. But if you think you might be able to give a potentially convincing counter-example, I am all ears. 🙂

  76. There’s an IEP entry on ‘The New Atheists’ (by which is meant the ‘four horsemen’) written by a Christian Apologist, it claims they all subscribe to some form of scientism. He defines it this way:

    “According to scientism, empirical science is the only source of our knowledge of the world (strong scientism) or, more moderately, the best source of rational belief about the way things are (weak scientism).”

    I’d never have expected to hear ‘scientism’ used in an encyclopaedia (it being a term of abuse). Nor had I heard it being qualified as ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ – but such it seems is the language used by some Christian Apologists.

    I did ask Dan Dennett about it and he noted “if you look at his definition of ‘scientism’ it isn’t so bad—it’s just not the way most ‘critics’ use the term”.

    Anyway, sure, why not ‘reclaim’ the term ‘scientism’ and use it like some of the Apologists do?

    And indeed why not make ‘science’ equivalent to “the means of obtaining objective knowledge of the world”?

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

  77. What’s more, if I look out the window and perceive that it is not raining (sadly, a counter-factual in my neck of the woods), this is specifically what I thought we were not talking about, i.e. it is not objective knowledge but a subjective perception. Epistemically, it is pretty much on the same level as so-called revelation. We may have some warrant to call this ‘knowledge’, but it is certainly not objective knowledge—i.e. we know that we perceive something, but we do not thereby know that something to be true independently of ourselves.

    That seems like fine compliment to advocates of revelation. If you were right, then I’d need a cabal of scientists on hand in the room to ratify my claim that “It is raining outside” (outside meaning that place out there, outside my head) before I am warranted in believing it.

  78. If you look out the window and see it is raining, that gives you good warrant to think it is raining. If it actually is raining, then it’s an objective truth that it’s raining – it’s not just a matter of opinion like, “Cashew nuts are delicious.”

    And if mystical visions really did give as a good a warrant for belief as ordinary sense perception (“Hey, I see it’s raining!”), then mystical visions would give very good warrant indeed.

    But only science has had any real success in giving us warranted beliefs about such things as events on a cosmic scale, events on a microscopic scale, and events from deep in time before we had historical records. In that sense, science is our best guide to the world. It has freed us from our confinement to knowledge of a relatively small part of the cosmos.

  79. Russell:

    And if mystical visions really did give as a good a warrant for belief as ordinary sense perception (“Hey, I see it’s raining!”), then mystical visions would give very good warrant indeed.

    Indeed. And mystical visions would then be “scientific” according to the definition of “science” that some are proposing.

  80. And indeed why not make ‘science’ equivalent to “the means of obtaining objective knowledge of the world”?

    Jim, let me respond to your rhetorical question with a couple of my own. If we want to say “the means of obtaining objective knowledge of the world”, why not just say “the means of obtaining objective knowledge of the world”, or shorten it to some such term as “knowledge-gaining”, “rational inference” or “empirical inference”? Why recycle a term that currently has a different meaning, with all the risk of misunderstanding and conflation which that entails?

    Perhaps I’m taking a light-hearted rhetorical question a bit too seriously, but I think there are some interesting questions about meaning at stake here, and these questions have wider relevance to philosophical definitions. Indeed, given your recent statement about moral relativism being an attempt to “save the word” (IIRC), I know you are sensitive to the dangers of redefining terms. While proposals to redefine “science” are not exactly “saving the word”, the issues are similar.

    Those who propose the new meaning of “science” usually don’t seem to distinguish between the following possibilities:
    (1) They could be claiming that their definition is correctly reporting the meaning of “science” as the word is generally used at present. To the extent that they mean this, they are wrong. (It’s clear you don’t mean that.)
    (2) They could be proposing that everyone adopt their sense of “science” in place of the existing sense. I think they have the proverbial snowball’s chance of achieving this. The current sense of “science” is too well-established and useful. If I switched to using “science” in the new sense, I would have to find another word to express the old sense. It’s much more sensible to find a new term for the new meaning than to start messing with a well-established and useful word-meaning pair.
    (3) They could be proposing that we start to use “science” in the new sense alongside the old one. Words are often given additional senses to be used only in specific contexts, particularly technical ones. And the context enables us to keep the senses separate. When physicists use the word “colour” to refer to a property of quarks, knowledgeable listeners are in little danger of confusing this with the ordinary sense of the word. But the proposed new sense of “science” is not used in a separate context from the current sense. It is usually raised (as here) in the context of “scientism”, where the existing sense of “science” is already in use, and indeed is central. The attempt to impose this new sense of “science” has made the discussion of “scientism” far more difficult, and I observe a lot of talking at cross purposes. Even in the context of broader epistemological questions, the existing sense of “science” is much in use, and I think it will remain useful and used. So we would see both senses being used in the same context, with consequent confusion.

    It’s only fair to say that I myself once went through a period of defining “science” in such a way. But I don’t think I ever felt completely comfortable with it.

    Besides the problem of confusing other people when we adopt a revisionist meaning, we also run the risk of confusing ourselves, through conflation of meanings. This is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine. But I think it’s important, because I see (or infer) a lot of it going on, and I think it lies at the heart of many philosophical errors.

    As I see it, the meanings our words have are not determined purely at an intellectual level. We may stipulate that we are going to use a word in a particular sense. But our conscious intention to use the word in that sense is no guarantee that we will actually do so. Our use and understanding of a word is determined to a large degree by subconcious states. A relativist or moral naturalist may have every conscious intention of using the word “moral” in accordance with the definition he gives, but it doesn’t automatically follow that his use and understanding of the term is consistent with that definition. I suggest that at a deeper level, he is still taking moral claims in much the same sense as a moral realist. So he is conflating the two meanings, sincerely claiming to use the words in one sense (according to his definition), but also unwittingly using them in another (determined by deeper states). (Speaking for myself, I still have a tendency to make moral judgements and feel a sense of moral obligation, despite being intellectually convinced of moral error theory. I’m an error theorist at an intellectual level, but a moral realist at a deeper level.) In the same way, it’s quite possible that those who attempt to adopt their new sense of “science” will conflate the new meaning with the old one.

    Over a period of time the deeper states which determine what a word means to me may come into line with my conscious definition. I sometimes observe this happening when I encounter a new word (in English or a foreign language). At first I have to mentally substitute the definition for the new word (or English word for the foreign word). But eventually the meaning sinks in and I can use the word without any translation. As I see it, this doesn’t mean that I’m translating at a subconscious level. It means (crudely speaking) that the deeper brain states that determine my choice of words have been modified to produce the new word.

    But it’s generally easier to establish such deep-seated understanding for a new word than to modify one’s understanding of an existing word. And some meanings are more deeply ingrained than others, so are more difficult to change. Old habits die hard. Adding a new sense of a word used only in a specific context seems to be much easier. The brain seems pretty good at distinguishing contexts, and adding such a new sense can be like learning a new word. Hence misunderstanding and conflation are less likely when a new sense is confined to a specific context where the old sense doesn’t occur. (That’s pretty obvious, of course, but I’m trying to give a slightly deeper analysis of why it’s the case.) And of course sometimes two senses are used within the same general context, but local contextual clues consciously or subconsciously alert us to which sense is intended. We could, for example, refer to “narrow science” and “broad science”. But those who typically propose the new meaning of “science” seem gnerally too unaware of the issues to provide such cues.

    When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    Have you come across the expression “Humpty Dumpty argument”? It’s sometimes applied when a person uses a word in a questionable way and then offers the justification that he can define words any way he likes.

  81. P.S. Perhaps talking eggs don’t have subconscious mental states, so Humpty Dumpty may have been correct.

  82. ‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected…

    Hi Richard,

    I find little to disagree with in what you say and I think it useful that you said it. I should like to do you the courtesy of replying but don’t know that I have anything very interesting or well-considered to say in response.

    Certainly I can understand why a blogger or commenter might talk of ‘science broadly construed’, meaning to draw a quick and easy contrast between evidence-led enquiry and spooky ‘ways of knowing’. There is a useful distinction to be drawn between the epistemological strategy common to the biologist and the historian and that adopted by those who read tea leaves or the entrails of sacrificed animals. But what is pertinent here about the strategy of the biologist and historian also seems common to criminal investigators and competent plumbers.

    I’m inclined to think we would be better drawing the distinction by referring to what (narrow) science and other forms of evidence-led enquiry ‘rest on’ without referring to the (metaphysical or methodological) ‘foundations’ or basic strategies themselves as ‘science’. The word ‘science’ already plays a useful role in our language, there is already more than enough confusion as it is, and using the broad sense only generates confusion and provokes shouts of ‘scientism!’ which are, in turn, deeply unhelpful contributions to discussions.

    For what it is worth, I’m not persuaded by Ruse’s thesis in isolation and, even if I were, I don’t see how it would argue against the power of science, narrowly or broadly construed. Science cannot justify moral claims says Ruse, but then nothing else can (that science can’t justify moral claims is something that everybody but Sam Harris seems to acknowledge).

    Granted, we don’t know moral claims are true by doing anything like science but I don’t see that there is really any truth to them even in Ruse’s account. He says you’re (usually) hardwired to believe murder is wrong and to feel it to be objectively binding. Even if that were true, it doesn’t mean that ‘murder is wrong’ is a truth you uncover (without doing science). It just means it is something you’re unable to seriously doubt. As you note it’s a big step from accepting error theory and actually feeling like an amoralist does – that step seems to require brain injury not philosophy. And I do rather think a lot of philosophers are subconsciously motivated by the desire to ‘validate’ moral talk when what they think are doing is re-analysing it. It seems to me that only a philosopher could fail to believe that ‘raping children is wrong’ means exactly what the vast mass of mankind think it means. And it would be a very hard-nosed error theorist who could bring himself to say that ‘raping children is wrong’ is not true outside a philosophy seminar and really feel like he believed it. That doesn’t mean error theory is wrong but perhaps it is rather like belief in causal determinism. One might agree with it, but completely fail to integrate that belief at the practical level of living.

    I’d have to think about the truth-value of Humpty Dumpty’s claims some more, still I can’t help but wonder whether Alice can sensibly believe Humpty’s utterance that “my words mean what I choose them to mean and nothing more” is a true statement? (Of course if she’s a Derrida fan she can interpret Humpty’s words however she likes).

  83. Jim,

    Thanks for your reply. I think we’re very much in agreement.

    It seems to me there’s a useful debate to be had about the degree to which the lessons of science (narrow sense) are relevant to various questions not usually considered to be the preserve of science. New atheists tend to consider them more relevant than do their critics. On this I’m closer to the new atheists. But the word “scientism” and the revisionist definitions of “science” seem to get in the way of debating that subject constructively.

    I’d have to think about the truth-value of Humpty Dumpty’s claims some more, still I can’t help but wonder whether Alice can sensibly believe Humpty’s utterance that “my words mean what I choose them to mean and nothing more” is a true statement?

    I was being playful in interpreting Humpty that way. Taking the scenario more seriously, I would see his utterance as more polemical than intended to communicate information.

    If we are to believe the author of “The Big Over Easy”, Mr Dumpty is now deceased. He was shot while sitting on a wall. His untimely death means we can’t ask him what he really meant.

  84. s. wallerstein (amos)


    It seems that I can and at times do doubt that murder is wrong.

    If I check my intuitions, I find some intuitions which see murder as bad or others which don’t.

    My intuitions tend to be contradictory and confused, and the only way that I can decide which of my intuitions are “good” and which not is to consult others, to dialogue with others about what a good life is and to reflect on my intuitions.

    So, yes, the idea that murder is wrong may be hard-wired, but so is the idea that if I dislike someone or someone is frustrating my desires, I have right to eliminate him or her.

    It’s not difficult to see that both the idea that murder is wrong and the idea that you have the right to eliminate those who frustrate your desires may have an evolutionary basis.

  85. Hi Amos,

    Yes I raised the point that whether murder is always wrong is an open question on Ruse’s thread (in argument against those who claimed murder is wrong by definition). There are actions that would clearly constitute acts of murder by any reasonable standard that a consequentialist account would justify as moral. I think it is reasonable to call the killing of Bin Laden an act of murder. And when we discussed that I ended up arguing that this was exactly what it was, that it was better that we admit that, but that it was still, on balance, the right thing to do.

    In some cases one might want to say that the struggle is between the moral intuition not to murder and non-moral desires but I can perfectly well imagine cases where murdering somebody would cause no offence to my own moral intuitions or that of most people. And I am rather left with the idea that all there are is moral intuitions, partly learned but partly genetic and clearly connected to locatable parts of the brain.

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>