Is nice nihilism enough?

In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Alex Rosenberg suggests that norms like the following constitute a universal human morality:

Don’t cause gratuitous pain to a newborn baby, especially your own.

Protect your children

If someone does something nice to you, then, other things being equal, you should return the favor if you can.

Other things being equal, people should be treated the same way.

On the whole, people’s being better off is morally preferable to their being worse off.

Beyond a certain point, self-interest becomes selfishness.

If you earn something, you have a right to it.

It’s permissible to restrict complete strangers’ access to your personal possessions.

It’s okay to punish people who intentionally do wrong.

It’s wrong to punish the innocent.

Rosenberg does not, however, think that any of these are morally binding or (insofar as they are truth-apt) actually true. Nor, apparently, does he think they reduce to something deeper (such as utilitarianism). Rather, they are more-or-less separate behavioural norms that have become universal among human beings because conforming to them has tended to maximise reproductive fitness.

Although he is a metaethical nihilist, Rosenberg reassures us that we needn’t worry – most people are inclined to conform to these norms whether or not they regard them as true or objectively binding. Those individuals who fail to conform do so out of psychological peculiarity, or perhaps from having false beliefs about factual matters, rather than because of any recondite metaethical views such as moral error theory (or, presumably, relativism, non-cognitivism, or something else that might loosely be considered anti-realist).

You might ask whether Rosenberg is correct about this last point. My own suspicion, though it would take a lot of arguing to be confident, is that he’s probably right: metaethical nihilists are (I suspect) no more likely than the average person to steal the family silver.

But there’s a problem, at least a possible one, and I’ll get to it.

First, though, the norms that I’ve listed might have contributed to reproductive fitness in the environment of evolutionary adaptation. It’s possible that they did so, in part, by contributing to the viability of small bands of hunter-gatherers, and this might have been linked closely to the flourishing of individual members of the group. The individual’s success was the group’s success, and vice versa – and both contributed to the replicative “success” of the relevant strands of DNA. Mybe.

It doesn’t seem too much of stretch that the health, longevity, and happiness of the individual, the individual’s (inclusive) reproductive fitness, and the viability of the hunter-gatherer band as a collective might all have tended to reinforce each other. Some behaviours could contribute to all this simultaneously. We could have certain behavioral norms genetically hardwired into us, as a result. In principle, they might continue to contribute to individual flourishing (in some basic sense such as health, longevity, and happiness), reproductive fitness, and the viability of modern societies. How far they do so will depend, in part, on how far modern environments resemble evolutionary ones in relevant respects.

Perhaps a more plausible picture is that these norms are not actually hardwired (and we can always question what that even means, given that genes can be expressed in different ways in different environments). Nonetheless, under a wide variety of environmental circumstances, societies tend to converge on norms like these and to teach them to children, and perhaps children tend to be primed to learn them. That could be because norms much like these fit in well with whatever more minimalist universal human psychology exists (perhaps this includes certain kinds of responsiveness and sympathy that actually are pretty much hardwired). This might be more the sort of picture that Rosenberg is thinking of – I’m not sure of that.

Either way, let’s take it that psychologically usual people are likely to internalise these sorts of listed norms, and are unlikely to be shaken from them by any kind of meta-ethical anti-realism about moral norms and judgments. Fine so far. There still seems to be a question as to whether, under current circumstances, a hodgepodge of norms like this is really adequate for whatever it is we might want from a system of moral norms. It might help us to get by, and even flourish, when interacting within small groups of people, but is it enough to help us meet our larger goals in a highly complex social world?

Consider an issue like climate change. Assuming that we should, or actually do, care about the conditions under which future generations of human beings, and perhaps other creatures, will live on this strained planet. If so, we should seek to minimise the current process of anthropogenic global warming. Do the norms that Rosenberg lists, which he thinks (perhaps rightly) come easily to us, help us with that? A couple of the very vague norms that he lists might give some guidance, but presumably not a lot. The sorts of political decisions needed to address an issue such as climate change might not come “naturally” or easily to us at all.

Perhaps that’s not news. Perhaps any credible moral theory will predict that the sorts of political changes we need to accomplish various large goals will be counter-intuitive to most people. Still, the counter-intuitiveness can be accounted for on Rosenberg’s view of the world, which may be a point in favour of his view. Furthermore, metaethical nihilists may have no more difficulty than anyone else buying into whatever political initiatives are required to deal with an issue such as climate change. So none of this should count against Rosenberg’s metaethical nihilism.

All the same, I don’t think we can be confident that the morality that comes easily to us is good (i.e. effective) enough, these days, for what we probably want a moral system (viewed as social technology) to deliver. If that is right, Rosenberg appears too complacent. It may be that no moral system is true or objectively binding, but some moral norms might come to us easily and might still do the job that we (most of us) want on small scales. But they won’t necessarily scale up. That’s where I think we have a problem.

[Pssst: My Amazon author site]

Leave a comment ?

29 Comments.

  1. Russell:

    I agree that they don’t scale up at all.

    They don’t help much in guiding us in how we treat enemies, for example: do we torture them if that’s useful, do we use weapons of mass destruction against them, do we enslave them, etc.?

  2. Russell – Do you know the “Wason test”, and Cosmides’s & Tooby’s argument about a particular variation of the test?

    If not, it’s worth having a quick look at it here (it’ll only take a few minutes):

    http://www.philosophyexperiments.com/wason/Default.aspx

    (The interest is that it’s taken by some people as evidence that we’re hard wired to detect cheating in a social exchange.)

  3. I wonder if these morals aren’t all learned. Meaning of course that no moral is hard-wired. Taking the newborn baby analogy and to say that primitive man might have clubbed a baby without blinking. And for all the other morals or norms that have been listed. All learned. Meaning too man started with none.

    Global warming seems to be different in that it is a relatively new phenomenon, whereas the other norms would have started long ago eg, punishment, rights, protection etc, and would have taken time to “evolve”. I think back when to litter was a norm, now less so and frowned upon. I remember too with water restrictions that were applied. Anyone watering their garden outside the curfew hours was frowned on for not morally conforming. I wonder if morals and norms with global warming might need time to evolve for them to mean the same as the other norms?

  4. Interesting that you’re judging a widely accepted set of naturally-derived moral norms by the pragmatic criterion of whether they can scale up enough to ensure human survival on a stressed planet. Can they deliver, as you put it? If they can’t, then it might be the case that what *would* ensure survival – e.g., a vast abridgment of human rights – wouldn’t comport with those norms, and so by their lights wouldn’t be judged as good. But if we take survival as the summum bonum, then we might repudiate that judgment. What’s considered good would change. It might not *feel* right, but it would be good for survival.

    On the other hand, if we take human flourishing as *judged by our current norms*, not survival, as the summum bonum, then the question of whether our current norms can deliver isn’t the point. Mere survival isn’t worth giving up on them. This is more or less the moral equivalent of saying “better dead than red.”

    I don’t see any obvious criteria by which we can determine our choice of summum bonum: survival or flourishing in terms of current norms. With luck we won’t have to make that choice: the norms will scale up OK.

  5. By a strange coincidence I am currently re-reading Rosenberg’s book and it is on my desk open before me, at the very page 104, where I decided to continue a day or so ago. All the norms suggested I think can be demolished, shown to be badly worded, or hastily constructed. Maybe they were dreamt up for consideration for first year philosophy students. Russell asks if a “hodgepodge of norms like this is really adequate for whatever it is we might want from a system of moral norms.” I think not.
    For instance “Don’t cause gratuitous pain to a new born baby” So is it OK if you wait for an hour or so before so doing? And why “especially your own”?
    “Beyond a certain point self interest becomes selfishness” What would that certain point be and under what circumstances?
    “If you earn something you have a right to it” You do not, if the something is stolen property.

    I am wondering about the Title of the Book “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. “Enjoying Life without Illusions. Speaking as an atheist, for me, he is only preaching to the converted. Hopefully he will eventually tell me something of which I am not already aware, albeit perhaps not in the depth of knowledge he has. I could understand were the title “An Atheist’s Guide—-” or maybe “The Theist’s Guide—-” Personally I do have a problem in so far as giving moral principles any fundamental role in morality.

  6. Russell: is Rosenberg also an error theorist about the law? What about you? (Are legal statements true or false?)

  7. Russell: Can you describe a situation in which you think that behavioral norms will fail? You mention global warming, but I can’t see a situation in which a nihilistic moral system could fall short. I would be interested if you could be more specific, if possible.

  8. Ben, statements about the content of the law can certainly be true. So can statements about what moral norms are widely accepted in a society (or if you doubt that there is such a thing as a society, a social milieu, or whatever). That, however, is consistent with moral anti-realism of various kinds. Most obviously, it’s consistent with cultural relativism … but also with moral error theory. It’s also perfectly consistent with legal positivism, of course.

    Jeremy – yes, I’m familar with the Wason test and that discussion of it. It does seem to be evidence that we have at least some hardwired psychology that is relevant to morality. In the post, I’m trying to be fairly neutral about how much.

  9. Steve, bear in mind that I’m a moral error theorist or something very like it myself. I don’t think that there are situations where moral error theorists, or others else with an anti-realist metaethics, are worse off than, say, a moral naturalist or a classic sort of moral objectivist.

    I think the question is whether whatever morality comes easily to us is going to deal well with complex political decisions. If we actually want to produce certain large-scale outcomes from complex circumstances, can we rely on what is intuitive to us?

    It’s difficult to think of really clear examples, partly because what Rosenberg describes (if we think it really is a good description of the morality that comes easily to us) is rather vague. If there were really clear examples, I would be doing more than asking a question, I suppose.

    More later, maybe.

  10. Rosenberg’s outline of morality could fit that of the Homeric Greeks.

    It doesn’t give us any clue how to criticize the morality of Odysseus or any standpoint from which to criticize it.

    Should we kill all the suitors? Should we execute all the servant-girls who have slept with them? Should we enslave our enemies?

  11. Let’s suppose I enjoy torturing animals for fun. I know other people find it upsetting, so I do it privately in my basement and I am very careful to never let anybody find out about it. Do moral nihilists have any reason to criticise me?

  12. Russell, okay. Now let’s take this back to Mackie.

    You’ll recall, I’m sure, that his argument for anti-realism was based on two pillars: the queerness of moral objects, and the diversity of reasonable viewpoints (relativity).

    (1) On queerness. We’ll start with the law as an analogy, in order to say something about morality. Let’s pretend, for the moment, that we were faced with the task of defending ourselves against a dissident who argued for a position they called legal nihilism. Legal nihilism entails an error theory about law. Suppose that we reject an error theory about the law, being good legal positivists.

    Observe that from our point of view, the legal nihilist cannot, with a straight face, motivate their argument by complaining that we rest our theory on the attribution of queer properties to the universe. Nobody here among the positivists thinks that there is an ontologically objective feature of the legal world which inherently tells us that the law ought be done. Quite plausibly, we say, the law gets done because the right kinds of people tell each other to do it. But all the same, the law is part of social reality, and hence ought-claims made about the dictates of the law are true. And if statements about the law are true, regardless of the fact that all sensible people agree that there are no queer legal properties in the world, then obviously the attribution of queerness is a strawman argument, as far as the law is concerned. I think this argument is obviously right, and that the legal nihilist would have no legs to stand on.

    Well, the thing is, what goes for the law, also goes for morals. Queerness is just as silly for morality as it is for morals.

    Suppose for the sake of argument that semantics is continuous with ontology. ‘To be’ is to be a bound variable.

    It is a fact that there is usually no semantic difference between moral claims and legal ones. When I say, “Thou shalt not kill”, it takes a lot of tacit unspoken background information to decide whether or not it qualifies as a moral or a legal claim. Same when I say, “It is true that ‘you should not kill’”. There is no feature of the individual words, nor the rules of composition, which tell us anything at all about whether the speaker intends to speak with the authority of law or the authority of morality.

    So while it may be that moral claims are all false, it cannot be because they map onto queer properties. Rather, it must only be because they have an indeterminate and irregular authority (unlike, say, the law).

    (2) In order to argue for the indeterminacy of moral authority, you have to lean pretty hard on the argument from relativity.

    But notice that there are two kinds of relativism: that which is grammatically confused, and that which is plausible (though false). The grammatically confused form of relativism says that moral claims (when suitably interpreted) have the form of, “This ought-sentence is true-to-a-culture”. In that way, no claims about “truth” are ever assigned to the ought-sentence; instead, we’re using this made-up predicate, ‘true-to-a-culture’. That might be a kind of error theory. But by most received accounts of semantic theory, this is straight away a meaningless expression, unless it can be translated into one that has truth-conditions.

    Hence, a better form of relativism would interpret moral claims in a more grammatically appropriate fashion: “This ought-sentence in this culture is true”. It is true that you ought to obey the monarch in Britain, even if you ought to thumb your nose at him in France. Sounds fine.

    But notice that this latter form of relativism is not an error theory, because it allows for sentences to be truth-apt and true. And to the extent that relativism allows us to talk about sentences as truth-apt and capable of being true, relativism is not an error theory. The very idea of an error theory is that there are truth-conditions attached to sentences, but the sentences (as a matter of fact) always come out false. Relativism could not be more different. Relativism says: “an ought-sentence made about this society is true”. The grammatically sensible kind of relativism is a truth-theory.

    To the extent that the moral error theorist depends upon relativism to bolster any complaint that the authority of morality is essentially indeterminate, they will end up with only enough ammunition for moral relativism. But moral relativism is truth-apt and capable of truth. Hence, moral error theory must be abandoned. And needless to say, to the extent that you think moral nihilism depends on error theory, moral nihilism falls into disorder.

    —-

    As a matter of fact, I do believe there’s something still wrong with relativism in morality. But the kind of thing that is wrong with relativism is not the same kind of thing that is wrong with error theory or moral nihilism.

    There are deeper problems here that I would like to mention, but can’t due to length. For instance, it sounds to me like Rosenberg feels his list of moral universals are norms but not normative. In that case, he (and you) cannot possibly expect the moral cognitivist to be satisfied, let alone the moral realist. The entire point of the debate is that we care about the oughtness. To the extent that “Rosenberg does not, however, think that any of these are morally binding or (insofar as they are truth-apt) actually true”, he cannot have any consolations for us.

  13. Ben, the post was not about general arguments for or against realism or for or against anti-realism. It was about something much more specific. We can go off at a tangent if you like, or you could write your own post setting out your meta-ethical views, but as it is that’s a very long comment.

    I’ll respond – from a quick look, it appears that you have some aspects of the larger debate exactly backwards and we need to sort that out – but if you want me to address all that detail on a very large topic, it will have to wait a while. :cool:

  14. “Assuming that we should, or actually do, care about the conditions under which future generations of human beings, and perhaps other creatures, will live on this strained planet. If so, we should seek to minimise the current process of anthropogenic global warming.”

    If and only if we believe that a) ‘anthropogenic global warming’ is taking place; b) that it will produce, on balance, deleterious consequences for beings whose welfare we care about (e.g humans as opposed to, say, anopheles mosquitoes); c) that halting or reducing the process of anthropogenic global warming is something ‘we’ can actually achieve; d) that there is no alternative course of action more likely to alleviate the alleged consequences.

    All of which are extremely dubious assumptions, as a few minutes’ research at Watts Up With That will demonstrate.

    There are plenty of examples of moral obligations you can use that don’t involve making gratuitous assumptions about the state of climate science research and the motives of those who oppose the AGW hypothesis. Why not try a little harder next time?

  15. Russell, your narrow points are addressed, along with the wider one. So you asked “Is nice nihilism enough?”, and I say no. You asserted “[Legal cognitivism] is consistent with cultural relativism … but also with moral error theory”. And that is true, of course — but only if the argument from queerness is discredited. That’s a narrow point that indicates something about the demerits of the wider error theorist/nihilist position, so long as it rests on queerness. Then I threw in some additional remarks on relativism to seal the deal: you cannot be a cultural relativist about morality while also being a moral error theorist.

    You might think I’ve done your position a disservice, but the proof is in the pudding. Let’s see some pudding.

  16. Russell,

    Yes. Situations arise today which our evolved moral intuitions are poorly adapted to handle. In the case of climate change I would say there are two major factors that cause problems (apart from uncertainty about non-moral facts, such as the causes of climate change and the effectiveness of different measures).

    (1) Temporal distance. It’s in our evolved nature to be more motivated by short-term considerations than long-term ones. And any measures we take now will have only a longish-term affect on climate change.
    (2) Emotional distance. Most of the people affected by climate change will not be people close to us (or their descendants). It’s in our evolved nature not to care as much about people who are distant in kin relationship, likeness and space.

    These factors can influence both whether we accept the moral desirability of action and whether we actually take action once we accept its moral desirability.

  17. A couple of further thoughts. Russell wrote:

    All the same, I don’t think we can be confident that the morality that comes easily to us is good (i.e. effective) enough, these days, for what we probably want a moral system (viewed as social technology) to deliver.

    I would say that a major part of what our moral system has delivered and we would want it to continue delivering is a solution to the tragedy of the commons (the prisoner’s dilemma). If everyone acts selfishly we all end up worse off. The problem is that the global environment is a very large commons, and our evolved moral system tends to operate on a more parochial scale.

    But they won’t necessarily scale up.

    Perhaps the questions is not so much whether our evolved morals scale up (in the abstract) but the extent to which people will scale up. In fact, there has been a lot of scaling up in the direction of greater moral inclusivity. We’re not stuck with the parochial scale of our evolved morals. But there’s resistance to be overcome.

  18. @Ben (BLS)

    I ‘ll refrain from getting into an argument for/against moral error theory, but perhaps I can clear up a couple of points.

    You seem to be conflating two meanings of “moral relativism”. To quote the SEP:
    Most often [the term 'moral relativism'] is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons.

    Mackie may well have adduced the empirical thesis as part of the evidence for moral error theory. But I’m sure he didn’t appeal to the metaethical thesis, since moral error theory and moral relativism are two quite different metaethical theses. Moral error theory says that moral judgements cannot be true (or justified), which is incompatible with saying that their truth (or justification) is relative.

    You wrote:
    For instance, it sounds to me like Rosenberg feels his list of moral universals are norms but not normative. In that case, he (and you) cannot possibly expect the moral cognitivist to be satisfied, let alone the moral realist.

    Rosenberg and moral error theorists are moral cognitivists. Moral cognitivism is the view “that moral statements do express beliefs and that they are apt for truth and falsity” (SEP). Moral error theorists agree with this, but say that all moral statements are false.

    I’m sure Rosenberg is well aware that his position doesn’t deliver what moral realists want. After all, he’s denying moral realism! Obviously the moral realist who remains a moral realist after hearing Rosenberg’s arguments is not going to be satisfied with anything other than moral realism. I believe Rosenberg’s point is that giving up moral realism is not as bad as you might have thought. I assume it’s aimed at someone who is well on the way to being persuaded by the intellectual case against moral realism, but still baulks at the practical consequences of giving it up. (But I should make clear that I haven’t read Rosenberg in detail.)

  19. Universal?

    Don’t cause gratuitous pain to a newborn baby, especially your own. Circumcision.

    Protect your children Sparta.

    Other things being equal, people should be treated the same way. Slavery. Segregation. Women’s place in society.

    On the whole, people’s being better off is morally preferable to their being worse off. Schadenfreude. Studies show that people are happy relative to those around them much more than they are by their own level of wealth, i.e. you would be happier if your neighbour’s were poorer than if you were richer in a richer neighbourhood.

    Beyond a certain point, self-interest becomes selfishness. Greed is good. Trickle down economics. Self reliance as a good.

    If you earn something, you have a right to it. Socialism, communism.

    It’s permissible to restrict complete strangers’ access to your personal possessions. Socialism, communism. Some extreme forms of Christianity.

    It’s okay to punish people who intentionally do wrong. If it is a medical issue we help rather than punish. Turn the other cheek.

    It’s wrong to punish the innocent. Scapegoating. Christianity.

    Not so universal after all.

  20. Richard, thanks for your thoughts. However, I think you missed the target on both counts.

    You seem to be conflating two meanings of “moral relativism”…
    Mackie may well have adduced the empirical thesis as part of the evidence for moral error theory. But I’m sure he didn’t appeal to the metaethical thesis, since moral error theory and moral relativism are two quite different metaethical theses. Moral error theory says that moral judgements cannot be true (or justified), which is incompatible with saying that their truth (or justification) is relative.

    Possibly. First and foremost, I should clarify that I’m speaking to Russell and Rosenberg, not Mackie. Obviously, I’m assuming that Mackie has some pull on the latter day amoralists, so I include him in the conversation. But I’m tailoring Mackie’s arguments to bear on what Russell said above.

    The dialectical context matters a lot, here. Russell mentioned cultural relativism above, in connection with error theory. If he meant something normative by ‘cultural relativism’ (i.e., a suggestion to the effect that cultures have a local force that is analogous to the way in which laws are relative to the state), then he would have been saying something relevant to my initial inquiry about legal norms. I assumed that was his meaning. But it’s possible that he was just mentioning an empirical thesis about the fact that everybody says different things in different cultures. As you point out, this is one way of speaking. However, this observation would be prime facie irrelevant in the context of this exchange, so I didn’t attribute it to him.

    Rosenberg and moral error theorists are moral cognitivists. Moral cognitivism is the view “that moral statements do express beliefs and that they are apt for truth and falsity” (SEP). Moral error theorists agree with this, but say that all moral statements are false.

    But if you look closely at my use of language, I’m also trolling the middle-ground between cognitivism and realism. Hence, I don’t just say “truth-apt” — I also say, “and true” (or capable of truth). That distinguishes the kind of cognitivism I’m talking about from the kind endorsed by error theory. Some quotes from above: (“But notice that this latter form of relativism is not an error theory, because it allows for sentences to be truth-apt and true. And to the extent that relativism allows us to talk about sentences as truth-apt and capable of being true, relativism is not an error theory.”) There’s no confusion there.

  21. Ben, this could get very complicated. But your argument about the law is back to front. Or so I think. :smile: I won’t deal with your other points (lack of time, and I’m actually most interested in this one).

    The thing is, the point you make about the law is well known (to moral error theorists and others). Indeed, Mackie briefly discusses legal positivism in his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. The point is, most of us are legal positivists to some extent. We don’t think the law enacts some transcendent set of standards that is logically/chronologically anterior to human desires and institutions. Some extreme natural law theorists might think this, but even natural law theorists have an element of positivism in their thinking.

    We have some fairly robust, if fuzzy at the edges, criteria for identifying a legal system and for recognising what rules are posited by the system: for example, what conduct is forbidden by it, what effects are created by other conduct (for example contractual obligations that will be enforced by the courts), and so on.

    So yes, morality could be analogous to this. It could be that there are moral norms, analogous to legal norms, and we might be able to recognise what they are by first identifying social institutions analogous to legal systems – cultures or sub-cultures or milieux, or whatever – and then working out what norms are recognised and enforced by these institutions (perhaps by criticism, praise, ostracism, friendliness, and so on).

    Again, moral error theorists are well aware of that possibility. In fact, what I have just described is a form of moral relativism. It says that positive morality exists, but that it is not objective. That is, like with the law, its norms are only binding within the system. They are not objectively binding in the sense in which the word “objectively” is used in this debate. Someone who has no reason to care about the system and its sanctions can rationally ignore them.

    So sure, you can be that sort of moral relativist. I actually think that that sort of relativism might have an element of truth of truth in it. I always hedge my bets slightly on this.

    But the moral error theorist, while recognising this possibility, says that it is not how people actually think about morality. When you push them, says the moral error theorist, people seem to think that what we might call “moral positivism” is not correct, and that there are, in fact, absolute standards, transcending human desires, or perhaps any desires at all (even those of God), or any institutions.

    This then turns into the familiar, complicated debates about moral semantics and moral pragmatics. A relativist is going to think that “morally wrong” means something like, “forbidden by the standards used in my culture/sub-culture/milieu” much as “legally prohibited” might mean something like “forbidden by the norms of the legal system operative in this jurisdiction”. Moral error theorists think that moral relativists are wrong if they offer that analysis – i.e., that this is not how the folk think about moral rules or the sort of thing that they convey to each other when they say such things as, “Torturing puppies is wrong.”

    In short, it’s not that moral error theorists are unaware of debates about legal positivism, or of the fact that most of us are, at least to some extent, legal positivists. Rather, they are aware of this, and it is grist to their mill. They argue that there is a contrast between the positivist way that people think about the law and the more absolute way that people seem to think about morality. The moral error theorist will happily agree that there could be positivist or relativist truths when people make standard first-order moral claims such as “Torturing puppies is wrong” – but these theorists believe they have good evidence that it is not those positivist or relativist truths, or at the very least not only them, that are being conveyed in ordinary moral language of the kind we’re talking about.

  22. Thanks for that, Russell. But now, let’s check in back with the opponent of the error theorist. Let us call your opponent the ‘moral veridicalist’. This position rejects error theory, but does not necessarily advocate moral realism.

    First of all, it has to be conceded that there are as a matter of fact a great many people who are spooky moral realists who believe in queer properties. It would be foolish to ignore that folks do believe strange things. Divine command theory might be an example.

    That said, to make your case as you’ve outlined it above, you have to get away with two assumptions.

    First, you have to show that the folk’s first-order use of using moral language involves some kind of semantic reference to spooky occult properties. That’s not obvious. There may be spooky properties in the context of asserting something like, “Thou shalt not kill”, but the sentence itself contains zero reference to occult properties. That would entail that the humanist who says “Thou shalt not kill” literally means something different from the theocrat who utters the sentence. This is a highly unnatural way of seeing things. The debates over semantics and pragmatics might be familiar to us both, but this is a major lacuna in your account.

    Second, if you cannot make a case that the folk were literally talking about occult properties in these commonplace sentences, you are only left to make something out of the fact that the folk have some sorts of second-order theories about their own moral activities. But it is unclear to me why we even ought to care about the folk’s second-order meta-ethical theories. By analogy, a community of idealists might very well think that the expression “the chair” refers to a conglomeration of sense-data; all the same, the truth-maker for statements about the chair will be the actual chair. In other words, their second-order theory may be wrong, but mostly irrelevant to the truth or falsity of their garden-variety claims about chairs. We don’t stop to ask the idealists more about their interesting second-order theories, we go out into the world and actually look for the truth-makers. In an extremely broad sense, a similar story might be told for morality.

    Of course, the strongest alternative case is that of legal positivism. And I doubt any plausible account of moral truth-makers will share many features with legal theories. e.g., you can’t have a ‘moral positivism’ (because, unlike legal positivism, we don’t know what the source of moral authority happens to be). You’re right about that.

    However, moral theories do share one very important feature with legal claims, which is that both legal claims and moral claims are objective in the same way. According to the moral veridicalist, when it comes to a second-order discussion of morality, we really care about epistemic objectivity (the objectivity of claims), not ontological objectivity (mind-independence). This view is consistent with either moral relativism or moral absolutism; it is not, however, consistent with any conventional error theory. On my reading, you put accent on the ontological sense of objectivity in your post above; but if that’s what you’re doing, you’re begging the question.

    You can still, of course, be an error theorist even if you recognize these facts. You might accept error theory as a matter of faith, for instance: you might say, “You still need to give an account of morality on your own terms before I concede any ground, and I’m really not optimistic that you will ever do that”. Or you might say something like, “We are always making it up as we go along, so these ‘objective standards’ of yours are chimerical.” Or you might say, “Epistemic objectivity does not confer truth”.

    But what you can’t do is just defer to the folk’s second-order judgments, as if they were experts about their own moral claims. At least, not when the moral veridicalists are in town, and are making a stronger case.

  23. Ben, I really think you should start your own thread on a general topic relating to moral error theory or something similar, because you seem to want to have a wide-ranging discussion on a topic like that. That topic goes way, way, beyond the topic of the original post, which I still consider an interesting one in its own right.

    I haven’t actually tried to defend moral error theory in either the post or the long comment I made a couple of comments back. I would need an entire book to do so – and I’d probably end up giving a highly qualified or partial defence, because I have some difficulties with the idea myself. One of those difficulties is the one you raise – if the folk are making the error (the error of thinking that there are queer properties or transcendent standards, or whatever) does the error actually infect the semantics of what they are saying so as to render their statements untrue? I happily concede that this is a difficult question (as you may know I’ve raised it on my personal blog at various times and in papers that I’ve delivered at conferences; however, I have not published anything “serious” on the subject, i.e. nothing in peer-reviewed journals).

    I feel a bit as if you’re foisting on me a position that I only hold with reservations, if at all, and acting as if I’ve put a full case for the position when I’ve done nothing of the sort: the original post was not about the correctness or otherwise of moral error theory, but a much narrower topic. My comment that you’re now replying to was on just one point that came up – whether legal positivism, or considerations relating to it, somehow makes moral error theory less plausible, or whether, when you think about it, it might actually make moral error theory more plausible. The latter, I think – and think you’ve semi-conceded this.

    I’m not sure what question you think I’m begging, since I haven’t actually argued here for moral error theory – if anything I’ve expressed reservations about it. I certainly haven’t argued here for any particular moral semantics or moral pragmatics, or anything of the kind.

    If you’re interested in all this, and if you have not done so already, I suggest you track down some of the recent debate that’s been going back and forth for a few years between Richard Joyce (a moral error theorist, as I’m sure you know) and Stephen Finlay (a moral relativist). They have a lot to say to each other about whether “the error”, if it exists, actually infects moral language so as to render a huge class of moral claims false. It’s certainly a live option to think that the folk make the error, but it’s collateral to what they are saying to each other, so their sentences can nonetheless end up being true (just as sentences about chairs can end up being true even when exchanged between people who know nothing about, say, atomic theory).

    On the other hand, some errors do end up infecting language so as to render whole ensembles of sentences false. “Chair talk” is not a problem because the word “chair” can still refer to something in the world, regardless of its underlying composition. My favourite example (because it’s one I made up myself!) is that someone who thinks meerkats are felines can still make true statements about meerkats – her “meerkat talk” still successfully refers, and her error is collateral. Even two people who are talking to each other about meerkats, both thinking that meekats are felines, may end up saying all sorts of true things about meerkats.

    But “witch talk” is another matter. There are no witches, in the relevant sense, so any statement such as “Samantha is a witch” (meaning “Samantha is someone with certain magical powers, a certain relationship to Satan, etc.”, not merely “Samantha is an adherent of the Wiccan religion”) fails to state a truth about the world. When used in the relevant sense, “witch” fails to refer to anything real, and here the ontology does matter.

    These debates can quickly get complex and technical, I’m certainly not dogmatically committed to any position, though I do think that the non-existence of queer properties, transcendent standards, etc., does create a problem that is not easily solved and at least puts a big question mark over a lot of moral language.

    Still not sure, though, that this thread is the best place to try to sort out such matters, interesting though they are. Would you like to create a thread of your own? Or would you like me, perhaps, to create a general discussion thread about moral error theory?

  24. Morality and Basketball | Cosmic Variance | BizNax - pingback on August 25, 2012 at 6:19 am
  25. I don’t mind if you start a new thread. I doubt I’ll be able to do it myself (I’m at the cottage).

  26. On second thought, I’ll do it using the power of Prezi. That’ll cut down the technical part of the discussion and invite wider participation.

  27. So you want to be a moral error theorist | Talking Philosophy - pingback on August 27, 2012 at 2:07 pm
  28. Subjective morality – not what it seems? | Open Parachute - pingback on August 28, 2012 at 9:23 pm
  29. Subjective morality – not what it seems? | Secular News Daily - pingback on August 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm

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=""> <strike> <strong>

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: