Tuesday, May 12, 2009

More on Metaethics: A Reply to Callahan

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]

I

In the comment section of a previous post on moral nihilism and existentialistic fictionalism, Gene Callahan came to the defense of moral realism with a list of important moral theorists who have argued for his position:
See Pythagoras, Lao-Tse, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Isaiah, Anixamander, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, Aquinas, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Bradley, Voegelin, et al. (2500 BCE - 1950 CE) "Why Moral Nihilism Is Booshit," The Journal of the Perennial Philosophy, Vol. α No. ω.

Ευγενοσ

I pointed out in response that a) many those thinkers held mutually incompatible positions, b) many of those thinkers defended morality on religious grounds which I don’t find reasonable to believe, c) those philosophers’ moral views are not necessarily consistent with Gene’s own libertarian views, and d) the argument as offered is technically fallacious. Gene responded:
An argument from authority is bad form only when the person you cite is not an authority in the area you cite him! But in any case, this wasn't an argument, it was a citation.

And, no, I really don't see that much disagreement between them. We even have a straight line of descent running Pythagoras-Socrates-Plato-Plotinus-Augustine that then rejoins the Aristotle-Avicenna branch with Aquinas.

It seems to me that continuing this debate in the form of short comments is not likely to lead anywhere. So let me try to sketch more clearly the problem I have in mind, cherry picking from the beginning of Gene’s list. I'll then offer some thoughts about my own view, and attempt to show why Gene's line of argumentation does not succeed in what it appears to set out to achieve.

II

I haven't had the opportunity to fully explore Laozi's moral thinking, but it's not clear to me what happens to the concept of ziran if you divorce it from the religious sense in which the Daodejing was advanced. It's surely different to say, "That action is inconsistent with the aim of integrating yourself properly into the natural flow of reality," than it is to say, "It would be morally wrong to fail to integrate yourself properly into the natural flow of reality." And without the religious imperative, it's not clear how we would get from the first to the second. It would seem to me like the best arguments for acting based on the first would be prudential, which would be consistent with moral nihilism.

I've similarly had limited exposure to Confucius' thought, but if I've understood correctly, he places a heavy emphasis on tradition, wisdom, and moral intuition as the sources of ethical norms. To the extent that these things are prudential to adopt and adhere to, the moral nihilist will have no problem. And again, I haven't heard a Confucian metaethical argument that would create real problems for moral nihilism.

Siddhartha's moral thought was, according to the traditions I find most interesting, explicitly fictionalistic. The idea wasn't that morality was important for itself, but rather that leading a peaceful, harmonious life would be useful in the quest to achieve satisfactoriness. This would be perfectly compatible with moral nihilism.

It's been a while since I read Isaiah (or that is, the parts of the book that were supposedly attributable to him), but I don't remember any substantive arguments for moral realism in there -- just a lot of arguments about what people ought to do based on God's law. The significant ethical point in the book, if I remember it correctly, was that God would not accept the praise of those who acted badly (that is, contrary to The Law), and that the mere fact of the covenant would not guarantee protection from God's punishment. Without the religious element, though, it's hard to see how you would get to the same moral conclusions.

Socrates' morality was a hybrid of virtue ethics (which, depending on how one conceives of virtue, can be consistent with moral nihilism) and religion. So far as we ought to do what's "morally right" because it's best for us, the nihilist is going to agree, pointing out that to call that morally right is a bit misleading. So far as we ought to do what's right because of what the Gods will do to our souls, that's just not going to win any arguments.

Plato's account of morality was built on an idea of moral forms which I don't take anyone to seriously accept as true anymore. Accordingly, I don't see why the nihilist would need any response besides, "But Plato was wrong."

Like Socrates' virtue ethical ideas, Aristotle's moral theory was completely compatible with moral nihilism, being based on individuals' pursuing the good life for their own sake. The nihilist would again want to say that the use of the term "moral" here would be a bit misleading.

III

I could go on, but hopefully the point is clear by now. Moral nihilism is not built on ignorance of past philosophy; it's built on disagreements with certain elements of some philosophers' thought, and built to incorporate other elements of those ideas. Surely the nihilist is not going to say that we ought to simply act according to our unconsidered caprice, or that we should go around killing people. You can still talk about living a good life and living peacefully with others without talking about distinctly moral reasons for doing those things.

The point is just that it's not clear what a plausible moral reason can be based on besides the identification of the implications of one's actions for something that one values. And if one values that thing, then it makes sense to act accordingly -- that has nothing to do with morality. Distinctly moral problems (as opposed to prudential problems) arise only when one tries to make the claim that someone ought to value something that they don't value. Since value is subjective, and since ultimately the universe is just a bunch of stuff in different configurations, it's going to be difficult to ground such an "ought" claim in something “objective” or “objectively true.” As Vichy might put it, all value is ultimately just bias for one sort of thing over another. And the idea that there can be no literal truth to the matter of what one “ought to value” is basically moral nihilism.

But that doesn’t rule out moral argumentation or the adoption of moral attitudes. As I argued, we can have good reason for adopting moral attitudes. And if we acknowledge that our values transform when we recognize certain connections between things, then arguing about values can make sense -- if I lead a supporter of slavery to understand just how much like him are the slaves, he may be led to value them in a way that would make him not want to see them treated without regard for their interests. So as far as moral theories are fictionalistic road maps that show us how our values will change in light of certain features of a situation, they can be perfectly consistent with moral nihilism. It’s only when moral theories try to argue that there is something objective or objectively true about our values (as opposed to their being “impartial” or “natural for humans to accept”) that they run into trouble.

Ultimately, our moral sentiments are rooted in our psychology. Again, moral nihilism does not involve the denial of the fact that we have moral sentiments, that our moral sentiments affect our values, and that there are definite patterns in the way that these sentiments work. It similarly doesn’t exclude the possibility that we might want to choose to adopt certain attitudes that roughly capture those patterns so as to avoid having to fight them. But it does assert that aside from people attributing value to certain things, and aside from the inherent capacity of certain objects to produce valuing reactions in normally functioning human beings, there is no sense in which we can say that they are valuable in themselves. And I think that that’s true.

So I guess my point is that if you want to dispute what I’ve said, it won’t do to say, “Well there were a lot of really smart people who didn’t think that way.” I know that, and I disagree with them. Accordingly, if you’re going to change my mind, you’ll either need to offer a particular argument that I have not considered, or engage what I think. Basically saying, “Go learn about the history of philosophy” is, I think, pretty unfair given my background. That’s not to say that I fully appreciate what everyone has ever said, or that I am not totally ignorant of critically important figures or ideas. I undoubtedly am. But I’ve spent a fair bit of time developing my own views, and I think they’ve at least reached a point where they warrant a response on their own terms.

22 comments:

All-In-All said...

"An argument from authority is bad form only when the person you cite is not an authority in the area you cite him!"
I didn't reply to this in the earlier thread, but in what sense can anyone be considered an 'authority' on morality? For, if what I argue is true, even if true it would imply no more than being an 'authority' on English literature.

"Surely the nihilist is not going to say that we ought to simply act according to our unconsidered caprice, or that we should go around killing people."
Indeed and, contra many moralists, the nihilist is faced with no difficulties when resisting violence - for I do not have to conceive of a 'justification'.
"It is not my right I defend from the tiger, by my self!"

All-In-All said...

(Rather, 'but my self.' Doh!)

GilesS said...

"So far as we ought to do what's "morally right" because it's best for us, the nihilist is going to agree, pointing out that to call that morally right is a bit misleading."

Well, Henry Veatch seems to think that herein lies one of the strengths of Aristotle's ethics, it can answer the simple question of "why" one ought to act in a simple way without simply giving the trivial answer of "because you just should".

I don't see why the fact the something is ultimately good for me precludes it being moral. Especially when that something may well come into conflict with other things I intend on doing. (e.g. murdering somebody isn't part of the good life and yet I wish to murder somebody now to get their house).

All-In-All said...

"it can answer the simple question of "why" one ought to act in a simple way without simply giving the trivial answer of "because you just should"
But the moral nihilist does not make this 'trivial' assertion, indeed the moral nihilist does not claim you 'should' do anything - merely that, whatever you do, it was you who wanted it.

"Especially when that something may well come into conflict with other things I intend on doing. (e.g. murdering somebody isn't part of the good life and yet I wish to murder somebody now to get their house)."
Assuming there is a 'good life' is incoherent, in my view, since it ignores existential, epistemic and material specificity in value.

Danny Shahar said...

Giles, the nihilist would probably want to say that if something's moral rightness is identical with the fact that it is truly best for you, it becomes redundant to talk about it being "morally" demanded of you -- it's just the sensible thing to do. And if you don't do it, it's unclear what it would mean to say that you had failed morally if we didn't just mean that you made a poor decision about what would be best for you. So in order to talk about this as a theory of morality, as opposed to a theory of prudence, you'd need to offer some other ground for prescribing actions to people besides just saying that they seem like the best available option.

Neverfox said...

Ultimately, our moral sentiments are rooted in our psychology.They may be but this seems to have its own lack of proof and it fails to account for different ways we justify various types of beliefs. I'll recall here Gene's point that we don't justify logic or mathematics as rooted in our psychology. That's not an argument for morality being like math or logic but it seems to create a standpoint from which to consider it a possibility.

That raises an interesting question: why do you feel the moral realist has the burden of proof? It seems that our tendency to use moral terms with somewhat of an assumption of objectivity shifts the burden, even as it fails to be a knock-down argument on its own. In other words, it seems that your argument for moral nihilism is not far from an argument for nihilism of all thought and knowledge and carries the same burden of proof.

It similarly doesn’t exclude the possibility that we might want to choose to adopt certain attitudes that roughly capture those patterns so as to avoid having to fight them.I'm not so sure this doesn't suffer from the same incoherence as indirect utilitarianism (acting "as if" morality has value).

But it does assert that aside from people attributing value to certain things, and aside from the inherent capacity of certain objects to produce valuing reactions in normally functioning human beings, there is no sense in which we can say that they are valuable in themselves. And I think that that’s true.Does this mean that your objection to moral realism is just J.L. Mackie's objection that goodness isn't "out there" as some "queer" entity or property intrinsic to things?

Giles, the nihilist would probably want to say that if something's moral rightness is identical with the fact that it is truly best for you, it becomes redundant to talk about it being "morally" demanded of you -- it's just the sensible thing to do. And if you don't do it, it's unclear what it would mean to say that you had failed morally if we didn't just mean that you made a poor decision about what would be best for you. So in order to talk about this as a theory of morality, as opposed to a theory of prudence, you'd need to offer some other ground for prescribing actions to people besides just saying that they seem like the best available option.But the virtue ethicist would consider that redundancy to be the whole point. Morality to a virtue ethicist (at least the Greek-style coherentist types) is precisely doing that which you should do, keeping in mind the unity of virtue (weighing prudence and courage and justice and generosity and...etc.). There is a meaning of should were it is just the thing to do. It's not clear to me why you feel the need to draw a line of distinction between that sense of the word and morality.

Furthermore, you seem to be implying here that the idea that we can know what to do isn't something you find implausible, which I find strange in this context. Do I have you wrong?

Again, great topic.

All-In-All said...

"J.L. Mackie's objection that goodness isn't "out there" as some "queer" entity or property intrinsic to things?"

Joyce's "Myth of Morality" and "Evolution of Morality" deal with most of the questions. In addition, Sinnott-Armstrong's "Moral Skepticisms" basically develops a theory that morality is vulnerable not to one, but many, many kinds of skepticism, non-realism, non-cognitivism, problems of identification etc.; that moralists have not adequately answered many of these objections and that it seems impossible to rule out moral nihilism.

The concept of value outside of a specific teleological entities actual values is nonsense; and unless something has the potential to actually motivate an actor with actual specific values it is irrelevant. That's why you have the burden of proof.

Not to mention, if you ask 5 ethicists what the DEFINITION of morality is you'll get 15 different answers; and you'll be lucky if they're even internally coherent. Just because people believe in magic doesn't mean it's real, it means people are biased and gullible.

And you can never answer the only important question, "Why should I care what is moral, if 'morality' conflicts with my interests?"

Danny Shahar said...

Roman, isn't math just a logical extension of our definitons of numbers -- an analytic system? And isn't logic even more clearly just an extension of what we mean when we conceive of certain things -- a similarly analytic enterprise? I just don't see how morality is anything like that like that. I mean, if morality were just a matter of creating and applying definitions (like Austrian economics, for example), then that would be one thing. But the normative content of morality is what's interesting and controversial, and also what is denied by the moral nihilist. 1+1 doesn't equal 2 because it ought to equal 2.

The question you raise about the burden of proof is an interesting one. The simple answer is that I am sympathetic with Blackburn's quasi-realist paradigm: ethical statements project emotional attitudes as if they were properties of reality. I do not think that those attitudes actually reflect a recognition of the objective properties of objects (where I mean "objects" in the grammatical sense), such that someone failing to form the same attitudes towards the objects would be objectively mistaken (though perhaps they would not be functioning psychologically as a normal human being). When I place the burden of proof on the realist, then, I'm basically just betraying my own theory on the subject -- not agnosticism, but rather a sort of nihilism.

Turning to the utilitarian paradigm that Yeager offers, it just ends up sounding like a rehashing of Harsanyi's "rule utilitarian" view in "Does Reason Tell Us What Moral Code to Follow and, Indeed, to Follow Any Moral Code At All?," except without Harsanyi's poignant insight that the only thing that rule utilitarianism can say without committing the naturalistic fallacy is that if people want to act in accordance with rule utilitarianism, then they ought to adopt a certain attitude. The nihilist will just laugh at the contention that "Yeager proposes to narrow the scope of ultimate value judgments to the uncontroversial premise that happiness is preferable to misery, thus allowing the rest of ethics to be a respectably scientific, empirical affair of determining which practices are in fact conducive to happiness" (90). Uncontroversial! How about, whose happiness? I mean, you can demonstrate just about anything you want if you're willing to beg the question; I just don't think you can get to where he wants to go without doing that.

Again, though, the moral nihilist doesn't need to suggest that there aren't ways to live together that are more or less conducive to our mutual happiness, or that we should not do things like create or enforce laws, generate customs, conventions, and norms, etc. The point is just that these will have nothing to do with considerations like "treating people the way they deserve to be treated" or "reflecting the intrinsic value of all human beings." They'll just be systems we adopt to promote our wellbeing, much the way that we enter into contractual arrangements to improve our lives.

Shifting to your question about virtue ethics, my point would only be that it's not clear why we would need a conception of "right" and "wrong" (as opposed to "desirable" and "undesirable") to talk about virtues if they were really just the appropriate set of tools for achieving a good life. The moral nihilist has no problem with things being desirable or undesirable; he just denies that there is a separate property of "rightness" and "wrongness" that has anything to do with anything.

Finally, to address your point that "you seem to be implying here that the idea that we can know what to do isn't something you find implausible," I'd point out that in embracing quasi-realism (as I discussed above), I don't necessarily have to embrace the conclusion that I should stop projecting my emotional attitudes. Remember, in my initial post I ultimately ended up defending a humanistic fictionalism, not nihilism. And surely we can trace out the entailments of a humanistic attitude. I think it should be pointed out that the purpose of writing my intial post was not to defend moral nihilism, but rather to find a way to defend humanism against moral nihilism!

Giles said...

"Giles, the nihilist would probably want to say that if something's moral rightness is identical with the fact that it is truly best for you, it becomes redundant to talk about it being "morally" demanded of you -- it's just the sensible thing to do. And if you don't do it, it's unclear what it would mean to say that you had failed morally if we didn't just mean that you made a poor decision about what would be best for you. So in order to talk about this as a theory of morality, as opposed to a theory of prudence, you'd need to offer some other ground for prescribing actions to people besides just saying that they seem like the best available option."

If I grant that it's redundant, and that one can simply say "living ones life well" as opposed to morally.

Even then though, presuming that the virtue ethicist is correct you can still say you ought to live your life in that way. Which is what matters. Especially since the course of action advised differs from that of simply doing whatever pleases one at a given time, which is, I suppose the advice the egoist would give.

All-In-All said...

"Even then though, presuming that the virtue ethicist is correct you can still say you ought to live your life in that way"
Only if someone accepts your underlying value judgements. People do not worship floating values, much less some single 'hidden' value; people have interests in their limited and abstract conception of things and it is - in fact - these interests that constitute the entirety of value.

And there is nothing 'wrong' with acting in a contradictory, arbitrary or self-defeating manner - since the only values something can coherently be judged are those of a specific individual perspective at a specific moment.

And to presume that there ever could be a 'general code' even to achieve some relatively uncontroversial interest simply flies in the face of the ontological individuation of all teleological entites; not to mention to fantastic complexity of actual circumstances.

Most 'great problems' in philosophy resolve to muddled thinking.

Danny Shahar said...

Giles, I think the point is just that the virtue ethicist is committed to certain conceptions of what "the good life" is, along with a view about what kinds of virtues will allow one to achieve that kind of life. The latter element is a matter of simple fact, and the former is a matter of values. As I've stressed throughout this discussion, there may be values that many, most, or all of us share, and so we can therefore make some statements about what many, most, or all people should do, or at least what they should take into account in light of their interests. But that's not what moralists are doing when they say that things are "immoral" (or at least not what they're usually doing!). So it's one of those Quine-Duhem things where you can continue to use moral theories in light of accepting moral nihilism if you are willing to change the meanings of the terms in the moral theories, but you might find that you're no longer speaking the same language as the other people who hold those views.

GilesS said...

"As I've stressed throughout this discussion, there may be values that many, most, or all of us share, and so we can therefore make some statements about what many, most, or all people should do, or at least what they should take into account in light of their interests"

Yeah, that's a fair point and I agree with you there. I'm not sold on virtue ethics either, I think Rasmussen and Den Uyl would attempt to answer this by pointing out that in light of your being alive you demonstrate a preference for life and therefore you must live the good life. At which point I'd say they've equivocated. Although it may just be the case that I've not understood their position (I've only read a few of their shorter pieces).

I don't intend on challenging you here (I don't presume to be capable of doing so), I just thought it would be odd to say that the "moral" course of action and the course of action one might otherwise take need to be uncorrelated. Since then for any course of action one can simply ask why they should follow that course and there would be no answer that isn't trivial.

Danny Shahar said...

Haha I think at this point you're just agreeing with me and asking why anyone wouldn't! So here's that answer:

The moral realist is going to want to say that there are either intrinsically valuable ends or intrinsically valuable objects (in the grammatical sense of "objects" -- one might alternatively say "ends-in-themselves" or "ultimate values"), and that acting in a manner inconsistent with "appropriate" consideration of the value of these ends or objects is objectively wrong. So, then, the utilitarian is going to call you "evil" if you don't act in a manner that would tend to bring about the greatest consequences for the greatest number; the vulgar Rothbardian is going to say that you are "evil" if you commit an act that qualifies as "aggression" against someone else; the vulgar environmentalist is going to say that you are "evil" if you fail to take account of the interests of the plants and animals whose lives you disrupt in your pursuit of your own ends.

The account of why these things are wrong is not going to be stated in terms of what would be best for you, personally, to do, but rather in terms of the intrinsically valuable end or object that you are apparently failing to take into account. So the environmentalist will not say, "You would lead a better life if you accounted for these plants and animals"; she will say, "These plants and animals inherently deserve to be accounted for." And those are different ideas. In one case, the focus is on the valuer; in the other, the focus is on the object of value.

The moral nihilist is basically building his case on the position that it is strictly not true that there is any such intrinsic value. It is simply not the case that there literally are appropriate objects of value such that you are "evil" if you fail to account for them. I think this is perfectly reasonable, and it sounds like you do too. But it is inconsistent with moral realism to say this; what realism is is the position that there really are objects or ends that are intrinsically valuable and that it is wrong to act as if they are not valuable.

Giles said...

That explanation definately seems reasonable. Isn't this the reason that Mises rejected Rothbard's natural law ethics?

However, could the ethical realist not point out some reason that it is of necessity that an individual must hold certain values?

Danny Shahar said...

Giles, you're right to point out that Mises was a moral nihilist, and that his nihilism was based on his strong belief in the subjectivity of value. For an in-depth discussion Mises' views on value theory and ethics, I'd direct you to the first part of his excellent book, Theory and History -- particularly Chapter 3, "The Quest for Absolute Values." You can find the book for free online here.

As for your question about a possible way for the realist to proceed in offering a counter-argument, I'm not sure that anything like that could work. Clearly if we are critiquing values in the first place, it means that we're disagreeing on what values people ought to hold. And if it were strictly necessary for people to hold certain values, they already would, and there wouldn't be anything to talk about. So the mere fact that we're talking about ethics suggests that there is no value system which it is strictly necessary for people to hold.

Accordingly, the moral realist would need to argue that it is necessary for some reason to hold a certain set of values. But what kind of reason could this be? Wouldn't any such reason imply a value judgment in itself, which someone might reject? It seems to me that the best that the moralist can hope for is a sort of impartiality or reasonableness. That is, if the moralist can come up with a set of values that strikes many, most, or all people as reasonable to accept, then that would be an important victory for that value system. And that's what I do when I advocate accepting certain moral attitudes and theories: I claim that they are reasonable to adopt and that they capture our values really well. But this universal acceptance would be different from the objective truth of the value system, and that's the inherent problem with ethical realism: even if it gets the outcome it wants -- where everyone agrees on a value system -- the position is still going to be false, since moral statements simply cannot be literally true by their nature.

Neverfox said...

I intend to reply to everyone who has commented on my thoughts when I get a free moment. In the meantime, I'd like to direct everyone's attention to a similar discussion over at Rad Geek's blog. You can some comments left by Rad Geek and Roderick Long (both Greek-type coherentist virtue ethicists).

Gene Callahan said...

"Siddhartha's moral thought was, according to the traditions I find most interesting, explicitly fictionalistic. The idea wasn't that morality was important for itself, but rather that leading a peaceful, harmonious life would be useful in the quest to achieve satisfactoriness. This would be perfectly compatible with moral nihilism."

I admit to not having read this whole post yet, but I still want to respond to this bit:

Danny, I think you are setting up a bogus dichotomy: if living morally is important to achieving nirvana, isn't that evidence that there is an objective moral order (if we adhere to its precepts, certain results will follow), rather than evidence that there isn't one? Isn't this the very sort of evidence scientific realists cite in defense of their view -- if we follow these laws, we get the results we expect, but if we ignore them, we don't?

All-In-All said...

But Gene, Buddah never said you had to pursue Nirvana.

Gene Callahan said...

But Vichy, Christ never said you had to enter the Kingdom of Heaven!

Gene Callahan said...

"And if one values that thing, then it makes sense to act accordingly -- that has nothing to do with morality."

To value something is a moral choice.

Danny Shahar said...

Gene, if you believe that the act of ascribing value is a moral one, then the disagreement we seem to be dealing with here is likely a semantic one. In my most recent post, I quoted Geoffrey Sayre-McCord's claim that:

"What sets the moral apart from the enlightened egoists is (at least in part) their willingness to act on considerations other than those of self-interest; unlike enlightened egoists, those who are moral constrain their pursuit of personal benefits on moral grounds."

In that post, I discussed at some length what I took to be the important features of moral claims and their relationship to what Sayre-McCord would identify as "non-moral" or "egoistic" claims. But it should be clear that Sayre-McCord's definition of morality -- which is mine, and I think most people's -- is incompatible with what you seem to be saying.

If you define "morality" so that the mere attribution of value is inherently a moral choice (assuming that valuing is even a choice, which it at least sometimes seems clearly not to be), then I would argue that you've stripped morality of its significance as a concept and defined moral nihilism out of existence. Clearly human beings value things, and if this proves that morality exists, then moral nihilism is obviously false -- but you've indicted the position of no real moral nihilist in demonstrating this.

The moral nihilist argues that moral reasons involve ascriptions of intrinsic value to certain objects, and that this is inconsistent with the subjectivity of value. The moral nihilist does not deny that valuing takes place; he just denies that there is any significance to this fact outside of the realm of subjective valuation. And this is relevant (and position-defining) because the moral nihilist understands morality the way that Sayre-McCord does (and I do) -- as offering reasons for action which do not appeal to the personal desires and interests of the actor in question.

Since this seems like the crux of the disagreement here, it might be helpful if you could give me (and us) an idea of why you define morality this way and why you think that a definition like the one Sayre-McCord offers will not do.

muebles guadalajara said...

Thanks so much for the post, quite helpful piece of writing.

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