Thursday, May 14, 2009

Inside a Fiction: Even More on Metaethics

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]


In the comments section of my previous post, Roman Pearah directed some attention to a similar discussion on Charles Johnson's blog. He wrote:
...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).

Just so any third parties reading this don't become confused, I should make it clear that my position doesn't fall easily within the bounds of coherentism -- it could probably be better called a sort of contextualism. This will be important for anyone trying to compare my ideas to Long's and Johnson's. In order to explain why, I'll first try to flesh out a few elements of my view a little more than I have in the previous installments in this discussion. I'll then identify what I think makes my view somewhat difficult to fit into a coherentist mold.


My view hinges on the idea that when we say "It's wrong for you to kick the baby," we think that it's wrong at least partly because of what happens to the baby, and not just because it reflects undesirable or ill-advised character traits in you, or because your life will actually end up worse, all things considered, if you kick the baby. The baby's pain, I take it, is seen as being the sort of thing that is bad (as opposed to just being something we find distasteful), and what's wrong with kicking the baby is that you wouldn't do it if you acknowledged the significance of what you would cause to happen to the baby if you went through with it.

This, I take it, is literally a projection of our evaluative attitudes towards the kicking of the baby (and its results) onto objective reality (as I argued in the comments section of the previous post). But because it's a projection, we think, "It's wrong to kick the baby," and not, "The idea of kicking the baby makes me feel like something's wrong." I contend that rather than trying to prevent ourselves from making these kinds of projections, which are intuitive, easy to work with, and make us feel good about ourselves and other people (as I argued in the initial post in this discussion), it makes more sense to maintain a fictionalistic mindset that continues to project evaluative attitudes onto reality while acknowledging that the claims generated by the projections are not literally true but rather reflections of our (subjective) evaluative attitudes.


As is the case with all fictionalist paradigms, though, there will be a universe of discourse involved. When we talk about morality within the fiction, we use language and terminology in certain ways that wouldn't make sense if we used them the same way outside of the fiction. Saying, for an example, that the baby's suffering is "morally objectionable" makes reference to a quality of the baby's suffering that doesn't literally exist. But within the fiction, we say that the baby's suffering is morally objectionable.

We might compare this manner of speaking to the way that we talk about certain goods as being "valuable" for much the same reasons, even though we acknowledge that value is subjective. The view that money "is" valuable involves a projection of one's own evaluative feelings about money onto the money itself. It is not literally true that the money is valuable, but it is nevertheless comprehensible to talk about money as "being" valuable, and in fact this is a useful fiction to have -- it seems to me that this is similarly true about the moral fiction. To the extent that we are able to reach some level of agreement (or at least some limits on the range of disagreement) about "moral facts," we can safely talk as if our evaluations are "impartial," and therefore effectively the same as "normal reactions to intrinsically valuable objects."

But this manner of speaking will only work within the fiction. Because our moral claims will not be literally true, they will be technically incompatible with our claims about some other things, like most notably, our value theory. The claim, "Capricious killing is bad," and the claim, "All value is subjective and there are no intrinsically valuable objects," are technically contradictory. Accordingly, we will need to be vigilant of the fact that "Capricious killing is bad" is only true in the context of the moral fiction, and not true outside of it, while "All value is subjective and there are no intrinsically valuable objects" is false within the fiction and true outside of it.


Someone with a coherentist view of the world, if I understand it correctly, would be uncomfortable with this sort of thing. The coherentist would seemingly want to find a way to eliminate the use of the fiction in order to create a system of beliefs that is all-encompassing and internally consistent. Mutually incompatible statements like "Capricious killing is bad" and "All value is subjective and there are no intrinsically valuable objects" would, for the coherentist, demand some sort of redress. "Capricious killing is bad" would need to be rephrased or rejected, or else "All value is subjective and there are no intrinsically valuable objects" would have to go.

In doing this, the coherentist would need to reject all literally false statements that are inconsistent with the literally true statements that make up the rest of her beliefs. Since I have stipulated my fiction to be a fiction, this would seem to commit me to either throwing out my fiction or throwing out the demand that it is desirable to have a fully coherent, internally consistent, all-encompassing set of beliefs about the world. Coherentism, as I see it, works when I step out of the fiction, but seems to suggest that I should not step into it. And since I want to step into it, I must reject the idea that what's best is to have a completely coherent view of the world.

It should be reasonably clear, then, why I don't consider myself to be a particularly good coherentist. Instead, I'd rather call myself a contextualist: my view is based on the idea that it can make sense to adopt certain sets of mutually incompatible beliefs in different contexts, even though this will mean that my views technically lack coherence. Coherence can, of course, be regained at any point by setting aside the fiction and applying the non-moralistic paradigm to the moral realm. So my view does not run afoul of the very plausible coherentist claim that there's some problem with not being able to make consistent, coherent sense of things (it's not particularly clear to me what it would even mean to "make sense" if you couldn't do this). But insofar as the coherentist position contains a value judgment about the desirability of maintaining a coherent, internally consistent, all-encompassing set of beliefs about the world, I reject coherentism by rejecting the value judgment.


Josiah Schmidt said...

There's no intrinsic value in the concept of "coherence," either. :)

Danny said...


Anonymous said...

"There's no intrinsic value in the concept of "coherence," either. :)"
You know, we haven't even touched on the issues of responsibility and freedom-of-will here. It's amazing how far many people will go to argue that people have a magical independence from the laws of reality in order to salvage some particular notion of responsibility.

There was an article in Libertarian Papers recently making just this claim, that "Determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility". You can almost hear the, "ergo, determinism is false."

It's almost as good as, "moral nihilism would result in chaos" (a dubious and empirical claim to begin with) to, "moral nihilism is false".

Danny said...

Well on the responsibility/free will thing, I have this.

If people want to talk about responsibility as a a metaphysical state, such that you can literally be responsible, then...well...good luck. As a useful fiction (hey there it is again!), I think it does just fine.

And I agree that it's annoying when people use that kind of modus tollens question-beggary.

dojo said...

Vichy touches an important point. The universe doesn't care and owes us no comfort.
That we don't like a conclusion doesn't tell us anything about its validity.

I have yet to read Dannys post on fictions, but I think all social contructs are fictions. There are no platonic forms called friendship or responsibility floating around.

Anonymous said...

"There are no platonic forms called friendship or responsibility floating around."
I'd say these are functional abstractions. There may be actual content to the definitions (that is, we often may able to say that some things definitely are or are not, for our purposes, 'friednships') but the normative and evaluative content is something we invest my our interest in them.

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