Saturday, December 12, 2009
Realism by Michael Smith (Part 2)
Realism is committed to the existence of objective moral facts. But is Realism itself true? I ended part one with the basic argument against Realism. I will restate it, briefly, here.
Realism places two demands on moral prescriptions: (i) they must be objectively true; and (ii) they must motivate us. It is not clear that both demands can be satisfied at once.
The problem arises from our basic belief/desire psychology. Beliefs represent the world as it is; desires represent the world as it should be. Beliefs can be assessed in terms of truth or falsehood; desires cannot. Beliefs cannot motivate action; desires can.
In order to satisfy the objectivity demand, it would seem that moral prescriptions must be psychologically represented as beliefs. In order to satisfy the motivational demand, moral prescriptions must be psychologically represented as desires. It would seem, then, that Realism is not compatible with our psychology.
In this post I will look at Smith's various attempts to rescue Realism (note: Smith's article is a review of the relevant literature -- it is not really fair to ascribe the views discussed to him).
1. Denying the Two Demands
The first, and perhaps most obvious, way to rescue Realism is by denying the relevance of the two demands to moral theory. In other words, to change our intuitive perception of morality. Some avowed realists do this.
One popular approach is to argue that moral facts are not 'reasons-for-action' but, rather, statements about social stability. Right acts are those that tend towards social stability. An Aristotelian variation might talk about the proper function of man (which is for rational thought) and about right actions being those that serve this function.
Smith suggests that these Realist revisions are unsatisfactory. When we think about the moral arguments we have about, say, abortion or torture or humanitarian intervention, it seems clear that reasons-for-action are a necessary part of the picture.
2. Denying Belief/Desire Psychology
It seems, then, if we are to rescue Realism, we must challenge the basic psychology championed by anti-realists. We must show how desires are not the same as reasons-for-action.
An example might help to illustrate the distinction we are trying to make. If a baby starts to scream unceasingly, you may be overcome by desire to drown it. But there is something disreputable about this kind of desire. If you were to act so as to fulfil it, it would be very odd if we accepted that you had a 'reason' to do so.
The problem with this kind of desire is that it arises in a context which is conducive to feverish hotheadedness. It is unlikely that a similar desire would arise if one was 'cool, calm and collected'.
And so we begin to approach an alternative account of a 'reason-for-action'. This alternative account argues that a reason-for-action is not simply any old desire, but a desire that arises in certain idealised conditions, i.e. conditions that allow one to be cool, calm and collected.
And since we are talking about idealised conditions for practical reasoning, beliefs can re-enter the picture. After all, we can have beliefs about the types of desires that would arise in these idealised conditions. The desires are now open to truth assessability.
So in the end, idealised conditions of reasoning might allow for objective agreement and assent about the appropriate desires one should have. This would salvage the Realist programme. But of course, this just shows that Realism is possible. It does not guarantee that there will be definitive agreement about the content of moral prescriptions.