Saturday, October 30, 2010

The End of Moral Realism? (Part 1)

"The End of Moral Realism?" is an article by Steven Ross which argues that constructivism, an ethical theory which I have covered before, offers us the hope for a coherent metaethics. Since this is a topic I am interested in, I will run through the arguments in Ross's paper. (Note: Springer seem to have open access to their journals right now so you can get the article for free)

Ross's central contention is that most metaethical debates revolve around the correct nature of moral ontology, i.e. the kinds of things to which moral terms like good and bad refer. Ross thinks this focus is unfortunate because the question of justification -- i.e. determining the truth conditions of moral statements -- is far more important to morality than that of ontology. Once we get the right picture of justification, the problem of ontology disappears.

Ross's article tries to show how two classic metaethical theories, realism and projectivism, utterly fail to account for justification, and how constructivism can account for justification. He notes at the outset that one should not expect neat and decisive results in moral theory because the questions being pursued are difficult. Nonetheless, he still thinks constructivism is better than rival metaethical theories.

In this post I will look at Ross's arguments against moral realism. Next time I will consider the arguments against projectivism. And after that, I will summarise his case in favour of constructivism.

1. A Taxonomy of Realisms
Put simply, moral realism is the view that there are mind-independent moral facts, i.e. facts that do not depend on us for their existence. There are different varieties of moral realism, and in the interests of conceptual clarity, Ross proposes the following taxonomy.

First, there are the non-natural, Platonic realists. They maintain that moral facts exist, but are not reducible or equivalent to natural facts. They are more akin to abstract metaphysical properties like mathematical truths (although there plenty of disagreement about the correct form of mathematical ontology as well).

Second, there are the naturalist realists. Again, they maintain that moral facts exist, but they differ from the Platonists by maintaining that there is a direct equivalency (or supervenience relationship) between natural facts and moral facts. Ross suggests we call this type-type natural realism in order to distinguish it from a third version of realism....

This third version is something Ross calls trivial token natural realism (see here on the type-token distinction for more). Token natural realists simply maintain that moral terms like "good" "bad", "right" "wrong" are appropriately applied to natural facts. But they do not think moral goodness (etc) is constituted by natural facts. In other words, this is a theory about the application of moral terms, not about the truth conditions of those terms.

2. The Problem with Realism
Ross thinks that nobody could take issue with trivial token natural realism. After all, even Platonists would say that one can meaningfully apply the moral term "bad" to a natural set of facts such as the murder of one human being by another. However, that's the problem: it's trivially true.

The real metaethical weight is being carried by the other two versions of realism but Ross thinks that neither can do the necessary work. Why is this? Well there are well-rehearsed ontological problems with both views. Platonists face the problem of adhering to a (potentially) extravagant and metaphysically indulgent ontology. Naturalists face G.E. Moore's open question argument.

Ross notes these ontological worries, but doesn't push them. He thinks the more fatal problem with realism, of both varieties, is that it has no proper account of moral justification. In other words, it cannot tell you why you are right to say that murder is wrong, or that charity is good.

Why not? Ross says the problem is that both views turn justification into a species of fact detection: it is simply by recognising or becoming aware of the existence of moral and immoral states of affairs that we become justified in saying they are good/bad/right/wrong.

When asked what it is allows for such justification, realists are usually at a loss. So much so that they will tend to flirt with alternative metaethical theories and mutate their realism into its trivial form. For example, a realist might say we are justified in calling non-consensual sexual intercourse (i.e. rape) morally wrong because it harms certain interests or violates autonomy. In doing so, they switch to an anti-realist conception of morality (i.e. one that thinks morality is dependent on the mental states of conscious, intentional agents) with just a trivial form of realism left over.

So realism, for Ross, fails to account for moral justification. Perhaps projectivism will fare better. We will see next time out.

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