Sunday, October 31, 2010
The End of Moral Realism? (Part 2)
This post is part of my series on Steven Ross's article "The End of Moral Realism?". Part one is available here.
The purpose of Ross's article is to make the case for metaethical constructivism. He does so in a roundabout kind of way by first suggesting that traditional metaethical debates are too heavily focused on moral ontology and not enough focused on moral justification, and then suggesting that traditional metaethical theories such as realism and projectivism are ill-equipped to answer the justification-question.
Last time out, we considered Ross's case against different forms of moral realism. In this post, we will look at his case against the different forms projectivism.
1. What is Projectivism?
Unlike the realist, the projectivist maintains that moral properties and moral facts are not to be found "out there" in the world that is independent of our senses and rational interests. Instead, moral judgments are seen as projections of our internal mental lives.
The basic tenets of projectivism can be applied to a number of disciplines, from constitutional interpretation and the rules of chess, to artistic criticism and etiquette. All these disciplines involve some sort of projection of our internal mental representations onto the external world (i.e. adding something to brute fact reality).
So we must ask: what is distinctive about moral projectivism? Well, the popular forms of moral projectivism envisage the act of moral adjudication as equivalent to the act of projecting principles or life plans onto the external world. So, for example, saying "willful murder is vicious" would, in a projectivist worldview, be reinterpreted as a statement or expression about the general principles and plans according to which one lives one's life.
Versions of moral projectivism can be found in the work of R.M. Hare, Allan Gibbard and Simon Blackburn.
2. The Problem with Projectivism
Ross is willing to agree with projectivists to a certain extent, particularly in its characterisation of the ontology of moral values. He thinks it is right to say that moral values are dependent upon (or projections of) internal mental representations. In this regard, projectivism seems to have the upper hand over realism.
Where projectivism fails is in its account of moral justification. Ross argues that, as was the case with the realists, the projectivists are incapable of saying why certain sorts of projection or internal mental representation deserve a certain sort of consideration or weight. For example, most people would say that the autonomy of their fellow human beings is an important consideration, something to be given due weight in practical reasoning. Projectivists are unable to explain why this should be the case.
To draw out this point, Ross asks us to imagine that our evaluative responses are arrayed along a spectrum, with simple visceral responses to stimuli at one end and full-blown moral judgments at the other.
Now, when it comes to the visceral responses there is no need to talk about whether they are justified or acceptable. They are simply products of our contingent biological and personal histories. But when we move along to consider artistic and aesthetic judgments, not to mention moral judgments, the idea of justification and criticism of judgment begins to get a foothold.
If someone judges, say, the later works of Henry James to be psychologically complex and appreciates them for this quality, we think they are justified in their responses: they are seeing something important about James's work. They are seeing a quality that deserves a certain kind of consideration. But it's not clear how the mere idea of projectivism can account for that phenomenon.
When it comes to a projectivist metaethics, its proponents need to tell us why, when projecting principles or life plans, certain kinds of quality or property deserve to included, such as autonomy. Ross thinks they can't do this.
Indeed, he notes two trends in the history of projectivist thought. The first, associated with Hare and existentialists like Sartre, accepted that projectivism could not explain why particular qualities deserved consideration. They embraced the fact that we had total freedom to project whatever values we might like onto the world.
The second trend, associated with Blackburn and Gibbard, tries to retreat from the existentialist void and claim that certain values will, of course be included. They might, for example, appeal to evolution and say that this ensures that, say, parental love will always be among the values that are projected onto the world. Ross thinks that this appeal can do little to stem the tide of moral scepticism because evolution also seems to have endowed us with plenty of unwelcome dispositions and preferences.
So, Ross concludes that projectivists have no account of justification. At this point, having pinpointed the failings of realism and projectivism, Ross proceeds to consider the constructivist alternative. We will look at that next time out.