Sunday, June 13, 2010

Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Rethink It (Part 1)

This post is the first in a series on Sharon Street's article "Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Rethink It". According to her webpage, the article is due to be published in Philosophy and Public Affairs.

It is structured largely as a response to a 1996 article by the legal theorist Ronald Dworkin. That article was entitled "Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Believe it" - hence the title of Street's article.

Although structured as a response to Dworkin, the article also aims to be of broader significance to the realism vs. antirealism debate in metaethics. As discussed previously, Street defends a form of antirealist constructivism, although she is less explicit about the constructivist aspect in this particular article.

Before even responding to Dworkin, Street spends some time assessing the lay of the realist v. antirealist land. I summarise this below.

1. The Practical Standpoint vs. the Theoretical Standpoint
The first thing Street notes is that we can view ourselves and our actions from two perspectives: the practical and the theoretical. From the practical standpoint we take things to be valuable and make normative judgments. From the theoretical standpoint we view our values and normative judgments as part of a complex causal history.

The potential clash between the two perspectives was long ago highlighted by Kant (he suggested that we could never consistently view ourselves as causal/mechanistic beings) and it plays a central role in Street's article. She argues that, if one is a moral realist, it is very difficult to reconcile the following propositions:

  1. Our normative judgments (i.e. judgments about right and wrong) are correct.
  2. Our normative judgments are subject to causal explanation.
On the other hand, if one is an antirealist (constructivist) it is easy to reconcile these propositions.

The full argument for this will be outlined in a subsequent post. To appreciate it, we will need to pin down the differences between moral realism and anti-realism. This is the next step in Street's article.

2. Realism and Antirealism
Street contrasts realists and antirealists by looking at how they respond to three separate questions. 

First, there is the question concerning the ontological status of moral values. Realists contend that moral values are somehow woven into the ontological fabric of reality; that they are mind-independent. A brief articulation of this idea can be found in my series on Erik Wielenberg. Antirealists argue that values are mind-dependent; that they don't come into existence unless and until practically rational beings come into existence.

Second, there is the question of the ideally coherent Caligula. This is a philosophical thought experiment relating to the infamous Roman Emperor. Caligula had a reputation for sadism, and the philosopher would like to know two things: (i) whether sadism is a value that can be held by a fully consistent and otherwise happy rational agent; and (ii) whether a consistent sadist would have a moral reason to inflict cruelty.

According to the moral realist, such an individual could exist but he would be wrong about his moral reasons. This is because moral values are mind-independent and so it is never morally acceptable to be a sadist. 

Antirealists are somewhat conflicted on the Caligula-issue. Kantian antirealists will argue that there could never be an ideally-coherent Caligula. For the Kantian, valuing other human beings is a necessary feature of practical agency. Thus, one could never have a moral reason for being a sadist. The Humean antirealist is far more bullish. He/she accepts the possibility of an ideally-coherent Caligula and accepts that such an individual would have a moral reason for being a sadist.

3. Structure of Street's Paper
The above serves as an extended introduction to the realist/antirealist debate. Where does Ronald Dworkin fit into this? Well, Dworkin defends a rather unique form of realism and tries to defend it from the kind of antirealism espoused by Street.

The remainder of Street's article has the following structure:
  • Summarise Dworkin's version realism
  • Fully articulate the practical/theoretical standpoint problem facing Dworkin (and other realists).
  • Consider possible solutions to this problem.
  • Consider Dworkin's solution to this problem.
  • Explain why he is wrong and why antirealism is the more plausible position.
  • Defend antirealism from some other objections.
We will look at each of these elements in future entries.

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