Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Rethink It (Part 2)

This post is part of my series on Sharon Street's article "Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Rethink It". The article is a response to an earlier article by the legal/political theorist Ronald Dworkin, as well as being a contribution to the realist v. antirealist debate in metaethics.

In part one, I covered Street's characterisation of this debate. Street is a proponent of moral antirealism and tries to defend this from realists such as Dworkin.

In this part, we will sketch Dworkin's version of realism, introduce Street's challenge to realism and consider some responses to this challenge.

1. Normative Realism vs. Metaethical Realism
Dworkin has a somewhat unique approach to moral realism. To get a grasp on it, we need to take a step back and consider the distinction between normative ethics and metaethics.

Normative ethics is concerned primarily with the following types of questions: what is good/bad? What is right/wrong? These questions are at the heart of our ethical lives and they are answered by identifying moral principles or values.*

Metaethics -- as the name implies -- takes a step back from these normative issues and asks about the meaning, ontology and epistemology of the moral principles and values identified by normative ethics.

Dworkin's originality lies in arguing that metaethical questions are actually part of normative ethics. That is, that the distinction I just outlined cannot be sustained. In making this argument, Dworkin takes particular issue with those who claim to be moral sceptics.

Dworkin asks us to consider two types of moral sceptic, the internal sceptic and the external sceptic. The internal sceptic operates within the normative domain and is simply sceptical about some proposed moral values and principles. For example, the internal sceptic might think that maximising conscious pleasure cannot be a moral principle because there are other values and following this principle would compromise those.

We can live with the internal sceptic. In fact, we need the internal sceptic. After all, thrashing out which principles are acceptable and which are not is the central task of ethics. Provided that the internal sceptic explains his thinking, we can appreciate his contribution to ethical debate.

Dworkin is less happy about the external sceptic. Unlike the internalist, the externalist tries to pass judgment on the entire domain of normative ethics. He will say things like "There are no moral truths", "Everything is relative", "Morality is just an expression of the emotions". We all know the type.

Dworkin's key argument is that it is impossible to be an external sceptic. He takes it that one cannot step outside the prescriptive or normative domain and analyse it from some Archimedean point. Why does he think this? Well, because to Dworkin the claims of the external sceptic are, for all their huffing and puffing to the contrary, re-statable as normative claims.

For example, the claims about relativity and nihilism can be plausibly reconstrued as calls for toleration of others and humility about one's own judgments, respectively. And since these calls have normative force, the external sceptic must be wrong.

2. A Puzzling Coincidence
Dworkin's dismissal of the external sceptic has some important implications for how we think about typical metaethical statements.

The realist vs. antirealist debate was characterised in part one as being concerned with the relationship between the mind and the system of moral values. According to the realist, moral values are mind-independent metaphysical states of affairs; according to the anti-realist, moral values are mind-dependent.

To sharpen the nature of their dispute, the realists and anti-realists try to imagine intelligent hypothetical agents (e.g. the ideally-coherent Caligula) who might be favourably disposed to torture. Realists argue that even if such an agent existed, torture would be morally wrong. Anti-realists think that the wrongness of torture depends on the preferences of agents, but they are split down the middle on the possibility of an ideally-coherent Caligula. Kantian anti-realists think that such an agent could not exist; Humean anti-realists think he could, but that his hypothetical existence is not relevant to current moral debates.

Dworkin argues that this debate takes place within, not outside, the domain of normative ethics. It is simply a normative dispute where special attention is paid to counterfactual cases involving agents with evaluative attitudes that are quite different from our own. As it happens, Dworkin thinks that the realists get it right.

Street is willing to grant Dworkin his idiosyncratic views on metaethics. But she is not willing to grant him his defence of realism. She thinks that realism fails as an internal normative claim.

She does so because of the practical/theoretical puzzle outlined in part one. Briefly, the realist must find some way to reconcile the fact that human cognitive faculties have evolved and developed in a complex and messy fashion with their own claim that these faculties can pick out mind-independent moral truths.

Street takes it that the coincidence of our evolved faculties with the mind-independent realm of values is, at the very least, "puzzling". This does not mean that the coincidence is improbable. For all we know it might be highly probable. Nonetheless, Street thinks that some kind of explanation is needed.

3. Possible Solutions
Street then proceeds to survey three possible solutions to the problem.

The first is the antirealist solution. For the antirealist, the coincidence is irrelevant. They maintain that normative reasons arise from the practical standpoint. That is, from the standpoint of agents with evaluative attitudes. So our moral faculties are not picking out or intuiting mind-independent moral truths. This position has been covered at length in my other entries on Street's work.

The second solution is to provide a causal explanation of the coincidence. The analogy here would be with how our non-moral cognition evolved. If we could expect our cognitive faculties to evolve and track the truth of propositions about the external world (e.g. the world of trees, stones, rivers, predators and food), then perhaps we could expect our moral faculties to do the same?

Whatever the merits of causal explanations in the non-moral domain, Street thinks there is a significant disanalogy when it comes to the moral domain: our evolutionary ancestors would actually have causal interact with the external world; they could not have causal interactions with moral properties. This is because realists like Dworkin do not think moral properties are causal in nature. They think they are abstract in nature.

The third solution is the brute fact explanation. This argues that the puzzling coincidence is just a brute fact. That our moral faculties just happen to tell us the truth about moral facts. This, surprisingly, is the view defended by Dworkin. We will look into it in more depth in the next part.

* There is also a position known as moral particularism which holds that our moral lives are sustained without support from principles. One proponent of this view is Jonathan Dancy.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a moral realist, but for some reason all my favorite meta-ethicists are anti-realists like Street and Joyce. :)