Thursday, July 15, 2010

Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Rethink It (Part 3)

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 theorist Ronald Dworkin, as well as a contribution to the more general realist/antirealist debate in metaethics.

In Part 1 I provided a general introduction to the realism v. antirealism debate. In Part 2 I covered Dworkin's take on this debate. Dworkin is a realist, but a realist with a bit of a twist.

At the end of Part 2 I presented Street's challenge to realism. She argued that because realists hold to the mind-independence of moral values, they are forced to explain how our evolved cognitive faculties manage to track the truth of moral facts. In other words, on the realist view there is a puzzling coincidence between our messy causal history and moral truth.

Street identified three possible answers to this puzzling coincidence. The first was to reject realism and embrace antirealism. The second was to offer some causal explanation. And the third was simply to accept the coincidence as a brute fact.

The third explanation is the one preferred by Dworkin. In this part we will see why it is unsatisfactory.

1. Winning the Moral Lottery
To justify his brute fact explanation, Dworkin uses the analogy of the lottery. Winning a lottery is highly improbable. But suppose you had been told that your numbers were drawn. Should you then doubt the fact that you had won? Should you ask for some deeper explanation for why you, of all people, happened to be the winner?

Dworkin thinks it obvious that you don't need to do either. And he thinks that the same reasoning applies to our moral beliefs: we don't need to explain why they happen to be true; they just are.

Street points out that this analogy is deeply flawed. It is true to say that no deeper explanation is needed after we learn that our numbers were drawn in the lottery. But it would be insane to think you had won before any numbers were drawn. And this is the position we are in with respect to moral truth. We do not yet know whether we have won the moral lottery.

Street argues that we need a non-trivial non-question-begging reason to think we have hit upon the independent moral truth posited by realists. Dworkin has a possible answer. He says our individual moral judgments can be non-trivially supported by appeal to our other moral judgments. The goal then being to achieve some consistent web of moral judgments.

That's all well and good, but it comes much closer to antirealism than to realism. And another problem arises. There may be many consistent webs of moral judgment. The realist needs to explain why their system happens to coincide with independent moral truths. Indeed, this is the whole point of the ideally-coherent Caligula example discussed earlier.

2. Three Worries and Responses
Three complaints may be made about Street's challenge. She reviews and responds to each of them.

First, it may be argued that she is asking for too much; that she is asking for an external justification of morality. This seems to be implicit in what was just said about the realist needing to explain why their entire system of moral judgments happens to be correct. But we saw in part 2 that Dworkin thinks it is impossible to pass judgment on the entire domain of normativity.

Street responds by saying she is not asking for an external justification. She is accepting Dworkin's argument against external scepticism. However, Dworkin accepts that the claim "moral truths are mind-independent" is a type of internal normative claim. Street is merely asking for a justification of that internal claim.

Second, it might be objected that Street's challenge applies equally well to beliefs about the external world and so says nothing particularly important about moral beliefs. The idea here is that, although it is possible to offer an evolutionary account of how our cognitive faculties give us reliable beliefs about the external world, this account itself depends on beliefs about the external world (i.e. our belief that the theory of evolution is true). If we are allowed to assume what we want to prove, then moral realism is in no trouble.

Street argues that this is mistaken. The evolutionist offers reasons that are internal to their worldview for thinking that their beliefs about the external world are correct. It would be acceptable for the moral realist to do the same. But the Dworkinian moral realist offers no reasons for thinking that their moral beliefs are correct.

Finally, some might worry that Street is assuming that a causal explanation of the coincidence is necessary. And there are enough people who doubt the relevance of causal explanations in the moral domain to make this an issue.

Street counters by saying she is not assuming that a causal explanation is necessary. She herself rejects the need for a causal epistemology when it comes to normative judgments (see other posts on Street's constructivism for this point). However, she thinks that some epistemology is needed and that Dworkin has failed to provide it.

Furthermore, she thinks that her own moral antirealism can answer the challenge she has raised. It holds that there is no puzzling coincidence because moral values are not mind-independent.

This may seem suspect. Has Street simply invented a problem in order to endorse her preferred moral theory? She thinks not because antirealism is plausible for other reasons.

We will take this up in the final part.

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