Friday, July 16, 2010

Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Rethink It (Part 4)

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 realist v. antirealist debate in metaethics.

Part One covered the general background and structure to the realist v. antirealist conflict. Part Two covered Dworkin's own idiosyncratic take on this debate. He tried to dissolve the distinction between metaethics and normative ethics.

Part Two also introduced Street's basic challenge to realists: how do you reconcile your claim that moral values are mind-independent with the fact that our cognitive faculties have a complex and messy evolutionary origin? Part Three covered Dworkin's response to this challenge, along with Street's counter-responses.

In the end, we concluded that Dworkin has no adequate answer to the challenge and that antirealism does. The question then became: is antirealism plausible?

That is the question dealt with in this part.

1. The Repugnancy of Antirealism
Before addressing the question, a quick recap on antirealism and realism. The version of moral realism in the debate-pit is the one that views moral values as abstract, mind-independent metaphysical properties. In contrast to this, antirealism is the view that moral values depend on existence of practical agents with evaluative attitudes.

There are two main classes of antirealism. Kantian antirealism holds that certain moral values (e.g. respect for human dignity) are an inherent or necessary part of being a practical agent. Humean antirealism holds that there are no values that are necessarily shared by all practical agents.

One way of sharpening the nature of the dispute between the Kantians and the Humeans (and the realists) is to consider the hypothetical case of the ideally-coherent Caligula. I've mentioned him before. He is an agent with a consistent and coherent set of values and beliefs, that just happens to include the value of torturing children. Kantians think no such agent could exist; Humeans think he could and so could have a reason to torture; Realists also think he could, but that he would be morally wrong to act upon his values.

The attitudes of the respective parties to the ideally-coherent Caligula is significant when it comes to assessing the plausibility of antirealism. Dworkin holds that realism must be the more plausible view -- even if it fails to meet Street's challenge -- because it is the only one that can support the robust intuition that torture is always and everywhere morally wrong.

In other words, antirealism fails because of its repugnant and counterintuitive implications.

2. Dealing with Repugnancy
This argument places particular strain on Street's brand of antirealist constructivism which is of the Humean variety. So how does the Humean deal with the robust intuition against the possible moral propriety of torture?

Street offers several lines of response:

  • First, that a rational agent would endorse torture would involve that agent meeting a strict set of conditions: their beliefs and evaluative attitudes would need to be in perfect harmony. These conditions are unlikely to be met by any actual human beings.
  • Second, if we could imagine the ideally-coherent Caligula in full and vivid detail, it is likely that his reasons for valuing the torture of children would become less counterintuitive.
  • Third, just because Caligula has an internal reason for endorsing the torture of children does not mean we have any reason to share in it. We can still criticise or condemn him.
  • Fourth, if confronted by the ideally-coherent Caligula we would be in our right to prevent him from acting upon his values. 

If these responses are good, Humean antirealism is not as counterintuitive as it first seemed. The burden then shifts back to the realist who must now show that his vision of moral ontology and epistemology is more plausible than the antirealist's. This conclusion is strengthened if we endorse Kantian antirealism.

3. Is Antirealism Self-Defeating?
Street considers one final objection to antirealism. This is the argument that antirealism is ultimately self-defeating. To appreciate this objection we need to address the specific type of antirealism embraced by Street, which she labels constructivism.

I've covered this position before. The (inelegant) definition is the following:
  • The fact that X is a reason for me to do Y is constituted by the fact that the judgment that X is a reason to do Y withstands scrutiny from the standpoint of my other judgments about reasons.
For a more comprehensive understanding of this, you'll have to read the other posts in the series. 

Street's constructivism might be thought to be self-defeating in the following way. Imagine a realist like Dworkin making the following normative judgment:
X is a reason for me to do Y, and it would be such a reason even if I judged that it wasn't and even if that judgment withstood scrutiny from the standpoint of my other judgments about reasons.
This, of course, is a straightforward endorsement of realism and rejection of constructivism. But couldn't  this judgment withstand scrutiny from the perspective of Dworkin's other judgments?

That would leave us in a strange position. A constructivist methodology would have been used to establish a realist conclusion. This cannot be right, can it?

4. It is not Self-Defeating
Street responds in the obvious manner: it would actually be impossible for Dworkin's endorsement of realism to withstand scrutiny from the perspective of his other judgments. Her argument for this is the argument that she has been pursuing throughout the paper. We can briefly restate it.

Every agent is capable of viewing themselves from two perspectives: the practical and the theoretical. From the practical perspective they think about their values and their reasons-for-action; from the theoretical perspective they consider how they happened to have the values and reasons-for-action that they do have. This means that every agent can ask questions about the causal origins of their normative judgments.

But when they do this, they must confront Street's challenge: how did their evolved moral faculties stumble upon the mind-independent moral truth? And as we have seen, realists do not seem to have a good answer to this question.

Going through this reasoning process would lead the agent to the following conclusion: constructivism is the only theory that makes sense of moral epistemology. And this would mean that, irrespective of your initial metaethical views, the endorsement of realism could not withstand scrutiny from the perspective of your other judgments.

In other words, only constructivism withstands scrutiny from within the practical point of view.


  1. "Street's basic challenge to realists: how do you reconcile your claim that moral values are mind-independent with the fact that our cognitive faculties have a complex and messy evolutionary origin?"

    Hi, John. Forgive my laziness (I could probably find the answer somewhere in Street's oeuvre), but is Street also an antirealist about mathematics and logic, abstract fields in which many of us think we have knowledge of mind-independent facts despite having cognitive faculties whose evolutionary origin is complex and messy?

  2. The same question occurred to me while reading the article. She doesn't say anything about it here.

    Her article "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value" seems to be a more detailed statement of her objection, but I haven't read that yet so I'm no wiser than you.

    I'm going to be looking at David Enoch's response to Street's challenge later in the week. So I'll see if he brings up your point.

  3. Why the facepalm?

    I'd like to point out another problem, related to Street's: the realist also needs to explain why we should CARE about our moral judgments. Even supposing the realist can account for the formation of moral judgment faculties that track the supposed objectively-real moral truths, he needs to tell us why we should follow these judgments and not our desires. In other words, even if the things moral realism refers to exist, they are irrelevant to human action (to first order - of course it could be that we desire to follow them, but that's reverting back to antirealism).