Thursday, November 4, 2010

The End of Moral Realism? (Part 3)

This post is part of my series on Steven Ross's article "The End of Moral Realism?". Parts one and two are available here and here.

Ross's article tries to make the case for metaethical constructivism. It does so by first suggesting that traditional debates in metaethics are too heavily focused on questions of moral ontology and not enough focused on moral justification. It then argues that two classic metaethical theories -- namely, realism and projectivism -- are incapable of providing a satisfactory account of justification, while constructivism is capable of providing exactly this.

We have already gone through Ross's case against realism and projectivism. In this post, we will look at his case in favour of constructivism.

1. The Constructivist Methodology
I have covered constructivism in the past, however, Ross has a slightly different take (or emphasis) on it which I will try to convey here. Obviously, he takes it that constructivism's key attraction is its ability to provide an account of moral justification. He thinks it does so because there is a distinctive method to the constructivist's madness:
  • (1) Define the Project: The constructivist begins by defining projects that seem important to our moral lives, such as: what are the correct principles for cooperation? Is capital punishment ever acceptable? When are we responsible for our actions?
  • (2) Identify the Considerations: Having determined their project, the constructivist proceeds to identify the kinds of considerations that seem important to that project. For example, if the project is to figure out the principles of cooperation, we need to consider how much effort people are expected to expend in cooperation as well as the distribution of the product of their cooperation. This requires some sensitivity to the capabilities and capacities of others.
  • (3) Construct the Principles: once the project and the considerations have been identified, the constructivist can proceed to construct the relevant principles. This is where the idea of justification comes into play. The constructivist views justification as the process of showing how the principles handle the considerations in a manner that is relevant to the project. The classic example here is Rawls's Difference Principle which shows how considerations of equal opportunity along with recognition of some asymmetry in capacities can be handled when completing the project of cooperation.
These are the basic elements to constructivist's method. Four additional features should be borne in mind. First, in constructing the principles it will sometimes be necessary to come up with a formal constructive procedure. For example, when constructing the principles of cooperation, many theorists like to use the formal device of bargaining theory

Second, Ross argues that this method, can account for the rivalry between different ethical positions. His example is the debate between Nozick and Rawls on the correct principles of political justice. It is a debate which, according to Ross, is primarily about the kinds of consideration that need to be included in this project. Nozick, for example, argues that Rawls's Difference principle cannot adequately account for the idea of entitlement through effort.

Third, Ross argues that this method can capture what happens when one decides between rival views, such as those proffered by Nozick and Rawls. What happens is that one makes a judgment and decides that some considerations are more important to the project than others. Neither of the other metaethical views -- i.e. realism and projectivism -- can appropriately capture the idea of making of judgment.

Finally, the method applies across numerous moral contexts not just those pertaining to political and social cooperation. This is important because the examples given, along with the general history of constructivist thought, might incline one to believe otherwise.

2. Metaethical Constructivism?
Put simply, the central contribution of constructivism to moral thought is its provision of an account of moral justification. It says "a principle is justified if it (best) handles the considerations that are relevant to a moral project". This does not mean that justification is a straightforward process, it may well be messy and complex. 

That is all well and good but what about the other typical metaethical concerns with moral ontology. How are these handled by constructivism?

Ross's claim is that constructivism is compatible with the non-controversial aspects of realist and projectivist ontology. For example, he thinks that constructivism can embrace the token realism that was discussed in part one. In other words, our moral terms can be meaningfully applied to features of the external world without this entailing that moral justification is a species of fact detection.

Likewise, the picture of justification that is being advanced clearly does not rely on the existence of some mind-independent moral truth. To this extent, it is compatible with the projectivist view of moral ontology. 

But Ross's key point is that these concerns about moral ontology are not all that important and that metaethics would do well to downplay them. His goal has been to switch focus; to show that ontology can fall into place after we get the right picture of justification.

3. Conclusion
I like Ross's overall idea but I think he hasn't done enough to distinguish projectivism from constructivism. His objection to projectivism was that it can't explain why certain kinds of consideration deserve to be included in our projections. But I am not sure that his account of constructivism can explain this either. 

I think there is an implicit claim to the effect that defining the project will somehow tell us which factors need to be included in the overall moral construction. But surely more needs to be done? Surely some people might think, for example, that one's attitude towards religious truth is a relevant consideration and some might think otherwise? How can we decide between these views without necessarily presupposing certain moral values? And if we presuppose some moral values, aren't we failing to provide a truly constructivist metaethics?

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