[Topics: Moral Knowledge, Moral Realism, Pragmatism]
The Morality Pageant:

On the Relative Attractiveness of Moral Realism and its Alternatives


William James Sketch by M.R.P. - moral realism - nihilism - pragmatism

Sketch by M.R.P.

Looking back at my school days, I remember a Ph.D. student in the philosophy department remarking on the differences between moral realism (the system of thought that says that there exists a literal, objective morality) and its alternatives by appealing to the consequences of holding each belief. The moral realist, he underscored, has the advantages of being able to say that society is making moral progress, and that some societies have been immoral at different times, such as Nazi Germany and slaveholding America. Moral relativists, moral nihilists, and all related parties, he pointed out, have no such recourse. So, surely, even if one is convinced that moral realism is false, this student concluded, it might be better not to mention that conviction ‘in polite company.’

In fact, the article by James Rachels which I discussed last week makes some very similar statements in its singular effort to refute cultural relativism. But is it true that believing morality is not truly objective is somehow uglier or less desirable than believing that there is an objective morality? To explore this, I will take a closer look at both sides.

Now, before anything else, it is very important to note that the relative desirability or ugliness of any given thought has no bearing on which thought is true. The least desirable thought may be true, and the most desirable thought may be false, or vice versa. But there are philosophical pragmatists like William James who feel that, in the absence of conflicting evidence, one might be justified in believing the most desirable or beneficial alternative. For such people, even noting that it is also the case that the sincerity or pragmatic value of any given thought has no bearing on whether that thought is true would be insufficient to shake the thought loose. Indeed, such a person has an entirely different definition of truth.

So, setting aside last week’s discussion of how likely it is that morality is not literally objective, and also shelving the effort of refuting or modifying philosophical pragmatism directly, I intend to show that moral realism is every bit as undesirable and ugly as its alternatives, in every practical case.

Now, in order to gauge whether one society’s morality is better than that of another, or whether any given society is making moral progress from one time period to another, it would be necessary to refer to a standard against which both societies or both time periods could be measured. As the aforementioned student points out, the moral realist believes that there exists such a standard, whereas moral nihilists, moral relativists, and adherents to other systems without an objective morality do not believe that there exists such a standard (or at least believe that the standard is not truly objective).

Taking only that fact, it is obvious how one could be tempted to say that the moral realist is on firmer ground to make the relevant judgments. But now, in pragmatic fashion, consider a real-world case. Say that moral realist A thinks that action X is the most morally correct in a given situation, and that moral realist B thinks that action Y is the most morally correct in that same situation. Who is correct? The one who more confidently declares that their morals are real and true? The issue, obviously, is that both realists take their source of moral knowledge to be the correct one. If A says that a particular book is the correct source, and B says that B’s moral intuition is the correct source, there is at present no way of deciding that one of them is definitely correct and the other definitely incorrect.

Now imagine that A is an SS officer in Nazi Germany, and that B is our friend the Ph.D. student. X and Y could be differing views on eugenics. Regrettably, absent a truly objective, universal, and consistent interface with the posited objective morality, B is actually on no firmer ground than anyone else to declare A immoral. But the problem goes deeper than that, as it is the case that many or most of the historical systems which the moral realist would want to castigate, from American slavery to European anti-Semitic blood libel to German Nazism, were established and upheld by moral realists who felt, just as the modern realist does, that morality exists objectively and that they know something about it. In light of this, perhaps the realists should be justifiably skittish about mentioning their views ‘in polite company.’

Now, here another point of order is necessary. In philosophy, a person can be a moral realist and yet hold that no human beings have access to objective morals (or indeed, that whether we have access to them, that they are real but not objective). In effect, they are claiming that, while morality exists, we don’t know what it is or what it says; the only moral knowledge entailed by this form of realism is the mere knowledge that morality exists (for a more detailed account of the various forms of moral realism and antirealism, see this encyclopedia entry). This is a position that is available, but I am proceeding as though any given moral realist would hold that they also know some or all of the facts about morality, whether from their own intuition or from some authoritative text or authority figure. The reason for this is that the somewhat weaker, more philosophical version of moral realism is not only highly uncommon in the world, but would also clearly not be able to make the bold claims about the utility and benefits of moral realism to which this article is responding.

The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice Emblem - moral realism - nihilism - pragmatismThe fact of the matter is that most people who hold that morality exists, and that it is objective, also claim that they know what is right and what is wrong. And this is where they get into very real epistemological trouble, as showcased above. The moral of the story (pun intended) is that a hard-line philosophical pragmatist should look elsewhere for the most useful and desirable conclusion; in all practical real-world cases, moral realism’s evaluative strength is null, except as an uncompromising expression of a bias or preference. And I restate once more: people holding to most other philosophical positions should already have acknowledged that there is no actual relationship between the likeability of an idea and its truth.

None of this is to say that moral nihilists or moral relativists can claim to accomplish the tasks set before them at the outset. Perhaps they can do so, under certain conditions and definitions, but none of that was argued here and it seems far more intuitive to agree that they can not. Rather, this is just to say that the moral realists’ apparent accomplishment of those tasks is tinged with any and all ugliness and fallaciousness ascribed to their opposition (with a heaping helping of the sort of absolute self-confidence that yields factional warring).

Never forget that an account of morality is incomplete without an account of moral knowledge. And if you claim to know about truly objective morality, then you had better have extremely solid evidence that your source for knowing about it is the correct source, or else it will seem to others as though you have simply deluded yourself that your opinions are facts.

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[Topics: Moral Knowledge, Moral Realism, Pragmatism]
The Morality Pageant:

On the Relative Attractiveness of Moral Realism and its Alternatives

was last modified: January 2nd, 2016 by Daniel Podgorski
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  1. I very much appreciate this. Now, before I go any further, I must make clear that as concerns philosophy, I am simply an interested layperson. Still, I am not entirely naive on the subjects that interest me, and I do my best to read thoroughly before committing to any conclusion. Recently I have been wrestling with the issue of moral realism/anti-realism as a part of a larger bout of existential questioning.
    To this end, I have attempted to engage both sides of the argument. I have done my best to give realism a fair shake, but in the end I have not found the realist arguments compelling enough. I am most bothered by the retreat into intuitionism. Or rather, I do not share this intuition, and thus if I grant the robust realist use of intuitionism, does that not leave me prima facie justified in believing my own intuition against?
    It seems to me to be the case that moral judgements are at least as subjective as some aesthetic judgments. When I say “X is beautiful” I mean that in the same way as when I say “Bob is bad”.
    Anyway, I have been hoping to overcome my objection to realism as part of a larger part of self-examination into philosophical underpinnings of my way of living.

    • Thank you for taking the time to reply.

      It sounds as though you’re doing an excellent job of exploring philosophy with a careful and critical eye. I would like to reply to your comment in two ways. The first way is to ask you to consider why you would prefer to overcome your intuition at all. As you might be able to infer from the article to which you appended this comment, I too find most versions of moral realism to be on shaky epistemological ground at best. If you’re interested, I also have a more recent article on morality’s relationship to cultural differences and similarities, as well as one on the possibility of meaningful moral action without an appeal to final consequences. Your comparison of moral judgments to aesthetic judgments is particularly apt, as many moral nihilist philosophers have used similar comparisons to argue for the truth of either expressivism or error theory. Perhaps you would also hold to a light form of moral skepticism, thinking for instance that there may or may not be moral facts, but that either way human beings do not know about them because we have no way of knowing whether any given proposed moral fact is true or false.

      The expressivists in particular seem to have an account of morality which is very close to your own, and you might want to read into that field to explore expressions from philosophers with intuitions and ideas similar to yours. And as to the charge that robust moral realism retreats into intuitionism, I would largely agree, and this charge is, in part, the background of the above article. The appeal to intuitions by the realist, in addition to being part of the epistemological stance, is part of the realist’s strategy for responding to the is-ought problem, which is the disconnect, derived from the writings of David Hume, between statements about the way things are and statements about the way things should be. I intend to write an article specifically about this problem in the future, but for now it suffices to say that I find the moral realist’s response to the problem to be inadequate, just like you.

      Now, having said that, if you would still rather try to find an account of moral realism which is compelling to you, the second way I would reply to your comment would be by advocating that you begin by looking at which realist premises you are willing to accept. Since your intuition runs against the truth of moral realism, I would wager a guess that you are a naturalist rather than a supernaturalist. If this is true, then you could explore the many varieties of ethical naturalism in more detail. As for myself, I explain in this article on evolution and morality, and in this article on metaethics, how I feel that some basic aspects of what we take to be moral may be effectively or functionally objective aspects of an evolved mind. This functional objectivity is technically still a form of moral anti-realism, but it, like many forms of ethical naturalism, is still perfectly serviceable as a basis for a logical contractarian ethical system.

      One last important thing to note, which was the biggest motivation for me to write the above article, is that in all practical real-world cases there is no attribute which makes moral anti-realism uglier than moral realism; on a purely evaluative level, the realist and anti-realist are on equal footing until evidence surfaces for an objective, universal, and irrefutable source of moral knowledge. (This is precisely the moral skepticism described a few paragraphs up.) Which, while expected under moral anti-realism, does weaken the presented case of moral realism to some extent. So you need not fear anti-realism if you find it more compelling. Just keep thinking and studying, and come to reasonable, logical conclusions to the best of your abilities.

      Hopefully some of this leads you toward where you want to be.

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