[Topics: Contractarian Ethics, Culture, Moral Anti-realism, Morality]
Common Phenomena:

A Brief Introduction to Moral Anti-realist Contractarian Ethics



Shelly Kagan - contractarian ethics - society, intersubjectivity, functional objectivityBack near the beginning of November, I wrote an article on the is-ought problem and moral anti-realism. In that article, I concluded that the moral anti-realist is free to continue speaking of moral oughts as long as their conception of an ought is something rather like a phenomenologically considered is. Humans without moral realism, I concluded, would still have means for an ethics that is contractarian in nature.

This contractarian ethical system would result from an understanding of morality which is in part functionally objective and entirely intersubjective. If you’re not sure what I mean by ‘functionally objective’ or ‘intersubjective,’ don’t worry; I’ll cover each of them in turn right now.

Functional Objectivity and Intersubjectivity:

Functional objectivity is the rather uncreative term I chose for my account of the moral basics that are not truly, ultimately objective, but which humanity will nevertheless never be able to overcome, due to the necessary structure of our evolved minds. Covering this topic at some length was the very first endeavor I undertook in this series, about four months ago.

Intersubjectivity is a bit easier, but I have never covered it in this series before explicitly (other than the subtext of that functional objectivity article, and a nod in its direction in my article on Sartre). The word refers to the juxtaposition and implicit interaction among multiple subjects, as in a community.

So, if it can be a system that incorporates both of those above terms, what would a contractarian ethical system be? This would be an ethical system that arises primarily from the bindingly contractual moral understanding of a community of individuals.

Under a contractarian understanding, a group of humans sets about trying to determine what the most rational possible moral rules would be, and the results are not perfect because the humans are not perfectly rational. But through sustained discussion, generations of cultural upheaval, and careful evaluating and reevaluating of proposed reasons and arguments, the moral system is refined over time so that any given random member of that society would find themselves less likely to be harmed and more likely to be helped (it is a self-interested trade, like a pragmatist’s categorical imperative). While the source of the rules is hypothetical perfect rationality, the force of the rules is self-interest; these are rules that an individual is willing to follow on the condition that everyone else would have to follow them as well.

Friedrich Nietzsche - contractarian ethics - Shelly Kagan - society, intersubjectivity, functional objectivity

Photo by Gustav Schultze

Operating under the ever-present possibility of fortunes and misfortunes changing one’s position in a society, the version of assayed perfect rationality must include a so-called veil of ignorance regarding where one falls in the society for which the rules are being laid down.

Contractarianism via Kagan and Nietzsche:

If you’re not good with reading your way through new topics, you can hear acclaimed Yale moral philosopher Shelly Kagan provide a similar brief introduction to contractarian ethics in this video.

Shelly Kagan’s version of moral realism is, in many pragmatic ways, very similar to my version of moral anti-realism; aside from a few minor disagreements that we would have regarding terminology and definitions (especially concerning the nature of ‘rightness’), he and I would be largely in agreement on the essential pragmatic details of these matters.

This article’s contractarian content has some relationship with what I discussed last week concerning Nietzsche’s account of truth as fabrications with forgotten origins; it is no wonder to me that Nietzsche derived from that observation the need to reevaluate all contemporarily accepted values and morals.

Pragmatism, Contractarian Ethics, and Moral Anti-Realism:

With these basic ingredients in place, it quickly becomes very difficult to justify the propounded wrongness of many heretofore questionably managed behaviors. The arcane justifications of many forms of entrenched misogyny, such as the devaluation of female testimony and autonomy in some cultural schools of thought, would never hold up for long in this system. You would likely be left with only those rules that follow directly from basic moral strictures—strictures like the morals I derive from the work of James Rachels in that functional objectivity article linked above, or the simple foundational moral strictures Kagan mentions in the video (don’t harm; do help).

In fact, rather unconventionally, I would say that the contractarian moral anti-realist is in a better place than a non-contractarian (traditional) moral realist for saying that a given society has made moral progress. After all, as I have previously explained at length, absent a commonly available and infallibly reliable interface with truly objective moral knowledge, any given moral realist’s claim of absolute moral knowledge has no firmer basis than its negation by a moral nihilist—or by any other moral realist, for that matter.

But insofar as the contractarian system above is in place, moral progress has been made in a society between an earlier reference point and now when any and all randomly selected members of that community are in (for instance) a less harmed, more helped state than at that earlier reference point. (Any philosophically inclined readers may note that this account of moral progress has certain parallels with moral particularism.)

Thomas Nagel - contractarian ethics - Shelly Kagan - society, intersubjectivity, functional objectivityWhat I have previously written in agreement with Thomas Nagel’s work on meaning and significance is also pertinent to practical applications of morality: just because morality lacks ultimate, cosmic objectivity and importance, that does not mean morality lacks all objectivity and importance. In fact, assuming the latter lack from knowledge of the former lack seems like rather a baseless leap—depending on your account of objectivity, I suppose. (Noteworthy aside: Thomas Nagel was Shelly Kagan’s Ph.D. advisor at Princeton.) As a starting point for future thought, ask yourself this question: if there was only one conscious being in existence (one last human, perhaps), what would its morality be like and why?


I would not be surprised to hear it mistakenly said that my phenomenological objectivity of morality in fact means that I am a moral realist, much like ethical naturalist Shelly Kagan. I take this to be quibbling, and I feel that any truth that is contained in that statement is secondary to how misleading it would be for me to call myself a moral realist. After all, I do not hold that these morals ultimately and objectively exist. I merely hold that they seem to ultimately and objectively exist, as far as we can tell. And I hold that these perceptions are as inescapable and insurmountable as is the rationality on which these morals must be tested and sharpened.

I would like to close by saying that, despite my moral anti-realism and my staunch adherence to conclusions from phenomenology and pragmatism, when it comes to the more general ontological question of reality, I am a realist. Why, you may understandably wonder, if I am unwilling to call myself a moral realist because of my safe, pragmatic skepticism of moral reality, do I not similarly call myself a radical skeptic concerning all reality? This question will be answered in my next article, in which I will cover the one and only assumption I am always willing to make (and the only assumption you should ever be willing to stand by).

[Topics: Contractarian Ethics, Culture, Moral Anti-realism, Morality]
Common Phenomena:

A Brief Introduction to Moral Anti-realist Contractarian Ethics

was last modified: March 26th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski
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