Beyond ‘Real’ and ‘Relative’: What are moral propositions about?

Dr. J responds on moral realism. It appears that our dispute focuses on the role that ‘the world’ plays in verifying our moral propositions. Dr. J is  right to note that I’ve made an important and potentially dispositive claim in asserting that agent-neutrality requires that one’s account be “either verified by the world or not.”  However, I didn’t mean to agree with Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan that we can simply deduce moral facts from physical facts:

“A live human body and a deceased human body have the same number of particles. Structurally there’s no difference.”

Morally, there’s a big difference. Ignoring the absence of living processes, especially neural activity, live and dead bodies are the same. That’s a natural fact, but Dr. J holds that no moral fact follows from it, at least not in an obvious way. Unfortunately, Dr. J credits me with a a kind of reverse Dr. Manhattan-ism and so I’m going to try to defend myself from this reading:

But surely we must allow that moral values aren’t verifiable-or-not realities OF the world in the same way that objects or events are. That is, surely we must admit that VALUES ARE NOT THE SAME AS FACTS. AnPan’s definition wants to conflate descriptive and prescriptive claims, positive and normative claims. Or, at the very least, he wants to make prescriptive and normative claims derivations of descriptive or positive claims. That’s just wrong, in my view, and I don’t think that my resistance to that conflation necessarily means that I don’t think that moral values are “real.”

First, I think Dr. J goes too far in embracing ‘the real.’ Part of this is just the weird prejudices that have been built into our metaphysical language and the attempts to short-hand philosophical positions with labels. Dr. J can believe that values are ‘real’ (since she ‘really’ holds them) without holding that moral propositions are agent-neutral, and thus becoming a ‘moral realist.’ And yet, this seems to be the basis for Dr. J’s suggestion that I’ve confused her account of “weak relativism” with the “strong relativism” she actually adopts:

Let me say, in conclusion, that I think AnPan’s essay effectively took my “strong relativism” to be the same as what I described as “lazy relativism,”namely, a variant of subjectivism. I don’t think that moral values are justified solely by the subjective assertion of them. And I don’t think that Aristotle and John Brown were both right about slavery, but I just do not know how one locates the rightness or wrongness of their positions out there in the “real” world.

It is possible that I have misread her, but I think I’m trying to locate a tension in what she’s written, as an act of friendly close reading. (Of course, this friendly reading is inevitably a two way street, so it may be that there’s something I need to review through her eyes.) As a definitional matter, it seems that one cannot be a moral realist in the sense of agent-neutrality without forgoing relativism, since even in Dr. J’s ‘Strong Relativism,’ moral propositions are perspectival or agent-variant. I think that Dr. J is still committed to the claim that the source of verification for a moral proposition lies somewhere within the individual or group who makes the claim, which she relates to human freedom:

If I deny that there are “absolute” moral values, or that we have some revealed or reasonable access to them, then I am now the ONLY one responsible for giving an account of why I believe x instead of y. It means, among other things, that I understand the activity of moral evaluation to be the activity of free beings, that is, beings who (unlike objects) are not primarily governed by necessity… therefore are not obligated by necessity to hold whatever values they hold… therefore must take responsibility for their free choice to take up certain values and not others.

This isn’t a view that allows for an overlapping consensus through public reason giving. Values are contingent rather than necessary choices, on this view, and a complete (rather than reasonable) pluralism will emerge indexed to the amount of free choice that specific human beings actually enact. (Not everyone will freely choose their values, or else they’ll do it in bad faith, denying the freedom that they have exercised and disavowing the choice.) I’ve been trying to suggest that relativism, no matter how sophisticated, runs into the same set of problems when trying to account for errors or willful unreasonableness. The key is the status of the ‘justificatory account’ which Dr. J claims that only the actor can supply. In that sense, it seems to be something absolutely personal, own-most, or appropriated by the speaker, even while it is subjected to the response of our interlocutors. Yet insofar as the agent claims full editorial control over her justifactory account, she need not revise it unless she is satisfied. Dr. J mentions this issue in her original post on Strong Relativism:

If you claim that your moral values are authorized by the proper exercise of Reason or utilitarian calculation, and I can reasonably account for my arrival at opposite values, then you either have to account for your understanding of what Reason dictates or you have to demonstrate to me (in terms that I can agree to) how I am not being reasonable.

It’s this ‘in terms that I can agree to’ that troubles me. Looking back to John Brown and Aristotle, Dr. J holds that they can’t both be right about slavery, while they owe each other mutually recognizable reasons to resolve their dispute. I’m not sure how that works: John Brown’s hatred of slavery was rooted in a religious tradition that would have made no sense to Aristotle, while Aristotle’s defense of natural slavery is rooted in a theory of individuation and citizenship that Brown would not have recognized. Neither of them could offer ‘terms [the other] can agree to.’ One possibility is that Dr. J holds that Aristotle doesn’t owe John Brown palatable reasons or vice versa, but rather the enslaver owes them to the slave who he is coercing. This makes a lot of sense to me: the limit of free choice of values is when my values impinge on your freedom. But at that moment when I threaten to coerce you, it seems that my values are necessitated by something outside of myself, specifically: your values! If we generalize this, we’re left with an agent-neutral (but not mind-independent!) source of values and prescriptions. I would call that moral realism. Perhaps Dr. J’s strong relativism is actually compatible with agent-neutral moral realism?

One can say that moral propositions have truth conditions without saying that those truth conditions entail something specific about the world. I’ve obviously moved too quickly from the claim that our moral propositions must have some source of verification to the claim that I know what that source is, and that it’s ‘the world.’ (Whatever that means: I agree with Dr. J that the ‘world’ in question is the human world, or what I’d call the phenomenological world.) I tried to defend myself from this move by hiding behind fallibilism, in effect asserting that I know something about morality (that it is agent-neutral) without knowing much more about it (like which acts, specifically, are permissible and which prohibited.) Perhaps this position is untenable: perhaps my fallibilism is only an absolutism-to-be. The fact that I keep coming back to fairly ‘absolutist’ examples, like murder, torture, and slavery, justifies that concern.

Here’s why I’m reticent to spell out a specific theory of moral verification. Though I do not intend to conflate normative and positive claims about the world, it is still an open question whether they might be ‘derivations’ in the way Dr. J described: I think values might be dependent upon, and derived from, facts in some way that I cannot yet adequately specify. Of course, some values are independent of some facts, and so it’s important to find the right facts from which to start deriving values. If Dr. J and I are to make any progress beyond the metaphysics of morality, then I think we’ll need to move to the question of what, specifically, justifies an account of permissibility and obligation.

One possibility is that the ultimate non-agential limit of values and moral propositions is intersubjective. I originally thought I might be able to persuade Dr. J of this, though now I’m not sure: intersubjective verification requires only that our ‘moral games’ never conflict, such that, for instance, you’re never playing cops and robbers while I’m playing cowboys and indians, or better, that you’re never playing ‘imperial dominator and colonized native’ while I’m playing ‘aboriginal host and violently pushy guest.’

As an example, consider the practical syllogism: in choosing between overarching principles like “Murder is wrong,” and “Killing in self-defense is permissible,” we depend on our evaluation of the facts. “Am in danger? Am I using minimal force to defend myself?” There’s both a fact of the matter about whether a particular act was needed in self-defense or an overreaction and, in addition, a fact of the matter about the claim ‘killing is wrong except in certain circumstances such as self-defense.’ I don’t think we can analyze this in a relativist way: compare that claim to the absolute pacifist’s proposition ‘killing is wrong, even in cases of self-defense.’ The pacifist and the non-pacifist cannot both be correct without contradiction. Only the subjectivist claims that it can be true, for the absolute pacifist, that the non-pacifist’s self-defense is prohibited, while being true, for the non-pacifist, that self-defense is permitted.

For clarity: Intersubjective Moral Non-Contradiction holds that A’s claim about what is right for B cannot be co-veridical with C’s contradictory claim about what is right for B.

If values reference an individual’s choice or preferences, then the principle of intersubjective moral non-contradiction would be false. I take it that IMNC is entailed by the prescriptive nature of moral propositions, their aspiration to ‘ought’-ness, so most of the arguments among legal positivists and natural law theorists would apply here, because the moral system would be deeply linked to the political and legal system, as in Kant’s ‘moral law’ which explicitly confutes the two.

One reason I think that Dr. J will ultimate reject intersubjective moral non-contradiction is her claims that,

at the end of the day, all value-assgnments exist in a context, which means they can be decontextualized and recontextualized and are thus essentially relative to the contexts in which they belong. The context is what “justifies” or “verifies” the values, not the real world.

On that view, part of what an agent brings to the moral table is her own context. As sympathetic as I am to this way of speaking with regard to particular exegetical or interpretive strategies, I don’t think the same contextual problem can hold for moral and ethical questions. Put a different way, I suspect that all of the contexts in which they are embedded are ultimately nested within a ‘full context,’ a global order of contexts. That context is the thing I keep calling the world. As a fallibilist, I’m okay with saying I can’t see how all those contexts fit together, but the fact that they all do is a judgment I’ve derived from a physical fact, that we must share the planet together. Moral reason-giving, then, would be tied to the ‘horizon-fusing’ project Gadamer popularized, because it’s possible to be more or less short-sighed in evaluating these interconnections.

So a second possibility is that there are worldly constraints in the finite resources available on the planet that enforce game-theoretic strategies related to compromise and mutual coercion. In a subsistence society, for instance, limited food availability forces us to devote our resources to cooperation rather than competition. Limited fossil fuels might make certain kinds of consumption patterns immoral just because one person is choosing between an exotic vacation and leaving oil for our grandchildren. Contra Robert Nozick, there’s a Lockean proviso problem here. (Enclosers who appropriate the land through labor must leave “enough and good enough” for others.) The fact of finite resources forces us to unify our values into a sustainable patchwork rather than try to satisfy all preferences or values.

This last perhaps suggests one of my biggest concerns with relativism: the suggestion that pluralism does not demand, ultimately, a fairly tight overlapping consensus on matters of public concern. Dr. J uses the example of a t-shirt purchase, which reminded me of Peter Singer’s claims about our obligation to the global poor: if the $30 I could spend on a vintage t-shirt could equally well be spent on saving one of the 25,000 children who will die today from an easily treated disease that will kill them because of how desperately poor they are, then my preferences may not be so contingent. Nor can it be up to me to choose the context in which to view the question. When Dr. J moved from a discussion of  ‘moral propositions’ to ‘values’, she may have been offering an important insight, because value theory incorporates both aesthetic and exchange values in addition to ethical values. I’m generally fairly relativist about aesthetic values, but they may not be so irrelevant to questions like murder, slavery, and torture if my aesthetic values are only satisfiable in a global economic order that feeds off those practices.

This suggests, to me, that the ultimate verification for my values cannot simply be my own free choice, because my choices implicate others. That co-implication is precisely why I started this little disagreement with my friend Dr. J.





3 responses to “Beyond ‘Real’ and ‘Relative’: What are moral propositions about?”

  1. […] nor false. I’ve discussed my objections to non-cognitivism in ethics under the heading of anti-realism and relativism before: basically, I reject the claim that ethical propositions must track some […]

  2. […] Moral Realism: The belief I hold that is most likely to be wrong is a belief in moral judgments track something objective or at least non-relative. After all, it’s difficult to engage in normative inquiry without believing that our researches track something. Just as philosophers of religion tend to believe in God and astrologers tend to believe in the predictive power of the stars, ethical and political philosophers tend to believe in their thing, too. If we’re wrong on this (as thousands of relativist undergraduates have confided in me) then we’re unlikely to find lasting success. And there is certainly some reason to believe that we haven’t seen much in the way of progress in normative inquiry, despite recent trends like the line that runs through John Rawls, Derek Parfit, Philip Pettit, and Elizabeth Anderson. […]

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