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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tim Dean on realism and anti-realism about morality

I think this is very good. The only thing I'd like to add at the moment is that it does have practical effects. I agree with Tim that most of us do value things that we can summarise as well-being, and that this extends to the well-being of others. But even among this "most of us" there will be differences in what we actually value - including what we classify as well-being (is it pleasure and other such feelings, living a life in which our actual preferences are largely satisfied, having the capability of acting in certain ways if we want to, actually living in certain ways, or what?). As a result, it's not surprising that there are intractable disagreements even among "most of us" about the form that morality should take (or, as it's usually seen, about what is really morally right and wrong). Fortunately, most of those disagreements are sufficiently marginal to allow a lot of convergence. Without it, day-to-day life would become a nightmare ... except that day-to-day life in human societies would not be possible at all.

My approach to difficult moral debates is to try to work out what values are stake - values that people actually have, rather than "objective values" - and what convergence seems possible if we engage in rational reflection. This may not seem like enough, but it's all we have. What's more, I suspect (though not in a position to prove this) that the world would function a lot better if we all thought like this, concentrated largely on finding the relevant non-moral facts, and abandoned ideas of some courses of action being absolutely, unconditionally required. Again, this is not how morality is generally thought of, but morality, as it is usually thought of, is an illusion.


josef johann said...

This gets into a trees/forest kind of problem.

It must be emphasized that differences as to what well-being is among people who disagree are not differences that "trickle up" and throw their common premise into question.

Lots of people (I don't think you are one of them, Russell) take these kinds of variability as if they were proofs against objectivity in a fundamental sense, which I think is wrong.

Slightly related, an analogy I've recently become fond of: weather is in a sense context dependent- it changes depending on time or place and changes depending on conditions even at the same time and place.

So you could say "there is no one single description of weather that applies to all places" but this is no threat to the study of meteorology. It so happens that the objective character of meteorology is such that it can account for these kinds of variations.

We could ask "how does one decide" what does into the definition of weather in the first place? A debate worth having. But phenomenon continues to exist regardless of how we label it.

And similarly with human interests. People are born into a human condition that supplies them with interests that are of concern to them regardless of whether they fit to this or that philosophical definition of "morality."

Felix said...

The debate continues, and manages to remain interesting. :-)

Per your recommendation I am currently reading Niel Levy's 'Moral Relativism, A short introduction'.

Do you have any recommendations for further non-specialist reading in moral philosophy?


Russell Blackford said...

Well, Felix, have you read Peter Singer's Practical Ethics? You needd the 1990s second edition (but I doubt you'd find the earlier edition anyway).

I don't always agree with Singer, but even if you don't buy his preference utilitarianism a lot of his arguments would stand on the basis of any plausible secular ethics. The other thing is that his style provides a great model for us all. Whenever I teach university philosophy students, I point to Singer as someone with a style to aspire to.