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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).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Richard Carrier on moral ontology

Carrier's post is very long and I don't have time to analyse it in a whole lot of detail, but do go and have a look. As it happens, I agree with most of what he says, even though he claims that his is a moral realist position. In part, this shows how slippery terms like "moral realism" can be. His analysis does not show that two people who are fully rational but start with different desires will end up acting the same way in what is otherwise the same situation. What it is most rational to do for person A with initial desire set X will not be most rational to do for person B with initial desire set Y - or at least Carrier has not shown otherwise. There may be an objectively most rational thing for person A to do - i.e., the thing that will most conduce to her achieving her goals, obtaining her desires, and so on - and an objectively most rational thing for person B to do. But it is a leap of faith to assume that there is a single most rational thing for any person at all to do in that situation, irrespective of her initial desire set.

So the question is this: When someone says that phi-ing is morally obligatory in circumstances C, does she mean, or does her meaning at least include, the claim that phi-ing is the most rational thing for any person to do in those circumstances? If so, an error theory looms because across a vast range of circumstances no such claim is likely to be true.

But Carrier is right that morality takes a reasonably determinate form and is in that sense not just arbitrary. Yes, given the common human desires for a degree of social peace, etc., it's likely that all societies will develop codes of conduct for their members that have a fair bit in common, and it's worth exploring what it might be.


josef johann said...

When someone says that phi-ing is morally obligatory in circumstances C, does she mean, or does her meaning at least include, the claim that phi-ing is the most rational thing for any person to do in those circumstances?

That depends. Are the desires of the person a part of circumstance C, such that if they don't have the right desires, they aren't in circumstance C?

Edwardtbabinski said...


Darwin proposed that creatures like us who, by their nature, are riven by strong emotional conflicts, and who have also the intelligence to be aware of those conflicts, absolutely need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect:

“Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection… Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.”(Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

That, Darwin said, is why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible.

These systems are, therefore, something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt--though of course usually an unsuccessful one--to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most.

If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we--being creatures subject to gravitation--could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwin’s idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention.

Mary Midgley, “Wickedness: An Open Debate,” The Philosopher’s Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001

Jason Streitfeld said...

I was going to post a brief but pointed criticism of Carrier's argument here, but then realized I had a blog and that's what blogging is for. So I blogged.

Jason Streitfeld said...

By the way, Russell, why do you suppose we should frame our discussion of moral oughts in terms of rational choice? It seems to me that moral obligations are not based on appeals to rationality (even if we might appeal to rationality in order to justify them), and that appeals to rationality do not usually affect our moral positions.