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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).

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

On moral evaluations

I have a piece over at the ABC religion and ethics portal, in which I discuss the process of evaluating things - hammers, cars, novels, tennis players, friends, fellow citizens, or people to have around - as a context for talking about moral evaluations.

As I've argued on this blog in the past, there's nothing spooky about evaluating things as "good" and "bad", although the concept is quite tricky once examined, and it may be that even ordinary judgments of good and bad have a (largely innocuous) fictional element: we work on the assumption that the people we're talking to have shared requirements of things, when even with the simplest things our requirements are not totally shared.

From a very strict point of view, there is no "we". From a practical point of view, however, our requirements as individuals are often similar enough that there's nothing much wrong with saying, "My Honda is a good car" or even "Abigail is a good person." For all intents and purposes, such statements, spoken in a context, can be simply true.

In very many actual contexts "we" can say without being too misleading that something is a good example of its kind - i.e. it has the characteristics that are needed for it to meet "our" requirements for things of that kind.

Furthermore, our requirements won't be arbitrary - there's nothing arbitrary about what we usually want from hammers or cars or friends or even fellow citizens. We can have rich and quite rational conversations about this - and such conversations produce convergence and agreement in many, many cases.

With just that bit of slippage, creatures like us have a wealth of reasons to want hammers to be sturdy, cars to be reliable and fuel-efficient, friends to be loyal, and fellow citizens to be industrious and law-abiding (at least with respect to most laws, and we have a wealth of reasons for identifying some laws as more important for this purpose as others). There isn't even anything especially mysterious about our judgments of people's characters or of their choices in respect of actions that could affect others. Non-arbitrary, rationally defensible evaluations can be made of the kinds of things that we think of as falling in the "moral" domain.

As long as morality doesn't purport to be more than this, we can demystify it without debunking it.

What this won't get us, however, is a strictly objective morality. Whatever judgments we make do not compel all comers, regardless of their desire-sets, to act one way or another on pain of making a mistake about the world or something of the sort. Thus, when we think that moral judgments are special in this way - different from all other evaluations in being strictly objective - we make an error. To whatever extent that error is built into some of our moral language, that part of our moral language is systematically false (I've come to think that this won't be all or nothing, and I don't believe that John Mackie thought it was, either).

I don't go into the latter ideas in the ABC article. I.e., it doesn't explicitly address moral error theory. It does, however, show how evaluations in what we think of as the moral domain (the realm of character and choices) can operate much like our other evaluations - neither strictly objective nor merely arbitrary. The problem is that, very often, we really don't think that's good enough. We (or many of us, much of the time) want moral judgments to have more metaphysical grunt, and we don't want to be stuck with the kind of ambiguity and indeterminacy that pervades our evaluations of other things. Or so it seems to me whenever I discuss this with people out there in the forreal world.


Russell Blackford said...

My policy is not to read the comments on a piece like this, published on mass media sites ... because it can quickly take over your life. And of course, the piece is deliberately provocative and likely to stir up some backlash.

Arguably it opens the Overton Window a little on what can be said in the public square about moral theory.

So I won't be commenting there. Do feel free to do so if it looks like I need some defence ... and if you care to defend me. :)

It's another story here, where the traffic is much more manageable.

Brian said...

"Whatever judgments we make do not compel all comers, regardless of their desire-sets, to act one way or another on pain of making a mistake about the world or something of the sort."

This is a confusing sentence because the only act that could entail making a mistake about something is an act of thought. Also, the idea that our judgment is a special kind of fact establishing moral objectivism doesn't fit with the claim of moral objectivism that it takes into account all facts.

"Whatever judgments we make do not compel all comers, regardless of their desire-sets, to think one thing or another on pain of making a mistake about the rest of the world, excluding us," is true, but doesn't indicate the breadth of non-thought actions consistent with possible desire sets and true beliefs identical to (or at least containing all of) ours, which I think is what you are going for.

"Whatever is true does not compel all comers, regardless of their desire-sets, to do one thing or another on pain of making a mistake about the rest of the world," is ambiguous and one interpretation of it invokes a straw man of moral objectivism - even the Taliban believe that a single moral rule set has different directives for different people and at different times (only some are ordered to wear a sack, for example).

"Whatever is true does not compel any comer, regardless of its desire-set, to do any one particular non-thought thing or another on pain of indicating it made a mistake about the world," is true, but there are other degrees of compulsion, such as:

"Whatever is true does not compel any comer, regardless of its desire-set, to do any one particular non-thought thing or another on pain of sacrificing fulfillment of its desire-set," is false.

"Whatever is true severely limits the acts individual entities can take to maximally fulfill their desire sets, such that different entities with the same (even perfect) knowledge but different desire sets probably would need to take different actions in the same situation to fulfill them."

I think an omniscient and totally selfless mother or genie or robot nanny who only cared for the desires of her two children would be able to act coherently and advise them despite not being able to optimize for fulfilling the desires of either, just as I navigate among my contraindicating (not conflicting) desires. Why wouldn't a genie be able to do the same for any number of beings? How could I better account for an aggregation of genie advice than by calling adhering to it adhering to objective morality?

David M said...

You don't really need defending, it seems. One person has found offence with the hammer analogy, which is amusing. I do really like the distinction you make between the arbitrary and the rational.

"Those evaluations can be perfectly rational, they are usually not just arbitrary, and there will often be much that can be said about why we, quite rationally and reasonably, want people to show certain character traits, and not others, and to make certain kinds of choices."

Jeremiah said...

Wonderful article over there Russell. Only thing I would say is that I wonder if you overestimated the level of fear that people have of subjective morality, or slippage, as you put it in the article. Maybe I am just not around the right people but I think most people intuitively understand that most moral questions involve a considerable gray area, the slippage. That lying on your tax return is wrong, but lying about the quality of your grandmother's new hairstyle might be harmless, and that lying about the location of hiding Jews during the holocaust would be downright virtuous.

I think that people only retreat to the position of requiring some sort of hard objectivism when they are challenged on some belief that they happen to be passionate about. The search for objectivity is then just a desire to be able to justify this passion. This kind of goes back to the topic a bit ago where the lady (Jean?) suggested that talking meta-ethics is too much for the general public to handle. I think that having more such discussions is the best cure for this, it acclimates people to the topic. People learn through repetition and constant exposure to ideas. The more people get exposed to the mindset you put forth in your article the more comfortable I think people would be with it.

Dave Ricks said...

Russell, nice essay! I agree with Jeremiah's 1st paragraph, that a significant percentage of people will find what you wrote agrees with their personal experience. And for Jeremiah's 2nd paragraph (re Jean Kazez), you directed your readers to notice what they're already doing, so there is no slippery slope, or void to fill. We can handle the truth, because we're already doing it.

Even the part where you go on to say we do not need to ask gods how we should do these things (how to choose our cars, and our friends), even the socially liberal agnostics I know (the "Ultimate 774s") can agree with your statement -- we do not need to ask gods how we should do these things. I mean, your essay does not hinge on the existence of a god -- existence being the most boring property of a god anyway.

I'll add a note on your technique: When RDnet posted your 2nd rumination on how you know what you know (coming in on the middle of your thinking out loud) and the "philistines" made a "hash" of it, they made analogies to judging art being subjective and arbitrary (in their view). But here your example of judging cars was more effective -- being subjective yet rational. To go meta, you know when take it out, and when to take it in.

You made all this look easy, which reminds me, I saw Clark Terry play fl├╝gelhorn on Late Night with David Letterman, and C.T. played his horn upside down (with his right hand fingering his three valves with his knuckles instead of the pads of his fingers), and a caption flashed across the bottom of the TV screen: "HE IS PLAYING HIS HORN UPSIDE DOWN" in case anyone would mistake making this look easy with ordinary. Or as the race car driver Danica Patrick said, "It takes a lot of work to get to easy." Either way, nice essay. Sorry if I missed what part was provocative.

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks, Dave. I guess the provocative part was the comparison of high-falutin' things like moral choices to everyday things like buying a hammer or a car. This could seem "reductive", even offensively so, to someone not willing to be patient with the argument.

When I gave a paper on this last year to what should have been a sympathetic audience, it seemed to produce a lot of consternation - the worst of it from a Christian in the audience, but not just from her. And I've had other people express great concern that my account of what moral choices can be like - i.e. much like other evaluations - is still (shock! horror!) "relativist".

These experiences confirm to me that moral error theorists are onto something. A lot of people Out There really do, it appears to me, want a strictly objective and determinate morality, and they think that moral judgments are somehow supposed to be like this. If that's what moral judgments actually convey - i.e. they convey claims about objective to-be-doneness or not-to-be-doneness, or something of the kind - they are false (even though they may be kinda, sorta true in the sense that something true may be in the vicinity).

It's a bit of a conundrum for me, actually. If I say, "You can think of morality like this", I'll get people who are quite upset about it and think I'm being reductive, relativist and Zeus knows what else. If I then say that morality is not objective by the high standards that those people seem to want, I'll be accused by other people of having too strong a notion of objectivity.

But this topic sure does get people thinking and talking. I think the issue of what kind of authority morality has, or how objective it can be, is kind of an uncomfortable one for a lot of people. I think it's important and fascinating, so I'll go on exploring it, but it brings out some tensions.