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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).

Saturday, September 03, 2011

That car-goodness example again - more on Joel Marks

I said that I was going to defend Joel Marks - at least on the essentials. Here goes. I'll deal separately (in a later post or posts) with the criticisms made by Jerry Coyne and Jean Kazez. For now, I just want to say why I think Marks has it basically right. (I see that he's writing a book on the subject - I'll be very interested to read it, especially as one of my own ambitions in the medium term is to write a book on the same issues.)

In sketching why I think that Marks is essentially right, I'm going to return to my favourite example, what it means to say, "This [pointing to my 2009 Honda Civic, perhaps] is a good car." The best idea I can come up with - assisted by philosophers before me - of what this means is, "This car possesses the set of properties that we want in a car." It's easy enough to see how the "goodness" of a car, if that is what car-goodness is about, can, in the right circumstances, motivate me to buy a certain car, to want to drive in or ride a certain car, and so on. The property of goodness already has my wants built into it.

But there are some important points to note about this. First, if my translation of "This is a good car" is correct, then I am not breaching Hume's law by going from "is" to "ought" without invoking a desire along the way. Hume didn't deny that you could do that. He thought that you can't go from "objective", desire-free is's to oughts. A property such as goodness, which has our wants or desires built into it, certainly can ground an "ought", and Hume knew this.

Second, if my translation is correct, car-goodness is not a property that is "out there", independent of our desires. Yes, the car may have the properties that we want in a car. But what those properties actually are will depend on us, and, more specifically, on what we do actually want in a car. If we change our minds about what we actually want in a car, then the car may cease to possess the summing-up property of car-goodness, even if there's a sense in which car itself hasn't changed (it is just as comfortable as it always was, has the same performance characteristics, the same fuel consumption, the same level of reliability, and the same underlying physical characteristics such as shape, mass, and so on). Whether or not the car possesses car-goodness - the property of having the properties that we want in a car - will depend on, among other things, our desires.

Third, strictly speaking there is probably no "we" here. There might be - it is possible that everyone involved in the conversation wants just the same thing in a car. In a very small group of like-minded car enthusiasts, that might be very close to being the case. But in practice, this "we" is likely to be a fiction. There may be a lot of agreement about what the people speaking and listening want, but it will not be total agreement, and the people who want some different combination of properties from the majority are not just wrong (in the way that someone can be just wrong about, say, the car's mass).

Despite these points, and doubtless other related ones, we find it very convenient to talk about whether or not a car is a "good" one. And yet, we all know, if we think about it, that this is pretty much a fiction, partly because "we" are a fiction - there just is no "we" who all have exactly the same wants in a car. Okay, in some social situations we might all want exactly the same thing in a car, but that is unlikely in practice even in a small group of people. On the internet, for example, it is vanishingly unlikely.

We all know these sorts of things, at least if we think about them, but it remains convenient to talk about a car being, or not being a "good" one. One reason for that is, despite everything I've said above, there is still a lot of agreement about what we want in a car (at least that is going to be so in many social contexts), so much so that is easiest to act on the basis that we really do agree on what is important and can sum it up reasonably unproblematically.

Of course, as is shown by real-world arguments between spouses or lovers about what car to purchase, there may be limits to the tacit consensus. But usually at least a rough consensus can be presumed. And there are reasons for this - given the kinds of organisms we are, given the way our societies are structured, and so on, it's not surprising that we want comfort and find similar things comfortable, that we want fuel economy, reliability and so on. It's more likely that we'll disagree about how to weight these various properties than that we'll disagree about them totally.

In the end, our judgments about the "goodness" of a car are not just arbitrary - not just anything is going to count as goodness in a car - but nor is car-goodness a property that is "out there" independent of our desires.

When I choose a car, do I really need to measure its car-goodness? Not really. All this talk about "goodness" is socially convenient, but in the end I can simply choose the car that has the properties that I want in a car (as well as being affordable and so on, if we don't count those as properties of the car). I can go through life not thinking in terms of car-goodness, as long as I am clear on what I want in a car (including how much weight I place on such things as reliability, comfort, fuel economy, various aspects of performance, and so on). I can weigh all this up without ever even needing to use the word "goodness", much as the word may provide a convenient way of speaking in social situations.

I don't see the need to abolish the word "good" when speaking of cars, but nor, strictly speaking, do I need to use it when considering what car to buy. It's all good (as it were!). But if I thought that my own judgments of goodness were rationally binding on everyone else - that "goodness" is like mass, a property that is independent of our desires, and about which someone can be just factually wrong - then I'd be making a mistake.

When it comes to moral language, such as the language of moral forbiddenness, moral permittedness, etc., this may likewise be socially convenient, but there seems to be a much greater tendency for people to think that these are properties which are "out there", independent of our desires, that people can be just wrong in a way that they can be about a car's mass, that judgments of these things are binding on others with different desires (values, hopes, fears, etc.), on pain of being just mistaken. All of this, I suggest, is an illusion.

Not only that, Joel Marks is quite correct that I can go through life without needing the language of moral forbiddenness, etc., when making judgments about how I will live my life, what laws I will support and so on. I can think more directly about what courses of action or laws, etc., have the properties that I want in such things (such as the property of being likely to achieve my own ambitions, the property of conducing to the happiness of my loved ones, the property of not adding to the world's suffering, and so on). I can weigh all this up quite directly without having to invoke further properties of moral forbiddenness, and so on, which sum over these other properties.

Marks is also correct that it may, in many cases, be more effective to get people to change their minds about some course of action if we discuss the objective properties of the course of action (such as its propensity to cause or ameliorate suffering) than if we use language such as "morally required" or "morally forbidden". Perhaps there are also cases where the latter language is just too convenient to forgo, or where it is just too complicated and inconvenient trying to speak in some other way. That might be so, for example, when we are speaking to young children. But if we are aware of the issue, we may be better placed to make rational decisions for ourselves and to persuade others to make what we regard as "good" decisions.

There's a lot more to say, of course. It's no wonder that Marks wants to write a whole book on the subject - and that I do, too. But I do think that Marks is essentially correct, and I agree with the point that Jean Kazez (I think it was) made on the earlier thread that it's no criticism of Marks that he goes on making much the same choices as he used to. Of course he does - just as I would go on choosing the same cars whether or not I naively believed that there was an objective property of car-goodness "out there", independent of my desires. When he does so, however, he may see more clearly what he is actually doing, and this may help him make better (!) decisions and be more persuasive when he tries to influence the decisions of others.

We'll doubtless get to some criticisms in the comments, and in later posts, but I think that Marks is basically on the mark.


Charles Sullivan said...

I guess the big question is: How do we determine what desires are 'good'?

How do we explain that people once thought slavery (name your horrible practice from the past) was good?

What if most of us converge on that idea (that slavery is good, etc)? Is it then good? Or 'good'?

Russell Blackford said...

I think that we could pretty quickly converge on a judgment that a desire to have slaves is not "good" ... if "we" just consists of the two of us. And I don't think it causes any great problems using the word.

But if we included an actual slaveholder in the conversation, things might get more interesting. That's not to deny that the new "we" (now three people) might still get to convergence, but it's not going to be straightforward.

Jason Streitfeld said...

What most bothers me about Marks' piece is that he claims that he no longer offers premises in moral arguments or tries to justify anything. That seems highly unlikely. Who can go through life without trying to justify things? Whether or not we employ one or another particular language to do it, justification is an integral part of what it means to be a person. So I think there's something incomplete about the resolution to Marks' story.

Russell Blackford said...

Possibly. It would be interesting to hang around with him for awhile (I may well meet him in March when I'll be speaking at Yale on a different topic). Presumably he does justify certain actions or policies by appealing to values that he thinks he shares with his interlocutors.

But I must say that I have the experience he describes, at least to a large extent. I.e., I make very little use of distinctively moral language. Even when I do use it with others - including here on this blog - I'm very conscious that it's more convenience/shorthand than anything else. However, yes, I find it difficult to avoid this language entirely, and I actually use it quite a bit in some of my writing (though I can see that maybe changing as time goes on).

I do wince at a lot of moralistic language when it seems to have come unmoored from things that I actually care about. And in my own decision-making, I don't really use moral language to myself; I'm more directly concerned with working out what ways of acting, including what policies I should support, will tend to achieve what I want, to make the world more as I desire it to be.

(I hope it's not necessary to add that what I want is not necessarily that my own narrowly-defined self-interest prevail. In many cases, it might be some good outcome for someone else whom I care about. At the level of policy, it may be that suffering of some widespread kind be avoided or ameliorated.)

Charles Sullivan said...

I'm still tempted to say that any act that is an act of causing unnecessary suffering is morally wrong (bad, ought not be done).

Of course it has to do with our nature (as being who are capable of suffering).

But I'm not sure it's just a matter of preferences. If it is, then these are preferences that we can't help but have.

And there's no reason why we should even bother to argue that the sociopath is not irrational. Without the requisite nature (desires?), he's not us; he's more like a bear, wolf, etc.

And we can't hold a bear morally responsible, obviously. We just shoot it when it threatens us.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, I agree that genuine psychopaths are simply outside our moral community. They can still suffer, and that may restrict how badly we treat them, but we can't demonstrate to them that they are wrong. The most we can say is that they may lack data, e.g. data about what some kinds of psychological suffering are like.

But if somebody is so consituted to have all the data and just not care about suffering, in the way that you and do, it's hard to see how they are just wrong about anything.

Maybe no real psychopaths are like that, but it seems possible to imagine a rational organism that totally understands how fear, suffering and so on feel ... but doesn't care if others experience it.

I think there's a sense in which none of us can help having our preferences - i.e. I don't believe in libertarian free will, so I think that what preferences we end up with is not something that we can control all the way down.

On the other hand, I do think we can control our preferences to some extent - some of the way down. We have some ability to train ourselves. But when we decide to do so, it is always going to be on the basis of some other preference. E.g., I may prefer that I didn't like chocolate so much, so I may, with a fair bit of effort, be able to train myself to like it less. But even the decision to do that will be based on a preference about my preferences, and this particular one may be based on a preference for health, slimness, or whatever. We never step out of our preferences all at once.

That's a peripheral point, though, more relevant, I suppose to a debate on free will.

I think the question is not so much as to whether there are preferences that we can't help having as individuals as whether there are universal preferences shared by all human beings. Unfortunately, I doubt that there are in a strict sense. But sure, most of us are sypathetically responsive to other human beings and, to a lesser extent, to other sentient creatures. That gives us a basis to reach a lot of consensus about a lot of things. It enables us to establish societies, and societies do need people to commit themselves to certain restraints.

But none of this is going to be binding in reason on a utility monster that doesn't care about human beings. Nor does our responsiveness to our fellow human beings and other suffering creatures give us a reason to sacrifice ourselves to the vastly greater pleasures of utility monsters, if there are any.

Here, I think Sam Harris - who inevitably comes up in these discussions - is just wrong. If utility monsters existed, we would be quite rational to regard them as evil (or possibly "evil") and band together against them. It would in no way be binding on us that we should do anything else. There would be no binding reason to sacrifice ourselves to them (Sam has a long note on this in the back of The Moral Landscape, and I think it's a point where he is driven by the logic of utilitarianism to a conclusion that I think he should reject).

Svlad Cjelli said...

I want to note that if what Mr. X desires is Q, but Mr. X is ultimately diminishing Q, then Mr. X is still committing a mistake.

Richard Wein said...

Ah, this old subject again. ;-)

I don't think Marks makes much attempt to argue for amoralism in his article. He seems to be more in the business of explaining how he can reasonably make much the same decisions as an amoralist that he did when he was a moralist. I accept that's probably true in his case. But it needn't necessarily have been true. As a moralist he may have done things for which his main motivation was a determination to do what was morally right. Having concluded now that there's no moral right, he would then lack the motivation to do those things.

You might argue that moral beliefs play only a small part in people's motivation. Or that moral beliefs are intermediate causes and not ultimate causes, in the sense that people tend to adopt moral beliefs which correspond to values they already held for other reasons, so it's those other reasons which are the real causes of their behaviour. And those reasons won't change when they give up moral beliefs. I think there's some truth in that, and it may be overwhelmingly the case for Marks himself. But I think this is far from universally true, and that more generally moral beliefs play a significant part in affecting the way people behave. Since I think the effect of moral beliefs is probably on balance positive, I'm less sanguine than Marks about the consequences of doing away with such beliefs. In other words I tend to think (like Richard Joyce) that moral beliefs are probably a good thing, even though they're untrue.

Richard Wein said...

I have some problems with what you say here about car-goodness, Russell. I'm not sure it's a good idea to draw conclusions about moral goodness starting from car-goodness, because I think the moral case is simpler. That's because (to put it crudely) assertions of car-goodness are a mix of fact and value, while the thinnest moral claims are entirely (or almost entirely) a matter of value.

If I've understood you correctly, you think that "This is a good car" is synonymous with "This car possesses the set of properties that we want in a car." You then seem to be suggesting that car-goodness is analogous in this sense to moral goodness. (If not, how was the point about car-goodness relevant?) It would seem to follow, then, that "This is a morally good action" is synonymous with "This action possesses the set of properties that we want in an action." That would mean that, if everyone wanted the same properties from an action, there would be a fact as to whether a given action had those properties, and therefore it could be a fact that the action was morally good. As a moral error theorist I reject that possibility. I say it is logically impossible for anything to be morally good, regardless of how much people's desires may be the same.

So what do I think is wrong with your argument (or the argument I'm attributing to you)? First, I think that "This car possesses the set of properties that we want in a car" is only _part_ of the meaning of "This is a good car". The utterance is also expressing approval of the car. This is the value part of the meaning. And it's the value part that is analogous to the meaning of moral goodness, not the factual part. Another difference (and I think you touch on this) is that people are more likely to recognise that car-goodness is to some degree a "subjective" matter, a matter of personal preference. On the other hand most people will probably insist that some things are morally "just wrong", and that personal preference doesn't come into it. (It's this sense of unconditional wrongness that rules out subjectivist and relativist interpretations of moral goodness.)

I should add that the ratio of value to fact in assertions of non-moral goodness can vary enormously, as can the degree to which people recognise that such an assertion is "subjective". There is also some variability from "thin" to "thick" moral assertions.

Anonymous said...

Hi Russell,
I'm struggling to see how this view departs, in any substantive way, from Emotivism a la Stevenson, for instance. Would you explain what you see as the differences?

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, I think part of the point of Marks's writing in a confessional mode was to claim that a recovering ex-moralist doesn't have to be discombobulated, any more than an ex-believer has to be suffering an existential crisis. He tells us--I thought this, then I thought, and now I feel fine. I agree with him about the loss of faith. Without god, I really feel like nothing's different, nothing's missing. But without objective morality, I do think something's missing.

And to see that, we just can't focus exclusively on good cars vs bad cars. Sure, we can replace "that's a good car" with "that car has the features we want in a car" without anything being lost. It's a problem to do that when the "good" in question is moral good.

Marks's example--he's always thought factory farming was bad and wrong. Now he's going to have to live with just saying he dislikes it, and trying to get other people to share his dislike. The fact is, though, some people just don't dislike it. If likes and dislikes are in question, the conversation has to be like one about marmite. There's no point in going on and on, the likers trying to convince the dislikes, and vice versa. Some people just like marmite and others don't.

The conversation animal rights people *want* to have is about why factory farming deserves to be disliked. There are things about it such that dislike is the only appropriate reaction. You lose that concept, and I think you've really lost something.

I switched to Anne Frank in my example because people are even more divided about her than about factory farming. I don't anybody who positively likes factory farming. At most, they feel neutral about it. But in the Anne Frank case, there are people who positively like what she went through, and then people who vehemently dislike it. These can be people equally knowledgeable about all of the facts. It's pretty much just grotesque, I think, to suppose a debate between the two camps is really like a debate about marmite--two reactions, neither more appropriate to reality than the other.

This is not an argument why moral realism is correct (to make that argument would take addressing all sorts of complex issues). It's just an argument that you can go on happily without God, but it's crisis-worthy to have to do without objective morality.

Richard Wein said...

Jean Kazez wrote: "There are things about it such that dislike is the only appropriate reaction. You lose that concept, and I think you've really lost something."

The meaning of "appropriate" is unclear here. If it's being used as a substitute for a moral term (as it seems to be) then this is another moral claim. As a moral error theorist I deny that anything is appropriate in this sense, so I say that nothing has been lost epistemically if we do away with that claim. If "appropriate" is being used in a non-moral sense then I have no objection to it. (And possibly there are elements of both moral and non-moral meaning here, which confounds the issue. I think it's best to stick to terms that are clearly moral or clearly non-moral, to avoid such ambiguity.)

I say "epistemically" because I accept that moral language is _practically_ useful. It's just not epistemically useful, i.e. it doesn't enable us to say anything true. It's practically useful because moral beliefs and claims can influence behaviour.

So I would agree that something would be lost from a practical point of view if we gave up moral language. But I suspect you meant to claim something more than that.

Jean Kazez said...

Richard, Marks's columns is very personal and confessional. It's about his journey from being a moral realist who advocates for animals, to being a non-realist, but still wanting to advocate for animals. He says--it's OK, nothing's lost. I'm addressing that claim of his. I think it's not quite OK, and something really is lost.

That's of course not at all a positive case for moral realism. I am just responding to Marks, focusing on exactly the issue of loss/no loss that he brings up.

As for whether "appropriate to" must be moral. Not necessarily. A moral realist thinks seeing wrongness in Anne Frank's murder is appropriate, in the way that seeing oddness in the number 5 is appropriate, and seeing sentience in a baby is appropriate, and seeing beauty in Van Gogh is appropriate. Moral properties are there to be noticed by perceivers, on that view.

Now, whether that makes sense or not is a huge question. But I do think there's at a loss if you stop thinking this way about moral perception.

Adrian said...

I think I'm missing a lot of context but...

Cars are certainly a good (?) example of how individuals can vary when we start looking for refinements. But there's something important to note about this example: basically all new cars on the market will meet most of our needs. They are all good. What we're really talking about is which ones are better and which we prefer.

In the world of moral systems and moral actions, there are many which are not good, are not even adequate. There are some which are dangerous and harmful to those that follow and to those around them.

If we were to expand the car example and look at people who said they preferred cars which had no functioning engines or were rusted hulks with unstable explosives inside, what then? I find it hard to believe that we say that it takes different strokes, shrug and leave it at that.

There are objective differences between a Honda Fit and a Toyota Yaris, even though they are similar and after an empirical analysis we can discuss them. Reasonable people may favour one over the other and the range of normal human values can easily accommodate this. The same with bigger differences, say between a Prius and a Ford F150 pickup truck.

I just disagree that our definition of "good car" is infinitely malleable and when we look at an object which is harmful to the driver and others or it can't even function we are justified in saying it isn't good.

Marshall said...

Jean says she's not making a positive case for moral realism, it's just that we lose if we don't have any. Eh? Some people "positively like" what happened to Anne Frank (who would that be???) whereas nobody likes factory farming? I suppose she doesn't know any factory farmers who are making good money out of it, but she could think about the populace that likes eating cheap chicken and beef daily. If nobody liked it, it would soon be done with.

Everybody here seems to see the point as being that Marks' change of heart doesn't make any difference, which was Jerry's point: "a distinction without a difference". But that's not true. Marks' revulsion at animal slaughter is the same, but his program has changed. He's no longer focused on "righteousness" or "justified true belief" if you prefer. The way he relates to opponents is different. I expect his feelings of progress or frustration arise in different circumstances.

It's not clear to me that Russell would choose the same car if he thought car-goodness were objective. If you believe "goodness" is "out there", then "out there" is where it is rational to go look for it: in fashion (or the politics of the day) rather than personal needs and desires. Someone might feel that their position in life demanded the dignity of a Mercedes at least, regardless of believing that German cars are ugly. Or, why men who do, wear neckties. Could a necktie ever be a rationally-desired personal choice?

I think it much more rational to see morality as something constructed rather than given. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, rather that it exists just as car-goodness or dress codes exist, as general agreements within a like-minded community. From this stance, it's plain you have to speak differently to people inside and outside that community. Inside, "this car is good". Outside, "I like this car because ...".

Constructed things can be expanded or modified: evolved, individually as with Marks, or socially as with slavery. If it is what it is, then you're pretty much stuck with it, aren't you?

Jean Kazez said...

Jean says she's not making a positive case for moral realism, it's just that we lose if we don't have any. Eh? Some people "positively like" what happened to Anne Frank (who would that be???) whereas nobody likes factory farming? I suppose she doesn't know any factory farmers who are making good money out of it, but she could think about the populace that likes eating cheap chicken and beef daily. If nobody liked it, it would soon be done with.

There's a perfectly good question what we lose if moral claims lack truth values, and no, it's not exactly the same as the question whether they lack truth values. Analogy: it's worth asking what we lose if there's no god. Lots of people care about that. But of course if we lose a lot, it would be silly to say that's a proof of the existence of God. So talking about loss is not the same thing as advancing a case for moral realism. I haven't advanced a case for moral realism. When Marks talks about how we lose nothing, that also shouldn't be seen as his case against moral realism.

As for your quibbles about factory farming and Anne Frank--

I teach animal rights and show videos about factory farms. I also read what factory farm workers say about the places. I rarely see any liking--I only see neutrality and disliking. You get liking only from a handful of sadists. By contrast, I think a good number of people liked putting Anne Frank and her family through all of that. Plenty of Nazis liked tormenting Jews, I think. They were very pleased with what they had wrought.

Anyhow...I'll stop sidetracking things. I'm interested in what Marks says about his deconversion and how he lost nothing, but I can see this post wasn't exactly about that.

Marshall said...

@ Jean, I felt bad later about what I said, you are saying there is a difference, and so I am in violent agreement. Beg pardon. I messed up my point completely.

Don't know that it's a quibble. American people really do have factory farming down as a "morally permissible"... it's a live example. I'm not surprised you don't find liking in the factory workers who are almost as much victimized by the system as the animals.

(personal cred: I'm supporting extra roosters because nobody wants them for food and I can afford it.)

Jean Kazez said...

Ha--I'll definitely give you the personal cred. Supporting extra roosters is cool!

Rob Simpson said...

Hey Russell,

For what it's worth, I think you do a better job than Marks at articulating -- and putting a plausible, appealing face on -- the sort of view you're nutting out here. Although I'm reasonably sympathetic to a lot of what Marks had to say, I thought was... well... not very good.


- Rob.

Jesse Parrish said...


Have you ever used decision-theory to capture moral non-realism/subjectivism?

I have extensions of this idea sitting in my drafts. I'm still new to Bayesian decision theory, but I think that it - and many other tools which come from economic thought and information theory - are great for seeing the mechanics of Humeanism in operation.

Unknown said...

The comparison of moral goodness to the goodness of a car seems a stretch; the former is almost entirely subjective (as is easily shown by the case of a psychopath) while the latter has both subjective and objective decision-influencing factors. But in the end, aren't we really talking about the same thing? Personal value, be it the value we derive from a car or the value we derive from society, is always a complex and inextricably intertwined bundle of altruistic and selfish tendencies, right?

After a long swim in the sea of moral relativism, I one day found myself washed on the comfortable shore of the greatest benefit to the most, with the least suffering for everyone. This, of course, sounds tidy and neat until you realize that certain people's interests will always mean more to you than those of others. Thus, at least to some extent, tribalism and distance from true sociopathy determine our morality, which begins to look a bit like a loose weave of maximum societal benefit as tempered by self-interest.

But where does that leave us with respect to the car analogy? All other things being equal, the "best" car -- the one with the greatest "goodness" -- is the one with the highest exchange value, and its exchange value is something that's largely independent of our scope of individual influence. The actual morality of car ownership, on the other hand, is an entirely different question.

Russell Blackford said...

Richard, what I'm saying is more that there would be no great problem with moral judgments if we thought they simply meant, for example, "This action has the set of properties that we want in such actions." I.e., we could think of them as we think of other value judgments, when we reflect on them.

In fact, though, people seem to tend to think of them as something much more like, "This action is required by an inescapably binding standard." But there are no such inescapably binding standards. If the meaning has become something like the latter, then the relevant moral claims are false (and we need to adopt a full-blown error theory), though there may still be a true claim in the vicinity, i.e. a claim about the action having properties that the speaker and some listeners want in such an action.

Because I think moral semantics is quite tricky, I've tended to be a bit cagey about whether to adopt a full-blown error theory - I prefer the term "moral sceptic" to "error theorist" - but even if a full-blown error theory is correct, as it may be, that doesn't entail moral claims never have any true content at all or that there is never any true content in the vicinity.

Richard Wein said...


Whenever someone ceases to believe in something they previously believed in, that thing disappears from their picture of the world, so you could say they've lost something. If that's what you're saying about objective morality, I agree with you.

You said earlier: "Without god, I really feel like nothing's different, nothing's missing. But without objective morality, I do think something's missing."

I don't understand this comment. Surely a world without God is different from a world with God (at least if we're talking about an interventionist God). I can accept that for most people the belief in objective morality is particularly deeply ingrained, and that most theists might feel its loss more keenly than the loss of their belief in God. You seem to be claiming something more than this, but it's not clear what. You seem to have a sense that there's something special about the loss of objective morality, but you don't seem able to say what that something is.

One thing that's special about objective morality is that it's built into our language in a way that theism isn't. The error theorist (at least this one) says that moral discourse commits not just a factual error but a semantic error. There is something defective in the meaning of moral claims. As a result, moral claims don't just happen to be untrue (like the belief in God); it's impossible for them to be true. Whereas theists can fairly readily understand what it means for God not to exist, I think it's much harder for a moral realist to fully understand what it means for objective morality not to exist (in the sense the error theorist means it).

Richard Wein said...


You wrote: 'Richard, what I'm saying is more that there would be no great problem with moral judgments if we thought they simply meant, for example, "This action has the set of properties that we want in such actions." I.e., we could think of them as we think of other value judgments, when we reflect on them.'

Thanks for clarifying. If I understand you correctly now, you're not saying that this is what moral judgements actually mean. You're saying (counterfactually) that if this is how people generally interpreted moral judgements, moral error theory wouldn't be true. OK, in this counterfactual world moral judgements appear to mean something significantly different from what they actually mean, and moral error theory would probably not be true.

Your point that moral judgements are taken to be "inescapably binding" is an important one. But I find your counterfactual more confusing than helpful in making this point. I think it would have been a lot clearer to simply say, "If people didn't think moral judgements were inescapably binding...". I'm also puzzled by your concentration on this issue. After all, moral realists generally agree that moral judgements are inescapably binding. If your OP was addressed to moral realists like Jean (as opposed to relativists or subjectivists), you didn't really need to make this point.

Richard Wein said...

P.S. I should have said that moral realists consider moral _facts_ to be inescapably binding. Obviously they don't think all moral judgements are inescapably binding, since judgements are not all correct.

Peter Beattie said...

» Jean Kazez: Some people just like marmite and others don’t.

And thereby hangs a crucial distinction, it seems to me. In the case of marmite, it is entirely appropriate to speak of personal preference (or “just (dis)liking”), because (usually) nothing especially interesting follows as a consequence of that preference. Consequently, we see no point in trying to get others to share our particular preferences.

Moral questions, however, are on a different level. Whatever words we use, we deem it of some importance to try to get others to share our moral judgements—just as Marks says he does. And that’s precisely because we think that some consequences are (again, usually) not just a matter or personal preference, but are generalizable to some extent, and should be generalized to that extent.

If this distinction holds up, then Marks is undoubtedly still talking about morality, even if he says that he is only talking about personal likes and dislikes. He is just not using these words in the sense that I think is quite obviously helpful in making a relevant distinction.

Dean said...

This is such a good piece!

I recently gave a speech at an actuarial company in sydney where i referenced your old 'good hammer' post. If only i could have referenced this post! i don't think many of the actuaries use hammers very often...

Russell Blackford said...

Tyro (sorry that I can't get to everyone in this comment), I didn't say that our notion of what counts as a good car is infinitely malleable. On the contrary, my point was largely that it is not infinitely malleable. It is controlled by, among other things, what we are like. Our value judgments are certainly not infinitely malleable. In many cases that have, in practice, only very limited malleability. The theme that I've been running in posts on this topic is that they are neither strictly objective (in the sense that "goodness" is something out there, independent of our desires) nor just arbitrary in the sense that just anything can count as goodness. The claim that they must be one of the other of these things is a false dichotomy.

Given the sorts of creatures we are and the sorts of situations that we find ourselves in, there might be quite a limited range of what can count as goodness for us in regard to, say, a motor car. Or almost anything else.

That said - and I didn't make this very clear - I introduced judgments of car-goodness to contrast with moral judgments. The big contrast is the one that comes out in some of Jean's comments, but also in Richard's. We (or many of us) seem committed to the idea that moral judgments are not like value judgments in general, but are about the presence or absence of properties that are independent of our desires - perhaps some kind of objective forbiddenness or requiredness.

My point is that such properties do not exist, and we should not expect them to, because, after all, we do not find them in other cases where we make value judgments. Yet we do seem to have this urge to see moral judgments as special. If that is built into the language itself, then moral error theory such as argued for by, say, Richard Joyce, is true ... and, hey, it may well be. Of the established theories on offer it's the one I'm most sympathetic to.

Even if it's not built into the language itself, there's a lot of confusion around in our moral thinking (this is a weaker claim, and one that I'm more confident about).

Russell Blackford said...

There's then a question as to how you can live your life once you realise that they are not. Marks says he can do so just fine. Do we believe him? Well, I do. I think that we can get by without thinking that morality is special in this way. There may be contexts where the old moral language is too convenient to drop (though I must say that some of it seems to me to be dropped quite easily), but adult human beings in modern societies can live without the illusion. Or so I claim.

Lots more there to answer, folks. E.g., how does my account of ordinary value judgments differ from emotivism? The short answer is that it's quite different. If I say that such and such a car is a good one, my interlocutor will know that I am referring to its possession of the sort of characteristics that people want in a car, such as comfort, reliability, safety, performance, etc. Cognitive content - albeit of a slightly vague kind - is conveyed. In the crudest form of emotivism, no cognitive content is conveyed beyond my personal liking for the car - it's as if I said, "Car, hooray!"

Now, some emotivist/expressivist theories are more sophisticated than this and the most sophisticated ones may shade into the sort of account I've given. That's not surprising. It's similar to the phenomenon that the most sophisticated legal positivist theories and the most sophisticated natural law theories shade into each other.

Also, as Richard says (and J.L. Mackie said this too), value judgments, including moral judgments, can have cognitive and non-cognitive content. Indeed, they may have quite complex content. If I say that such and such an act is morally wrong, I may be expressing my dislike of it ("Torturing babies, boo!"), and conveying that it has certain properties (which may be clear enough in context) which are ones that I and my interlocutor don't want such acts to have, and conveying that it is forbidden by some kind of inescapably binding standard. If so, the conjunction of all this is false because the last conjunct is false, but the first bit is neither true nor false because it's not truth-apt, while the second bit may actually be true.

I'll try to address some of the other concerns a bit better in later comments or further posts.

Svlad Cjelli said...

"Car, hooray!"

I would argue that this does convey that the car has properties you favour, but I digress.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

"It's pretty much just grotesque" seems to me an emotional response to the idea that there are no moral truths, not an argument that the idea is false.

Richard Wein said...

Russell wrote: "There may be contexts where the old moral language is too convenient to drop (though I must say that some of it seems to me to be dropped quite easily), but adult human beings in modern societies can live without the illusion."

I think that raises an interesting question as to whether people like you, me and Marks are still under any illusion. I don't mind saying that I am. I would argue that the illusion of moral obligation operates at more than one level. I for one have lost the illusion at an intellectual level; I can see that there are no moral obligations (no "inescapably binding standards"). But at a deeper, more instinctive level I still feel the pull of moral obligations, though I'm less inclined to express these feelings in a verbal way. I still feel guilt and righteous indignation. Nor do I wish to do away with such feelings. I think they can be useful. Richard Joyce seems to take a similar position, proposing that these deeper feelings make it still useful to engage in a "fictionalist" moral discourse, even when we can see at an intellectual level that the assertions of such discourse are untrue.

The question is whether to call this sense of moral obligation a "belief" (in which case I have to say it's untrue and I'm under an illusion). I think the boundary between mental states that can be called "beliefs" and those that can't is a fuzzy one. I would certainly say that a belief need not necessarily be verbally expressed. I can look out of the window and acquire the belief that it's raining without saying to myself, "It's raining." I think it's reasonable to talk of animals having beliefs, even though they can't verbalise them. To me my sense of moral obligation is sufficiently belief-like to call it a sort of belief.

Maybe Marks doesn't have such feelings to any significant degree. Or maybe he just doesn't consider them to be beliefs. It would be interesting to know which.

Marshall said...

I see I have made a grotesque misreading of Dr. Marks' position. I see he made a response" post in which he is quite explicit that if there were any morality, it would have to be absolute ... because moral language is (by definition?) normative, implying universal application. Since absolutes can't be relative, "Moral Relativism" implies nihilism by self-contradiction.

If he just means literal syntax, sola scriptura style, OK, but, but I believe it's a mistake to lump 'morals' in with 'desires'. I don't expect a way of cleanly separating them, but I want some way to say "there are many things I desire to do that morals prevent me from doing." "I desire to drive like Jackie Stewart, but mostly I obey the traffic laws even when I'm sure it would be safe." If we put all the utilitarian stuff into "desires", we still want to say that some things are wrong, for private personal use if not as an emphatic public stance.

So it seems to me the pragmatic way to handle the actual situation is to say individual people have "moral values" which are like "beliefs". Science acknowledges that individuals can have various beliefs, and I believe most people accept that as well. Why should it be "an error" for each person to act on their belief, including their belief about the best way for the world to be?

Moral Relativism, "The Way Things Are". Too bad if the math is harder that way, get used to it.

I suppose I'm whining. Sorry.