About Me

My photo
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).

Monday, January 02, 2012

I have a new post at Talking Philosophy

Over here ... where I have some discussion of Michael Ruse, scientism, and moral error theory.


Verbose Stoic said...

Well, the one thing that struck me during this is something that bothered me when I took a class last year on Empirically Minded Moral Philosophy, which is whether moral objectivism entails moral realism. I clearly hold that morals are objective and not subjective, and disagree with relativism and, I think, error theory. However, I don't really think that I'm a moral realist in any interesting sense. For me, if morals are real, they're real in the same sense that, say, mathematical concepts are real. I don't really need to invent a Platonic heaven (to steal a phrase from one of my professors) to get non-subjective moral principles.

So I'd say that I'm an objectivist but not a realist about morality. And if that's the case, then I think that changes the debate slightly, as many people -- even, I think, you at "Why Evolution is True" unless I'm remembering wrong -- seem to assume that the only objective morality is a realist one.

As for Ruse, I'm reading him simply as saying that we have moral mechanisms provided by evolution that provide social success/survival, but it isn't that they EVOLVED that justifies them as moral, but that they provide social success that justifies them as moral.

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, but are they inescapably binding on us in the sense discussed by, say, Richard Joyce? Ruse doesn't think they are, which is just as well, since this whole concept of objectivity in the form of inescapable bindingness is rather mysterious to say the least.

But what if they're objective in some other sense? I'm not sure in what sense you claim to be an objectivist - I've always found your metaethical statements a bit puzzling. But set that aside.

What Ruse says is puzzling. He thinks that the only justification for morality is in human psychology (I agree). Perhaps he thinks that the justification is that morality provides for social success, etc., in which case he then has to say, given his view of things, that this matters because we actually do care about it (it's part of our psychology ... and perhaps that in turn has an evolutionary explanation). I could go along with most of this, though it is not what metaethicists usually mean by objectivism, at least in the arguments I'm involved in.

But here's the rub. If that's Ruse's story, then science is going to have a big role, just as it does in, say, Sam Harris's story about morality. That doesn't worry me, because I think that the boundary between science and the humanities is rather arbitrary in any event, but it seems like it should worry Ruse.

What he could say, but now I'm making up arguments for him, is that the humanities that lie outside philosophy will also have a role in informing philosophy, partly because the relevant sciences are underdeveloped and face certain epistemic disadvantages to further development. Thus, philosophers may gain more, or in practice, by reflecting on such things as literature and art.

So, yes, there's a position somewhere in the vicinity that Ruse could adopt, and which would be coherent, though I think it would be stretching things to call it objectivist. Indeed, it could still be an error theory if it were inconsistent with what is ordinarily conveyed by important kinds of moral language. Whether that is so will depend on which view of moral semantics you adopt.

Again, there's a coherent, even attractive, view in the vicinity, but if it's the theory that Ruse is trying to articulate he's doing so in a very muddled way ... and not even making the best points for what he was originally trying to do, which was defending the humanities.

Verbose Stoic said...

Well, let me start with my view, which is probably non-standard (and is still in progress):

After a few long discussions of mathematics in comment threads and a class, I think that the best way to look at it is like mathematics. 2+2=4 is objective in the sense that it doesn't depend on anyone's opinion or personal perspective for its truth; given the same conditions and stipulations, it's true for everyone.

For me, we get an objective morality in the same way: start from the concept of morality and work out what it entails. That, then, will be unequivocably what it means to be moral. Now, will recognition of this sort of conceptual truth compel you to want to act morally or to act morally? No, not at all. But if you know and accept that conception of morality, then if you choose not to follow it you're choosing not to act morally, and I can judge you on that without bothering to assess your reasons.

For me, being moral should not requite any other external reasoning; you should choose to be moral for the sake of being moral.

I think that Ruse uses subjective in the same way I do. He wants to reject the idea that moral principles are just a matter of personal opinion, something that we all determine independently, or even as part of a culture. But I don't think he needs to go so far as to insist that they really exist somehow.

Verbose Stoic said...

So, more on Ruse:

I don't think that Ruse says that the justification is in fact in human psychology. The part of the post where he talks about that is in reference to Hume, and Hume's rejection of his own skepticism, but if I recall correctly Hume never took that as a justification but as more of a "No matter how valid these arguments seen, at the end of the day when I'm immersed in the world I simply cannot help but reject it", and so more like Bertrand Russell's take of "Well, if someone is going to be skeptical or demand justification all the way down I can't really refute that, but it's pointless to do and leaves us unable to act". I think in that sense Ruse's point is that our innate evolved psychologies make it so that even if we doubt that our morality is justified and deny that social success is the hallmark of morality we'll still act and believe that once we go out into the world again. So, social success is what justifies morality, and if you want to doubt that then when you go out into the world you'll still end up not doubting that contention.

I think Ruse would be wrong about that, especially since all of our moral precepts seem changeable. And I might be interpreting him wrong. But I think this is how he manages to dodge the naturalism claims while leaving room to talk about evolutionary and psychological mechanisms.