Thursday, September 6, 2012

An Update on Meta-ethics

This post serves two main functions. First, I wanted to update everyone on what's going to appear in my second post on meta-ethics. Second, if anyone was curious, I wanted to show people the process I go through when writing a long post. Much of it is just stream-of-consciousness: if I come up with an idea while reading a paper or working in the lab, I either scribble it down or get to my computer as soon as possible to type out a rough version of it. This leads to the stream-of-consciousness narrative you see below. And then over the course of a few days to a week or two, I type out the full post with all the ideas fleshed out and publish it. I then periodically make modifications as new ideas come to me, correct spelling errors, do re-formatting here-and-there, etc. So here's my current stream-of-consciousness (with no spelling corrections) for my second post on meta-ethics as of 6:30am, Sept 7, 2012 [feel free to compare this to the final post when it comes out]:

Morality: Pluralism, Naturalism and Nihilism

Have you forgotten? The sin given to me is “Pride.”
-  Lucuha, Lucu Lucu (as translated from Japanese)

If uncomfortable truths are out there, we should seek them and face them like intellectual adults, rather than eschewing open-minded inquiry or fabricating philosophical theories whose only virtue is the promise of providing the soothing news that all our heartfelt beliefs are true.
-  Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality

We need to remember what we and our forbears were looking for; that should help us remember that we already found some of it.
-  Me

Oh, so you’re a moral nihilist then. Are you insane?! Do you eat babies as well?!
-  unspoken + unacknowledged within most people’s mind when they first encounter moral error theory or moral nihilism

*Om Nom Nom Nom*!
-  my trollish response to ridiculous questions and accusations when I was a moral nihilist


In this paper, I will explain why moral nihilism is much more plausible than many people believe and defend a version of pluralistic moral naturalism. I hope to further pare down the meta-ethical landscape to just two plausible options: moral naturalism and moral nihilism.

[I owe a debt of gratitude to the Youtube theist Clear404 for their critiques of my arguments and their patience with my often maddening methods. Hope things go well for them. I also thank angstreich, feathertop and Rayndeon for their criticisms of earlier drafts of this paper. You guys know moral anti-realism is of the devil, right?]

A lot of this will be technical philosophy so make sure that before each topic an within each section you link the discussion to everyday morality and the bigger picture

Error theory is a broader class than moral nihilism: Error theory says morality is commited to some thing X, but X fails to obtains. Moral nihilists in particular say X is the existence of moral properties, but other answers might obtain. For example, one might take moral statements to be non-cognitive assertions that need to be generally applicable (so no objectively moral properties needed, even if they do exists) while denying that any such non-cognitive assertions are generally applicable. Thus one adopts error theory without needing to be a moral nihilist. Contrast with “success theory” where morality is said to meet its requirements as a discourse. Anyway, I usually use the terms error theory and moral nihilism interchangeable since the distinction between the two normally isn’t crucial.

Argue that moral nihilists can have an evaluative language for tracking properties (use Blackburn’s quasi-realism as an example; explicitly state moral nihilists can get involved in meta-ethical discussions as long as they admit they tracking non-moral properties and advocating consideration of them)

Rebut standard straw-man of nihilists: 1) the whole “well if ethics is relative, why should I treat you well canard (the boring thought experiment with the teacher and the relativistic student)” [rebut by showing analogous case with God and showing we still care about stuff even when consideration of God passes away; do the same with the moral case and show that even if moral properties fail to exist, one can still care about non-moral properties like suffering, compassion, courage, etc. and if one doesn’t [i.e. once one finds out moral properties don’t exist one ceases to have an interest in others] than was one acting from a moral motivation to begin with?]

Address rayndeon’s point that the “moral naturalism/nihilism” divide in ontologically thin and merely a semantic difference (note the close-relatedness between them I began to suggest in the previous paper, but say the ontological truth-claims between them differ, and that’s a real difference; all the following are substantive conclusions: denying a given property exists, a given concept has a referent, certain properties serve as truth-makers for certain claim;

Address Joyce’s point reagarding debunking explanations + math + railton in EOM with my own parallel to an idealist response to realism Nothe that it is an achievement for science to debunk moral capacities and use this to set the minimum bar: moral judgment must be at least more unjustified and wayward the science shows our scientific and other rational processes to be in oder for the “moral faculty unreliability” argument to work

Give four-part psychological tests from feathertop for internal versus external (scientifically-respectable  induction conditions from external properties, not simply a result of internal emotional responses [give caveats from Jonathan Smith’s paper in response to Sinnott-Armstrong, but in the end, reject Smith’s move], can make sense of it existing or being a truth-maker independent of the opinion of a mind, inter-subjectively observable by other people), include Sinnott-Armstrong’s criteria from EOM as well (go directly to Sinnott-Armstrong’s paper “Moral Intuitionism Meets Empirical Psychology” as well, along with pages 217-218 of “The Skeptick’s Tale” at

Rebut Joyce’s argument for reasons internalism (argue that it has all same metaphysical problems as externalism via shafer-landau and olson), explain my arguments for reasons externalism being better for moral realism than reason’s internalism (so overlap with previous paper), give “naturalism-standard test” [“naturalistic nihilism can explain moral behavior, moral experience, and so on. So if a given account of normativity is non-naturalsitic, given arguments in previous paper, we should prefer need really strong arguments before accepting it as opposed to just up and adopting moral naturalism. So if moral realism committed to non-natural normativity, then moral nihilism beckons. We more forward with the standards and natural properties left over under moral naturalism”]

Explain why reasons internalism regarding morality does not work (Joyce’s “relativism about realism fixing to the incorrect moral contexts” view as cited in response to Finlay, give my arguments against Clear404’s view [Joyce criticism just noted; forced to say we ought to do morally horrendous things in situation where God would reward us for or and punish us for doing otherwise since there are no external reasons; justifying reasons cannot count as the appropriately motivating reasons {thus his view fails the self-reflection test; hiding one’s justification from oneself normally shows that one thinks that justification is crap as discussed in motivation argument in previous paper}; same pre-theoretical judgments that lead people to reasons internalism also lead them to reasons externalism; other criticisms from PM exchange.])

Defend Humean subjectivism regarding normativity (above and beyond the normativity we assign above true and false; say true and false aren’t really normative, but we add the layer when we start judging from a standpoint of “correct” and “incorrect” when they mean more than true and false; explicitly build off of Olson’s framework and account of non-transcendentally normative reasons in relation to evidence and say that this is what I refer to when discussing “reason to believe claim X” or “evidence for X”), defend as applied to the scientific case (scientific goals and standards geared towards helping someone gain truth), explain how non-cognitivists account of what we’re doing in the normativity might be helpful but there inessential since the crucial part of morality is the natural properties (otherwise error theory reasons because there’s no objectivity present), explain how emotions to comply that drive motivation can lead people to feel pulled to describe moral normativity in convoluted ways even though morality is not committed to such convolutions (cite example of “life” and other normative domains [epistemology, aesthetics, etc.] to build off the Dennett-ian point that we can come to view something differently and demystify it overtime); Address Bilgrami’s argument regarding normativity; defend against Joyce’s point that this emotional projectivist explanation leads to error theory (done more below)

Address Bart Struemer’s series of papers on normativity (especially starting with “Can we Believe the Error Theory” and his other arguments on how there cannot be normative properties and normative properties are descriptive properties)

Show non-natural accounts of normativity don’t get real purchase (mention flaws of non-naturalism from previous paper; can’t be that the non-naturalist can say, “well I can appeal to normativity to end debate” since Nazi might not care much for their normativity [even for their own desires; Nazi might not care that saying “I don’t care that I don’t care” might lead to a contradiction], every consideration involves judgment from concern for a certain property, cannot be that our normative discourse would collapse w/o non-natural normativity [include Joyce’s point about linguistic term functioning in same way via witch example; mention self-reflective test especially in connection to my motivation argument from before: people should be able reflect on their given justification and still feel like the normative system works, naturalistic properties pass this test since people offer natural properties as conscious justifications for moral assertions so moral judgments {when connected to natural properties} will pass the self-reflection test and thus pass Joyce’s criterion of moral judgements fitting out normative standards]; non-naturalist might over-analyze normativity to the point where there are advocating something weirder than what’s needed to do the job [especially when the emotional projection argument Joyce mentions in EOM and MOM might leave this vague “fugitive thought” that non-naturalists wish to non-natural properties to explain when we can just set this aside and clarify our thoughts as we did in the vitalism/life case, non-naturalist should not commit the lay concept of morality to more than it’s actually committed to)

Argue conceptual platitudes (meaning) for moral concepts needs to be weak enough to allow people to disagree and not attribute massive conceptual confusion to many people, give some minimal moral conceptual restraints (as per Turiel’s moral/conventional distinction). Say philosophers have a tendency to commit morality to too much, instead of doing more tests to determine people’s actual moral conceptual intuitions and whether their models fit the lay conception their supposed to either be defending or rebutting, they adhere to a conception of morality which is often much stronger and different for the lay view (mention Joyce’s response to this regarding Mackie in the section rebutting naturalism in EOM; mention Stich’s work on differences between philosopher’s and lay people’s moral intuitions [especially section 2 of his paper with Weinberg called “Jackson’s Empirical Assumptions], go to <> and read the articles under “The Relationship between Moral Reflection and Moral Behavior”, reference shift in people’s normative outlook from pre-theoretical childhood to the beginning of theoretical college years in Nichols’ work among others, “Why Moral Philosophers are not and should not be moral Experts” [a very simple argument; cite more as a summary or alternative viewpoint than as support], Nichols’ article on empirical data on psychopathy overturned philosophers conceptual intuitions, mention how the psychopath data controverts some philosopher’s conceptual intuitions regarding MI, Richard Brown’s point regarding how one’s a priori intuitions can be unconsciously influence by one’s pre-theoretical commitments; Greene’s discussion in WarOnYourMind’s series “The New Science of Morality” on how Bentham’s borderline autistic emotional deficits allowed him to view morality in a way other’s could not; given all this we need empical data and experimental philosophy to help give us perspective on when our philosophical intuitions, personal quirks, and micro-environment in philosophical community may be causing us to add on conceptual additions to discourse when those commitments were never really apart of the discourse)

Deal with twin-earth by our term references the natural properties as per substantive non-conceptual arguments that link to it the appropriate properties (water and H20) example (in case of people in other twin earths, we could use either conceptual truths or non-conceptual substantive arguments to argue against their reference claims; if they agreed to very different non-conceptual claims then we did, that would either be reflected at the level of different conceptual [i.e. meaning claims] resulting in conceptual confusion or we simply point to the natural properties such as harm and say either 1) “if they really attached the moral concept to stuff that radically different from what we did, they ended up using the same label and concept to refer to our thing, but that’s not our concept” or 2) “who says referential errors aren’t as bad as conceptual ones. If the given attributions disagree with people’s reflective substantive commitments, that hurts the transworld opponents just as much”)

Deal with moral twin-earth even more

Moral statements express both beliefs and Joyce’s conative state though the latter is not essential to the moral statement (use example of “I find X beautiful, but I really don’t care for X” or “that musical piece was harmonious, but I don’t like harmony”, none of these claim’s are conceptually confused or exhibit Moore’s negation conundrum, instead we normally have an expectation that people feel a certain with respect to properties in a certain way in their statements and are surprised when they do not, however one can still complete the speech act even when lacking the appropriate emotion [ex: DM fans like me who recognize a given property yet come to like it eventually, Dennett’s example of the coffee-tasters, etc.]; contrast w/ Joyce’s kraut case or the N words where the conation expressed is essential to the expressed state and meaning {ex: nigger vs. nigga in expressed belief and contative state});
advocate motivation externalism [ME];
mention Smith’s anti-ME argument and cite Brink’s response in the handout (w/o endorsing it) and then give my own response (need some reflective distance between belief and response [belief then emotion then deliberation then action action; goes with my judge1/judge2 distinction] which externalism provides; once person recognizes natural properties are natural properties they will clearly care for the appropriate thing via the example of S2 Koharu; even when a person has trouble realizing the identity relationship between moral and natural properties [analogous to water and H2O case] they end up tracking the right properties anyway and using the right justifications that result in appropriate concern for others even on ME theory; how does MI proponent deal with cases mentioned by Joyce of people who want to do something b/c they think it’s evil [consider including Alex from A Clockwork Orange or someone else who treats evil as an art-form to pursue], will they really say that person does not make a genuine moral judgments [distinguish between emotion being absolutely necessary for making a moral judgment vs emotional statements being typically important for making moral judgments but not always being essential especially if one picks up on social cues of information {analogy to blind person socially provided information regarding the external world}vs mental states essentially and inessentially expressed by moral statements; distinguish between psychopaths who exhibit behavioral defects that suggest lack of real moral belief from {likely hypothetical} psychopaths who lack the emotional cus but pick up on the social/conceptual/linguistic guidelines for moral statements and form the requisite beliefs, and train themselves to behave in the requisite ways, argue the latter have moral beliefs) empricaly evidence rebutting MI (“Are ethical judgments intrinsically motivational? Lessons from “acquired sociopathy””; make sure to distinguish between data regarding how people actually make moral judgments [i.e. what moral judgments actually are] from what people think is going on [i.e. what determines the linguistic notions expressed by a verbal moral judgment]; put in context of Joyce 2006, 56-57, 125, 132)

Begin by noting that the usual triviality of the question “why is N good” when brought up by Internet moral anti-realists (the naturalism’s in this section will say the 2 concepts co-refer and the 2 properties are identical [supported via my reference argument from previous paper and principle of epistemic conservation fitted together with the motivational argument and empirical data from section I-B-3 and III-E-1]; if someone persists in say “why is N good?” or some specific form of the general question “why does natural concept N co-refer with moral concept M?” then this becomes a trivial dodge [as I mentioned in section I-C and V-B someone can simply refuse to accept evidence for a given conclusion no matter what one says or what arguments one gives, so the moral realist should not be bothered by the moral anti-realist if this is what they are doing anymore than philosophers are bothered by the fact that some people will deny any argument for a given conclusion or scientists are bothered by the fact that some people will reject any scientific evidence they are provided; if the antu-realists is not simply “why?” as a knee-jerk reaction to an argument for a conclusion they don’t like, they either need to rebut the moral naturalist’s argument for their identity thesis or provide an argument for their denial of the identity thesis {ex: Joyce’s and Sinnot-Armstrong’s claims regarding the moral sense and moral epistemology, the argument from moral properties needing to be normative while natural properties are not, Ruse’s and Joyce’s Occam’s razor argument, etc.}, I’ve addressed such arguments as best I can, so unless the anti-realist has additional points in support of their question I take the “why is N good” or “why does natural concept N co-refer with moral concept M?” to be dealt with.

Survey of different types of moral naturalism: reductionist varieties such as old-school consequentialism, societal functionalist accounts such as Copp’s and maybe Brink’s (often overlap with the first reductionist variety), disjunctive varieties such as Frank Jackson’s analytic functionalist, naturalistic pluralism like mine (cite Ross as my inspiration and my affinity for his ideas; go over the multiple realizability point for predicates in the higher sciences [ex: the predicates “mountain” or “building” or “cat”; mention Goldman’s different ways of pointing out instances of a concept [different types of ostensive examples, necess and sufficient conditions, etc.] and mention how this relates to Methodism/particularism, note that we use these examples to pick out instances of a given multiply realizable predicate and the rules of thumb we generate from these to pick out the predicate [basically, some of the things the instances share in common] admit of some exceptions [ex: note some exceptions to some general statements made regarding “cats”] but this does not make these predicates non-natural or useless or lacking a reference) and use that as a parallel to morality, nothing untoward or underhanded about saying you can recognize a property in a given situation when it is realizable in multiple naturalistic variants as long as you can make some general statements regarding when the higher level property is instantiated and the similarities between it’s instantiations, there may be some vague/border-line/indeterminate cases but that occurs with many predicates and may reflect an epistemic as opposed to metaphysical issue); explain why I think my pluralism fits better with our pre-theoretical judgments that other types of naturalism, but why I still favor consequentialism (utilitarianism’s [and reductionism in general] us that it reduces morality and moral concerns down to one even though there are really many other factors we care about (mention utilitarian criticism surveyed by Greene, along with A companion to Ethics discussion of consequentialism and utilitarianism), one can care about bravery or compassion independent of considerations pleasure/plain/preference benefits it, pluralism avoids this problem; major problem for pluralists is lacking a clear decision procedure or having one that’s so vague that it allows for ad hoc reasoning and abuse (refer Dancy’s “moral judgment view” from Timmons’ section of particularism), we can address this problem by realizing the utilitarians were on to something: even though pleasure/pain/harm are not the only relevant natural properties, they are the overwhelmingly relevant one’s (when they show, everything else starts to look really small), so thought I’m a pluralist, my decision procedure gives massive weight to utilitarian and consequentialist concerns [helps avoid the deonotological habit Greene discussed of using our vague references to “should not be done regardless of consequences or affects on others” as a post hoc cover for one’s emotional dislike of something (though mention Gill’s critique of Greene at the end of his article), let’s focus on actual effects and actual natural properties to avoid that mistake; advocate something like Foot’s hybrid account with virtue ethics and note that general tradition of utilitarian thought that factors in other things and tries to avoid utter fous on pleasure/harm/preferences beginning with Epicurus and going through J.S. Mills’ rule utilitarianism). If it turns out that the high-level natural property of my pluralism argument is not moral goodness and no natural property could be a moral property (ex: maybe the normativity arguments against moral naturalism work) then I’ll adopt moral nihilism while still using pluralism as my guide for determining what to do, what actions to argue in favor of and what actions to argue against, etc. [goes back to my discussion of nihilism in section IV-D-3e-ii of previous paper where I stated I care about natural properties and morality only derivatively; many moral anti-realists act as if morality is the only framework we use to determine what to do and what not to do, moral judgments are used to oppress people (hence many of their disinclination to accept moral realism regardless of the arguments presented for it), etc., this is false, even moral anti-realists and moral nihilists can argue for and against behavior and step into a situations due to the natural properties of it, if a given moral anti-realist disagrees {ex: they really would not step in to prevent an abusive husband from hitting their wife and causing her unwanted pain SIMPLY BECAUSE that action was not morally long} then I assume their either lying or are cowards {NOTE: rephrase this when placed in paper}; once we realize that much of our concern for morality arises only derivatively from concern for natural properties, then: 1) much of the entrenched anti-realist opposition to accepting moral naturalist’s arguments should evaporate since naturalists are not using morality as a veil to judge others [they’d step in in precisely the same situations if they were moral nihilists] and 2) much of the entrenched realist opposition to accepting moral nihilist’s arguments should evaporate for much the same reason

Give a few test cases to show how naturalistic pluralism fits with everyday moral reasoning (especially in light of data from sections III-E-1 and III-E-2 of previous paper) where we discuss natural properties to determine if a higher-level natural property is instantiated (have them sort of be a back-and-forth as in the Koharu conversations from before; have a case of judging one society’s behavior and one of the speakers finding out they use much the same moral principle we do but leads to different results due to context and thus revising their moral judgment [ex: Inuit’s leading the elderly off into the snow to die and infanticide due to scarce resources], use the homosexual marriage case [example where natural properties people cite are not enough to show instantiation of higher-level property and we can clearly see the role emotional response {as opposed to recognition of natural properties} plays here; reiterate how deontology’s reference to duties apart from consequences and natural properties is a recipe for this kind of abuse], politics case where people share the same moral beliefs but one of them just has an incorrect non-moral belief [mention other general cases in which both parties care about having true beliefs and would revise their moral judgments in light of evidence and true beliefs, but one party just happens to have a false non-moral belief {religion is the best case of this}]

Modifying Joyce [“Surpassing Sensei”]

Addressing Joyce’s argument [“Richard Joyce, I’m really happy for ya and Imma let ya finish, but.., (I’ll re-use if I damn well please!)]