Wednesday, April 27, 2005

These distinctions matter

My recent post detailing two anti-realist options better than relativism has attracted much discussion.

The metaethical theory you accept -- whether it be error theory, noncognitivism, relativism, or objective realism -- has enormous implications for what you can say is right and wrong. I'm thinking now that I haven't yet presented the argument against relativism that would appeal most to liberals. This is going to be similar to my argument against speaker-relativism.

Consider the situation of the moral reformer -- the person who thinks her culture is accepting the wrong set of moral norms. Maybe this person is in the society prescribed by Deuteronomy 22:21. She says, "People here think it's okay to stone women to death for having had premarital sex, but it's actually horribly wrong." If you go relativist and consider moral claims to be about what the speaker or agent's culture regards as moral, you get this translation of her utterance: "People around here think it's okay to stone women to death for having had premarital sex, but actually people think it's completely forbidden." This is a straight-out contradiction. If you take the moral facts to be, by definition, facts about what society permits or forbids, the moral reformer is screwed the moment she opens her mouth. In espousing a moral system that isn't that of her culture, she's doomed to be wrong. Please, please don't go relativist. It changes the rules of moral argument into something that can be utterly vicious.

Perhaps most people who identify as "relativists" don't want this outcome. As Angelica and Tony pointed out in comments, the term "relativism" broke its cage in the philosophy lab a long time ago and is running wild in the culture. Etymology probably doesn't have control over the term at this point, but it gets its meaning from the idea that moral demands are only true relative to a particular speaker or agent, or her cultural surroundings. And I'd say that in the broader culture, its connection to cultural norms as the truth-makers for moral claims remains intact. Insofar as this is the case, it's something that must be resisted if moral progress is even to be regarded as conceptually possible.

Error theory and noncognitivism, respectively, are two ways of capturing what often motivates relativism without giving a weird theory of moral terms that puts the reformer into this position. Now, error theory isn't good from the perspective of anyone who's rooting for moral improvement -- since all moral claims are false, it's hard to see how an error theorist can be consistent in morally evaluating others' behavior as right or wrong. Perhaps the error theorist can have something else that it's right to promote (happiness? desire-satisfaction?) which she doesn't identify as what morality is about. And error theory doesn't make the moral reformer necessarily immoral, since it holds that there isn't any real morality or immorality. While I think noncognitivism is implausible because of its inability to successfully translate some more complicated moral utterances, its more recent and sophisticated versions survive many tests that relativism does not. If people are interested and I'm sober sometime, I'll post on varieties of objective realism. There are ways of running realism that don't commit you to anything beyond the scientific world-view, and don't require you to mangle moral concepts nearly as much as relativism does.

The broader point here is that our views on morality, or something like it, are going to inform a whole lot of how we act, vote, talk about politics, and operate in the world. We care about morality a lot, and it matters that we understand what it is. Our views on the nature of moral concepts have big consequences for the theory of what's right and wrong. So we'd do well to clarify them and make sure they're what they ought to be.


Dennis said...

Neil: Bravo! Happy as always at the excellent post -- now I just have to understand it properly...

Angelica: told you so ;-)


Battlepanda said...

Bravo Dennis,
The philosophy guy dishes out another lengthy round of arguments you don't bother to digest, and you fall over in admiration. That's thinking.

As a matter of fact, I don't think Neil has added anything particularly new to the table. The argument on the absolutist side has always been -- "but we need an objective morality otherwise we would be living like animals (insert example about genocide, rape, stoning of women etc. here)"

This reminds me of that joke where the man who told his shrink "my brother thinks he's a chicken." "Well," the shrink said "have you ever tried telling him that he isn't?" "No," the man said "we need the eggs."

Now, I have yet to meet a relativist who says "go right ahead and stone that woman, as long as that's a valid thing to do in your ethical framework." No. If you believe that stoning that woman is wrong, you go up to whoever is doing the stoning and try to stop them. Your action in this circumstance has got everything to do with how strongly you value human life, and how far you are prepared to go to defend that value. It has got nothing to do with whether you think there is some objectively correct moral course of action you must take.

One point on which I am in complete agreement with Neil is that yes, those distinctions matter. I believe that when morality is conceptualized as an absolute/objective reality outside the actor, it has the tendency to become a crutch. In addition, the belief that there is a singular and inviolable correct course to take in any situation has a dichtomizing effect -- actions are either moral or immoral with no gray in between. So if your morality dictates that adultery is a sin, there is no choice left for you but to stone that woman.

Gold said...

I found your blog on relativism interesting although I would like to see a more expansive discussion on the current state of cognitivism as it relates to the later Wittgenstein (and Toulmin). It seems to me that the description of current moral/ethical problems is not complete without at least a brief discussion of the theory which dominated academia for the latter half of the 20th century. It would be interesting to read a discussion of your own mode of ethical decision making and how it relates to "real world" situations. I don't believe that the majority of humanity subscribe to the type of relativism which you fear (Although if they do it is usually a perversion of a sincere attempt to set boundaries, i.e. Rorty). I do believe, though, that few people understand the philosophical underpinnings of their moral foundations (Or, if you like, how they are compelled to adopt some general picture of how the world exists ala' anti-foundationalists) and thus their decision making can seem inconsistent at best and haphazard at worst. So, which modality of ethics do you suggest they follow? We both know the answer to this question is that no theory is complete unto itself. That is because there is not one, best version of ethics which speaks to the “value” of humanity while simultaneously increasing the “happiness” of the masses (I hate to use two contextual words but, if I must). So, while I agree that people should question why they act, in the end it may become so entangling that it will paralyze their moral thought (I believe that provisional morality is useful in this context). This is not to say that nuanced thought is not required on many subjects (Indeed without it we probably wouldn’t have philosophy graduate students and their interesting discussions.) I just believe that ethicists should do a better job of digesting important situations then explaining why and how they came to their conclusions. As per your mention of relativism “escaping” it is also important that you realize that, although you labor in the rarified airs of ivory tower erudition, your pronouncements (or misinterpretations thereof) on moral/ethical theory may one day affect us all.

Dennis said...


I'm sorry to have caused offense, however inadvertantly -- my comment applied not to the content of Neil's post, but its character. What I said in the previous comment section was that lengthy, complex dissection of the issue is what you get when you ask an academic about their area of expertise, and this is indeed what we have. I apologize for not being clearer about that to begin with.

As to actual substance, I understand why you might read Neil's argument as wanting objective morality because otherwise we live like animals, but this seems incorrect. Neil's talking about speaker or subject relativism, not a lack of objective morality, and the objection posed is that these kinds of relativisms don't give good accounts of the meaning of certain moral claims, which is a flaw in a theory of morality as such (i.e. not as relates to the world). The trouble isn't that society would break down, the trouble is that we get purported meanings that couldn't possibly be valid.

Neil: the thing I didn't understand properly was what you said about non-cognitivists having difficulty explaining certain kinds of moral statements. It's possible that I'm just being obtuse, but I can't actually think of an example that a Gibbardesque non-cognitivism would have trouble explaining. If I'm perfectly happy to regard moral statements as plan-laden and call that it, what exactly can't I say?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Angelica, the question isn't what relativists, or people who think they're relativists, tend to say. It's what the theory of moral relativism commits them to. If you accept cultural relativism, you end up with a bunch of messed-up commitments that no reasonable person would want. The fact that you reject these commitments is one of the reasons I think you're not really a relativist in the sense that Velleman was talking about (or in any sense that makes moral goodness and badness into relational properties at the highest level of abstraction).

Gold, I'm unfamiliar with Toulmin, and all my classes on the later Wittgenstein at Harvard gave me absolutely nothing that I'd want to use in building a moral theory. I appreciate your interest in hearing how I want to set up my moral theory, and I hope to answer some of your questions in subsequent posts. The short answer is that I'm a Benthamite utilitarian (pleasure is good, pain is bad, and to find the goodness of any event you subtract the pain it causes from the pleasure it causes). I think good arguments can be given for this view.

Dennis, I don't know how the noncognitivist is supposed to handle causal claims and counternormatives:
"I believe that lying is wrong because it really is wrong."
"If lying were okay, I'd believe it was okay."

Gold said...

I was referring to Stephen Toulmin, a student of Wittgenstein, author of "The Abuse of Causitry: A History of Moral Reasoning", and somewhat famous cognitivist. I referred to the later Wittgenstein as I believe his theories on meaning, rationality, and foundation of knowledge have been particularly important in making sense of the cognitive approach to ethics.

I look forward to your exposition on ethics from the point of view of a Benthamite Utilitarian! Again, great blog! Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Feel free to ignore this comment since I'm not a philosophy student, and this isn't really germane to the conversation, but given what you said earlier:

"Benthamite utilitarian (pleasure is good, pain is bad, and to find the goodness of any event you subtract the pain it causes from the pleasure it causes"

If I am a bad man that gets great pleasure from hurting little kids, and their suffering is muted because, let's say, I drug them, does this come out on the positive side of "Benthamite utilitarianism" ?

I guess I'm asking does this theory discard the notion that depravity exists and is certainly bad?

(BTW I enjoy your odd mixture of posts on your blog also that allows comments unlike a certain other well-known philosophical blog that has rankings on graduate philosophy programs!)


Dennis said...


Ah, it's all coming back to me now. Here's the thing. The trouble those statements you pointed out pose for a non-cognitivist interpretation both seem to hinge on the fact that they presuppose the well-foundedness of a notion of truth-valued (objective, even) morality, a fact I remember Velleman trying to hit with strident repetitions of the word "really." After all, what can "really is wrong" mean other than "is wrong in some universal, truth-valued way?"

But now, since neither statement could be the utterance of a true non-cognitivist (the non-cognitivist rejecting the notion of truth-valued morality), why can't one parse these expressions error-theoretically? Unless there's some compelling reason to want to make such statements inside a non-cognitivist theory, why not understand them as relating to the fantasy moral theories of other people? "I believe lying is wrong because it really is wrong" then parses as "I believe lying is wrong because (in my imaginary objective, truth-valuey morality) it really is wrong." So hrm?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Mithrandir, such are the consequences of Benthamite utilitarianism, and they are occasionally counterintuitive. But I'm skeptical of moral intuition generally -- I don't think it's a reliable way of knowing, and I think we should throw it out when building a moral theory. Fortunately, there's another way of knowing about what's good and bad -- through introspection about your own sensations. That's how you discover the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain. This is a reliable process, unlike intuition, and we should build our moral theory on it.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Dennis, what the cognitivist is going to say is that these examples show how objectivity (of a kind that the noncognitivist can't deliver) is built into the concept of morality. Since the noncognitivist can't deliver the goods, his theory isn't a good account of morality.

Battlepanda said...

I hear where you are coming from, and as this is your blog, you are entitled to have the conversation on your terms. Again, I am not a philosophy major so I might have great trouble following your reasoning. But that is hardly your shortcoming.

Now, if I understand you correctly, I am not a moral relativist even though I do not belive in an objective/absolute morality. I am an error theorist. But if I am not mistaken, that means I don't believe in the reality of morality, and that is far from the case.

In your example, you demonstrated the rhetorical superiority of moral objectivism. But how can it be desirable to draw upon a objectivity that you can't justify any other way except for the fact that you need it? Am I naive in believing we should always choose the truth over convenient fiction? Or just being hopelessly absolutist? There's an irony for you.

Battlepanda said...

By the way, Dennis. I am not offended at all. It is just in my nature to treat all blog comment threads as thumb-in-the-ol'-eye-socket type free-for-alls.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Angelica, what I haven't done yet is give you any reason to believe in moral facts. All I've done is argue that our concept of morality is a concept of something objective. I'll see if I can post a simple version of my argument for utilitarianism in the next few days.

I don't think the disadvantages of relativism are merely rhetorical. They extend to a point about consistency. I don't think the relativist can consistently criticize the norms of her own culture. Sure, people can carry around a set of inconsistent beliefs, accepting relativism and still making moral judgments contrary to it, but this isn't a rational way to be. On the pragmatic side, there's the danger that at some point someone will argue you into accepting bad moral judgments on the basis of your relativism. There's also the danger that you'll embrace relativism and something contrary to it in an extended discussion, and people won't be convinced.

Some error theorists can do things that look sort of like moral judgment. First, though, they set a really high bar for something to pass if it's to count as a concept of morality. Then they talk in a way that looks like ordinary moral talk. People come up to them and say, "what's going on? aren't you an error theorist about morality?" They say, "I am! I just don't count what I was doing as moral discourse, since it didn't have the weird feature that I think moral talk has."

This is what I thought you might be doing, in thinking that moral discourse had to be absolutist in a way that's different from my talk about "objective realism." When you talk about moral absolutism, I think you mean a moral theory that operates a pretty low level of generality, with a universal set of particular commandments about which acts to perform and not to perform. Utilitarianism, by contrast, is incredibly general. Working to cultivate one system of prohibitions and permissions for act-types in a technologically primitive society and a completely different one for act-types in our society is perfectly consistent with it. (I still call it objective, because at the highest level of abstraction its instructions don't refer back to anybody's cultural beliefs. They're just about working to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.)

Dennis said...

Angelica: And mine to treat them with old-school internet formal politesse, raising at most to gentle fun-poking. My apologies again for overreacting.

Neil: But our concept of what morality is is founded on our moral intuitions, which are to be distrusted. Equally much, the very starting point of non-cognitivism is about why morality cannot be truth-valued; if you have to accept the weirdness of non-cognitivism anyhow, you've already bitten the morality-isn't-universal bullet. Admittedly, this reduces the validity of the point to a previously unresolved argument, but I think we should be plenty happy to leave it there, since that argument is about whether non-cognitivism makes any sense to begin with. Short version: inasmuch as non-cognitivism only makes any sense if you deny the intuition about universality of morality, it doesn't hurt to reuse that fact.

Hah! That means you've just begged the question! I've been waiting for so long to use that phrase properly in a blogospheric context! So long, I tell you! ;-)

Battlepanda said...

Ack! Dennis beat me to it. Neil is indeed in danger of begging the question.

Neil, I cannot let this pass. Again and again you have denied that I can possibly use morality or pass moral judgement etc. because I am an error theorist. Despite my repeated denial that I am not an error theorist as far as I understand your description. I did not compare morality to santa claus. I compared absolute morality to santa claus. I consider myself a moral relativist when moral relativism is considered as the antithesis of moral absolutism. If you want to put me into another basket, that's fine. But only if the basket fits.

From my POV what you are saying is "You have to accept the objective nature of morality in order for it to work. What is relative is by definition not objective, therefore moral relativism is an oxymoron."

Neil Sinhababu said...

Regarding noncognitivism, there was something earlier I didn't explain clearly. Contemporary noncognitivists (Allan Gibbard, Simon Blackburn) try to make sense of a bunch of elements of our moral discourse that seem tied to objectivity. For instance, take my criticisms of relativism in its inability to make sense of disagreement. Noncognitivists can account for disagreement a lot better than relativists can -- they point out that we can disagree about some things where truth, as we normally understand it, is at stake (for instance, when we have disagreement in intention rather than disagreement in belief). They claim, that the mental states which are expressed in moral judgment, while not being beliefs, allow disagreement of this form. They then say, "Look! Unlike the relativists, we've preserved objectivity, since we can make sense of cross-cultural disagreement, and of the moral reformer's disagreement with her culture!" People come back and say, "sure, your account of disagreement is okay. But there's more to objectivity than allowing that we can sensibly 'disagree' with other cultures. How about there actually being objective facts out in the world?" There are some weird gimmicks noncognitivists pull at this point involving deflationary theories of truth which I'll spare you (the gimmicks, in my view, don't work, but they're aimed at making sense of our "objective truth" talk).

The noncognitivists are trying to have their cake and eat it too. Really they end up having half of it and eating the other half, which makes the position hard to quickly describe. I'll take that as an advantage over relativists, who have half their cake (not positing any objective moral properties) and throw away the other half (not making sense of any cross-cultural moral talk or the moral reformer's talk).

Angelica, now that I've read more of your writing, I withdraw my earlier characterization of you as an error theorist. I got thrown off by the Santa Claus and God stuff, and I hadn't yet seen the way you defend moral claims. (Past posts will be updated.) But let me say that your defense is consistent with the objectivity of morality, as Velleman and I understand it. Like you, I think that the right system of norms for general social guidance of action may differ from situation to situation. This is because I accept the following two claims:

my theory of morality: It's morally right to maximize pleasure while minimizing displeasure.
(a part of) my theory about how the world is: There's lots of weird situations in the world, and in weird situations, weird types of actions will maximize pleasure while minimizing displeasure.

Since my theory of morality doesn't make any reference to the beliefs of a speaker, agent, or culture, Velleman and I take it to be an objective theory. It avoids the problems the I've set out for relativism. I can say that different sexual mores are appropriate in different places, because having lots of premarital sex in a time before birth control can sharply decrease utility. But in a post-birth-control time, there's much less of a problem. Similarly, if you live in a culture where it's considered immoral to wear red shoes, there may be moral reasons for you not to wear red shoes -- it'll needlessly displease others, and make you a less effective advocate of utility maximization. But the moral rule from which everything is derived makes no essential reference to social norms like the red shoe prohibition.

Is this all you want? Because the guy I'm calling an "objective realist" can give it to you.

Blue said...

There is of course a good chance that Angelica is a relativist, but is also inconsistent. For those who deal primarily with trying to influence the world, this is not uncommon or even a defecit. Boxing, ignoring the possibility of inconsistency, may be impossible now.

Neil Sinhababu said...

An addendum:
In the discussion of noncognitivism, that should be "where truth, as we understand it, is not at stake." Hate it when I drop the negation.

Battlepanda said...

The reason I think I'm a relativist is because people kept accusing me of being one. At some point I just said "screw it" and started defending my position rather than dice with semantics.

The difference between 'objective' and 'absolute' is an important one, and I will take it to heart when I'm explaining my position.

Infidel In Exile said...

Angelica is entirely correct. The real purpose of the absolute/objective claim -- whatever the moral authoritarians are calling themselves this week -- is to shut up everyone else.

For the relativist the problem lies not in interpreting ethics -- I know what I believe -- but in convincing others to take action. This mean that far from providing no reason to talk to others, relativism makes dialogue inevitable. Because I have no Absolute basis to order you to take action regardless of your own position, I can only persuade. Relativists such as humanists and freethinkers place great emphasis on dialogue, negotiation, empathy and understanding. An Abolutist need not expend energy on such trivia. Further, because the ethics of a relativist are evolving, rough, unfinished, and dynamic, dialogue with others offers the chance to learn something new.

This brings up the question of just what an Absolutist position is for. The answer is obvious: the purpose of Absolutism is to get the other side to shut up and cease dialoguing. An Absolutist claim is a rhetorical claim designed to terminate the argument, quell dissent, and enable Absolutist political and social ascendancy. It is not a coincidence that places run on relativistic systems, like the secular democracies, tend to be great places to live, while places run on Absolutist grounds are generally authoritarian nightmares with high body counts. Moral authoritarianism and political authoritarianism are overlapping manifestations of the same will-to-power over others that is neatly expressed in the old saw that a Puritan is a person who lives in fear that somewhere, somehow, somebody is having fun.

Infidel in Exile

Neil Sinhababu said...

Infidel, I think you mean something very different by "Absolutism" than what I do by "objective realism".

Dennis said...

Neil (since I imagine nobody else is listening anymore): But if you're simply denying that objective truth exists from the outset, why can't you account for the way people talk about it like an error-theorist (it's not there, but people pretend it is)?

I think one of our co-seminar-people gave the mos sensible account of this I could think of (rather than talk about the intersection of extending hyperplans, talk about the intersection of all hyperplans; equivalently, talk about the set of things that all logically coherent people must agree on). Now, there may be nothing in this set, (though Velleman's internal norms argument would deny this) but it certainly is a definition allowing us to talk about objective morality in a non-cognitivist setting.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Dennis, my first worry is that there's going to be nothing in this set, especially if you consider hyperplans for all possible people. My second worry is that all you'll get here is the stuff that all agents are committed to in their practical reasoning, which is different from getting a theory of morality. (Maybe it'd have the kind of content that would make for a good theory of morality, but since I'm not even convinced anything would be in the set, I'm skeptical about even that.)