Monthly Archives: April 2015

Meta-Ethics is Easy

I’m about to go on about a certain position within moral realism. Like everything that appears in this space, it is mostly rumination. You were warned.
I have my doubts about moral realism generally. I think it turns out not to be the case, at least in any traditional way. But I’m not certain of that judgment in general.
There is a particular brand of moral realism however, which is a dead duck. That variety is the one which claims that moral realism is an analytic truth, a truth like the statement, “all bachelors are unmarried”. I want to be specific about the position in question. It is not simply one which claims that certain values are analytic truths, but one which claims that realism itself is such a truth. It is the position that valuation is impossible without “truths by definition” as the result is otherwise unstable and necessarily without meaning.
The in-principle complaint is easily answered. J.L. Mackie does so in Ethics: “We can then offer a general definition of ‘good’: such as to satisfy requirements (etc.) of the kind in question.” Valuation occurs within the bounds of a subject, however large or small those bounds may be. To borrow further from Mackie, the universe doesn’t demand the existence of a knife, but that doesn’t stop us from distinguishing a good knife from a bad one. The fact that the qualities of a good knife don’t help us pick out a good spoon, doesn’t render our knife-judgments meaningless either.
But what about the pragmatic objection? It is the main argument in favor of the absolutist’s stance. The possibility of a subjective value system notwithstanding, it will fail in its application. Yet monetary systems work by the very means in question, and have proven effective and durable.
Theoretically, money stands in for valuable goods and services – for the variety of labor. But in practice, people value the money itself. They value its utility. The value of money withstands disassociation from an objective standard. The dollar needn’t be redeemable for a certain quantity of rare metal to retain its value. And the value of money can collapse. It isn’t valuable necessarily. Yet even when its value collapses, money doesn’t disappear. People value its utility even when its meaning is shown to be entirely relative.
So it is with meta-ethics. There is no essential supervenience of moral valuation on physical fact. There may be an explanatory supervenience of moral valuation on physical fact, and the necessity of that relationship is a legitimate point of contention. There is no theoretical relationship in the absolutist’s sense.
To illustrate the relationship between value and physical fact, think about murder. The word bears a negative value, but to what does it really refer? Is it a person’s death which necessarily bears the negative evaluation? We certainly evaluate some deaths as neutral or even noble. Is it a violent action of one person on another? Such actions are evaluated as neutral or at least justified in war or self-defense. Is it the pain of the victim or the victim’s loved ones? We sometimes view physical pain as necessary or even good, as it allows us to avoid debilitating injury. The pain of loss comes with love and it can be evaluated as a neutral adjunct of the latter. Is it the killer’s anger? Is it the killer’s functionalization of the victim’s life? Again, that is how people are treated in just wars, and it is the mechanism employed in the soldier’s decision to throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades. ‘Functionalization’ is the actual, ethical problem with what the murderer has done, rather than some meta-ethical fact isolated in principle. Value is not redeemable on any isolated fact. It comes with the whole circumstance, multifariously and specifically.
Again, none of this precludes realism. Maybe we do have an inborn moral sense, and some attendant, necessary evaluation of specific circumstances, just as we have red and green photoreceptors and so see grass like this and blood like that. It only means that realism is not a requirement, any more than red and green photoreceptors are.
The understanding that simplistic realism – where there is a fixed, gold-standard, theoretical, fact/value relationship – is false, has important ethical consequences. Returning to the murderer for a moment, the trouble with his act is an ethical issue, and not a meta-ethical issue. He may value his victim’s life, his own emotional comfort, his victim’s emotional comfort, his own life – and still get it wrong. He does so by functionalizing one value in terms of another.
In that case, the murderer’s ethical error is the same as the one which Solomon exposes when he offers to divide the halves of the baby between the two claimant mothers. The biological mother values the baby on its own terms. Her opponent values equity and is willing to interpret the value of the baby’s life – whose value she recognizes – in terms of equity. As Solomon did, we recognize in her interpretation, a usage error. However one thinks it is assigned, the circumstances upon which the baby’s value supervenes do not encompass social equity between the two women. In the second woman’s treatment of it, the meaning of the baby’s value has been surreptitiously changed.
It is no accident that we have Solomon’s example emphasized in a religious tradition. The stark moral realism associated with most religion offers an easy path to the ethical usage error, as it does to the mistaken notion that moral realism is an absolute necessity. Absolute values feel like they ought to be redeemable across circumstances. Absolute and universal are too easily confused, especially when proper usage is often inconvenient and always a little uncomfortable.
Solomon’s example is cautionary regarding the temptation to ethical short cuts and their usage errors. But, it is cautionary more broadly as well. His good judgment was necessary because meta-ethics is not easy. Whether or not there is finally a moral fact-of-the-matter, our moral valuations are specific and circumstantial, and they do not bear incautious usage. Saying otherwise is simply acquiescence to the lure of temporary emotional comfort, at the price of a flawed ethic. The position of “realism regarding realism” has no other justification.

Tagged , , , ,