by Daniel A. Kaufman
My recent dialogue with Spencer Case has gotten me thinking more about where I stand metaethically speaking. I think the discussion annoyed him, which upsets me, because I love having Spencer as a new interlocutor and friend, and I know I can be somewhat of a pit-bull in live debate – once I sink my teeth in, I rarely let go – so, I hope I haven’t put him off too much.
My aim here is to clarify and in some cases deepen the points I was trying to make, so as to give a better picture of my overall metaethical position and hopefully, something more tangible for Spencer to reply to.
First, I agree with the fundamentals of the critiques of modern moral philosophy articulated by G.E.M. Anscombe in her essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958) and by Alasdair Macintyre, in his book, After Virtue (1981).  Clearly, some elements of their respective critiques differ – Macintyre says as much in the book – but they also overlap in a very deep way, and this is the sense in which my views channel them both.
These fundamentals include the following ideas:
(a) By ‘Realism’/’realist’ / ‘realistically’ in philosophy is meant something like “mind- or framework-independence.”
(b) In the modern outlook, human nature – and thus, human behavior – cannot be described realistically in teleological terms. The reasons for this are complex, but ultimately have to do with the Scientific Revolution and its replacement of a nature characterized in terms of purpose with one characterized exclusively in terms of mathematically quantifiable magnitudes.
(c) The modern individual is defined by his/her subjective consciousness, rather than in terms of a set of (as the ancients and medievals thought) objectively purposeful social roles, and consequently, one’s actions can at best be characterized in terms of a set of entirely subjectively determined Ends; i.e. the things I care about and towards which I aim myself.
(d) These two developments bar us from offering realist, axiologically thick characterizations of human nature and human behavior. This means that one cannot be speaking realistically when one describes a person as “promising to repay” a debt or as “a deadbeat” when failing to do so. Realistically speaking, one can only describe the person as engaging in or failing to engage in various motor movements, which are value-free (See my essay on Anscombe, linked in the footnotes, for a more complete discussion of this, though my analysis is confused a bit by my using the term ‘objective’ rather than ‘realist’).
(e) The modern conception of morality – of ‘obligatoriness’ / ‘prohibitedness’ / ‘rightness’ / ‘wrongness’ / etc. – is one that carries categorical normative force. By ‘force’ is meant some kind of compulsion and by ‘categorical’ is meant something like “unwavering,” “unyielding,” or “unconditional.”
(f) The pre-Modern conceptions of virtue and flourishing are not moral in this modern sense. They simply indicate excellences in the characterological/social/political spheres. For the Ancients, then, that one should be virtuous or that one should flourish constitute hypothetical, not categorical imperatives.
(g) One gets “modern morality,” when one weds the pre-modern conception of virtue/flourishing with the Divine Command Law tradition that begins with the Torah. It is the overwhelming, unwavering, ultimately supernatural compulsion of God’s commands that give the commands to be virtuous and to pursue Eudaimonia their categorical force.
(h) In our dialogue, Spencer mocks this characterization of the normative force of modern moral prescriptions as a “mafia boss” take on normative force, but if one considers all of the other sources of compulsive force – psychological discomfort, fear of social ostracisation or sanction, etc. – they are entirely contingent upon one’s subjectively caring about them, in the sense of feeling moved by them.
Second and following:
The moral Realism on behalf of which Spencer advocates has no ground and neither does the normative force he wants to ascribe to moral imperatives and judgments. When people tell us that we are obligated to do various things, what they really are doing is saying that those things matter to them and that they should matter to us too. The force of the ‘should’, however, is nothing more than that carried by an urgent wish, which one may or may not regard with sympathy.
To the extent to which the person speaking in this way knows this, his moral discourse may be manipulative, in that it is trading on a kind of force for which he or she knows there are no real or demonstrable grounds – the only actual evidence for them being that person’s own moral performances and speeches – and on the hope that the object of his/her exhortations is ignorant of this fact. Hence my general tendency to be suspicious of moral performances and speeches, especially in those cases where I perceive that there is a lot at stake for the person engaging in them and where I don’t know the person well enough to be assured of his or her sincerity. As a result, I am always more receptive to someone who expresses a desire for me to do something or refrain from doing it than someone who tells me I am obligated to do it or not do it, and as I am generally a sympathetic person, I am likely to accede if I perceive the request as having been made plainly and earnestly.
[Addendum] This question of the force of moral prescriptions and judgments is essential, because ethics is a practical discipline. Moral language is fundamentally — semantically — exhortative. It’s point is to get people to do or refrain from doing things. Throughout the dialogue, Spencer maintains that ethics has a purely descriptive or explanatory function, as if it were some sort of science and this just strikes me as plainly, demonstrably false. We may be interested in classifying all the different varieties of mammals, just to know what they are, but there is zero interest in cataloging the varieties of morally upstanding or cretinous people or actions, just for the sake of knowing who or what they are.
Things I am still thinking about:
Re: (g) and (h) above, I wonder whether even divine commands convey the necessary force to get normativity. After all, if one doesn’t care about God’s favor or about eternal damnation or what have you, then his commands don’t really have force either. Of course, this does not help Spencer or the moral realist in any way, but rather speaks even more strongly for my position. I suspect that Anscombe could not imagine such a person, which is why this somewhat obvious point may have eluded her.
Re: Realism vs. Objectivity. My commitment to the basic framework of the Scientific vs. Manifest Image, a la Sellars, renders morality – and normativity more generally – elements of the Manifest Image. They are a part of a world that includes persons, their reasons, and their actions, and I would say that they are a real part of that world, in the ordinary sense of the word ‘real’. And yet, obviously, nothing in the Manifest Image is either mind- or framework-independent.
The trouble is that the word ‘objective’ is also inapt. Feelings of obligation and duty are a function of what one takes to be goods – of what matters to a person and what one cares about – and thus belong to the affective sensibility and are, consequently, subjective by definition. One can assign them a kind of spurious “out there” quality, as Spencer does, but anyone who has truly digested the work of Bernard Williams and especially, what he says in his essential essay, “The Human Prejudice” (2008 ) will know that that this is folly; that ethical and moral activity and discourse are distinctively human activities; a function of the human capacity for both representation and affective response. As Williams writes:
We are surrounded by a world which we can regard with a very large range of reactions: wonder, joy, sympathy, disgust, horror. We can, being as we are, reflect on these reactions and modify them to some extent… But it is a total illusion to think that this enterprise can be licensed in some respects and condemned in others by credentials that come from another source, a source that is not already involved in the peculiarities of the human enterprise. 
My inclination, increasingly, is to think that much of our confusion, metaethically speaking, stems from an inadequate language in which to describe these things accurately and with precision. But I agree with Anscombe that we also lack a modern philosophical psychology – and I would add, a theory of action – that would make it possible to make good sense of moral discourse and performance, in the modern era. Worse, our contemporary philosophical psychology and theories of action are in fact taking us in the opposite direction, insofar as they suggest reductive or eliminativist conceptions of persons and deterministic accounts of action. I am not hopeful, then, that greater clarity on these matters is forthcoming, at least not from mainline academic philosophy.