Metaethical Thoughts

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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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).  [1] 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. [2]

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.

Notes

[1] https://theelectricagora.com/2017/04/15/course-notes-g-e-m-anscombes-modern-moral-philosophy/

[2] https://theelectricagora.com/2017/12/02/course-notes-bernard-williams-the-human-prejudice/

104 Comments »

  1. This essay was very helpful. I have often been confused about the debates regarding the crisis in moral philosophy and i was especially confused after viewing the dialogue with Case. I was sympathetic to Case because I took him to be arguing against the sort of eliminativist or materialist view that you also evidently oppose. But in this essay you clarify that “something happened”, namely the Scientific Revolution and the figures you describe take this happening to mean that certain things are or are not possible (conditions of possibility). Of the three you mention two (Macintyre and Anscombe) are rather religious believers which is interesting. Which brings me to a question. You appear to reject out of hand the attempt to shoehorn objectivity through human consciousness and experience as one finds in Derek Parfit. The questions is why? Could not what you call subjective be equally regarded as objective?

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  2. I didn’t find you to be overly aggressive with Professor Case. I got the impression that he wasn’t prepared to deal with your position or that he had never seriously considered it previously, while you have been arguing against his position all your life. The next time you discuss the theme with him he’ll be prepared, I’m sure, and I hope that you allow him a rematch.

    What surprises me is that you never refer to Nietzsche when your position on ethics has many similarities to his. Williams, whom you admire and who you undoubtedly know better than I do, is a close reader of Nietzsche and actually, wrote the introduction to my edition of the Gay Science.

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      • I found Nietzsche confused and confusing until I found Leiter’s work on him. Leiter has a good article on Nietzsche on morality in the Stanford Encyclopedia.

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    • One thing I take from Nietzsche is a diagnosis of moral realism qua temptation. Moral realism is an expression of, and a response to, the worry that normative phenomena can’t be real or objective in any sense unless they emanate from something supernatural or metaphysical. It’s a chorus of anxious, immature, all-or-nothing thinking, the same pattern of thought coiled up in the idea that if there is no god, everything is permitted.

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  3. I think that ethics describes the “highest” values of a social group and laws describe the lowest acceptable values of the same group. I find it hard to justify a concept of ethics, independently from some social group. I do believe that ethical systems can “nest”, particularly in the case of groups within groups. This means that I do not think that ethics, disassociated from social groups, has a useful meaning.

    Even if you are not a group person, I think you are a member of a singleton group, namely yourself and hence should have developed an ethics for yourself. The big question is “how do you develop ethics to govern the interaction between non-nested groups?” Is it possible to justify the existence of an ethic that governs the interactions of groups but is still independent of any group? BTW, I am a non-group person. The other alternative, that I can see, is that each group develops its’ own ethics for dealing with other groups.

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  4. Speaking of the diavlog with Spencer, and not this immediate essay — which I will get to eventually — I’d have to say that you did retreat a bit from the civility level established during the first diavlog. I mean you made a point at the end to try and retreat from the mudsling and clarify that less negativity was intended. Not sure it came off though. That bit about a 3-year-old running in tight circles and repeating over and over again ‘WHY’ was both unsavory and not really an accurate description of the position he was struggling to articulate. I get it, particularly sensitive topic. Much invested on both sides. You hinted as much in the closing analysis when you offered that perhaps his thinking could be sound if one were willing to re-inspect some long established western ‘conclusions’ in the philosophical arena. But I think you miaght be on to something… these sacred cows should be scrutinized. Delighted with the idea — hope it happens!

    My own take is that there is something to moral reality, and I take as my starting point my very own raw perceptions going back even to early childhood. I recall situations in which I ‘recognized’ something was off or wrong, and did so independently of any nurturing influences, and certainly independently of any sort of deontological or consequentialist calculations in the moment. This sort of subjective immediate perceptiveness matters. No analytic analysis should be allowed to lightly scoff it off. Further I think Thomas Nagel was onto this in his 2012 ‘Mind and Cosmos’. In the later chjapters — somethihng most critics never even bothered to read up to much less think about — he singles out moral perceptions as a kind of separate layer or realm of phenomenon, beyond mere reason, which furthermore cannot be itself explained on the basis of reason within the usual evolutionary biological framework. He is skeptical of this ’emergence’ and offers worthwhile points to consider along this line of argument. (This occurs well after the point in the book where he argues that consciousness cannot possibly be emergent from mere life — which is where a great deal of people stopped reading.) Nagel’s analysis of the assumption bought into, without skeptical scrutiny, at the outset of the Enlightnent, pre-Hume, offers a strong case for why it is plausible that what has developed into contemporary science lacks the possibility of ever penetrating subjective phenomena. And moral perceptions fit entirely here. I say this prior to any opinion that ethics is 100% strictly a pragmatic social affair, which is a point you have repeatedly relied upon.

    I hope there will be a clarifying discussion which explores the seeds of contemporary western thought which you believe to render any consideration of moral realism infeasible, as you nearly have proposed. I do not know whether Spencer is willing to look at this line of questioning, or whether he even thinks it is an descriptor for his position.

    I’m grateful for these dialogs, and I think I share your evaluation of them. Bon chance!

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  5. After watching the video, I have to say, contrary to what Spencer says mind-independence is not that hard to define (Shafer-Landau does it in his book actually): if a statement like “pleasure is good” is true, then no-one’s judgments about or attitudes towards pleasure *make* it true. It’s a thesis about truth-makers. And it generates realism-counterfactuals like “if everyone loved kicking dogs it would still be wrong”. This isn’t hard, and it’s a shame that his advisor led him down a somewhat confusing path there.

    Now, it’s true that relativists face a problem: is the statement “moral truths are relative” mind-independently true? But Street has already recognized this problem and dealt with it: IF we count it as a substantive moral truth (which is controversial), they can still say that it is a truth that is constructed out of our attitudes and commitments. This preserves the distinction nicely, and count me as one who is against the “concept inflation” of calling anyone a realist just because they think some moral statements are true. This surely demolishes distinctions which are critically important to maintain. If you can’t distinguish between (1) someone who thinks that kicking dogs for fun would be right if we all loved it, and (2) someone who thinks that it would still be wrong if we all loved it, then you’re losing something of enormous philosophical value.

    And it’s not surprising that your argument over realism bottoms out in an difference of intuitions over the status of basic moral truths. It always does. I think we have to either stick a fork in this one and move on, or find some new angle on it, since this intuition-badminton has been going on for decades now.

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  6. (a) By ‘Realism’/’realist’ / ‘realistically’ in philosophy is meant something like “mind- or framework-independence.”

    What is real is undifferentiated stuff. And that’s all that is real.

    You cannot get beyond undifferentiated stuff yet maintain mind or framework independence.

    I’m inclined to think that your definition of “realist” is not realistic.

    (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.

    I see that as a misunderstanding of science. Yes, science characterizes nature in terms of mathematically quantifiable magnitudes. But that depends on a purposely chosen system of quantifiable magnitudes. Science is itself purpose-driven.

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  7. Modern moral philosophers are terrified of Darwin, because any conception of morality that would come out of natural selection is terrifying. Why reject religion if it has been with us for so long, in some sense helping us to survive? The same can be said for the importance of our moral sentiments – our sense of the absolute, approval and disapproval, our sense of obligation. Moral philosophers have always tried to understand morality in terms of principles – principles of virtue, principles of justice and fairness, principles about the chain of authority, principles about duty and theories about the good. All of these principles are basically conjectures about moral reality.

    Why has it been so difficult to get it right? No matter how sophisticated our theories, we can’t seem to get all the necessary and sufficient conditions together the way that physics and astronomy have done. Is morality more complicated than physics? Maybe. My hunch is that you can capture morality as a natural phenomenon if you think of it in terms of a normative system – a self-organized system of behavioral regulation that corresponds to the way that a small group of humans are able to manage and maintain a common pool resource. In these small-scale systems, most aptly explained by Elinor Ostrom, 1990, “Governing the Commons”, there is no central authority, no single person in charge. Management of the resource is through collective adherence and enforcement of a simple set of rules. The trick is that everyone is involved in enforcement, which is what keeps it from becoming the “tragedy of the commons”.

    Often, philosophical principles are about what we are protecting, what we are honouring, what we are keeping alive – the conditions of cooperation that allow us to flourish. These are what we have in common as humans. This is also what differentiates us from all other beings. Normativity is uniquely human. It replaces reproductive success and gets us out of the Darwinian state of nature. We have moral sentiments which make it possible to commit and participate in moral systems. Our moral systems work to prevent people from “getting away with murder”. We can only see the human race as a totality because we live in moral systems. Animals don’t think about or relate to their respective species as a whole. For animals it’s all about survival and reproductive success. Thinking about humanity is projecting our protection and maintenance of common resources to everyone. It is a projection, but also simply an iteration of what it means for a small group of humans to protect a common resource.

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  8. Apologies in advance that this is a bit longish….

    That Williams quote is one of my all time favorites and I am so glad you pointed out that essay two years ago. I have been paying attention to Williams ever since. My impression was that when he referred to the “human enterprise” as the only ground possible for moral discourse he was saying something much different than what you suggest in the previous paragraph, that “what matters to a person and what one cares about – and thus belong to the affective sensibility… are, consequently, subjective by definition.” It seemed to me he was talking about something peculiar to humans-as-such, not merely something internal to individuals. You conclude the paragraph pointing in that direction, but I worry you are putting an unnecessary barrier between “out there” and “distinctively human activities”.

    Williams often made a big stink about how Wittgenstein and ‘Wittgensteinians’ were misguided, but I see him as expressing the same sensitivities toward human practice. I take Williams as accepting human practice as the only ground for making sense of the social and mental life of human beings. That is, the things we care about are not simply out of the blue and neither are they simply self generated. They are not ‘objective’ in the sense of things utterly independent of a human mind, nor are they ‘subjective’ in the sense of being wholly constituted by a human mind. Both terms have limitations in talking about the manifest image, I tend to think.

    The big failing I see in much of philosophy is that it pays too little attention to *how* things are learned, a point of emphasis for Wittgenstein after his time teaching grade school in rural Austria and a necessary part of the transition to his later ideas. Too often we take our position in the world as adults as somehow defining of the phenomena that make up our lives. The social world and our place in it seems a given, somehow outside us. There is oneself, and then there is the world I navigate. As adults the most salient impression is that we have freedom of movement. We seem somehow independent, as if everything we could want or do were merely contingent on our own will. So of course it seems possible that the things we care about are down to our own ‘subjective’ preferences. As if the will stood adrift in and separate from its own life….

    The problem is that we are only capable of wanting what our culture has presented to us as an alternative. We are not ultimately individually isolated by nature. That is because living a human life is living as one among many. What we are is something we have in common in some form in some way with countless others. That we are having a discussion on this blog says something about being human and having a shared language to express ourselves in. There is no ‘private language’, for instance. If I can say something you can say something.

    That we can choose among various options does not mean that those options don’t have a definite coordination with life as it is lived by similar human beings. When ‘subjective’ is seen as ‘personal’ it is like saying the clothes I wear are personal, even if I bought them off the rack at Target and countless other people wear the same thing. When ‘subjective’ is meant as ‘private’ it fails to clear the ground as meaningful for moral discourse and most everything else of general interest.

    I can’t make sense of the realist positions on much of anything cultural, but I don’t think denying realism leaves us with nothing but our own personal preferences. I don’t think the only way out is sheer conventionalism either. I take Williams’ thought experiment at the end of the ‘Human Prejudice’ essay seriously. If it came down to a choice of we human beings or the aliens, whose side are you going to be on? There is simply something it means to be human, even if this is evolving and even if it looks more like a family resemblance than a natural kind. Regardless, what it means to be human is not merely subjective, it isn’t somehow independent of our humanity, and it isn’t only a specific local convention. A human form of life precedes anything we can talk about, never mind what is worth talking about. It seems the “human enterprise” is both the starting place and destination of anything that ought to count as metaethics.

    Hope some of that made sense……

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  9. (b)-(d), but especially (d) is unwarranted – the resulting behaviourism is what Quine was criticised over. I am reading Dasgupta’s “Economics: a very short introduction”, who starts chapter 2 with “imagine that a group of people have discovered a mutually advantageous course of actions..under what circumstances would the parties who have reached agreement trust one another to keep their word? [his emph]…mutual trust is the basis of cooperation. In view of what we have learned about the multiplicity of Nash equilibria…it will prove useful to classify the contexts in which the promises people make to one another are credible…[o]ur capacity to have such feelings as shame, guilt, fear, affection, anger, elation, reciprocity, benevolence, jealousy, and our sense of fairness and justice have emerged under selection pressure…here then is our general finding: social norms of behaviour are able to sustain cooperation if people care sufficiently about the future benefits of cooperation.” These are all objective scientific statements that chime with how the moden contractualist philosophers (Scanlon, Gauthier, Gaus…) talk about morality. As to (b), I’ll just say most of all animal behaviour is objectively goal ie future directed.

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      • Dear Dan. You are the one writing “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.” I am saying these are realistic descriptions, and cite the microeconomic literature.

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          • Dan, I am aware of the various senses of “Moral Realism”, but you make a major point in (d) that:
            “Realistically speaking, one can only describe the person as engaging in or failing to engage in various motor movements, which are value-free” as a reason why “realist, axiologically thick characterizations of human nature and human behavior” are not possible.

            Replacing this with “objective” will not help. The naturalistic models of ethics and religion argue that words and deeds showing you to be trustworthy, reliable etc will on average tend to advantage you in dealings with others. Implicitly such a (say) game or bargaining theory based model holds that the existence of such an optimal strategy is a real objective fact about the world, even if no-one ever gets around to practicing it. The only moral self-evident axioms are those of practical rationality. As Harsanyi puts it “the Bayesian rationality postulates, together with a very natural Pareto optimality requirement, logically entail a utilitarian ethic”.

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  10. Dan, here is my critique of Anscomb. The following is your refined version of one of her claims:

    1.
    ‘Version One, as told by the Aristotelian:

    I supplied John with a bushel of apples.
    John promised to pay me £5.
    John owes me £5.
    If John doesn’t pay me the £5, he is a deadbeat.
    If he does pay me the £5, then he is an honorable man.
    Version Two, as told by the Humean:

    1′. I handed over a bushel of apples to John.

    2′. John uttered the words “I promise to pay you £5.”

    3′. John not paying me would consist of John failing to hand over £5.

    4′. John paying me would consist of John handing over £5.’

    Since when are modern moral philosophers (including me) Humean and accept the second readings as complete? I don’t, and I doubt that the others do too. I need extensive citations of their works from Anscomb in which they demonstrated this kind of reading that she claimed they did.

    As for me, I wouldn’t leave out a person’s intention within his/her mind.

    2. Why does a moral theory need to incorporate thick axiological concepts when they can all be explained away with thin ones? Are these concepts even coherent in the first place?

    3. How would, as Anscomb and MacIntyre claimed, theism not be as “morally bankrupt” as atheism? What is so special about the commands from a very powerful being? How would you assert that this being is holy without begging the question? And what is so special about a creator’s intentions for His creations? Are moral beliefs in other cultures also based on creator-given purposes for His creations?

    And, if I were to build a sentient robot with the purpose of it murdering people, why wouldn’t it be a moral being when it murders people since it is fulfilling its purpose?

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  11. I think Austin was right in his characterization of ‘real’ as a “trouser word”: ‘Real’ and its cognates derive significance from their being implicitly or explicitly contrasted with any one of their various negated forms. So, for example, ‘real’ means one thing when contrasted with ‘fake,’ but another when contrasted with ‘toy’, and yet another when contrasted with ‘pretend,’ and yet another when contrasted with ‘illusion,’ and yet another when contrasted with ‘test,’ and yet another when contrasted with ‘mind- or framework-dependent,’ and so on. (I think this same analysis applies to ‘objective,’ ‘rational,’ ‘scientific,’ and many other terms of epistemological and metaphysical approbation.) So when something is claimed to be unreal, it could mean fake, or illusory, or pretend, etc. Context does a lot of work.

    If Austin’s right, it’s too quick to dismiss things like courage, presidents, dollars, breakups, and promises for being unreal, because doing so often assumes the overridingness or exclusive applicability of only one of those many contrasts. All the real work (what’s the contrast there?!) should go into determining whether the contrast invoked is the apt one. Is it apt, when talking about morality, to use the sense of ‘real’ that contrasts with that of ‘illusory’? The sense that contrasts with the sense of ‘mind- or framework independent’? The sense that contrasts with ‘referred to in fundamental physics’? Why or why not?

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    • As you know, I’m a fan of ordinary language philosophy. My arguments here are with regard to the moral realist’s use of “real,” not the ordinary language sense of the term.

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          • Shoot, I must be missing something, because I think what you’re saying is correct.

            I’m suggesting that regardless of whether one is speaking philosophically or ordinarily, the use of ‘real’ gets its significance from its contrast. And I’m questioning whether the philosophical, moral realist use of the term — and thus the criteria for reality they’re invoking — are apt for thinking and speaking about moral phenomena.

            I was taking my first comment as an elaboration of your point in the post, not a challenge to it.

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          • But the question is whether he is using it in the same sense that you are. It is not as if there is remotely enough clarity demonstrated either in ‘ordinary language’ or in the strained (to me) sense you’ve detailed here — a la analytic philosophy — to permit us to just stroll forward with some hope of having understood one another. There are many shades of thinking regarding this term in between the ordinary and this or that flavor of the academic.

            Another way to see this: What propels a person (and a great many are so propelled!) to begin querying themselves about the ‘reality’, basis, or ontological legitimacy of moral rightness as a quality inherent within phenomena in the first place? Most people arrive at these questions without any kinship towards academic philosophy. (And I would have to say that based on what I’ve heard so far here it is not at all apparent that academic philosophy is the choicest vehicle for approaching the question in a satisfying way.)

            They approach these questions seriously because they come to see an apparent rift or conflict between their moral intuitions — which are real enough Manifestly and I have doubt that anyone could persuade me that they lack reality Scientifically — and various kinds of ethical behaviors or pronouncements they encounter. Dispensing with the validity of these intuitions on the grounds that there are complicated results due to the history of the Scientific Revolution which require too much space for one to articulate and review is empty, soulless, and unconvincing. In fact this makes a great anecdotal argument as to what is wrong with the entire enterprise. If the bright Englightened revolution cannot answer or address simple human conundrums which every thoughtful person faces, then it points to a hole in the fabric. Not merely to an inadvertent — oops — traipsing across the boundary lines from one Sellarsian image to another.

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          • Well, unless Spencer clarifies further what he means, I think it is perfectly reasonable for me to think that by “moral realism” he means what is typically meant in the discipline.

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          • And I think my view fits perfectly well with common understandings. Unless people hold a divine command view, I think that most of them think that to the extent that moral obligations are “objective,” they are so in the sense of being widely shared sentiments, within a society, and to the extent they think such obligations have “force,” they do, in the sense that we can expect substantial social opprobrium for defying them.

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  12. Sorry, the last few lines of my post should read: Is it apt, when talking about morality, to use the sense of ‘real’ that contrasts with that of ‘illusory’? The sense that contrasts with the sense of ‘mind- or framework dependent’? The sense that contrasts with ‘not referred to in fundamental physics’? Why or why not?

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  13. Bloggingheads comment section transplant here. The raw feel of the conversation was actually enjoyable, since sometimes that’s what happens when people get into the nitty gritty on something. Philosophy can be painful, but it’s like most important things in that way, and getting to see that unedited is a privilege. Also being able to interact with feedback gives a much more rich experience to the audience member.

    Having said all that, after watching and digesting the discussion, and going back and forth with Spencer a bit in the comments, Spencer’s view, (which incidentally many people share), seems to rely on an assertion of the “should” of morality as bedrock, with no explication to offer whatsoever to those not already convinced. You either get the ultimate, categorical “should” or you don’t. As much as I know what it’s like for that concept to be employed in everyday life, in the philosophical context where we try to explicate as much as possible, I quite earnestly do not know what a categorical should is, at least not one that as Spencer admits has no inherent motivating power or force on anyone who simply opts out.

    Spencer can offer instrumental or epistemic reasoning and say that moral reasoning is like that, but I take the former to be much softer in its categorical nature than morality, and there doesn’t seem to be any answer for that. Intellectual reasoning, as normatively rich as it is, has no resources for come hell or high water compliance or evaluation, at least not without smuggling it in from morality proper. My suspicion of robust moral realism is not manifested in me dismissing the normative realm entirely. Rather, it lies in seeing morality as a particularly strong form of normativity – normativity on steroids, if you will.

    The ultimate question of skepticism v. realism in meta-ethics, IMHO, is not if any sense can be made of being motivated by or using moral reasons. That it’s not arbitrary, or merely emotive, or wholly unlike more legitimate reasoning, etc. That’s easy, in my humble opinion. Of course moral reasoning is perfectly respectable, especially at this low level of justification. But a higher level of justification, we might worry about the way moral language uses categorical admonitions, and what we can come up with to justify them. Once we allow that worry, it seems like the game is over, at least for Spencer’s kind of moral realism which is both robust and lacks inherent motivating power.

    Now, maybe another kind of moral realist would say that moral reasons do have a sort of inherent motivating force, which would bring up other problems, but that’s a topic for another day. Philosophy is often a game of marshaling one’s troops at a certain location, while leaving a vulnerability at another. It’s a balance of risks. That Spencer would step up to help illustrate that point is appreciated.

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  14. Plato, and in a different way for different reasons Jesus, put a curse on the West. Although differing in essential details, no doubt, they both hold the position that moral behavior is primarily the result of individual choice, and thus primarily an individual responsibility requiring reflection and justification. Reading the pre-Socratic epics for their ethical values, what strikes us is how fundamentally tribal and social their morality is: The Greeks do x. One need not be a Greek to do x, but not doing x raises the concern that a Greek has abandoned or betrayed or simply sullied his or her Greek-ness. We should learn from that; there is an entirely different way of conceiving ethics than that developed in the West, which has suffered the Platonic curse for centuries. In fact the Platonic view is wholly artificial, and I would even suggest wrong-headed. It was only sustainable for many centuries because the rise of Christianity, with its institutionalized systems of behavioral judgment and retribution, stabilized the view’s applicability. This fell apart with the Reformation, and has since been replaced with various systematic efforts to analyze individual moral choice and responsibility. If this only effected the laws governments establish, the problem would not be so great; but it goes well beyond practical law, and often causes unnecessary confusion.

    One problem here is that similarly misguided notions about education abound in the Modern West, compartmentalizing the effects of experience for developing children as well as the resulting responses to such experiencing. So, for instance, ‘stealing from the cookie jar,’ and the responding parent’s spanking of the offending child, are analyzed as transgressive behavior triggering a negative re-enforcement from the parent, resulting in the child’s learning not to steal from the cookie jar. This is pathetically impoverished reductionism: The child’s experiences on that day are many, rich, conflictive, sometimes driven by the child’s own impulses, sometimes impelled through chance encounters with others, etc., etc. It may matter much which parent applies the punishment, or where the child spends the day afterward. Yet none of this is accounted for.

    If there is a fact concerning moral behavior, it would seem to be this: We are raised in a social environment where any and every experience we have, especially those we have involving others, may train not only our behavior, but our attitudes towards our behavior, which finally achieve articulation as explanation, excuses, and exhortations. The normative force is the social. According to Watsuji Tetsuro in one way, and George Herbert Mead in another, the individual is generated out from the social as necessary to it. If there is such a thing as obligation, it is born there.

    Such a view does not give us any fewer or less difficult problems, only different ones; once the child becomes an individual tensions between the sometimes conflictive, even contradictory lessons learned in the process of development can produce anxiety within and conflict with others. The principle issue becomes how to reconcile these tensions and conflicts in a manner that respects the social and yet may move it in directions less destructive and self-destructive. Therein lies the real problem of choice, and opens the door to politics.

    To respond to one of Prof. Case’s examples for emphasis: Historically in the West, the rape of a woman by a man was not always considered wrong; it became wrong when the tradition of respect for women (as manifest, say, in the Medieval cult of the Virgin Mary) was at last confronted with the demand for the rights of women, as developed out from the Reformation and then the Enlightenment – by the 20th Century, it was becoming clear that we couldn’t have the former without the latter. There’s no need for the assumption of any Reality to this issue, other than the socially real confrontations, argumentations, and changing consensus that did indeed happen over the centuries – not to mention the many personal experiences of individuals in actual relationships.

    I doubt that I was born with some ‘intuition’ that rape was inherently ‘wrong.’ I was raised in a family of women that made it unthinkable. To be honest, I wasn’t crazy about my mother and sisters; but they were the only family I had; and reading the Odyssey at the age of 12 convinced me how important family ought to be – “We Greeks do this;” seemed a good enough explanation then, and after decades of having to confront such questions in philosophy courses and reading philosophy texts, I must say that explanation holds as true now as then.

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  15. Professor Kaufman, I was wondering what you think of Iris Murdoch’s thought-experiment in “The Idea of Perfection” of M and her daughter-in-law (named D, I believe). More specifically, I was wondering (a) whether you think Murdoch is on to something and, if you do, (b) how you see her insight there connecting to the idea that morality finds its evidence, expression, and/or significance in *performance*.

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      • I see. I’ll take a shot at explaining the example. But let me first explain why I ask. I sympathize with your idea that moral thought or moral judgment, philosophically informed or not, must be cashed out (evinced, expressed, understood in terms of) performances. But I also sympathize with what Murdoch takes to be the lesson of her example (which I’ll explain in a moment). And yet, on the face of it, the former is in tension with the latter. So I’m wondering whether you had some thoughts either about resolving the tension or about dissolving the appearance of tension.

        Here’s the thought-experiment. M doesn’t think too much of her daughter-in-law D, but out of love for her son, M never fails to behave cordially toward D — or, rather, nothing she does is counted by anyone else as less than cordial. Eventually, for various reasons, M’s perception of D changes. What was once D’s doting on M’s son becomes her devotion to M’s son; what was once D’s clumsy simplicity becomes her charming artlessness; etc. (I don’t have the piece in front of me, so I’m sure I’m getting the specific attributes wrong, but you get the idea.) We’re to imagine M’s perception of, outlook on, attitude toward D changing in these ways, but we’re also to imagine that M’s behavior toward D remains no more and no less cordial than before — or, again, that no one counts her behavior as such.

        Murdoch thinks that the change in perception M undergoes is a morally significant change, even though it doesn’t show up in her behavior or for anyone but her. I’m inclined to agree. But this at least seems to be in tension with your idea — with which I’m inclined to agree — that behavior is where moral significance shows up for us. I have some ideas of how to reconcile these, but I wanted to hear what you think too.

        (By the way, I don’t think anything Murdoch says here is susceptible to Wittgensteinian private language arguments: I don’t think she’s denying the necessary publicity of rule-following or concept- having. I’d be interested to learn I’m wrong, though.)

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          • Ha! Fair enough. I think it’s worth arguing about whether it does or doesn’t, but I fear that this comments section isn’t the place to do it. So I’ll leave it be.

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          • Good point re: its being a matter of seeing.

            So now just read “it would be worth arguing about” not as “it would be worth adducing evidence in an attempt to get me to assent to a proposition and vice versa” but rather as “it would be worth using our magnificently rich and flexible language to try to bring me to see something you think is there to be seen and vice versa.”

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  16. Here’s the thing: we are doing two things when we discuss moral realism. We are looking at moral systems from the outside, in a scientific manner, and we are looking from inside a moral system in a philosophical manner. From inside we experience the normativity – the oughts and the shoulds. They are subjective and have to be in order to drive some of our actions and colour our perceptions. But also we experience the objectivity of morality, the categorical sense that this applies to everyone, and that morality holds up society. We tend to agree with others about what is good and what is bad, but sometimes we can have some pretty serious disagreements too.

    My thought is that normative systems tend on the whole to work and that’s why we have them. Seen from the outside, a normative system is a combination of individually self regulated behaviour and collective action to prevent and control rule-breaking. Normative systems are strictly human, they do not exist elsewhere in biological systems. In other words only humans have succeeded in regulating their behaviour for goals not having to do with reproductive success. By putting together the first moral systems we managed to transcend Darwinian natural selection. Human males do not have horns or antlers or other sexually dimorphic weaponry for a reason. We’ve settled the “tooth and claw” with rules about marriage and good conduct.

    My sense is that the realist-antirealist argument is based on a confusion about the inside and outside of normative systems. Normative systems work, so they can be described scientifically. But we always already find ourselves within these systems both subjectively and objectively, that is both as sentiments that motivate us and as categorical rules that we cannot escape if we consider ourselves responsible.
    I think we could better understand morality if we put aside disputes about abstract moral properties, which are essentially disputes about which metaphors are the most appropriate for which concepts, and saw morality as basically a combination of Hobbes and Moral Feminism: Start with Hobbes: “Covenants without a sword are mere words with no strength to support a man” and add Feminism: (Virginia Held) “Human mothering develops morality different in kind from merely propagating the species.” “The flourishing of children ought to be at the very center of moral (thought)” Humans have changed the rules and that’s the secret of our success. We have toned down sexual competition in favour of competing in other realms and opened up the vast range of mutual cooperation that’s unique to humankind.

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  17. We can have both normative force and scientific understanding of morality, but first we need to correct each of what I see as your nine points:
    (a) Realism means looking at moral systems from the outside. When you are reading a novel you imagine the persons and events as really happening, but if you look at it from the outside its just a book with fictional descriptions and dialogue. Moral systems are systems of behavioural regulation.
    (b) Human nature involves the construction of many purposive institutions, institutions that were created for specific purposes: eg. the emergency medical system. Moral systems are the basic human system. They were created collectively on purpose and they fulfill a common purpose – the protection and maintenance of multi-family human groups.
    (c) The successful development of each new generation is the subject of our collective care. Care does not stop with the individual. Most mammals are female uniparented. Humans are biparental, which is very unusual for a group living primate. Humans have the longest childhoods and the longest period of infant helplessness of any other animal. Very few other animals have the extensive alloparenting, parenting from kin, that humans have.
    (d) Normativity can be understood scientifically as a system of behavioural regulation that involves both individual self-control and collective action.
    (e) Normative systems don’t work without normative force. This force is realized by our participation in a moral system, through individual responsibility, that is, by following and enforcing moral rules. People who break moral rules, are individually and collectively judged to be wrong. The more wrong the action, the more we are motivated to stop or counter it, and, in general, the more people become involved in this process.
    (f)Virtue cannot be legislated or forced. It is modeled and taught through mature behaviour. It’s presence tends to benefit the group as a whole so it is generally encouraged.
    (g) Meta-ethics is a “Tower of Babel” it should be eliminated, and in it’s place we should construct a natural theory of morality based on combining Hobbe’s insight of the importance of enforcement with the Feminist insight that the flourishing of children should be central to any moral system.
    (h) Caring came from mothering but in humans it grows to include fathering, pair bonding and caring for the successful development of each generation. To call it nothing more than an individual feeling is to deny the reality of human nature.

    2. The ground of normativity is our collective commitment. This commitment is fallible. There is no normativity without commitment.
    Example: people shouldn’t lie. It’s not just that I don’t like it when someone lies, one of the most common reasons to lie is to evade responsibility. If people can always get away with evading responsibility than moral systems break down and society breaks down. Therefore it’s not merely a question of not liking lying, society doesn’t function if we don’t collectively sanction lying.

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      • I’m shocked! But, you say that caring is just an individual feeling. And you don’t like it when people use the word “should”. What about plagerism? Do you tell your students that you would prefer they not do it, or that they shouldn’t do it because it’s wrong? Is it just your feeling or are you committed to combat plagerism as part of being a scholar and a teacher?

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          • Why should philosophical language be technical about ethics when it isn’t a science? If philosophy can’t be understood by most people what good is it? Is the technicality of philosophical language simply a way of creating specialized niches for PHD’s? Meta-ethics is really a lot of back and forth about metaphors, ideals like objectivity, truth, good, bad, right and wrong, etc. that we don’t ever understand directly, we have to understand through metaphors like “clear and distinct” “illumination”, “perfection” “correspondence” “exhaustive inquiry”. Why should we specialize in precise categorization of metaphors when we can build a scientific understanding of ethics? Also, where is it that what I am saying about realism conflicts with Case’s account?

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    • I do not see any evidence that moral systems exist. Legal systems exist (and they themselves are quite fungible at any point in time, and loosely defined in their capacity to confront novel ethical situations), and I guess normative systems exist. Morals and morality exist and operate upon a different plane, not being subject to ‘systems’. It is morality, our individual sense of it and capacity to intuit its character in a given situation, which gives us the ability to formulate judgements in those numerous boundary cases where either laws do not cleanly apply or their spirit is obviously violated by operating according to the letter of some pre-existing convention. Supreme Court justices and judges rely upon their sense and perception of morality to navigate paths of thought and reasoning to penetrate to the ethics and pragmatics at the heart of a new proposition. Individuals exercise their sense of morality, moral judgement, when mulling a difficult decision, and especially so when choosing to violate an established convention in favor of a greater perceived good. That is how history happens, via individual creative acts.

      So, there are no moral systems to look at from the outside as if in the role of a realist observer.

      Morality is perceived, subjectively like all perceptions. It is different from ethical behaviors built up out of complex social convention history. It is a valid question as to whether the object of the moral perception has a real existence or not. Just like the exact same question applies to trees, the color aqua, kindness, love, and mathematical concepts. Philosophical orthodoxy comes down in varied places upon these ideas. Thank goodness some people go about trying to suss out their own stances about these matters irregardless of where past seekers landed.

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      • Not sure if my last comment got posted, so this may appear somewhat redundant. You write: “It is a valid question whether the object of moral perception is perceived or not.” I think that’s a question that leads us down a meta-ethical rabbit hole. We didn’t know about the “solar system” until we had Copernicus’ theory of the solar system. Before that there was no evidence to support it. It was the earth system, because obviously the sun orbited the earth, any fool could see that! We may not perceive a moral system but grew up in it and learned to be responsible somehow. It is a system because it is activated, like the emergency medical system is activated by situations. It wrong-doing is witnessed, the moral system is activated and people get involved, and more people get involved the more serious the wrong-doing. It’s a system because it helps keep free riders, cheats, and psychopaths from taking over. It’s a system that works to keep us out of the state of nature. Unlike the EMS, it doesn’t have anyone in charge, and it doesn’t have a professional cadre and that’s because it’s the primary system: public, where we follow simple rules like “don’t lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do….”that are easy to understand and follow. It’s a system because society collapses in its absence. If we don’t see it as a system then we can’t make the distinction between being in it and subject to it’s rules or looking at it from the outside scientifically, so that we become lost in a tower of babel of meta-ethical theories. This meta-ethical mess could all be avoided if we can see how normativity is made possible by our commitment to follow rules and enforce against rule-breaking.

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        • For you, normative force lies just in our feelings about actions, is that right? For me, it lies in our collective commitment to a moral system and to institutional standards of conduct. I think it is more than just feelings because one has to commit to group standards.

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          • I am rapidly coming to the view that the only real normative force is to be found in one’s own experience of pain or suffering. That’s because all other accounts of force only work if the thing to which they attribute the force is something we care about.

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          • When we attribute a strong feeling to caring or to some other cause this is often just a rationalization. If I feel that incest or rape is wrong is that based on pain? I haven’t experienced these things but they still disgust me.

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          • The only moral force I’m aware of is that, as Dan says above, something matters to me. Rape matters to me because I’m capable of putting myself in the woman’s (or man’s) place and because above all, I’ve known women who have suffered sexual violence. As for incest, which you mention, I don’t see it as wrong, just a little yucky, which isn’t the same as wrong.

            As for community standards, when in Rome do as the Romans is sound prudential advice, but it doesn’t have much to do with right or wrong.

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          • As we are growing up we commit ourselves to be a part of society. We commit to not purposefully harming others. Otherwise your feelings of empathy would only go as far as friends and close kin. We internalize morality so that we can anticipate wrongs, avoid doing wrong, and empathize with others when they suffer wrong. But these things wouldn’t matter to us if we hadn’t matured into responsible adults who are committed to living in a society. They don’t matter to sociopaths precisely because they lack that commitment.

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          • But of those moral principles that most members of society seem to believe or at least pretend to believe it, as far I can see, some matter to me and some don’t. I decide which matter to me and which don’t. I certainly don’t accept all of those principles which most members of society seem to believe in and there are some I believe in which I sense that not many others do.

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          • Are you talking about moral rules? You decide which matters and which don’t? If I feel like punching some loud mouth I will do it because harming people who I don’t like is OK with me? If I feel like lying about the fact that I ran someone over with my car because I’d rather not get a bad reputation or get arrested then I’ll do it ?

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          • The force of the moral judgements is that I refrain from harming people even if I dislike them and want to harm them, because I am a responsible adult member of a society. I don’t go rogue because I’m committed to being responsible. The normative force is in the commitment, and that commitment is learned in childhood.

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          • By “force” is meant the compelling energy that moves someone to do something. In the case that you describe here, it lies in your caring about not disappointing your community and perhaps, yourself. That’s entirely consistent with what both S. Wallerstein and I have said.

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          • I cannot recall ever acting on moral principles qua principles, although outwardly, I lead an ostensibly ethical life.

            I like people to think well of me and so I generally do things that most others approve of.

            As I said above, I have empathy or sympathy for most others and no desire to harm them. I have passing moments of intense anger with others (especially people making a lot of noise), but even though at those moments, I want to harm or even kill them, I don’t first of all because I don’t want to end up in jail and second of all, because I know from experience that when I’ve harmed others, afterwards I feel bad about it. I feel bad not because of any moral principles but because I put myself in their place and because I don’t want others to think of me as a violent person. I hate violence because as a child, I was often bullied, not because I have a principle against violence.

            I’m honest with others in my commercial dealings because once again, I want to be esteemed by others and because I’m not particularly greedy. I’m not greedy not because I’m against greed on principle but simply because I’ve never been greedy.

            I’ve never plagiarized because I never needed to. I was always a good student and in fact, I wrote my girl friend’s senior thesis for her, and I suppose that if I was against plagiarism because of some moral principle, I wouldn’t have written her thesis for her.

            I suppose if I had the ring of Gyges, I might steal some books from big bookstores and certainly from Amazon if the ring of Gyges permitted me to do that. I wouldn’t rape anyone because I would put myself in the place of the rape victim. I tend to side with the victim and with the underdog, but once again, that’s more of a personality trait than of a moral principle.

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          • By force is meant compelling energy, and this compelling energy just comes from my feelings about things that happen. I can’t recall this compelling energy coming from moral principles, I can only recall it coming from my feelings. We don’t recall the earth ever orbiting the sun, we only experience the sun crossing the sky, so that ‘s all there is to reality? Moral principles are our conjectures about morality, so I agree that they don’t motivate us. We use them to summarize moral knowledge, and justify our moral philosophy. What motivates us is our immersion in society. What motivates us to control our desires is our responsibility, our commitment to living in society and following the rules, implicit and explicit. Being good citizens comes from this commitment, which may well be experienced as a series of feelings. Still, the feelings are not the reality, the social situation of commitment and collective action is the reality.

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          • You seem only to see the psychological. My examples are pointing out the sociality of normativity. So it feels to me like you are trying to reduce all human reality to the psychological. So I keep throwing out examples which are meant to demonstrate the collective aspects of morality. But the feelings are obvious to you not the social reality of collective behaviour. According to you, nothing there to see unless it can be reduced to the psychological.
            By normative force I don’t mean some kind of mechanical or hydraulic force, those are misleading metaphors. It drives us and motivates us because we are parts of social groupings where a condition of belonging is that we recognize and follow the rules. Motivation is not simply a feeling, it’s felt in relation to social facts. These social facts make it possible to feel that way, and drive the ugency. You persist in reducing everything and defining everything as psychological and then you have trouble seeing my argument. I guess that’s because my argument is about the social which doesn’t seem to exist for you.

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          • I believe in the law, in the police, in the courts, etc. In my experience most people in reality do what they want and then justify it afterwards with moral principles. There’s an incredible amount of hypocrisy about moral principles in this world.

            I tend to be a very nice helpful person. I tend to be much much more courteous than most people I observe on the streets. Today I spent a half an hour trying to help a very nice woman who had found a lost child and we were trying to get the child to tell us where she lives. I finally had the bright idea of telling her that her parents had called me and told me that they had chocolate ice cream waiting for her and that motivated her to show the woman the way to her home.
            However, I’m not nice to people because of any moral principle: I’m nice because I feel empathy or sympathy for them, for almost everyone.

            I don’t expect anyone to do as I do. As I said above, I depend on the law to regulate society. I have zero faith in morality.

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          • But you do expect others to do as you do, just as I do, and everyone else. Granted we don’t expect people to be virtuous all the time. But we do trust most people not to harm us or harm others most of the time. What about the exceptions? Here’s where it requires a moral system. If we don’t have a means of enforcing moral rules the most harmful people are the ones who take over. Originally in the first hunting-gathering groups there were no police, governments, legal systems, or religions. Disputes were dealt with collectively. Ultimately people who consistently did not care about others and caused them harm were banished or executed. There were no official leaders, there was rough equality, everyone agreed the rules applied to everyone. There weren’t that many rules: don’t lie, cheat, steal, murder, or commit adultery. Virtues were encouraged but not enforced. This was the moral system. What it had which is less visible today is the participation of all in following the rules and enforcing the rules. Everybody was involved. That explains why we have moral sentiments. We want to be involved, we need to be involved. But today we are surrounded by competing jurisdictions. Human society has become so big and complex that it requires the police, the courts, the emergency medical system, etc. to get the moral job done. Therefore our participation in morality is now less visible, but it’s still there in our feelings, and we would need them all in spades if we lived as hunter gatherers again. These moral sentiments make a difference in our behaviour but they don’t add up to morality. For that you need enforcement which originally involved everyone in society collectively.

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          • Morality doesn’t motivate the most harmful members of society. Maybe it motivates you and it probably did, as you say, function in a hunter-gatherer society, but today we need the law, we need the cops, etc.

            I’m sure that many people are also motivated by empathy towards others and above all, by a desire to be esteemed by others, but how many people recur to explicit moral rules? Not many, I believe.

            Morality is utopian and utopias don’t work. Believing in morality is like believing in communism or anarchism: they look good on paper, but in reality they don’t function.

            Philosophers have developed complex moral systems, Kantianism, consequentialism, etc., but according to studies which I’ve seen, most philosophers don’t even follow them in practice. As I recall, most philosophers specializing in moral philosophy, don’t even follow them in practice.

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          • Wow! “Believing in morality is like believing in communism or anarchism” Are you sure you want to go there? Let’s stop and make a distinction between being in a normative system and looking at a normative system from the outside. Morality and moral principles are conjectures and theories about what humans do. They are looking at normativity from the outside. Experiencing normative force is looking at it from the inside. Utilitarianism is a theory about what good means. Deontological theories are about duties and the application of moral rules to behaviour. Moral sentiments theory is about psychological states of approval and disapproval. They are theories about the nature of morality. So you are saying morality doesn’t really exist because human behaviour doesn’t correspond to these theories. I’ve got a theory and your attacking it because it doesn’t correspond to your psychological reality. I believe the earth orbits the sun, in spite of my experience that the sun has crossed the sky everyday for my entire life. I don’t base reality solely on my experience. We agree that normativity exists or we woudn’t be talking about it. I say it exists as a system, not a set of principles or series of psychological sentiments. We use the principles to explain, justify and understand it. We posit conjectures to build theories that model what it is and does. Obviously the theories, the principles are aids to help our understanding. But for you, all you need to understand normativity is your feelings, just the same as all that people need to understand that the sun crosses the sky is their experience.

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          • First of all, if you continue with the disguised snark, I’m out of this conversation. I am in no way claiming that the sun revolves around the earth.

            That you experience strong moral feelings about moral issues has to do with your upbringing, and it certainly does not prove that morality is mind independent or objective. I can imagine your upbringing, but I’ll avoid the temptation to be snarky too.

            Yes, morality in the conventional sense is like Communism or Anarchism. They all look good on paper, all are systems of social control and in the practice most people, under communism or under conventional morality, find all kinds of ways of getting around it, unless it justifies something that they already want to do.

            Maybe it would be possible to start from scratch and invent a new social code, a new system of ethics based on a better study of human nature than the Bible or Kant or Plato was capable of carrying out and that might function well. The systems we now have are simply archaic and a bit ridiculous.

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          • I never said that morality is mind-independent, nor am I in the business of trying to prove it. Of course morality is fallible. It works for some people to believe that it was received from on high and engraved on a stone tablet. That’s the way some people experience morality. For many people today, not so much. There is plenty of evidence that we internalize moral rules though. Evidence like the fact that both you and I and a lot of other people prefer to be nice to others, to help others in need, not to take advantage of others, etc. I bring up the “Copernican” example because what I see you and Kaufman doing which is to constantly point out how normativity is experienced as feelings. Motivations are experienced as feelings. All experience is pyschological, partly conscious, partly unconscious. That fact that we experience all of reality through sensations and feelings doesn’t mean that reality can be reduced to these aspects of experience. When I bring up social facts like adherence to moral standards of scholarship, citizenship, etc. you reduce it all to feelings. You don’t experience your being nice as following moral rules so moral rules don’t matter or they are merely a matter of choice. Really? It’s only because I don’t feel like it that I don’t steal or lie when I could get away with it? You and Kaufman seem to be blind to social reality, because we experience it psychologically then it can all be reduced to the psychological and the social is merely an epiphenomen? That’s the point of my Copernican example. Tell me, does society exist? We don’t see it. We see social institutions like government, schools, families, the use of language, norms, legal systems, but we don’t see a society. We don’t experience society, we experience being a part of social phenomena. Does that mean that society doesn’t really exist? We just happen to grow up wearing certain kinds of clothes, speaking a certain language, working at certain jobs, but they aren’t a product of society, because we don’t experience society. Society is a construct, a theory we have about human life. I’m saying that morality is a lot like society. It frames our existence, it is everywhere, like society, so we may be initially aware of moral rules when we are growing up but it quickly becomes the very background to all human action. I’m claiming that morality is what distinguishes us from other animals, and that every human group lives in a moral system, and if it doesn’t it will not survive as a group. Morality defines us as human. It is not a choice, except for sociopaths. In fact, one of its major functions is to control and eliminate sociopathy.

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          • Yes theories look good on paper. That’s why we correct them by essentially looking back at the world. The point of bringing up Copernicus was this – A theory tells us more than what we can see. If you base everything on your experience of seeing you can’t get past it. Then you can’t see why morality matters because you don’t see the point of looking beyond what you experience. And the same goes for what Kaufman is saying.

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          • There’s a confusion about how I use “experience”. My experience consists of having lived 73 years hopefully with my eyes open, of having lived in 3 different countries with differing cultures, of having discussed ethical issues with many friends, of having read a bit of philosophy, lots of literature and lots of history. In that sense, I can only speak from experience, from what I’ve seen, read and heard from others.

            I generally say “in my experience” as a signal of intellectual humility. I don’t speak with the voice of god nor do I represent any “ism” or any school of thought or any science. That’s all.

            I feel flattered that you group me with Professor Kaufmann because he is an genuine philosopher and I’m not. If my position happens to coincide with his in any given moment, that makes me feel good, I admit, but please don’t hold him responsible for any of my sophomoric (my father’s favorite word when putting me down) ramblings.

            That being said, I get the feeling that this subject has been exhausted. Thank for replying to my comments and expressing your viewpoint, but I believe that I’ve said all that I have to say on the subject. Take care of yourself.

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          • Gosh, I’m only in my late sixties. I appreciate the chance to discuss with you some of my ideas. It has been well worth it for me.

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  18. If morality was only psychological we would be back in the state of nature. You see no evidence of it because it frames human society as a whole. We grew up and learned how to be morally responsible. It was a part of growing up. Hunting gathering groups have moral systems but they don’t have legal or political systems. It’s a system because it is the way we collectively deal with free riders and psychopaths. We collectively do not let people “get away with murder” because if we didn’t society would collapse. It’s a system because it is activated whenever wrong- doing is witnessed. The worse the wrong-doing the more people become involved. In other words, it corrects behaviour that undermines society. Its absence leads to the collapse of society.

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    • Most everything resolves to dealing with the effects of agriculture and the neolithic y-chromosome bottleneck.

      Also there is a difference between state systems and politics. Chimps do politics.

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  19. So, I have two criticisms of this series of observations.

    First, it tells too unified of a story: nowadays, people like to say that there is matter in motion and subjective human experience, and there’s an end on it, but throughout the modern era, there were a lot of different stories told. E.g., Leibniz, Berkeley, and, arguably, Hume were all idealists. Descartes was a substance dualist. Kant was not a materialist. Spinoza was not a materialist either, though he’s rather hard to categorize. I would say the (matter-in-motion)+(subjective experience) view is pretty much just Hobbes’s, though I can see a case for Hume and Spinoza.

    Now, I suppose you can say that you’re not so much talking about the most famous modern philosophers, but just the modern era, and what we’re left with nowadays is the (matter-in-motion)+(subjective experience) view. That’s probably right for most non-philosophers. I’m not sure it’s right for most philosophers, though, even today. A lot of philosophers are realists about modal statements; or normative statements; or mathematical statements. I’d be surprised if most philosophers denied all three of these, and in my opinion, accepting none of these three is needed to be a (matter-in-motion)+(subjective experience) person.

    Second, you could quite easily say that most philosophers are irrelevant. What we have nowadays is a view shared by most educated people, and that view is (matter-in-motion)+(subjective experience). Against, I doubt that most educated people accept this view, but even so, it does feel like a zeitgeist. So that leaves the question, is there any sense to be given to categorical imperatives if we have the (matter-in-motion)+(subjective experience) view?

    I would guess, probably not. But I do wonder: how do we get to the (matter-in-motion)+(subjective experience) view? Why is this a view that (ironically) feels non-optional — categorical, even — for us moderns? My guess is that contemporary scientific views (evolution and natural selection, special relativity, etc.) make sense of hugely wide ranges of phenomena. They also predict extremely accurately, and they give us control over our environment, so: explanation, prediction, and control. It’s hard for us to resist thinking of such theories as true. So we say that those theories are true. But I think you would agree that this is just a feeling on our parts: the theories, on account of their explanatory, predictive, and controlling power, feel irresistible. But that’s just a feeling — it has no normative authority over us. It’s the same as saying, “I like this very much, so I want you to say you accept it.”

    In addition, it could be that accepting these scientific views logically entails the non-existence of categorical imperatives. But again, that’s only if you accept a certain logical system; there are other logical systems that don’t entail the non-existence of categorical imperatives. And unless you claim that we must accept classical logic as the only logic that describes reality (whence the force of this “must”?), then the fact that it entails any view is interesting but non-coercive. You can just accept a different logic that allows for the consistency of categorical imperatives with our scientific theories. What sort of logic? I don’t know. I don’t even know how classical logic, in combination with these scientific theories, is supposed to entail anything, honestly. At the end of the day, if the (matter-in-motion)+(subjective experience) view is the zeitgeist we’re in, so what? It just means that we accept certain claims that are inconsistent categorical imperatives. But inconsistent has no normative authority over us either, because nothing does.

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    • I could care less what “most philosophers” are willing to say or do. I would not accept realism about modal statements or mathematical ones either. See Quine on desert landscapes and the possible-fat-bald-man in the doorway.

      Same thing with “most scientists.” I’ve just extricated myself from a truly idiotic conversation in which highly educated people are trying to tell me that spiders are conscious and have mental representations. Then again, this itself is only slightly less stupid than an earlier conversation I had with equally educated people trying to tell me that muons are conscious. They call themselves panpsychists or something.

      All of these views represent a form of decadence in philosophy. They add nothing to the sum total of human knowledge but consist of a kind of games-playing that is a waste of everyone’s time.

      The universe existed for eons prior to the existence of any thinking, behaving creatures. Unless one thinks that there is a divine morality-giver, t is quite obvious that morality arises out of human thinking, feeling, and forms of life. One can insist on a “realist” view of this, but it actually adds nothing to the thing we are talking about. Just a superfluous layer of metaphysics that affects nothing.

      It’s really simple: if you have counterarguments, let’s hear them. If not, you lose. That’s how these things work,

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      • “…arguments countering those offered by Anscombe…” – like “Hume was a mere – brilliant – sophist” and her one paragraph dismissal of Kant?

        As Cremaschi [2017] says

        The objection is in order here that she seems to miss the circumstance that ‘self-legislation’ is an obvious enough transfer to ethics of a key-idea from Rousseau’s political theory and also is an expression of the familiar idea – let us think of later Stoicism, Aquinas and Maimonides – that human reason is the source of both contents and authority of the moral law. Besides, her own image of self-legislation looks more like Hare’s prescriptivism than Kantian ethics. To say the least, the latter implies a somewhat richer picture, where the moral subjects are members of a constitutional kingdom, the ill-famed
        Kingdom of Ends, and thus at once subjects and legislators…In short, Kantian self-legislation may fairly enough be construed in terms of deliberating about action while taking on oneself the burden of implicit constraints we have built at the very time we engaged in any kind of social practice.

        You may or may not think the modern human rights apparatus nonsensical with its dignity, autonomy etc, but is is a rationalistic enterprise in the sense of attempting consistency, plausible extension to novel situations via reasoning, argument from axioms on which a large chunk of humans can agree to as self-evident ie “brute ethical facts”. I think Kant’s influences on our modern conceptions here are clear, It is also quite clear that Anscombe thinks it self-evident that there are such things as injustice and wickedness. Further, Anscombe in 1961’s War and Murder applauds “the use of force by the ruling authorities” to control law-breaking, dissension, and “visible criminality…against…the common good of mankind”, giving the British anti-slavery military actions as a positive example of the latter, and the Opium Wars as obviously evil.

        I think that even though there is no theology in MMP, Anscombe’s orthodox Roman Catholicism is shaping the line of argument. In War and Murder she also opines that pacifistic interpretations of Christianity have lead to an increase in deaths among civilians:

        “pacifism teaches people to make no distinction between the shedding of innocent blood and the shedding of any human blood. And in this way pacifism has corrupted enormous numbers of people who will not act according to its tenets. They become convinced that a number of things are wicked which are not; hence seeing no way of avoiding wickedness, they set no limits to it.”

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      • It’s kind of hard for me to find the arguments offered by Anscombe or MacIntyre, a fortiori it’s hard to counter them. I take it the argument is something like this?

        THE HUMAN NATURE ARGUMENT
        1. Everything that exists is matter, governed by laws of nature.
        2. Humans are made exclusively of matter. (From 1)
        3. The laws of nature that govern matter are non-teleological.
        4. Therefore, human nature is non-teleological. (From 2 and 3)

        THE HYPOTHETICAL ARGUMENT
        5. Norms can be authoritative for us.
        6. If norms can be authoritative for us, this can be only because (a) God creates and enforces those norms or (b) those norms stem from teleological features of our nature or (c) we endorse those norms.
        7. God does not exist.
        8. Our nature is non-teleological (from 4)
        9. Therefore, norms can be authoritative for us only because we endorse them. (from 6-8)
        10. Norms have categorical force only if they apply to you regardless of whether you endorse them.
        11. Therefore, norms cannot have categorical force. (From 9 and 10)

        Is this something like their arguments? If I have misrepresented them, where did I go wrong?

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        • James Doyle recently discusses Anscombe’s arguments – I have read papers, but his book is reviewed here
          https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/no-morality-no-self-anscombes-radical-skepticism/

          AIUI, MMP is usually taken as the start of the modern return of the virtues, with one claim (Anscombe’s second in her introductory para) that the duties associated with the “moral virtues” are no stronger or qualitatively different than those of the other more practical virtues. So “, it would be a great improvement if instead of morally wrong. one always named a genus such as ‘untruthful’ [etc]…”: the answer as to whether an action was, say, unjust “would sometimes be clear at once”. Punishing the innocent “in the context of English moral philosophy since Sidgwick, …might be ‘morally right’ in some circumstances…but it cannot be argued [to]..be just…a good man is a just man”.

          Her first claim regarding the need for “an adequate philosophy of psychology” is, I think, that one might be able to construct a suitable definition of flourishing to replace or rehabilitate teleology.

          So, anyway, Anscombe seems to think there are some kinds of categorical norms, else why are all good men just? However, what norms actually are is pretty murky to me, but I find the virtues even more ridiculous.

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    • You are making normativity purely psychological, that it’s individual feelings (that presumably can be influenced by others). I’m saying that it is a system of collective commitment. I come back to the issue of plagiarism. You and virtually every other teacher or professor hate plagiarism; students are forbidden to plagiarise. It is not just a painful feeling when you see a student plagiarise, you are part of an educational system that is committed to developing the capacities of the students and honouring the contributions of the scholars. The normative force is in your commitment to teaching and writing, not feelings of pain about a student’s bad choice.

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        • Yes, in a way for the student, the normative force is whether they are ready to commit to the standards of the educational system or whether they are just going along for the ride. There is also the normative force of those who make the judgement, and that is grounded on professional commitment to moral standards. Otherwise why not take money or bribes from students if they’ll pay enough and if you can get away with it? You have standards, they are not reducible to feelings, they are a part of what it means to be a university professor.

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          • My standards are flexible, as they should be. I don’t treat every student identically. And there are students who I might give a break with respect to a rule, even though I might not to others.

            At this point, I really don’t get what we’re arguing about anymore or what it has to do with the essay topic.

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          • You are signalling me to stop commenting, I guess. Here’s my last point then. In your philosophy you try to reduce normativity to something psychological and I’m trying to show you that that can’t be done.

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          • You didn’t see any arguments there. I believe I was doing more than giving examples. The way I see it, the examples are giving some persuasive force to my argument. And I take it you have certain standards for an argument. Are they standards that to you just feel right? I would argue that you adhere to these standards because you are a philosopher, and doing philosophy requires commitment to these standards. That is what makes for the normative force in them. That is an argument, not just an example. Otherwise, please tell me what the basic structure of such an argument would be for you, in order for it to be a real argument.

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  20. Just as well, people can deny the normative force of reason, or disagree about its interpretation, or flub it due to cognitive bias, or misconstrue it for personal gain. That’s the danger in most any normative question, but I don’t, for that reason, throw quotation-marks around the norms. People can certainly choose to ignore ethical considerations. People can also choose to ignore logic, facts, truth. Indeed, because normative processes are often necessary for sussing these all out, there are always nooks and crannies and loopholes for a knave to exploit.

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    • But that’s my point. I don’t deny the norms at all. What I deny is that they have any force beyond the psychological compulsion of the person confronted with them.

      If you look at my essay, “Prescription, Reason, and Force,” I say the following:

      “Prescription at the level of some should-do’s is an invitation to self-governance, broadly understood as the opportunity to regulate one’s own behavior, within the bounds of what is reasonable, and as a result, it must be seen as a precious gift. Because a should-do can easily turn into a must-do, if the matter at hand is one of sufficient social consensus and concern. Put plainly, you can be reasonable on your own or we can make you be reasonable. And if you are foolish and stubborn enough to be willing to bear whatever coercive force we apply and persist in being unreasonable, you will be removed from our midst permanently and perhaps, even killed. “

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      • The reality is that the earth orbits the sun. What we experience everyday is not that at all, we experience the sun crossing the sky above us. Just because that is what we experience does not mean that is the reality. The psychological reality is that the sun orbits the earth because that’s all I and anyone I know ever experiences. rules and values have no normative force beyond the psychological! What makes me responsible is growing up in society, not my current feelings. They are a result of my growing up in society. The social is a reality, even though our experience is psychological. rules and norms have normative force for me because I grew up in society – that’s the reality. Yes I experience strong feelings concerning moral issues. But I experience these feelings because of social reality. Just as we experience the sun going across the sky because of physical reality.

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      • I don’t have a problem with that description. I just disagree at how we spin these facts at a higher level (again, all our language here is value-laden). I think morality is a diverse outgrowth of our social natures. It is a social fact molded by history, practice, and our tacit consent, but that contingency doesn’t make me regard it any less realistically.

        I disagree with (a) in this respect in that I’m fine regarding realistically things that, in part, spring out minds or frameworks. Of course, even the subjects of science are dependent on the latter where, for instance, the particle under consideration could fall under one class or another depending on the framework in use, without any empirical difference between them. But even beyond that, with other social facts like money, it’s an expression of our collective wants and needs. This may result in exotic things like cryptocurrencies, but that doesn’t make it any less the case that OneCoin was fake and that some investor’s savings were entirely wiped out and their lives left in tatters. That’s reality too. This involves speaking about higher order facts that only emerged with humans, described in a vocabulary of desires and reasons, after certain historical and institutional developments, but all those are absolutely a part of the world we live in.

        Characterizing these things might partially involve talking about the individual and their subjective motivations and such as you do in (c). Yet it also involves characterizing a whole host of social facts far preceding and exceeding ourselves as individuals. Whether or not someone promised to repay me, as in (d), is often a straightforward descriptive issue. They can decide whether or not to follow through with it, but not whether or not it’s a promise. The latter is determined by collective practice, not personal sentiment, and I’m much more in line with Charles here in emphasizing how deeply enmeshed we are in communities. You’d accept it as an indisputable fact that I’m taking issue with your arguments and worldview, or that I’m misunderstanding you or whatever, even though these aren’t fully characterized at the level of sounds, motor-movements, or gray-scale scientific description. I don’t see why promises require that standard either to count as real.

        But to loop back, this is all involves a clash of reasons, a dispute about what should follow from what. All that emerges out of minds and frameworks too. All the same, I’m not about to embrace a subjectivist view of reason.

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  21. I only read your essay before, but I’m watching your dialogue now. A stray thought…

    I find the question of whether or not morality would exist without moral agents kind of a non-starter. Yeah, it wouldn’t. Rocks don’t have values without valuers. Even so, biological facts didn’t exist before life. I don’t intend to argue the naturalist case and say that biological and moral facts are on the same level and cash-out in a physicalist account, but like I said in my last post, I do believe there are emergent, higher-order realities. I understand you all starting off from a more standard sense of realism, but I just have my own mishmash uncertainties about the usual framing of the debate. Probably also why I diverge somewhat with Spencer. Yes, facts about US currency would change if the treasury chose to change them, but, to stick with biology, so do facts about species. Change is real. The underlying reality of currency expressing wants and needs for the purposes of exchange remain, and the underlying reality of chromosomal frequencies shifting around remain.

    We could take a more difficult case even. When did the Roman Republic end? A complex and drawn-out process, it’s a question just as much a matter of history and convention as the status of currency, considerably more contestable the more analyze it, and yet I consider it a question with realistic import. It even potentially exceeds the conventions and understandings of Republican contemporaries insofar as lip-service was paid to the Republic and some of its ceremonies while one man, in practice, ruled as dictator for life, nullifying one of its most central precepts. To clarify what we mean here involves talk about frameworks, about what it means to be a republic, about the values they and we bring to bear on the issue, but it remains the case that we’re talking about the gradual, but very real and profound change in the political structure of a society.

    We can stick to the standard, narrow sense of realism when discussing this issue and just toss it aside as irrelevant, but that just ends up tossing aside the standard sense as irrelevant in its own way. Is it an attempt to carefully segregate questions of fact and value into comfortable domains, to relieve our dread and confusion at the demands and uncertainties of value?

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    • Finished the dialogue. I see you yourself raise the issue of the value-ladenness of all our theorizing, ethical or otherwise. It just sounds like you steer hard in a Rortyan direction and throw up your hands at any substantial sense of warrant. I don’t know if you’d go so far as to say that “good” and “truth” are just compliments we pay things, but I also don’t know what’s supposed to stop you or what you think should (SHOULD?!) stop anyone from saying as much. But for all the hat-tipping to Wittgenstein and shade thrown at Plato, the Rortyan move still feels heavily reliant on the latter. So we don’t have a skyhook Truth to underwrite our everyday truths. (That don’t impress me much.) That doesn’t mean that truth is otherwise an empty notion that we should castrate or toss aside. Likewise for “should” or “obligation.” They don’t have a magical, rarefied, philosophical foundation that will inherently motivate us to accept them. What does? It’s in that sense that I agree with Spencer when he paints you as the inveterate skeptic here. I agree with you that ethics is a practical philosophy, but it’s just that, rather than being a foundational encounter, I consider it a very small part of ethical practice settling meta-ethical disputes with dyed-in-the-wool skeptics. Actual ethical practice is a communal exercise of sussing out our real hopes, fears, commitments, and ideals. It’s not showing the absence of one metaphysical footing (Platonism) means having to escape into the arms of another (subjectivism).

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