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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Some Things That Moral Realism Does Not Imply

Moral realism means that one thinks moral questions have real answers to them, not just answers we make up, and that it is either true or false to say "X is wrong," and not merely a statement of one's own preferences.

Before they get muddled by philosophy, almost everyone is a moral realist. And in practice, even after having had their common sense stunted in Ethics 101, most people continue to be moral realists: if their kid punches another kid in the head on the playground, they don't say, "Now Johnny, in my personally defined moral code, that was wrong." No, they say "That was wrong."

Now, there are a couple of things moral realism doesn't imply, but that, given the comments I have received, people seem to believe it does imply.

* Being a moral realist does not mean that one thinks one infallibly knows right from wrong. I believe the physical world is objectively real, and not just a matter of what I define it to be, but that certainly does not mean I think I know everything there is to know about the physical world!

* Being a moral realist does not mean that one thinks our understanding of morality never evolves. Again, think of the physical world: the fact we once thought the earth stood on the back of a turtle but now think it is a sphere spinning through space does not mean that there is no objective truth about the way the world is!

* Being a moral realist does not mean that one thinks moral issues are all easy. There is a truth about whether neutrinos can move faster than light, although that truth may be difficult to determine. Similarly, there is a fact of the matter about whether or not abortion is wrong, although that truth may be difficult for us to determine.

4 comments:

  1. Well, you're doing good work despite having had your mind muddled by philosophy. Might I add that being a moral realist does not mean one thinks one should be crowned king and all should obey the truth as the moral realist sees it?

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    1. "Well, you're doing good work despite having had your mind muddled by philosophy."

      Ah, but I got in with the GOOD philosophers! In any case, thank you.

      And yes, you might add that.

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  2. But what does the existence of this objective morality mean?

    OK. That question is unfairly broad. I'll try to narrow it down a bit. What are the implications of performing an action that is objectively right, or objectively wrong? What is it that makes an action moral or immoral? And why should we strive to be moral? I mean, sure, the objective morality could be some great big list of actions, but what is it about this list that means that we should aim to perform actions on the list?

    And you haven't addressed the pragmatic problem - since we can never observe the objective morality ourselves, but only our socially agreed upon moralities, should we simply assume that our current morality is the best available approximation to objective reality?

    This seems unlikely to me. Suppose that we should make this assumption, so that the best way to try and be (objectively) moral is to follow the (subjective) moral code of your society. Then it either is or is not the case that trying to be moral is moral. If it is, then all sorts of atrocities (you mentioned them yourself in another thread; the eviction of Native Americans from their land, Aztec mass human sacrifice, and the Holocaust) would have to be considered objectively moral.

    But if it is not the case that trying to be objectively moral by adhering to the best available subjective morality is itself necessarily moral, the we are screwed. Our best guess will not be good enough, and we will frequently fail to be moral.

    So we have to hope that in general, we can find a better approximation to the absolute morality than that adopted by our society. But this is getting perilously close to the caricature of moral subjectivism described in your previous post ("Most Moral Subjectivists Aren't Serious"), but without the tolerance of others.

    But regardless, we can only base our moral decisions on the imperfect moralities that we can create for ourselves, either individually or collectively. Which of course means that from a behavioral standpoint, the person who believes in an objective morality will indistinguishable from a moral subjectivist.

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    1. Unwisdom, you are spinning difficulties from the gossamer thread of your own thoughts. This is really no more difficult that the problem of "How do we act in the objectively real physical world, despite having an imperfect knowledge of it?"

      "Which of course means that from a behavioral standpoint, the person who believes in an objective morality will indistinguishable from a moral subjectivist."

      Not at all. As Collingwood said, "If a man thinks he is a poached egg, that will not make him one. But it will affect his conduct, and for the worse."

      Do you think believing the physical world is just something I've made up will have no effect on my conduct?

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