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Moral facts and moral properties as secondary qualities


To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral facts and moral properties as secondary qualities
Date: 15th September 2011 14:56

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 5 September, with your two essays for the University of London BA Ethics: Contemporary Perspectives module, in response to the questions, 'Are there moral facts?' and 'Critically assess the view that moral properties are best understood as like secondary qualities such as colours and tastes.'

Are there moral facts?

One way to read this very long (over 6000 words) essay is as an aide memoire for your own use, which covers a number of possible questions as well as the question you were actually asked. However, I think I can best help you by suggesting that you could have bracketed many of the issues you raise here, and pointing out issues which -- despite writing at such great length -- you seem to have glossed over or missed.

An examiner looking at this will read the last sentence of your first paragraph ('I am going to approach this discussion from the perspective of naturalistic moral realism'), then your final section 'Cognitivist Success Theories - Moral Realism' and conclude that you have simply ducked the question. Amongst the various 'flavours' of moral realism, do any succeed in meeting the challenge of accounting for moral facts? Your entire essay could have been written from this standpoint alone.

I liked best your statement about Ptolemaic epicycles. I don't agree with it, but it is arguably a valid approach to bootstrap an argument for cognitivism on the basis of a destructive critique of non-cognitivism. If our concern is with 'best explanation' in the context of philosophical theory, then the added burden of embracing moral truths or facts looks less daunting than the alternative, Heath-Robinsonian explanations which hardly do justice to our experience of everyday moral discourse.

But it isn't a clinching argument, that's the problem. Intuitions differ. Consider possible worlds. There are many philosophers (including yourself, probably) who would argue that any price is worth paying to avoid a Lewisian ultra-realism. Sure, Lewis gives a nice, elegant analysis of counterfactuals, while the alternatives (like Mackie) are complicated, full of epicycles. But maybe that's the best we can do. Counterfactuals look simple to unreflective intuition, but philosophical analysis reveals that they are anything but.

At the heart of the debate over moral facts is Hume's finger-pricking argument. There's room for discussion whether the fact/value or is/ought distinctions are ultimately the same problem or whether there are interesting differences, but the basic point is that knowing the facts leaves us with the choice of what to do, depending on what we value or want. Moore's 'naturalistic fallacy' is just a version of this.

You say, that my proposed course of action in doing X will harm lots of people in measurable ways, therefore it is a fact that it is bad. But I couldn't give a fcuk. Why should I care? I admit the 'facts', but for me they are just straightforward common or garden empirical facts. Millions will suffer horrible deaths as a result of my action. So what? I will benefit. I will enjoy the spectacle. I'll make a video.

Can you see the problem? You know the answer already, or think you know, so to you it looks like a pseudo-problem. But to make a convincing case that it is a pseudo-problem remains a tough proposition!

You might recall a question from Pathways Moral Philosophy, about George Kreisel's dictum, 'The point is not the existence of mathematical objects but the objectivity of mathematical truth,' or words to that effect. In the context, this is used as an argument against Mackie's 'queerness' objection. Moral objects would be queer (facts, knowledge of which entails the required action). But we are not looking for moral objects. The alternative -- a course pursued by Kant, and Nagel (in his 'Possibility of Altruism') and attempted in the program -- is to see moral laws as analogous to the laws of logic, as constraints on rationality, in some manner or other. I'm less confident than I used to be that this is possible. All I'm saying here is that this is a line of thought which you have already dismissed in your first paragraph.

Moral properties as secondary qualities

I had difficulty in following this. The point seems to be that at face value, the observation that moral properties are 'like' secondary qualities such as colours, could be used as an argument for realism, or for anti-realism about moral values, and only the slightest inflection makes the difference.

And yet, as you note, moral qualities are (defined as) intrinsically motivational. I think this point could have been emphasized more in your first essay. I think you could have also made more of it in this essay.

As it happens, the dispositional account is one which McDowell and I debated on more than one occasion when he was my D.Phil thesis supervisor.

On the face of it, there is a huge difference between, say, 'kind', and 'red'. The ability to discern red enables me to separate ripe tomatoes from unripe ones without having to taste them first. In general, the ability to discriminate objects can be used for any end. Whereas the ability to discern whether an action is kind or not intrinsically goes along with the motivation towards kindness. McDowell accepted this. Someone who had no inclination to be kind would, necessarily, be someone who simply couldn't 'see' the difference, often subtle, between being kind or not being kind in a particular situation.

I disagreed with McDowell. If you were the kind of person who would enjoy making the video (see above), and you also wanted to blend in as much as possible with 'normal' human beings so you could continue doing your dastardly deeds, you would want to be suitably armed with a 'people theory' that enabled you to discern the difference between kind and unkind acts with the same accuracy as those who are moved to kindness. To do this effectively, it would have to be 'second nature' to say to yourself, 'That's what human's call 'unkind'', while you twisted the knife.

McDowell's case, the case for realism on the basis of the analogy with secondary qualities depends, ultimately, on the idea that the person who, as a result of failure in social conditioning, is not moved to action necessarily 'misses' something which is there to be missed. One needs to tell some more or less fanciful story about 'people theory' in order to make good the difference. (See my paper, 'In pursuit of the amoralist' Because, as a matter of fact, the vast majority are moved, and those that are not, as a matter of fact (i.e. moral psychopaths) lack the ability to discern. This doesn't look to me a sufficiently convincing argument.

I suspect that as you worked on the essay, you were making moves (like the distinction between red-o and red-s) which you hoped would lead to a resolution of the question, but the deeper you looked the harder it was to see the point of the analogy. The very fact that the very same observation can be used as an argument for anti-realism or for realism about moral qualities, leads one to the conclusion that the analogy is not much use at all.

All the best,