In his “Meta-Ethics and the Problem of Creeping Minimalism” (Philosophical Perspectives 18: 23-44), James Dreier poses an urgent question. (Well, as urgent as questions in “meta-meta-ethics” get.) The question is how to formulate the difference between moral realism and irrealism given that one can always go minimalist, or deflationist, about whatever is proposed as the distinguishing mark of realism.
As Dreier notes, we used to think that the distinction is straightforward: realists say that there is such a thing as moral wrongness, irrealists say there isn’t. But then sophisticated irrealists started also saying that there is. They were entitled to say that, they claimed, because they went minimalist about truth, which makes the sentence “there is such a thing as moral wrongness” easily come out true. You might hope that the realist/irrealist distinction could still be drawn by suggesting that according to the irrealist, the sentence is true, but not TRUE. But what is TRUTH? You might suggest: it’s truth in virtue of facts. But a super-sophisticated irrealist could say that they believe in moral facts (hence moral TRUTH), just not FACTS. You might think you could draw the realist/irrealist distinction in terms of commitment to moral FACTS. But what are FACTS? A natural suggestion is that they are mind-independent facts. But then a super-duper-sophisticated irrealist could say that they believe in mind-independent moral facts (hence moral FACTS), just not in MIND-INDEPENDENT moral facts.
You get the point. The worry is that realists and irrealists might never be in disagreement. Whenever it seems that they disagree, they’re just speaking different languages. One speaks English, the other ENGLISH. The problem of creeping minimalism is that apparently it’s impossible to formulate an English sentence to which the realist assents but from which the irrealist dissents (nor for that matter an ENGLISH sentence). This problem appears to parallel familiar problems in metaphysics: it is sometimes suspected that there is no genuine distinction between restricted and unrestricted compositionalists, or between presentists and eternalists – they just use different variants of English that differ in the interpretation of the quantifier. It’s a problem because the intuition is that realists and irrealists don’t just speak past each other, they really do disagree on something. They are not in the same position as the British philosopher who says “there is such a thing as moral wrongness” debating the French philosopher who says “il existe une chose telle que la faute morale.”
The first half of Dreier’s paper does a great job of formulating the problem clearly and vividly. The second half offers a solution. I am somewhat less happy with the solution, though I think in spirit it might be exactly right.
Dreier’s solution is that the difference between realists and irrealists is in whether their explanations of normative judgments (or concepts) appeal to normative facts (or properties). He says (p. 38) that, at least according to realists about the natural world, “an account of what naturalistic belief consists in will appeal to naturalistic facts,” whereas, at least according irrealists about the normative realm, an account of what a normative belief consists in will not appeal to normative facts. Suppose Jane judges that slavery is wrong. The moral realist thinks that an explanation of the fact that Jane judges that slavery is wrong has to cite the fact that slavery is wrong; whereas the moral irrealist think it doesn’t have to. This formulation of the distinction is supplemented with a story about the kind of explanation we’re interested in that builds on Hawthorne & Price, Fine, and Gibbard. Pretty clearly, it’s not causal explanation, at least not necessarily. It’s something closer to an “in virtue” explanation.
The reason I’m unhappy with this formulation is that an unbearably sophisticated irrealist might say: “Oh, I think an account of what normative belief consists in will appeal to normative facts – it’s that that an ACCOUNT of what normative belief consists in will not APPEAL to NATURALISTIC FACTS” – or something annoying like that. The formulation doesn’t yet help us state something that a raving minimalist can’t assent to while remaining an irrealist.
At the same time, I think the spirit of the solution is exactly right. In essence, the solution has to do with the direction of explanation between normative judgments and the normative facts they purport to be about, or between normative concepts and the normative properties they purport to pick out. According to the realist, part of what makes it the case that Jane’s judgment is the judgment it is is the fact that slavery is wrong. According to the irrealist, part of what makes it the case that the fact of slavery’s wrongness is the fact it is is the fact that Jane judges that slavery is wrong. We might formulate the idea as a Euthyphro-style question: Are (a) the slavery judgments the judgments they are because the slavery facts are the facts they are, or are (b) the slavery facts the facts they are because the slavery judgments are the judgments they are? If you answer (a), you’re a realist; if (b), an irrealist. (Of course, we then need to supplement all this with an account of what “because” means.)
Perhaps the idea could be put in terms of the distinction between the contents and the vehicles of judgments. On the realist view, the judgment content is individuated independently of the vehicle, and then the vehicle is individuated by reference to the content it carries. On the irrealist view, the judgment vehicle is individuated independently of the content, and the content is individuated in terms of the vehicle that carries it.
PS. I’m off to Tasmania for a week in a few hours. Never having been out there, I’m not sure about the internet access I’ll have. I might not be able to respond to comments very quickly.