Steve Campbell from Michigan kindly directed my attention to a new paper that uses the methods of experimental philosophy to investigate the objectivity-question in metaethics. This paper by Geoffrey Goodwin and John Darley is entitled ‘The Psychology of Metaethics: Exploring Objectivism’ (downloadable from HERE). I have a couple of questions below but I think I need to explain the paper a bit first.
The method of the paper was to give a set of claims to the ‘subjects’. These were different factual claims, moral claims, claims about conventions and of matters of taste. The subjects were asked first whether they agreed with the claims and then whether they were true, false, or ‘mere opinions’. They were finally told that many other people hold the opposite views about the given claim. The final follow-up question was whether these people were mistaken, whether the subject himself could be mistaken, whether both could be right, or something ‘other’ was the case (whatever that could be).
The idea is supposed to be that agreeing to the possibility of mistakenness reveals that subject thinks that there is a disagreement. Thinking that there is a disagreement is then taken to be evidence that the subject thinks that the truth in question is objective and judgment-independent.
The answers were surprisingly predictable and the conclusions the authors drew were pretty modest. Perhaps the only slightly curious thing is that people think that some moral claims are true/false whereas others are mere opinions. But, by and large, on the criteria of the authors vast majority of the subjects thought that morality is almost as objective as factual matters of science.
I’m quite sceptical about this sort of methodology. First, there are questions about the sample of Princeton undergraduates who may not be representative in these matters (intercultural and class variation would be interesting). Second (as Antti Kauppinen has argued) there are questions about whether polling gives us anything more than gut-reactions whereas what would be more interesting would be some sort of reflective self-understanding of the subjects. Finally, I’m not sure how good of a meter the possibility of being mistaken is for the acceptance of the sort of judgment-independent objectivity the authors are after. Many response-dependent domains seem to contain the idea that one party is mistaken.
Anyway, I am (and Steve is) interested in whether there could be any arguments from what folk-metaethics is like to what the right metaethical view is. It’s true that we have some (new?) data here. Many metaethicists refer to the realist phenomenology and to the presumption of objectivity it entails. The study seems to support this line of thought. But I take it that any non-cognitivist worth their salt has an explanation for why it seems to us that morality is objective. Could the realist/objectivist get more out of this sort of studies to support their views? Is there any (even ideal) experimental data that could have more weight?