We are pleased to present the third installment of PEA Soup's collaboration with Ethics, in which we host a discussion of one article from an issue of the journal. The article selected from Volume 120, Issue 3 is Mark van Roojen's "Moral Rationalism and Rational Amoralism" (open access copy here). We are very grateful that Russ Shafer-Landau has agreed to provide the critical precis of Mark's article, and his commentary begins below the fold.
I want to thank Dave Shoemaker from PEA Soup for coaxing me into making my blogosphere debut, and Mark van Roojen for writing such an interesting paper.
I’m very sympathetic with Mark’s line of argument, and have been encouraged to keep things short. So I will content myself with raising just three questions that might spark discussion, rather than trying to pinpoint lines of thought that strike me as mistaken.
First question: what is at stake in a defense of the two internalisms of the sort that Mark endorses? Take judgment internalism. In its classic, unsoftened form, judgment internalism asserted a necessary connection between sincere moral judgment and motivation: if an agent judges an available action to be morally right, then she is motivated to some extent to do it. As is well known, we can couple this internalist thesis with a Humean thesis about the motivational impotence of representational states to yield a noncognitivist conclusion. That’s interesting, and powerful.
But once we qualify judgment internalism, so that there is only normally a connection between sincere moral judgment and motivation among rational agents, I’m unsure of what role it can play in important metaethical arguments. Of course there is some intrinsic interest in whether the modified internalist thesis is true. But it would be good to hear about whether folks think that the addition of a plausible premise or two will yield a surprising and controversial metaethical conclusion.
I have the same sort of question about existence internalism. In its classic form, every moral obligation entails a decisive reason of compliance, so that those who act immorally thereby act irrationally. That’s a very cool thesis that lots of people hope is true, and lots of people are very skeptical about. (Sometimes these are the same people.) But once we enter Mark’s qualifications, by means of noticing the variety of forms of subjective irrationality, then it’s no longer clear who would reject existence internalism–or the rationalism that can accommodate it. After Mark’s treatment of these theses, we are left with the view that it can be perfectly subjectively rational to ignore or otherwise violate objective moral requirements (assuming there are any). But did anyone ever deny this?
Though I generally hate footnotes, I would have liked some citations to those whose interesting views entail the rejection of the internalisms that Mark ends up with. That probably would have given me a better sense of what is at stake here.
Second question: how plausible is the rationalism that Mark endorses? As I understand him, one commitment of his rationalism is the view that if an agent is morally required to do something, then it is (at least) objectively rational for the agent to do it. And this means that if the agent were a perfect reasoner (where perfection is characterized wholly without reference to moral features), then doing her duty would make sense to her.
The standard worry about rationalism is given by the traditional Humean: what is rational for me to do depends on what I want; people want different things, even after exposure to super-duper cognitive psychotherapy; therefore what is rational for my ideal counterpart to do may differ from what it is rational for your ideal counterpart to do in the same situation. If this familiar picture is correct in its essentials, then rationalism is true only if moral relativism is true.
Now I’m pretty sure that Mark isn’t a moral relativist. So he’s either got to reject rationalism, or one of the two Humean assumptions that sparked this worry. I assume he’d do the latter. But I don’t see that anything he says in the paper gives us a basis for rejecting either assumption.
Mark clearly thinks that his two duly qualified internalist theses help to support rationalism. Do they do anything to cast doubt on the familiar Humean picture just sketched? If not, then even if they do provide some support for a softened rationalism, they don’t go to what seems to me to be the heart of anti-rationalist concerns.
A final question: how are we to understand rationalism? Mark sometimes characterizes it as the view that the property of rightness is identical to the property of being rational. I was unsure about whether the rightness in question is meant to be moral rightness. Suppose it isn’t. If we aren’t talking of moral rightness, then it’s again not clear what is at stake here. Both internalist theses are theses about morality–either sincere moral judgments, or moral obligations. I don’t see how they support, or are supported by, a rationalist thesis that isn’t focused on moral rightness.
But if the rationalist thesis is about moral rightness, then it is false, since the property of being morally right is not identical to the property of making sense. Many beliefs, intentions and actions make sense, though they have nothing whatever to do with morality. Of course we might amend the thesis so that it is, or entails, the claim that what is morally right = what makes moral sense. There’s no denying that. But then there’s also no interest in the thesis, and it is hard to see who might be tempted to resist it. So on this reading, the thesis turns out to be either false, or of negligible importance.
I’ve left out most of the interesting stuff in Mark’s paper–-to read my comments, one would never know about his good work on Frege’s puzzle, or the varieties of subjective rationality, or the level of nuance present in his defense of the two internalist theses. I hope that other readers will address those aspects (and others) in their comments, and perhaps also offer replies that reveal my worries to be less serious than they might initially appear.
University of Wisconsin, Madison