|Welcome to what will hopefully be a very interesting discussion of Dale Dorsey's "Moral Distinctiveness and Moral Inquiry". The paper is published in the most recent edition of Ethics and available to read through open access here. Kathryn M Lindeman has kindly contributed a critical précis, and it appears immediately below. Please join in the discussion!|
Dale Dorsey's paper "Moral Distinctiveness and Moral Inquiry" is a clearly motivated and impressive contribution to the literature on foundational questions in Ethics. I am very glad Ethics has chosen to publish this paper and that PEA Soup has chosen to provide this space for us to discuss it.
Dorsey’s concern is with how it is possible to settle what distinguishes moral standards from other standards according to which we can evaluate actions (e.g. those of prudence, honor, etiquette, sportsmanship, etc). He is specifically concerned with the feasibility of what he terms the project (italics his) – the attempt to determine the unique content of the moral domain, prior to substantive first-order inquiry. His conclusion is that the project is not feasible, that contrary to the hopes of moral philosophers, we cannot know what is distinctive of morality prior to substantial first-order deliberation.
In what follows, I'll do three things: (I) I'll quickly explain the motivations others have for undertaking the project; (II) I'll summarize the argument Dorsey uses to motivate skepticism about the project and his positive view of how we should understand the distinguishing feature of the moral domain independently of the project; and (III) then I will raise two worries: one about the argumentative assumptions Dorsey makes and one about where we are left if the negative argument against the project is successful.
(I) Dorsey begins by jointly motivating not only why we might want a way to distinguish moral from other standards applicable to action but also why we might want to do so before engaging in first-order moral inquiry. He covers a lot of ground, explaining how various moral theorists have motivated and engaged in the project. There are two main reasons Dorsey highlights.
First, determining what is distinctive about morality can set the terms of moral inquiry. Warnock, for example, thinks that in order for moral philosophers to know what they are talking about, they must have an account of what is distinctive of morality. Further, this is critical if moral philosophers are going to be sure that they are all talking about the same thing. Without this, disputants might just be talking past each other.
Second, Dorsey notes that the project aspires to provide distinctive features of morality that can serve a gatekeeping function. In deciding between moral theories, one important (and frequently used) tool available to us is comparing the features of those theories with the commitments we gain from having an answer to the project. Moral theorists frequently use claims about what is distinctive of morality in arguments against other first-order moral theories in ethics (or, in the case of nihilists, of morality in general). And we must have a sense of what morality is up to in order to conclude that some particular account of morality isn't up to snuff. I'll return to these points in (III).
(II). Despite these two appealing uses for determining what is distinctive of morality before substantial moral inquiry, Dorsey presents a striking argument that the project cannot succeed. He considers and dismisses five ways to account for morality's distinctiveness: its content, how it is grounded, the relationship it has to reactive attitudes, the relationship it has to motivation, and its distinctive normativity. None, he argues, can be established prior to substantive first-order inquiry.
The whole of the argument against the project ends up turning on the first possible distinctive feature: its content. All of the other ways morality might turn out to be distinctive turn on the determinability of its content, prior to substantive first order theorizing.
Dorsey takes content to be saddled with what he calls the “coarse/fine tension.” Content, to be distinctive of morality, must be fine-grained enough to distinguish morality from non-moral domains; but to satisfy the project it must be coarse-grained enough not to rule out any plausible first-order moral theories. So, for example, utility-maximizing cannot be the property distinctive of moral content, because not all first-order theories would take this to be distinctive of morality, and so it is not coarse-grained enough. However, this property also cannot be something like ‘being other-oriented,’ because it seems to be shared by content that is not in the domain of ethics, like the dictates of etiquette.
Dorsey argues these two are in tension. No account that is fine-grained enough to uniquely distinguish morality will be coarse-grained enough not to rule out a first-order theory prior to first-order deliberation. Dorsey concludes, “In sum, morality clearly has a distinctive content. So much is trivial. But we should reject the claim that a content-based account of morality's distinctiveness could satisfy the project” (Doresy, 760).
The main objection Dorsey raises for taking the grounds of the moral domain to be its distinctive trait relies on his argument about content. He notes that often grounding properties radically underdetermine the content of the resulting domain. He argues that we will need to check to make sure that the claimed grounding property actually uniquely and appropriately determines the content of the moral domain. But this means that we need an understanding of moral content to check whether the grounds of the moral domain are doing their job. Thus, because we cannot determine the content of morality prior to first-order deliberation, we will be unable to determine its grounds prior to this deliberation either.
The last three possible ways of determining what is distinctive of morality—its connection to reactive attitudes, motivation, and normativity—are addressed together. I'll just give the concluding argument of this section, roughly as Dorsey presents it.
- Morality's normative authority must be explained by reference to a further distinctive property.
- If explained by its distinctive content or grounds, morality's normative authority cannot satisfy the project. (What was just shown.)
- Morality's normative authority cannot be explained by a special connection to reactive attitudes or motivation (because explanation goes in the other direction).
- Morality's normative authority is best explained either by the ground or content of morality.
- Because morality's normative authority explains any connection moral obligations may have to the reactive attitudes or to motivation, and because morality's normative authority is not prior to substantive moral investigation, a purported special connection to the reactive attitudes or the motivations of rational agents is also not prior to substantive first-order inquiry. (Dorsey, 771)
By showing that determining the content of morality requires first-order deliberation and all other options he's aware of require understanding of the distinctive content of morality, Dorsey takes himself to have justified substantial skepticism about the project. Rather than determine what is distinctive of morality prior to first-order inquiry, Dorsey concludes with a sketch of how we might determine what is distinctive of morality by understanding it as determined by the correct moral theory.
III. Something that will be fruitful to open for discussion is whether it is surprising that content, as Dorsey understands it, must be determined after first-order inquiry. This can look unsurprising since he seems to think that the content of morality is a matter of what actual reasons, requirements, and dictates are correct according to morality, rather than a matter of the questions that morality addresses. Consider his positive account:
“Instead [of appealing to the project], we should say that whether a considered judgment has moral content or not should be determined by its capacity to survive whatever proper epistemic procedure is appropriate for first-order moral inquiry—such as reflective equilibrium with our substantive considered judgments, including our considered judgments concerning the distinctiveness of the moral domain. If, for instance, I judge that I am morally required to treat the Queen of England with traditional deference, whether or not this judgment has moral content should be determined by whether this judgment is or is not coherent with the remainder of our purportedly moral judgments in reflective equilibrium… if it is, then my judgment has moral content. If it is not (which I suspect), then it does not” (Dorsey, 772).
Here whether a judgment has moral content seems to turn on whether it is morally correct. But if that is the sense of content we are after, then surely it cannot be determined prior to first-order deliberation, since it will be a matter of contention. It seems unlikely, however, that this is what gate-keepers want to appeal to in ruling out other first-order theories, because, among other things, this would make their arguments circular.
We might worry that if Dorsey is right, things are much worse for moral theorizing than he has let on, because the only use of the project is not gate-keeping. As Dorsey notes, another reason theorists undertake the project is to ensure that they are deliberating and disagreeing about the same thing as those they are deliberating and disagreeing with. One might then worry that the project is necessary to ensure not only that moral philosophers do know what they're theorizing about, but also that they can be confident that disagreements between moral philosophers are disagreements at all.
Dorsey himself comes close to making this point when he acknowledges that “…for instance, Mill and Gibbard may use the term 'morality' simply to pick out the norms relevant to praise and blame; Foot may use the term to refer to norms relevant to well-being and cognate concepts; Mackie may use it to pick out norms that are generally other-regarding and so on. This would entail, of course, that these philosophers are simply talking past each other, and hence there may be no substantive issue when it comes to the distinguishing mark of morality. However, this interpretation of the dialectic should be treated as a last resort” (Dorsey 754-5). The worry, of course, is that this so-called “last resort” is exactly what Warnock, on Dorsey’s reading, seems to be claiming is the result of giving up on the project. Without some handle on what is distinctive about the domain of morality, it's not clear what could settle the matter of whether these philosophers are talking past each other.
It seems that we'll need to have some sense of what the domain of morality is in order to ensure we're not talking past our interlocutors. We might also want to use these fixed points as gate-keepers, as ways to rule out other first-order theories, but more fundamentally, we also want them to fix the grounds of the debate itself. Dorsey mainly focuses on the consequences that the failure of the project will have on first-order theorizing, and the inability of moral theorists to reject first-order theories on the grounds that they are incompatible with what is distinctive of morality, but if he is right, it is unclear that we can even be sure that theorists developing competing first-order moral views are even developing views of the same thing.
This seems to have repercussions not only for moral theorists doing first-order work, but also for the very project that Dorsey is engaged in. (Those familiar with Katia Vavova's “Debunking Evolutionary Debunking” (Oxford Studies in Metaethics 9:76-101 (2014)) will note the similarity between the worry to follow and the debunking strategy she turns against the debunker there.) Dorsey early on states his main thesis as “Though morality is surely distinct from other domains, morality's distinctiveness cannot be settled prior to substantive inquiry into the content of moral reasons, requirements, and concerns” (Dorsey, 748). One might worry, however, that if Warnock is right, Dorsey is not entitled to the first clause of this claim and many others like it. How can we know that morality is surely distinct from other domains unless we know that what is distinctive of morality is not distinctive of other domains? Dorsey assumes that we have a pre-theoretical understanding of distinct normative disciplines, but it seems particularly this sort of pre-theoretical understanding that his argument against the project brings under suspicion.
So, it seems we cannot assume prior to first-order deliberation that certain things are not part of the domain of morality. But it seems that throughout the argument against the project, Dorsey seems to assume exactly this. To give just one example, in his discussion of the failure of appeals to grounding to find what is distinctive of morality, Dorsey writes:
“According to Southwood's approach, the moral domain is not grounded in social practices. But many different normative concerns are not so grounded: a concern for beauty, a concern for my own welfare, and so on. Southwood's approach thus cannot distinguish morality from, e.g., prudence and aesthetics (to begin with)” (Dorsey, 762).
But this move, claiming that the chosen grounding property doesn't uniquely ground morality, presupposes we know quite a lot about morality, at least, in the negative. But if we don't know what distinguishes morality prior to first-order inquiry, why do we think we can know what distinguishes prudence and aesthetics? Why can we be confident, as Dorsey is, that prudence and aesthetics are those domains that have these concerns and that morality isn't fundamentally concerned with beauty?
This worry also runs through Dorsey's negative argument. It is central to the “coarse/fine tension” about the content of morality. This tension presupposes that there is content we want to rule out. But how are we entitled to this on Dorsey's account? If we are not able to determine the content of morality prior to first-order deliberation, it seems that we might not be entitled to this sort of argumentative move. Of course, there are responses Dorsey could make here, but it is puzzling how we can be entitled to know what isn't part of morality before moral inquiry and yet not be entitled to know what is part of the content of morality before this inquiry.
Dorsey's positive suggestion, too, seems to presuppose some already running first-order moral commitments. Of course, specific judgments about moral requiredness can be assessed once we have a moral system up and running. But this is exactly the issue: how can we get the whole thing off the ground? How do we know whether considerations of etiquette and morality are really distinct or whether the love of beauty is a moral consideration? What makes negative facts about morality's content free game while positive facts about it must be won with hard earned toil in first-order normative deliberation? If I begin with a moral view in which considerations of beauty are in my account, then it will likely not distinguish the domains of morality and aesthetics. Dorsey seems committed to distinguishing these, but it is not clear how his account will ensure that things work this way.
One final surprising result is that Dorsey's argument seems to also undermine common strategies for arguing for moral nihilism. Not only do proponents of specific positive first-order moral theories deploy claims about what is distinctive of morality to argue against opponents, some theorists take accounts of what is distinctive of morality to show that nothing of the sort could exist. Moral nihilists and error theorists take there to be something distinctive of morality, and take this to be good reason to think that, because no one thing could have those distinctive traits, we should accept moral nihilism.
If Dorsey is right, there is no way that there could be such things that the moral nihilists could reasonably take to be distinctive of morality before they had a positive picture of what morality was, that is, prior to first-order deliberation. But it is just this kind of deliberation that the nihilist is committed to thinking is not going to yield sensible results, I'd have thought. In any case, it is possible that there is an argument against the very coherence of nihilism in this account, which I suppose could end up being good news for those currently caught in its grip.