Max Hayward-Caroline Arruda APA Session

What follows is Max Hayward’s abstract for his paper, “How to be an Ethical Anti-Objectivist,” which is here. Caroline Arruda’s comments are here. We encourage anyone to participate in the discussion!

 “Objectivity is the central problem of ethics. Not just in theory, but in life.” (Nagel, 1986). Nagel’s claim is widely accepted: that if we cannot substantiate the claim that ethics is somehow objective, then something vital would be lost – not just a theoretical desideratum, but something crucial underpinning our entire practical lives as ethical agents. The purpose of the paper is to argue that this is wrong. It might disappoint philosophers if ethics turned out not be objective. But it would not undermine the basis of our practice. Non-objective ethical norms would both deserve our respect and have legitimate claim to govern our lives and direct our actions.

17 Replies to “Max Hayward-Caroline Arruda APA Session

  1. Hi Caroline! Thanks so much for these really helpful comments. Prompted by them, I think I can state the structure of my argument more clearly.

    An argument that morality must be *objective* in order to be *authoritative* has two steps:
    1) Morality is only authoritative if I has feature P.
    2) Morality only has feature P if it is objective.

    My view is that, for all candidates for feature P, either 1) or 2) will be false.

    For example, take the case where P is “being such as to be able to demonstrate to rational agent, who is not antecedently committed to morality [ie the amoralist/skeptic/knave] that she ought to be moral.” It’s plausible that 2) is true in this case. If the moral fact is just “out there”, then the knave ought to be able to “see” it, even if she won’t be moved it.* But 1) strikes me as false. Why should we need morality to be able to refute the skeptic in order to view it as authoritative /for us/?

    There are other candidates for P that I consider, here and in the longer version of this paper. The first is that ethics is not arbitrary – that when we change our views, this is not “mere change” but there is some standard of correctness we can aspire to. The second is that ethics not be actually bad for us – a mere instrument of social control (as we might think that some traditional sexual mores in fact are). And the third is that it is not fetishistic – when we make sacrifices in the name of morality (for example, sacrificing those that we care deeply about for the sake of strangers), we are not doing so in thrall to norms that themselves do no good (we need to be assured “of the value of our values”). I think that these are all good candidates for P, such that P would satisfy 1). But I think it implausible that any of these values for P are such that P would satisfy 2) – my sketched Kitcher-style genealogy of moral norms can show that morality has all these features, without it being the case the morality is objective in any robust way.

    Certainly, showing that the most obvious candidates for P don’t satisfy both 1) and 2) doesn’t show that there is *no* such candidate. I I don’t think that I have a general argument to this effect. So I don’t take my argument to be conclusive! But I’m not sure what the feature might be that would satisfy both 1) and 2).

    Now, I think that Caroline is introducing a new candidate for P which is distinct from the “refuting the skeptic” variety that I considered above, but which is also not one of the ones I considered. But I’d like to hear a bit more about what it is! And in particular, why we should think that it satisfies both 1) and 2).

    Thanks again!

  2. Thanks, Max! I took it that the argument that you present above captures the negative part of your argument well. My suggestion was that the positive part of your argument– roughly, represented by the Kitcher-style story–may not fully establish the right kind of normative authority for morality (the question of objectivity aside).

  3. So, to clarify, my challenge at the end of my comments was how to understand (1) on the Kitcher-style story.

  4. In this regard, the challenge presented by the amoralist is, as you rightly point out, the wrong kind of case to determine either ethics’ objectivity or its normative authority. My suggestion is that although this case may not be the right kind of case, we still want a case that tests ethics’ normative authority that explains how ethics can “correct” the mindset of those agents who are not antecedently convinced of morality’s authority.

    This is a way of getting at what “normative authority” is supposed to be (and, at least, the sufficient conditions for it). I take this to be separate from the question of ethics’ objectivity, and so my suggestion, if plausible, would only help with (1) above, but not (2).

  5. Hi Max,
    Nice paper. I’m very sympathetic to genealogical vindication of ethics that you sketch. I have a suggestion (which may very well feature in the longer version of the paper) and a question.
    Suggestion: An objection to the genealogical vindication that you offer is that there are all kinds of ways of solving our problems, but many would not survive ethical scrutiny. For example, “slaughter everyone who disagrees” is a solution to most of our problems, but not one that we ought to attempt to put in place. The point is that we need ethical standards to guide the process of figuring out how to solve our problems. My suggestion is that we look to Hume, who proposes a standard against which we can evaluate our proposed solution to our problems. This standard is approval and disapproval from the General Point of View. This standard has two nice features given your orientation towards ethics. First, it is thoroughly grounded in our sympathetic nature and so we need not appeal to any external ethical facts to make sense of it. Second, on Hume’s view, it is itself a solution to a problem (T and EPM 9.6 for more details). Hume’s standard helps you avoid the objection while also continuing to recognize the (in my view) plausible idea that ethics is not some eternal set of capital T Truths, but rather the product of our working together to solve the important problems that arise in the course of trying to live with each other.
    Question: This kind of gets at one of the issues that Caroline raised in her comments. I’m not totally sure what you mean by “normative authority.” You clearly don’t mean anything like “could in principle convince any rational agent.” You also don’t seem to mean that our ethical standards are The Truth to which we must all bow down (perhaps insofar as we are rational). I take it you mean something like that the standards are non-arbitrary and are themselves addressed to persistent human needs and grounded in our sympathetic natures. I guess the question, then, is why is that normative authority? Why not instead just give up on normative authority? I can see why you’d want to discuss normative authority given its role in structuring the philosophical debate as we find it. But why not rest content with non-arbitrary standards addressed to our needs and grounded in our sympathetic natures? Obviously, if you have an argument for thinking that that’s all there is to normative authority, then great.

  6. Thanks Caroline! That’s really helpful. I think that the correct view is that feature P is actually something like the *conjunction* of the features I mentioned above. So I’d say that morality needs to be i) non-arbitrary, ii) non-fetishistic, iii) good for us (depending on how we understand these features, there may be mutual entailments).

    I think that Kitcher’s model precisely does show this – ethical norms are something that we invented in order to solve problems that we find in attempting to live together. When we change our norms, there is a non-arbitrary standard of progress – these new norms should do a better job of solving our problems. And our adherence to the norms is not fetishistic or rule-worshipping – the norms were created for a purpose. And that purpose appears to be good for us – it helps us to live together.

    In other words, when someone asks why she should be moral, we should remind her of the function that moral norms play in human society, and of the value of that function in terms of realising goals that she and others care about* – a kind of internal explication of the moral norms she is embedded in. If that doesn’t move her, that doesn’t show that morality isn’t authoritative, it just shows that she is in a particularly alienated condition.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t question our norms. But what we should question is not the authority of *morality*, but the authority of *these particular norms* – for it may turn out that some of our norms really are just ossified rules that we follow in a fetishistic manner, or veiled mechanisms of social control, or attempted solutions to social problems that don’t work or could be superseded. The correct worries to have are in the domain of first-order ethics, not in the domain of metaethics.

  7. Here, perhaps I can say a bit more about what I mean by ‘correct’. The idea is that for ethics to have normative authority, one necessary (?) condition is that it has the power to change the minds of those that were not originally convinced of its import or action-guidingness. This might be a way of understanding how ethics’ normative authority is connected with a story about the weight of reasons and with the idea that moral reasons have a special kind of normative force.

  8. Ah, I just saw your comment above. Let me reply to that. The conditions you propose make sense to me, but I’m worried that we don’t have a sufficiently fine-grained picture of what ‘non-arbitrariness’ means here. [As an aside, I don’t mind fetishistic rule-worshipping, but that is part of another project I’m working on that we can discuss some other time!]

  9. Hi Ian! These are great points, and I’m sympathetic to both of them.

    A fuller statement of the toy genealogy I have in mind would be that moral norms “solve the problems that we, /as mutually sympathetic and benevolent creatures/, find in living together” – so the very specification of the problems builds in a kind of Humean sentimentalism. As you say, this constrains the sorts of “solutions” that can be offered.

    As to “normative authority”, I’m with you there. Really, what I want to say is that this all there is to normative authority – that the search for anything more “robust” is really just chimerical, a desire to thump the table harder to cover up for the ultimate impotence of morality to enforce compliance from the wicked. In the longer version of the paper I talk about the authority *or legitimacy* of morality – the goal is simply to show that morality is something that it makes sense to go in for and to care about.

  10. Caroline’s suggestion is that “ethics can “correct” the mindset of those agents who are not antecedently convinced of morality’s authority”. That’s a really interesting way of putting it.

    If we’re talking about agents who are benevolent and sympathetic and capable of following histories and arguments, who have not yet accepted moral norms but who have also not set their face against morality, then I think that the story I sketched shows that ethics /can/ correct their mindset. That’s especially true when we realise that our moral culture includes, as well as philosophical arguments, stories and works of art that make the feelings of others vivid and urgent – morality can not just convince the non-moral agent but perhaps even motivate her to take part in the moral life.

    But if we’re talking about agents who lack these features – who are approaching the situation of the amoralist, being perhaps rational but lacking any propensity to care about others – then no, I don’t think that morality can correct their mindset. But so what? Why should that matter so much?

    After all, all sorts of branches of thought and practice lack the power to correct the mindset of the benighted – it takes more than mere science to convince conspiracy theorists and climate denialists. Perhaps the thought is that the relevant branches of thought could persuade these people *if they were rational* (although some conspiracy theorists may be quite rational, and simply start from false premisses). But, again, why should that be the standard? So long as we can convince people who are rational *and kind*, why worry if we cannot convince those who are rational and emotionally dead to the kinds of things that make human life meaningful?

    I think it’s a huge unjustified assumption in metaethics to claim that morality is a) authoritative so long as it can persuade a rational but emotionless intelligence, and b) non-authoritative if it cannot. I think the second claim is definitely false, and the first claim probably false too.

  11. “As an aside, I don’t mind fetishistic rule-worshipping, but that is part of another project I’m working on that we can discuss some other time!”

    — I’d love to hear more!

  12. I agree the amoralist is the wrong test case. I’m wondering if something like the wishy-washy agent who is on the fence about morality’s normative authority would be a better test (and a bit closer to what I am glossing as “correcting” the agent’s mindset).

    You’re right that the Kitcher-style story that you give would explain how agents who are antecedently disposed would *come to recognize* morality’s normative authority. I’m not sure that’s the same as changing one’s mindset (or “correcting” one’s mindset). I would add, though, that I don’t know that I have clear criteria for what “correcting” might mean in this context.

  13. Max, this is an interesting paper. Suppose that it really did turn out that morality is not objective. And suppose that somehow we came to know that. I think that would greatly but not completely undermine the rational basis of the moral systems we follow.

    For practical subjective reasons we could find some KIND of ‘respect’ for what we take to be subjectivist norms just by their being what we think are our ONLY available guides for action. But this ‘respect’ is just our practically dealing with the fact that agents need SOME basis for acting, and that all they have is subjective. But it makes no sense that such norms would ‘deserve’ respect, for there would be no basis for such desert.

    As long as you are forthright that you don’t mean that we must ‘respect’ these norms in the ordinary sense of the word, or that they ‘deserve’ our respect in anything like the ordinary sense, then I think your claims will carry some weight

    Your attack on realism focuses on nonnaturalist views that offer no grounds, which is most of them. But I still think you’re misinterpreting them. You don’t deny that there is rightness and wrongness, I don’t think. You just deny they exist AS nonnaturalists say they do. As far as I’m aware, that debate hasn’t be settled, and we don’t have a definitive account of the way in which rightness and wrongness exist. In any case, I would argue that realism that includes moral grounds makes for a better, more defensible, position.

  14. Hi Max, great paper! That said, I just want to note that this refinement:

    “A fuller statement of the toy genealogy I have in mind would be that moral norms “solve the problems that we, /as mutually sympathetic and benevolent creatures/, find in living together” – so the very specification of the problems builds in a kind of Humean sentimentalism.”

    …renders the story empirically false. No currently available model of the early development of human moral norms gives the relevant agents Hume’s famously over-optimistic “we are the world” moral psychology. This is because violent between-group conflict was key to the development of so-called “groupish” norms on most respectable stories. Sober’s book is really good on this.

    So a more realistic specification would be: “solve the problems that we, /as creatures benevolent and sympathetic only towards those in our immediate social group/, find in living together.” But then Ian’s objection is back with a vengeance: a simple way to ensure optimal moral functioning, on this functionalist view, is to kill everyone outside our immediate social group who disagrees with us. And in doing so, we would be enacting a strategy with an excellent historical pedigree. This is why I’ve always thought that this kind of story simply smuggles in the very moral constraints it seeks to justify. It is, in other words, an exercise in what Nietzsche called ‘English Psychology’.

    Another question: in your comments above, you again echo Kitcher in saying that the amoralist is “alienated”. What is the force of this supposed to be for the wholehearted amoralist? Or, if no force is intended, is this declaration just a way of making us non-amoralists feel better about ourselves?

  15. Hi Nick! Thanks for this comment – it’s a great challenge.

    I don’t think Hume does propose a “we are the world” moral psychology. He thinks that we have a propensity for certain kinds of other regard, that these are initially targetted at those close to us, but that we are also not *entirely* indifferent to the wellbeing of total strangers, and that our other-regard can be extended over time. I think that’s largely right.

    It’s not the case that our ancestors had a propensity *for other-regard only towards conspecifics*. Rather, they had a propensity for other-regard *that was mostly targetted towards conspecifics*. But this capacity was extensible, and humans have, in fact, extended it.

    Indeed, that extension /did/ solve a problem that early in-groupish humans had. They lived in a state of perpetual violence with other groups. Now, as you and Ian suggest, they might simply have exterminated the other groups. But that would not have been a solution. Human populations grow over time, and there is a maximal size that groups can be when sustained only by consideration-for-near-relatives. These groups would then have had to split, returning to the state of endemic war.

    The only alternative our ancestors had to extending their sympathies and creating inter-group norms would have been to exercise /extremely strict/ population control, so that only one smallish family existed in any given territory (that might have lead to other problems with in-breeding, I guess). Then they could have lived without war OR the need for inter-tribal morality. I don’t think that humans would have made a moral *mistake* if they had done this (depending on the means of population control, of course).

    I do think that there are very real questions about how to understand the moral status of creatures with *no* capacity for inter-group sympathy – the longer version of this paper has a discussion of this..

    As to alienation…yes, the charge is not supposed to have any “force” for the wholehearted amoralist. The wholehearted amoralist is not going to be improved by mere philosophy. Perhaps he can be drawn into moral concern by emotional appeals, working on whatever propensities for care and sympathy he has. Or perhaps he’s just a cold-hearted bastard, and we simply have to do our best to contain him, or fight him if necessary. Calling him alienated is a way of reminding ourselves how little appeal his life has (I hope) for us.

  16. Hi David! Thanks for the comment.

    To be honest, I feel like your response kinda begs the question – or perhaps it simply reports a rival sensibility.

    I do think that non-objective norms would deserve respect – after all, they would be useful and good for us. You say that this is “just” a practical consideration – but I think that the practical value of ethical norms is be the best basis for saying that they deserve respect!

    Perhaps you mean this – we /should/ care more about our norms if they happen to have a certain metaphysical status tham we should if they do not – even if the content of the norms and their practical value remains the same? An injunction not to torture grounded in a non-natural fact deserves more respect than an injunction not to torture grounded in the practical effects of torture on humans?

    If so, I think we have a first-order moral disagreement. I don’t think that metaphysically-grounded norms deserve special respect just because of their metaphysical status.

    Maybe you don’t want to sign up to these claims – which I regard as a kind of metaphysical fetishism, or a denigration of human practical conerns. But then, I’m not sure what the objection is!

  17. Hi Max, thank you for your thoughtful response. I might have made the point clearer if I included the sentence of yours I think makes your position vulnerable. You say, ‘It might disappoint philosophers if ethics turned out not to be objective. But it would not undermine the basis of our practice. Even non-objective ethical norms would deserve our respect, would have legitimate claim to govern our lives and direct our actions’ (3).

    In the sense in which we most often use the word ‘respect’ I don’t think we respect other people’s norms unless our respect judgment is, at some point, grounded in something we judge to be objectively respect-worthy (even if from a second-order level we deny that). There’s no ordinary sense of such subjective norms ‘deserving’ respect unless they or persons or outcomes have objective respect-worthy properties.

    What is the account that informs us of your meaning of ‘respect’ and your meaning of ‘deserve’ that is compatible with thoroughgoing non-objectivism? I think you are importing terms that have an objectivist sense to make your non-objectivism seem ethical, but without explicating what these terms mean if objective moral principles, truths, properties, or facts should prove to be illusory.

    You say, ‘I don’t think that metaphysically-grounded norms deserve special respect just because of their metaphysical status.’ I agree with you there. The content of norms matters too, as does what we know. Every moral theory at some point owes a metaphysical account of its norms. To say one such account is better than another, we need to see both.

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