By In Metaethics Comments (13)

Mackie and disagreement

I recently completed an independent study with a student interested in Mackie’s error theory, and we spent a good deal of time discussing Mackie’s argument from relativity or disagreement. For those unaware, the late Australian philosopher John Mackie favored an error theory of morality, according to which, although our ordinary moral language presupposes that our moral beliefs can correspond to moral facts, there are not moral facts with which those beliefs correspond. So as Mackie understood it, if Matilda believes that capital punishment is wrong and Nancy believes capital punishment is not wrong, their disagreement is in reality only an apparent disagreement, since there is no fact about the wrongness of capital punishment that would render their disagreement intelligible. Mackie held that this error-theoretical account offers a better explanation of the apparent widespread intra- and intersocietal moral disagreement than the alternative, namely, that either Matilda or Nancy is guilty of irrationality, ignorance, misperception, etc., with respect to the alleged moral facts. Moral discourse is thus akin to fairy discourse: The parties to a moral disagreement are arguing, literally, about nothing, just as those who argue about whether fairies’ wings are translucent or opaque are arguing about nothing.

I’ve often felt that the disagreement argument is an important advance over the sophomoric and soft-headed “anthropological” argument that simply says (a) there’s lot of moral disagreement in the world, so (b) there are no objective moral facts or truths. Mackie’s point is that deep-seated disagreement is rationally intractable disagreement, resulting not from any failure of rationality by one of the parties but from the parties holding conflicting normative attitudes toward one and the same sort of act or policy. This is what distinguishes moral disagreement from factual or scientific disagreement: In a factual or scientific disagreement, we have a good idea about what sort of evidence would rationally settle the matter, but with fundamental moral disagreements, we not only can’t point to what sort of evidence would rationally settle the matter, there doesn’t seem to be *any* evidence that might settle it.

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By In Uncategorized Comments (1)

Editorial Policy

Since the Newsweek article was published last week, we’ve been getting more hits than usual. (Out of the roughly 8800 hits received in the last 5.5 weeks, 3100 were received in the last week alone). Overall, we’re very pleased that there’s so much interest. However, some participants have recently posted comments that our readers might find to be a distraction from the more narrow philosophical discussions that this blog is intended to facilitate. Accordingly, we’ve recently begun deleting some of these comments.

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By In Uncategorized Comments (27)

The Uphill versus the Downhill Life

It seems that a life that gets progressively better (the Uphill Life or UHL) is often preferable to one that gets progressively worse (the Downhill Life or DHL), even where both lives contain qualitatively identical events and experiences, only in a different order — I borrow these terms from Feldman 2004. To illustrate, consider David Velleman’s description of two possible lives:

One life begins in the depths but takes an upward trend: a childhood of deprivation, a troubled youth, struggles and setbacks in early adulthood, followed finally by success and satisfaction in middle age and a peaceful retirement. Another life begins at the heights but slides downhill: a blissful childhood and youth, precocious triumphs and rewards in early adulthood, followed by a midlife strewn with disasters that lead to misery in old age. Surely, we can imagine two such lives containing equal sums of momentary welfare. Your retirement is as blessed in one life as your childhood is in the other; your nonage is as blighted in one life as your dotage is in the other. (1991, 49-50)

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By In Applied Ethics Comments (29)

Terrorism and Innocence

I’m currently working on a paper about terrorism, and I decided my first post would concern one of the main issues in that paper. It might seem to be common sense that what is wrong with terrorist acts like the attack on the World Trade Center is that such acts target innocent persons. In fact this is pretty much the traditional account: traditional just war theory states that one limitation on the conduct of war is that one may never intentionally kill innocent persons. (However, in a just war it is sometimes permissible to do things that you foresee will result in the unintended deaths of some innocent persons, via the Doctrine of Double Effect or something like it.)

Now I happen to think that the traditional account is true: what makes terrorism particularly morally abhorrent is that it takes innocent persons as its targets.

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By In Normative Ethics Comments (35)

Are Deontology, Consequentialism, and Pluralism the only viable theories of ethics?

The title of this post is a bit overstated; what I’m really wondering is whether Virtue Ethics and Contractualism are not viable. I take it as a piece of contemporary philosophical commonsense that Divine Command Theory is not a viable ethical theory, because it succumbs, without hope of resuscitation, to the Euthyphro Dilemma. I also think that Virtue Ethics and Contractualism succumb to the same objection (mutatis mutandis). If so, and if we’re willing to say that DCT not only has problems, but also should be rejected as not even a contender because of the Euthyphro Dilemma, why don’t we say the same thing about Virtue Ethics and Contractualism?

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By In Metaethics Comments (3)

The Embedding Objection: Part IV “The Challenge from Incomplete Semantics”

The series on “The Embedding Objection” continues. The first post explained what I take expressivism to be. The second post distinguished four main kinds of expressivism: Simple non-truth-evaluable expressivism (e.g., Ayer’s emotivism), Simple minimalist expressivism (e.g., Blackburn’s projectivism), Complex minimalist expressivism (e.g., Stevenson’s emotivism), and Complex robust expressivism (e.g., Hare’s prescriptivism, my Expressive-Assertivism). The third post discussed The Objection from Truth Ascriptions. In this post, I discuss what I used to believe was the most pressing difficulty for expressivists, what I call “The Challenge from Incomplete Semantics.”

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Who Would Suffer the Greater Misfortune?

Ben at OrangePhilosophy and Jonathan at Fake Barn Country have been discussing whether it’s more harmful to the victim if (1) a three-week-old baby is murdered or (2) a 23-year-old graduate student is murdered. To my mind, the question cannot be answered without having more information, and this leads me to ask a different question. Consider the two lives described below and ask yourself this: “Would each suffer the same degree of misfortune in dying or, if not, which would suffer the greater misfortune?” (I’ll talk about “dying” rather than “being murdered” just in case some think that being murdered involves some extra harm in having one’s autonomy violated.)

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