This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
General Philosophy Tutor ial
D O E S T H E WO R L D C O N TA I N A N Y OBJ E C T IV E FEAT U R E O F R I G H TN E S S A N D W RO NG N E S S?
THE WORLD CONTAIN ANY OBJECTIVE FEATURE OF RIGHTNESS AND WRONGNESS? Heythrop College, University of London
Keywords: Moral Objectivity, Moral Scepticism, Meta-ethics, John L. Mackie
René Mario Micallef
Tradition has however yielded not one, but two objective viewpoints: one theoretical, one practical 1. Ethics has been consigned to the practical stance, natural science to the theoretical one. Nevertheless, in some recent works, this divide has been laid aside, and questions such as the thesis being discussed in this essay have been formulated wherein ‘objectivity’ has come to denote the ‘theoretical’ viewpoint, just as we understand it in Newtonian Physics. In fact, the title of this essay echoes a renowned statement in John Mackie’s famous ethics book “Ethics: inventing right and wrong”, wherein the author declares that “there are no objective values” (Mackie 1977:15). He makes this statement from the meta-ethical perspective, which he calls the ‘second order view’, and insists that his position (which he
Following some terminological observations that introduce the reader to the complexity of the meta-ethical problem of moral objectivity, John Mackie’s ‘moral subjectivity’ as presented in ‘Ethics: Inventing right and wrong’ is outlined. A number of responses to Mackie are then delineated (including some account of the positive contribution of the authors to the issue). The upshot of this discussion is that Mackie’s introduction of empiricist metaphysics in meta-ethics does not help us understand and tackle the problem of moral objectivity any better. In conclusion, the relevance of the different contributions within a practical, normative approach to the question is underlined.
1 . I N T RO D U C T I O N
Philosophers, since their earliest sects and schools, have distinguished themselves from the rest of society by claiming that man can pursue and attain a viewpoint on the world different from that of the doxa: a viewpoint unaffected by the mutations that influence the world as directly given to us by our senses, a stable perspective, through which our gaze is imbued with real knowledge. Thomas Nagel (1986) has called this perspective ‘the view from nowhere [in particular]’: indeed, the search for objectivity has moulded Philosophy and all the sciences that have had their origin among the ranks of the Philosophers.
1 A possible distinctive feature could be the relationship between the objective and the real in each of the viewpoints. If we consider the classic metaphysical systems (that are blatantly realist) or else the theoretical viewpoint developed around idea that natural science can explain everything and is the measure of any metaphysic, the link between theoretical objectivity and realism is clear. As we shall see, in ethics, objectivity is not entailed by, nor entails realism. Gilbert Harman poses the distinction thus:
Observation plays a role in science that it does not seem to play in ethics. The difference is that you need to make assumptions about certain physical facts to explain the occurrence of the observations that support a scientific theory, but you do not seem to need to make assumptions about any moral facts to explain the occurrence of […] socalled moral observations […]. In the moral case, it would seem that you need only make assumptions about the psychology or moral sensibility of the person making the moral observation. (Harman, cit. in Nagel 1986:145)
designates by the name of moral scepticism or moral subjectivism) is a metaphysical (factual) thesis rather than a conceptual (linguistic) one. Mackie’s position has stimulated a noteworthy debate, especially since his approach to meta-ethics left aside the traditional linguistic line of attack and invited people to rethink meta-ethics from the factual viewpoint: what indeed is the relation between ethics and the ‘stuff of the world’? 2 In the present paper I will argue that while, on one hand, values are indeed ‘non-objective’ if we equate objectivity with a realism expressible only in terms of what is accessible to the senses (natural science viewpoint); this observation, on the other hand, seems trivial: for what other reason would philosophers have invented such a ‘non-natural’ term as ‘moral sense’? 3 Thus, if we really intend to engage in ethics, our understanding of moral objectivity must take us beyond the first-level naturalist or physicalist vision of the world 4. I will achieve this by first delving into Mackie’s position, exposing it as faithfully in the text and while making critical observations in the
The collection of papers edited by Honderich (1985) is a clear example of the level of complexity attained and the breath of interest evoked by the debate.
notes, and then by handpicking and selectively outlining a number of responses to Mackie that I deem relevant and that should help convince the reader of my thesis. The conclusion is intended to show briefly how the discussion leads to the endorsement of my thesis. Before coming to this, however, I deem it profitable to take a prior moment to establish the terminology, which proves to be a considerable obstacle when trying to make sense of the literature on this matter.
2. SOME DEFINITIONS
Bernard Williams’ (1995) résumé of the topic stands out for its clarity, and achieves this partly by distinguishing between moral objectivism, moral realism, moral cognitivism and moral truth. Moral cognitivism is the position opposite to that held by the moral non-cognitivist who in turn claims that moral judgements cannot be known. This is closely linked with the question concerning moral truth, namely, whether moral judgements are statements (i.e. can be True or False) or not. Consider the phrase: ‘murder is wrong’. If it is found to be equivalent to an imperative prescription such as ‘do not kill’, then such a ‘murder is wrong’ is not a statement (since it cannot be true or false). Such a result, when joined with the thesis (dominant in contemporary Philosophy) that knowledge is only propositional (we can only know statements about facts) yields the noncognitivist conclusion that we have no knowledge of moral judgements. With our example, we have examined one particular form of moral non-cognitivism: that which considers moral judgements as prescriptions. This is known as moral prescriptivism. Another noncognitivist theory is emotivism that claims that moral
Philosophy (and, I would say, even common sense) has long known the jump between natural and moral facts: if the question regarding objectivity in ethics is reduced to stating this yet another time, the whole exercise would seem gratuitous. Furthermore, using an empiricist metaphysics to explain this jump is of little avail in ethics, since it only makes the question more complex. Assuming the empiricist dogmas, we bring into ethics the long-standing question whether what is accessible to aesthesis (even in a more restricted empiricist understanding) equates with what there is in the kosmos (… or maybe — with the only ‘world’ that ‘exists’ —): this is probably, since Parmenides, the oldest standing question in Western Philosophy — and according to some philosophers the very raison d’être of philosophy — : tackling it would certainly be beyond the scope of meta-ethics. Tradition has thought us how to engage philosophically in ethics while avoiding such problematic assumptions.
Theories such as that of supervenience go beyond this firstlevel viewpoint. We shall come to this when we will deal with Brink (1984)’s reply to Mackie.
judgements are not statements, but merely expressions of emotion (as exclamations of the type ‘Boo!’ or ‘Hurrah!’), hence, in our case we would have something of the sort ‘down with murder’. Assuming a theory of motivation that opposes reason to feeling as sources of motivation, emotivism claims that moral utterances are irrational and manipulative of the feelings of others. Some versions of emotivism have understood emotion as approval or disapproval, hence yielding ‘I disapprove of murder’. At this point, we have to introduce the problematic term ‘moral objectivity’. The confusion dates back at least to Hume, who would be a moral objectivist if we were to use Bernard Williams’ criterion for objectivity, but who nevertheless calls himself a moral subjectivist. Williams (1985) understands objectivity in ethics in terms of rational agreement: given moral disagreements, a moral objectivist would claim that it is possible for the parties to reach some form of agreement, or at least to agree on what kind of consideration would settle the disagreement, while a subjectivist would deny there being any prospect of this 5. Objective, on this reading, is what transcends the subjective viewpoint. Hume, on his part, calls himself a subjectivist since for him, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are properties that the (human) subject projects onto the world 6: they are not properSuch an objectivism may be restricted to some moral terms (not to all), such as the so-called ‘thick’ moral concepts; it may also be sociologically confined to the context wherein a ‘thick’ concept is understood and shared, hence to one culture at a time. Hence, the objectivist position does not necessarily lead to universal agreement on all moral concepts, and does not assume the possibility of a unified picture in ethics.
ties of external objects. Hume’s ‘subjectivism’ is morally objective since he admits standards with which our moral sense must measure up: there is a ‘steady and general view’ of the situation on which moral utterances must be based if they are to be called moral, here, feelings are somewhat corrected by reason. Wiggins (1991:187) expresses Hume’s position as one that would claim that ‘[murder] is the kind of thing to arouse a certain sentiment of approbation’… but whose approbation is deliberately not specified since it is, yes, an approbation experienced by the subject, but not one confined to a particular subject. Let us come now to moral realism. This is usually understood as equivalent to moral descriptivism whereby moral judgements refer to and are true of something (to which moral agents may be sensitive or insensitive, attentive or inattentive) 7. This would
which we distinguish moral good and evil, than to every other operation of the mind. […] Now as perceptions resolve themselves into two kinds, viz. impressions and ideas, this distinction gives rise to a question, with which we shall open up our present enquiry concerning morals. Whether `tis by means of our ideas or impressions we distinguish betwixt vice and virtue, and pronounce an action blameable or praiseworthy? […]`Tis impossible, that the distinction betwixt moral good and evil, can be made to reason; since that distinction has an influence upon our actions, of which reason alone is incapable. [Hence the distinction depends on an impression…] As moral good and evil belong only to the actions of the mind, and are deriv'd from our situation with regard to external objects, the relations, from which these moral distinctions arise, must lie only betwixt internal actions, and external objects, and must not be applicable either to internal actions, compared among themselves, or to external objects, when placed in opposition to other external objects.” (Hume, 1739-40, bk 3 prt 1 sec 1). See also the account of Hume’s moral subjectivism in Wiggins (1991, especially paragraph 6). More generally, realism is opposed to anti-realism, i.e. the position that (notably in epistemology) denies the existence of evidence-transcendent truth and holds that any differences which we are in principle incapable of detecting do not exist. The term ‘exist’ is however notorious for its problematic nature and the different ways of understanding it yield different ‘realisms’ (see, for e.g., Hare 1985). Furthermore, Hare claims that there is a distinction between realism and descriptivism, in that (footnote continued)
6 “The mind can never exert itself in any action, which we may not comprehend under the term of perception; and consequently that term is no less applicable to those judgments, by (footnote continued)
imply the possibility of a unified view in ethics, however, it does not entail objectivity (since a realist may claim that we cannot reach such a unified view due to epistemological limitations). It is also important to note that objectivism does not imply realism since objectivism does not assume a unified view, and, furthermore, it does not even imply that moral judgements are statements (true or false), let alone that they are true of something. Indeed, a prescriptivist such as Hare can be an objectivist as long as s/he can account for the acceptability of a moral prescription (and hence explain how there can be rational agreement on prescriptions). Other definitions of moral realism targeted against emotivism turn on the idea that “moral values are discovered, not willed into existence nor constituted by emotional reactions” (see Honderich 1995:596).
2. MACKIE’S POSITION
lated and uttered: what is the sense of the word ‘tripe’ — or, more generally — what do we mean, and what do we refer to when we use words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? It is at this level that Mackie locates his argument for moral scepticism; indeed, as Hare (1985:39) comments, Mackie was hardly a ‘sceptic’, “since, like Hume, he allowed plenty of room in his theory for holding moral opinions, and certainly had strong ones himself, which guided his conduct more firmly than those of many of us”. The reader may have noticed that the question is not one, but two. Indeed, while investigating what we mean by such moral terms, we may remain entirely in the context of language, whereas when we try to find out what they refer to, we are apt to situate our inquiry in the metaphysical field, what Mackie calls ‘the fabric of the world’. 8 Consider the statement: ‘Sarah is a very good person’. We can choose to equate this with ‘I approve of the actions, decisions, attitudes… of Sarah’ and seek to understand what ‘goodness’ is through the analysis of the latter phrase. Mackie does not see bountiful prospects for such an approach to the problem:
[T]here are also ontological, as contrasted with linguistic or conceptual, questions about the nature and status of goodness or rightness or whatever it is that first order moral statements are distinctively about. These are question of factual rather than conceptual analysis: the problem of what goodness is cannot be settled conclusively or exhaustively by finding out what the word ‘good’ means, or what it is conventionally used to say or do. Mackie 1977:19
A: VALUES AND THE FABRIC OF THE WORLD: SPELLING OUT MACKIE’S POSITION
After our lengthy terminological excursus, let us return to Mackie. Consider the phrase “morality is tripe”. This, in itself, is a positive moral statement: it usually designates a condemnation of what traditionally passes for ‘morality’. When pronouncing and discussing such a statement, in contrast with or in distinction to other such statements, we situate ourselves in the field of normative ethics (consider, at this level, more familiar statements of this kind such as ‘abortion is wrong’, ‘this agreement is fair’, ‘John is a good man’). We can, however, take a step back to observe such statements as they are formuthat realism is an ontological theory, while descriptivism is a logical-conceptual.
8 Note that, at the moment, my adoption of the terms ‘meaning’ and ‘reference’ reflects the common language usage, rather than referring to their logical use in Frege and his posterity.
On the other hand, if we were to return to the original phrase and look closely at the everyday usage of the term ‘good’, there seems to be something more to the word than approval by a certain subject. We rather tend to treat it as another property of persons such as Sarah: “she is tall, fair, plump, soprano… and she’s such a good person” 9. Mackie, however claims that ‘good’ is the odd one out in the list, since ‘goodness’ is not a property we can attribute to Sarah in the same way as we attribute height, complexion, build, and voice pitch 10. These properties, Mackie insists, are ‘objective’ whereas ‘goodness’ isn’t; it is not a property of persons, actions or things and there is nothing of the sort in the ‘fabric of the world’. Moral judgements and facts are thus a matter of ‘subjective concern’; natural properties refer to an object that is really there… in the world. To notice the starkness of the difference, Mackie
Consider the phrase: “she is tall, fair, plump, soprano… and good”. It does sound somewhat strange… though we speak about moral properties, we do not intuitively include a moral property in a list of physical properties. Introducing “… and she’s such a good person” seems to indicate a shift to another type of judgement distinct from the rest. This means that even in ordinary language there is a subtle distinction between the two kinds of properties. Hence, when Mackie claims that his position is an ‘error theory’ since it “goes against assumptions ingrained in our thought and built into some of the ways in which language is used [and] conflicts with what is sometimes called common sense” (1977:35) we have to be very careful and note what specifically in his position does this. Surely he is right in distinguishing the properties, but common sense does make that distinction. It probably also distinguishes two types of objectivity: certainly it does claim is that there is some objectivity to values. Yet, when Mackie judges common sense to be in error on this point, it seems that his understanding of objectivity is a different one. According to John McDowell (1985:110), Mackie insists “that ordinary evaluative thought presents itself as a matter of sensitivity to aspects of the world” and that this view need correction. McDowell denies that it does need correction, but in the first place, does it really present itself as a matter of sensitivity in the first place?
9 10 Since Mackie’s position is an ‘error theory’, the moral sceptic sustaining it must shoulder the burden of proof; otherwise the realist’s position would be the more plausible (see Mackie 1977:35).
suggests that we consider how ‘subjective concern’ is acquired or changed:
If there were something in the fabric of the world that validated certain kinds of concern, then it would be possible to acquire these merely by finding something out 11. But in the world in which objective values have been annihilated the acquiring of some new subjective concern means the development of something new on the emotive side by the person who acquires it, something that eighteenth-century writers would put under the head of passion or sentiment. Mackie 1977:22
This brings us into the question of objectivity of values, which, for Mackie, cannot be rendered by concepts such as intersubjectivity, universalizability, or by the descriptivist position. Tradition has presented us with a view that values are at once objective 12 and prescriptive. Contemporary ethics, Mackie claims, have concentrated either on ‘objectivity’ (read ‘realism’ or better ‘physicalist realim’) refusing
This is a typical example of an anti-realist jump from the metaphysical to the epistemological. Consider, for example, its possible application to the (non-)existence of other minds.
12 Mackie here plays with the meaning of ‘objective’: sometimes it refers to semantic status (i.e. values being statemental, hence true or false, hence knowable), other times it is used to refer to the descriptivist (realist) position, yet other times it is used to indicate the natural realism of physical facts/objects as understood by purely empiricist metaphysics. We have already seen that there is a difference between ‘x is T/F’; ‘x is T/F of something’ and ‘x is T/F of something conceived as a natural fact/object’. It would be improper to attribute all of these three at once to any traditional author claiming moral objectivity: indeed, we have seen that moral objectivity (as we have defined it) does not imply any of these. For Plato, objectivity is definitely not empirically founded. In authors like Aristotle and Kant, values are dealt with in a totally different way from natural world objects: compare Phys. to Nich. Eth. or the Critique of Pure Reason to the Critique of Practical Reason. Within a pluralistic ontology (‘being is said/expressed/used in a plurality of ways’) such as has been upheld by tradition, moral and natural facts can be so ontologically different as to require different epistemologies, different argumentative structures and indeed different viewpoints on the world to deal with them.
the prescriptive element (since descriptivists are cognitivists) or else on ‘prescriptivity’ refusing the ‘objective’ (read ‘statemental’ and ‘physicalist realist’) element. Mackie’s approach, therefore, is not a critique of descriptivism (of a naturalistic sort) or of prescriptivism which are considered as extreme views: it rather targets the traditional and common sense conception of values as objective (?!) and prescriptive, an then, as it were, blows on it and makes it vanish into thin air by stating that such values are not objective:
So far as ethics is concerned, my thesis that there are no objective values is specifically the denial that any such categorically imperative element is objectively valid. The objective values which I am denying would be action-directing absolutely, not contingently […] upon the agent’s desires and inclinations 13. Mackie 1977:29 B. RELATIVITY, QUEERNESS, MOTIVATION: MACKIE’S ARGUMENTS
world to which moral judgements are fixed, hence there are no moral facts, no moral truths. A moral realist could argue that such an line of reasoning does not rule out the possibility of objective general principles (of such a stature as that with which the Principle of Utility could be endowed) which would in turn engender different moral rules in different situations and cultures. Mackie responds to this by challenging the moral objectivist to accept the consequences of such a claim, namely that our normal moral judgements are only derivatively and contingently true: “if things were otherwise, quite different sorts of actions would have been right” (Mackie 1977:37). Would a realist honestly accept this? In any case, Mackie’s less rhetorical response 15 to the objection is the denial that appeal to such principles (fully) explains people’s judgements of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, claiming that ‘intuition’ and ‘moral sense’ are “an initially more plausible description of what of what supplies many of our basic moral judgements” (ibid:38). Note that by this argument Mackie attacks objectivism, but not realism 16. Mackie then presents the argument ‘from queerness’. Taking up G. E. Moore’s designation of moral properties as ‘non-natural qualities’ he claims that if such things really existed, they would be very queer indeed. From the metaphysical perspective of view, we do not require such properties to fully describe the world. From an epistemological point of
Mackie’s argument ‘from relativity’ 14 moves from the observation that in different cultures we frequently encounter different moral opinions regarding the same person, action or thing; oftentimes such opinions bluntly contradict one another. From this, Mackie concludes that there is nothing in the
According to Brink (1984:113), “in claiming that moral facts would have to be objectively prescriptive, Mackie is claiming that moral realism requires the truth of internalism”. Brink denies that the realist position entails internalism, be it motivational internalism (‘it is a priori that the recognition of moral facts itself necessarily motivates the agent to perform the moral action’) or reasons internalism (‘it is a priori that the recognition of moral facts itself necessarily provides the agent with reason to perform the moral action’). Mackie seems to support his claim by reference to tradition and common sense; Brink states that such arguments seem false and would anyway bear little weight, if true.
I call the argument ‘rhetorical’ in the sense that it does not really counter the argument in question, but rather attacks other possible questions a moral realist might probably want to defend as well. In logical terms, the modal status of moral facts asserted in the quoted counterfactual is independent of the existence of the said facts, which is the real issue here. See Brink (1984:116).
Brink (1984:112n5) notes that ‘moral relativity’ figures as the conclusion, rather than the opening move of this argument, which actually moves from disagreement.
16 If anything, it could simply show that humans (and human cultures) cannot (as yet) (fully) grasp realism’s reality and not that realism is untenable.
view, what access would we have to such properties? Mackie discounts the intuitionist answer as non convincing, “a travesty of actual moral thinking, […] a lame answer” (idem:38-39). As a counter argument, Mackie recalls Richard Price’s contention that there are many other ideas besides moral knowledge that an empiricism such as that of Locke or Hume cannot explain (for e.g.: essence, number, identity, diversity…). Mackie’s reply is a sort of illuminist or neopositivist hope that such ‘metaphysical necessities or essences’ will be accounted for in empirical terms or else denied objectivity. Note here that Mackie is arguing against a physicalist type of realism, not against objectivism as we have defined it.
that though genuine disputes may result from general principles, • Most genuine moral disputes are resolvable since the disagreements usually depend on non-moral facts (that are difficult to evaluate, say, in a thought experiment), and since such disagreements are in principle resolvable; • One need not assume that justification proceeds necessarily from general principles to particular cases; a coherentist theory of moral justification may claim justification also in the other direction; • Furthermore, the realist might claim that some disputes (though not most) have no correct answers since considerations may be incommensurable due to moral ties. Thus, using one of these justifications, a realist may claim that moral disagreement does not prove that there is incoherence in stating that some disputes on particular moral judgements are genuine and, concurrently, that particular judgements are derived from general principles 17. Brink then responds to the argument from queerness from both a metaphysical and an epistemological perspective, assuming (if only for the sake of argument) a physicalist realist position. He claims
3 . S O M E R E S P O N S E S TO M A C K I E
A. DAVID BRINK (1984)
Brink claims that Mackie’s arguments are defeasible and do not bear the burden of proof; hence the objectivist’s/realist’s position remains the more plausible of the alternatives being more consonant with common sense. He counters the argument from disagreement by taking up the objectivist answer from Mackie and seeking to pinpoint the weaknesses of Mackie’s rejoinders. Brink interprets Mackie’s dismissal of objective general principles as a claim that “some moral disputes are real disputes [since] not all putative moral disagreements can be explained away as the application of antecedently shared moral principles in different circumstances” (Brink, 1984:116), and answers to this by arguing
Personally, I do not think that Mackie’s objection regards the possibility of genuine moral disputes resulting from objective general principles, but rather the very possibility of general principles themselves, since they the idea of such principles lacks conformity with our ordinary conception of morality and the appeal to such principles concerns mostly ‘fanaticism’.
that Mackie assumes that moral properties must be sui generis; a realist, however, may coherently be materialist and hold that moral facts and properties are supervenient on physical facts and properties (and hence are not metaphysically queer). Furthermore, adopting as an example a functionalist theory of moral value, Brink maintains that a realist need not appeal to any special faculties for the perception of moral facts (and hence not run into any epistemologically queer intuitionism).
B. RONALD DWORKIN (1995)
Since the latter is plainly a moral judgement, and could be supported, if at all, only through internally sceptical abstract moral claims […], there is no such thing as external scepticism. The only intelligible moral scepticism is internal to morality. Dworkin, 1985:596
Dworkin’s position is further explicated in his 1986 book Law’s Empire. As stated, it seems quite abrupt and radical in dismissing Mackie’s position; nevertheless, as we shall see, several other authors have questioned the intelligibility of the shift from the normative to the descriptive 18.
B. THOMAS NAGEL (1986)
In the entry ‘moral scepticism’ of the Oxford companion to Philosophy (Honderich, 1995), Dworkin distinguishes between internal and external moral scepticism. Mackie’s scepticism is external in the sense that it ‘is supposedly based not on abstract or general normative assumptions about the adequate grounds of moral commitment or responsibility, but rather on wholly non-moral, philosophical assumptions about the possibility of any kind of objective truth or knowledge.’ Notwithstanding the external sceptic’s claim that h/er scepticism has only theoretical consequences (unlike internal scepticism that has very serious practical consequences) Dworkin states that, on close analysis, the external sceptic’s statements turn out to be either senseless or else ones equivalent to simple internally sceptical propositions:
Consider the statements that supposedly express [external] scepticism: that genocide is not ‘really’ or ‘objectively’ immoral, or that its immorality is not ‘out there, in the universe’, or that its immorality is not ‘part of the fabric of the universe’, for example. It is, in fact, impossible to assign any sceptical sense to such philosophically loaded or metaphorical statements that does not make them equivalent in meaning to the simple internally sceptical statement […] that genocide is not immoral.
Chapter 8 of ‘The view from nowhere’ deals with objectivity in the field of ethics and its publication in the mid-80’s must have influenced the moral subjectivism debate as much as its writing shows signs of being influenced by the debate:
[In ethics] as elsewhere there is a connection between objectivity and realism, though realism about values is different from realism about empirical facts. Normative realism is the view that propositions about what gives us reasons for action can be true or false independently of how things appear to us, and that we can hope to discover the truth by transcending the appearances and subjecting them to critical assessment. What we
18 An interesting argument in this direction is that of Hare (1985):
If expressions like ‘in rerum natura’ and ‘part of the fabric of the world’ are taken in a strong sense which lets cows in but keeps numbers out, the realist can admit that wrongness is not that sort of thing, or does not exist in that sense. But if these expressions are being used in some weaker sense which lets numbers in as well as cows, then I see no reason why the anti-realist should not admit that in that sense wrongness exists, at any rate provided he admits that some acts are wrong […], or that he at least admits that it makes sense to say that they are [..], or that one can say that something about wrongness, putting the word in the subject place [of a statement]. Hare, 1985:43
aim to discover by this method is not a new aspect of the external world, called value, but rather just the truth about what we and others should do and want. […] Instead of bringing our thoughts into accord with an external reality, we try to bring an external view into the determination of our conduct. Nagel, 1986:139
wrongness would be true independently of my beliefs and inclinations; not meaning that murder has some occult property called ‘wrongness’ attached to it in space and time. In his metaphysical version of the argument from queerness, Mackie denies that there could be a world of reasons since the best causal explanation of our universe would find this Newtonically superfluous. This begs the question since it assumes that there are no irreducibly normative truths (all can be reduced to a causal explanation), but this is precisely what is in question when we speak about a world of reasons. The ‘realist’’s distinction between the causal and the normative bring h/er to the conclusion that a purely psychological (causal) account of value is incomplete. One cannot, however, prove false the anti-realist, purely psychological account: the ‘realist’ can only argue that h/er position is more plausible, at least in as much as it is favoured by appearances, by our everyday understanding of the world.
C. JOHN McDOWELL (1985)
Nagel is therefore claiming that there is moral truth, that it is a possible result of a process (that of reordering our motives ‘in a direction that will make them more acceptable from an external standpoint’), nevertheless he leaves the scene quite bleak from the metaphysical perspective. He does not presume, like Mackie, to know precisely what the universe is like, what entities would be fitting to put inside it and what entities would pointlessly crowd it:
The picture I associate with normative realism is not that of an extra set of properties of things and events in the world, but a series of possible steps in the development of human motivation which would improve the way we lead our lives, whether or not we will actually take them. We begin with a partial and inaccurate view, but by stepping outside of ourselves and constructing and comparing alternatives we reach a new motivational condition at a higher level of objectivity. Nagel, 1986:139-40
McDowell tackles Mackie’s arguments from a phenomenological perspective, given that underlying the Mackie’s position in his Ethics there is reading of Locke’s concepts of primary and secondary qualities (expounded in his 1976 book Problems from Locke) in conjoined with Hume’s moral stance (the topic of a 1980 book Hume’s Moral Theory) that affords inspiration to Mackie’s position. In these books, Mackie holds that, phenomenologically, values and their apprehension present themselves to us strikingly similar, respectively, to qualities of things and perceptual awareness of such qualities. McDowell notes
Nagel calls his position ‘realist’, though as we have seen that, he has a particular understanding of realism. Rather than the descriptivist version of realism, he proposes definitions that focus on countering the anti-realist position. He claims that we are situated in a world — the world of reasons — that includes the reasons of each one of us, but whose nature is somewhat independent of what each of us thinks (when considered alone). In such a world, murder can be truly ‘wrong’: meaning that its
the limitations of such an analogy, but undertakes to assume it for some length since it may provide valuable insights into the problem. The issue now becomes one of deciding which qualities provide the best model for values. Mackie proposes as a model the perceptual awareness of primary qualities: values are therefore taken to be absolutely and brutely there. Now, the problem arises how something that is there, independently of human sensitivity, can evoke attitudes and states of will. The conclusion is that appearances are deceptive, and that value and its apprehension are not what they seem: common sense is in error. But, McDowell argues, why not take secondary qualities as the model? Mackie would answer that our common sense knowledge (i.e. how values appear to us), being pre-philosophical, does not distinguish between primary and secondary qualities: everything would seem objectively there, whether it really is there (primary qualities) or whether it is just a resultant of subjective states (secondary qualities) 19. Hence, to account for values as they present themselves we cannot accept a (philosophically corrected) secondary quality model. In response to this, McDowell argues that there is such a thing as secondary-quality experience: our ordinary conception of the world does make the distinction between the two types of qualities and our experience of quality is not always that of primary-qualities. When we say that we experience this sheet of paper as white, we do not necessarily ac-
count for that experience by conceiving the paper as having the objective property ‘whiteness’ independent of our perceiving it (an account of secondary quality experience that is easily accused of a projective error), rather, our explanation can simply be that the paper is such as to appear white (to us, in the given circumstances) 20. According to McDowell, secondary-quality experience is “awareness, with nothing misleading about its phenomenal character, of properties genuinely possessed by elements in a not exclusively phenomenal reality” (1895:117). If this account of secondary-quality experience can somewhat help us understand value experience, we must bear in mind that there is also a disanalogy between values and secondary qualities 21.
To press the analogy is to stress that evaluative ‘attitudes’, or states of will, are like (say) colour experience in being unintelligible except as modifications of a sensibility like ours. The idea of value experience involves taking admiration, say, to represent its object as having a property which (although there in the object) is essentially subjective in much the same way as the property that an object is represented as having by an experience of redness — that is, understood adequately only in
In other words: if, to common sense, the perception of green (secondary quality) presents itself just like the perception of globular (primary quality), then the apprehension of good (value) — given that it presents itself just like the perception of a quality — must present itself just like the perception of globular.
That the first account of our everyday understanding of perception and its resulting critique are exceedingly theory laden becomes evident when we consider how strong was the belief in the corpuscular theory of matter when they were originally formulated and how much the distinction between primary and secondary qualities originally depended on such theory (see Honderich, 1995: 718 —- entry ‘primary and secondary qualities’). A contemporary scientist’s explanation of colour would probably be more similar to our second account. S/he would say that there is something more to a rose’s petals being red than simply a reflection of light affording an interaction between an accidental arrangement of things that are brutely there and our eyes: there are ‘essential’ differences in molecular orbital levels of some molecules in that petal which cause it to reflect light in a certain way and hence to appear red. Virtus dormitiva and circularity objections have been raised against the second account: see McDowell (1985) and Wiggins (1987) for their replies.
For further disanalogies and a critique of the perceptual model, see Hare (1985: 46-7).
terms of the appropriate modification of human (or similar) sensibility. The disanalogy, now, is that a virtue (say) is conceived to be not merely such as to elicit the appropriate ‘attitude’ (as a colour is merely such as to cause the appropriate experiences), but rather such as to merit it. McDowell, 1985:118
D. OTHER AUTHORS
David Wiggins (1987) does not criticize Mackie directly, but rather the common understanding of Humean ‘subjectivism’ (that sits at the back of Mackie’s position), in an attempt to establish a more ‘sensible subjectivism’. We have already mentioned that Humean ‘subjectivism’ is objective, according to our understanding of moral objectivity. Consider the following three positions, all of which are termed ‘subjective’ by Wiggins: S1) ‘X is good’ ≡ x is such as to induce in S a certain sentiment of approbation; S2) ‘X is good’ ≡ x is such as to induce a certain sentiment of approbation; S3) ‘X is good’ ≡ x is such as to make a certain sentiment of approbation appropriate. In denying moral objectivity (argument from disagreement), Mackie seems to point at S1. In claiming that there are standards to which moral sense must measure up, Hume seems to favour S2: approbation here is not limited to the individual subject S, but there is at least an claim of intersubjectivity in the refusal to specify whose approbation it is. Wiggins proposes S3: the substitution of the causal concept of ‘inducing approbation’ in S2 by the more normative ‘making approbation appropriate’ is analogous to McDowell’s substitution of ‘to cause’ by ‘to merit’. Clearly, notwithstanding the Humean terminol-
McDowell therefore puts aside awareness of secondary qualities and its causation, and proposes the experience of fearfulness as a model: something is fearful if it is such as to merit fear. Claiming, à la Mackie, that the world does not contain such a thing as fearfulness dumps away the intelligibility that our usual explanations bestow on our responses; it ignores that our “explanations of fear […] manifest our capacity to understand ourselves in this region of our lives” (McDowell, 1985:119). As a final move, McDowell criticises the Humean moral projectivism that we are left with if we were to accept Mackie’s position. The projectivist must hold that “having one’s ethical or aesthetic responses rationally suited to their objects would be a matter of having the relevant processing mechanism functioning acceptably”. This engages us in an assessment of one’s processing mechanism: would this be a theoretical analysis cut off from the world of value? Does this bring us to a sort of objectivisation of subjectivity? Does this refuse that moral and aesthetic questions are capable of argument?
This reminds us of Nagel’s refusal to accept that causal explanations suffice to explain normative facts.
ogy, S2 and S3 could be acceptable to a moral objectivist (as we have defined the term). S1, how-
ever, represents a morally subjectivist position. Wiggins analyses some later works of Hume (e.g. ‘On the standard of taste’ and ‘Inquiry concerning Principles of Morals’) wherein Hume himself argues against positions holding that ‘all sentiment is right because sentiment has reference to nothing beyond itself’ (compare to S1) calling such a ‘subjectivism’ a ‘palpable absurdity’ (see: Of the Standard of Taste, para. 11). Wiggins notes that, strikingly, Hume himself held a position of the type S1 in the Enquiry (Hume 1739-40) — and it seems that Mackie has in mind precisely the Hume of the Enquiry. In fact, assuming S1, if Peter says that murder is wrong and Anne says that murder is not wrong, it is not evident that they are in disagreement. I doubt that there could be many moral subjectivist that would accept this. Wiggins in turn criticises Hume’s mature position (type S2) since it seems to require a ‘nonsubjective’ (read: ‘realist’) foundation such as Hume’s condition of the judge. Wiggins’ solution seeks to do away with such a foundation and introduce an evolutionary process within human societies whereby persons can help one another in grasping the concept of ‘good’, and whereby the perceptions (of what is such as to make a certain sentiment of approbation appropriate, i.e. of the good) can intensify and refine the responses (the appropriate sentiments of approbation) and the responses in turn enhance and better the perceptions. Wiggins uses amusement as a model: the more a pun is funny, the more it makes us laugh, and the more it makes us laugh, the more we admit that it is funny. Furthermore, not all cultures find puns equally amusing: this points to some form of cultural evolution. Wiggins claims that this form of ‘subjectivism’, whereby subjects and properties are mutually ad-
justed, is much more attractive than ethical naturalism. Its standard being internal rather than external, it is more coherent than Hume’s mature position. Of course, Wiggins’ position is not immune to irresoluble substantive disagreement; like Brink, he claims that we need to allow for some measure of cognitive underdetermination in ethics. Further insights on how to confront the problem of disagreement in ethics (and hence moral objectivity) are provided by Bernard Williams (1985). He distinguishes between thick and thin ethical concepts, and claims that we can reach moral objectivity in the thick concepts, that can be properly understood in a given time and culture, that provides the context for appropriate argument and for eventual rational agreement. Thin concepts, such as rightness and wrongness, seem too vast and too fuzzy to provide any hope for rational agreement, and hence, for objectivity.
I think, as most of the critics of Mackie, that his attempt at understanding ethics from the standpoint of empiricist metaphysics leads us to refute this approach, rather than to refute the possibility of moral objectivity. On one hand, very few of us would feel comfortable with a subjectivism that would lead us to say that there is nothing good or bad about genocide. On the other hand, few would agree that refusal of such a subjectivism would necessarily lead us endorse a physicalist realism on values. Steering away from positions like that of Mackie that seek to relocate the question from the realm of practical rationality, we must seek a solution that does not demand complete abstraction from the human subject and yet can rightly be called objective. Indeed,
as we have seen through the array of distinct understandings and proposed solutions of the problem, practical rationality can be dauntingly complex and intricate. I believe that the distinction between thick and thin concepts is useful; that models that allow for a hermeneutical type of circularity are essential in an understanding of what concerns us intimately as humans that avoids a complete abstraction from the human subject 23; and furthermore, that naturalistic psychology can have some role in ethics (as long as it recognises its naturalistic ‘prejudices’ 24 and does not pretend to reduce everything else to itself): here, concepts such as that of supervenience may prove helpful. Hence, all of the authors mentioned have something to contribute to the effort of better outlining the possibility of moral objectivity.
Gibbard, A. (1990), Wise choices, apt feelings : a theory of normative judgment, Oxford : Clarendon, x+346p. Grayling, A.C. (1985), Philosophy: a guide through the subject, Oxford — New York : Oxford University Press, viii+677p. Hare, R. M. (1985), Ontology in Ethics, in Honderich (1985). Honderich, T. (ed) (1985), Morality and objectivity : a tribute to J.L. Mackie, London : Routledge & Kegan Paul,. viii+228p. Honderich, T., (ed.) (1995), The Oxford companion to Philosophy. 1 ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. xx+1009p. Hume, D. (1739-40), A treatise of human nature : being an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects. on the www at site http://www.ets.uidaho.edu/mickelsen/ToC/hume %20treatise%20ToC.htm Mackie, J. L. (1977), Ethics : inventing right and wrong, London – New York : Penguin, 249 p. McDowell, J. (1985), ‘Values and secondary qualities’, in Honderich (1985).
Brink, D. (1984), ‘Moral Realism and the sceptical arguments from disagreement and queerness’, in Australas. J. Phil. 62 :2, pp 111-25. Dworkin, R. (1995), ‘Moral scepticism’ in Honderich (1995).
23 I have in mind Dilthey’s sciences ‘of the spirit’ (Geisteswissenschaften), distinct from natural sciences. Ethics, being a ‘science of the spirit’ (if you wish, a science ‘concerning minds’) aims at an understanding (Verstehen: comprehension) of what concerns us in the first person, rather than a naturalistic explanation (Erklären) attempting to bring the observer’s eye under the microscope.
McNaughton, D. (1988), Moral vision : an introduction to ethics, Blackwell, viii+214 p. Nagel, T. (1986), The view from nowhere, New York - Oxford : Oxford University Press, 238 p.
In a Gadamerian sense. No positions in ethics start from a conceptual tabula rasa. Claiming that ethics is a ‘science of the spirit’ does not entail an ideological exclusion of any contribution from the natural sciences.
Wiggins, D. (1987), Needs, values, truth : essays in the philosophy of value, Oxford : Basil Blackwell, ix+366p. Williams, B. (1985), Ethics, in Grayling, A.C. (1985).