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Moral Realism as a Naturalistic Intuitionism

Have been reading an essay by Richard Boyd in the collection Essays on Moral Realism, edited by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord. I think Boyd makes an interesting case. In a nutshell (and it's hard to get his argument into one nutshell), Boyd claims that, contra the non-cognitivist tradition, there is actually moral knowledge and that we come to know it empirically and in a way that is not radically different from how we come to know any scientific or other empirically discovered facts. The argument he makes commences with an analysis of what it means to know anything in a scientific way and he concludes that knowing is not a passive phenomenon, that we don't just soak up information around us. His view is that all empirical knowledge is achieved via the practices we develop, learn and employ against a developing theoretical background which enables new knowledge (new theoretical alterations), mitigated by the extent past theoretical underpinnings approach what is true. That is science grows in fits and starts but does so by building on itself and changing and improving the practices it enables which, as these improve, enable new knowledge and so better theories which thus adjust the background against which our current practices are employed and new practices developed.

He calls this "regulatory equilibrium" and argues that this sort of phenomenon, which is dynamic and interactive with others in our group(s), shapes the newer knowledge we obtain and is shown to be successful (and so to warrant acceptance) to the extent the adjusted theoretical background proves to predict better than what it replaced. In this fashion, he points out, modern chemistry and physics arose from the work of earlier centuries which were often based on what we recognize today as seriously flawed theories. Yet, he argues, we could not have gotten to our current state of knowledgeable science if we hadn't had the testing and measuring tools those earlier theories made possible. Similarly, he argues, there is a kind of intuitiveness at work in science for all scientific knowledge is not explicit. A great deal of it is implicit and representative of the unexpressed background theories the contemporary practitioner inherits and the training the practitioner obtains in the context of that unexpressed theoretical background. Thus, says Boyd, many scientific discoveries occur as realizations, as guesses that are prompted from the undergirding presumptions in which the scientist operates. Similarly, Boyd argues, knowledge of what's morally good can be understood to happen in the same way . . .

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Rejecting Morality

Continuing my efforts to look at the notion of moral valuing and the different explanations of how it works that it inspires, I recently had occasion to read Beyond Morality by Richard Garner. Actually I read his updated on-line version, Beyond Beyond Morality, which seems to be his effort to improve his earlier published book. Presumably his basic thesis hasn't changed although he has attempted to amplify and strengthen it for his readers. In a nutshell, the book rejects morality as such based on his embrace of the Humean picture of moral judgment being grounded solely in sentiment. But unlike others influenced by the Humean account, such as the non-cognitivists (emotivism, prescriptivism) or the subjectivists (those who ground moral discourse in individual preferences and those who ground it in consensus preference within particular groups), and, of course, unlike intuitionists like Michael Huemer (who argue that moral claims are cognitively respectable because they address rationally knowable facts derived from our concepts, themselves), Garner (like J. L. Mackie before him) rejects the idea that moral claims state any facts at all. There is no moral knowledge, he argues, and that's a good thing . . .

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Help Sean Wilson's New Book Project

Sean Wilson is seeking feedback on his next book project HERE

Ethical Intuitionism and the Idea of Intrinsic Goodness

Been reading a book I picked up the other day, Ethical Intuitionism by Michael Huemer who teaches philosophy at the University of Colorado (Boulder). As the title suggests, he makes an argument for intuitionism in ethics, a la Moore, despite the fact that this tradition has fallen on hard times since Moore and Sidgwick first began pushing it. After taking apart the current meta-ethical theories that grew up in the shadow of Moore's Principia Ethica, including non-cognitivism (he includes here the expressivism/emotivism of people like Ayer and Stevenson as well as the prescriptivism of Hare), subjectivism (in which he includes, somewhat counter-intuitively, all moral accounts that stand on the idea of some opinion or authority including the idea that our moral views just state our personal preferences, the preferences of our community, the preferences of an "ideal observer" or the preferences of a deity), and nihilism (the position that there are no moral truths at all, just the illusion that there are) he proceeds to make his case for the intuitionist account.

His position rests on a Kantian a priorism that holds that knowledge, even that which we think of as empirical, is grounded in intellectual intuitions such as the idea that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, that time is ordered (one moment follows another and precedes the next) and that things cannot be both red and blue all over and at the same time. He argues that these are indubitable propositions, requiring neither proof nor grounding but, which, themselves, form the ground of other things we know in an empirical sense. Similarly he argues that there are moral intuitions we have such that some things just are "intrinsically" good. The intrinsicness, he finds, in the concepts our words for these "things" represent. He makes the important point that even in logic, no syllogism is valid unless it is understood as such (the implications of the structure of premises is recognized) and that this, too, is a priori though there is no guarantee that we come to see it. To get the validity of any syllogism we have to recognize it and sometimes we do so only by having the connections made explicit though we do implicitly recognize validity when it is there, even if we may not always understand what's going on or the why's of logic.

After establishing the relevance and reality of what he takes to be the a priori he goes on to equate moral intuitions with such a priori knowledge. Relying on a principle he calls "phenomenal conservatism" (the idea that we should take things to be as they appear, absent some additional reason to think they aren't) he argues that the ethical intuitions we have represent a kind of truth unless and until other intuitions conflict with them. He doesn't argue that an ethical intuition is certain, that it can never be wrong, but only that it is prima facie the case absent information to the contrary and should be treated as such. . . .

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A New Resource for Students of Philosophy?

Here's a very interesting site which offers a synopsis of the views of a wide range of philosophers through the ages. In the link provided below, Wittgenstein's early and late thinking is summarized in some detail:


In general, I think this has been done quite well (though there are some unfortunate typos in the text). This material, both the immediate section linked to on Wittgenstein as well as some of the other sections (I haven't yet read them all), looks to be a great resource. I especially found the remarks on Wittgenstein's Tractarian thinking and some of the commentary on his later work elucidating and thought-provoking.

I come to learn how to use psychological words correctly in the context of a 'public' language-game. For example, it was when I hurt myself as a child that I first learned from others how to use the sentence 'I am in pain'. Indeed, according to Wittgenstein, this can be seen as an aspect of pain behaviour. I do not have to appeal to any private state of being in pain. Moreover, the sentence 'I know I am in pain' makes no sense at all. I can know that others are in pain by observing their behaviour or because they tell me they are. But clearly I do not ask myself whether I am in pain. Already in the 1930s [Lectures] Wittgenstein had distinguished between different usages of 'I'. The pronoun has different functions in 'I have a toothache' and 'I have a bad tooth'. In the latter it can be replaced by 'my body', but in the latter [sic] case the 'I' has no reference — it does not denote a possessor or 'Ego' [d]. As for proper names, Wittgenstein now thinks of them as being defined in terms of a loose association with various descriptions — their sense changing accordingly [e]: a name is thus used without a fixed meaning [PI 79]. By the time he had written the Investigations Wittgenstein had also altered his view of the necessity of the propositions of mathematics and logic. These are now seen to be necessary in virtue of the (non-compulsory) acceptance of rules embedded in the relevant language 'game' [f]. It follows that because we set our own standards of consistency we can change the rules if we so wish — provided we are willing to accept the possibly chaotic consequences for our mathematical discourse as a whole.
A good site, on my view, worth looking at some more.

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Can Moral Goodness Be Based on Naturalism?

ONE OF THE moves in the field of modern moral or ethical philosophy has been to claim that moral judgments of goodness, of what's right for people to do, can be determined by considering the best way for a person to live, i.e., what's good for humans as humans. Among such "goods" are, of course, survival and a full belly and shelter in a storm. But these are taken to be mere animal goods, what any living organism will want for itself in general, i.e., whatever is necessary to survive well, and will include the absence of pain and debilitating conditions. Alone these do not offer a basis for making moral claims, a distinctively human activity. For this we have to go further and look to what's good for humans as humans. And here we come up against the usual problem of determining which things qualify in this respect.

Aristotle supposed the goodness that suited human kind lay in the achievement of a certain balance in one’s life and that this represented the best state a person could be in, i.e., the state in which a human being might be said to do best, to flourish in much the same way as a well watered plant, placed in nutrient rich soil and provided with plenty of sunlight or an adequately fed beast, given the opportunity to exercise sufficient for its health and mental condition might do well. For Aristotle developing various human traits in the best way represented that same sort of phenomenon for humans. He posited that humans do best when they find and adhere to a middle path between extremes of behavior.

Thus, Aristotle famously defined things like courage as a human virtue to the extent it represented a midpoint between the alternatives of timidity or cowardice, on the one hand, and rashness or foolhardiness on the other, courage thus being seen as the condition of knowing when to step up and risk oneself, rather than always fearing to do so, or doing so without regard to any and all consequences. Aristotle proposed that other human qualities, like wisdom, could be seen similarly in this way, as the midpoint between stupidity or dullness, on the one hand, and over attachment to thinking everything through so that one never reached the point of choosing one’s actions and acting, on the other. Charity, on this view, similarly represents the state in which we balance our own needs with those of people we should care about, etc., neither refusing to help those in need when we can nor helping others to such an extent as to impoverish ourselves or those dependent on us.

For Aristotle, to be in the best, or happiest, human state was just to be balanced in this way because it led to the best sort of life a person could live, one that both most satisfactorily served the person himself or herself and also those around him or her (from one's own family to one's community). It generated, Aristotle believed, the best results overall. A happy man in this Aristotelian sense was then a virtuous one where virtue represented such moderation between behavioral extremes.

Other philosophers of the ancient world thought the idea of living rightly, choosing the right sorts of things to do similarly depended on having some form of human happiness as one’s objective. This was often and variously defined in a variety of ways by thinkers of the ancient world, from Aristotle’s concept of virtue to the notion of living in a state which exercised a human being’s unique cognitive faculties to the fullest or achieving a life of moderation which offered a person just enough to keep him or her satisfied but not so much as to bring on undue cares (through excessive pursuit of wealth and the worry and strife that accompanies such concerns) or which might lead to slothfulness or dissipation. Still other ancient thinkers counted human happiness as the state of having sufficient pleasure in one’s life, through the temperate enjoyment of the finer things, and others thought it was to simply achieve a state in which one stood in equilibrium with the world’s vicissitudes, to be unbroken by the trials and tribulations of a lifetime.

The happiest state for persons, of course, may be defined in any number of ways and each definition will find its adherents . . . .

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Are There Intrinsic Goods?

ONE WAY OF dividing up the different principles by which we acknowledge or ascribe goodness or badness to things (whether objects, actions, goals, states of affairs, etc.) is to suppose that there are some things that are good because they help us achieve other things, some of which must be just good in themselves. The first sort of goodness, the one dependent on the effectiveness of the object of reference (whether physical objects or other type) to perform some function for us or bring something about, is often classified as "extrinsic," as in being outside the object itself. That is, we would not care to obtain or achieve or use such objects if they did not serve our purpose in achieving something else. Some of those things which fit into the class of "something else" are then taken to have so-called "intrinsic" goodness, i.e., to be good no matter what purpose we mean to put them to because we desire their possession just for what they are.

Thus, philosophers have often divided the world of possible goods between the extrinsic and the intrinsic. The notion of extrinsic, or instrumental, goodness is easy enough to understand and largely uncontroversial. We have no reason to doubt the goodness of a thing which serves to get us whatever it is we want, that is to say, we have no reason to doubt its goodness for that purpose. And no one seems disposed to claim that there is no such thing as this kind of goodness (to the extent they are prepared to acknowledge that there is goodness at all). The problem arises when we turn to the moral case, however, for here what we want to call "morally good" produces a special class of things (actions, generally) which, if they are called good just because they are thought to be instrumentally so, do not seem to fit that case.

That is, while there are any number of moral claims we can make, far and away the most important are those which are motivated by concern for another's interest and not strictly for our own. Giving charity, avoidance of doing harm to another, reaching out to support others in moments of pain, respecting their persons, avoiding lying to, stealing from or otherwise injuring them, etc., all typically fall under the moral case. And yet, if we do any of these sorts of things because we wish to obtain some benefit for ourselves, we would not grant that they were motivated in a moral way.

To the extent that we undertake a so-called moral act only to bring about some other good that we want or need for ourselves, that act appears self-interested – and self-interest abrogates the moral basis since, in any case in which self-interest is the predominant basis for acting, a different action, which lacks moral standing according to ordinary moral usage, may be justified or more justified. And so the fact that a presumptively morally good act may be justified by self-interest undermines that very justification for, if some things were different, the same justification would support our acting in what we take to be an immoral way . . . .

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