Moral Realism as a Naturalistic Intuitionism
November 2, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Empiricism, Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Naturalism, Philosophy of Science, Richard N. Boyd, Stuart Mirsky

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.

Boyd's position is that, just as we have knowledge about the world embedded within our theoretical background and practices that we are trained in by active engagement in the work of science, so we have knowledge about human beings (including introspectively of ourselves) in much the same way. We know a great deal about human beings and what they need and as we develop on a social level we come to learn more. For instance, he argues, it took the development of democracies in human societies to prompt us to an understanding that an institution like slavery is morally wrong. Before there were democracies in the modern sense (he doesn't explain why Athenian democracy didn't eliminate slavery but seems to imply it was still in too primitive a form), slavery looked okay to most human beings. It was just another ordinary sort of human institution along with so many others. But with democracy and the ways of thinking that entailed, he suggests slavery no longer fit the social model. An important aspect of his view here is that moral goodness has a social and not an individual ontology. That is, he argues that what we consider as goods in a moral sense consist of various elements in human life on a social level which we see developing with the ongoing development of human social institutions. Hence democracy leads to the collapse of slavery for instance.

He proposes that there are a whole slew of natural, primarily social, phenomena which are good for humans as a group and that the point of moral judgments is to select actions and policies which are consistent with or facilitative of these kinds of goods. What we come to recognize as being good in this social sense must change though, over time, he thinks, with the development of human society. Thus he rejects the notion that there is some fixed Aristotelian list of virtues which are best for individuals at all times and in all places and which tend toward better societies when adopted and practiced by its members. Rather, he argues, there are clear cut and empirically discoverable human goods which serve humans as a group and which thus serve to define what any human being should be doing. That is, to the extent we can recognize the truth of the goodness of such phenomena, we will know just what it is that's good to do in a moral sense. What's good for social man is good for the individual and not vice versa. He further takes these goods to be so in a somewhat indeterminate, organic way:

. . . I understand the homeostatic cluster which defines moral goodness to be social rather than individual. the properties of homeostasis are to be thought of as instances of the satisfaction of particular human needs among people generally, rather than within the life of a single individual. Thus the homeostatic consequentialist holds not . . . that the satisfaction of each of the various needs within the life of an individual contributes (given relevant homeostatic mechanisms) to the satisfaction of the others in the life of that same individual. Instead, she claims that, given the relevant homeostatic mechanisms, the satisfaction of those needs for one individual tends to be conducive to their satisfaction for others, and it is to the homeostatic unity of human need satisfaction in the society generally that she or he appeals in proposing a definition of the good.(p. 204)

Describing his position as "homeostatic consequentialism," because it hinges on recognizing the consequences of any action in terms of its capacity to bring about certain human goods in the above fashion, where what's brought about are seen to be good in this "homeostatic" sense, i.e., in terms of how all the elements deemed good interrelate, he says:

There are a number of important human goods, things which satisfy important human needs. Some of these needs are physical or medical. Others are psychological or social; these (probably) include the need for love and friendship, the need to engage in cooperative efforts, the need to exercise control over one's own life, the need for intellectual and artistic appreciation and expression, the need for physical recreation, etc. The question of just which important human needs there are is a potentially difficult and complex empirical question. (p. 203)

Building on this claim he proceeds:

Under a wide variety of (actual and possible) circumstances these human goods (or rather instances of the satisfaction of them) are homeostatically clustered. In part they are clustered because these goods themselves are -- when present in balance or moderation -- mutually supporting. There are in addition psychological and social mechanisms which when, and to the extent to which, they are present contribute to the homeostasis. They probably include cultivated attitudes of mutual respect, political democracy, egalitarian social relations, various rituals, customs, and rules of courtesy, ready access to education and information, etc. It is a complex and difficult question in psychology and social theory just what these mechanisms are and how they work. (p. 203)

It's this kind of picture, Boyd argues, that delivers for us the basis for moral valuing, i.e., we find what's morally good in terms of those behaviors which are most likely to lead toward the realization of these goods in terms of getting an optimal mix of these for society. Like Aristotle, he does not see any one sort of behavior as virtuous in an absolute sense but, where Aristotle thought in terms of finding the middle way of moderation for each individual, Boyd argues for goodness as being that social state (or states) in which humans as a group have an optimal balance of these conditions where an imbalance may be thought to undermine the goodness of any particular member of the cluster of conditions (hence his "homeostatic" appellation).

So how do we come to know either that these things are good in the right mix or that any of the particular conditions actually belong in the mix? He thinks we do this by incrementally improving our knowledge of human beings and their nature, in much the same way we improve our knowledge of the physical world by scientific advances. That is, we develop knowledge empirically of creatures like ourselves and, in so doing, learn more and more about our needs as such creatures and about what gets them satisfied for us. But his emphasis, again, is on the group, not the individual though moral decisions are typically individually motivated and arrived at. His view is that once we, as individuals, discover what's good for us as a group, we also see that, being members of that group, we share the same needs as the rest and so recognize a shared interest in achieving that cluster of group goods.

In actual practice, a concern for moral goodness can be a guide to action for the morally concerned because the homeostatic unity of moral goodness tends to mitigate possible conflicts between various individual goods. In part, the possible conflicts are mitigated just because various of the important human goods are mutually reinforcing. Moreover, since the existence of effective homeostatic unity among important human goods is part of the moral good, morally concerned choice is constrained by the imperative to balance potentially competing goods in such a way that homeostasis is maintained or strengthened. Finally, the improvement of the psychological and social mechanisms of homeostasis themselves is a moral good whose successful pursuit tends to further mitigate conflicts of the sort in question. In this regard, moral practice resembles good engineering practice in product design. In designing, say, automobiles there are a number of different desiderata (economy, performance, handling, comfort, durability, . . . ) which are potentially conflicting but which enjoy a kind of homeostatic unity if developed in moderation . . . The feature of good automotive design (or, perhaps, of good automotive engineering) is that it produces technological advances which permit that homeostatic unity to be preserved at higher levels of the various individual desiderata. So it is with good moral practices.(pp 203-204)

What he does not do, in his account, however, is to tell us why any of us should have what he calls the "concern for moral goodness" he alludes to above. That some of us do would seem to be beyond question, even if we have varying understandings of what counts as that. But in his argument, Boyd assumes that concern, presumably because he thinks that any normal human being will understand him or herself as part of a group and will then necessarily tailor his or her behaviors to suit group needs. But whether or not one ought to do this does still seem to be an open question for any of us can choose to act solely for him or herself and with substantial disregard for others around us and this would seem to be a primary moral issue. Any account of moral goodness, to fully address the notion, must tell us why we have reason to identify in this fashion with any particular group or with humanity in general. Boyd seems to think we just do have such reason, given what we are, and so will recognize that our behaviors should address increasing the overall goodness (the homeostatic cluster of human goods) which he believes we can discover by empirical means as we make discoveries in science. His answer is that it's just a fact that human beings learn more and more about their own physical, psychological and social needs as they progress in the acquisition of knowledge and that, the more they learn, the more advanced their moral knowledge (theories about the facts about human beings) must become and that growth leads to improved moral beliefs and practices.

How then does moral judgment work on his view? Boyd writes:

. . . we may now treat moral intuitions exactly on a par with scientific intuitions, as a species of trained judgment. Such intuitions are not assigned a foundational role in moral inquiry [as is done by the early 20th century intuitionists like Moore, Sidgwick or Ross or by the latter day intuitionist Michael Huemer ]; in particular they do not substitute for observations. Moral intuitions are simply one cognitive manifestation of our moral understanding, just as physical intuitions, say, are a cognitive manifestation of physicists' understanding of their subject matter. Moral intuitions, like physical intuitions, play a limited but legitimate role in empirical inquiry precisely because they are linked to theory and observations in a generally reliable process of reflective equilibrium. (pp. 207-208)

By "reflective equilibrium" he means the condition in which rational thought stands in relation to dynamically changing background theories, current practices and techniques for obtaining and gauging information and ongoing rethinking that occurs in the process of thought. In sum, Boyd takes a strongly scientific view of philosophy and, especially, ethics (clearly visible in his resuscitation of the term "moral science" when referring to this field). Although rejecting the classical epistemological picture of passive minds picking up information from the world and then making use of it in various conceptual and practical ways in favor of a more interactive model in which what's picked up is shaped not by a priori categories such as Kant supposed but by the ongoing dynamic of theory formation and re-formation (which alters our practices which then alter our capacities to get new information which further alter the older, background information in our theories that we start with, which then alter our practices and the tools they provide and so forth to pick up newer, unanticipated information) in an ongoing process in which the world and the subject are perpetually interlocked, he does not discard a basically naturalistic picture of the world. Instead he attempts to analyze its inherent complexity and then, based on that, to demonstrate that the same complex dynamic occurs on the moral level as well.

From here he develops a claim that moral valuing can be explained naturalistically consistent with how science views the world and knowledge itself. This view makes moral judgments a function of having justified beliefs about certain natural phenomena, i.e., what's good for human beings on a macro level, which translates into what's good for individuals insofar as these contribute to the macro level of goodness. That goodness, he maintains, is comprehensible as a cluster phenomenon, namely as a group of somewhat indeterminate states or conditions in which human beings may find themselves. Having a "moral concern" is to pay attention to these states or conditions and to seek to maximize them ("homeostatic consequentialism"). And how do we come to know them? We do so by ever increasing knowledge about what humans need and this knowledge, as background theory (subject to ongoing growth and change in the same way scientific background theory is), supports the kind of "trained judgment" practitioners of the sciences or any empirical domain come to develop through practice and experience. Thus moral intuitions do exist but only as expressions of tacit knowledge which, itself, is continuously subject to change. (In this last there is contact, I think, with Sean's notion of connoisseurship as used in his book The Flexible Constitution, only in Boyd's case there is also an account of the nature of this phenomenon which Sean omits).

The approach is interesting and certainly promising but strikes one as overly complicated in important areas and as failing to deal with one important question applicable to moral judgment: Why should anyone care about others' interests (their needs, wants, desires, expectations, feelings, etc.) if one doesn't already? If the point of moral judgment is to tell us that we should act at times with this sort of concern, even if it conflicts with or damages our own interests, Boyd's account, though offering a thoroughgoing argument for moral realism qua naturalism (and explaining how intuitions appear to fit into this picture), does not offer a reason for altruism or sympathy. Indeed, at one point he describes sympathy as one of those conditions which is good for humans to have in a social context but, given the fact that not everyone does have it or has it to the same degree, he fails to answer the question of why one ought to have it at times. He thinks it's part of the homeostatic cluster of human goods but leaves that unargued except, perhaps, from the viewpoint of science which can discover and report on when some creatures have it and some don't.

Yet, the really basic moral question isn't whether or not we have sympathy or some other feeling that prompts us to a concern for others, because we know some of us do, but whether, and when, any of us should. This is only partially answered in Boyd's account, by the claim that it's part of the complex of human goods which cluster homeostatically in human experience. Yet, just as we may not think we have any kind of reason to defer our own interests for the interests of others in some cases, so we may also reject any of the members of the homeostatic class of human goods Boyd asserts exist (e.g., sympathy) or the class of such goods in its entirety. Why should we concern ourselves with the good of others in general if we don't want or need to (or think we don't)? Boyd's answer would presumably be that we do need to and that this is just an empirical fact discoverable by suitable inquiry into the types of creatures we are, i.e., social creatures. But even social creatures can be anti-social or asocial at times. That's just a function of ongoing genetic diversity and the evolutionary process which produces new species (some of which may be more social than others). It's just another part of the natural world. If moral valuation has a role to play in human affairs, it cannot be merely whatever nature has endowed us with, for in such cases, there is no reason to expect a "moral concern" which Boyd seems to presume (see above) comes into play whenever we're seeking to discover what we, or others, should do. His account provides no basis for believing we have a compelling reason to act in ways which seem more morally right than otherwise, a lack that represents a serious omission in any theoretical account aspiring to tell us what makes moral valuing work.

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