Quine on Ethics
February 18, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Ethics, Moral Judgment, Quine, Stuart Mirsky, Truth Claims, Willard van Orman Quine, moral valuing

Quine's basic position on ethics, as expressed in this clip


seems to be that judgments of moral valuation have "no analog" with questions of scientific facts (assignment of truth values to statements about the world). Thus, in the end, moral judgment can be nothing but a reflection of what we have been taught to believe or what is inherent in us based on natural selection. Quine is paraphrased here, by one of his interlocutors, as saying the best that you can get in moral valuation are claims reflecting a kind of coherence theory, while in science you can get statements according to a kind of correspondence theory. Hence he appears to agree with the old Humean notion that one cannot derive an ought from an is.

In science and ordinary talk about the world, Quine holds that what we can say is determined by our inputs from the world around us but, in terms of moral judgments, what we can say is entirely determined by what we intuit, by how we feel about things. He allows that we can argue the facts of moral cases, of course, and so come to different conclusions even where we seem to share similar feelings or predispositions about the elements of the case, but his bottom line seems to be consistent with Hume's suggestion that moral judgment is entirely determined by our sensibilities -- which can be subject to change, of course, although not consciously by ourselves, for on this view we just are whatever our inclinations and feelings are. That is, we can be given tendencies to have certain inclinations, but not others, by a combination of what we are as human beings (our genetically determined behavioral predispositions) and what education and training have added to our makeup in the course of our lives and so we can hope to influence others to some extent by educating and training them -- or supporting certain institutions and practices which serve to educate and train them -- in ways with which we are comfortable (which ways, of course, will depend on how we, ourselves, have been educated and trained for our part). But we can invoke no greater reason than our own inclinations or theirs, to the extent they share what we feel.

This strikes me as an impoverished view of moral valuation and one which tends to sustain and advance moral relativism which, I think, must be fatal to any possibility of genuine moral valuation. That's because, If we cannot say of anything that it is good in some rationally supportable sense, if we cannot muster arguments which have the potential to convince others (or even ourselves) that some things are better to do than other things, then, on this Quinean view, it seems to me we can have no basis for recommending some things and not others to others to the extent they lack the sensibilities we have or which we wish them to have. All we're left with is the possibility that we can convince others some of the time to do what we think they ought to do if we have managed to give them the right education/training first (either directly or through the agency of the shared culture) and/or if they happen to have inherited the right sort of genetically programmed behavioral inclinations. If not we're stuck. There's no reason that we can give anyone not to do, or to do, some thing we think is good.

This could be workable, I suppose, if all we were ever concerned about, when making moral judgments, were those judgments and behaviors expressed by others. If the only point of moral judgment is to guide and control others' behavior, if it's just to put ourselves in a governing role in relation to others, then one could argue that moral valuing could work, at least for the society in general, so long as other members of it remain in ignorance of this fact about moral judgment. Moral valuation, seen in this way, would be a tool of the group in terms of the society, state or other governing mechanism that expresses the group.

But the real problem of moral valuation is that, for it to be real in the sense we take it to be, it must also apply in cases of self-assessment, in cases where we are engaged in determining what we ought to do. For, if we grant that moral assessment is just about getting others to behave as we would like them to, then we are, ourselves, always and in principle free of such constraints. It would be as if we were always the parents of others with whom we share a society or culture, free to tell them to do as I say, not as I do (whether we, in fact, choose to act differently within their span of awareness of our behaviors).

And, of course, others will also be free in this way if and when they discover that moral valuing works like that, for then they will see that it works like that for them, too. In this case moral valuing will fail though because it will no longer serve the function we expect it to, identify and delineate the things any of us ought to do on reflection and judgment. Behaving according to one's conditioning or innate nature is not, fundamentally, a moral choice because this implies that we have no real choice at all and without choice, there's no moral valuing taking place, only the illusion of it. If Quine's view is correct, then, once we know that it is, it can no longer be rationally compelling for us. It can only work for those who don't realize the illusory nature of arguments about moral cases.

I think this shows the failure of Quine's account even though he makes a correct point when differentiating scientific and moral valuation judgments on the grounds that the latter have no analog with the former.

But suppose there was such an analog? What if we could show that moral judgments can be about something which could or could not be the case?

With Quine I would tend to be leery of wanting to use the word "true" for moral judgments because, to me at least, that word doesn't feel right in this context. Assertions of truth do seem to be about corresponding with facts in the world and the moral case is less about that than it is about facts in ourselves (i.e., having this or that intuition, sensibility or inclination). But Quine is also right to say that moral valuing, to have implications for us beyond our nature and conditioning, must be shown to stand on some basis that is independent of ourselves as actors, some standard or reason to which we can turn to guide us, to enable us to measure whether or not any act we decide to undertake is morally good or not. The problem then is to discover if there is such an "analog." If there isn't, then Quine's view must entail that there aren't any moral judgments that can be shown to be better or worse than any others in a way that enables us to select rationally between them.

I take it to be the work of moral philosophy to ascertain whether or not, and to what extent, there is an analog in value claims to the truth claims of science.

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