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Entries in Naturalism (3)


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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Four Naturalistic Strategies in Accounting for Ethical Claims

The intuitionist account of value claims, which G. E. Moore presented in answer to the is/ought dichotomy first flagged by David Hume, proposes that there are objective facts about what’s good, especially the good thing to do, and that they hinge on a private experience we each have of the good. Just as we know colors by seeing them, so, this thesis goes, we know good actions and objectives by recognizing them (if and when they manifest themselves to us through sensory input). That is, according to Moore, the term “good” can be understood as denoting a property of a thing, just as a term like “yellow” denotes a property which some things may have, namely the property of being the color we call “yellow.” But where yellowness is, as Moore put it, a “natural property” which we know through our direct experience of it (when we see it) goodness counts as a “non-natural property” because it’s not inherent in any of the sensory inputs we have, although there is something about the way we have those sensory inputs that prompts in us the recognition of the presence of goodness alongside the "natural" properties we observe through our sensory inputs.

That is, on this view, goodness is knowable directly through our experience just as the sight of yellow in a thing is. This makes use of the Kantian sense of “intuit,” i.e., of having knowledge of something without the intermediation of other knowledge, of something else. In other words, we don’t need a reason to reach the conclusion that something is good, if it is, because we recognize it directly (just as we recognize that yellow things are yellow).

But Moore offered no explanation of what it is to know what’s good in the way we know what’s yellow and later thinkers, like Philippa Foot, questioned the usage of “intuition” as Moore presented it. . . .

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Searle on the Is/Ought Dichotomy

In continuing to review what's left of my library post Sandy's flood in our region, I came across a small paperback, Theories of Ethics, edited by Philippa Foot. I did remember reading this one and found, as I paged through it, plenty of handwritten notes on the book's pages. I almost never write in book margins. It just seems wrong to me. But I obviously did so at that point, probably reflecting my effort to develop an ethics theory of my own which back in the seventies I was very keen on attempting. Never quite succeeded at it, of course, and nowadays I am leery of any sort of theory development in a field like this for Wittgensteinian reasons. But back then it's apparent I had fewer inhibitions in the matter. Anyway, the book consists of a series of articles gathered, and commented on in a foreword, by Foot who was then the pre-eminent exponent of naturalism in ethics and regarded as a major thinker in the field. One of the pieces she re-printed, it turns out, was an article by our old friend John Searle, How to Derive Ought from Is. It's followed by a piece by R. M. Hare (another major ethical thinker of the time) attacking Searle's position. Hare, of course, was defending his own view that the function of commending is radically different from describing and that one achieves moral claims by combining commendatory principles, to which one chooses to subscribe, with factual assertions to yield logically sound conclusions which serve as particular moral oughts. Searle had offered a different view. . . .

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