Ott 24 2010, 21:40
The Good, the Bad, and the Unsettled
Skepticism has become an invaluable tool to modern philosophy for propelling precision and accuracy, and this is no better exemplified in the study of ethics than by moral non-cognitivism. Moral cognitivism holds that moral claims have truth values, while non-cognitivism obviously objects. In his book, Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?, Russ Shafer-Landau attempts to demonstrate that a particular branch of moral cognitivism, moral objectivism, is the best explanation we have for explaining the world in which we live and participate. His argument is that in light of our most common intuitions about behavior and conduct moral objectivism fares best paired against any other meta-ethical theories, and therefore most consistently describes the ethical sphere of reality. Moral non-cognitivism opposes the cognitivist assumption that moral utterances have truth values to begin with, positing instead that such claims are nothing more than emotional statements. Shafer-Landau’s demonstration is a poor one, because it fails to fully consider the debate between these more macroscopic views, swallowing a particular moral cognitive paradigm without chewing on the proper competition.
As noted, Shafer-Landau is determined to show that because moral objectivism is the one and only meta-ethical theory that can withstand academic scrutiny that it alone can provide a clear picture of our expectations and experiences regarding behavior and conduct. This aim is one he attempts to reach with two basic steps; first, to show that no other viewpoint is coherent, and secondly to offer solid ground that moral objectivism is, that it succeeds where everything else fails. In both endeavors, Shafer-Landau does an excellent job in concisely confirming moral objectivism’s superiority to other forms of moral cognitivism. What he utterly fails to fix and secure is any severely crippling deficiency in moral non-cognitivism. My contention is in fact, that this issue left unattended undermines Shafer-Landau’s conclusion, leaving too wide an open space for debate. Moral non-cognitivism seems equally equipped to explain ethical experience(s).
I’m resolute on maintaining the fortitude of moral non-cognitivism as pitted against its opposition, and so my argument will most closely examine the first step of Shafer-Landau’s project and prove that because moral non-cognitivism is never fully expunged its ground is equally fertile for outlining the ethical dimension of the world. One of Shafer-Landau’s schemes is to expose that every other meta-ethical view save moral objectivism will in some way betray some of our most principled, commonly held intuitions.
Most generally and historically humans have held certain assumptions about life and how to live it very close to heart. Some actions are bad, some good, and the people that do bad are themselves bad and vice versa. There is moral difference. Moral difference makes it possible for moral error to take place. People can do wrong. On the other hand, because some things are good progress can be made. Moral difference allows that people or even whole societies may accomplish vast improvements upon their former flaws. Moral comparisons can be drawn to assess whether we have evolved or regressed in certain situations. Assessment requires critical evaluation, and as smoke to fire, where there is contemplation there is often quarrel. Moral difference as well permits for the possibility and probability of moral disagreement. Deeds are not ethically equal, but exactly which ones are positive or negative has been and will be hotly debated. Debate depends upon a focus, without which disagreements would be vacuous and counter-productive to any resolve. External critique must be possible in moral matters.
The basic intuitions thus listed rest upon the specific one, moral difference, and because the idea is so extremely common, Shafer-Landau has a powerful foundation from which to begin his thesis. From these seemingly inalienable inklings Shafer-Landau skillfully weaves non-objectivist forms of moral cognitivism into webs of contradiction. The details of these yarns, which make up the bulk of the material, are however, irrelevant. The specific assumption that moral difference exists is just that: an assumption. It is an assumption based on an even more general one which posits the very presence of right and wrong; Shafer-Landau presupposes moral cognitivism from the very beginning of his project. This is clearly and absolutely a mistaken route if all other meta-ethical standpoints are to be indubitably debunked. That people believe a proposition has no necessary bearing on the truth of it.
Anytime in Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? when Shafer-Landau is faced to deal with the debate between the moral cognitivists and non-cognitivists he either appeals to the fact that most people side with cognitivism (19) or plays on the emotions of his readers, such as when he deems the denial of moral difference uncomfortable (18). The question of whether moral difference is real or not cannot be answered by mere observance of the fact that 99% of humanity wants very badly that the pedophile be morally different from the priest. The debate is left wide open, but non-cognitivism “isn’t a happy choice.” (42).
The logic Shafer-Landau employs to discredit other forms of moral cognitivism is impeccable, but his negligence toward non-cognitivism is a serious strike against the feasibility of his entire proof. Our intuitions about morality, no matter how common can be doubted. To start a serious study of meta-ethics we have at hand the basic datum that people make moral statements. Either these statements have truth values or they do not. The resolve of that dispute specifically will be the primer to discovering the theory best fit to describe the ethical arena of our world. Unresolved, the best we can come up with is a meta-ethical view that best describes what people believe to be the truth. Right now I have a thought about moral cognitivism. My thought is both in process and it has content, both of which occurrences have truth values. It is true that I am thinking right now that cognitivism is inaccurate, but such a fact is vacuous; or at best, left to the epistemologist for exploring. Shafer-Landau is permitted only that many, if not most people do in fact believe that right and wrong are factual occurrences of some sort in our world.
At this point, indeed, this whole debate starts to veer off into the realm of justification, so I need to briefly consider some epistemological issues. Moral cognitivists at this point are most likely going to make the claim that there is necessary reason or motivation to trust at least some of our intuitions; furthermore, in some fashion they may motion to include the ones mentioned as among the trustworthy. In this way Shafer-Landau may have hope in saving his entire work. There is popular contemporary contention that logic involves a normative function. If I believe that “2 + 2” necessarily implies “4” and I believe “2 + 2”, then I ought to believe “4.” However, I personally believe that this is terribly flawed. It is simply a linguistic device that we use the word “ought.”
If I know what both “2 + 2”, “4”, and “implies” mean, then “2 + 2 = 4” becomes apparent automatically, and not by any choice I make. I have already made up my mind, by choosing to believe in all the constituents of the formula that the formula itself becomes another belief of mine by way of its definition alone. In other words, the parameters have been set; the rest falls into place. When I am sitting in my room and my girlfriend walks in it is not by any choice that I decide to believe that there are two humans in my bedroom. I simply do.
The practice of having intuitions is impossible to justify logically; this is exactly what makes such a thing an intuition. The content of any intuition, on the other hand is possible to defend but impossible to prove because upon proof a proposition becomes fact. A certain moral cognitivist position might be that I ought to accept the aforementioned intuitions, but that would be problematic because it presupposes some moral fact. I have shown that logic need not be normative at all. The other possible position would use facts to show the intuitions to be facts themselves. Shafer-Landau has used logic backed by intuitions to posit his entire thesis. Nowhere does he attempt to prove his underlying premises, the intuitions. The fact is that whether or not Shafer-Landau is justified to believe his own premises is either based on a correlation to the world or some amount of consistency within his own belief system. He has lent no validity to the former, and the latter has nothing to do with my own belief system. With no reason to believe the assumptions Shafer-Landau makes there is little reason to buy the conclusion that moral objectivism is the best meta-ethical position. The only thing that validly follows is that moral objectivism might be true, or is true if certain other beliefs about the world are true.
Moral difference, error, progress, comparison, and disagreement may all be illusions we ourselves evoke, and without solid evidence that this is not the case non-cognitivism stands unshaken, the equal of its opponent. For example external critique in moral matters might be simple fancy; the existence of an intuition that differs does not work to completely debunk such an explanation about the world, and neither is a moral non-cognitivist left without a response. It could be that people argue themselves into emotionally bankrupt corners because their desire to be right is overpowering. Actually, moral non-cognitivism stands in exactly the same place and esteem as moral cognitivism does during Shafer-Landau’s second step which tries to substantiate that moral objectivism prevails in all the areas in which the other theories collapsed.
Shafer-Landau demonstrates that not only is moral objectivism the only theory left unhindered by absurdity, but that it is the best theory we can adopt for two main reasons. Only moral objectivism can deal with evil and randomness properly. However, his judgment is too quick and somewhat unfair.
As far as evils go, according to a moral non-cognitivist the statement “dogmatism is an evil” is categorically synonymous with a statement such as “compared to vanilla ice cream chocolate is gross.” In fairness, it probably holds true that things like intolerance upset people more than preferences in certain confections, but whether there is an objective rule or not, phenomena like intolerance will not ever be necessarily abolished. The rule of thumb for centuries concerning intolerance and “evils” like it has been some variation on the golden rule, which works whether an objective rule or not because it incites emotional response. It is true that moral non-cognitivism cannot denote displeasures as bad with regards to any coordinates such as entity, place, or time, and it is true that it forces no agreement upon moral practitioners. However, it is not necessary that a cognitivist meta-ethical theory be true about the world in order for any one person or group of people to adopt certain codes of conduct. In fact, it is as equally possible that moral non-cognitivism is true about the world, our very one, as it is for cognitivism. That fact need not change anything in terms of how we may proceed.
The randomness issue plagues moral relativism and subjectivism, other forms of moral cognitivism, because they are defined by the idea that moral laws are decided upon or created by one or more mind(s). The claim is the fairly obvious one that this makes the whole business of morality look more than a bit arbitrary, but moral objectivism is not the only theory to escape this problem unscathed. To claim that moral objectivism escapes from arbitrariness is to claim that objective moral laws are just part of the natural order. Along the same line of reasoning a moral non-cognitivist can claim escape because the lack of any such laws would also be part of the natural order. This aside, it is not even clear that the very nature of the universe itself is not arbitrary and random.
Recognizing that Shafer-Landau has chosen the path of the best explanation argument to prove his position, it is foggy what “best” might mean in his context. It could only convey that a theory is worthy based on popular consensus or perhaps emotional harmony. Shafer-Landau gives moral non-cognitivists no room to breathe by deeming them detestable for noncompliance to beliefs in certain intuitions about human experience. It is not the uncertainty in the reality of such intuitions itself that mars his position, but that certain phenomena can be explained in an opposite and equal way that shows that moral non-cognitivism is just as feasible a meta-ethical theory.
Shafer-Landau, Russ. Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
© Stephen Norman, 2010