More Fun with Moral Realism

What is moral realism?  Edvard Westermarck provided a good definition in the first paragraph of his Ethical Relativity:

Ethics is generally looked upon as a “normative” science, the object of which is to find and formulate moral principles and rules possessing objective validity.  The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise, implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong.  It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.  The objectivity of moral judgments does not presuppose the infallibility of the individual who pronounces such a judgment, nor even the accuracy of a general consensus of opinion; but if a certain course of conduct is objectively right, it must be thought to be right by all rational beings who judge truly of the matter and cannot, without error, be judged to be wrong.

Westermarck dismissed moral realism as a chimera.  So do I.  Indeed, in view of what we now know about the evolutionary origins of moral emotions, the idea strikes me as ludicrous.  It is, however, treated as matter-of-factly as if it were an unquestionable truth, and not only in the general public.  Philosophers merrily discuss all kinds of moral conundrums and paradoxes in academic journals, apparently in the belief that they have finally uncovered the “truth” about such matters, to all appearances with no more fear of being ridiculed than the creators of the latest Paris fashions.  The fact is all the more disconcerting if one takes the trouble to excavate the reasons supplied for this stubborn belief that subjective emotional constructs in the minds of individuals actually relate to independent things.  Typically, they are threadbare almost beyond belief.

Recently I discussed the case of G. E. Moore, who, after dismissing the arguments of virtually everyone who had attempted a “proof” of moral realism before him as fatally flawed by the naturalistic fallacy, supplied a “proof” of his own.  It turned out that the “objective good” consisted of those things that were most likely to please an English country gentleman.  The summum bonum was described as something like sitting in a cozy house with a nice glass of wine while listening to Beethoven.  The only “proof” supplied for the independent existence of this “objective good” was Moore’s assurance that he was an expert in such matters, and that it was obvious to him that he was right.

I recently uncovered another such “proof,” this time concocted in the fertile imagination of the Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö. It turned up in an interview on the website of 3:AM Magazine under the title, The Hedonistic Utilitarian.  In response to interviewer Richard Marshall’s question,

Why are you a moral realist and what difference does this make to how you go about investigating morals from, for example, a non-realist?

Tännsjö replies,

I am indeed a moral realist.  In particular, I believe that one basic question, what we ought to do, period (the moral question), is a genuine one.  There exists a true answer to it, which is independent of our thought and conceptualization.  My main argument in defense of the position is this.  It is true (independently of our conceptualization) that it is wrong to inflict pain on a sentient creature for no reason (she doesn’t deserve it, I haven’t promised to do it, it is not helpful to this creature or to anyone else if I do it, and so forth).  But if this is a truth, existing independently of our conceptualization, then at least one moral fact (this one) exists and moral realism is true.  We have to accept this, I submit, unless we can find strong reasons to think otherwise.

In reading this, I was reminded of PFC Littlejohn, who happened to serve in my unit when I was a young lieutenant in the Army.  Whenever I happened to pull his leg more egregiously than even he could bear, he would typically respond, “You must be trying to bullshit me, sir!”  Apparently Tännsjö doesn’t consider Darwin’s theory, or Darwin’s own opinion regarding the origin of the moral emotions, or the flood of books and papers on the evolutionary origins of moral behavior, or the convincing arguments for the selective advantage of just such an emotional response as he describes, or the utter lack of evidence for the physical existence of “moral truths” independent of our “thought and conceptualization,” as sufficiently strong reasons “to think otherwise.”  Tännsjö continues,

Moral nihilism comes with a price we can now see.  It implies that it is not wrong (independently of our conceptualization) to do what I describe above; this does not mean that it is all right to do it either, of course, but yet, for all this, I find this implication from nihilism hard to digest.  It is not difficult to accept for moral reasons.  If it is false both that it is wrong to perform this action and that it is righty to perform it, then we need to engage in difficult issues in deontic logic as well.

Yes, in the same sense that deontic logic is necessary to determine whether it is true or false that there are fairies in Richard Dawkins’ garden.  No deontic logic is necessary here – just the realization that Tännsjö is trying to make truth claims about something that is not subject to truth claims.  The claim that it is objectively “not wrong” to do what he describes is as much a truth claim, and therefore just as irrational, as the claim that it is wrong.  As for his equally irrational worries about “moral nihilism,” his argument is similar to those of the religious true believers who think that, because they find a world without a God unpalatable, one must therefore perforce pop into existence.  Westermarck accurately described the nature of Tännsjö’s “proof” in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, where he wrote,

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivise the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion

The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

Today, Westermarck is nearly forgotten, while G. E. Moore is a household name among moral philosophers.  The Gods and angels of traditional religions seem to be in eclipse in Europe and North America, but “the substance of things hoped for,” and “the evidence of things not seen” are still with us, transmogrified into the ghosts and goblins of moral realism.  We find atheist social justice warriors hurling down their anathemas and interdicts more furiously than anything ever dreamed of by the Puritans and Pharisees of old, supremely confident in their “objective” moral purity.

And what of moral nihilism?  Dream on!  Anyone who seriously believes that anything like moral nihilism can result from the scribblings of philosophers has either been living under a rock, or is constitutionally incapable of observing the behavior of his own species.  Human beings will always behave morally.  The question is, what kind of a morality can we craft for ourselves that is both in harmony with our moral emotions, that does the least harm, and that most of us can live with.  I personally would prefer one that is based on an accurate understanding of what morality is and where it comes from.

Do I think that anything of the sort is on the horizon in the foreseeable future?  No.  When it comes to belief in religion and/or moral realism, one must simply get used to living in Bedlam.

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