Are We All Moral Realists?

Reading Russ Shafer-Landau's book Moral Realism, I am struck by an irony. Moral realism says that our moral judgments make claims about the world that are sometimes true, and true in the nature of things, not true (as "constructivists" say) because of the way we reason, or the way we agree to live together under a social contract, or some such. A contrasting position (among many others) is non-cognitivism. On that view, a moral judgment is a disguised reaction--"Hurray for universal health care!" or "Boo, genocide!" The Big Problem for moral realists--as the book makes clear for many chapters--is explaining how moral judgments can be motivating, if they're beliefs about the world. Beliefs (all by themselves) aren't the paradigm case of a motivating state. The advantage of non-cognitivism, by contrast, is that it makes it easier to explain moral motivation. "Boo!" and "Hurray!" reactions are just the kind of thing that spur people to action.

But here's the irony. It's puzzling how moral beliefs motivate, but the acceptance of moral realism is motivating. Imagine being sent to a reeducation camp where it's beat into you by non-cognitivists that your moral judgments are just reactions. When you are released, I think you're going to have a hard time latching onto any cause that takes any energy. But gradually you'll probably go back to how we normally think about morality. As you return to thinking it's true that you should do something about global warming, you'll get fired up to actually do something.

It's interesting to ponder the "phenomenology of obligation." What does it feel like to believe that we (really, truly, objectively) ought to stop global warming? It feels like someone's telling you to do something. You're under order. Most of us don't think of our moral responses as mere reactions, but if we did, what would that be like? We'd back off and demur. "I think there should be universal health care, but that's just me."

Could it be that an implicit commitment to moral realism gives our beliefs about right and wrong some of the oomph that they have? Well, I'm pondering it. Frankly, I think I'd have to study these issues for the 10,000 hours required for expertise--if Malcolm Gladwell is right about that--before I really thought I had the right to an opinion, but we're all entitled to our erstwhile hunches and hypotheses.


s. wallerstein said...

I look at it the other way. A moral realist is someone who believes that there is a moral order in the universe: if people just were more reasonable and analytically clear, they would discover it, as he or she has done. A anti-realistic doesn't believe in said moral order: if he or she doesn't go out and campaign for a cause that he or she believes in, maybe no one will. Ergo, the anti-realistic is more motivated toward moral activism. For the anti-realist, morality is more fragile, more precarious; hence, the anti-realist feels it's up to him or her to struggle on a daily basis for the values that he or she supports. The anti-realist feels the same repugnance towards oppression and exploitation that the realist does, except that he or she sees his or her repugnance as entirely contingent and, as I said, terribly fragile.

BLS Nelson said...

You're probably both right. The instinct towards realism is there, and it has to be carefully dismantled during moral development. Else we'd all be stuck at Kohlberg's stage one. But at later stages our motivations are less lazy and indeed recoil in horror from the realist hypothesis.

The danger I would point to is in relying upon genuinely novel intuitions. When we point to mere moral intuitions (which are not a function of considered judgments), we're in danger of regressing.

Faust said...

Imagine being sent to a reeducation camp where it's beat into you by non-cognitivists that your moral judgments are just reactions. When you are released, I think you're going to have a hard time latching onto any cause that takes any energy.

Why would such an individual have any difficulty latching on to a cause? Consider an alternate version of your reeducation camp:

Imagine being sent to a reeducation camp where it’s beat into you by non-cognitivists that you only like banana ice cream because it tastes good. When you are released, I think you’re going to have a hard time getting out of the house to go get yourself some banana ice cream.

Now does that make ANY sense? Presumably the key here is “causes that take energy.” But we can extend our metaphor to something more time consuming like serial sexual seduction. Or becoming a chef because you like food. Non-cognitive “Yeah!” impulses can take you a long long way. Just like phobias, those dastardly “boo!” responses, can make you never get on a plane, and go to great effort to use other forms of transportation. Now perhaps morality isn’t quite as visceral as the above examples, but there certainly isn’t any obvious reason why a non-cognitive reaction can’t be the basis for some extended program.

Having said that, it can be acknowledged that we desire to connect those impulses to a “realistic” view of the world. Yeah sure gay sex is “really gross” but that’s because God made it that way! It’s part of the fabric of the universe that it’s wrong, it’s just the deviants can’t see that because they are out of touch with God’s “real will.”

So there is a desire to connect visceral non-cognitive responses to frameworks that support the really real reality of those responses. One wants to feel one is being motivated by something other than, as you say, “just me.”

But what if people DID think that way? One fear is that if people think that it’s “just me” they won’t be motivated to do all sorts of good things. But by the same token, what if all those people who think that gay sex is one of the worst dangers to a good and decent society that can be imagined suddenly realized that it ISN’T God’s will? That is IS “just them” and that their own contingent and arbitrary cultural conditioning that makes them think the way that they do. That’s a motivation set that we would do well to reduce …at least those of us who think “homosexuality” is no big deal think that. And off to the races we go.

I think moral realists are highly motivated by “the truth.” They think if they find it, and share it, then that will be the best motivator there is. But I think it’s quite possible that “truth” is, to use Rorty’s phrase, just “a pat on the back” that we give to moral systems we think are good for “us” to live by.

Jean Kazez said...

Why does a non-cognitivist have trouble getting going? Well, it depends what you think the content of morality is. I think I should be doing more about global warming. I think I've been a little lax recently in my involvement in a project aimed at helping Darfur refugees. Doing these things isn't as viscerally fun as eating banana ice cream. So if I find out that my "pro" attitude about them is "just me" it gives me an excuse to stop doing them. When I go back to thinking I really, in truth, ought to do these things, it gets me going.

I agree with you, though, that moral realism is just as energizing for people trying to do things I consider really right as for people who think they are doing right, but are really doing very wrong (by my lights). That's troubling! I think good people should be taught moral realism as a metaethical theory, and bad people should be turned into non-cognitivists. How about it?

Faust said...

Oh that gave me a good belly laugh! Yes, that sounds like it just might work!

But high quality jesting aside, WHY does that seem that it would work?

I think it a very fair point that it's considerably more difficult to give up your flat screen TV to feed some people than it is go and eat ice cream. Even if one says "yeah!" to helping people, when that helping runs up against one's own selish interests...there will be internal conflict.

Conversely, if one has become repulsed by something, such as "homosexuals" then it actually requires a similar self overcomming in the opposite direction.

In the first case one must overcome one's selfish desires to do something that one regards as a good. It's actually TWO goods competing againist one another for action: TV or feed hungry people? Both good, but one more immediate and viceral than the other.

In the second case one must overcome one's viceral reaction to something that one regards as bad in order to reach a live and let live attitude.

The complacency (aka "tolerance") of the non-cognitivist is something we want to promote in the latter case, but not in the first case. We need the starving children to be "objectively" more important so we can get people off the couch and selling their TV for food donations, while we need that sense of irony and contingency to flood the mind of the authoritarian evangalist and get them to realize the suffering they cause with their shrill dogmatism.

I would argue in both cases we are modulating the needs of the self. In the first case we want the postive needs of the self (TV) to be reduced in importance to make room for the importance of the needs of others. In the second case we want to reduce the negative needs of the self (make the bad people stop!) to make room for the needs of others.

So there is a deeper pattern here that I think can be discerned. Namely: Mark 12:30-31.

I want to suggest that Johnston's chapter 6 in "Saving God" goes to the questions we are discussing here.

s. wallerstein said...

Is there any evidence that anti-realists are less active in ethical causes? Four anti-realist philosophers, Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty: could any of them be accused of complacency in ethical causes?
In fact, Russell and Sartre are perhaps the two most famous public intellectuals of the 20th century.

Jean Kazez said...

Now I'm going to have to look up Mark 12:30-31. New Testament bible passages are not my forte.

"Is there any evidence that anti-realists are less active in ethical causes?"

Good question. Sartre is an interesting case of an "anti-realist" philosopher. He thinks because there's no objective morality, that leaves a void that must be filled and with utmost care. So that's rather different from someone who plays down moral responses, saying they're "just" reactions" or "just" social rules.

Faust said...

Sorry I should have been more clear in my reference. Johnston uses it in chapter 6, and views it as a key passage.

Kierkegaard also gives it very extensive treatment in Works of Love

s. wallerstein said...

There's no why an anti-realist should not or does not care about morality and moral activism as much as a moral realist does.

s. wallerstein said...

That should read "there's no reason why..."