Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Ought and Is

Joshua Greene has an article in Nature that raises the most interesting question in meta-ethics: what is the relationship between moral psychology and moral philsophy? Unfortunately, the discussion degenerates into a discussion about the least interesting issue in meta-ethics, whether there is a "fact of the matter" about moral judgments.

A few claims (which I may try to justify later):

-The truth that our moral judgments are basically intuitive does not imply anything about their cognitive structure. Our judgments of whether a sentence sounds right are intuitive, but there can still be a science of linguistics inquiring into why we make those judgments.

-Moral psychology can claim to be the proper heir of the Tradition. This is obviously true of Aristotle, Hume and Smith, but it is also true of Kant, Hegel and Mill. The latter all claim that they are theorizing what we instinctively know.

-It is true that a normative conclusion can only be validly drawn from a set of premises if at least one of these premises has a normative element. But this is not that big a deal. It could be that the normative premise is totally uncontroversial or a universal law.

-Anyone who believes that there is at least one act or omission that is impermissible, and accepts the implications of deontic logic (If A is permissible, then not-A is not-obligatory and A is not forbidden, and so on) is as much of a moral realist as anyone needs to be. Such a person is accepting that there are moral truths, just as there are mathematical truths. Further inquiry into the ontological status of moral qualities is about as useful as arguing about the ontology of number. Unfortunately, the former arguments sound relevant to questions like whether Israel has any obligations in war, while the latter don't.

-Normative argument is possible, which seems to me to refute non-cognitivism. It necessarily involves reasoning from premises the interlocutor grants, but neither party to the argument justifies. But it is no different from any other type of argument in that respect.

-Since normative argument relies on the intuitions of interlocutors, it matters what those intuitions are. Therefore, moral psycholgy is relevant to the most normative of moral philosphies.

-Moral psychology holds out the hope of incremental, scientific progress, so it is a better way for academics to spend their professional time.


a-train said...

Good stuff Pithlord.

"The truth that our moral judgments are basically intuitive does not imply anything about their cognitive structure."

Assuming that by "cognitive structures," you mean patterns of physical or mental action, seems to me saying they are basically intuitive does imply something about their cognitive structure. No?

On similar topic, did you see this post:

PithLord said...

I phrased that badly. What I'm trying to get at is that while moral judgments often come to us as just an intuitive sense of who or what is right or wrong, rather than as the product of an explicit reasoning process, there may still be an (unconscious) logic. The analogy that John Mikhail gives is to lingusitics: a competent English speaker just knows that there is something wrong with an ungrammatical sentence without (usually) knowing why. But the very possibility of linguistics shows that there are reasons.

a-train said...

there may still be an (unconscious) logic

i agree with your general point about moral psychology. seems dumbe for philosophers to discount it.

but seems to me in either case if you keep digging you always end in the emotion/intuition trap. in other words, say there is some unconscious logic/reason for a particular moral judgment. if you take it another step and ask what makes that reason compelling and so on, eventually you always end up with emotion/intuition.

i don't know if i'm missing something, but it seems to me that any rational system of ethics/morality requires a point of view/position that we simply cannot occupy. there is no place to stand with "reasons" because you always refer back to reasons that in turn need a reason to be reason on to infinity.

i tend to believe that the possibility of explicit reasoning in moral judgments (like the possibility of linguistics) only shows that we are good at rationalizing behavior we don't really understand. even in linguistics there are dead ends where all you can say is that's just the way it is (i.e. there is no sense to it).

the value in examining unconscious and conscious reasoning lies in discovering inconsistency (i.e. it can help us be more consistent, but it still can't tell us what is best).

PithLord said...

I agree that you eventually have to just assert a premise. That works so long as the person you are arguing with agrees with the premise. But you can't keep justifying your premises forever.

I'm not sure moral reasoning is any different from any other kind of reasoning in that respect. Sooner or later, logic leads to infinite regress or a circle.

I think you're right, though, that we are always a lot less certain about why we make the judgments we make than we are about the judgments themselves.