Monday, August 04, 2008

Morality: Fact or Fiction

In my writings I continually use the slogan:

There is no fact/value distinction. There is only a fact/fiction distinction. Value (including moral value) either belongs to the realm of fact or it belongs to the realm of fiction.

Like all slogans of this type, it is an oversimplification. It oversimplifies some things to the point that it can even be said to be wrong. So, I want to state the truth contained in this slogan a bit more precisely. In doing so, I will also make clear that for desire utilitarianism, it does not matter which option you pick. Desire utilitarianism survives even if we were to conclude that morality itself belongs to the realm of fiction.

So, let’s start to clarify the slogan above.

Mutually Exclusive Facts and Values

First, there certainly is a fact/value distinction. The proposition “The car is red” declares a fact about the car. However, it does not express any value. It does not say whether the fact that the car is red is good or bad. If you can have facts without values, then there must be a distinction between facts and values.

But what type of distinction is it?

The slogan above denies a particular type of distinction – the type that says that ‘facts’ and ‘values’ are mutually exclusive categories. It says that if something is a “fact” then it cannot be a “value”, and if something expresses a “value” then it cannot express a “fact”.

So, a more precise version of the slogan above would say, “There is no mutually exclusive fact/value distinction.”

Instead, the distinction between facts and values is like the distinction between rocks and granite. There are a lot of rocks that are not granite (there are a lot of facts that are not values), but granite is a rock (values are facts). There is no rock/granite distinction that puts the realm of granite outside of the realm of rocks. There is no fact/value distinction that puts values outside of the realm of facts.

Half Truths

Second, the idea that statements can be pigeon holed precisely either as fact or as fiction is false. Many statements are a little bit of both.

For example, let’s say that somebody asks you what time it is. You look at your watch. It says 7:58. So, you look at the person who make the request and answer, “It is 8:00.” The answer is wrong – the statement is false. Yet, in fact, the answer right. We cannot give the precise time when we tell people what time it is. That level of precision is impossible. Therefore, cultural tradition says to give people the approximate time. The person who asks, “What time is it?” typically wants to know the approximate time. Answering that it is 8:00 does, in fact, answer the question asked. It is a true statement.

Unless, of course, we know that the person asking the question has a special reason to worry about hether it is precisely 8:00. In this case, the truthful answer to the question would be, “It’s 7:58.” Or, “You have a couple of minutes left.”

The claim that a moral statement either falls in the realm of fact, or it falls in the realm of fiction, is consistent with the fact that some moral statements might fall part way in between. They are close enough to the truth for all practical purposes, even if they are not precisely true. This is like the slogan that starts this posting – a slogan that is not strictly true, but hich is close enough is includes moral statements.

What the slogan at the start of this posting means to say is that there is no third way of being. Though some things might fit between the realm of fact and fiction, nothing falls outside of the continuum between fact and fiction. Value statements must fall somewhere on the line between facts and values. Value claims do not fall in a third distinct realm, independent of the continuum between fact and value.

The Insignificance of Moral Eliminativism

People are then free to argue whether moral claims belong closer to the side of fact, o closer to the realm of fiction. As far as desire utilitarianism is concerned, it doesn’t matter.

How can it not matter? Doesn’t desire utilitarianism say that there are moral facts?

It does, and it reduces moral facts to natural facts (relationships between states of affairs and desires).

However, let us say that we want to reserve the term ‘morality’ to refer to intrinsic goodness, or divine commands, or subjective truths. In these cases, the conclusion will be that morality does not exist (because none of these entities exist). So, in these cases, morality would be a fiction – a myth.

Yet, this would have no impact on desire utilitarian theory. The claims made within desire utilitarianism would still be true.

Beliefs and desires will continue to exist. We will continue to use them to explain observed phenomena in the real world – the intentional actions of intentional agents.

Beliefs and desires will still be propositional attitudes, where a ‘belief that P’ is an attitude that P is true in the world, whereby a ‘desire that P’ will still be a reason for action where making or keeping the proposition ‘P’ true.

People will still act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. They will still seek to act to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, where false beliefs will be a barrier to success.

Some of those desires will continue to be malleable. The agent seeking to fulfill the most and strongest of his own desires will generally continue to have reason to promote in others those desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit in others those desires that tend to thwart other desires.

There will continue to be desires that people generally will have many and strong reasons to promote or to inhibit.

They will still have reason to promote a desire for truth and an aversion to deception in others, since agents can expect to have more success fulfilling his own desires given his beliefs if he is surrounded by honest agents than if he is surrounded by dishonest agents. He will also be more likely to have a love of truth himself, since others have as much reason to give a love of honesty as he has for giving them a love of honestly.

He will still have reason to promote a desire on the part of others to obtain consent from those who will be affected by their actions, an aversion to taking property that belongs to others, an aversion to killing or inflicting pain on others (with some exceptions), an aversion to rape and the like.

The tools for promoting or inhibiting desires will continue to be positive and negative reinforcement, such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Reward and punishment will also continue to be ways of controlling people’s actions directly by adding on the fulfillment or the thwarting of desires.

We will still have room for a concept of negligence – of acting without a level of concern for the well-being of others or with a level of concern that was insufficiently strong to prevent the negligent action.

We will still have room for the concept of ‘mens rea’ – a reason to focus on the mental qualities that of the agent to determine if the agent had desires we have reason to promote or had desires we have reason to inhibit (and still have reason to promote or inhibit accordingly).

We will still have room for the moral concept of an excuse, which is a claim that allegedly breaks the inference from what appears to be an immoral act to the psychological states of the agent.

We will still have reason to promote in others an aversion to responding to words with violence (freedom of the speech and of the press). We will continue to have reasons to be averse to a government that can arbitrarily pick us up off the street and imprison us indefinitely – giving us reason instead to impose limits on this type of behavior.

All of these claims would still be true, even if morality did not exist.

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