Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Against Intrinsic Prescriptivity

In a comment, Jeffrey Jay Lowder provided an interpretation of Mackie's argument against "objectivevalues" that does seem to be taken straight out of Mackie's text.

I will admit, I have not looked at Mackie's arguments against "objective values" in detail - mostly because I agree with his conclusion, though for my own reasons.

Also, I think that Mackie’s use of the term “objective values” tends to lead to confusion. Mackie is actually denying the existence of “intrinsic prescriptivity”. By calling it "objective values" he risks creating confusion between this sense and another sense of "objective values" - this being “objectively true value claims”. Mackie denies the existence of both of these. I agree with Mackie on the former, but I disagree with Mackie on the latter. To explain this disagreement, I find it necessary to keep the two types of "objective value" distinct.

My argument against intrinsic prescriptivity is that, in everything we have learned so far to explain the motion of objects through space, nowhere does “intrinsic prescriptivity” play a role.

When it comes to intentional action, entities such as beliefs, desires, and habits all seem to have roles to play. “Intrinsic prescriptivity” does nothing. Consequently, I am more than happy to take Ocham's Razor and cut these entities out of my ontology.

Somebody may object that, in looking for something that explains and predicts the motion of matter through space, I am confusing “what is” from “what ought to be”. The realm of explanations and predictions is the realm of what is. It is the realm of matter and force. The realm of “what ought to be” is a different type of thing entirely – separate and distinct from “what is”.

However, if “ought” has no influence in the real world . . . if we can never use them to explain why a person told the truth or repaid a debt . . . if we cannot even use them to explain how a person acquired a brain state (a particular configuration of physical brain matter) called a “belief that X is wrong”, then there is no sense in talking about them at all. We can learn nothing about them since they cannot, on this account, have any effect on our very material senses or brain. We can safely cut them out of our ontology and lose none of our ability to understand and predict events in the world around us.

Mackie went further than I do. According to Mackie, not only is it the case that we have not discovered intrinsic prescriptivity, it is unlikely that we will ever find such an entity. In order to search for intrinsic prescriptivity, we would have to know something about what it is and how it works. However, Mackie argued, when we take a serious look at what intrinsic prescriptivity must be like we quickly reach the conclusion that we are never going to find anything like that in the real world. It would have to be something that, by its very nature, commands evolved creatures to behave a particular way. How would that work? How would we even know about them?

I do have one positive argument against intrinsic prescriptivity. It is an argument that I also found in a post by Coel Hellier which I had commented on recently.

Hellier wrote the argument as follows:
[E]volution doesn’t operate according to what “is moral”, it operates according to what helps someone to have more descendants. Thus, even if there were an “absolute” morality, there is no reason to suppose that it would have any connection to our own human sense of morality. Anyone arguing for objective morality by starting with human morality and intuition — which of course is how it is always done — is thus basing their case on a non sequitur.
None of our senses present us with the world as it is. They present us with impressions of the world that are useful for survival. If there was an “intrinsic prescriptivity” in the world, we would not automatically be motivated to realize that which is intrinsically good and prevent the realization of that which is intrinsically bad. Instead, assuming we even evolved a faculty for perceiving this particular property, its ties to motivation would be according to what served human evolutionary purposes. If a twisted and distorted sense of intrinsic precriptivity aided human replication, (or rode along with other changes that aided replication, or at least did not hinder replication), then we would have - at best - a distorted sense of intrinsic prescriptivity. More importantly, we would have no way to determine in what ways our sense of intrinsic prescriptivity was distorted.

Besides, there is the fact that no biologist has ever found evidence for such a faculty. We know how our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and even our sense of direction works. We have found no sense of intrinsic prescriptivity - which is perhaps best explained by the fact that there is no intrinsic prescriptivity to perceive.

Intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist.

Relationships between states of affairs and desires exist. And it is when value claims refer to these relationships that objectively true value statements can also exist. But intrinsic prescriptivity is a fiction.

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