Friday, February 19, 2016

Don Loeb: From Moral Experience to Moral Objectivity

Can moral experience justify a presumption in favor of moral objectivity?

After Don Loeb argued that our moral experience is not as objective as objectivists assert, he went on to argue that, even if it were (or even if we looked at the seeming objectivity that does exist), it cannot support a presumption of objectivity. (Don Loeb, "The Argument from Moral Experience" in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory, Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (eds.))

I want to remind the reader that I have distinguished two different types of objectivity. There is the type that J.L. Mackie argued against when he said that there were no objective values - objective, intrinsic prescriptivity. And there is the form of objectivity that concerns the objective truth or falsity – the ability to bring in evidence and to debate the truth of – moral statements. Morality does not have to be objective in the first sense for moral statements to be objective in the second sense. Not all properties are intrinsic properties. 

Just to add a bit of specificity, I hold that moral claims are claims about the relationships between desires that can be molded using rewards (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation) and other desires. This type of claim is objective in the second sense, but not the first.

Even though I defend the objectivity of moral value in the second sense (and reject it in the first sense), I do not think I have used an Argument from Moral Experience in its defense. The argument from moral experience is an argument FROM moral experience TO the conclusion that there is something real out there - or, at least, we have reason to presume that there is something real out there. I am suspicious of such an argument at the start.

Considering such things as the Argument from the Experience of Alien Abductions, the Argument from the Experience of the Effectiveness of Homeopathic Medicine, and the Argument from Religious Experience are strong counter-examples to this line of reasoning.

Loeb examines four possible routes from moral experience to a presumption in favor of moral objectivity. Three of them seems to fall victim to the type of counter-examples expressed above. I wish to discuss those three in this post. The fourth route is sufficiently different from these first three that I wish to discuss it separately.

Loeb identifies the first of these three routes from moral experience to a presumption in favor of moral objectivity as an argument from the best explanation. The claim is that the best explanation for our experiences of moral objectivity is moral objectivity itself.

On its surface, this argument does not get us very far. We may also assert that personal experiences of angels, miracles, alien abductions, ghosts, and effective homeopathic medicine create presumptions in favor of the existence of angels, miracles, alien abductions, ghosts, and homeopathic medicine.

If the only thing this argument can do is put intrinsic prescriptivity on the same level as these other fictions, then that does not accomplish much. At the very least, somebody needs to provide reason to believe that moral experience is more real-seeming than the others.

The same type of problem can be found with the second and third ways in which one may try to derive a presumption in favor of intrinsic prescriptivity from moral experience.

Loeb identifies the second option as “epistemic conservatism”

Many philosophers have felt that, other things being equal, we should favor the theory that requires us to give up as few beliefs as possible.

However, this seems to suggest that our beliefs are self-justifying, at least to some extent.

Suppose I believe that the next Lotto number will be even, but suppose further that I have no actual evidence for that hypothesis. I should believe that the odds are 50/50, in spite of the fact that I find myself with the ungrounded belief that they are not. That I do believe the number will be even gives me no warrant whatsoever for believing it.

Loeb discusses a restricted form of conservatism where warrant comes from the possibility that our belief is liked to the thing believed even if we do not know how – the way that a person can know the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066 without remembering the evidence for that claim. However, this requires a presumption that there is some connection between intrinsic prescriptivity and our beliefs of the same type that exists between the Battle of Hastings and our beliefs.

The third route to moral objectivity that Loeb examines is the Principle of Credulity.

The Principle of Credulity holds hat we are entitled to presume that things are pretty much as they seem to be, unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary.

This is used as a defense against extreme skepticism – the claim that we cannot know that we are not a brain in a vat or being fooled by a Cartesian demon and that everything around us is purely imaginary. However, we have no more reason to apply this principle to more mundane beliefs such as moral objectivity than we do to beliefs about ghosts, angels, and effective homeopathic medicine.

Loeb discusses a fourth route from moral experience to a presumption in favor of moral objectivity – a route known as Wide Reflective Equilibrium. This route is significantly different from the first three. I wish to devote more attention to this route, so I will postpone that part of the discussion until a future post.

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