Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Categorical Prescriptivity and the Meaning of Moral Terms

Another comment from the studio audience.

How is this not simply a metaethical error theory (there are no moral facts, strongly construed), combined with an attempt to reconstruct something "almost as good" as morality? . . . For example, someone who held this position might say that there are no moral facts as people generally construe them, since there are no categorical prescriptions, and that is an ineliminable part of standard moral discourse. However, insofar as we form a community of people who care about other people's welfare, there are certain "moral-like" imperatives that apply to us because of that fact.

Well, I would accept that if it were the case that categorical prescriptions were an ineliminable part of standard moral discourse, then it would follow that desirism is an error theory combined with a proposal for something "almost as good" (though I would argue that it is, in fact, significantly better than the fiction and myth of categorical prescriptions).

As it turns out, I reject the antecedent. I hold that people invented and embraced morality because they saw in it a significant potential for realizing those states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of their desire-states are true.

They did not fully grasp what it is exactly that had this great potential. Some suggested that they must be categorical imperatives. However, we have to reject this option because categorical imperatives, in virtue of the fact that they do not exist, do not have any potential to help people in realizing their desires.

So, categorical prescriptions - far from being an ineliminable part of moral discourse - is a theory about the nature of what has this great potential that can easily be eliminated in virtue of the fact that categorical prescriptions do not exist.

Furthermore, I don't think that there is any such thing as an ineliminable part of discourse. Language is an invention, and we can do with it what we choose. If chemists can elminate "having no parts" from the definition of an atom, and biologists can eliminate "bad air" from the definition of "malaria", then ethicists can eliminate "categorical prescriptivity" from moral terms.

Still, as I final point, I do not think that this question is worth a great amount of debate. If somebody wants to insist that moral terms, to them, refer to categorical prescriptivity, I do not need to argue that this fails to correspond to the public use of the term. It is enough to argue that 'morality' understood this way does not exist and, as such, it has no relevance in real-world decision making and is not worth bringing up as if it is relevant to any choice being made.

Whereas desires that people generally have many and strong reason to promote using rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation are very real and are very much worth bringing up when discussing real decisions that are to be made in the real world. The fact of these desires are particularly relevant to decisions governing the use of rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation.

I have "real" and "of great importance in real-world decision making" on my side. You can keep "categorical prescriptivity" and, in keeping it, render all of your moral claims false and irrelevant in the real world.


MichaelPJ said...

Okay, that makes sense. What I was trying to get at was that you seem to share a lot of ground (indeed, all the ground except the "ineliminability" of certain things from moral language) with what I would regard as one of the standard moral anti-realist positions. Given that, might that be worth emphasising more? I think one of the confusing things about your position is that you classify yourself as a moral realist, but what you say *sounds* so similar to what *philosophers* think of as classic moral anti-realism.

Secondly, in support of the role of prescriptivity in moral language one might point out that the facts you're pidgeonholing as "moral" look like they fall more naturally under "enlightened self-interest" or somesuch. That is, we already have a category for talking about things that involve higher-level facts involving desires and people's relationships to them, insofar as that helps us realise our desires.

For example, suppose my friend Jim feels that society views him as low-status, and yearns for recognition. So he decides to do something that will make him notorious, like rob a bank. But I point out that people have many reasons to condemn people who do so (etc.), and so his plan may backfire, causing people to disdain him instead. He is convinced, and decides to refrain.

What happened there seems to be that I appealed to Jim's self-interest, insofar as I pointed out that facts about other people's desires might affect the outcome of his plan. Now all this is just practical reasoning, or "enlightened self-interest"; so it all has a place within our discourse *already*. But then why would we have a second category for this sort of reasoning ("moral" reasoning), if we already have a perfectly good one? It seems that morality must be expected to do something different.

Finally, on definitions. "Bad air" was never in the definition of malaria. It was just that the disease with certain symptoms (i.e. malaria) was originally thought to be caused by bad air, and was then discovered not to be. I think you need to say a lot more about in what sense you want to keep the word "morality". Language is *our* invention, true, but the key word there is "our". You can't go around redefining words if you want to stay with the linguistic community. If, over time, the meaning in the whole community were to change, what of it? Language evolves. But you can't do it on your own!

(For the record, I'd identify with the sort of anti-realist position I'm outlining, and so I'm mostly in agreement with you; I just think it's more illuminating to say that morality *doesn't* exist!)

Matthew Flannagan said...

"Furthermore, I don't think that there is any such thing as an ineliminable part of discourse. Language is an invention, and we can do with it what we choose. If chemists can elminate "having no parts" from the definition of an atom, and biologists can eliminate "bad air" from the definition of "malaria", then ethicists can eliminate "categorical prescriptivity" from moral terms."

This argument proves to much, the same logic suggests we can eliminate "being an unmarried man" from the definition of Batchelor, or "three sided object" from triangle, or "horse with one horn" from unicorn and still be talking about the same thing when we use the terms. That seems to me to be nonsense. Some things are ineliminate features of our discourse and if we remove them we are no longer discoursing about the subject in question.