Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Objectification and Intrinsic Prescriptivity

This post belongs to the series that I am writing as I read through the essays in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie’s Moral Error Theory, Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (eds.)).

The third article in that collection is “Patterns of Objectification” by Richard Joyce.

To fill in some background: Mackie argued that there are no “objective values”. Because “objective values” is ambiguous, I prefer to express Mackie’s thesis as saying that there is no “intrinsic prescriptivity” – a thesis with which I agree.

Mackie explains the mistake of thinking that there are objective values as being caused by our tendency to project our sentiments onto the world – to take the fact that we value something as being explained by a property in the thing itself. In fact, it is a property of our minds that we project onto the thing itself. This is something he gets from David Hume.

Joyce’s article attempts to look at this process of objectification or projection in order to see whether it does what Mackie wants it to do. That is, it needs to explain how people come to falsely believe that things have intrinsic prescriptivity in a way that supports his own error theory.

There is good reason to believe that people, at least sometimes, make the mistake of assigning intrinsic prescriptivity to objects of evaluation – particularly moral evaluation. I think the clearest example of this is homosexuality. A person discovers that he does not like even the thought of homosexual acts. He explains that in terms of a “wrongness” that is intrinsic to homosexual acts themselves. From this, he concludes that all correct-thinking people will have the same aversion. Any individual who lacks this aversion to homosexual acts is not seeing the world as it really is – such a person is sick, perverse, or morally defective.

Can this be explained in terms of “objectification” or “projection”? Does this accurately explain how individuals come to this false belief?

Actually, Joyce also addresses a prior question: Is this important to Mackie’s thesis. Mackie could simply argue that intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist (using his Argument from Queerness and Argument from Relativity). Then the question of how people came to falsely believe in intrinsic prescriptivity becomes an academic curiosity. Mackie can then say, “Oh, and, by the way, here is a possible account of how people came to make this mistake, bu it’s really not important.”

Joyce argues that the theory of projection plays an important role in Mackie’s argument because Mackie accepts a doctrine called “epistemic conservativism”. The mere fact that this belief in intrinsic prescriptivity is so widely accepted that it is built into the meanings of moral terms gives it merit. Unless he can explain the mistake of intrinsic prescriptivity, it remains a viable option to his own error theory. Mackie then uses objectification to explain this mistake.

I am not certain that I accept this doctrine of “epistemic conservatism”. Applying it to other fields, it seems to argue that the theory that the earth moves around the sun MUST include an explanation as to why it seems to be the case that the Earth is standing still. The theory that the earth is round must include an explanation as to why it appears flat.

I would hold that, if the empirical evidence supports the thesis that the Earth is round and that it orbits the sun, then this is all that is needed. The questions of “Why does the earth look flat?” and “Why do we have no sensation of movement?” are academic curiosities. My belief that there is no intrinsic prescriptivity rests in the fact that, in all of the equations and explanations for the movement of objects through space, “intrinsic presriptivity” is nowhere to be found. Given this, why some people come to believe in intrinsic prescriptivity is an intellectual curiosity that provides no evidence for the actual existence of such properties.

“Objectification” or “projection”, then, would be a psychological phenomenon. I am actually not even certain that it is real. I can see “intrinsic prescriptivity” being nothing more than a simple mistake – a failed first hypothesis to explain the phenomenon of valuing something.

Either way, determining whether “objectification” exists at all and, if it does, how it works, would be a major project in psychology. At this point, I do not think that it is a project that I need to pursue. I do not think it is a necessary part of an argument that intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist. The fact that there is no place for intrinsic prescriptivity in explaining and predicting the movement of objects through space and time is sufficient.

Though, to be honest, I do not assert this with a great deal of confidence.

No comments: