Saturday, January 16, 2016

Pragmatic Moral Realism

Consider the following cases.

Case 1: We begin with a widespread belief - one that almost nobody questions - that witches exist. Some women have the capacity to use incantations and deals with supernatural forces to hex, curse, make sick, make unlucky, or kill their enemies. But, over time, we come to realize that this capacity to use incantations does not exist. We conclude that witches do not exist either. Witches are removed from our ontology.

Case 2: We begin with a widespread belief - one that almost nobody questions - that solid objects fill the space that they occupy. That rock used in the cobblestone sidewalk is all rock. But, over time, we come to realize that matter is made up of atoms, and atoms are almost entirely empty space. However, we do not conclude that solid objects do not exist. We continue to speak of solidity - much as we did before.

Why are there cases in which a discovery leads to eliminativism, and others where it does not?

These examples come from Jamie Dreier, who brings them up with respect to J.L. Mackie's "Error Theory".

Dreier, Jamie, "Mackie's Realism: Queer Pigs and the Web of Belief" in Philosophical Studies Series, A World Without Values, Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory (Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (eds.).

Dreier, like many others, interprets Mackie as making a claim something as follows:

We begin with the widespread belief - one that almost nobody questions - that moral rightness and wrongness exists. Some actions or states of affairs have a built-in "ought-to-be-doneness" or "ought-not-to-be-doneness" that provides both normative reasons and motivation to perform what ought to be done and avoid what ought not to be done. But, over time, we come to realize that this intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist. We conclude that moral rightness and wrongness do not exist either - all such claims are false.

Drier thinks that Mackie needs to explain why moral rightness and wrongness should be treated like witches - which are eliminated from our ontology - and not like solidity - which is simply modified.

Mackie actually argues that morality should be treated in a way that is somewhere between witches and solidity. Mackie's own example was that moral terms should be treated like the term "atom".

Let's classify this as Case 3:

Case 3: We begin with the widespread belief - one that almost nobody questions - that the smallest piece of an element has no parts. If you break an element such as gold or copper into smaller and smaller bits, you will end up with a core substance - a building block - that cannot be divided further.  However, over time, we come to realize that the smallest bits of an element does have parts. They are made up of protons, electrons, and neutrons. We continue to speak of atoms. However, atoms now are the smallest pieces of an element - which are themselves made up of neutrons, protons, and electrons.

These cases reveal a possibility that debates over what exist and what do not exist can get mixed up with a different debate that is not nearly so significant. These are debates about language - about how we are going to be using terms going forward.

Take the case of the "atom", mentioned in Case 3. There were actually two options. Scientists could have said, "Oh, then, atoms do not exist. Or, if they do exist, they are not the smallest pieces of an element. Instead, these protons, neutrons, and electrons are the true atoms because they have no parts (only, it later turned out to be the case that they do have parts). We are going to need a new term for these smallest bits of an element. Let's call them, elementons."

There is no experiment or logical test that we can conduct that would make this proposed option incorrect and the option actually taken - to continue to refer to the smallest pieces of an element as "atoms" - as the correct option. It is a decision to be made entirely on pragmatic consideration. "We were using terms in the past in a way that embedded some errors. What is the most efficient way to fix this? Which change will make the transition from our current error-filled way of speaking to a more accurate way of speaking as easy as possible?"

Astronomers took a vote regarding the definition of "planet". Physicsts seemed to have simply migrated into a new language without much difficulty or discussion. When JJ Thompson started discussing the structure of atoms (Thompson recognized that there were parts having negative charge and other parts having a positive charge), other physicists simply went along with it. Nobody raised their hand and shouted, "Stop! You can't sensibly talk about the parts of something that literally means 'that which has no parts'!"

These considerations suggest that we should be looking for a pragmatic solution to the question of moral realism.

Getting all of the speakers of the English language (or any language, for that matter) to abandon moral terms simply is not practical. They are going to continue to use these terms and, furthermore, will continue to use them in the most important decisions that they make. They use these terms to answer questions of life and death, freedom or imprisonment, which social policies to adopt and which to reject.

A more practical consideration would be to get them to use these terms in ways that contained more truth and less fiction. Where people use these terms to refer to the will of some divine being or some sort of intrinsic prescriptivity, we can say, "Nope. We're not going to do that - those things do not exist and morality is something that exists."

If somebody wants to use moral terms to refer to the subjective preferences of the individual, we can say, "That's a waste. We already have terms for that - terms such as "I like" and "He wants" and "they would prefer it if you did not".

The point being, the question of what exists in the world is different from the question of what terms we should use to talk about those things.

There would still be a lot of things to debate and discuss. However, it would be a different type of debate - a different type of discussion.

Of relevance to our current discussion, rather than saying "All moral claims are false because they refer to intrinsic prescriptivity," practical considerations would suggest, "Moral claims cannot refer to intrinsic prescriptivity because that would make them false."

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