Friday, February 12, 2016

Don Loeb: Against the Argument from Moral Experience

Am I defective in some way?

Don't answer that - it was rhetorical.

Of course, I have something specific in mind. 

Don Loeb reports:

It is widely thought that the objective-seeming nature of our moral experience supports a presumption in favor of objectivist theories (according to which morality is a realm of non-relative facts or truths) and against anti-objectivist theories such as Mackie's error theory (according to which it is not). (David 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.))

The Argument from Moral Experience, then, argues from the premise that we experience morality as being objective to the conclusion that it is (or, at least, we have reason to presume that it is) objective.

What is this "objective seeming nature" of our moral experience? And why don't I seem to have it?

A significant part of this objective seeming nature of morality rests in the claim that the wrongness of murder, for example, is in the murder itself. From this, we get to the conclusion that wrongness actually is in murder. If anybody wants to say otherwise, the burden of proof is on them.

I don't have a sense that the wrongness of murder is in the murder itself. In fact, for me, the phenomenology of morality fits perfectly the theory I use to explain morality. Yet, I never use this as an argument in its defense. Doing so would be question-begging, since l strongly suspect that the theory defines the phenomenology. It is a form of confirmation bias whereby once I believe that morality is a certain way, then I interpret things in a way consistent with that view.

David Hume, famously, did not have this sensation either.

Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation which arises in you, towards this action. (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2d ed., rev., ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford, 1987), 468-69 )

I know that others are said to perceive the wrongness of murder in the murder itself. However, I also know that they see the hand of God in a sunset. They interpret some low and distant sound as people speaking too softly to make out the words, or hear breathing where there is none if they believe that a ghost is present. More to the point, I have known people to see wrongness in interracial marriage and perceive no wrongness in the worst acts of discrimination, injustice, and dishonesty. For thousands of years, nobody, not even the slaves, saw wrongness in slavery. These all give reason to question whether an individual is actually perceiving the wrongness of murder in murder itself.

Subjectivists and objectivists of all stripes, I would argue, experience morality in a way that fits their theory of morality. Consequently, they, too, would be begging the question if they then took their experience as proof of how morality is.

Loeb, as it turns out, does not argue that I am defective. He argues that the objectivist is cherry-picking his data. There are more than enough examples of people treating morality as non-objective to question the objectivists' thesis on the phenomenology of value.

[J]ust as we talk about moral beliefs, we often talk about moral feelings and attitudes as well, and in other contexts these words typically signify something other than beliefs. In fact, people often say things that seem quite incompatible with objectivism, such as that in ethics “it's all relative,” or that what it is right for a person to do depends on that person's own decisions. We cannot dismiss such statements as the products of confusion merely because they appear to conflict with views we think widely held.

These points undercut the Argument from Moral Experience.

Loeb will go further and argue that, even if we accept this premise on the part of the objectivists, getting from there to a presumption in favor of moral objectivity is not such an easy step either. I will look at those arguments in a future post.

However, I have another question that I would like to look at first. What type of objectivity are we talking about? What type of objectivity are we trying to prove using these arguments? And does that matter?


Don Loeb said...

Thanks for the attention, Alonzo. I don't think you're defective.

By "objective," I mean (at a minimum) a realm of fact. So experiencing morality as if it were objective is experiencing it (or having an experience as if of it) as if it were a realm of fact.

It could be argued that, whether you recognize it under this description or not, you do sometimes and in some ways experience morality as if it is a realm of fact--at least as I use the phrase "experience . . . as if". According to that way of looking at things, you don't have to have any beliefs about it being a realm of fact to experience it as if it is one. You might have other beliefs that suggest some sort of a presupposition that it is a realm of fact.

So, for example, you might wonder what morality requires--as if there is something you hope to discover. You might disagree with others, thinking them mistaken about a moral question. In more modest moods, you might wonder whether you yourself are wrong about a moral question. You might feel the demands of morality pressing on you as if from outside--as opposed to experiencing those demands as if you yourself are making them. You might embed moral judgments in ways that are hard to make sense of unless we understand them as moral beliefs rather than mere attitudes. ("If it's wrong to torture babies it's wrong to torture Baby Mortimer." In saying that, you might not merely be predicting or claiming that your disapproval of baby torture will generalize, e.g.)

I don't think it is fair to assume that these feelings are always a product of one's background metaethical presuppositions. The claim has been that these are all pre-theoretical. (Remember Rousseau's admonition not to make someone a philosopher before making him a person!) People who have never thought about moral objectivity have this sort of experience. Maybe that can be explained as a cultural artifact, and thus traced to a culture that itself presupposes that there is moral objectivity, but that would have to be shown.

Or so people argue, as you know. There are problems with this perspective too, however. (Ah, philosophy!) For one thing, some of those feelings can be given an anti-objectivist description or can be understood in ways that are otherwise compatible with an anti-objectivist perspective. Wondering what morality requires might be more akin to wondering what to choose for dinner than to wondering what the atomic number of oxygen is. For another thing, you might have experiences that push in the opposite direction, like having the feeling that morality is not a realm of fact! (That's not dispositive, though. You might have mistaken beliefs about whether your moral mental states are beliefs, rather than attitudes, say. On the possibility that we experience morality as both objective AND as non-objective, you might enjoy my paper, "Moral Incoherentism: How to Pull a Metaphysical Rabbit out of a Semantic Hat".)

Don (again) said...

It's complicated, but these questions about moral experience seem at least partly empirical. There may be differences within persons, across persons, across cultures, etc. In my view, philosophers should stick to what we do best and not try to make controversial empirical claims from the armchair. But I'd like to see proper studies in this area. (A few have appeared, but it's still the Wild West when it comes to this research!)

Anyway, as you note, even if it were true that "we" experience morality as if it is a realm of fact and that our experience is pretty uniform across those various dimensions, that would still leave a live question whether such experience shows anything about the true nature of morality. In my view, not much.

Philosophers are arguing a lot now about what to do if we conclude that there is no moral truth. Does it make sense to go on moralizing, and if so, how should we think of that activity? As you know, I think it makes plenty of sense. But that's a topic for another day.


Alonzo Fyfe said...

Dr. Loeb, I am honored you would consider my blog here worthy of your attention.

You caught me on the first of what I intended to be a few posts discussing your article (as I am going through the whole book and discussing what it says about Mackie's "Ethics"). I have covered the chapters before yours in previous posts. Plus, I threw in a discussion of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on internal and external reasons, and Bernard Williams' article from Moral Luck on the same topic, for good measure.

In the next post (uploaded this morning), I begin with your distinction between two types of arguments for moral objectivity. The first concerns the fact-seeming nature of moral claims, and the second being the phenomena of moral experience. This post concerns that second family of arguments. The next post concerns the first.

I agree with the idea that I experience morality as a realm of fact. However, there is a difference between experiencing morality as this "realm of fact" and experiencing it as a type of intrinsic prescriptivity that Mackie objected to. There are a lot of different kinds of facts.

I accept your criticism that to ground one's experience of the phenomena of morality depends on one's theory of morality (subjective, objective, etc.) on one's theory of morality is not entirely accurate. Many people do not actually have a theory of morality. Even if they did, there is a chicken-and-egg problem regarding whether the experience brought about the theory, or the theory brought about the experience.