Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Don Loeb and the Types of Objectivity

Don Loeb: Types of Objectivity

In his article, "The Argument from Moral Experience", Don Loeb begins by presenting evidence that our moral experience is of an objective morality. He will go on to argue that one cannot easily get to objective morality from here. (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.))

However, before we look at those arguments, there is something to say about the types of evidence used to support moral objectivity - and the types of objectivity they show. 

I discussed one of these two types of evidence in an earlier post (Don Loeb: Against the Argument from Moral Experience) - evidence from the phenomena of morality, the way it "seems" and "feels" to us. Regarding this family of experiences, Loeb provided reason to believe that morality does not seem as objective as some objectivists assert.

The second type of evidence is evidence about moral claims. This was actually the first type of evidence that Loeb presented - the phenomena of morality discussed earlier being the second type he presented.

The first involves the traditional idea that moral experience – especially our dispositions to use the moral vocabulary in various ways – is among the best evidence we have about what it is we are (thinking and) talking about when we talk about morality: We are, it is claimed, talking about a realm of (putative) fact.

Specifically, Loeb is referring to the fact that moral claims are taken to be true or false. People bring evidence to support their moral claims as they do to other objective matters.

This family of evidence will bring up the question, "In what way is morality 'objective'?"

Here, what I would like to note is that the statement, "Jim prefers butterscotch to chocolate" is a statement of (putative) fact. It is capable of being true or false - and its truth value does not depend in any way on anybody believing that it is true. Even for Jim, the truth of his preference for butterscotch over chocolate is as objective as his height, weight, and age. It is a statement about how his brain is structured.

If two of us were in disagreement over whether Jim preferred butterscotch to chocolate, we could summon evidence to our defense. I would point out how Jim ate two bowls of butterscotch pudding at the family reunion and never touched the chocolate.

In other words, when we talk about Jim's preference for butterscotch, we are talking about something as real - as capable of influencing the motion of matter in the universe (and as sometimes necessary to explain and predict real-world events) - as objective - as Earth's mass and an atom's electrical charge.

Of course, "Jim prefers butterscotch to chocolate" is not a moral claim. This example merely establishes that claims reporting relationships between objects of evaluation and desires are declarative statements, capable of being true or false, and the types of statements that people can defend and refute by summoning evidence.

Elsewhere, I argue that moral statements are statements like these. One of the relevant differences is that the objects of evaluation are malleable desires - specifically, those desires that people can mold using reward and punishment (with praise working as a type of reward and condemnation working as a type of punishment). Another relevant difference is that moral claims relate objects of evaluation to all desires within a community, not just Jim's.

These relationships between malleable desires and other desires exist. They are real.

In other words, there are desires and aversions that people generally have reason to promote. These facts are substantially independent of personal opinion or of any one person's preferences. To support or refute a claim that people generally have reason to promote a given desire or aversion, people can bring forth evidence. That evidence would look at, among other things, what would happen within a community if everybody had - or everybody lacked - a particular desire or aversion. Examples of the types of desires and aversions under consideration include aversions to taking property without consent, desires to help those in dire need, and desires to keep promises and repay debts.

When it comes to these relationships, the relevant question is not, "Are they real?" The relevant question is, "Do they deserve to be referred to using moral terms?"

When answering this type of question, it is perfectly legitimate to bring into the argument evidence about how moral terms are used. Specifically, it is legitimate to report that moral terms and reports about these relationships are propositions whose truth is independent of the beliefs or desires of the speaker. It would also be relevant to point out that moral claims are used to praise or condemn. It is even relevant to note that people defend their moral claims with statements like, "What if everybody had that attitude?" It would offer further support if it could account for the different moral categories for action (obligation, prohibition, non-obligatory permission) and moral concepts such as "excuse" and 'supererogatory'.

In saying this, we should not lose sight of the fact that, here, we are talking about an entirely different type of objectivity than the type that J.L. Mackie was concerned with when he wrote, "There are no objective values" in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. By "objective values", Mackie was writing about intrinsic prescriptivity. The "objective values" I am writing about here concerns the objectivity of propositions that describe relationships between states of affairs and desires. There is no intrinsic prescriptivity to be found here.

In summary, the Argument from Moral Experience can be divided into two types sets of claims. One set of claims concerns the nature of moral claims, while the other concerns the phenomena of moral experience. These two sets of claims support two different types of objectivity. The first set is compatible with the objectivity of statements about relationships and desires. On the other hand, the second set is used to try to argue for some type of "intrinsic prescriptivity" or value that exists in the world.

These represent two different types of objectivity, supported by two different types of argument. I think it would be useful to keep them separate.

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