Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Moral Realism

Another post from the Desirism page on Facebook that I wanted to stash here for safe keeping.


I claim that Desirism is a realist moral theory.

This is dangerous. When people see the terms “moral” and “realism” together they are prone to draw two quick implications, neither of which are true.

(1) Intrinsic value
(2) Mind independence.

Value realism is assumed to mean realism about intrinsic, mind independent values.

Desirism denies both of these. Values are relational properties (not intrinsic), and they relate objects of evaluation (states of affairs) to desires, which are certainly NOT mind independent.

So, can I justify using the term “realism” in this way?

First, I cannot simply switch to using the term “anti-realism” because this contains its own mistaken implications. People who see the terms “moral” and “anti-realism” together assume that morality is merely a matter of opinion. They assume that what it takes for something to be right or wrong is that the agent “feels” a certain way about it.

None of these are true either.

So, I am forced to decide which set of false assumptions I want to deal with, and those are the false assumption associated with the word “realism”. They are easier to deal with because, outside of morality, “realism” implies neither of these things. Outside of morality we are realists about relational and mind-dependent property.

Relational Properties

We are lunar realists. Moons are real. Nobody is required to be anti-realists about moons. Yet, nothing is a moon in virtue of its intrinsic properties. To be a moon, an object in space must stand in a particular relationship with something else. It must “orbit” that thing. And that something else cannot be a star. If it were a star, the object would be a planet or asteroid or comet, not a moon.

Similarly, we are realists about comparisons. We are realists about “taller than”, “more massive than”, “three feet away from.” These are real properties that can appear in any scientific paper without anybody questioning the fact that the author is describing reality.

So, “realism” does not require “intrinsic property”. One can sensibly assert that values are relational properties, but relational properties are real. Reality is filled to the brim with relational properties. Some of these relational properties are “orbits”, some are “values”.

Mind Independence

The visual cortex is real. That is the part of the brain at the back that the eyes are attached to. A scientist can include the term “visual cortex” in a scientific paper, and nobody would object that what the scientist is studying is not real. Of course it is real.

However, there can be no “visual cortex” without minds. That it is a “visual” cortex requires that there be perceptions obtained through the eyes. Perceptions require minds.

Indeed, if “realism” requires mind independence, then neuroscience cannot be a science. Any attempt to study the brain and how it functions - any attempt to study the mind - cannot be studying anything real if realism requires mind independence. The very phrase, “minds are real” would be a contradiction because “minds are real” can never be true in a universe where minds do not exist.

We can add to our list of real mind-dependent entities that are real certain illnesses or disabilities such as Parkinson’s Disease and blindness. You cannot talk about these things without talking about minds, yet we hold that they can be legitimate objects of scientific inquiry.

Do you think pain is not real? Put your hand on a hot stove and then tell me with a straight face that the pain is not real. Try doing anything with a straight face - one not distorted by the contortions of a person who is experiencing real pain.

So, mind-dependent properties are real.

Too Broad?

Have I now defined “realism” so broadly that it has lost all usefulness?

Not at all. I am not at all a realist about the meanings of terms. In English, the fact that the term “nova” means “exploding star” is not a fact of the world. It is true only because people who speak English have adopted a particular convention. In a different culture, "nova" could mean something different, like "new". In a different culture at a different time, "atom" could mean "without parts" and "malaria" could mean "bad air". It all depends on the arbitrary attitudes adopted within a culture at a time.

Scientists did not discover in a laboratory that Pluto was not a planet. Scientists, instead, have a linguistic custom of preferring to classify like objects with like. Evidence suggested that Pluto has more in common with objects in the Kuyper belt than it does with the set {Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune}. So, they sought a new set of definitions that lumped like with like. How did they settle the issue? Answer: They took a vote.

Here, one might object, "But are you not arguing that you have the one true and correct definition of 'realism'? Are you not treating realism as if it has an objectively correct definition?"

No, I am not. All of the arguments that I used made reference to conventions and practices. We have a convention, everywhere outside of morality, of taking relational properties as being real properties. We have a convention of treating the mind itself as real and as something about which we can make objectively true and false claims. I am arguing for doing the same thing to "moral realism" that astronomers did with the term "planet" - adopt a new convention that lumps like with like - that respects the fact that relationships between states of affairs and desires are real in the scientific sense.

Morality is not like this. One can make slavery legal or illegal by taking a vote, but one cannot make it right. One can adopt a social convention of


So, when I say that desirism is a realist moral theory, I should be understood as saying that I am going to use the term "realism" when we talk about morality as we use it everywhere else in science. According to this use, minds and relational properties are real. Consequently, statements describing relationships between the properties of minds (desires) and objects of evaluation are real. Moral properties are real. Somebody may believe that people generally have many and strong reasons to sacrifice the virgin in the volcano, and it may be a cultural tradition to do so, but, in both cases, they are wrong. Objectively wrong.

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