Saturday, January 19, 2019

Metaethics 0008: Peter Railton's Naturalism

Peter Railton, "Naturalism and Prescriptivity," Social Philosophy and Policy, 7 (1989) has what is considered to be a substantial objection to G.E. Moore's open question argument (which I discussed in Metaethics 0007: G.E. Moore's Open Question Argument.

For a refresher, Moore's Open Question argument says that for any natural property one can identify ("good" = "pleasure"), if one were to ask the question, "This is pleasurable, but is it good?" this is an "open question". That is to say, the answer to the question is not as obvious as, "This is pleasurable, but is it pleasurable?" would be. Yet, if "pleasure" and "good" were as closely related as this thesis suggests, then the question should not be open.

This argument was extremely influential in the first part of the 20th century, convincing a great many good philosophers that moral properties cannot be natural properties. At least, this cannot be true by definition.

Peter Railton argues that, even though a relationship is true by definition, it can still yield an "open question." This happens when the speakers are not entirely clear about the relationship. To illustrate this point, Railton refers to the relationship between the terms "water" and "H2O". The statement, "water is H2O" is true by definition. And yet, if we were to subject this to Moore's test, we see that, "This is water, but is it H2O?" is an open question. This happens because the fact that what people call "water" is made up of molecules of hydrogen and oxygen is something that people need to learn. It is not obvious. In fact, until this discovery takes place, "water" clearly does not mean "H2O". However, once people acquire this type of knowledge, they decide, "Hey, we can make our language a bit more precise if we simply come to mean H2O when we talk about water." Thus, they revise and update their language to take this fact into consideration. Yet, it is still the case that a person can grow up in a culture, learn to use the term "water" the way people typically use the term, and remain ignorant of the basic fact of chemistry that identifies "water" as H2O".

It's one thing to argue that there is an (another) type of statement that is immune to G.E. Moore's "open question argument".

Of course, this cannot be end of it. The fact that there are certain types of identities that can survive Moore's open question test does not prove that any and all identities can survive the test. If one wants to reduce to "good" to some sort of natural property, one still needs to find an identity that actually works. PLUS it needs to survive Moore's open question test.

Desirism faces the same constraint. As I showed in Metaethics 0007: G.E. Moore's Open Question Argument, the argument fails against identities that contain an ambiguous reference such as "the desires in question". However, it is not the case that "good" can be reduced to any old identity that has an ambiguous reference. One needs to go to the effort of showing that one has identified the identity that works best. "Good" = "Is such as to fulfill the desires in question" still requires a lot of work.

Parfit makes this point by using the example of "good" = "being cholesterol-laden". This, in fact, corresponds to very little of what the term "good" is used for. It fails to describe paintings, political institutions, poetry, and promise keeping. None of these things can be described - or are even the type of entity that can be described - as "cholesterol-laden" in any sense. Therefore, we have to reject this reduction.

Similarly, one would have to reject "good" = "such as to fulfill the desires in question" if it should fail to account for substantial uses of the term "good". Fortunately, this identity can refer to paintings, political institutions, poetry, and promise keeping. If there are things out there that such an identity has trouble with, it would count as a substantive objection against the theory.

Parfit is going to argue that "good" is "pleasure". I am going to argue that "good" is "is such as to fulfill the desires in question". The contest between them will be fought on the grounds of what can best account for the standard uses of "good". But that will have to wait for a future post.

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