Saturday, January 26, 2019

Metaethics 0010: Michael Smith's Moral Realism

Michael Smith is concerned with a tension that we see in our use of moral terms.

First, we seem to be using moral terms to express facts. When a person makes a moral claim such as, "You should tell him the truth," or "Abortion is morally permissible," we seem to be making regular every-day statements. This is captured in the Frege-Geach Problem discussed earlier in Metaethics 0005: Mark Shroeder - The Frege-Geach Problem. The problem is precisely that we treat moral statements like any other declarative sentence. We do not treat them like commands or expressions of attitude or any other type of non-cognitive entity. They fit, for example, perfectly well in structured arguments relating premises to conclusions.

Second, we seem to be using moral terms to express attitudes. The way Smith describes it: "We seem to think, other things being equal, to have a moral opinion simply is to find yourself with a corresponding motivation to act."

Well, I don't think this. Since I take "X is wrong" to mean "people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn and, perhaps, punish those who do X," and I know that the truth of such a statement is independent of my desires and beliefs, I recognize the possibility that people can have many and strong reasons to punish me for things I have no interest in refraining from doing. It is a conceptual possibility. This does not mean that there are any real-world instances, but it involves no contradiction.

Smith makes the additional claim that desires are subject to rational criticism. He uses the example of a person who is has a desire to never be near a spider because, "I come to believe, falsely, that spiders give off an unpleasant odor."

Contrary to Smith, ends are not subject to rational criticism. Means can be subject to rational criticism because means are nothing but combination of ends and beliefs - and those beliefs (like the belief that spiders can give off unpleasant odor) can be subject to rational criticism. Technically, this is true of more than means. It is also true of contributory value, symbolic value, and evidential value.

Contributory value is the value that something has in virtue of being a part of something else. For example, take a single square inch of the Mona Lisa painting. It has value in virtue of being a part of (contributing to) the Mona Lisa painting. Contributory is a type of value that can be subject to rational criticism, because the belief that something is a part of a larger whole that has value can be subject to rational criticism.

Symbolic value is the value that something has in virtue of representing something else that has value. A commemorative statue, or mother's ashes in the urn over the fire place, can have symbolic value. Again, symbolic value can be subject to rational criticism in a number of ways. The object one may not be what one thinks it is. Last December when Cousin Joe brought his kids over, one of them knocked the urn off of the mantle over the fire place and, without telling anybody, Cousin Joe cleaned up the mess and replaced the contents of the urn with ashes from the fireplace. Or the symbolic piece of the original cross is nothing but a sliver taken from a nearby tree.

Evidential value is the value that something has in virtue of being evidence of something else. Children's laughter is a sign of their happiness and has value in virtue of the fact that it is evidence of their happiness, which has value. Evidential value can be questioned on the grounds that, "Hey, the fact that those children are laughing does not, in fact, mean that they are happy. They were told to laugh by a cruel master so that the nosy child protection investigators will go away and file their report."

So, we can rationally criticize instrumental, contributory, symbolic, and evidential value precisely because these forms of value consist, in part, of beliefs. Those are beliefs about how the object of evaluation stands in relation to some end - as a means to bringing about, a part of, a symbol of, or evidence of an end. And we can rationally criticize the beliefs. There is no evidence that we can rationally criticize ends.

Though we could rationally criticize the end insofar as it has its own instrumental, contributory, symbolic, and evidential belief-containing value where we can rationally criticize those beliefs. To the degree that a person can decide what ends to have, one can base that decision on beliefs about these other types of values. One can make a choice as to whether or not to acquire a nicotine addiction (though cannot so easily choose not to have such an addiction after one has acquired it). The instrumental, contributory, symbolic, and evidential value of a nicotine addiction can all enter into the decision. The individual can be rationally criticized for failing to have true beliefs about the relationships between nicotine addiction and other ends. However, none of this argues that the nicotine addiction can be rationally criticized in any other way.

Anyway, Smith does not give us any reason to believe in the rational assessment of ends as ends.

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