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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Richard Carrier on Moral Realism

As I've noted before, Richard Carrier has a problem with definitions. His recent argument for moral realism has several awkward moments, like when he says being a moral realist means "being able to ontologically ground the existence of moral facts"--as if the mere presence of moral realists proved that moral realism was true! But it's his ludicrous discussion of "ought" which prompted me to blog.

He approaches the definition as a rational choice theorist might: "ought" means whatever we would do if we reasoned logically and knew all of the relevant facts. But he makes no mention of goals, as if any logical and knowledgeable person would do the same as any other in any given circumstance. Furthermore, we generally make "ought" statements without supposing knowledge of all of the relevant facts. "Oughts" might normally imply a "given what we know" qualification, but not a "given what we would know if we knew everything we would need to know to make a fully informed decision."

Carrier then makes the absurd statement that moral oughts are just like ordinary oughts, differing only in that they supersede all the others. How is that supposed to work? If what one ought to do is whatever a logical and all-knowing person would do, then what sort of imperative could supersede that? Moral oughts are apparently what we would do if we had more than all of the relevant facts!

We might try to be charitable, and suppose that Carrier was just stumbling on his way towards his main point, which is that moral oughts define "supreme values." But the problem remains. How are these to be distinguished from other values? I guess whatever are your most superlative values are your moral values. But how does this play out? If I'm wondering whether or not I should buy rolls when I go to the store, how do I decide if this is a moral imperative? Do I wonder if buying rolls is what I should do above all else? Do I evaluate the imperative in relation to all of my other obligations? Do I see that buying rolls is not the most important choice in my life, and thus see that it is not a moral ought? And what if the choice is whether or not I should give to a charity? If I don't think of giving to a charity as being something I should do above all else, then should I conclude that my giving money to a charity has no moral dimension?

Carrier's definition of "moral ought" doesn't work for me. Moral oughts are unique, but not in the way Carrier suggests. They are unique in the sense of the obligation, and not merely in its relative strength.

In any case, one person's moral values are not necessarily shared by anyone else. Surely people can disagree about moral values. But if moral realism is correct, then such disagreements are disagreements about matters of fact. Yet, the disagreeing parties don't necessarily disagree about the facts of the matter. They might just have different values (or differently weighted values). Carrier has no way around this. He tries to ground moral facts in social welfare, but his attempt is hyperbolic and insufficient. He says, "the Golden Rule, like fire and language and tools, was universally invented by all cultures because adhering to it is the only way to maintain social and psychological homeostasis" (emphasis added). Again in the spirit of charity, I'll suppose that Carrier really meant to say something like this: the golden rule can be interpreted as a variation on the tit-for-tat strategy for cooperation, and there is evidence that tit-for-tat is a relatively stable social strategy which appears in many forms (or, perhaps, under various permutations) across most, if not all, known civilizations. But what's the point? That our moral values should be means of maintaining a stable and harmonious society? That we should value the greater good over our personal interests? If that's the case, then Carrier is defining a moral imperative into his definition of moral imperatives. That's not an ontological ground for moral facts. It's a moral one.

Perhaps Carrier wants to say that we do define moral oughts in terms of the greater good, and not in terms of our personal interests. So then moral facts are defined as facts about what is best for society as a whole. We could debate that. But even if we allowed it, it doesn't give Carrier what he wants. To ontologically ground such facts, you would need some metric for measuring the prosperity of society at large, and you would need some way of showing that your metric was the right one. Carrier hasn't made one step in that problematic direction.

Carrier isn't close to being able to ontologically ground the existence of moral facts. I guess he's not a moral realist after all.