Meta-Ethical Musings II

It seems “a bit” by my blog’s standards isn’t a particularly brief amount of time. Apologies if anyone was waiting on pins and needles for this follow up.

What I am playing around with is something like this. We’re supposing that in the first instance a moral judgment to the effect ‘x is wrong’ is a statement of a social fact. Specifically it points to the fact that x violates a norm recognized by the relevant community and incorporated into its practices. As noted in the previous post, one way to avoid the worry of ethical relativism is to appeal to a trans-cultural good which can be used to adjudicate competing such norms accepted by different communities. If we define what counts as human flourishing in a way that doesn’t depend on the particular values of any one community, or which can be recognized and accepted across diverse communities, we can use that to judge how conducive a given community’s norms are of human flourishing. In a rough way this would capture the strategies of Aristotelian virtue ethics and the Natural Law Theory as understood by Aquinas, but in a way that acknowledges and accommodates the fundamentally social nature of morality as well as the fact of moral diversity. Together these point in the direction of the less metaphysically loaded but still Aristotelianish Capabilities Approach of Martha Nussbaum.

But let’s put aside flourishing and the like. What if certain norms are necessary for human behavior to be intelligible, or, perhaps, possible? Or, to put it a bit more metaphorically, what if there are certain games human beings have no choice but to play? An analogy, or maybe it’s simply an instance, is language. Language is rule governed, and in the sense that we can distinguish different languages (and dialects) the rules are local, so to speak—relative to linguistic communities. We might try to get universality via Chomsky, but put that aside. Instead, might we say that one universal ‘rule’ of language use, or at least the fundamental use of language as a means of sharing or conveying information, is respect for the truth? The point would be that absent a reliable commitment to truth telling, using language to convey information would be impossible. Hence the wrongness of lying. Given the universality of human use of language we get the universal wrongness of lying.

Take another example. Amartya Sen has argued that certain values, such as honesty and trustworthiness, are necessary for the functioning of markets. Let’s abstract away from the specific properties of a capitalist market and think in terms of any structured exchange of goods and services between humans. If a) Sen’s point still holds and b) such exchanges are typical of human life, we have another potential point of moral convergence.

If the human flourishing route is broadly Aristotelian, this suggestion is more along the lines of the so-called New Natural Law Theory of people like John Finnis. This version enjoys an advantage over more traditional versions—it doesn’t require defining flourishing (or “happiness”) in a culturally neutral way or putting moral weight on certain human tendencies being “natural.” Rather Finnis and company stipulate some goods as self-evidently intrinsic and use that to weave these pre-moral goods into the functioning of practical reason. What I’m playing around with avoid this last rather problematic move as well. The goods I am gesturing at emerge in the structure of typically human interactions, not Practical Reason as such. But the normativity is rooted in the inevitability of these interactions, not their being “natural.”