Meta-Ethical Musings

There are things we know about the world because of the achievements of the physical sciences and that are the bases for widely held beliefs. I have in mind things like the fact that the water is H20. It’s safe to say few people come to believe these scientific claims by way of scientific investigation of the world. Rather, most people–I would guess a vast majority of people–who believe water is H20 do so because they were taught to believe this rather than as a result of their own rigorous empirical explorations of chemistry. Consequently we can readily distinguish two kinds of questions here. One kind would concern the nature of a scientific claim like “water is H20”, and another would concern the processes by which people come to believe a claim like water is H20. At first glance anyway, it would be odd to think that we could learn much about scientific claims–whether they’re true or false, what makes them true or false, the basic nature of the world they try to describe–by looking at the processes by which people typically arrive at their scientific beliefs, the accuracy of those beliefs, the level understanding of science or the natural world evinced, and so on. Surely the burden would be on the person–a certain kind of scientific anti-realist–who thinks we can connect these two kinds of questions to make the case.

Borrowing a bit of philosophy science, let’s distinguish the context of acquisition and the context of justification. This distinction has a broader application, and can be applied to something other than the study of the natural world pretty readily. At first glance questions of how most people come to believe what they do about the American Civil War, for example, is a different matter than questions about the nature of claims about the American Civil War. It may be easier to understand anti-realism about history than about the core physical sciences, but here too I would think the burden is on those who would be inclined to collapse this distinction, and those who do are proposing a view most people initially find implausible and counter-intuitive.

The pattern I’ve tried to highlight here breaks down with morality. It’s become pretty common place to see philosophers of a certain stripe routinely collapse the contexts of acquisition and justification when it comes to moral claims. Pointing to (or doing) psychological studies of the moral reasoning of ordinary people (well, actually of American college undergraduates more often than not), a lot of people seem willing to draw conclusions about the nature of moral claims. Empirical evidence that people’s moral judgments about a given case depend, for example, on their emotional responses to its details, are significantly affected by mood or situational factors, are highly varied, or are firmly held despite subjects’ inability to defend them rationally, is taken to be evidence for emotivism, sentimentalism, relativism, “error theory”–in a word, various forms of moral anti-realism.

This is, I think, pretty interesting and significant. It isn’t news that the philosophers doing this kind of work are thorough going naturalists and seemingly as a result prone to skepticism about moral realism. I do think it’s worth pointing out that often enough the position that the empirical results are being taken to support is in fact being assumed in the interpretation, but that’s not really my point here. What I’m most interested in is the ease with which the distinction between the contexts of acquisition and justification is collapsed in the case of morality. Current academic trends aside, there seems to be something about moral discourse that makes anti-realism a much more accessible and less counter-intuitive idea.

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