Metaethical Musings

I’ve been reading a book of essays by a legal theorist who draws a lot from philosophy. He supports a legal positivism position by appeal to a generic kind of non-cognitivist metaethical position, which he contrasts with moral realism. What interests me is that he defines the latter as holding to some versions of the claim that moral judgments are true or false and this in a way that is “mind independent.”  This is to say he conflates “objective” and “mind independent.” As typical as this is, it strikes me, and has for a long time, as odd.

The contrast to the claim that a judgment to the effect “X is evil” is an expression of the speaker’s feelings (or something along those lines) would be, I would think, something to the effect that it is the sort of thing that is true or false, and that this is determined by the facts, or what is true, or how things are objectively, or something along those lines. What does this have to do with mind independence? “Olathe is in Kansas” is true (a fact, an objective state of affairs, whatever). It’s hardly mind independent: no minds, no Olathe. Or Kansas, for that matter. As John Searle has argued in some detail, that Olathe is in Kansas is a fact, albeit one that depends on the beliefs and practice of people. In this, Searle argues, it is unlike facts about the height of Mt. Everest, but a fact nonetheless. Even if we don’t want to talk about facts here, it certainly seems objective in the sense that it is the sort of thing we can be right or wrong about, or that is independent of what I or any individual happens to feel or judge or believe or the like. If I think or want it to be or feel that Olathe is in Missouri I’m just wrong. That, I think, is all the only kind of objectivity moral realists need. It no more needs mind independence than facts about health need to be living organism independent.

So: moral realism need not assume the existence of mind independent moral facts, because not all facts are mind independent. What kind of facts should they be then? Well, suppose we try out the idea that they are (what I’ll call) social facts. Well, to a first approximation maybe morality then is like the law, in the sense that there are legal facts like “smoking marijuana is legal in Colorado” or “smoking marijuana is not legal in Kansas.” So maybe “we can say “cannibalism is wrong in Kansas” is true but so is “cannibalism is ok in blah blah blah.” This of course would be to embrace relativism, which is also typically—but on this analysis wrongly—opposed to realism. If moral judgments are relative to cultural practices then I think they are as objective as legal judgments, and so also the sorts of things we can be wrong about.

Still, in spirit it seems relativism is not ok with moral realists, who want to insist cannibalism is just plain wrong, not just wrong by the lights of Kansans (inter alia). One way forward, taken by David Wong among others, is to say that while systems of morality vary and some degree of relativism is unavoidable, still we can judge some systems as beyond the pale by some higher level considerations of human flourishing or something along those lines. So perhaps we can establish that humans do better in communities that frown on eating one’s fellows. A problem here though is it just kicks the question of moral realism to a higher level—is there an objective account of flourishing?

I’m inclined to answer yes, but here’s a different tack a realist might take here that I’m playing around with. I’ll return to that in a bit.

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