Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A pragmatic approach to interpreting moral claims

Epistemic status: moderately confident in the core ideas, not confident in my portrayal of existing approaches, since neither meta-ethics nor linguistics are focuses of mine. This is meant to be primarily explicatory not rigorously persuasive.

One important question in meta-ethics is how to interpret the meanings of moral claims. This is closely related to but distinct from the question of whether there are any objectively true moral facts (i.e. moral realism vs moral anti-realism). If it were common knowledge that moral realism were true, then we should obviously interpret moral claims as referring to objective moral facts. But anti-realism is consistent with a number of ways of interpreting moral claims, such as those offered by emotivism, subjectivism, and error theory. Given that there is no philosophical consensus in favour of either realism or anti-realism, it seems to me that we should interpret moral claims in a way that allows coherent conversations about ethics to occur between people with entirely different meta-ethical views. By ‘coherent’ I mean that we interpret each side to be a) talking about something at least roughly similar to what they think they’re talking about, and b) talking about the same thing. Without these two criteria, ethics would be held hostage to meta-ethics: a subjectivist who heard a realist give a convincing argument for allowing euthanasia would either have to judge the entire argument to be false - since the realist intended their claims to refer to objective moral facts - or else inform the realist that even if they were right, they weren’t actually talking about the things they thought they were.

As an analogy, consider two ways we could interpret a scientific claim like "All matter is made out of quarks and leptons", an implication of the standard model of particle physics. The first possible reading is that the claim is meant to be literally true. However, under this reading anyone who makes that scientific claim is implicitly endorsing some version of scientific realism. Whether or not scientific realism is true, there are plenty of scientists who don't believe in it, and it's rather pointless to insist that what they mean contradicts what they actually believe. If we want to be able to talk about science without dragging in metaphysical commitments, we should use a second interpretation, under which "All matter is made out of quarks and leptons" would be taken to mean something like "The standard model of particle physics models all matter as being made out of quarks and leptons; also, the standard model is the best theory of matter we've got, in terms of its virtues as a scientific theory (like agreeing with the evidence, and being simple)." Note that the meaning we’ve read into the original statement is not the meaning a scientific realist would have intended, but it’s not very far off - to get there, we just need to add “and we have good reasons to believe that our best theories are literally true”. But by leaving off this last, implicit, clause, we get statements which can be agreed upon even by scientists who disagree about whether our best theories are literally true. Since such scientists do in fact agree about object-level claims on topics like the composition of matter, using an interpretation like the second seems to be the more sensible approach.

I think that this example is illustrative of how we should understand moral claims. Roughly speaking, the "literal truth" interpretation corresponds to the standard moral realist position that moral claims are truth-apt, with some being true and some being false. The second interpretation corresponds to my preferred way of characterising moral claims from an anti-realist perspective. When I say "Murder is bad", what I mean is that my system of ethics condemns murder; and also, that I endorse this system due to its virtues as a moral system (like agreeing with common intuitions, and being simple).

I like this approach because it combines the strengths of a number of other positions. As in moral realism, there is a component of moral claims which is truth-apt: the subclaim that my preferred theory condemns murder (a similar sort of claim to “these axioms imply this theorem”). As in emotivism, there is a component of moral claims which expresses an attitude: my endorsement of that theory. As in error theory, there need not be any moral facts which are objectively true. And under this approach, ethicists can meaningfully debate about morality even if their meta-ethical views differ, by implicitly agreeing upon a common framework for that conversation. Perhaps they both accept utilitarianism, but one prefers person-affecting views, the other non-person-affecting. Then their discussion would take place in the context of a certain (incomplete) system of ethics, trying to discover which extension of it is better. If the two ethicists find they have different intuitions, they can go down a level and attempt to persuade the other to renounce those intuitions, using other intuitions which they do share. If they have fundamentally different ideas about the virtues required from a moral system, they might not be able to have a direct conversation about what is good or bad, because they could only form a minimal shared framework. But even then, they could still have a meaningful and useful conversation by making temporary concessions or assumptions, in order to determine which conclusions follow from which premises. This is roughly similar to the way that you can do mathematics without believing the axioms, or even having an opinion on what it would mean for the axioms to be true. In my mind, the role of ethicists is not to directly discover moral truths, but rather to explicate which intuitions imply which claims, and which theories have which properties. Fortunately, many of us have similar moral intuitions, so in practice they need to concentrate on a very small class of theories.

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