A long and winding post responding to some issues about morality and naturalism.
I still agree with Lawrence Solum that we can make a start on getting from natural facts to ethical facts by looking at purposes. Matt Evans responds by saying that naturalists deny nature has a purpose. True enough, but not much follows from that.
A little analogy. Consider a crowd in Times Square on a typical work day. The crowd as a whole has no discernable purpose whatsoever. It isn’t like New Year’s Eve where the purpose is unintelligible, there just isn’t a group purpose there. But the individuals in the group can have purposes. One might be looking for food, another for theatre tickets, and another (I’m told) for where all the porn shops have gone. It might be disheartening to think of all of nature as an aimless Times Square crowd write large, but even if we do, that doesn’t entail that none of the constituent parts have purposes.
There’s another reason naturalists should take purpose seriously. Scientists, at least as far as I can tell, take purpose seriously. In many diverse areas, functional explanation is a core part of the toolkit. And talk of function is just talk of purpose in a (minimally) different guise. Crude example: saying the function of the heart is to pump blood is barely different to saying its purpose is to pump blood. And that’s the kind of thing scientists will readily endorse. (They’ll even sometimes say the function of a part of the body is to transmit information, involving themselves in philosophical mysteries concerning function and concerning content within one little claim. No matter, science still works.) Since naturalists take science seriously, indeed take science to be largely constitutive of what is ‘natural’, naturalists can also take purpose seriously.
Matt Evans posts the following challenge:
Here’s the deal: I invite all Brights to email me the moral premises they accept not by blind faith, but because they are founded in nature. Please trace the moral premise to natural facts. Though submissions will be accepted in any format, syllogisms are especially appreciated. Show your work.
Well, none of the following examples are going to convince anyone who wants to remain unconvinced, but here’s three.
Flurg (due to Gideon Rosen)
First a definition: to flurg is to do something one ought not do in the presence of small children.
Now the argument.
Jack is in the presence of small children.
Therefore, Jack ought not to flurg.
That’s valid, as far as I can see, and for appropriate values for ‘Jack’ it is even sound. The premise certainly looks like an ‘is’ statement and the conclusion like an ‘ought’ statement. So we’ve got it – an ought from an is! Or, in Matt’s terms, an argument from a natural premise to a moral conclusion.
Here’s an even quicker argument that you can get from is to ought.
Torturing babies is wrong.
Therefore, torturing babies is wrong.
The conclusion is definitely a moral claim. But what about the premise? Well, I’m a moral realist, so I think it’s a truth about the real (i.e. natural) world. I can see how some may disagree, but without a good definition of natural, and a good argument that the premise here is unnatural, I’m inclined to think this is a counterexample to the no ought from an is principle. Still, to keep things interesting, I’ll not rely on this from here on.
What’s an Argument?
I think part of what’s lying behind Matt’s scepticism is a faulty conception of what an argument is. He thinks a good argument must be formally valid. It must be valid in virtue of its syntactic form, just like what up-to-date logic classes teach, and indeed as out-of-date logic classes (like those Aristotle taught) teach. But a valid argument is just one where it’s impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false. And it’s impossible that humans be just as they are and it be morally permissible to torture infant children. Proof by contradiction: assume it is possible, then we should be able to coherently describe the situation. But as soon as we try it should be apparent that we’ve misdescribed it. (Seriously, try to describe a situation in which humans are just as they are in all natural respects and it’s morally acceptable to torture their young. You’ll soon get the impression that, whatever you try to stipulate, you haven’t told a story where it’s morally acceptable to torture children.) So such a situation is impossible. So the argument from premises about human nature to the conclusion that you shouldn’t torture children is valid.
The Use of Concepts in Arguments
Stuart Buck criticised my this argument that facts about human qualities and relationships entail moral facts as follows:
He’s smuggling in a moral premise, namely the principle that it is wrong to torture (for one’s own amusement) creatures who are capable of feeling pleasure and pain, who have hopes and plans and fears and regrets, who are capable of great learning, and so forth. Only with that principle in place does it make sense to say that you can derive a moral conclusion from the set of facts Weatherson lays out.
I don’t think that’s right. I think that the only sense in which we need moral premises to get from human statements (as I’ll call them from now on) to moral statements is a sense in which those premises are fully acceptable to the naturalist. But to show that, or even to make a case for it, will require a couple of examples.
What I really want to defend is the following – we can be in a position to know moral facts given just human facts and possession of moral concepts. Stuart and Matt say the naturalist needs ‘faith’ to get moral conclusions, I say they just need moral concepts.
To see why this is not cheating, let’s think about an area where it is intuitively clear that you can get from lower-level facts to higher-level facts. For instance, an argument from the final scores of the only two competitors in a sporting contest to a conclusion about who won could be valid. If we can have a natural->moral argument that’s as good as the scores->victor argument, the naturalist is doing well.
So let’s say I know that X scored 264 and Y scored 279. Can I conclude who won? Well, not unless I know what it is to win the game in question. That is, not unless I possess the concept VICTORY for the salient game. If the game is cricket, then Y won, because the higher score wins. If the game is golf, then X won, because the lower score wins. If I have that concept I can make the inference, if not I can’t.
Might this be a good analogy for human-moral inferences? Perhaps, but perhaps not, because we can say exactly what the salient concept – in this case victory – amounts to. What’s distinctive about moral concepts is we can’t say that. Let’s try a different example that’s on all fours with the moral case then.
Here’s the career stats for two prominent baseball players, Mario Mendoza and Nomar Garciaparra. I think that anyone who has all the relevant concepts, and knows the natural facts given in those stats pages, is in a position to infer that Garciaparra is a better hitter than Mendoza. Note here that having the concept doesn’t mean knowing what it is to be a better hitter. I don’t know to any precise degree what it is to be a better hitter than someone else. It’s possible to have the concept and not know whether Garciaparra is a better hitter than, say, Lefty O’Doul. But I know that Garciaparra is better than Mendoza was, and anyone who looks at those numbers and disagrees probably doesn’t have the concept ‘better hitter’.
So that’s a case where just some facts, and a concept, suffice for a normative conclusion. In this case it isn’t a very deep conclusion, one about who is a better hitter not who is a better person. But I don’t think depth makes for a disanalogy between the cases. What was meant to be powerful about Hume’s principle was it blocked you getting from the descriptive to the normative. But that isn’t a block – as shown in the baseball case.
As Chris noted earlier, the argument of Gerry Cohen that Lawrence Solum discusses should apply generally if it applies in ethics. But it looks to me that unless we interpret Cohen as arguing for a very weak principle, then the baseball example refutes his conclusion. Just looking at the numbers, I can conclude Garciaparra is a better hitter than Mendoza. Do I need a principle here? Well, if I had a principle like “If X has better numbers than Y in the following statistical categories (list here all the ways in which Garciaparra has better numbers than Mendoza) then X is a better hitter than Y” that would certainly help. (Although as Dsquared noted in the comments on Chris’s post, if someon really wanted to resemble a tortoise they could complain that I still needed a further principle to underpin the validity of the new argument.) But if I don’t have that principle the inference is blocked in a much more trivial sense. If I don’t have that principle I really don’t have the concept ‘better hitter’, so I can’t conclude anything about who is a better hitter.
I think there’s a very weak sense in which Cohen’s right – we certainly need principles of some kind to get from factual premises to moral conclusions. But that’s just because we need to (at least tacitly) accept some principles in order to have moral concepts, and (for completely trivial reasons) we need to have moral concepts to make inferences from factual premises to moral conclusions. This is trivial because it isn’t different from the claim that we need furniture concepts to make inferences from premises about the distribution of wood in my office to conclusions about where the tables and chairs are in my office. But no one really thinks that we can’t in any interesting sense make inferences from where the wood is to where the furniture is. If the relation between the descriptive and the normative is like the relation between the wood and the furniture, it’s hard to see a threat to naturalism, or to Rawlsian constructivism.