I’ve spent this morning puzzling through Jerry Cohen’s “Facts and Principles” from Philosophy and Public Affairs (31:3 Summer 2003). It is, as I and others have intimated already, an important article and I can’t be confident that I’ve “got” it yet. I do think, though, that I can say that his thesis is not quite the threat to naturalism that I took it to be, unless it is coupled with some further commitments (although, as it happens, those dangerous further commitments are ones I accept). The basic argument Cohen puts forward is a really simple one, claiming that where people seek to ground their moral commitments on principles, some of those principles must hold independently of the way the world happens to be (“the facts”).
Cohen argues for three premises:
P1 “…whenever a fact F confers support on a principle P, there is an explanation why F supports P, that is, an explanation of how F represents a reason to endorse P” (p. 217)
P2 “…the explanation whose existence is affirmed by the first premise invokes or implies a more ultimate principle, commitment to which would survive denial of F, a more ultimate principle that explains why F supports P….” (217-8)
P3 Where the grounding principle explaining why F supports P is itself fact-dependent, and further interrogation reveals yet deeper grounding principles, that iterative sequence of asking for supporting principles will not go on forever but will (pretty soon) come to rest on a grounding principle that is not itself fact-dependent.
Cohen claims that “it follows from the stated premises that every fact-sensitive principle reflects a fact insensitive principle: that is true both within the structure of the principled beliefs of a given person …. and …. within the structure of the objective truth about principles.” (218)
Much of Cohen’s paper consists of clarification of his view and a careful attempt to set out what he is not saying. So, for example, he says his thesis is neutral with respect to the main metaethical disputes (among realists, quasi-realists, emotivists etc etc etc), that it is not the same as Achilles and the tortoise, that it is not a view about how people actually come to acquire the principles that they hold (a process that will require engagement with the facts) and so on. Cohen’s view is, most basically, about the logical structure of people’s moral beliefs. It also presupposes that moral reasoning and judgement consists (at least in part) of the application of general principles to circumstances in the light of the facts, so Cohen’s view is of limited interest to moral particularists who believe that moral judgement isn’t about the application of such principles.
The principal target of Cohen’s article is Rawlsian constructivism. This is because Rawls believes that the way the world is (the facts) enter into the construction of the fundamental principles of justice (via, for instance, the general facts made available to the parties in Rawls’s original position). Cohen believes that Rawls is not altogether consistent here, in any case, since the design of Rawls’s constructivist procedure rests on general claims (that persons are to be considered as free and equal) that are either themselves fact-independent or rest on further principles that are. So, for Cohen at least, Rawls’s putatively fundamental principles of justice aren’t fundamental at all, but merely derivative or regulatory principles that actually derive from deeper fact-independent principles.
Is Cohen’s argument damaging to ethical naturalism? That of course is going to depend on what we mean by ethical naturalism and, as we’ve seen over the past few days, there’s plenty of room for debate and/or confusion about that. Cohen’s argument has nothing to say about what ethical principles amount to, and if all such principles amount to is the expression of attitudes then there’s no going to be not problem for most naturalisic views. On the other hand, if we have a commitment to moral objectivity, then it looks like we are committed to there being objective truths in ethics that are (logically) completely independent of the way the world happens to be (microphysically or otherwise). Whether that is a threat or not probably depends on the sort of objectivity we sign up for. If moral principles are a priori (and so on a par with, say truths of logic) they may not be. But, to be honest, I’m not confident in what I think about this.
In his post yesterday, Brian suggested that Cohen’s view might be correct but trivial. I think that it is probably a mistake to express the point thus. If we are, as Cohen thinks, committed to some ground-level, fact independent moral principles then those principles are likely to be quite substantive (e.g, of the order of the fact-independent principle “all beings with characteristics X have the right to equal concern and respect”).
Is Cohen’s argument damaging to Rawlsian constructivism? If Cohen is correct, Rawlsians might reasonably, though concessively, reply. They might argue that it is true that if we look at what the logical structure of people’s ethical beliefs ought to be, then fact-independent principles are at the bottom. It isn’t the case then, that what justifies and constitutes our most fundamental commitments is that they derive from a constructivist procedure. But (1), epistemically, such a procedure is the best method for getting at what those commitments are and (2) given “the facts”, the regulatory principles which we are practically most interested in are best seen as the product of a constructivist apparatus. Too concessive? I think most Rawlsians could live with it.