A Meta-ethical Blight
October 23, 2012
Although my beliefs are at heart very different to theirs, I have great respect for meta-ethical realists like Derek Parfit and Allen Wood, and have learned an immense amount from their work. But I tire of all the scuffles over realism, in all its forms. In ethics, the rebellion against Moral Law has gone on long enough, and both sides have gained too little to make the skirmish seem worthwhile continuing.
After the dawn of the twentieth century, moral philosophy took a giant, unfortunate step away from actually discussing morality. This diversion, which shelters under the umbrella of meta-ethics, seeks to ignore moral discussion in favour of arguing about how and whether moral arguments can be grounded. If these combative meta-ethics were a supplement to morality, it would be understandable that they receive so much attention – the problem is not that metaphysical questions don't have ethical bearing, after all. Rather, the crisis twentieth century meta-ethics birthed is the over-shadowing of moral discourse by the war over truth, and the consequent escalation of the priority of meta-ethics over ethics.
The disaster at the heart of contemporary meta-ethics is affording central importance to whether there is a kind of realism appropriate to ethics. Like every other fight centred around any kind of ‘realism’, this quickly loses coherence. Fervent supporters of realisms all too frequently fall into defending the idea of an objective reality when opponents challenge the capacity to attain to that reality via thought. Their opponents in turn suffer from the likelihood that whatever undermining tricks they perform can be used against their own arguments, since they must joust using reason or reality in some role or else have no teeth with which to deliver the bite of their argument. No-one on either side seems to notice that making the switch to meta-ethics – really, to metaphysics – inevitably means abandoning any hope of finding sure footing.
Impressive arguments are mounted – Parfit's meta-ethical work is scrupulously perfect – but only a tiny change in presuppositions renders the entire edifice hopelessly fragile. Against this, all manner of alternative realisms grapple for Nietzche's flag in vain attempts to be the first among the valueless. The opposition no longer settles for the label ‘anti-realism’ since to give up realism has been interpreted as abandoning all claims to truth. Whatever the label, the scenario remains similar. If morality cannot be squared with the highest standards of testability, it can be dismissed as irrelevant: human values are a small sacrifice when fighting for the claim to be the most real. Honestly, in the shark tank of realist philosophy I'd far rather side with Parfit, for all that I will never be comfortable with realism. Better moral realism than pretending we can just give up on morality altogether because it’s not ‘real’ enough.
When you face a difficult moral decision, the question of the plausibility of various kinds of realisms will have absolutely no bearing on what you decide to do. The only reason the irresolvable meta-ethical battles are perceived to have immense value is because if there were a secure foundation to be found it might allow final ethical answers to be calculated, for Deep Judge to be built. For some, this is desirable as a bulwark against chaos; for others, the chaos itself would be less dangerous than tailor-made justifications. Either way, morality suffers when the focus shifts to that particular issue, rather than those which face us every day. As Allen Wood notes, albeit from within the camp of meta-ethical realism:
To some twentieth-century meta-ethical skeptics, [Kantian ethics] may seem extravagant. But then to someone trying seriously to decide on the basis of the best reasons she can find what she absolutely ought to do, a lot of twentieth-century meta-ethical skepticism will seem extravagant.
Incidentally, just because I resist realism does not make me an anti-realist; my objection runs to both sides of this dispute. There were always moral facts, and there was never just one way to inventory them - it is a trivial moral fact, for instance, that there are people opposed to abortion in all cases, even if there are no certain facts (moral or otherwise) as to whether a foetus is a person. Precisely what makes moral reasoning difficult is that the moral facts are the least important part of the situation, since by the term ‘fact’ we intend to impute indisputability. Morality is difficult precisely because its challenges do not reduce neatly to matters of fact, and attempts to do so always risk replacing ethics with mere logic. My argument here is not an attempt to enforce the “Vienna Wall” between facts and values, but rather to insist that morality involves facts and values, both of which are always in dispute where moral conflicts occur.
For meta-ethics to regain significance it must first admit its lesser importance to morality when compared to actual moral systems and traditions, and especially to the dilemmas and crises real people face in everyday life. When meta-ethics seeks to pre-empt certain approaches and render them invalid, it is truly a blight – a hindrance to collective moral judgement. If, however, it were to admit to more modest goals, it might still have a vital purpose – like the sciences, our ethics will forever have a boundary in metaphysics, after all. While this quixotic passion for firm foundations outstrips usefulness to actual moral disputes, meta-ethics is merely an ostrich-head-in-the-sand, and perhaps best left in belligerent isolation from the problems we all share. Feel free to sketch the foundations, if you must, but please don't get in the way of building the house we all have to live in.
The opening image is Turmoil by Vitor/Algorias, which I found on his website, The Fractal Forest, and is used with permission.
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