Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Right, Real, True... and Other Relative Terms

Lest I get too comfortable with my tiny, marginally-significant place in the blogosphere, thinking that we're all friends here and readers of this blog are basically in agreement on the stuff that really matters, all of us interacting virtually in a kind of harmonious echo-chamber of progressive philosophical wonderment... yeah, lest I get too comfortable with that, er, unreality... AnPan has decided to disabuse me of my Pollyannaism by effectively handing me my ass in a (beautifully written and cleverly argued) rebuttal of my "Strong Relativism" post from some weeks ago. So, first things first, you should go read his piece entitled "Verifying Moral Realism" (it's really good) and you should also make a mental note that AnPan and I are friends (good friends) so this exchange is both welcome and productive.

Basically, the "disagreement" between AnPan and I (as he sees it) comes down to this: AnPan is a moral realist, and he worries that I'm not. He contends that being a "moral realist" means that "claims about [moral] values are agent-neutral"-- that is, not totally "subjective"-- but what he really means is that those agent-neutral moral realities can be tracked, tested, and verified or disproven by things/events/truths "out there" in the real world. Because he's also a fallibilist, he admits that he can be wrong about moral values, but what "being wrong" means for AnPan is that he has "tracked" his values erroneously, or that in drawing a correspondence between his values and things in the real world, he has chosen the wrong things (like, to use his example, tracking the "reality" of the impermissibility of murder to the "reality" of the `Sixth Commandment or the Virginia Criminal Code). AnPan suggests that we can most closely approximate the truth of moral values by "moving back and forth between cases and principles"... until, I am inferring from his argument, the "reality" of the principle can be verified by the reality of the cases that seem to support that principle.

That's how scientists do it, right? That's how the "reality" of things in the world are verified, by testing them, so why not verify the "reality" of moral principles and moral values the same way?

You see, according to AnPan, "principles" are as "real" as the "cases" that (allegedly) track those principles. According to AnPan, values are as real as-- and "real" in the same way as-- facts. He's a moral realist because he begins with this presumption: when we talk about moral values, we're talking about something that is not only agent-neutral but also really "out there," independent of agents' determinations. If AnPan and I are talking about the computer upon which I am typing right now, and neither of us are skeptics about the reality of the external world, then we both grant that the "reality" of the computer is not dependent on either of our speculations about it. It's either really there or it's not. If we have a disagreement about it's existence or it's properties, we can test our claims against something neutral to those claims and the agents that make those claims, i.e., the thing itself. For AnPan, as I read him, moral values are like the computer. And there is where we part ways...

Let me just jump ahead to what I see as our main point of disagreement, in hopes of slowly back-tracking from there to find its cause. Interestingly, I find this disagreement embedded in a sentence near the end of his post with which I mostly agree. AnPan writes:

If we take moral inquiry to be adequately addressed through an appeal to justified true beliefs accompanied by an account, then we can seek an account that would make sense of my claim or shows it to be nonsense while maintaining that our beliefs are about the world and either verified by it or not.

I, too, take moral inquiry to be (for the most part, adequately) addressed through appeals to "justified true beliefs accompanied by an account." I also agree that our moral values are about the world, though I might add "human" as a descriptor to "world," if only because those values are OUR values, and not "the world's" (but I'll come back to this later). And because I agree that our values are about the world, which has a reality to it that is entirely agent-neutral, I also agree that we should look to the world to help us formulate an account of our beliefs that make those beliefs make sense. My real problem with AnPan's definition of moral inquiry here is the last part, where he claims that our moral values, which are ABOUT the world (but not equivalent to the world) are "either verified by [the world] or not." If I am not a skeptic about the reality of the external world, then I can believe that my claims about the facts of that world are verified or not by that world. (Either the computer is there or it's not. Either the Earth is flat or it's not.) But surely we must allow that moral values aren't verifiable-or-not realities OF the world in the same way that objects or events are. That is, surely we must admit that VALUES ARE NOT THE SAME AS FACTS. AnPan's definition wants to conflate descriptive and prescriptive claims, positive and normative claims. Or, at the very least, he wants to make prescriptive and normative claims derivations of descriptive or positive claims. That's just wrong, in my view, and I don't think that my resistance to that conflation necessarily means that I don't think that moral values are "real."

Here's the thing: AnPan's definition claims that "moral inquiry is adequately addressed through an appeal to justified true beliefs" accompanied by an "account" of those beliefs." The "account" of those beliefs, as I understand it, is a justificatory account-- that is, it is an account of the framework of rules and principles that one takes to sufficiently constitute truth-claims about the subject under dispute. Some of those rules and principles will be things like the law of noncontradiction, which (I believe) human reason does not allow us to violate. But some of those rules and principles will be things like what constitutes the distinction between knowledge and belief, between fact and value, and what other (subset) of rules and principles must be applied to the one that may or may not be applied to the other. But here is where AnPan slips in a sneaky clause to his definition: he claims that the whole point of viewing moral inquiry as "an appeal to justified true beliefs accompanied by some [justificatory] account" is to seek a PARTICULAR kind of "account," namely, one that the whole while takes facts of the world to be justifications for the verity of our evaluations of those facts.

Let me back up a sec. I think that AnPan and I are in agreement inasmuch as we are both skeptical of absolutist claims to the Truth of moral values. He owns this skepticism by calling himself a fallibilist about moral realities, in the same way that he (reservedly) admits that it's possible that the reality of the external world itself may also be an illusion and he may in fact be a brain in a vat. As long as we're talking about the metaphysics of objects and events, I'm pretty much with him on that. I don't have any good reasons to believe that I'm a brain in a vat (though, of course, if I were, the scientist poking my brain in its jar would certainly be poking the parts that made me believe I had no such reason to suspect such poking were happening), just like I don't think I have any good reasons to believe that there are fairies or unicorns or aliens... though I certainly can admit of their strictly logical possibility. You know, compossible worlds and all that jazz. There are other things, though, of which I cannot admit even a logical possibility, like square circles or the possibility that 2+2=5. So, when it comes to the external world, there are all kinds of allowances for fallibility that I am obligated to make beyond what I might have good reasons to believe. When it comes to ideas, there are fewer, since human reason can only bend so much before it breaks. This is why I am inclined, generally, to tack the flexibility of what I can believe to be true or real about the world to the considerably-less-flexibility of what reason permits me to think, and not the reverse. (That's also my defense of my bias in favor of reasons and reason-giving, btw.) So, AnPan and I are in agreement on the fallibility part, even when it comes to moral values...

BUT I don't think that being "wrong" about facts is the same thing as being "wrong" about values. Because I am not a skeptic about the reality of the external world, I believe that I am justified in applying the basic rules of scientific discovery in my inquiries about the facts of the world. If AnPan and I are at our local thrift-store and we both find a vintage Rolling Stones t-shirt for sale, there are certain procedures that we might be able to follow to determine whether or not it is really a vintage Rolling Stones t-shirt. If it is, we may both agree that the $30 value that has been assigned to that shirt is a justified price. If it's a fake, we may both determine that it's value is much less, and we might only be willing to pay $5 for it. Clearly, what we're doing here is tracking our value assignments to facts that fit into an "account" of how value ought to be assigned to things (e.g., rare or old things are more valuable than easily acquirable copies of those things). But do I think that the value "$5" or "$30" really exists in the thing, in the same way as the thing really exists? No, I don't. I think the value is something that we add to the thing, and it doesn't exist independent of that assignment on the part of a meaning-making, value-creating being.

Because meaning-making, value-creating beings can and do disagree about meaning and values, I believe that the rightness or wrongness of value-assignments is always going to be relative to the justificatory account that makes sense of those assignements. Some accounts are going to more agent-neutral than others, though never entirely independent of human agency, and I am inclined to agree with AnPan that the more neutral an account is to individual agency, the more persuasive and powerful it is. And I am also inclined to agree with AnPan that the more moral values can be tacked to shared experiences and facts in the real world-- themselves subject to the kinds of verifications that science permits-- the more one is justified in claiming that those values are "true" (in the "intersubjectively verified" sense) than untrue. But at the end of the day, all value-assgnments exist in a context, which means they can be decontextualized and recontextualized and are thus essentially relative to the contexts in which they belong. The context is what "justifies" or "verifies" the values, not the real world.

Let me say, in conclusion, that I think AnPan's essay effectively took my "strong relativism" to be the same as what I described as "lazy relativism," namely, a variant of subjectivism. I don't think that moral values are justified solely by the subjective assertion of them. And I don't think that Aristotle and John Brown were both right about slavery, but I just do not know how one locates the rightness or wrongness of their positions out there in the "real" world. Sure, one must do so in reference to the real world, which is the millieu in which things and actions are valued, but that millieu is framed by and filtered through a context of reflection and understanding that has rules that are NOT determined by the world (like the rules of physics or mathematics are), but rather by us. So, do I think that we can say of some moral claims that they are "right" or "true"? Yes, but only if we also give a context in which the values "right" or "true" are articulated. Do I think that the moral values we hold are "real"? Absolutely, but not in the same way that I think my computer is "real."

I'm going to forgive AnPan for making a strawman of me, because he's a good friend and forgiveness is a moral value of mine. Hopefully, he'll be able to find something in the real world to which he can track and justify his appreciation of my magnanimity.


anotherpanacea said...

Awesome. I think it'll take me a few days to figure out whether to offer a rejoinder or throw in the towel, but thanks very much for this thoughtful response.

anotherpanacea said...

I'm just seeing your last post, on friendship, but my response is up and there are some eerie similarities, wholly unplanned. I'm also teaching Sartre today, and I thought that this quote might help frame the debate:

"The word “subjectivism” is to be understood in two senses, and our adversaries play upon only one of them. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, the freedom of the individual subject and, on the other, that man cannot pass beyond human subjectivity. It is the latter which is the deeper meaning of existentialism. When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all."