Exploring Ontology

It's all about the deep questions.

Category Archives: Ethics

Against Deep Questions: Morality

Morality As a Community of Ideally Rational Desires

Although I stand by my error-theory position about folk morality, that doesn’t exhaust the possible questions about morality. Finding a substitute for the term that has sound philosophical grounds but throws away the unsatisfiable intuitions behind the word is desirable. I take this paper to make two claims. The first, philosophical, claim is to give a framework of what an ideally rational person should desire, and how an ideally rational person ought to live and act by consequence, in the context of a community. The second, more speculative empirical claim, is that the fleshing out of this framework with regard to human communities coheres enough with our rough, commonsense understanding of morality as to deserve to be called the name. If not, we should simply discard morality as a group of outdated notions and abide by the framework set out in the first claim, because that is what we have the most reason to follow. Read more of this post


Moral Error Theory: Some Essential Features of Morality

One essential property of morality is that it delivers “ought” statements. For example, according to the dictates of morality, one shouldn’t torture kids for the fun of it. But what kind of an imperative is this? A distinction should be drawn between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives can take the form of an if-then statement. For example, if you want to look attractive, you should exercise more. For those who really don’t care all that much about being attractive, the hypothetical imperative doesn’t apply. Common-senses morality is nothing like this, however. Common-sense morallity utilizes categorical imperatives to say something like: regardless of your personal beliefs or desires, you should not torture kids for fun. Another essential property of morality is that it is universally binding. One cannot opt-out of morality like one can opt-out from joining a club. Finally, another feature of morality, although one can debate whether it is an essential feature, is that it is supposed to be intrinsically motivating. This motivation can be overridden, but it is still motivating. If some act is morally good, then upon learning that a rational agent should acquire some defeasible motivation for doing it. My position is that morality is in error for holding itself up to such a high position. One of the major reasons is the Humean Theory of Motivation.

Moral Error Theory: Introduction

So, in the “My Philosophical Beliefs” post, I stated in the “Ethics” section that the meta-ethical belief I held was that of error theory. In these next series of posts, I hope to outline first, what exactly is an error theory, secondly, why I believe it is the correct meta-ethical view, and thirdly what are the consequences for being an error theorist towards morality.

What is an error theory?

Although even this question is debated, error theroy basically says that an entire concept is “wrong”, or that it fails to refer to anything real in the world. One useful example lies in religion. An atheist is an error theorist towards the term “God” because it fails to refer to anything real in the world. As a result, an atheist believes that all of religious discourse is fundamentally flawed. Some people have said that holding an error theory towards a domain of discourse is to say that everything under that domain of discourse is false. For example, an atheist would say “God desires the happiness of human beings” to be false since there is no God (supposedly). This is not entirely correct, since there are sentences in religious discourse that atheists would think are true. For example, an atheist would say that “Homosexual interactions don’t anger God” is true. They would say homosexual interactions don’t affect God in any way whatsoever, since he is just not there. So, although not entirely accurate, it is a useful description.

The Structure of Arguments for Error Theory

Arguments for moral error theory usually have two steps. The first step says that a “non-negotiable” part of moral discourse involves some particular conceptual or empirical truth to hold. The second step argues against the truth of that conceptual or empirical fact.

So what exactly do I mean by “non-negotiable”? Again, an example would be useful. Suppose that scientists find out that the molecular composition of water is no longer two hydrogens and one oxygen, rather it has some more complicated chemical symbol abbreviated XYZ. Would we still call this XYZ water? If someone were to say that the chemical composition H20 was a “non-negotiable” part of the conceptual definition of water, then we should cease to call XYZ water. However, if it were just a “negotiable” part of the conceptual definition, we would still call it water. Basically, the “important” part of a concept is the non-negotiable part. If this non-negotiable part was changed, then the entire concept would have to be changed. However, if the details of a concept are changed, we could usually use the same term to denote that concept. This is what the moral error theorist tries to do with morality. They identify something at the heart of morality, which if wrong, would make all moral discourse hopelessly flawed.

The second step is usually the more interesting step, which actually argues for the falsity of the “non-negotiable” part of morality. If these two steps of the error theorist argument go through successfully, then the error theorist would have discredited all of morality.

Ambitious, huh? In the next post, I’ll try to nail down some of these non-negotiable parts.

The Open Question Argument = Begging the Question

So, I was reading Alex Miller’s An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, and as soon as I read Moore’s famous Open Question Argument it struck me as an obvious example of begging the question. At best, it would qualify as an intuition pump (using Dennett’s phrase). I couldn’t imagine someone who was some sort of naturalist cognitivist realist about moral statements actually find this argument to have any persuasive power.

Here is an outine of the argument:

Consider any proposed naturalistic analysis N of a moral predicate M. The Open Question Argument maintains that it will always be possible for someone competent with moral discourse without conceptual confusion to grant that something is N but still wonder whether it is really M. Whether goodness is co-instantiated with any natural property or set of natural properties is in this sense always a conceptually open question. If, however, N really was an accurate analysis of M then the question, “I know it is N but is it M?” would not be open in this way for a conceptually competent judge any more than the question, “I know he is a bachelor but is he unmarried?” can be an open one.

From this it follows that there can be no adequate naturalistic account of good. For example, identifying “good” with “the maximization of happiness and the minimization of suffering” would not and could not be an adequate account of the word good. My problem with the argument is the premise that given any naturalistic analysis N of M, one can always ask “I know it is N but is it really M? I’m also fairly confident that any every person who disagreed with Moore would reject this premise. In fact, one could only hold that premise if one was already on board with Moore’s agenda. Hence, begging the question. The argument, I guess, would have some weight for people sitting on the fence about the issue, since their intuitions on the subject haven’t swung either way.