Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Guest Bloggers - Mackie and Moral Disagreement

As you can see below, two guest bloggers have written posts on a piece by J.L. Mackie.  Aaron and Chelsea are students in my Modern Ethical Theory class this semester.  Their posts have to do with Mackie's argument from relativity which he offered in support of a metaethical theory known as error theory.  

It's worth noting this blurb from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (available here):
The Argument from Relativity (often more perspicaciously referred to as “the Argument from Disagreement”) begins with an empirical observation: that there is an enormous amount of variation in moral views, and that moral disagreements are often characterized by an unusual degree of intractability. Mackie argues that the best explanation of these phenomena is that moral judgments “reflect adherence to and participation in different ways of life” (1977: 36). This, at least, is a better explanation than the hypothesis that there is a realm of objective moral facts to which some cultures have inferior epistemic access than others. The example Mackie uses is of two cultures' divergent moral views regarding monogamy. Is it really plausible, he asks, that one culture enjoys access to the moral facts regarding marital arrangements whereas the other lacks that access? Isn't it much more likely that monogamy happened to develop in one culture but not in the other (for whatever cultural or anthropological reasons), and that the respective moral views emerged as a result
Opposition to the Argument from Relativity can, broadly speaking, take two forms. First, one might deny the empirical premise, arguing that moral disagreement is not really as widespread as it is often made out to be, or at least arguing that much of the conspicuous disagreement masks extensive moral agreement at a deeper level (a level pertaining to more fundamental moral principles). Mackie makes some brief remarks in response to this argument (1977: 37). Second, one might accept the phenomenon of moral disagreement at face value but deny that the best explanation of this favors the error theory. Often both strategies are deployed side by side. 
Aaron and Chelsea characterize Mackie's argument in slightly different ways and theirs are different from the way that it's put in the SEP.  It will thus be helpful for our discussion to consider more formal/precise statements of Mackie's argument.  Following the SEP entry, here's one way to put the argument:

Mackie's Argument from Relativity (or, better, Argument from Disagreement)
(1) There is genuine (and seemingly intractable) moral disagreement. (This is an empirical observation that Mackie made.) 

(2) One explanation for this disagreement is that there are objective moral truths/facts and some cultures have inferior epistemic access to these facts than others, i.e., some cultures are better when it comes to recognizing the moral facts than others.  On this view, some cultures are correct in making certain moral claims while others are incorrect.  

(3) Another explanation of moral disagreement is that there are no objective moral truths, and that moral disagreement is simply a result of cultures developing differently.  Some cultures developed in such a way that monogamy is deemed morally good and others didn't develop in this way.  On this view, there is no "right" answer when it comes to a moral issue--neither party in a moral dispute is correct or incorrect.  

(4) The explanation described in (3) is a better explanation of moral disagreement than the one described in (2). This is because it's simpler (not as many entities need to be credenced, etc.) and it involves a more plausible causal story about why there is moral disagreement (i.e., it's more plausible to think that anthropological/sociological facts lead to moral disagreement than that disagreement is due to different cultures having varying degrees of epistemic access to the moral facts that exist).  

(5) Therefore, we ought to think that the explanation in (3) is the correct explanation.  So, we should think that there are no objective moral facts/truths.  

(6) If there are no objective moral truths, then no moral claims are true.

This might not be the best way to characterize Mackie's argument.  Feel free to comment on this post if you think there's a more accurate way to put it.  In addition, independent from considerations about textual accuracy/being sure that we're characterizing Mackie's argument correctly, is there a more powerful way to put the argument?  In other words, is there a more powerful way to show that error theory ought to be accepted from the premise that moral disagreements exists?  

And let's not forget Aaron and Chelsea's posts.  They didn't put Mackie's argument in premise-conclusion form. How might we more formally phrase the argument as they characterize it?  In addition, how might their objections be applied to the formulation of Mackie's argument above?  Would they claim that the explanation in (2) is actually to be preferred over the one in (3)?  What justification might one have for this?  

It will be easier if all comments related to Mackie's argument are made to this post.  

And thanks to Aaron and Chelsea for volunteering to go first as guest bloggers.


Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating discussion!

I would like to make a few brief comments about premise (1): There is genuine (and seemingly intractable) moral disagreement. (This is an empirical observation that Mackie made.)

As this is an empirical issue, it should be noted that there have been a plethora of cross-cultural studies of moral judgments conducted by a number of investigators from the field of evolutionary ethics and evolutionary psychology (see Patrinovich (among a number of others, including Tooby and Cosmides at UC Santa Barbara).

The idea is that our moral attitudes and judgments have been shaped over the course of the evolution of the human mind and human nature (see also Pinker who has written extensively on this topic). The findings suggest quite strongly that, when given moral dilemmas of various sorts, there are common principles that are applied and appealed to that are consistent across widely different cultures.

The point is that, "appearances may be deceiving" and that one needs to look more closely at what values underlie cultural practices.

T Stoehr said...

I thought that Chelsea's description of Mackie's piece was very astute. Mackie's account does seem to reflect moral relativism; a concept in which I fully believe. Yes, there are certain acts that a majority of people would define as "wrong" or "immoral", but the fact that there will always be at least one individual, or even an entire culture, who commends these actions supports his claim that there are no objective values.

I found his definition of "objective" very interesting. My initial thought was that "objective values" would be those that everyone can agree upon as being either right or wrong. But, as Aaron pointed out, objectivity, according to Mackie, are those values that are recognized as inherently good or bad at face-value. I think this definition is much more accurate and valuable when discussing the nature of certain moral judgments. If we can identify which principles, at their core, are accepted as "morally right", Mackie's argument for objectivity would be simpler. However, discerning which basic principles are inherently right or wrong seems to be just as difficult as judging actions to be right or wrong. Won't various individuals disagree over these as well? Though our "moral intuition" is supposed to account for the rightness or wrongness of various actions, it seems that moral disagreement would still exist amongst individuals.

I often struggle with accepting the conclusion of the argument as Jesse put it, i.e. that since there are no objective moral truths, then no moral claims are true. If we are granting that various cultures accept different actions to be right, then I'd be inclined to say that they are, in fact, true (though maybe only for that culture or individual). Though there might not be objective, universal truths, I still think its plausible to accept something as true for one's self, or for a particular culture. I dont see the need to or importance of establishing definitive, true moral claims. If various individuals disagree about the morality of abortion, so be it! I think each individual is entitled to his or her own "truth" of moral claims, and that Mackie's support of error theory is too dismissive of individual beliefs.

P. Stephens said...

I agree with Chelsea R.'s conclusion that disagreements do not imply a lack of truth.

I think that this disagreement fits in best with one of my qualms with Mackie's Argument from Disagreement, as outlined above.

Premise 5 is absolute hogwash. It seems to me that Mackie has successfully laid out two particular explanations for why something might be the case, and then after refuting one, stating that the other is OBVIOUSLY the case. I don't suggest that Mackie attempt to give every explanation for why moral disagreements exist, for such a list could be endless. Nonetheless, it seems that premise 2.5 could be "another explanation for moral disagreement is that the truth value of a moral statement relies SOLELY, due to the laws of nature, upon what the speaker believes." This would suggest that two people in a disagreement would both be correct.

This seems absurd, but if we pretend for a minute that it is true, we see that the moral statements implied from both sides of the argument are not necessarily false. In fact, these contradictory statements would both be true. Since this radical form of subjectivism has its own problems, I am not arguing for it here...just suggesting that Mackie has purposefully excluded endless possibilities.

Cassy K. said...

I think it's important to note that just because there's moral disagreement doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't a fact of the matter. So to say that moral disagreement is solid support for Mackie here might not be entirely accurate.

I share the same struggle, though. I am not sure if I'm entirely clear on what it means to be "true for the individual" - objective subjective truths? Is that different from subjective objective truths? (And now, by even thinking that thought, I've totally confused myself.)

I would however say, in response, that I think the importance of discussing definitive, "true" moral claims is that - like it or not - that is how our society is constructed. Whether or not morality is subjective, there becomes a need for objective moral structure when people live amongst other people. It becomes important to establish when killing someone is murder and when it's self-defense, for instance.

So I know this response strayed a bit from Mackie, but it was just a thought I had about some of the fundamental aspects of his argument here.

Anonymous said...

Here's something to consider.

Suppose there WAS universal agreement across cultures (contrary to Mackie's observation) about what actions are deemed right or wrong and also universal agreement about ethical principles or values that underlie these judgments. What would this show?

Would it necessarily follow that there was some "fact of the matter" in regard to ethical judgments? Or would it simply follow that human nature was shaped in such a way (by evolution) that people make the same ethical observations and think similarly about morality?

Heirron said...

The previous comment points to one of the most significant difficulties I have with objectivism (taken as the thesis that there are mind-independent moral truths). It seems obvious to me that even if there were universal agreement on all ethical matters, nothing would be proved. It certainly would not follow that objective moral truths exist, since it is conceivable that there could be universal agreement without them, and it also would not follow that objective moral truths do not exist, since it is possible that such truths would be the cause of such agreement. Given this, my problem with objectivism is that it seems extraordinarily difficult to find evidence for or against it. The problem is compounded by the availability of appeals to faulty moral intuitions as a means of explaining, for instance, disagreements. Furthermore, given our quite limited cognition and general propensity to err, such appeals are quite reasonable.

I am therefore inclined to deny premise (4), and an alternate version of premise (4) that advocates premise (2), because, for all we can tell, any evidence we might gather about people and the way they behave is simply irrelevant to deciding the question of whether or not there are objective moral truths. Also, given our epistemic fallibility and the relative inaccessibility of moral truths (as opposed to physical objects, for instance), any conceptual or intuitive evidence is not to be trusted either. Thus, it is impossible to find a means of deciding the matter one way or the other since any evidence we might gather is inadmissible.

Anonymous said...

Of course, an important idea that we are dealing with in our discussion of ethics is that of "FACT OF THE MATTER."

Consider someone saying that a certain painting is beautiful. Is there a fact of the matter that makes this true?

Well, suppose that psychologists and neurobiologists discover that certain properties of paintings (that produce certain brain states)(e.g., symmetry, contrast of color, expanse of spacial images, etc.) are aspects of paintings that universally underlie such judgments. If one could argue that this MEANT by saying that some painting is "beautiful," then there IS a fact of the matter.

Does this involve the naturalist fallacy fallacy?

Chelsea R. said...

I struggle with accepting this argument. It seems to me that it only functions as persuasive to people who share Mackie's error theorist beliefs.
To broaden the scope and strength of "The Argument from Relativity," I think Mackie should have put more emphasis on the consequences of cultures disagreeing. Yes- cultures have different morals and beliefs, but this disagreement doesn't eradicate objective truths. What might be more convincing is that there is no concrete way to tell who is right. We can fight about it until the cows come home, but in the end we can't come out with a clear right and wrong for every moral problem that cultures disagree on.
These moral debates are infinite. Mackie could have played on this idea; he could have showed the futility in arguing but never being able to reach a conclusion. If you can't win or lose, why keep disagreeing? Infinite moral arguments make error theory more appealing because it settles the debate. This lends a tad bit more solidity to this argument for me.