Monday, February 25, 2013

Michael Smith’s Argument for God

 **This is from guest blogger, Patrick S.**

In “Ethical Theory:  An Anthology”, Russ Shafer-Landau includes an article of Michael Smith’s arguing for moral realism.  This article gives some constructive thought to moral realism, with some exceptional points on the flaws of the standard picture of human psychology, yet its final reasoning for why one should believe in the objectivity of moral facts is flawed.

Smith argues that moral disagreements might be useful to his philosophy, only insofar as that they can morph into moral agreement.  Smith shows multiple times throughout the article that there are many different reasons for believing in moral facts, but without absolute proof.  He admits that many philosophers believe in the possibility that our reasons for action, and so the moral truths upon which we base those actions, are fundamentally relative, differing from person to person.  Even so, he pushes for his view, arguing that the answer might lie in the result of a moral disagreement.  If one moral disagreement can end in such a way that person “A” has convinced person “B” that the belief of “A” is correct, then it is possible that person “B” was mistaken in their original belief and that person “A” had true knowledge of the moral fact in question.

The tricky bit about this journey towards truth, argues Smith, is that it would imply that everyone’s views could eventually converge on the moral truth at hand.  This is the weak link in the argument.  If convergence upon a belief were data in favor of realism, then one could use the argument in favor of the existence of the Judeo-Christian God.  Not having studied religion extensively, I cannot delve into the details with any accuracy, but I am fairly certain that people have convinced other people to convert religions in the history of the world.  If everyone were to converge upon a single God, would Smith argue that this is evidence for truth in the matter of the fact of God’s existence?  As Smith discounts the idea of the Judeo-Christian God in the article, I would venture to guess that the answer is “no”.  Perhaps my analogy between his argument for moral facts and an argument for the existence of god is far-fetched, but certainly no more far-fetched than the argument itself.  One might argue that the world’s population has never believed in the same God…but the same population has probably been closer to a uniform belief in God than it has been to a belief in objective moral truths.


Cassy K. said...

I definitely think there's something to your point here. It almost seems like a complement to the "just because we haven't come to a consensus doesn't mean there isn't a truth of the matter" argument. What if person A is just an especially clever manipulator? What if they're a great public speaker? Or, more generally, what if we just get it wrong? I don't think Smith has proven necessarily that convergence=truth. We can converge on all sorts of things, and often times those things do turn out to be untrue. I mean, when my best friend in 7th grade broke up with her boyfriend we converged on the fact that he would never find someone better. And now he's engaged to a model and she ended up getting pregnant after high school. So I guess I'll leave "the fact of the matter" in this case up to you to determine.

(Also, this thought experiment is actually a completely true story.)

Claire Stein said...

My question is whether a person can ever actually convince someone that their moral belief was mistaken and get them to decide that they were wrong. It doesn't seem like moral intuition can be something that we would consider falsifiable. Say person A supports the use of abortions in cases where the mothers life is in jeopardy and person B thinks abortions are impermissible always. Person A may give person B all kinds of empirical evidence as to why an abortion is a better option than jeopardizing the mothers life, but person B could still say, no, I understand the empirical evidence but my gut reaction is still to say that abortions are always impermissible for these other empirical reasons. So while person A and B may reach some understanding between them about certain facts, that doesn't mean that they will reach a consensus with the ultimate conclusion they derive from those facts. Perhaps this shows that subjectivity of morality, especially if we want to grant moral intuition as a valid form of moral reasoning.

Anonymous said...

Many moral disagreements come about because some of our moral principles conflict with one another in difficult cases. For example, we hold "autonomy" to be an important moral value. But we also think that some principle like "utility" is to be followed. We also often appeal to a principle of "justice." What happens in morally difficult situations is that these principles conflict and compete with one another. (After all, that's what makes such cases the basis for moral disagreement.) So, people can argue about which principle 'trumps' another, and how this is to be resolved conclusively is a major problem for ethical theory.

Anonymous said...

More simply put, the idea that there might be universal agreement regarding the truth of some proposition shows that such a proposiiton captures some fact of the matter is wrong-headed.

Whether a proposition corresponds to some fact about the world depends on there being a state of affairs that in virtue of which the proposition is true. The problem here is with the meaning of "in virtue of which."