A position statement on metaethics (or, the package deal fallacy)

“Metaethics” means taking a step away from standard ethical-slash-moral questions (is abortion morally permissible? is it permissible to bomb civilians if it will end the war sooner and prevent a greater number of deaths?) and asking questions about the questions. Do we know the answers to any moral questions? If so, how do we know them? Do moral statements even express claims that could be true or false? If they are do, are any of the moral claims people ordinarily make true? And so on. I’ve struggled with these kinds of questions for a long time, but I’ve finally gotten a straightforward personal position statement on them.

Here it is: with a solid majority of the meta-ethical questions I’ve heard in my life, I have no idea what to say about them. Nevertheless, what is definitely not true is that right and wrong is simply a matter of what some person or persons says or thinks. For example, cutting off the clitorises of little girls couldn’t be right for some culture simply because they believe it’s right in that culture. And even if there were a god, he couldn’t make genocide right simply on his say-so. Views that say otherwise are completely crazy.

The end.

The epiphany I’ve had here–and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get straight in my head–is that the question of whether right and wrong is simply a matter of what some person or persons says or thinks is a different question than other questions. Therefore, if that’s the main question we care about, we don’t have to worry so much about the other questions, because the answers to the other questions mostly don’t entail an answer to the question we care about.

Wee!

I tend to have little patience for people who insist on confusing the question of whether there are any gods with other issues. But when I find myself screwing an issue like this up, I wonder if there may be a major human cognitive bias lurking somewhere in the area. A hard-wired tendency to see individual claims not as individual claims, but as package deals that must stand or fall together. While I’m no fan of Ayn Rand, I have to say she beat me to this one.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    Nevertheless, what is definitely not true is that right and wrong is simply a matter of what some person or persons says or thinks. … Views that say otherwise are completely crazy.

    To me, that looks an awful lot like the argument from incredulity. You look at moral horrors, and ask, how can this not be wrong in a way beyond human judgment? A religious believer circles his arm at all of existence, and asks, how can there not be a god behind all this? The two questions are different. But the argument looks familiar.

    ..couldn’t be right for some culture simply because they believe it’s right in that culture.

    Even if all morality is a matter of human judgment, that does not mean there is an equivalence among those judgments. Some moral outlooks have grown through liberal and critical discussion, including examination of views from different cultures, incorporate meta-principles such as reciprocity and autonomy, and take account of what we know about human psychology. Others are little more than tradition and religion. We make all sorts of distinctions of human judgment.

  • Sam C

    Nevertheless, what is definitely not true is that right and wrong is simply a matter of what some person or persons says or thinks. For example, cutting off the clitorises of little girls couldn’t be right for some culture simply because they believe it’s right in that culture.

    So where do you draw the line between these “absolutely bad” things and just “bad in my opinion” things?

    I think it’s important to understand how relative these things are and how much we are all a product of our times. I’m against slavery, but would I have been if I had been brought up 200 years ago? Especially if my only contact with blacks was seeing cargoes of miserable bedraggled slaves being herded like cattle to a slave ship? I hope I would be against it, but I’m not arrogant enough to be convinced that I would.

    Carrying on with slavery: OK, we’re against slavery, it’s bad. What about the military draft? Oh, I know there are legal prescriptions saying that it’s not slavery, but clearly it’s a case of somebody being forced to do a job against their will, so it’s a form of logic-chopping to re-define it as not-slavery, isn’t it?

    And what about freedom of religion? It’s abusive to physically mutilate a child, but what about mentally abusing children by indoctrinating their susceptible minds with the myths of the family’s or society’s religion? I could see circumstances where that might be felt to be more abusive than physical harm.

    The list of things that are undeniably wrong in any vaguely civilised society is rather short; your example of genital mutilation is one of the very few examples that I would accept. Many American ideals, such as freedom of speech, simply do not translate around the world.

  • Richard Wein

    Therefore, if that’s the main question we care about, we don’t have to worry so much about the other questions, because the answers to the other questions mostly don’t entail an answer to the question we care about.

    Surely the main question people care about (with regard to moral truth) is which moral claims are true. The main reason for interest in metaethics is that understanding the nature of moral truth would help us to distinguish between true and false moral claims.

    All you’ve done here is deny one crude relativist metaethical view. Even assuming you’re right about that, this just narrows the field. It leaves open the question of which other metaethical view is correct, and does nothing to help distinguish true moral claims from false ones.

    You yourself raise the question of whether any moral statements can be true. But surely the untruth of all your moral beliefs would be just as shocking to you as their being only true in a relativist way. So why do you care about that question any less? Presumably it’s because either (a) you find the non-existence of moral truth even more implausible than moral relativism, or (b) you think that relativism is more popular than rejection of moral truth.

    (My own metaethical view is moral error theory.)

    • Joseph Frantz

      Richard–

      Since I’ve seen eye-to-eye with you when reading your posts about morality (on several blogs), I was wondering if we could exchange emails about moral realism and, in particular, how one should respond to the views of Sam Harris? If so, I can be reached at yotsujoey@hotmail.com. If you’re too busy for an extended dialogue, no big deal.

      Cheers,
      Joseph

  • piero

    I0m afraid my views on this matter are hardly original. I tend to agree with everuthing Sam Harris has said in this respect.

    First, we start with the recognition that no human being likes suffering, whether physical or psychological. That’s just a fact of nature. We are biological machines designed to survive, and hence to perceive pain as a threat to our survival, and hence to avoid it.

    Should I care about the pain of others? Yes. But how I justify that answer might depend on what sort of person I am. I might be the kind of person who is severely distressed by other people’s suffering, and that’s justification enough, because I don’t want to suffer: if other people’s suffering causes me to suffer, then I should try to avoid that occurrence. On the other hand, I might be a sociopath who doesn’t give a shit about other people. Yet, if I am a reasonable sociopath (sorry for the apparent oxymoron), I should be in favour of restrictions to sociopathic behaviour simply because I might otherwise become the victim of aome other, stronger or more powerful sociopath.

    Notice that I’m not trying to establish a value-scale for human beings, because both the sensitive, concerned person and the sociopath act in their own interest: they both want to avoid suffering, and for both of them the best strategy is to adopt some rules of conduct that will (hopefully) minimize suffering.

    Chopping off bits of girls’ genitalia is obviously “less than fully conducive to human well-being”, as Harris understates it. Even if I was totally insensitive, I should oppose such practices because they open the way to chopping hands and heads off too, and there is no guarantee I’ll be able to evade such fate throughout the course of my life.

    In the last analysis, everyone benefits from the enforcement of rules that forbid the infliction of pain or suffering upon others.

    What about those who refuse to obey the rules? What about mass murderers, torturers, etc? Well, I believe this will be unacceptable to Chris and most readeres of this blog, but such cases should be subject to scientific scrutiny; if the informed expert opinion of specialists suggests that there is a possible treatment, then such people should undergo the recommended treatment. Otherwise, or if the treatment proves ineffective, they should be executed. To me it does not make any sense to keep them locked away for life: keeping alive a person who has in fact no life is just a waste of resources and probably more cruel than death. Besides, those resources could be better employed keeping alive people who suffer from grave illnesses and currently cannot afford the required therapy.