Rejecting And Reconciling Moral Intuitionist Ideas With My Naturalist Account Of Goodness

Rejecting And Reconciling Moral Intuitionist Ideas With My Naturalist Account Of Goodness January 30, 2011

In reply to my post, Against Moral Intuitionism, James Gray defended his moral intuitionist leanings against my attacks on them.  He starts by quoting me:

But many people can be and have been persuaded that goodness is not a property of things but rather of people’s attitudes towards them. The very existence of anti-realists about the existence of good means that moral realists cannot just appeal to a “highly intuitive” notion that goodness is a simple property.

The notion that goodness is irreducible is what is at issue. The belief that goodness is reducible is a very strange idea to me. I have discussed why. In particular, I don’t know how someone could ever know that “Goodness is X” rather than the more modest claim: “When there is X, there is goodness.”

Here our disagreement is clearest.  In my view, you are confusedly reifying goodness. It is a genus term, that is why we use it related to multiple kinds of things—not because it is a distinct kind of entity, distinguishable from instances of effectiveness, usefulness, pleasantness, etc.  The reason that not all instances of pleasure or usefulness are properly instances of the genus is because they do not have the essential component that marks all members of the genus.  I think I have specifically and defensibly identified that marker as effectiveness.

If we can, as I argue, analyze the other rightful cases of goodness attribution to cases of effectivenesses according to beings’ characteristic functionalities, then we can properly demystify and disambiguate the word “good”, understand it in factual terms, and eliminate the confusion which leads to anti-realisms.  And we can do this without having to posit any mysterious “non-natural property” of goodness itself and without dubiously equating our biological or cultural preferences with goodness itself.

James’s next remark is again a reply to something I said.  He quotes me again:

The existence of real goodness is a fact which must be demonstrated to be believed, just as much as the existence of God would need to be demonstrated if it is to be believed. The vast majority of humans claim an “intuition” of God, but it is not enough to make it even probably true. We can and must do much better with respect to good, for goodness’s sake.

We experience that pleasure is good. We all agree on that. We don’t all agree that we experience God.

I would wager that at least as many (if not more) people who doubt the real existence of God doubt the real existence of good.  Many people think pleasure is just something we like and that’s all that good means.  And besides such emotivist views, there are error theorists who need to be taken seriously when they claim that it is possible that we think in terms of goodness but that it refers to no true or objective thing in reality.

This is very persuasive to a lot of well informed, rational people.  Just insisting without demonstration that our minds are indeed reliably engaging an independent reality when they think in terms of “goodness” and that the concept refers to something real and distinguishable from our preferences, is unhelpful dogmatism.  That is why objective goodness must either be grounded in facts or defined the way error theorists or emotivists do.

James continues, then quotes me, and replies again to me:

Whether or not pleasure is experienced as an irreducible “intrinsic” good is certainly something you can question and I’ve already argued in detail why I think such a thing. In fact, I can’t imagine it being otherwise. My argument is here:

If goodness cannot, given its concept, be an objectively observable natural property or a natural relationship among properties (which is my view), then they are likely to wind up emotivists or error theorists or some other form of subjectivists or anti-realist relativists. (And MacIntrye in After Virtue makes a strong case that this is precisely what happened in the 20th Century, Moore’s moral intuitionism led dialectically straight to emotivism).

You are confusing empiricism with the view that we can’t experience our own thoughts and mental content. Yes, we can observe that pleasure is good. That’s why I said we can experience it.

If people don’t know how to deal with simple experiences, that’s their problem. I think it’s easy to understand. I experience that I have thoughts. I think that’s a pretty “simple experience” and it doesn’t mean that my thoughts are hallucinations or delusional.

No it is not just “their problem”, you have to come up with an actual argument beyond “I understand the intuition better than you do”.  And, no, you are not hallucinating or deluded, no one is claiming that.  Those are loaded words.  The issue is that just because humans are wired to think with certain moral categories does not mean that they necessarily exist in fact any more than mere conventions do.

Many other species clearly have totally different sets of characteristic and highly valued behaviors.  To say that moralities are something beyond our own species’ evolved sets of norms, which exist merely for their usefulness for survival but with no further sanction as having “true value”, requires serious argument.  It is question-begging to just appeal to our accepted conventions or the intuitions that stem from participating in them as a basis for believing they have any justification outside themselves.

James quotes me again:

To say that good is self-evident goodness is just empty tautology.

I disagree. I don’t think 1+1=2 is an empty tautology, but seems like it could be self evident (if anything is). Self-evidence could have to do with conceptual analysis and so forth.

Additionally, what is self-evident isn’t necessarily unprovable or incompatible with empirical observation.

To say it is philosophically (and not merely practically) “self-evident” that pleasure is good is more emptiness without a definition of goodness.

We can define goodness in circular ways, but morality (or “value”) isn’t necessarily reducible to the non-moral (or non-evaluative).

I do not equate the non-moral with the non-evaluative.  There are many value judgments that have nothing to do with morality.  These value judgments track real relationships of human-independent value.  Value is a constitutive feature of reality (in the form of inherent relationships of effectiveness), whereas moralities are biologically and culturally evolved sets of specific value attitudes with certain varying degrees of objectively determinable objective worths.

We can define “goodness” in indexical ways. I can point to the “how it feels” of pleasure. In particular, the positive feeling. There might be a similarity here in that it’s good for pleasure to exist just like that it’s good for human life to exist.

Positive is just a synonym for goodness.  To say pleasure is a positive feeling is to say it is a good feeling but then the word good needs further definition if it is to add any more information than we already know from saying “pleasure is enjoyable”.  When people say pleasure is a positive or a good feeling I just think they really mean that they like it and it is something they approve of and think others like them would approve of too if they experienced it.

If they are challenged to really defend pleasure’s objective merits for a human life or a given context in a given human life, then out come the necessary appeals to pleasure’s effective contributions towards goods that go beyond itself, i.e. the goods of humanly functioning in its intrinsically valuable, characteristically effective ways.

I get that you are developing a real and recognizable intuition that we think of goodness distinctly as its own evaluation category distinguishable from related particular goods and categories of judgment.  In other words, it is definitely true that when our minds make the judgment of “good” this is a distinct judgment from “pleasant”, “useful”, “desired”, and, even, “effective”.  It is a more general category of judgment which means, as far as I can tell, “something to embrace and/or pursue”.   And “bad” refers to the more general category of judgment “something to be rid of and/or to avoid”.

The mind is inclined to think in these broadly pro/con categories, distinguishable from the various kinds of experiences which properly stimulate pro and con attitudes in us.  So, G.E. Moore’s famous “Open Question” argument is on to something when he says with every pleasure or usefulness, or desire, etc. we have to ask ourselves “but is it good?” insofar as for every pleasure, usefulness, or desire we can ask ourselves “is it something truly to embrace?”

That is certainly how our minds make the judgment “goodness” or “badness”. But what I want to argue is that this mechanism of judgment in simple categories of “that which should be embraced” (goodness) and “that which should be avoided” (bad) tracks no truth if there are not objective, mind-independent facts about what should be embraced and why and what should be avoided and why.  And these facts may explain what makes for objective value and what makes the genuinely good things worth embracing may be strange sounding within our automatic mental associations.  In our minds, while experiencing them, we intuitively experience pleasure as intrinsically, immediately, and obviously something to embrace and pain as intrinsically, immediately, and obviously something to avoid, for example, and so be inclined to call pleasure intrinsically good and pain intrinsically bad.

But I want to argue that the objective value truth about when, where, and how to embrace pleasure and to avoid pain is much more complicated than our subjective responses to them.  This counterintuitively (but quite logically) qualifies in objective terms, our best, most reliable subjective valuing tendency to think pleasure intrinsically good and pain intrinsically bad.  While it is objectively good that we subjectively respond with distress at pain and feel it as intrinsically bad so it can do what it does properly, we can from an objective, external standpoint also realize that it is indispensably good for our overall functioning—when it occurs at the best and most effective times and ways for enhancing that functioning.

Of course excessive quantities or intensities of pain which thwart our functioning well are evils—but so are such pleasures which have that effect.  The litmus test of the worth of pleasures and pains, both in general and in specific, are not our subjective inclinations to embrace or avoid them but, rather, more objectively, the ways they effectively, ineffectively, or counter-productively help us function well as human beings, in our most essential powers.

On a practical level, speaking and thinking in shorthand, of course w can say “pleasure is obviously good”. But to explain what makes it good and in what ways it is good—especially when, again practically, there are clear cases in which it is not good in a shorthand way—requires a clear account of what goodness is (one much better than a “simple property” which tells us nothing) and what pleasure’s goodness is (which goes beyond inferring from the fact we like it so much that this makes it “self-evidently” good by itself in a decisive objective sense).

I don’t know that basic properties tell us nothing, but if that’s your definition, then goodness isn’t basic.

I think you have an overly narrow view of self-evidence and what it means for something to be basic. Self-evidence is something that can potentially be explained and understood, even if it’s difficult to do so. Same with being basic.

We all must rely on some self-evident intuitions if thinking is to occur.  And, yes, we can give accounts of these where we disagree about them and they sometimes do produce agreements.  My point is that we need to go deeper into uncontested territory to find self-evident truths that can form a basis for agreement here.  I think that everyone grasps a hypothetical imperative, everyone self-evidently accepts the use of the word good which means nothing more than “x is effective at making y happen” or “if x did not do activity y it simply would not, conceptually speaking be x at all”.

I think these intuitions I employ are much more self-evident than that goodness is a simple, irreducible, non-natural or natural property in reality which is completely distinguishable from all the species of good things (and not just a general category for encompassing all of them when they are indeed objectively effective to our purposes).  I think I am taking intuitions that even the anti-realist can accept (and often implicitly does accept as part of traditional denials of objective goodness) and am extrapolating from them their logical implications.  I think that the one definition of value which even those who do not  believe in categorical imperatives accept can be used to explain in a non-reductionistic way how categorical imperatives derive some real and binding value (even if it is not actually a categorical kind).

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