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Normativity - Reductivist naturalist moral realism

1. Simplistic analytic reductionism and Moore’s open-question argument

On a simplistic analytic reductionalism, basic moral terms mean the same thing as basic natural terms (or basic combinations of natural terms). G. E. Moore (Principia Ethica, 1903) provides an argument against this kind of reductive naturalism. Take the claim:

(1) moral goodness means pleasure Moore asks us to imagine someone asking: (2) X is pleasant, but is it morally good?

Moore thinks that this question has an ‘open feel’, and thus that the analytic reduction cannot be right, for if it were correct the question would instead be ‘closed’. And Moore thinks that the same point would apply no matter which natural property or set of natural properties were proposed. (Nb. Moore is not claiming that we would always answer questions like (2) negatively. The question is ‘open’ because even when we think that it should be answered affirmatively, we still think there is a genuine question being raised.) For further (critical) discussion of Moore’s argument, see e.g. Miller (2003: Chapter 2).

2. Synthetic reductive naturalism

This has been developed in particular by Railton (see his ‘Moral Realism’ in the CP). Railton thinks that moral terms are identical to certain (sets of) natural properties as a matter of a posteriori synthetic fact. Cf.:

(1) All bachelors are unmarried males. (2) Noel is a bachelor. (3) Water is H20 (1) holds analytically (true in virtue of the meanings of its component terms) and is known a priori (can be known without checking the world). (2), if true, holds both synthetically (not true in virtue of meanings of terms) and is known a posteriori (only by checking the world: Noel is a friend of mine). (3) also seems to hold synthetic a posteriori. Nevertheless, it seems that water is identical to H20. Railton thinks that moral properties are identical to natural properties in the way that water is identical to H20, not as a matter of analytic fact. He is thus a synthetic naturalist.

Synthetic naturalists need not be reductive naturalists. (Cornell realists are synthetic naturalists, but think that moral properties are multiply realised by natural properties.) Railton thinks that moral properties are identical to natural properties. This means that reference to moral properties could in principle be replaced by natural properties without explanatory loss. But just because water could, without explanatory loss, be replaced by H20 does not mean that we should in every context eliminate talk of water. Railton’s two kinds of reduction: eliminatory (e.g. ‘polywater’ to ‘ordinary-water-containing-some-impurities-from-improperly-washed-glassware’) and vindicatory (e.g. water to H20, which ‘reinforces, rather than impugns, our sense that there really is water’ (Railton, ‘Naturalism and Prescriptivity’ Social Philosophy and Policy,1989: 161).

3. An agent’s non-moral good

Railton’s strategy is first to provide an account of non-moral value and then extend this to the moral case. The account of ‘non-moral value’ that Railton has in mind is the idea of something being ‘desirable for someone’ or ‘good for him’ (173). Railton introduces a distinction between an actual agent (= ‘A’) and a version of that agent who possesses ‘unqualified cognitive and imaginative powers, and full factual and nomological information about his physical and psychological constitution, capacities, circumstances, history, and so on … and his environment’ (= ‘A+’) (1986: 174). He then suggests that we ask not: what A+ currently wants, but: what A+ would want A to want or to seek. Why so? ‘Because we are seeking the objectified subjective interests of A, and the interests of A+ might be quite different owing to the changes involved in the idealisation of A’ (174n15). He then distinguishes between an agent’s subjective interests, the agent’s ‘wants or desires, conscious or unconscious’ (173), which he likens to a secondary quality (such as taste), and the reduction basis which these subjective interests supervene on. This is:

[the] primary qualities of the perceiver, the object (or other phenomenon) perceived, and the surrounding context: the perceiver is so constituted that this sort of object in this sort of context will excite that sort of sensation (173).

The reduction basis of the secondary quality (the agent’s subjective interests), then, is a ‘complex set of relational, dispositional, primary qualities’. Equally, Railton characterises what A+ would want for A as A’s ‘objectified subjective interests’ and suggests that the reduction basis for A’s objectified subjective interests is: those facts about A and his circumstances that A+ would combine with his general knowledge in arriving at his views about what he would want to want were he to step into A’s shoes (174).

So the reduction basis ‘is the constellation of primary qualities’ that make it the case that A has a certain objective interest. We can now say that the reduction basis for A’s objective interests is what makes what is in A’s objective interests actually be in A’s objective interests. Railton then suggests: Let us now say that X is non-morally good for A if and only if X would satisfy an objective interest of A (176).

This notion of an agent’s non-moral good provides a notion of an agent’s good that is agent-relative (what is good for me might not be good for you), and yet is ‘independent’, i.e. ‘exists and has certain determinate features independent of whether we think it exists or has those features’ (172), and also something that we are capable of interacting with, that can ‘shape’ or ‘control’ our perceptions and thought.

4. Synthetic reductive naturalistic moral realism

Railton then tries to extend his account to the moral sphere. He begins with a general account of moral resolutions or norms: moral resolutions are thought to be determined by criteria of choice that are non-indexical and in some sense comprehensive. This has led a number of philosophers to seek to capture the special character of moral evaluation by identifying a moral point of view that is impartial, but equally concerned with all those potentially affected … [M]oral norms reflect a certain kind of rationality, rationality not from the point of view of any particular individual, but from what might be called a social point of view. (190)

Railton means this general characterisation to be compatible with a variety of substantive ethical views (utilitarians, Kantians, or even non-cognitivists), but he wants to argue for a particular kind of moral theory. He introduces a new idealisation, namely, what would be rationally approved of were the interests of all potentially affected individuals counted equally under circumstances of full and vivid information. (190)

He notes that because of the assumption of full and vivid information, the interests in question will be objective interests. And yet:

Given the account of goodness [just considered], this idealisation is equivalent to what is rational from a social point of view with regard to the realisation of intrinsic non-moral goodness. (190-191)

Miller (2003: 196) offers the following characterisation of how Railton’s notion of moral rightness might go: X is morally right if and only if x would be approved of by an ideally instrumentally rational and fully informed agent considering the question ‘How best to maximise the amount of non-moral goodness?’ from a social point of view in which the interests of all potentially affected individuals were counted equally.

The reduction basis, then, is still non-moral goodness, but it is the non-moral goodness of all potentially affected individuals, where each individual is treated equally. Thus Railton is simultaneously trying to defend a reductive naturalist account of moral realism and some kind of consequentialist theory in normative ethics. (And he goes on to attempt to illustrate how his notion of moral rightness can participate in explanations of behaviour or in processes of moral learning that work in analogous ways to how they work in the individual case.)

5. Some questions:

(1) Doesn’t Railton also face a problem about ‘noble realism’ (see HO to last lecture)? (2) Is the notion of someone’s fully informed A+ really intelligible?

Reference: To follow up analytical moral functionalism (a modern version of analytical reductionism), see various articles by Jackson, F. and Petit, P., e.g. ‘Moral functionalism and Moral motivation’, The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 45. No 178, 1995: 20-40. For synthetic naturalism, see Railton’s ‘Moral Realism’ in the CP. See also Miller, A., An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, 2003, Chapter 9.

Realism and Normativity


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