The moral fixed points: new directions for moral nonnaturalism

The following is a summary of a recent paper by Terence Cuneo and Russ Shafer-Landau (C&SL) “The moral fixed points: new directions for moral nonnaturalism”.  They present a new view on moral nonnaturalism and show how it is able to respond to common metaphysical and epistemological objections to nonnaturalism.  Their central thesis is that there are substantive moral propositions—which they call moral fixed points—and that they are nonnaturalistic conceptual truths.  Surprisingly, this view on nonnatural truths can be adopted by both moral naturalists and moral nonnaturalists.

1 Nonnaturalism characterized

C&SL suggest that natural concepts are concepts that play an explanatory role in the sciences.  Rather than giving necessary and sufficient conditions for the distinction between the naturalism and nonnaturalism, they offer a list to illustrate the distinction.   Natural entities would include (1) objects such as protons and light waves, (2) properties such as being green or being in pain, and (3) concepts such as ‘negative charge’ and ‘being angry’.  Nonnatural entities would include (1) objects such as God or practical reasons, (2) properties such as being morally wrong and being unreasonable, and (3) concepts such as ‘being intrinsically valuable’ and ‘being sublime.’

The Core Claim: there are nonnatural moral truths, where a nonnatural moral truth is a true moral proposition that is not identical with or made true exclusively by some natural fact.

While the Core Claim commits itself to the existence of nonnatural truths, it remains silent on the existence of nonnatural properties or facts.  C&SL distinguish between true propositions and facts.  Propositions are representational entities but facts are not; facts are what is represented.  Under the correspondence view, facts are what make propositions true.   Depending on whether you think properties and facts are natural or nonnatural, there are two forms of nonnaturalism:

Minimal nonnaturalism: there are nonnatural moral truths, but there are no nonnatural moral properties or facts. All moral properties and facts are natural.

Robust nonnaturalism: there are both nonnatural moral truths and nonnatural moral properties and facts

C&SL explain their primary thesis:

there is a range of moral propositions, the moral fixed points, which have these two distinguishing features: first, these propositions are constituted by nonnatural moral concepts, and, second, these propositions are not identical with or made true exclusively by natural facts.  Rather, they are true in virtue of the nature of the nonnatural moral concepts that constitute them. Moral fixed points are a species of conceptual truth.

2 Moral fixed points

C&SL define a minimally eccentric moral system as “a reasonably comprehensive and consistent body of moral propositions that apply to beings like us in a world such as ours”.  (The caveat of “beings like us in a world such as ours” is used to protect against bizarre possible worlds where people regenerate right after being killed.)  Necessarily, any minimally eccentric moral system will include moral fixed points such as the following:

  1. It is pro tanto wrong to engage in the recreational slaughter of a fellow person.
  2.  It is pro tanto wrong to break a promise on which another is relying simply for convenience’s sake.
  3.  It is pro tanto wrong to humiliate others simply for pleasure.
  4.  It is pro tanto wrong to torture others just because they have inconvenienced you.

C&SL offer six more but you get the picture.  These moral fixed points set the boundaries that distinguish moral norms from other norms, like aesthetic norms.  Anyone that rejects these moral fixed points would not be engaging in competent moral thinking.

3 The nature of the truth

Recall that the Core Claim is that there are nonnatural truths.  In this section C&SL clarify the nature of truth involved in the Core Claim.  Specifically, they claim that the moral fixed points are a species of conceptual truth.  While they don’t offer a general criterion for whether a proposition p is a conceptual truth, they offer four signs:

  1. If p is true, it is necessarily true.
  2. p fixes the boundaries of the subject matter.  For example, the proposition “God is a perfect being” fixes the boundaries of theological discourse.
  3. p’s denial tends to evoke bewilderment among those competent with the constituent concepts.  For example, denying the conceptual truth that sets are identical if and only if they have the same members would tend to evoke bewilderment.
  4. p is knowable a priori.

C&SL claim that their moral fixed points satisfy these four signs.  Satisfying these four signs do not necessarily entail p is a conceptual truth, only that we have good reason to believe that p is a conceptual truth.

To ward off the worry that conceptual truths are vacuous analytic truths C&SL offer three examples of substantive conceptual truths.

That justified true belief is insufficient for knowledge; that God’s possible existence entails God’s necessary existence; that meaningful statements may be neither empirically verifiable nor analytic—these are substantive truths, surely, and yet also good candidates for being conceptual ones.

Before making more substantive claims, C&SL clarify their view on concepts.  They endorse what they call the traditional view on concepts, which has three characteristics.

  1. Concepts are not mental ideas in the head or linguistic entities.  “Rather, they are abstract, sharable, mind-independent ways of thinking about objects and their properties.”
  2. Concepts are the building blocks of propositions.  Propositions can be constituted by concepts of objects and properties, rather than by objects and properties themselves.
  3. In addition to being the building blocks of propositions, concepts are also “referential devices or ways of getting things in the mind that enable thinkers to refer to things such as objects and properties.”  Consequently, concepts have essences.

According to the traditional view, a proposition <that x is F> is a conceptual truth if it belongs to the essence of ‘F’ that, necessarily, anything that satisfies ‘x’ also satisfies ‘F.’ To see how this works for the moral fixed points, consider the proposition <that recreational slaughter of a fellow person is wrong>. This is a conceptual truth in case it belongs to the essence of the concept ‘being wrong’ that, necessarily, if anything satisfies the concept ‘recreational slaughter’ (of a fellow person) it also satisfies ‘being wrong’ (in a world sufficiently similar to ours).

Based on this traditional view, there is a distinction between conceptual and analytic truths.  Conceptual truths are true in virtue of the essences of their constituent concepts.  By contrast, analytic truths are true in virtue of the meanings of their terms.

If the traditional view of concepts is accepted–meaning conceptual truths are true in virtue of the essences of their constituent concepts—the embellished core claim follows.

The Embellished Core Claim: There are nonnatural moral truths. These truths include the moral fixed points, which are a species of conceptual truth, as they are propositions that are true in virtue of the essences of their constituent concepts.

4 Epistemic implications

I didn’t find any of the points interesting in this section, where they talk about epistemological issues. But they do provide an interesting footnote.

Our view, however, does not imply that it is a conceptual truth that the property of wrongness exists. Rather, it states that it is a conceptual truth that, in worlds like ours and for creatures such as us, the concept ‘being wrong’ is such that, if anything satisfies a concept such as ‘recreational slaughter,’ then it also satisfies the concept ‘being wrong.’ This truth does not itself imply that there is a property of wrongness, let alone that such a property exists as a matter of conceptual necessity.

5 How deep the divide?

In this section C&SL talk about how both naturalists and fellow nonnaturalists can benefit from the “new directions” in the paper.

Benefit for naturalists: C&SL claim that “it is difficult to find naturalists who explicitly reject the claim that moral concepts are nonnatural”.  The traditional view is compatible both with Canberra naturalist and Cornell realist theories on concepts and how they refer.  Naturalists have said relatively little about concepts (sometimes using ‘terms’ instead of ‘concepts’), and, instead, focus on reference.  The core claim of naturalism is that moral properties and facts are natural, but this is compatible with minimal nonnaturalism.

Minimal nonnaturalism: there are nonnatural moral truths, but there are no nonnatural moral properties or facts. All moral properties and facts are natural.

A naturalist can benefit by holding to minimal nonnaturalism: they can avoid the criticism that moral thought is generally not about predicting or causally explaining behavior, but rather evaluating and directing behavior.

Benefit for nonnaturalists: Nonnaturalists can get a robust ontological thesis from the Embellished Core Claim, because moral fixed points are true not because of natural facts but because of the essences of the constituent nonnatural concepts.  But so far there has been no comment about the nature of moral properties and facts, and the nonnaturalist may want a robust nonnaturalism over a minimal nonaturalism.

Robust nonnaturalism: there are both nonnatural moral truths and nonnatural moral properties and facts.

In order to get the more robust view C&SL offer a Reversal Argument.  In a correspondence view, truths correspond to worldly facts; worldly facts are the truth-makers.  But the correspondence view cannot account for the conceptual truths in the traditional view of concepts, because truths are not made true by worldly facts but by the essences of the constituent concepts.  The Reversal Argument reverses the relation in the correspondence view that facts are the truth-makers; rather, truths are fact-makers.  More specifically, moral standards (conceptual truths) such as the moral fixed points are what make it the case that there is a fact that an act or a person has a moral property.  Moreover, this structure of normative facts holds in other normative domains.  For example, the fact that a computer is good because it is fast, robust, etc. is because it satisfies standards of goodness for computers.

There needs to be further argument to show that there are nonnatural moral facts to establish a robust nonnaturalism.  This will depend on two views on how facts are constituted.

  1. Wide account:  moral facts include moral fact-makers such as moral standards.
  2. Narrow account: moral facts are distinct from moral fact-makers

If the wide account is correct, then there are nonnatural moral facts, and something close to robust nonnaturalism is true.  If the narrow account is correct, naturalism may be true.  In any case, while C&SL think naturalism face other obstacles, the difference between minimal and robust naturalism is of secondary importance.  The main point is that there are nonnatural moral truths.

6 Payoffs

In this section C&SL show how their nonnaturalism can handle three famous objections.

The first objection: Moral Disagreement

There are two types of arguments from moral disagreement.

  1. Metaphysical: the best explanation for moral disagreement is that there are no moral truths.
  2. Epistemological: even if there are moral truths, the amount of moral disagreement defeats warrant for our moral beliefs.

The main reply is that among the moral fixed points (e.g. <that it is wrong to engage in the recreational slaughter of a fellow person>) there isn’t much disagreement.  Rather, there is near-universal agreement across times and cultures.

The second objection: Remarkable Coincidence Arguments

The Remarkable Coincidence Argument

  1. There are no contentful conceptual constraints on what can count as a moral norm or a moral system; there is an indefinitely large set of incompatible moral systems, each of which, as a matter of conceptual possibility, may be true.
  2. Evolutionary forces have caused us to endorse only a small subset of all such systems.
  3. If moral nonnaturalism is true, then there is a uniquely correct moral system of stance-independent moral truths.
  4. Given the vast range of conceptually possible moral systems, the odds that evolutionary forces have pushed us to endorse the uniquely correct moral system of stance-independent moral truths are extremely low.
  5. Such odds entail that if moral nonnaturalism is true, then it would be a remarkable coincidence were our moral beliefs largely on target.

To support premise 1, Street (2006) says, “Moreover, as a purely conceptual matter, these independent normative truths might be anything. In other words, for all our bare normative concepts tell us, survival might be bad, our children’s lives might be worthless, and the fact that someone has helped us might be a reason to hurt that person in return.”  C&SL deny premise 1: there are contentful conceptual constraints (for beings like us in a world like ours) provided by the moral fixed points.

At this point, the debunker could provide an evolutionary debunking argument for conceptual truths.  But that puts the debunker in an uncomfortable position that his argument undermines all conceptual truths

The third objection: the Humean Challenge

The Humean thinks the brute (i.e., inexplicable) necessary supervenience relation between the non-moral and moral should count against the nonnaturalist theory, since the relation is between two discontinuous properties.

C&SL offer two replies:

  1. If minimal nonnaturalism is true, the objection doesn’t get off the ground since both moral and non-moral properties are natural, and, therefore, not discontinuous.
  2. If robust nonnaturalism is true, the nonnaturalist can reject that the supervenience relation is brute (i.e., inexplicable).  Rather, the relation is explicable: it holds by conceptual necessity.

In addition, they offer a partner-in-crime for a necessary connection between natural and nonnatural concepts.  Concepts such as ‘value’, ‘promise’, and ‘God’ are good candidates for being nonnatural.  Now, consider the following propositions that include both natural and nonnatural concepts.

  1. Values are not sandwiches.
  2. No promise is a quark.
  3. If God exists, then God is a conscious being.

All three propositions seem to be conceptual truths that hold because of the essence of the nonnatural concepts.

7 Objections and replies

Objection #1: C&SL holds that a person that asks if recreational slaughter of a fellow person is wrong suffers from conceptual deficiency.  This is incompatible with the OQA.

OQA: Given any natural property N, it is always an open question to ask, of any x that is N, whether it is wrong: asking the question ‘‘Is an x that is N also wrong?’’ betrays no conceptual confusion.

The OQA is a primary motivator for nonnaturalism, so why should the nonnaturalist accept C&SL’s view?   On C&SL’s understanding the ultimate aim of the Open Question Argument is to establish that moral concepts (or properties) are not identical with naturalistic ones.   While they say that their position is incompatible with the OQA, they offer a ‘piecemeal’ argument in that can achieve the ultimate aim in place of the OQA.  (I’ll skip the ‘piecemeal’ argument since I don’t understand it.)

Objection # 2: The fixed points are not good candidates for being conceptual truths because in being about “beings like us in a world such as ours”, they include information about human psychology that are not implied by the concept ‘being wrong’.

Here C&SL distinguish between immediate conceptual truths, which are true in virtue of the immediate essence of their constituent concepts, and mediate conceptual truths, which are true in virtue of the mediate essence of their conceptual concepts.   As an example, the immediate essence of ‘human being’ is that it is a material object, and the immediate essence of ‘material object’ is that it is spatial.  That means that the mediate essence of ‘human being’ is that it is spatial.   So while the immediate essence of ‘being wrong’ does not include human psychology, the mediate essence does.

Objection #4:  Since on the nonnaturalist view moral facts and properties are causally impotent, this leads to problems in moral epistemology.

C&SL hold that conceptual truths do not require a causal connection.  As an example, we know that “actuality entails possibility” without having a causal connection.

Cuneo, Terrence & Shafer-Landau, Russ.  The moral fixed points: new directions for moral
nonnaturalism

 

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