Saturday, October 10, 2015



----------FLIGHT to MUNOZ----------

"Can an ethics without objectivity still lay claim to progress?"

My dear friend, this entire conversation hinges on what we mean by objectivity, by what we mean by progress. [My suspicion is that the moral realist defines these terms, from the outset, in such a way that he or she seeks to smuggle in some kind of supernaturalism. That is to say, objectivity and progress are defined in such a way that they become transcendental entities. [I am not talking about theism. At this point the philosopher must think!]

Take the idea of goal; one says, "but where does the goal come from?" It generates out of the needs of life, in many respects the formation here can be called organic. It is simply false to claim that moral realism is required to make progress in ethics. We can say (X) is better, pending the circumstances of a situation. We can say (X) is better in contrast to (P), in that (X) and (P) are not the same thing, and therefore, will not accomplish the same goal. Each has a separate effect in relation to life.

We can say, if a man wants to be entirely without morals, then he must exempt himself from society; for society presupposes the moral.

I wonder where one gets this idea that objectivity is necessary for progress (for criticism in general)? This seems to be left over from the dialectic of Christianity, wherein Christianity wages war against life in order to deify its superstitions. (I only bring this up as an explanation of origin).

----------MUNOZ to FLIGHT----------

I think the impulse behind realism of any sort---scientific, religious, moral, logical, or aesthetic---has to do with the human need for assurance beyond appearances.

The realism/anti-realism debate comes up in any field of enquiry if pursued far enough that we want certainties that are not so dependent on human vagary or general flakiness---certainties that have and will be regarded as such by others distant in space and time and are not merely symptoms of our location in the scheme of things.

Sure, Jersey, moral realism is likely to be associated with religious realism, but also, I might add, with scientific realism. The founder of the analytic club, Alex Novack, a specialist in the philosophy of science, was a scientific realist, if I recall, but also was inclined to defend moral realism. He had no religious convictions whatsoever as far as I could tell.

While most people, I would say, have this need to assert something real beyond what is needed to exist materially in the world, certainly not all. But most see no harm in it. It is convenient for the scientist in explaining the results of his or her studies in terms accessible to the person on the street to speak as though there really were objects external to the data from which it, the data, emanated. Most practicing scientists (and philosophers of science) are (and probably always were) realists about the external world. It serves no purpose they have to pretend otherwise, never mind the absence of a smidgen of empirical evidence for anything other than what is still more empirical evidence. (There is never an "of" for the empirical evidence to be of but still more empirical evidence.) The realist conviction that there is an external world persists. Some fictions are so useful we forget they are fictive. (But there "could" be an external world, you say? Suppose there is, Berkeley said, what does it have to do with us if we never interact with it?)

I think only philosophers feel compelled to resist the natural impulse to speculate on what is or is not "really" beyond the edge our senses. They are in the business of being eternally suspicious. Scientists, like everybody else, are not. Suspicion, for them, is only called for when there is cause for questioning. They want to know what is under the rock---not why there is anything for anything else to be under, or what being "under" means, or why anyone should be here to ask, as might occur to a philosopher...

But nothing stops the scientist or the person on the street from once and in awhile waxing philosphical and entertaining such questions. That's when the speculations start about what allows our sense experience to cohere or to persist and how this might suggest something "real" back of all the sense data. Or in the case of moral realism something "true" behind what concurrence of opinion is detected, say, across cultures, something as true and real and as "objectively there" as anything else could possibly be. It is usually taken for granted that there is something "objective"---some fact that would be the case even were there never anyone to remark on it and "subjectify" it by merely entertaining it in thought.

I don't think that moral realism has any special problem with objectivity that any other form of realism doesn't have as well.

I can understand someone consistently taking an anti-realist position across the board, but cherry-picking requires some convincing justification I haven't heard.

Many people believe that human progress is possible. Implicit in that is that moral progress is possible. More concretely, that it is possible that per capita the amount of human-created evil can be lessened. Some go further and say that it has lessened, say, in the last century, or millenium, or at least since recorded history. (I am not among those who are certain that progress of this sort has happened but that is beside the point.)

If moral progress had a static goal (like a peak it had to climb), the idea of "progress" would have clear meaning. When your goal stays put you can measure the distance covered and still before you toward that goal and compare them. But the history of what counts as a moral issue does not show that it is a fixed target. So perhaps it is more correct to say there is moral movement. Though it's obstacles keep recurring in new forms.

Let's take for example, the expansion of the kinds of entities that should get moral consideration. From a Hobbesian state of nature with every person looking out only for themselves (and God or the universe against all*), we have expanded the circle of moral concern from individual to family, friends, those with whom we have racial, cultural, or geographical ties, etc. to people of different sexes, orientations, animals, the environment... The circle of moral concern keeps getting wider and it is not as though morality has conquered those inner circles and it needs more responsibility to occupy itself, having discharged some aleady. Instead, we keep putting steadily more moral obligations on our plate.

This expansion of the moral sphere is seen by many, Peter Singer, for instance, as moral progress. One day, he thinks we (self-regarded right-thinking people) will look back in as much horror at the way we treat animals today as we now do at child labor in 19th century England.

(One of my favorite obscure philosophers from a century ago thought we will morally progress someday to the point that we will begin to see our own existence as gratuitous, and work to gracefully make ourselves extinct. Only in this way, will we truly conquer nature. As long as nature has us believing it's all about survival, nature is calling the shots and we remain caught up in a slave mentality.)

I suspect it is the expansion of consciousness. As we have the luxury to be concerned about the other, we will be concerned about the other. And that has interesting consequences.

Realism about morality is one way to keep moral ideals always over the horizon to make sure we never get too smug in our accomplishments. The fear is that if we think we can do the Nietzschean thing and storm the divine fortress and install ourselves there, that's just what we will do. Prematurely.

Nietzsche really was talking about "supermen." I don't think I know any outside cartoons. That said, I think he was right to place that vision before us. We have a long way to go. God may be dead, but creation still reeks of him.


*From the original title of Werner Herzog's film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.

----------FLIGHT to MUNOZ----------

The man who claims that progress is not possible without some form of moral realism must certainly explain what he means by progress.

The equivocation arises precisely at the point of the realist's conclusion: "so basically you are claiming there is no such thing as progress?"

That all depends, my friend, on what you mean by progress? Is the formal definition, used at the beginning of the syllogism, the same as the term we find at the end?

The main question here is whether there can be [moral] progress without [moral] objectivity (everything else seems to be a side note, or a lesson in history)?

Thus I conclude: because the very nature of morality is that of contingency, to define the term progress outside this context, is to speak of something which does not apply to morality (indeed can such thinking apply to anything?). Hence, when we speak of progress, "as being possible," we speak in terms of contingency... not as though such contingency qualifies as a refutation of progress (as that would destroy the term moral as well) but that progress always takes placed within a contingent set of circumstantial fluctuations.

When I say progress is possible without objectivity (indeed, I can speak with more force)... a moral realist, who believes in the existence of progress, claiming that such progress is contingent on objectivity, is confused about the ontology of his belief. "Objective progress," he says! Is this man not utterly deluded? The point is that the moral realist believes that progress exists (because it does!) but his confusion is that he tries to claim that what he sees is objective. This is the fallacy of all moral reasoning: because morals exist, therefore objective morals exist! The conclusion does not follow from the premise. ---

because progress exists, therefore objectivity must exist.

But is this not the better form: progress does not proceed from objectivity, but from contingency, which does not nullify the existence of progress, in that the context of life, is itself, that of contingency!

respectfully yours.