Meta-ethics, realism, and intuitionism

Dan S. asks:

What are your meta-ethical views? I’ve heard you mention the importance of subjective value as well as “virtue,” so I imagine you are inclined toward a more “morality is subjective” view. What is your opinion of Bryan Caplan’s moral realism and intuitionism? Do you think it faces insurmountable metaphysical obstacles?

I am a moral realist and intuitionist, as is Bryan, but my view on applications is very different.

On torturing babies, I a) think it is objectively wrong, but b) I don’t think that a philosophical unpacking of “wrong” here gets one very far.  It’s wrong, and if you don’t understand why you won’t understand the philosophic explanation either.  There is nothing in the philosophical explanation that is more evident than the initial wrongness.  So far I’m on board with Caplan.

Yet I don’t wish to walk down this plank very far.  Bryan wants to “coin” a large number of (non-trivial) moral truths this way, such as his claim that taxation is morally wrong for violating the precepts of common sense morality (“don’t take things from other people”).  Last I looked, a lot of common sense people support taxation and the interpretation of common sense maxims depends very much on context.  Reasoning by analogy is far, far weaker than Bryan wishes to believe.

I’m agnostic on a lot of ethical issues, but not a relativist or a subjectivist per se.  I simply think that we don’t have very good facilities for detecting objective ethical truth, just as most of us are not very good at factoring large numbers in our heads.  Indeed, ethical philosophy hasn’t made a lot of progress in the last two thousand years.

I find that my combination of views is fairly rare.  People who believe that ethics is objective and intuitive are often quite keen to make a lot of detailed pronouncements about the content of those ethics.  The agnostics tend to be relativists or subjectivists.  It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood.  I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning.  (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)

Here is an earlier post on ethical intuitionism.  Here is my conclusion:

…ethical intuitionism settles many fewer issues than most of its proponents like to think.  That said, there is often nowhere else to go.  We somehow need to come to terms with two propositions at the same time:

1. We need to think more rather than less ethically.

2. The content of ethical philosophy tells us less, in reliable terms, than most people would like to believe.


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