Monday, May 26, 2008

Will the Real Issue Please Stand Up? (by guest blogger Bryan Van Norden)

One of the classic debates in ethics is between realism and anti-realism. It's hard to precisely state what is at issue without being tendentious, but one way would be this. Are there moral facts (realism) or are there just individual human or social opinions or reactions (anti-realism)?

I'm not going to say anything in this post about the arguments for or against each side, and I'm intentionally not going to say which side I'm on personally. Instead, I want to just make a couple of sociological observations (with the caveat that my results are purely anecdotal).

(1) Most people feel strongly about this issue, whether or not they have a "philosophical" mind. This topic is a sure-fire discussion starter in any introductory philosophy class.

(2) Whichever side a person agrees with, she generally thinks that the other position is pretty obviously mistaken, and is a little bemused that anyone actually believes the other side.

(3) Realists worry that, if you actually took anti-realism seriously, it would encourage some sort of moral decay, while anti-realists worry that realism is really just a rationale for being dogmatic about morality.

(4) If pressed, most realists will assert that they "know" that anti-realism does NOT actually encourage moral decay, while anti-realists will assert that they "know" that realism is NOT actually just a rationale for being dogmatic about morality.

My sense is that (3) is what accounts for (1). In addition, no matter how often people assert what they do in (4), they still really believe (3) in their gut. This explains (2), because the arguments for one's position are really just rationalizations, while the arguments against one's position don't touch what really motivates one to accept it.

Maybe it would lead to a more productive debate if we talked less about moral realism and anti-realism, and more about how to find the mean between (A) taking one's ethical commitments seriously, and (B) dogmatically sticking to one's commitments? (David Wong has an interesting discussion of this in his recent book, Natural Moralities, pp. 179-272.)

(By the way, sorry for being so behind in replying to comments. I got a copy-edited manuscript this week, which I was rushing to revise for the publisher. But I sent it off, and I'll be back to my contrary self on Monday. *smile* )

7 comments:

Bill Haines said...

Dear Bryan,

I agree with your observations and your commentary on their interrelations, with these small exceptions:

On (2): I think realists are a little more likely than anti-realists to acknowledge that their own view isn’t obviously true.

On (4): “If pressed, most realists will assert that they ‘know’ that anti-realism does NOT actually encourage moral decay, while anti-realists will assert that they ‘know’ that realism is NOT actually just a rationale for being dogmatic about morality.”

I agree with some versions of that and am in doubt about others! But my data aren’t deep.

I grant these:

(4a): The realist eventually admits that it is perfectly possible to be an anti-realist and not a slacker.
(4b): The realist eventually admits that anti-realism as an abstract theory does not encourage slacking (where this admission does not contradict the view that most popular kinds of anti-realism do encourage slacking).
(4c): The realist eventually admits that the form of anti-realism that her interlocutor seems to be espousing at the end of the argument does not encourage slacking.

I’m in doubt about these:

(4d): The realist eventually admits that anti-realism does not tend to take forms that encourage slacking.
(4e): The realist eventually admits that anti-realism does not spring from an impulse that that supports slacking.
(4f): The realist eventually admits that anti-realism as a slogan does not encourage slacking.

And similarly for the anti-realist’s admissions.

On whether (3) causes (1): I think realists might tend to feel that their sense of their own reason to be moral is bound up with realism, and that seems like a reason for them to care about realism or fear anti-realism.

I wonder whether your four points are about mainly students, or mainly colleagues, or everyone?

I think it’s hard for people who haven’t worked long and hard at philosophy, and hard for many who have, to see how subtle (vanishingly subtle?) the issue between realism and anti-realism can be. (It seems generally to come down to questions about the nature of reason.) So it’s harder for them to set the issue aside. But I think think talking more about slacking v. dogmatism is a very good idea, and it’s another reason for me to look soon at David Wong’s new book.

“the mean between (A) taking one's ethical commitments seriously, and (B) dogmatically sticking to one's commitments”

I think (A) was supposed to have a ‘not’ in it; otherwise the mean would seem to be (A).

Bryan said...

Dear Bill,

As usual, you've made some very thoughtful comments.

I wonder whether your four points are about mainly students, or mainly colleagues, or everyone?

I meant everyone. I've found it to be as true of colleagues who are deeply engaged in the subtleties of the debate as it is of beginning students.

And you're right: it should have been “the mean between (A) NOT taking one's ethical commitments seriously, and (B) dogmatically sticking to one's commitments”

KenF said...

"Realists worry that, if you actually took anti-realism seriously, it would encourage some sort of moral decay,"

The interesting question is whether realistis worry about this for other people or for themselves.

Some realists may feel like they are basically evil (or tempted or whatever) who can only rein in their evil/immoral impulses by real moral principles. "Real" equates to strong enough to help them control themselves.

Other realists may think that these moral principles are not so important to themselves, because they wouldn't do bad things anyway, but are necessary to rein in the evil/immoral impulses of others (the masses?).

I don't think there's a symmetric division on the other side with anti-realists, though.

Clark Goble said...

There are also middle grounds between the two extremes. One can debate if they work but certainly Peirce and Dewey took them seriously.

Clark Goble said...

I suspect one ought modify (4) to say anti-realism doesn't necessarily or obviously encourage moral decay and that realism doesn't necessarily or obviously encourage dogmatism.

I think it still an open question whether adopting such a view seriously doesn't produce an effect in behavior. But after all the realist might say that the anti-realism justifies moral decay but that many just enjoy a middle classed morality too much and are too lazy to really make use of the justified excesses.

Likewise the anti-realist might say more or less the same thing about the realist.

But let's say that you take a bunch of impressionable Freshmen and teach them the issue. It would be interesting to know that those who gravitate towards realism do become more morally dogmatic and if those who gravitate towards anti-realism become more licentious. One would have to then have a control of some sort since presumably many would gravitate to the position most similar to what they already hold. The most interesting ones would be those who switch positions.

Badda Being said...

I'm not sure that your proposed alternative would be more productive at all, seeing as how it's parasitic upon a "proper" distinction between realism and anti-realism, of which there is no consensus anyway beyond your own broad characterization, which, furthermore, would seem to harbor any number of unspoken assumptions depending on what motivates one to accept one position or the other....

I would say that there is no real issue here at all, only issues that vary depending on how one configures the debate in light of one's personal baggage.

Badda Being said...

On second thought, perhaps I've misunderstood. Is it your proposal that we simply change the subject?