Sunday, May 22, 2022

Moral Realism and the Oracle

 In this post, I should like to explore a very interesting dilemma lying at the heart of moral realism. The dilemma is fleshed out by two arguments which point out the same problem, but in different ways. Indeed, if the arguments driving this dilemma are cogent, then it would seem that moral realism as a metaethical theory is in serious trouble and either should be substantially revised or completely abandoned.

First off, just what is moral realism? Moral realism, as we understand it, is a metaethical theory which makes 2 key claims:

    1. Moral judgments are objectively true or false, independently of any human
       attitudes or activities
    2. Moral judgments are true or false in virtue of the existence of moral facts
       in the world

To be sure, there are many different kinds of moral realism on offer; a notable distinguishing factor among them being just how they cash out exactly what objective moral facts are supposed to be (are they natural facts or non-natural facts?, etc.). The specific flavor of moral realism doesn't matter for our purposes, since the arguments we will be discussing attack all varieties that meet the 2 criteria mentioned above.

So to begin, imagine you are confronted by the Oracle, a being who is both all-knowing and who never lies (rather like the character from The Matrix). Suppose the Oracle tells you "There are neither moral facts nor objective moral truths". What sort of effects would this have on your life? Arguably, this revelation would have no effect at all on your everyday practices. For all intents and purposes, you might very well go on living as if there were moral facts. Thus, it would seem that the existence or nonexistence of moral facts really plays no bearing on your moral practice, and thus any beliefs you have in their existence should be abandoned, in the interest of theoretical simplicity.

I think 2 different conclusions follow from this argument. One is that the truth-value of moral realism is irrelevant when it comes to leading a moral life. Following from this, we can conclude therefore that a belief in moral realism is also not needed to live a moral life. And if moral realism is not needed to live a moral life, then by Occam's Razor, we should reject moral realism and seek a more elegant metaethic (one that doesn't populate the world with any extra entities).

But now let us change the scenario. Imagine instead that the Oracle says "There are moral facts and objective moral truths." Naturally, the next step is for us to ask her what these objective moral truths are. Her answer is shocking, for she says "In order to be a good person, you must cause the maximal amount of suffering possible to the maximal number of non-human animals for pleasure". How do we respond now? It seems to me that the only reasonable course of action is to refuse to live in this manner, and to continue living in accord with my own values.


When we combine the two arguments presented above we find ourselves confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand, if moral realism is false then it doesn't play any role in determining our moral practices. On the other hand though, if moral realism is true then it still doesn't play any role in determining our moral practices since the objective moral truths can be radically antithetical to our own values. Therefore, whether moral realism is true or false, it needn't play any role in determining our moral practices, and thus it should be rejected (by Occam's Razor).

How might one try to avoid this dilemma? One way that comes to mind for me is this: If we reflect on the nature of objective moral facts, it would seem that if they existed then they would exist necessarily (and it would be the same particular set of moral facts which exist necessarily). Inversely, if objective moral facts did not exist then it would be impossible for them to exist. Therefore, the moral realist could say something like the following: "This isn't really a problem because both horns of the dilemma are proposing an impossibility. On the one hand, it cannot possibly be the case that objective moral facts do not exist. On the other hand, it is not possible for there to be an objective moral fact that obligates us to cause the maximal amount of suffering for the maximal number of non-human animals for pleasure. Thus this dilemma need not concern us."

In my opinion, this response doesn't work because it is based on a mistaken logical theory. Even granted that moral facts are either necessarily existent or necessarily nonexistent (which seems reasonable enough), that doesn't mean we can't reflect on impossible scenarios. Indeed, given an ultramodal logic we can  do this very easily. For instance, it is presumably a necessary truth that "It is either raining outside right now or it is not raining outside right now." Even so, this does not stop us from reflecting on what would be the case in those worlds where this isn't true (relevant logic modelings provide a very natural way to do this). So the proponent of this kind of objection needs to make a case for why it isn't rational to reflect on impossible scenarios.

Another possible response would be to say something like "Even granted that this dilemma is sound, we should continue on with believing in moral realism because a widespread rejection of that doctrine could plausibly lead to disastrous social ills. While moral philosophers and other reflective people might not be affected in any deep way by rejecting moral realism, the common man might radically shift his every day practices such that he now behaves without any regard for moral constraints."

I see 2 problems with this response. Firstly, it is merely an instance of the appeal to consequences fallacy. Even assuming that the conclusion of an argument would have objectionable consequences, it does not follow that the argument itself is thereby unsound. Secondly, it makes an empirical claim which seems far from obvious. Is it really plausible to believe that the only thing preventing most people from acting in a totally capricious way is a widespread belief in moral realism? Based purely on anecdotal experience, it seems to me that at least a good portion of laymen believe in something like moral relativism (think of the commonplace appeals against "imposing one's beliefs on others", or the common remark that "you have your opinion and I have my opinion"). Thus, it is not at all obvious to me that such harms would befall humanity if there was a widespread rejection of moral realism.

So it seems as if we are indeed faced with a real dilemma. Assuming there is no way around it, what options do we have left in metaethics? Quite a lot, actually. For one thing, we have the vast plethora of views in the camp of moral anti-realism: subjectivism, error theory, and the various non-cognitivist views being some among them. And stepping outside of realism/anti-realism altogether we have the various constructivist metaethical systems. So I think that even if this dilemma does prove moral realism to be untenable in the end, we still can engage in serious metaethical work.

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