Ethical Realism

February 4, 2009

Chapter 3.4 “Ethics, Mathematics, and Relativism” by Jonathan Lear

Jonathan Lear presents challenges to two forms of moral relativism: Cognitivist and noncognitivist.

Cognitivist Moral Relativism

Lear sees a form of moral relativism as a possible sophisticated form of cognitism. We can view moral facts as being part of a “way of life.” In order to agree to a moral truth, one would have to be part of that “way of life” and those outside of the way of life have no reason to agree (78-79).

In trying to install a moral outlook, we will try to get a person to see situations in a certain way: we will appeal to his perceptions of salience, his sense of sympathy, his interests, and indeed to his sense of right and wrong. That we succeed cannot be a matter of his grasping a universal or a rule: it can consist in nothing more than that he comes to see the world the way we do” (79).

Although Lear imagines that moral relativism can be appealing to some people, he is not satisfied with it because “[t]he appeal of cognitivism lies… in the claim that our vocabulary of moral appraisal… can be used without qualification even after reflection on the nature of our moral practices” (80). He states that we become participants in a moral practice in a way that purports to be universal. We can’t decide that our moral beliefs are false without a good reason to do so. When we say something is wrong, we intend to say that it is wrong for anyone in relevantly similar circumstances. Therefore, cognitivism reinforces our moral language and their intentions in a way that noncognitivism can’t.

Lear then presents a second challenge to cognitivist moral relativism: How can moral relativism be a paradigm of truth, objectivity, and necessity? Wittgenstein, for example, introduced us to a form of mathematical relativism. But how can we be mathematical relativists by agreeing to the following?

  1. 7 + 5 = 12. To suppose that any other integer, say 13, is the sum of 7 + 5 is a mistake.
  2. It is only within the context of our being so minded that 7 + 5 = 12. (82)

We can’t believe (2) without weakening our believe in (1) because if we accept (2), then we should also be able to agree that if everyone had a different way of life, then 7 + 5 could equal something other than 12. We are currently unable to make any sense out of this possibility (83). If mathematical relativism can’t answer this question, then mathematical realism will fail to be a paradigm for truth, objectivity, and necessity. Not only that, but we could then suspect that moral relativism may very well fail to be a paradigm for truth, objectivity, and necessity as well. (No theory can be a paradigm for truth, objectivity, and necessity when it has a premise that undermines the meaning of these words, such as, “It is only in the context of a way of life that x is true, and x can be false within a different way of life.”)

Non-Cognitivist Moral Relativism

Lear sees one alternative to cognitivist moral relativism to be noncognitivist moral relativism: Moral truth is theory-relative and no theory in particular is the “correct” one (90). We might want to say that all of the relevant theories are false, so moral facts can’t really exist. One necessary characteristic of non-cognitivist relativism is that we will have to accept that alternative theories with different moral truths can’t undermine our own moral theories (92). There simply is no fact of the matter.

Noncognitivist relativism seems false because we can’t accept that “there is simply no fact of the matter.” We cannot view moral truths of theories as being “merely true for that theory.” Instead, we believe that it is either true or false (92). (This objection in many ways is merely a restatement of an objection to cognitivist moral relativism.)

A noncognitivist relativist might argue that we are only indoctrinated to treat moral truths as being cognitive, and we will find out that noncognitivist relativism is true nonetheless. However, Lear believes that many people would not be able to function in society with this belief. People in general can’t believe that “there are no moral truths” but still “act as though there are.” (If they do, then wouldn’t they need a nonmoral motivation for doing so? In other words, morality itself wouldn’t make a difference in our lives.)

Finally, Lear states that he would like to show that noncognitivism is not only flawed for psychological reasons, but he would also like to show that it is incoherent. However, he is not currently able to do so.

My Objections

Objection 1: Two forms of relativism?

Lear speaks of a “sophisticated cognitivism,” which I believe to be a form of relativism. Then he speaks of a sophisticated relativistic noncognitivism. It isn’t clear to me what makes one of these views relativistic, but not the other.

Additionally, I don’t even see what makes one form of relativism “cognitive” and the other “noncognitive.” I can read his essay as simply giving arguments against different forms of “relativism” irrespective of cognitivism.

Both of these theories appear relativist because they require us to (1) have groups of people who have different moral beliefs and (2) realize that “there simply isn’t a fact of the matter.” (Perhaps cognitivist relativists would argue that there “is a fact of the matter,” but I don’t know why they would come to that conclusion.)

In fact, I can easily see both forms of relativism to be cognitive. What he calls “sophisticated cognitivism” states that a moral fact is “true for a way of life” if it corresponds to that way of life, but the “moral fact” is really false. What he calls noncognitivist moral relativism could also be seen to say that all “moral facts” are really false. Sure, “according to a theory” we will get moral facts, but the theory itself is false.

Lear defines one form of noncognitivism as stemming from two beliefs: “First, that moral judgements motivate actions; second, that no strictly cognitive belief about the world could alone motivate action: some noncognitive desire or volition must also be present.” However, these two beliefs are entirely irrelevant to cognitivism. Whether or not morality can be effectively motivating is not at issue. What is at issue is whether or not my moral beliefs are either “true or false.” A noncognitivst would say that it is not. If “there is no fact of the matter,” then why not just say my belief that “murder is wrong” is false. (This is a cognitivist answer.)

Objection 2: Are moral facts universal?

Perhaps moral facts are universal in some sense, but there is a question about whether or not anyone is ever in “relevantly similar circumstances.” If all circumstances are different, then we might be unable to unify them.

An alternative to basing morality on circumstances is to base it on intentions, and an attempt at moral virtue (being willing and able to do what is right). As long as we try to be good people in every way possible, it becomes absurd to say that we really did the “wrong thing.” We might end up hurting people, but we still did everything in our power to avoid hurting people. Doing what you have every reason to believe is right really is right. Of course, if you have “every reason” to believe it is right, then you can justify why. Only the unforseen can lead a good action to bad consequences. We can’t be expected to know the unforseen.

Objection 3: Proving noncognitivist relativism to be incoherent

I think it is asking too much to prove that any metaethical theory is “incoherent.” Why can’t we have many coherent ethical theories? Scientific theories tend to be coherent, but some are still false.

In other words, the real question is what metaehtical theory is most plausible, or which has the best evidence. We have some reason to believe that morally relevant facts exist: Pain feels bad, and we understand other people’s pain to be bad for the same reason that our own pain is bad. Isn’t this a great deal of evidence that the noncognitivist denies? Isn’t this already some reason to see it as implausible?


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