Ethical Realism

May 11, 2009

Chapter 3.9 “How to be a Moral Realist” by Richard N Boyd Part 1

We need to know how we thought of moral ideas, like good and bad. If we just made it up, then we should be moral antirealists. If we discovered that things can really be good or bad, then we should be moral realists.

If you think electrons are real, then you are a scientific realist. Entities theorized about science can be real despite the fact that we can’t experience the entities with our five senses. There are very plausible philosophical arguments that we should be scientific realists. Richard Boyd argues that in order to understand a plausible account of moral realism, we should understand a plausible account of scientific realism.

This is for at least three reasons. One, the debate concerning moral realism is so similar to the scientific realism debate. Two, the objections to scientific realism fail, and the same objections are used against moral realism, which also fail for the same reasons. Three, there is a good reason for being scientific realists, and the same reason will indicate that we should be moral realists.

The payoff: Boyd is attempting to offer a huge systematic understanding about how we could be moral realists.

Boyd’s essay can easily be understood to be an argument for moral realism, but he is actually just telling us how we could provide an argument for moral realism someday. He answers the question, “What would evidence of moral realism look like?” To make this clear he states,

What I want to do in this essay is to explore the ways in which recent developments in realist philosophy of science, together with related ‘naturalistic’ developments in epistemology and philosophy of language, can be employed in the articulation and defense of moral realism. It will not be my aim here to estabilish that moral realism is true. (182)

Although Boyd does not offer proof that moral realism is true, he does give some evidence of moral realism, and moral realism could be inferred to be plausible given the evidence that he presents. He admits that he hopes “to demonstrate… that moral realism can be shown to be a more attractive and plausible philosophical position if recent developments in realist philosophy of science are brought to bear in its defense” (183).

Boyd’s Argument

Boyd implies an argument for moral realism that looks something like the following:

  1. Scientific realism is probably true.
  2. If scientific realism is probably true, then moral realism is probably true.
  3. Therefore, moral realism is probably true.

Scientific realism states that science is a reliable procedure for obtaining approximate knowledge concerning phenomena independent of our theorizing (181). Electrons are real, even though we can’t see them. We have approximately true beliefs about the world that science attempts to describe.

Moral realism will state that we can also attain approximate moral knowledge. Our moral beliefs are true and false, and we have relatively reliable methods to arrive at approximate moral truth, which is independent of our theorizing (182). This may or may not imply that moral entities exist.

Boyd will attempt to argue that we start off as scientific and moral realists, and we need good reason to reject realism. In other words, it is the antirealists who have the burden of proof. Instead of proving that moral realism is true, he will rely on (1) the arguments for scientific realism that others have provided, and (2) he will defend moral realism from objections. As long as there are no serious objections to moral realism, we should be moral realists.

Boyd relies on the arguments of others to justify his first premise, “scientific realism is probably true.” The second premise, “if scientific realism is probably true, then moral realism is probably true,” is where he has to make use of new arguments. Boyd argues that moral realism is relevantly like scientific realism, so if scientific realism is probably true, so is moral realism. He will argue that “moral beliefs and methods are much more like our current conception of scientific beliefs and methods (more ‘objective’, ‘external’, ’empirical’, ‘intersubjective’, for example) than we now think” (184). Part of his argument that ethics is like science is a reflection on objections to moral realism and scientific realism. The same objections apply to both theories, and both theories can avoid the objections for the same reasons.

We Should be Scientific Realists

1. The primacy of reality

The first premise, “scientific realism is probably true” needs to be justified. Do electrons really exist? A skeptic could say that science hypothesizes unobservable entities for convenience. It is easier for us to think about entities than just look at mathematical formulas. What matters is merely a system for successful predictions. As long as science gives us the results we want, we are going to keep using it. It is irrelevant whether or not electrons exist as long as it helps scientists predict the behavior of molecules, chemicals, machines, and so forth.

Boyd argues that part of why philosophers have become scientific realists is because

of the extraordinary role which theoretical considerations play in actual (and patently successful) scientific practice. To take the most striking example, scientists routinely modify or extend operational ‘measurement’ or ‘detection’ procedures for ‘theoretical’ magnitudes or entities on the basis of new theoretical developments. This sort of methodology is perfectly explicable on the realist assumption that the operational procedures in question really are procedures for the measurement or detection of unobservable entities and that the relevant theoretical developments reflect increasingly accurate knowledge of such ‘theoretical’ entities. Accounts of the revisability of operational procedures which are compatible with a non-realist position appear inadequate to explain the way in which theory-dependent revisions of ‘measurement’ and ‘detection’ procedures make a positive methodological contribution to the progress of science. (188)

Although I understand Boyd’s main point here, I have no idea what scientific fact he is referring to. To give a simple example, we guessed that germs were the cause of illness in the middle east hundreds of hears ago. This theory was helpful and therefore worth using because it encouraged people to wash their hands and keep clean. This theory was revived in the west fairly recently, and we eventually got the technology to observe germs. They were really there all along!

Boyd argues that the usefulness of unobservable entities for science is “inexplicable on a non-realist conception but easily explicable on the realist assumption that such considerations are a reflection of the growth of theoretical knowledge” (188). In other words, it makes more sense to say that the electron theory was helpful because the theory approximated the truth (electrons are real), than to say that electrons don’t exist.

Note: Yes, to say that electrons don’t exist is absurd. However, Boyd’s argument is unsatisfying because an anti-realist will usually be agnostic. Sure, electrons might exist, but the anti-realist would rather not take sides.

Additionally, Boyd introduces the causal theory of knowledge. We know about the external world because it exists and has an effect on our senses (188-189). (I’m not sure how this form of empiricism has been improved. This sounds like little more than common sense and probably existed to some extent since the time of Democritus.)

2. Objective knowledge from theory-dependent methods

Science uses a theory-dependent methodology. We don’t just make predictions then experiment to see if the predictions were right. Instead, we hypothesize about a general truth, and the predictions are based on that general truth. Without predictions, hypotheses, and general truths, experiments and observations become meaningless (or at least much less helpful). A critic might think that the theory-dependence of science would contribute to the fact that it is make-believe. A person makes up a theory, which we have no reason to believe is true. However, Boyd argues the opposite. Although no experiment or observation is theory-free, this contributes to the reliability of the experiment or observation (190).

Boyd points out that science has a dialectical character. We use a theory, but we also have a methodology for improving upon that theory (189). Our existing procedures for detecting electrons is approximately true, but it isn’t perfect. However, through trial and error we have been improving our procedures for detecting electrons. “The approximate truth of current theories explains why our existing measurement procedures are (approximately) reliable” (189). Certainly it is true that a true theory would help us make predictions.

3. Naturalism and radical contingency in epistemology

Boyd argues that foundationalism, the view that some beliefs are epistemically privileged (a priori or self-warranting), is implausible.  Nothing is self-evident. “For the crucial case of perceptual knowledge, there seem to be (in typical cases at least) neither premises (foundational or otherwise) nor inferences; instead, perceptual knowledge obtains when perceptual beliefs are produced by epistemically reliable mechanisms” (191). (Science is an epistemically reliable mechanism.)

Boyd concludes that our knowledge is reliable partly because of a “logically, epistemically, and historically contingent emergence of a relevantly approximately true tradition. It is not possible to understand the initial emergence of such a tradition as the consequence of some more abstractly conceived scientific or rational methodology which itself is theory-independent. There is no such methodology” (192). So, we are lucky to have a culture that gives us so much logical and scientific truth that we can continue to make progress.

Note: I am not convinced that mathematical and logical epistemology is as contingent as Boyd suggests. Could mathematicians play around with such large numbers of infinity just by making it all up? There seems to be some room for metaphysics in our mathematically constrained reality.

4. Scientific intuitions and trained judgment

Students of science are expected to learn to think like a scientist, which is to say that students must learn to have “scientific intuitions.” These intuitions are based on the acceptance of the relevant scientific paradigms. “There is very good reason to believe that having good physical (or biological or psychological) intuitions is important to epistemically reliable scientific practice… scientists are almost never able to make fully explicit the considerations which play a role in their intuitive judgments” (192-193).

Perhaps scientists who know a great deal of scientific theory start to attain an overall unified view of science that involve many assumptions, and these assumptions are fairly reliable (coherent with the rest of science), so they are helpful when conducting experiments. Although assumptions can be clarified through philosophy, it is often difficult to pinpoint all of our assumptions. Perhaps we have so many assumptions working in the background that it would be too time-consuming to try to figure them all out anyway.

A skeptic might point out that intuitions in science sounds wishy-washy, and makes all of science suspect. However, Boyd argues that intuitive judgments in science have already proven themselves to be reliable. “Tacit or intuitive judgments in science are reliable because they are grounded in a theoretical tradition (itself partly tacit) which is, as a matter of contingent empirical fact, relevantly approximately true” (193).

Note: This defense of scientific intuition is not the strongest argument presented by Boyd. An anti-realist would not agree that we should accept the theoretical tradition as true. Perhaps Boyd expects us to already be scientific realists, and wants to point out that intuition is compatible with scientific realism.

5. Non-Humean conceptions of causation and reduction

Hume rejected causation and physical laws. They are convenient, but not necessarily true. Boyd argues that this rejection is based on an unjustified reliance to verificationism (193). (The view that something shouldn’t be accepted as true unless we can prove its truth through the five senses.) It might be true that we can’t verify that physical laws exist in the sense that we can’t perceive them with our five senses, but we can’t prove that electrons exist in that way either. If we are scientific realists and accept the existence of electrons, then we can find causation and physical laws to be real as well.

One other reason that causation and physical laws could be rejected is because of reductivism: the view that everything should be reduced to the true elements of reality. This is part of the materialist world-view. Everything is really atoms and energy. Hume thought that everything should be reduced to physics, so psychological and biological causation don’t really exist, because they have not yet been reduced to the smallest atoms. However, Boyd believes that there is no need to reduce everything to physics (194). Boyd states that Hume’s belief that physics is the true part of reality is without merit, so he expects that Humeans have the burden of proof at this point. If physics is the true part of reality, then we need a good justification to have that conclusion.

6. Natural definitions

Locke speculated that we need to understand reality in terms of its invisible factors. Boyd agrees, and thinks science does just that. (Electrons are an invisible factor of reality.) We can’t use terminology in merely a conventional sense (the typical use of the word), but we must use terminology based on reality itself. Thus, such terminology will be revisable (194-195).

7. Reference and epistemic access

Since we can’t define a scientific entity (object or law) based on convention, we need a way to define them in terms of their reality. This is possible if Kripke’s causal theory of reference is approximately true (195).

What is Kirpke’s theory of reference? Terminology refers to the real entity that we point at. Our understanding of that entity is caused partly by the entity itself. You touch water and say, “Let’s call this stuff water.” Then as long as you continue to teach others the word “water” in a similar fashion, the word “water” will refer to part of reality. We can then study that part of reality, and find out that water is actually H2O. Water will have a real impact on our beliefs about it, such as when we take a look at it under a microscope.

8. Homeostatic property-cluster definitions

Some definitions are pretty messy. This was made clear by Wittgenstein who mentioned that the word “game” refers to a single concept, but there is no list of ideas that are necessary or sufficient for something being a game. A game of poker or chess are games partly because they require strategy. A game of war is a game, even though it is completely random. A game of tag is a game even though there is no winner or loser.

A skeptic would want to require that science avoids these messy (vague/imprecise) words and definitions, like the word “game;” however, Boyd argues that such imprecise “ordinary language” is quite compatible with science (196-197). These words use “homeostatic property-cluster definitions.”

Note: Certainly almost all phenomena has to start with a homeostatic property-cluster definition. Although we found out that water is actually H2O, so we no longer need a property-cluster definition, we had to use the word “water” before getting to this point. Water is clear, wet, boils at a certain temperature, etc. These properties were part of the definition. Not all properties were necessary. (Water is not always a liquid, for example.)

Of course, Boyd might want to argue that some scientific entities are always going to have property-cluster definitions.

Boyd argues that science makes use of vague terms, like “healthy” and “healthier than” (198). Boyd does not believe that we should strive to redefine “health” in a non-vague fashion. (I suspect that part of the problem is that heath is seen as a good thing, and it sounds suspicious to tell everyone what health should mean without exception, when their goals could conflict.)

Boyd then mentions that biological species is a paradigm case for vague scientific terminology (198). No member of species need to fit into our understanding of the species entirely. In fact, we expect that the species might change so much over time that it might become a different species. It isn’t always clear at what point we should say that the group of animals has become a different species. Although we define species in terms of the ability to produce offspring, there are transitional groups that might fit into either of two different species.

Consider the following thought experiment: Let’s say that humans aren’t the same species as apes. Let’s say that humans could mate with ape-men, and ape-men could mate with apes. We would then be seen as being the same species as ape-men, and ape-men would be the same species as apes. However, we wouldn’t want to say that we are the same species as apes. At this point there isn’t a “correct” way to categorize each of these species. Ape men would say that humans, ape-men, and apes are all one species. Our point of view is that apes are not the same species as us.

Note: I think a skeptic would simply disregard “species” as referring to a real part of reality. Such words are indeed useful to science, but do not have to be accepted as real.


Click “next” above to continue my review of Boyd.

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