Ethical Realism

March 25, 2010

The Persistence of Moral Disagreement: An Objection to Moral Realism

Many people believe that morality is little more than cultural traditions. One culture can say that revenge is right and another can say it’s wrong. There is no “moral fact” of the matter. This view is known as “cultural relativism” and it’s a form of “moral anti-realism,” which is the view that moral truth consists in our opinions rather than reality itself. One important reason to endorse cultural relativism is Mackie’s Argument from Relativity, and the argument based on the “Persistence of Moral Disagreement” is a variation of the Argument from Relativity. It is claimed that even ideal people would disagree about moral facts, so moral realism is false. Everyone is entitled to their own moral opinions.

I will describe (1) how I understand the Persistence of Moral Disagreement and (2) my objections to it.

The Persistence of Moral Disagreement

The argument from Moral Disagreement that I will discuss is based on the lecture by Stephen Stich, which is available on Youtube. I understand the argument as the following:

  1. The existence of fundamental moral disagreement is a good reason to reject moral realism.
  2. Fundamental moral disagreement exists.
  3. Therefore, we have a good reason to reject moral realism.

Fundamental moral disagreement is moral disagreement that can never be solved through reason and knowledge of non-moral facts. Sometimes non-moral facts can help us solve a moral disagreement. For example, we might think that eating fatty foods is good idea until we find out that it’s unhealthy. Stitch wants to argue that not all moral disagreements are like that. Sometimes we really disagree about the nature of morality itself.

I will examine both of these premises.

Premise 1: Fundamental moral disagreement is a good reason to reject moral realism.

Is fundamental moral disagreement a good reason to reject moral realism? Stitch quotes moral realists who admit that fundamental moral disagreement could be a problem for moral realism. If we can’t find a single instance of a highly justified moral belief that we can agree on, then I agree that moral realism is probably false.

My objections

Objection 1: It might be that fundamental moral disagreement would have to be pervasive in order for it to be a problem for moral realism. Why? Because moral realism is probably false unless at least some of our moral beliefs are based on reality. If we can find some moral beliefs that are highly justified based on reality, then fundamental moral disagreement won’t prove that moral realism is false. Moral realism only claims that there is at least one moral fact. If we know one moral fact, then moral realism has already been established. A single instance of fundamental moral disagreement would certainly not convince us that our highly justified moral belief is false.

Objection 2: The moral realist philosophers cited by Stitch admit that some fundamental moral disagreement isn’t a problem:

  • Richard Boyd: “[C]areful philosophical examination will reveal… that agreement on nonmoral issues would eliminate almost all disagreement about the sorts of issues which arise in ordinary moral practice.”
  • David Brink: “It is incumbent on the moral realist… To claim that most moral disputes are resolvable at least in principle.”
  • Michael Smith: “The notion of objectivity signifies the possibility of a convergence in moral views.”

None of these philosophers claimed that a single instance of fundamental moral disagreement would disprove moral realism.

Objection 3 Finally, one cause of moral disagreement could be based on a disagreement concerning moral facts. If we are to reject moral realism based on fundamental moral disagreement, then we would have to believe (a) that all moral opinions are open to fundamental moral disagreement and (b) we have no way to adequately justify any particular moral belief. It might be possible to justify a moral fact with other moral facts, which is perfectly compatible with fundamental moral disagreement.

Stitch’s argument, the Persistence of Moral Disagreement, seems to assume that non-moral facts have to be able to be used to justify moral facts. That assumption is not necessarily true. My experience of pain as “bad” seems to be based on the moral fact itself. No non-moral fact seems to account for my moral belief, but that isn’t to say that my belief is unjustified. (We justify psychological beliefs in a similar way. I can’t justify my belief that I have thoughts based on non-mental facts alone. My experience of my mind itself is the main reason that I believe that I have a mind.)

Premise 2: Fundamental moral disagreement exists.

Stitch uses studies of everyday people to establish that moral intuitions and everyday moral beliefs are relative to our culture. These moral intuitions and beliefs supposedly can’t be accounted for by non-moral beliefs. He admits that the examples of cultural moral differences are “disputable” and moral realists tend not to be convinced by them. Let’s consider some examples he gives:

  1. Some cultures believe that harming animals for entertainment is morally permissible, but others don’t.
  2. People from “honor cultures” believe that it is permissible use violence against those who insult us, but people not from honor cultures don’t believe violence is as justified in such situations.
  3. People from “collectivist cultures” believe that infidelity deserves punishment but people from “individualist cultures” don’t feel as strongly about it.
  4. People from “collectivist cultures” believe that blaming the wrong person for a crime to prevent a riot is more justified than people from “individualist cultures.”

Stitch argues that our non-moral beliefs can’t explain the moral differences. I agree. For example, the cultures that believe that harming animals for entertainment is morally permissible can simultaneously agree that animals can feel pain, just like us.

Stitch argues that the moral differences seem to be based on a culture’s situation. For example, people from “honor cultures” lack of police protection and they live in a situation in which their private property could easily be stolen.

My objection

Objection 1: The examples presented in no way prove that fundamental moral disagreement is possible because fundamental moral disagreement is agreement in ideal situations. Many people’s moral beliefs are poorly formed. The fact that people can thoughtlessly accept the moral beliefs of others isn’t shocking. Many people seem to form at least some moral beliefs thoughtlessly, which is not an ideal condition.

Another problem with cultural moral beliefs is our tendency to over-generalize. An honor culture might generally have a good reason to take insults very seriously. Perhaps insults in those cultures tend to be a real threat. People might insult others to see if they can be pushed around and manipulated. People from these cultures could generalize (and/or impulsively expect) insults to be a threat, but such generalization will be illegitimate in certain situations, such as situations that offer adequate police protection. (Vigilantism might also be appropriate when adequate police protection is unavailable.)

Objection 2: Almost everyone agrees that moral progress is possible, but moral progress implies that we can have highly justified moral beliefs based on reality. Although some “cultures” (used to) find slavery to be acceptable, just about everyone seems to know that such cultures are wrong. Abolition of slavery and moral education against the use of slavery is moral progress and implies that we corrected a false moral belief in favor of a true moral belief.

A better argument for fundamental moral disagreement might be based on what actual philosophers believe, but there does seem to be a great deal of progress and agreement among philosophers. Although most philosophers can’t agree which “moral theory” is true, they seem to make progress and reach a great deal of agreement about what is morally right given specific situations. Most philosophers now agree that slavery is wrong, capital punishment is wrong, freedom of speech is good, gender equality is good, and homosexuality should be a right.

Objection 3: Stitch needs to prove that fundamental moral disagreement is pervasive, but these examples do not prove that it is. It is inevitable that we can find moral agreement within each culture and disagreement across cultures considering that (a) people in a culture live in a similar environment and (b) people in other cultures live in a different environment. It isn’t surprising that not only do people disagree about what’s right and wrong, but people in a certain culture have the tendency to agree.

Additionally, moral disagreement is expected because (a) we are often uncertain about what’s best, (b) many of our values are immeasurable, and (c) many values seem to be incommensurable.

Uncertainty – People are almost certain that killing people willy nilly is wrong, but they aren’t quite as sure about how to appropriately respond to insults. Sometimes we have to respond to insults in the appropriate way to maintain the respect of others.

Immeasurable values – We don’t know how much our happiness is “worth.” For example, we have to decide if going to school is worth it. School offers many benefits, but it can also require a lot of hard work and suffering. We have no way to know for sure that it’s our “best option” despite the fact that it is generally a pretty good option. We simply can’t measure the values involved. How much happiness will it give us and how much suffering will we have to endure? What other options do we have and how will they measure up?

Incommensurable values – We don’t have a good way to measure one sort of value with another. For example, should we shoot a suffering animal to put it out of it’s misery, or is a few more minutes of life worth more than the pain it will endure? Should we legalize euthanasia because human life can be worth less than the pain that will be experienced?

When we compare cultural differences we lack the ideal conditions that would be necessary to avoid uncertainty, the immeasurability of values, and the incommensurability of values. Of course, we might wonder if immeasurability and incommensurability of values will lead to fundamental disagreement (in ideal conditions). These factors seem like a pretty good reason to think that at least some fundamental moral disagreement would be inevitable, even if moral realism is true. If human life and suffering are both worth something, we might still have no way of knowing for sure which is more important.

Conclusion

The main problem with the argument “The Persistence of Moral Disagreement” is that some fundamental moral disagreement is not enough to have a good reason to reject moral realism. One single justified moral belief can be enough to establish moral realism. If we proved that one moral belief is impossible to justify, that wouldn’t disprove any other moral facts that have been established.

Moreover, pervasive moral disagreement might also be compatible with a highly justified form of moral realism because the ideal conditions that are could solve “fundamental moral disagreement” only include knowledge of non-moral facts. It might be that we can highly justify moral facts though our personal experience of moral reality.

Although I disagree that cultural moral differences are evidence for fundamental moral disagreement, I do agree that fundamental moral disagreement is a plausible view in at least some situations. However, some fundamental disagreement would be expected, even for a moral realist.

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4 Comments »

  1. I sometimes feel as though the arguments surrounding moral disagreement concern themselves too much with moral norms rather than underlying values. I think one could feasibly be a realist about values, or some base set of values, but still be a pluralist about norms. That’s if you see the norms as being generalised principles that promote those values, and there might be many ways to promote them. In this case, moral disagreement isn’t about the underlying values but about the best way of achieving them. It’s just an unfortunate side effect of our moral psychology that we tend to universalise norms.

    Honour culture, for example, is still trying to promote the values of social cohesion and discouraging ‘defection’, and in circumstances of high defection and low external regulation, it might be an effective strategy. But in modern liberal society, not so much. But arguing honour versus non-honour culture is the wrong kind of argument – they’re different strategies promoting the same underlying values. Neither is perfect, but some are better than others in certain circumstances.

    That said, I’m not convinced that ideal agents would agree on all (or any) of their norms. I’m also not convinced the notion of ideal agents is that helpful in developing a practical normative ethics, because we may never know what such agents would think. I’m also not convinced there are moral facts, I’m more of a good old fashioned anti-realist projectivist. But I agree that disagreement over norms is not a showstopper for realism.

    Comment by Tim Dean — April 2, 2010 @ 2:57 am | Reply

    • Tim,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree that ideal agents might disagree about various moral details, but it’s really hard to say for sure. I mentioned the relevant problem: values seem incommensurable and immeasurable.

      Sometimes we are interested in what ideal agents would think but sometimes we just have to make decisions based on the current information. I think that scientists tend to want to know what ideal agents would know about the universe despite the fact that we are giving ourselves an impossible ideal to live up to.

      I find ideal agents to be a useful concept because it is a humbling concept. The fact that we don’t know what ideal agents would believe doesn’t prove their beliefs to be irrelevant, but it does help us realize that we don’t quite understand the universe as much as we would like.

      We can imagine all kinds of reasons people have the wrong beliefs: Errors in reasoning, ignorance, and so on. If someone has a wrong belief, then it might be because they aren’t an ideal agent. Moral realists sometimes want to use this idea to describe the horrific beliefs and actions of others.

      I don’t generally find it useful to talk about ideal agents, but I think ideal agents can help us make sense out of anti-realism. (What ideal agents would agree should be moral rules are justified even if moral realism is false.)

      Comment by James Gray — April 2, 2010 @ 4:44 am | Reply

  2. “Objection 2: The moral realist philosophers cited by Stitch admit that some fundamental moral disagreement isn’t a problem:

    None of these philosophers claimed that a single instance of fundamental moral disagreement would disprove moral realism.”

    I cannot help but wonder how strange it is to suppose that few certain moral disagreements can be fundamental. I’m not convinced that it is enough for the realist to hold this view without further justification. Grant (purely for example) that disagreements about abortion and some ethical issue in war ethics were indeed fundamental. It strikes me utterly incomprehensible to think that just those two specific things can exist in the universe as fundamentally irresolvable disagreements. I don’t even know what it would mean for only them to exist in that way – why them at all? I think the realist needs to tell a further story here.

    There is also an issue of fuzziness. Just how much fundamental disagreement would render realism false? If it is x amount then why not x+1 or x-1? Why this specific amount? Again, how does x just exist in the universe? Something so specific needs some further explanation. After all, what is at stake here is the existence of objective moral facts, which either exist or do not exist.

    A promising move for the realist is value pluralism. In fact, the stronger the argument from disagreement is, one could argue, the stronger the case is for value pluralism. But that is another issue entirely.

    Comment by Koala — October 15, 2013 @ 3:58 am | Reply

  3. Koala, than you for your comments.

    It strikes me utterly incomprehensible to think that just those two specific things can exist in the universe as fundamentally irresolvable disagreements. I don’t even know what it would mean for only them to exist in that way – why them at all? I think the realist needs to tell a further story here.

    How much philosophical disagreement has been resolved in any domain? A lot hasn’t, but we might still wonder in what areas some progress has been made. If no progress has been made, then perhaps the disagreement is fundamental. How often does that happen? Not often as far as I can tell.

    A plausible fundamental problem for ethics involves conflicting values and duties. There’s no guarantee that you can measure the importance of various values/duties.

    There is also an issue of fuzziness. Just how much fundamental disagreement would render realism false? If it is x amount then why not x+1 or x-1? Why this specific amount? Again, how does x just exist in the universe? Something so specific needs some further explanation. After all, what is at stake here is the existence of objective moral facts, which either exist or do not exist.

    Right, disagreement seems like it might not be especially relevant. The idea is supposed to be that pervasive moral disagreement could be best explained by anti-realism. However, that seems to assume various things, such as the fact that we know of no moral facts at all. If we know of a moral fact, then fundamental moral disagreement will not be best explained by anti-realism.

    A promising move for the realist is value pluralism. In fact, the stronger the argument from disagreement is, one could argue, the stronger the case is for value pluralism. But that is another issue entirely.

    Yes, I am sympathetic to that.

    Comment by JW Gray — October 16, 2013 @ 6:21 pm | Reply


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