Posted by: captainfalcon | August 31, 2011

New Developments in Genealogical Anti-Realism

Richard Chappell has posted an interesting draft essay. On of the issues it addresses is whether believing our moral worldviews roughly correspond to the moral facts (call this belief in the reliability of our moral faculty*) is akin to believing that we hold the winning ticket in, for example, the New York lottery. (Chappell attributes this claim to Sharon Street.) Chappell thinks not. For the purposes of Chappell’s critique, we are entitled to assume the following. First, that there is an infinity of coherent moral worldviews. (Chappell calls this “the fact of coherent moral diversity”) Second, that moral facts, unlike natural facts, are causally impotent – i.e. do not feature in causal explanations. (Chappell calls this “the causal irrelevance of the moral facts.”)

Chappell considers two “separate” arguments to the conclusion that the fact of coherent moral diversity plus the causal irrelevance of the moral facts together entail that the odds are low that we have a reliable moral faculty. (I put “separate” in scare-quotes because I understand Chappell’s strategy to be pointing out that both arguments trade on the same unsupported principle.)

The first argument is that, given coherent moral diversity and the causal irrelevance of the moral facts, we have no explanation for the reliability of our moral faculty. There is no “coherentist explanation” for the reliability of our moral faculty. Because of coherent moral diversity, it is not the case that only one moral worldview is coherent or literally sensible. But there is also no “causal explanation” for the reliability of our moral faculty. Because of the causal irrelevance of the moral facts, they cannot have an impact on what moral worldview we end up with. (The same does not follow about judgments regarding the natural world, as the causal relevance of the natural facts is ex hypothesi compatible with the causal irrelevance of the moral facts.) But – for Chappell, this is the key move – if moral facts play no causal role in determining which of the infinity of coherent moral worldviews we end up with, then it would be unexplained coincidence if we “lotteried into” a moral faculty that led us to the true moral worldview. Unexplained coincidences are unlikely; therefore it is unlikely that our moral faculty is reliable.

Chappell’s objection is that the two kinds of explanation at play here – what I have termed coherentist and causal (both of which Chappell places under the rubric “constitutive explanation”) – do not exhaust the explanatory field. Instead, on a third kind of “substantive” explanation “we [may] presuppose some particular, substantive claims in the domain in question, and then merely show how our mental faculties would lead us to believe those putative truths” (Chappell 10). If substantive explanations are legitimate, then, even if moral facts are causally inert and there is an infinity of coherent moral worldviews, it is still possible to explain the reliability of our moral faculty. The explanation is simply that our moral faculty is capable of leading us to true moral conclusions (that torture is wrong, pain is intrinsically bad, etc.). That’s reliability.

Substantive explanations, insofar as they beg the question in favor of the reliability of our moral faculty, might seem illegitimate. For Chappell, however, “[w]hen engaging in wide reflective equilibrium we may appeal to all our beliefs, including our particular substantive beliefs within a domain, as providing (defeasible) internal reasons” to accept the reliability of our faculties vis-à-vis that domain (Chappell, 10). He thinks this for two substantial reasons. “First, there is the Moorean point that we may reasonably be more confident in our first-order moral views than we are in any skeptical principle to the contrary.” Second, he thinks “substantive explanation” is not an ad hoc device for escaping skepticism about moral facts. Rather, the domain of “inductive facts,” too, is both causally inert and capable of being coherently doubted. The reliability of our inductive faculty, like the reliability of our moral faculty, is therefore only susceptible of substantive explanation.

Chappell next considers a second, (intimately) related, argument against the reliability of our moral faculty. It analogizes belief that our moral faculty is reliable (given coherent moral diversity and the causal irrelevance of the moral facts) to belief that we won the New York Lottery.

Given the odds we can reasonably suppose to be in play in this ‘normative lottery’ case, we should conclude that in all probability we didn’t win – that, if there is indeed such a thing as the robustly independent normative truth we are positing as a substantive normative premise, then we are probably among the unlucky ones who . . . are hopeless at recognizing it. (Chappell 11, quoting Street).

Chappell’s critique:

For Street’s argument to work, it must be that we are similarly required to assign equal (or roughly equal) odds to the truth of each possible normative system. But why think that? I certainly have no antecedent inclination to assign equal odds to all possible normative systems – I think it’s overwhelmingly more likely that pain is intrinsically bad than that it’s intrinsically god, and I don’t see anything in Street’s argument that suggests I should change my mind. (Chappell, 12).

Of course the premise Chappell has previously denied – that only those beliefs that are susceptible of either causal or coherentist explanation are likely true – does push for the assignment of roughly equal odds to all moral systems (on the assumptions of coherent moral diversity and the causal irrelevance of the moral facts). It is only if we are entitled to appeal to all our beliefs that the priors change. Here, too, Street’s argument denies the possibility of substantive explanation, and Chappell’s response presupposes it.

It is interesting stuff, and I need to think some more about it before either conceding to Chappell or resisting him. In closing, it is worth explicitly highlighting one possibility that his argument does not foreclose, and another pretheoretically (at least in my view) damning possibility that he thinks his position is compatible with. The non-foreclosed possibility is that our substantive beliefs don’t include any traditionally moral judgments, i.e. that we do not have a moral worldview. Richard Joyce has suggested that this claim applies, at least, to some.

The pretheoretically damning possibility that Chappell notes, but whose significance he denies, is that our moral faculty may have come into being in such a way that its reliability is a matter of luck. The fact that we are lucky to have the moral faculty we do – as we could just as easily have had a different one – might seem to counsel skepticism about its reliability. But luck in having a reliable moral faculty is not the same as luck when the moral faculty is reliable. Substantive explanation rules out the latter, but not the former.

* This is not necessarily an accurate description, as it could be that our moral faculty is reliable even if e.g. there are no moral facts (or, as Simon Blackburn would have it, Moral Facts) to which our moral worldviews can correspond.

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