OK so I am back! Vegas was a blast (though I am broke-as-a-joke now, I didn’t win anything!!!) and I learned a lot…I will definately be posting on some stuff inspired by the conference later…though for now if I hear the word ‘consciousness’ one more time I may loose my mind 🙂
There seem to be obvious cases of moral statements that are straight-forwardly true. So for instance, ‘Hitler was evil’ certainly seems to be a true statement about Hitler, for that matter ‘smashing the heads of babies for fun is wrong’ and ‘barring special circumstances, promises should be kept’ also look like they are obviously true. From these considerations a simple argument for moral realism can be formulated.
Granted that there are things that are totally and obviously right (i.e. all moral theories will agree that these things are morally good), and that there are things that are totally and obviously wrong (i.e. all moral theories will agree that these things are morally bad), it looks like what we have is a continuum. Since each end point of the continuum is well defined, it would seem that there must be an answer to the in-between cases like eating meet and abortion, though of course we may not know the answer as of yet.
35 thoughts on “A Simple Argument for Moral Realism”
Isn’t moral anti-realism also consistent with that? Also, is it worth pointing out that anti-realism in regard to mathematics exists even though it’s pretty black and white?
While anti-realists will no doubt claim that your argument is question begging (since you simply assert that certain moral statements that are true), I’m inclined to think that something like this argument works. One way to think of it is as a kind of Moorean response to moral skepticism, in which it is claimed that “Hitler was evil” and similar claims are more obviously true than the premises of any skeptical argument.
I am not sure what you are asking…are you asking if moral anti-realism is consitent with there being certain moral truths? I don’t think so…(if you are interested see my post Truth, Justification, and the Quasi-Realist Way
As for your second question, yes I think it is worth piointing out…but I think the same kinds of things can be said…
Thanks for the comment!
Yes, I think I like your take on the argument.
Let me also be a little more clear as to what I take myself to be up to here. I want to argue that there is a small set of moral claims that have obvious truth values. I take as evidence for this the fact that this small set of moral claims will be given the same truth value by all moral theories (I have recently found out that Steven Ross, a teacher of mine, has argued for something similar in a paper called “Real, Modest Moral Realism“) as well as the fact that any rational person will be expected to react in the right ways to instances of these actions. Once we have that claim, we can use the argument above to extend the set of moral truths to get bivalence for all moral judgements…
Heh, I meant moral anti-realism is also consistent with there being certain moral beliefs which most people have in common. Virtually all of mathematics is agreed on yet there are still math anti-realists.
Oh, yeah I guess so…but my argument does not depend (too much) on everyone agreeing on certain moral judgments…rather it is that certain moral judgemenst are obviously true
As for Math, the same kind of arguemnt will work…so 2+2=4 is obvious true, 7+2=11 is obviously false, and so we can extrapolate that Goldbach’s conjecture must be either true or false; that is, every mathematical claim is either true or false (bivalence for math). The anti-realist strategy, when confronted with this claim is to go deflationist, or fictionalist, both of which won’t work for reasons I spell out in that other post…
Though it’s a little off topic, are the examples you give really that straightforward and universal or are they just incredibly taboo?
For instance, many otherwise good and decent people in Germany during that era would not have agreed Hitler was evil. Er, I hope I’m not stretching it too far, but someone might suggest the same of US congress and Andrew Jackson in their treatment of American Indians. Yet, the latter wouldn’t be as immediatly obvious to an American.
As for babies, while we can’t imagine it any other way, it does seem odd that Coyotes are so forcefully protected when they basically smash the heads of baby animals for fun. In a consequentialist framework, the suffering of the animals is probably as great as a human baby. Even if we factor in additional consequences to human society and parents, it seems to me like there’s all too big of a gap between straightforward truth in the one case and complete mitigation by ‘law of the jungle’ in the other.
yes I think they are.
For instance the ‘otherwise good and decent’ people of Germany did not think that Hitler was evil because they were ignorant of what he was doing to the jews in the camps. If they knew about that and still didn’t think that he was evil then they were not good and decent people. Same with the U.S. and the indians…knowingly giving people blackents that were (knowingly and purposefully) infected with smallpox is evil and if that is not obvious to an American then they are not a good and decent peorson…The thing about coyotes is that they are not moral creatures so (technically) nothing that they do can be moral or immoral…but what does that have to do with us?
Fascinating stuff, but aren’t you begging the question here? I could be missing something (like an earlier post, perhaps, where you set some of this up) but it seems like you’re just flat out defining what you consider “evil” and “good and decent” to mean, with a quite arbitrary basis.
Let’s look at the antebellum South. There were lots and lots of white folks who thought that slavery was justified, many of them on the premise that blacks were intrinsically sub-human. So just as it’s okay to own an ox and use it for labor, it was okay (in their minds) to own a human and use it for labor.
How would you label such people? Were they “good and decent” or “evil?” Strictly on the basis of logic, and without appealing to any outside source of moral definition (say, the supernatural), I don’t see how you can avoid saying anything other than “they were evil, because they disagree with me on this point.” That’s fine, I suppose, to label your own beliefs/practices as “good and decent” and anything in conflict with them as “evil,” but in the end that’s just arbitrary, isn’t it? Why aren’t your views/practices “evil” and theirs “good” on this point?
Your point seems to rest on the idea that even though there are admittedly many ambiguous areas (abortion and vegetarianism are the two you cite), there nonetheless exist some special set of rights & wrongs which “all moral theories” would agree to. But how can you say that? You haven’t polled “all moral theories,” nor could you. I personally would never have guessed that anyone could consider owning other people morally acceptable under any circumstances, until I was educated in early American history. So suddenly the random fact that I happened to pick up some historical information moves a moral issue from the “all moral theories agree” category to the “we don’t know for sure” category? That seems like a pretty weak theory indeed. Why should the absolute right-ness or wrong-ness of certain acts depend on what exposure I happen to have had to other people and/or cultures?
(Again, apologies if I missed or am missing something crucial.)
Thanks for the comment!
You say “it seems like you’re just flat out defining what you consider “evil” and “good and decent” to mean, with a quite arbitrary basis.”
No, I am using the ordinary English meaning of these words. No sane rational person can think that what Hitler did was anything other than evil. You then go on to say,
Good question. In the case you describe it seems obvious that the people in question are acting immorally (by affirming that slavery is morally acceptable and owning slave, etc.) but they do so out of ignorance of the fact that makes the difference. So, if they REALLY believe that blacks are like animals and the believe that it is OK to treat animals incertainways then they will think that it is OK to treat blacks in certainways…a person who defends slavery in this way and who has some kind of evidence that supports the sincere belief that blasck are more like animals in the relevant sense is not being evil, though they are committing an immoral act. If they find out that their belief was wrong and still defend slavery then that is another story. Now of course in the day and age that we live in, no one could sincerely and thoughtfully hold that belief for very long…
As for the wrongness of their act, well it is not because they disagree with me that they are acting immorally!!! It is because rational persons can see that there is a kind of contradition contained in the idea of enslaving another person…you tacitly assume this in your example by explicitly stipulating that the southeners think slavery is OK because they think that black are subhumans…of course they recognize that it is wrong to enslave a human…
As for the ‘all moral theories’ bit…well there are really only a few moral theories out there (though there are plenty of different kinds of these basic types)…so we have the split between the realist and the irrealist…on the realist side we have (a) Virtue ethics (e.g. Aristotle) (b) Utillitarian theories (e.g. Mill, Bentham, Singer) (b) Deontic theories (i.e. duty based theories) of which we have two kinds (b1) Kantian ethics and (b2) Rawlsian Kantian contractualism…I think we could debate whether Divine Command theory was an ethical theory or not…but if so then that brings the total to 6…you seem to think that by ‘moral theory’ I mean a person’s moral theory, but that is not what I mean. I mean a real honest to God moral theory!!!
Your point about slavery is an excellent one, which I now concede: the difference between slave-owning Southerners and ourselves is not a moral one, but a metaphysical one. In other words, they agreed morally that it is wrong to own a person; they disagreed, however, that blacks were people.
On the larger issue, however, I must continue to insist on pursuing the logical ramifications. Let me see if I have your position correctly. I will paraphrase it as follows:
“Currently, we only know of a relatively few moral theories — say, six. Now here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to take these six theories and find the intersection between them. Any moral stance that all six agree on, I’m going to claim is ‘truly’ or ‘really’ moral, and I’m thereby justified in stating that any individual person who acts against those beliefs is ‘evil,’ and that anyone who acts in concert with them is ‘good and decent.’ Any moral stance upon which there is disagreement among the six, however, I’ll put in the ‘don’t know for sure’ category.”
I think you’ll have to admit that this is a shaky foundation. The whole ethical scheme is dependent on the extent of your knowledge about what moral theories exist among humans.
Suppose a seventh theory were found. There’s some tribal group in Africa, say, that hasn’t had much contact with humanity, but now they are found, researched, analyzed, and it turns out that their moral code is in fact distinct from the other six theories. To me, that’s a mildly interesting finding, and not totally surprising. But to you, it would shake your whole theory to the ground. Because now there are a whole bunch of axioms which you had claimed were truly moral in some absolute sense, but because this renegade group was found, now all of the sudden they have to be relegated to the relative category.
As an example, suppose this group felt it was perfectly natural to own other people, or that it was the duty of the strong to oppress the weak because that was the natural state of things, or that their ethnic group was superior and it was their obligation to Planet Earth to declare open war on all other ethnic groups, or just about anything else. Now, all of the sudden your judgments about the rest of humanity are called into question. Formerly, Hitler was objectively “evil” in some absolute sense, but now he’s not, because lo and behold there’s a bona fide seventh theory that in fact holds that non-Aryans are to be slaves to Aryans (or whatever.) And so whence before he was objectively “evil,” now he simply “adheres to a different moral theory than you.”
This strikes me as a typical attempt to try and secure absolutism starting with only relativistic presuppositions. I sympathize with the goal, but it can’t be done.
And anyway, how large a consensus needs to be formed in order for a moral theory to be “legit?” I mean, Hitler believed what he believed, right? Isn’t that a moral theory? How many other people are required to assent to the principles of Mein Kampf before it gains standing as a perfectly legitimate moral theory on par with any of the others you named?
Hi again WheezePuppet!
Thanks for the interesting comment…though I don’t agree with anything that you say (except, of course, the part where you say I am right :))
I think the paraphrase that you offer pretty much captures my strategy, except I would want to be clear that the ‘don’t know for sure’ category (which is where most moral claims end up on this view) is just a ‘don’t know yet’ category. Every moral claim that we make is, on my view, either true or false whether we know it or not…so there are definate answers for vegetarianism and abortion but due to a lack of knowedge of the relevant facts. I claim that if everyone knew all of the facts that were relevent to these cases then we would know the answers…
But I don’t agree that this is on shaky ground. To start with, I think we need to distinguish a ‘moral code’ from a ‘moral theory’… a moral code is a description of what a certain group of perople/singular person actually believes/does. A moral theory is an attempt to specify what a person/group ought to believe/do in a way that stems from certain basic claims about what is intrinsically good (i.e. good for its own sake)…Now I know this distinction needs to clarified and perhaps worked out in more detail, but it is adequate for my purposes in this rough and ready form, for it seems to me that this tribe that you describe certainly has a moral code, and it may even have a moral theory that the code follows from…
but once we move from code to theory, we can ask ‘should the tribe hold the beliefs that they actually do?’ So in your example you say,
For each of these beliefs we would need to know the theory behind it from which it follows, in order to distinguish it from the known theories which I have already mentioned, which are all pretty much unanimous in rejecting these claims, focusing as they do, on certain basic features about human beings (like for instance, their autonomy, their rationality, and their capacity for suffering…but I know there are some issues here concernig Untillitarianism and Divine Command Theory that we could debate about, that is why I say ‘pretty much’ in agreementt about this group you have assembled)…
Now, I think it will be difficult to get a theory that is distinct in kind from the ones I have mentioned and is actually a moral theory, but let’s assume that we do. What then? We would then need to isolate the theoretical claim that is causing the disagreement. So, for instance, when (act) uitlliatarians and Kantians disagree about whether we can sacrifice one innocent person to save 100 (or whatever) the disagreement comes from some specific theoritical claim that one accepts and the other rejects (in this case over the claim that killing an innocent person is always wrong (follows from the theoretical claim that the moral rules are universal and admit of no exceptions)). Once we have the disagreement on the table we can then try to evaluate the claim and try to decide what to do about it. In this case I think that there are good arguments which suggest that we modify the claim that the moral rules admit of no exceptions (a standard way of doing this is Ross’ prima facie duties…this way the duty not to kill an innocent is a uniersal duty at first glance, but there may be cases where that prima facie duty can be overridden by other duties…sorry if you are not familiar with this stuff…actually now that I think of, sorry if you are! :))
But anyway the point is that this would need to be done in the case of the competeing theory (if any) that this tribe has…In the absence of such a theory I can only speculate, but it seems to me reasonable to assume that whichever theoretical claim yeilded the outcome that the beliefs you mention are morally justified beliefs would either be factually wrong (that is, assume something that is factually incorrect about Human Beings) or would have some identifiable claim that could be disputed. So I don’t think the case that you mention, although interesting, poses a problem for my view…
Finally as for the last bit about Hitler, I think it should be obvious at this point that I do not think that Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a moral theory…it is a manifesto, but not a moral theory, though of course it does rely on one (I think that some kind of utilliatarianism is the likely candidate)…and finally finally…the correctness of a moral theory does not depend on whether people actually agree with it or not (compare: if everyone belived that 2+2=5 was true that would not make it so)
Sorry, I still don’t get it. 🙂
Let’s use Hitler as the running example; he’s always fun. (Or, if my history is not accurate, let’s use WheezePuppet’s-Imperfect-Notion-Of-Hitler. Clearly, the strength of your analysis depends upon being able to handle any hypothetical case, not only cases that we can actually find real live examples of.)
Hitler’s moral code: all non-Aryans should either be destroyed, or subjected to slavery at the discretion of the Aryans.
Hitler’s moral theory, which gives rise to that code: non-Aryans are an inherently inferior class of beings to Aryans.
There you go.
Now I suspect your next move will be to claim that “the theory rests upon a factually incorrect hypothesis about human beings, and hence doesn’t count.” But let’s examine that in detail. It seems to me that the hypothesis in question here is not one of fact at all, but one of value. Hitler believes that non-Aryans are inferior to Aryans, just as I believe that chimpanzees are inferior to humans. You can argue until you’re blue in the face that Aryans and non-Aryans are “really” of equal value and that humans are “really” more valuable than chimpanzees, but you’re not going to get very far trying to argue that factually. You’ll say, “but both Aryans and non-Aryans have speech and intelligence!” And Hitler will reply, “so? Evidently you care about speech and intelligence as metrics of value. I don’t. I care about hair color and eye color.”
I can erect any moral theory I choose based on whatever value notions I choose. Consider four groups: men, women, gorillas, and butterflies. These four groups all have a number of different properties. If I inherently value strength, then my moral code is going to be to protect and promote men and gorillas at the expense of women and butterflies. If I inherently value speech and intelligence, my moral code is going to be to protect and promote men and women at the expense of gorillas and butterflies. If I inherently value aesthetic beauty, my moral code might be to protect and promote women and butterflies at the expense of men and gorillas.
It’s just no use saying that these are “factual errors” in the theory. The very attempt is humorous: “no, men and women should ‘really’ be promoted at the expense of gorillas and butterflies because speech and intelligence are ‘really’ superior attributes to strength and beauty,” or whatever.
There is simply no way to get an “ought” from an “is,” or to remove the quotes from the word “really,” without some basis other than “Richard Brown thinks that that moral theory sounds perfectly ridiculous” or “of the six or so moral theories identified by philosophers as being in common use among non-tribal peoples, they all agree that strength and intelligence determine value more strongly than these other attributes.” This is just arguing for intrinsic morality based on the consensus of the moment. Suppose all six moral theories have the same “factual error?” Or suppose there is honest disagreement about what constitutes value? Suppose someone claims that all primates are of equal value to men, based on (say) genetic similarities – can I say that they’re wrong? Suppose that someone claims that men are inherently superior to women because of their (on average) superior physical strength and aggressiveness – can I say that they’re wrong? Is there really a “factual error” here, or just a difference of opinion?
Don’t get me wrong: I believe that Hitler was absolutely, objectively immoral, too, but for quite different reasons than you do.
Hi again. You raise some good points so let me try and be a bit clearer about my position and then we can see if we still disagree…
I am fine sticking to the Hitler example. So, you say
First, I would disagree that the second is Hitler’s moral theory. It looks more like a belief that he holds than some kind of theory, but let’s waive that. Second you are right to suspect that I think that the claim that the theory makes is factually incorrect, but I will come back to that in a moment.
Before I do, though, notice that there is a step that is missing in your set up. In order to get from what you call his theory to what you call his code he needs to show that a creature’s being inferior is adequate justification to treat it in the way the code specifies. My claim was that ‘they have differen’t eye color than me’ is not a sufficient justification and that any rational person can see this for themselves.
That all persons are morally equal is, as the framers of the Constituion pointed out, a self-evident truth. Various philosophers have pointed out ways to see that it is self-evident. For Kant it is asking ‘what would the world be like if my moral code were to become a universal law like the law of gravity?’ A world where rational beings, of whatever race, creed or eye color, were enslaved would be a world in which I was enslaved and so I cannot consistently will that rational beings be enslaved. For Rawls by asking ‘what rules for the structering of society would I accept if I were ignorant of my race, sex, and position in society?’ I would not accept a rule that allowed people of a certain race to be enslaved because I do not know what race I will be. For Utilitarians by realizing that if one’s own pain and pleasures matter, so do all others. For a pain is a pain, whether mine or yours…granted some utilitarian theories allows that some can be enslaved to maximize the happiness of the group, each personis morally equal in so far as their happiness counts as one, and no more than one.
So, you are right that this is a claim about value and not a factual one, but the moral claim is made in virtue of some facts about persons, either their autonomy, or their rationality, or their capacity for suffering.
You say “I can erect any moral theory I choose based on whatever value notions I choose.” I don’t think that this is right. To take an old example of teh philosopher Phillipa Foot, ‘moral’ is like ‘dangerous’ in that it can only be applied to certain things. So, if you have seen Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, think about the rabbit that Tim leads them to. Time is very frightned of the rabbit and is acting as though it is very dangerous. The Knights laugh at him because normally it is quite silly to think that a rabbit is dangerous. Someone who thinks that rabbits are dangerous, in the normal course of things, is making a factual error about what counts as dangerous. OF course once the Knights find out that the rabbit has fangs and really can leap and rip out their throats then they see that the rabbit really is dangerous. So too with morality. Not just anything can be morally praised. So, for instance, if I were to say that having a haircut like mine is morally praiseworthy but having a haircut like yours wasn’t, then I would be making the same kind of factual error that the Knights made about the rabbit. All thing sbeing equal, haircuts are not the right kinds of things that can properly speaking be called morally good or bad (bear in mind, this is ‘normally speaking’ there are of course scenerios we can imagine where a haircut might be morally significant…)
So, there are reasons, moral reasons, to say that we should promote men and women over gorillas and butterflies; namely that they are more rational, more autonomous, and have a greater capicity for suffering. People can say whatever they want, they can even values whatever they want, so I do not think that the people that you imagine are not reali possibilities. It is just that these people are not acting morally. They cannot move from some claim about inferiority or value to a claim about how persons can be treated without some kind of reason for thinking that the inferiority or value licences the treatment.
So, if we still disagree after all this, then I would be curious to find out why you think that what Hitler did was objectively immoral.
[…] Sucks. The philo blog of Richard Brown, a grad student at CUNY. Here is an old but interesting post on arguing for moral realism. […]
Some of these terms get fuzzy after a while, so I hope I understand your claim to moral realism correctly. I, for example, believe there are objective moral facts, but I still do not qualify as a realist. I understand moral realism only in the sense expressed by a fellow named Russ Shafer-Landau in his book, MORAL REALISM. He gives moral realism as the claim that
1) There are objective moral facts
2) We can in principle know them
3) These facts would obtain independent of any actual or hypothetical stance one might have toward them
On my view, 2 is trivially true or just plain unintelligible, and 3 could not be the case for me. Nonetheless, I am sympathetic toward moral realism. However, I don’t think your argument is convincing.
Like most ordinary language appeals, your argument suffers from the fact that just because we take certain claims to be straightforwardly true, it does not follow that they are, nor does it follow that they entail that the discourse refers to a real domain. I, for example, could refer to someone’s behavior as very expressive of a Capricorn. And in my circle of friends, discourse about zodiac signs is as common as discourse about the weather. So within the scope of my friend group with whom I regularly associate, talk of someone as being ‘just like a Capricorn,’ or someone having ‘a Scorpio sex drive,’ etc., appears to express claims that are straightforwardly true and which refer to a real domain. But it does not follow that there is zodiacal realism. The two conditions specified, that it seems to be true talk and that it seems to refer to a real domain, are not sufficient to make for a sound realism.
Actually, my argument doesn’t appeal to ‘ordinary language’ but to the fact that there is a set of moral truths that every moral theory agrees on. There is no moral theory that says that smashing babies heads in for fun is a moral action. This is, of course, different from the astrology stuff in that NOT every physical theory agrees on the accuarcy of the zodiac stuff (though see here for my defense of astrology)
Oh I see, my mistake.
But all moral theories could be consistently wrong, right? In the same way we’ve long mistaken colors as objective properties, so too we could have long mistaken moral claims for expressing objective truths.
I doubt that ALL of our moral theories could be incorrect…they all focus on radically different aspects of persons and their goals and yet there is this convergence on a small set of truths…this is not the way things are with respect to color theories…irrealism about the so-called secondary properties goes back at least to Democritus….
Before you get too carried away with the idea that there are moral truths, you might want to back up a bit and ask yourself what could possibly make a moral claim either true or false. Unless you are prepared to make do with unanalyzed moral qualities as constituents of moral facts – which can then be moral truthmakers – it’s difficult to see how you can make much progress.
At any rate, my intutions run in the opposite direction. I particular, I don’t think that it’s true that Hitler was evil. I say that he was evil in order to try to influence the behavior of others by expressing my (sincere) dissaproval of what he did and I advocate that other’s also express their dissapproval. However, just as no command is either true or false and no expression of dissapproval (or approval either for that matter) is either true or false, so, I think, moral claims do not express propositions.
As far as I can tell the function of a moral claim is to influence behavior by expressing (and by adovacting the expression of) approval or dissaproval. Moral claims concern what to do, not what is true. This is not to trivialize them. Rather it’s just that not everything that’s important is a matter of what is true.
It further seems to me that you have not given genuinely supporting evidence for your key claim that that there are some obvious moral truths. Rather, what would appear to be obvious is just that most people disapprove of certain kinds of acts strongly enough to advocate showing disapproval of them.
Hi Richard, thanks for the comment.
I argued that the sentence ‘Hitler was evil’ is straightforwardly true. I agree that we use the sentence in the way that you point out; namely to express our disapproval, and to influence others. But none of that has anything to do with whether or not the sentence that we use is true.
The sentence is true because Hitler deserved moral condemnation. Why did he deserve it? Well, insert your favorite theory of justification…I don’t think that there are unaanalyzable moral properties. I am attracted to a constructivist/rationalist theory of justification…
We may have a technical disagreement as to what sort of things truths and falsehoods are that’s worth mentioning in passing. According to me it’s necessary to distinguish between sentences and the propositions they express. Thus, for example, the English sentence ‘Some dogs are black’ expresses a truth, but is not itelf a truth. For if it were then some truths would begin with the letter ‘S’; even though when the same truth is expressed in Spanish the corresponding sentence does not begin with an ‘S’. Also (as I assume you are already aware) some sentences are ambiguous in such a fashion that they can be used to express both a truth and a falsehood. The sentence ‘All muslims are not terrorists’ is an example; for it can express the truth “Not all muslims are terrorists” as well as the falsehood “All muslims are non-terrorists”.
At any rate, we have a fundamental disagreement as to whether moral claims express propositions. In your last post you agreed with me that one function of moral claims is to influence how others behave. You then dismissed its importance, however, presumably because you reckon that that does not mean that a moral claim can’t ALSO express a proposition. If that’s what you had in mind then I have no particular objection. (I never meant to suggest that a claim might have more than a single function.) It is, however, relevant to our dispute because it’s an attempt to explain how a moral claim can be both meaningful and valuable even if it doesn’t express any proposition. Also, I presume that you’ll agree that many things we say in order to influence behavior clearly do not express propositions. ‘Take out the trash’ and ‘Let’s order a pizza for dinner tonight’ are examples. So, I think, your position (as so far stated) is no better than mine; and perhaps the burden falls more naturally on you to show that moral claims do express propositions. (I shan’t insist on that however.)
Now as to your claim that “The sentence is true because Hitler deserved moral condemnation.” – well, I think you have to do far better than that. I’m mean, that’s little better than saying that Hitler was evil because he performed morally impermissible acts. In order to have a substantial backing for your position you must be able to explain what the truthmaker for “Hitler was evil” is; and it’s impossible to do that just by appealing to ordinary (morally neutral) facts.
Given that I’ve been quite explicit about the fact that I’m a non-cognitivist, it’s bizarre that you asked me to fill in the blanks myself by appealing to my favorite theory of justification. For as a non-cognitivist I believe that all theories of moral justification are fundamentally confused. (It would be like having a theory of the justification of requests. “Please pass the salt” is justified but “Please take your hands off my wife” is unjustified.
You claimed that you do not believe in unanalyzable moral properties. Honestly, I can’t see how you can possibly hope to avoid them. For you need truthmakers for your so-called moral truths; and these truthmakers are going to have to be facts that involve moral qualities. Hence your only way out is to instead have analyzable moral properties — and good luck with that!
Lastly, you said that you are attracted to a constructivist/rationalist theory of justification. When you get the time could you give me a brief explanation of the main idea? (At present I only have a vague idea of what you mean.)
Hugs and Kisses,
Hi Semantic terrorist,
thanks for the comment! Very intersting stuff…
According to me it is neccessary to distinguish between the sentence type and the thought(s)/attitudes that we express in and by uttering the sentence (i.e. producing a token of the type). I think that the sentence type ‘some dogs are black’ is a truth, so some thing sthat are true do start with an ‘S’…to account for the same truth in another language we can employ the ‘means’ rubric that Sellers introduced; ‘dog’ means the same as ‘perro’. As for the ambiguous stuff…I agree with you that it can be USED to express both of those things, but the sentence (type) does not MEAN both of those things. In the case of a genuine semantic ambiguity we will end up with two distinct sentence types, so, “I went to the bank” is semantically ambiguous and so results in there being two sentence types that are homophones.
Do moral claims express propositions? well it depends (according to me) on what you mean by moral claims. If you mean the sentence types that contain moral predicates, then I guess I would be OK with that (though as I said above I don’t really like the proposition talk…I prefer sentence types and thoughts, but I suppose it is harmless as long as by ‘proposition’ you mean nothing more than ‘have the same meaning’). But if you mean to be talking about moral judgments, then I agree with you that they do not express propositions (at least not of the kind that attribute a property to an action/person). According to me a moral judgment consists in a moral emotion and the belief that the moral emotion is the correct one to have (I call this view a kind of Emotive Realism). So, I share your non-cognitive sympathies, but I also think that there is the possibility of really justifying our moral reactions.
You go to say, “Now as to your claim that “The sentence is true because Hitler deserved moral condemnation.” – well, I think you have to do far better than that. I’m mean, that’s little better than saying that Hitler was evil because he performed morally impermissible acts.” But that is exactly what I think I am saying. What counts as a morally impremissible act is, of course, up for debate. But in the case of Hitler and his actions I do not think that there is ANY theory of moral justification that will end up telling us that what Hitler did was justified. But at any rate that is the job of a normative theory, NOT a metaethical theory.
And, yes, I know that as a true non-cognitivst you deny that it is possible to really justify our moral responses, but that is itself a theory of justification. So when I say ‘insert your favorite theory of justification’ I meant to include those who think that we can’t justify our moral feelings, or alternatively, that our moral emotions simply ARE the justification for why Hitler was evil.
As for what kind of normative theory I like, the basic picture is something like this. The world and the things in it are entirely natural (I am a naturalist/materialist/physicalist at heart) so that means that the only properties out there are natural properties (according to me). When we construct a normative theory what we want is one that handles these natural properties in a certain way. So, given certain basic facts about human beings (i.e. that they feel pain, that they dislike pain, that they make utterances which count as undertaking obligations, that they are rational, etc) we can see that certain actions are unjustifed, because to think otherwise is irrational/contradictory. This is, in my opinion, the true beauty of the categorical imperative. It is a process by which each rational individual comes to see that certain kinds of actions cannot be justifed. So, for me, the moral point of view simply is the rational point of view. But it does not commit me to unanalyzable moral properties. It commits me to natural properties seen from a certain point of view.
Thank’s for the speedy and detailed reply, Richard. (I’m rather new to the internet, and am glad to have discovered your site. It’s fun to talk shop with you and the other contributors.)
So then… … the propositions “Some dogs are black” and “Algunos perros son negros” aren’t the same truth. That’s very surprising to say the least! Indeed, it would seem to make the job of translating from English to Spanish a downright mysterious task – if not an impossible one. For ‘twould seem that no English truth can be a Spanish truth, and conversely. (By the way, I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as an English truth.) Still more surprisingly, the sentence ‘All Muslims are not terrorists’ is not necessarily identical to ‘All Muslims are not terrorists’! Curiouser and Curiouser.
Don’t take that the wrong way, man, I’m just having some fun joking around. As I figure it we simply don’t mean the same thing by ‘sentence’. I use it to mean a string of symbols, whereas you use it to mean what is sometimes called an interpreted sentence. (At least, I think that’s what you mean, because otherwise it wouldn’t make much sense to claim that ‘All Muslims are not terrorists’ is not necessarily identical to ‘All Muslims are not terrorists’. In short you seem to be including meaning in what you mean by a sentence. (But, not to worry, I’m becomming accustomed to your funky use of the terms.)
As concerns this side-issue, I have only one last comment – and then’ll drop it and stick to the proper topic. That last point is that we aren’t using the word ‘proposition’ in the same way either. I use it to mean a truth or a falsehood – and nothing more. (Damn it, how does that italics thing work???) Also, I have no theory on the nature of truths and falsehoods; nor do I find that topic very interesting. For me it’s enough that I know that the negation of every truth is a falsehood, and that it’s self-defeating to claim that there are no truths.
As concerns the more substantial issues, I’m working out a reply but I don’t have time to post it today. (I don’t have access to the internet from my home, and I won’t be back to work until monday – but I will post a reply then.)
Thanks again for making the site a fun place to talk shop.
I am glad you enjoy it, and very glad to have your thoughtful comments!
“So then… … the propositions “Some dogs are black” and “Algunos perros son negros” aren’t the same truth.” Well, I don’t know what exactly you mean by ‘same truth’ so I can’t say. These things are meaning equivelant and so mean the same thing. If one is true then so is the other. isn’t that enough?
“Still more surprisingly, the sentence ‘All Muslims are not terrorists’ is not necessarily identical to ‘All Muslims are not terrorists’! In one sense this is right, in another it is not. we have to draw a distinction between the physical type that the sentence exemplifies (i.e. the shape it has) and the semantic type it exemplifies. So, of course the two sentences are identical at the level of physical shape. They have all of the same parts in the same arrangement. But the sentence is syntactically ambiguous and so could have two interpretations (x) (Mx → ~Tx) or ~(x) (Mx → Tx). Which one a given token of that sentence exemplifies will depend on the thought that the person uttering it means to express. So in that sense it is true that those tokens are not (necessarily) identical, but I don’t see why that is suprising…So, yeah I think we are just crossing wires with respect to terminology, but I think that the physical type/ semantic type distinction takes care of the issue.
I think that the only things that are strictly speaking true or false are thoughts (and derrivitavly sentence tokens taken to be the expression of a thought)…sentence types have truth conditions but are never (strictly speaking) true or false…but I am happy to put that aside and just say that a proposition is something that can be true or false, since you don’t seem to care very much about the ontological status of propositions…I don’t think it is going to trip us up very much…
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the more substantive issues on Monday…enjoy your (rather long) weekend!!
Sorry that I’m late getting to this. My schedule got a bit out of whack because a friend and colleage of mine unexpectedly died on Friday.
[R. Brown post #4] “You say “I wish R. Brown would give me a fuller account of what makes some non-trivial (i.e. non-analytic) so-called moral truth true.” I thought I did in my response to your comment over at the other post. For me personally it has to do with the categorical imperative and our realizing that some action types result in contradiction. So, Ted Bundy’s actions are morally impermissible because they involve action types that do no pass the test of the categorical imperative.” [Note 1: R. Brown’s quote continues, but the rest is not relevant to what I have to say. Note 2: I still haven’t figured out how to write things in italics; and thus am requesting more detailed “instructions-for-dummies.]
R. Brown’s claim strikes me as utterly unconvincing for the following very simple reason: imperatives are commands. And, as everyone knows, commands are neither truths nor falsehoods. Hence, I reckon, ‘tis every bit as absurd to say that Kant’s categorical command is a truth as it to say that “Don’t bite my nipples so hard” is a truth.
As to R. Brown’s follow-up claim that “some ACTIONS result in contradiction”, it strikes me as blatant nonsense. Indeed, he might just as rationally have claimed that some kangaroo hops kill prime numbers. For ‘tis mighty hard to make any sense of the claim that a real-life performance of some act (type) is a contradiction; once that act (type) has actually been performed by some agent. Moreover, why the hell should any agent care that his performance of some act (type) is described by someone as “contradictory” once he has already performed it??? I mean, what the hell is that sort of insult supposed to do? [It’s nothing better than saying “You can’t possibly do that” after one has actually performed the act in question.]
This is important. For apparently R. Brown thinks that he means something intelligible in claiming that immoral performances of acts are contradictory. And yet, since he himself admits that what he deems to be immoral acts are sometimes performed, ‘twould seem clear that he is merely abusing those who perform such acts by labelling their acts as “contradictions”.
Is any rational being really supposed to believe that he didn’t perform some act which he damn well knows that he did perform just because someone claims that it’s an “action-contradiction”? Besides which, that phrase clearly has no fixed meaning anyway. Even worse, ‘twould be a mighty challenge to assign the phrase any sensible meaning – given that R. Brown freely admits that “action-contradictions” are performed.
Only propositions (and, indeed, only falsehoods) can be contradictions in the literal sense of the word. Moreover, insofar as I understand metaphorical extensions of the concept, it’s obviously false that what are commonly called immoral acts are contradictions – for not only are such acts possible, they are performed on a daily basis. Hence whatever R. Brown means, it can’t be along the [merely metaphorical] lines of “Square circles are contradictions
Now for R. Brown’s second follow-up claim that “Ted Bundy’s actions are morally impermissible because they involve action types that do no pass the test of the categorical imperative.” Even if I were to swallow the nonsense that Kant’s famous command is true, R. Brown’s inference would still be fallacious. For then everything would depend on the TYPE act that’s used to classify the particular TOKEN act in question. I mean, rationally speaking, mean-old-bastard Ted Bundy could simply retort “The relevant type act in question is the type act of TED BUNDY’S raping, beating and murdering girls for his own sexual gratification”. And Ted may very well see nothing wrong with making it a universally applicable rule that anyone identical to Ted Bundy may rape, beat and murder young women for his own sexual gratification.
I imagine that you would now like to retort: “But that ain’t playing fair, because the rule must be universalized to all persons – not just to persons identical to Ted Bundy”. And then I can ask you why such rules shouldn’t instead be universalized to all vertebrates.
[R. Brown post #4] “…what I claim is that moral judgments consist in a moral emotion and a belief that the emotion is the correct one to have. The belief is made true (or false) according to a theory of justification.”
This claim strikes me as a sly evasion.
Firstly, the phrase ‘moral emotion’ is not in common use. So, unless you are going to provide us with some tolerably clear definition, then it’s hard to see what you mean. [Indeed, the only sense that I can presently make of it is “non-cognitive attitude”, (or “attitude concerning what to do, how to act, whether to endorse some policy or proposal, or something along those lines).]
Secondly, if you are going to claim that some non-cognitive attitudes are cognitively correct whereas others are cognitively mistaken (so that it’s even possible for the sort of cognitive belief in question to be true or false) then you need to specify some criterion by which to distinguish the right attitudes from the wrong ones. And if this is to be anything beyond an unreasoned matter of opinion then you must appeal to objective facts. Appealing to theories is not the same thing at all. For if a theory is true, then ‘tis true because certain facts make it true. I mean, suppose that you hold one theory of moral justification and Brandon holds a slightly different one, and these two theories conflict as to whether a certain controversial act (such as first trimester surgical abortion) is morally impermissible. What are you going to say then? Are you really going to say that “the” truth as to whether the act is morally impermissible is theory-relative? If so, then why should anyone care? For then moral truths are just relative to theories; and thus are belief dependent (since its up to me whether I adopt a certain theory). Indeed, if that were the case I could “justify” what at first appeared to me to be a morally dubious act merely by rejecting my old theory of justification and adopting a new one.
I predict that you will be tempted to reply to this criticism by re-iterating your claim that all respectable moral theories agree on a great many points. Although I admit that that’s true after a certain very loose fashion (provided that you load the key word ‘respectable’ in the right non-cognitive way), I can’t see how it’s relevant. Nor, indeed, can I see how that’s supposed to convince any rational thinker that there are moral truths. For me personally, all it does is reinforce my longstanding belief that most persons share certain core non-cognitive attitudes about certain (typically extreme) course-grained policies or proposals (or certain extreme course-grained TYPE acts such as the (type) act of torturing someone for the purpose of sexual gratification). And so I say, “Big deal – I never doubted that most of we mentally and socially stable folks share similar non-cognitive attitudes towards extreme doings, or extreme courses of actions. But that hardly proves that moral claims express propositions. Instead it merely shores up the already highly verified belief that most human beings have very similar sorts of constitutions.
Thirdly, it’s not at all clear what you mean by saying that “moral judgments consist in a moral emotion and a belief that the emotion is the correct one to have”. But if you mean that a certain moral emotion is the correct emotion to have because it is morally correct to have that emotion, then your explanation is circular.
In any case, I’m still looking for a truthmaker for some so-called moral truth. Merely saying that such-&-such a theory holds that this claim is true is not the same thing. For if it’s true, then something has got to make it true; and whatever makes it true has got to be more like a fact than a theory.
Here are the instructions: Type the following exactly as you see it (of course, substitue your text where it says)
<em>type your text here </em>
DAB Nerbit! It happened again!!! I was just about to submit my detailed response and instead I clicked the side of the mouse and navagated away from the page and lost everything!!! SHIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Anyways, let me recap briefly.
1. I never said that the CI was a truth. What I said was that it allows us to generate truths
2. I was hasty when I said some actions are contradictory, what I meant, as I suppose youwell know, was that some actions cannot be willed without contradition. This is the typical Kantian line.
3. I do in fact think that the CI universalizes to all vertabrates
4. ‘moral emotion’ is in common usuage, or at least has been in the philosophical tradition from Hutcheson, to Sidgwick, to Ayer. It means a distinctively moral non-cognitive attitude (like guilt, resentment, moral anger, etc)
5. No, I would not say that the truth is theory relative but rather that we don’t which theory is correct. That was the point of the original post. Even if we don’t know which one is correct, we can infer that one of them must be.
6. What I mean is that some non-cognitive attitudes are justifiable and others are not. That is not circular.
7. What makes it true is that it follows from the correct moral theory. The theory takes accounts of the facts and organizes them in an appropriate way; what else would you expect a theory to do?
0. Sorry for your loss and thanks for the very interesting challenges/comments!
Thanks for the instructions on how to write things in italics. Thank-you also for the expression of empathy regarding the recent and unexpected death of my friend.
If you first compose your postings using a regular word processing program (and save regularly) you should be able to avoid the sorts of problems that you have recently had with the “built-in” posting program for this site.
I will respond to all 7 points that you posted above; and will end by suggesting that we focus on the core issue that puts the difference between us as regards moral realism.
R. Brown’s point #1: “I never said that [Kant’s] categorical imperative was a truth. What I said was that it allows us to generate truths.”
As far I can tell, no one ever literally generates any truth. Rather we discover certain truths; or, in some cases, mistakenly believe that we do.
I do, of course, understand how one’s discovery of a given truth can lead to the discovery of other truths by deduction. What you seem to be saying, however, is quite different; and I genuinely don’t understand how one can reasonably believe that a mere command can lead to the discovery of any truth at all. [Note: it’s necessary to distinguish between the command (or imperative) itself, and such facts as so-&-so issued such-&-such a command on a certain date to a certain audience.] At any rate, my key point here is that, since commands are not propositions, no command can logically imply any truth.
Logical implication is a truth-preserving semantic relation. So if there’s no truth at issue to begin with then there’s no truth to be preserved by any inference that can be made from it. Indeed, I claim that you can no more cogently infer any truth from a command than you can cogently infer a truth from a cow, or a rock. That being the case, it’s not clear to me what you mean in saying that we can generate moral truths from Kant’s categorical imperative.
R. Brown point #2: “I was hasty when I said that some actions are contradictory, what I meant, as I suppose you well know, was that some actions cannot be willed without contradiction…”
That’s hardly a significant improvement on your first (goofed-up) claim; for I clearly can will to perform immoral acts. In order for me (or any other non-cognitivist) to take this claim seriously you must first explain what it’s supposed to mean for an ACT OF WILLING to be contradictory. And good luck with that; for ‘tis an obvious logical truth that every act of willing is an act; and so you’re right back in the same pile of crap that you attempted to crawl out of.
What Kant should have said is that some acts violate his policy (or “imperative”); especially some acts of willing. But that merely shows that his policy (or “rule”) has enough substance to it so that it can be violated.
In any case, the burden is on you to make literal sense of the claim that some acts (or actions) cannot be willed to be performed (or willed not to be performed) without contradiction. My challenge to you here is very simple: Give us a literal explanation of what it means for an act of willing to be a contradiction; and don’t water down the meaning of the word ‘contradiction’ in the process. [This is, of course, an impossible challenge to meet because only falsehoods can be contradictions; and acts of willing (or just plain “willings”) are acts, not falsehoods.
R. Brown point #3: “I do, in fact, think that [Kant’s] categorical imperative universalizes to all vertebrates.”
No doubt that sounds nice to vegans and such, but I don’t believe for a second that you really mean it. After all, some moral obligations concerns friends qua friends; and you are not really a friend to all vertebrates — except perhaps in some goofy and insubstantial metaphorical sense.
In any case, my point was that Kant’s categorical imperative is wide open to the objection that too much depends upon how a particular token act is described; and that every token act can be correctly described as falling under several different type acts. For example, Ted Bundy’s act of raping his first victim can correctly be described as (i) the act of raping a woman, (ii) a man’s first act of raping a woman, (iii) the act of Ted Bundy’s raping some woman, (iv) the act of some (male) vertebrate’s placing his (presumably erect) penis into some (female) vertebrate’s vagina either against her consent or at least independently of her consent, etc., etc., etc. Obviously, some descriptions are more complete, or more informative, than others. But how are we supposed to figure out which description is the so-called “right” one? Is it just a matter of consensus? Is it just a matter of opinion?
R. Brown point #4: ‘moral emotion’ is in common usage…”
I’ll grant you this one on your say so; but the key point is exactly what I claimed: it has to be some sort of NON-COGNITIVE attitude. Have it your way, if you like, and we’ll agree that it means a moral sort of non-cognitive attitude. But then the obvious question is what makes a non-cognitive attitude a moral one. My answer is that it’s the sort of non-cognitive attitude that prompts one to advocate that others also express either approval or disapproval as the case may be. [Incidentally, you have not given any indication that you have a better way of distinguishing between moral and non-moral non-cognitive attitudes.]
R. Brown point #5: “No, I would not say that the truth is theory-relative but rather that we don’t know which theory is correct. That was the point of the original post. Even if we don’t know which one is correct, we can infer that one of them must be.”
Your first sentence indicates that you are willing to claim that moral facts make moral truths true; and thus makes correct moral theories correct. Hallelujah!
The point of your original posting assumes (but does not argue) that there are moral truths — which is exactly what I deny.
Your final claim that “Even if we don’t know which [moral theory] is correct, we can infer that one of them must be [correct]” is obviously true — but ONLY in the trivial sense that it’s easy to make fallacious inferences. In other words, you can infer whatever the hell you want. Indeed, perhaps in some extremely goofy sense you can even (mistakenly) infer a cow from a pig.
What you need to prove, or at least argue convincingly for, is that there is something that could make a moral theory correct in the first place. So far, however, you have merely concluded that there are moral truths because all realistic theories of morality agree on that assumption; and [insofar as you are willing to call them “respectable”] also agree on particular (typically extreme!) policies or proposals such as torturing others for sexual gratification, or killing Jews just because they are Jews. I mean, it’s not as though you can sell the idea that all “respectable” theories of morality agree that it’s morally permissible for a woman to have a first trimester surgical abortion, but it’s morally impermissible for her to have a second trimester surgical abortion.
R. Brown point #6: “What I mean is that some non-cognitive attitudes are justifiable and others are not. That is not circular.”
Yeah, alright — perhaps it’s not circular per se — depending upon exactly what argument we have in mind. But it still begs the question (against all non-cognitivists) as to whether a man’s holding of some particular non-cognitive attitude is justifiable in the key sense that it’s TRUE that his non-cognitive attitude is either morally permissible or morally impermissible. So it’s still just unreasoned opinion as far as the Semantic Terrorist is concerned.
At any rate, you first have to explain what you mean by the word ‘justifiable’. For if all you mean is ‘morally justifiable’ then you are simply begging the question against non-cognitivists. And if you mean that a person must make some cognitive mistake in adopting an immoral policy or proposal then you need to give some sort of credible reason for believing that it is a cognitive mistake.
R. Brown point #7: “What makes it true is that it follows from the correct moral theory. The [correct moral] theory takes account of the facts and organizes them in an appropriate way; what else would you expect a theory to do?
“George Bush is a transsexual” follows from “George Bush is a sexy transexual”; but that hardly shows that George Bush is a transsexual. It’s foolish to say that a proposition is true because it is implied by a theory. And to say that a proposition is true because it is implied by a correct theory only raises the issue of what makes the theory correct. (George Bush is male because the individual, George Bush, exemplifies the property of being male ; not because someone has come up with a correct theory that implies that George Bush is male.)
The question is not what a theory is supposed to do, but whether any moral theory is the sort of thing that could be correct in the first place. It’s all well and good for you to at least halfway agree with me that correct theories are made true by facts; but you need to actually identify facts that make particular moral claims true. (And you haven’t done that yet. Instead you just keep on talking about how moral truths are made true by [correct] moral theories.)
LET’S FOCUS ON THE KEY ISSUE
The key issue, as it seems to me, is whether there are any moral facts; or any truthmakers for moral claims. You are convinced that there whereas I am equally convinced that there aren’t. So let’s try to stay focused on that key issue for a few posts.
[…] I have been having a very nice discussion with the Semantic Terrorist on my post A Simple Argument for Moral Realism. I thought I would move the discussion to the front since the post was from alomost a year ago. ST […]
I’d go ahead and just not fail to credit Ross for the continuum of objectivism through relativiism (or moral determininacy to indeterminacy if you prefer) in his “The Nature and Limits Of Moral Objectivism”- which if you didn’t read, you will love, and if you did, I’d prefere he get the credit than the ‘it seems to go along a continuum”. NO I’m not the plagarism police (nor do I wish to even remotely suggest that there IS any plagiarism here at all of course) It’s a blog ferchrissakes etc-
I merely mention that as ‘also a long-time student and friend’ of ross (he’s a shining light in moral theory, I know- right?) i find his actual robust moral theory to go undercredited and if you ask me- under-read in phil. in general- and so- that’s just a friendly “there’s more where that came from’- there’s a full moreal theory worked out in his writing that- I think, if read as a complete work (if you read all the papers- about six or so) – finally (and I use the term in the philosophical not the abosolutest sense) still ‘gets it right’. peace,
Hi Jeanne p,
I definitely appreciate the Ross shout out! He was on my dissertation committee and this post is partly in response to arguments with him (as is most of the stuff I post on in meta-ethics).
I worked out this stuff on my own while I was in Connecticut in 2002, when I came to the Graduate Center I had ethics with Ross which is where I discovered that we had very similar views. But then I found out that while we agreed that the end points were well defined (i.e. that there is a set of moral truths that all moral theories agree on) we disagreed about the middle points. Steve thinks that in the middle there is no well defined answer to questions about an action’s rightness or wrongness. So, some actions (maybe even interesting ones like abortion) might just be neither really right nor really wrong. This is why he calls his view a ‘modest’ moral realism. It claims that a small set of moral claims might aspire to objectivity but that the vast majority of them will be indeterminate (precisely because the moral theories disagree on how to handle them, I suppose).
So, the argument I am presenting here is supposed to get us from modest moral realism to what we might call strident moral realism (or whatever is the opposite of modest in the sense Steve is using it). On this view every moral claim has some determinate truth value (though of course we may not know what it is). Once you have the two end points nailed down it seems natural to expect that every point in between will also have a determinate truth value.
Notice, though, that this is not exactly what you attribute to Steve (or to me). You seem to be thinking that the continuum is from objectivity to relativism but my claim was that there is a continuum from moral to immoral.
I also agree that he is not as appreciated in phil as he should be…sounds like he should take those six articles and work them into a book….
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