I am getting ready to go to Jersey tomorrow to present Language, Thought, Logic, and Existence at the NJRPA which should be fun. If you haven’t listened to the virtual version why not check it out. It will almost be like being there!
I am also working on comments for next weeks Yale/Uconn Graduate conference in Connecticut. I will be commentating on a paper by Jeff Sebo (NYU) called ‘Two Normative Arguments for Metaethical Constructivism’ I will be arguing that Jeff has not given a normative argument for a metaethical conclusion. So I wanted to take this opportunity to jot down some thoughts about Meta-metaethics. What exactly is the point of metaethics and how is it different from normative ethics?
Metaethics is primarily concerned with questions about the meaning of ethical terms like ‘good,’ ‘evil,’ ‘ought,’ ‘obligation,’ and ‘right,’ and the possibility of the justification of normative moral judgments like ‘suicide bombing is morally wrong,’ ‘Uday Hussein was an evil man,’ or ‘Humans ought not to eat meat’. Now, though we are concerned with the possibility of the justification of these normative judgments, we are not concerned with giving a theory that would tell us, or purport to, whether these judgments are actually correct. Metaethical inquiry is concerned only with the nature of the kind of answer that can be given, not the actual answers that are given.
So, for instance, Plato’s answer that there are eternal, perfect, and unchanging Forms of Justice and Courage tells us how a normative judgment could be true. It does not tell us which ones are. His account amounts to the claim the moral judgments are beliefs that are true or false in so far as they capture reality as it is in the Eternal Realm of the Forms, just like normal predicates work on his view. Telling us what objects do participate in these Forms is the job of normative ethics. In Plato’s case the normative theory takes the form of a virtue ethics based on his analogy between the parts of the soul and the parts of a city. While Plato’s normative theory has fallen out of favor, his metaethical theory remains quite popular, but I shall not dwell on this here. My point is that the proper task of metaethics lies in giving a general theory about the nature of moral judgments and the semantics of moral words that would explain how realism could be true, or is false, or whatever.
Given this account it may then seem that to add constructivism to the fray should be no problem. The constructivist thinks that there are moral properties, just like the Platonist, except that the moral properties are thought of as constructed by us rather than found out there in the world. This certainly seems to be the way that most constructivists take, and the one that Sebo takes in his paper. He characterizes constructivism as a hybrid metaethical and normative theory, whereas non-constructivism is a purely metaethical view that makes no normative claims or predictions. So Sebo takes a metaethical theory to be the conjunction of a semantical claim, a metaphysical claim and an epistemological claim. A purely metaethical theory would only deal with these questions and since constructivism deals with these questions it is a distinctive metaethical theory, albeit one that makes a specific normative claim. This normative claim is that we should only do something if we have a reason to do it and we only have a reason to do something if we in fact value it. The constructivist thinks that trhe moral facts arise due to a distinctively human act of valueing. They are not ‘out there’ independantly of human beings. His argument is then that it is a mistake to think that finding out whether the normative claim is true or not has no bearing on metaethical disputes.
But when we actually look at what he says, this isn’t the case. His argument actually turns out to be an appeal to naturalism and intuitions about which theory is better to accept. He develops an analogy with the debate between evolution and intelligent design. The evolutionary theory makes all kinds of actual predictions whereas intelligent desing is neutral. If we then independantly verify the predictions that evolution makes then we should take this as evidence that evolutionary theory is true which is inconsistent with the theory of intellilgent design (we are here taking evolutionary theory to be the theory that life arouse due to random/chance physical events).
He then goes on to argue as follows. Imagine that we find out that the normative claim that the constructivist makes is somehow shown to be true, that is imagine that we find out that we should only act a certain way if we have some subjective reason for acting that way. Then what we have is two theories, each of which can account for this fact, but one of which is committed to strange properties, or whatever, so the success of the normative story is indirect evidence for constructivism. But the problem with this argument is that it does not really rely on the normative claim that the constructivist makes, as that can be accepted by the non-constructivist. Besides which, the only other option is not Platonism. It may turn out to be the case that the moral properties are natural properties. So the normative argument fails. As it should. Metaethical theories are completely neutral as between normative theory.