Objections to Minimal Moral Realism

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Re: Objections to Minimal Moral Realism

Post by Sunflowers » Sat Jul 20, 2019 5:47 pm

I'd describe myself as a rationalist divine command theorist (as opposed to a religious one).
I am with Kant in believing that moral norms are norms of reason. But I am on my own in thinking that reason is a person, and thus that moral norms are imperatives of this person. And as the person in question has the power of reason (and whatever that may be, it is considerable), I think they probably qualify as a god. Hence why I call myself a divine command theorist.

So I am a subjectivist, strictly speaking, because I identify the truth makers of moral propositions with the mental states of a person. But I think individual and collective subjectivist positions are grossly implausible.

but I think objecivist views are even worse - they're incoherent. For an objectivist must insist that objective features either issue commands (which they can't) or are commands (which they're not). Or they must insist that morality is not normative, in which case they are conceptually confused.

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Post by Sunflowers » Sat Jul 20, 2019 6:07 pm

And I suppose I should say something about the Euthyphro, as that's the basis upon which most reject divine command theories of ethics.

I take it that the problem at the heart of the Euthyphro is that moral truths appear to be necessary truths. If Xing in circs. S is wrong, it is not just wrong here and now, but always and everywhere. However, if the truth-makers of moral propositions are the attitudes of a god, then moral propositions will be contingently true, not necessarily true. That is, they will be true contingent upon the attitudes of the reason.

But as well as thinking that this objection applies to all moral realists (both subjectivist and objectivist), it seems to me to be question begging against my kind of view. For what evidence do we have that moral propositions are necessary truths? Well, widespread, widely corroborated rational intuitions that represent them to be. Fine - but if reason is a person, then those intuitions are messages. And when it comes to messages that contain terms like 'necessary' 'always', 'never' and so on, it is normally more reasonable to interpret those words as operating expressively, not descriptively. For instance, if I say "I will never want you to do that!" I do not mean that I am metaphysically incapable of wanting you to do it. I mean to express my extreme hostility to you doing that.

So, if Reason is a person then rational intuitions are her means of communication and have to be interpreted as such. Interpreted that way, all the apparent evidence that moral truths are necessary truths disappears - it becomes evidence not of metaphysical necessity, but Reason's strong attitudes. Why does Reason tells us "never torture an innocent for fun - not here, not now, not anywhere or anytime"? Because she so loathes that kind of behaviour, rather than because she's metaphysically incapable of approving of it.

It seems to me, then, that the probative force of the euthyphro depends essentially upon taking our rational intuitions - rational intuitions that represent moral truths to be necessary truths - descriptively. However, that's question begging as if a divine command analysis is true then it is more reasonable to interptet them expressively.

Anywyay, that was longer than I meant it to be, but thought I'd better say it for the sake of completeness!

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Post by brimstoneSalad » Mon Jul 22, 2019 4:10 am

Frank Quasar wrote:
Sat Jul 20, 2019 5:27 am
Yeah, subjectivists essentially fall into this camp as they also agree with (1) and (2), too. However, Brimstone, as well as many others, have tried to make the case that we require a non-arbitrary basis for morality, so in some sense they are very much distinct from subjectivist who bite the bullet on arbitrariness (the problem of arbitrariness ensues for them as an entailment).
It depends on the statement you're talking about.

"Murder is morally wrong in Bob's view" would be a subjectivist one.

A minimal moral realist doesn't need to specify that this action is wrong in Bob's view, just that it's wrong (there might be context, but need not be any accounting for "moral opinion").
If you're forced to specify it as Bob's view, then you stop being a minimalist about substantive moral claims and become an error theorist because claims like "murder is morally wrong" no longer have truth value without talking about who feels that way.

But it's easy to leave that out. Even something as simple as "Murder is morally wrong for Bob to commit" for instance transcends subjectivism. We can ask why that is, and even if it's because Bob disagrees with murder, that's still an objective claim about it being wrong for people to do things at odds with their values (e.g. an anti-hypocritical objective moral system) which can be assessed.

You don't need much to be a minimal moral realist, but there's a basic break with true subjectivism. Whether it's "mind independent" in another way (beyond just not being purely an artifact of personal whim and opinion) is beyond that point and sure we can be agnostic to that.

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Post by Sunflowers » Mon Jul 22, 2019 9:14 pm

The word 'minimal' seems to be doing no work at all. If you believe that some moral propositions are true, then you're a moral realist.

If you believe that what makes moral propositions true are subjective states, then you're a subjectivist realist. If you think objective states make them true, then you're an objectivist moral realist. Simple.

If you're trying to describe how contemporary metaethicists actually use these terms, then you're on a hiding to nothing as each one seems to use them a little differently.

What matters is what's true, not what labels people put on views. So, what does it take for a proposition such as "X is wrong" to be true?

Here's a demonstration of what it takes

1. If "Xing is wrong" is true, then Xing is someting we are bid not do
2. If Xing is something we are bid not do, then an agent is bidding us not do it.
3. Therefore, if Xing is wrong is true, then an agent is bidding us not do it.


Denying either 1 or 2 seems conceptually confused, for one will either be denying the prescribing nature of morality or else one will be insisting that things other than minds can issue prescriptions.

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Post by Frank Quasar » Fri Jul 26, 2019 7:02 am

Sunflowers wrote:
Mon Jul 22, 2019 9:14 pm
The word 'minimal' seems to be doing no work at all. If you believe that some moral propositions are true, then you're a moral realist.
Subjectivists believe that some propositions are true, but that doesn't make them moral realists. Moral realism has a specific thesis, one that makes them differ greatly from the competing meta-ethical theories.

Under your view, you'd be committed to saying that subjectivists are moral realists (they affirm some moral propositions are true) and simultaneously subjectivist realist. That would just appear to be straightforwardly incoherent.
Sunflowers wrote:
Mon Jul 22, 2019 9:14 pm
If you believe that what makes moral propositions true are subjective states, then you're a subjectivist realist. If you think objective states make them true, then you're an objectivist moral realist. Simple.


No, if you think that such evaluative facts are independent of the mind (personal beliefs, attitudes and desires etc), then you are a moral realist. You're just adding unnecessary confusion at this point, and deviating heavily from the general understanding of these concepts.

You should read the wiki on this, at the bare minimum, and then follow up with the SEP encyclopedia.

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Post by Sunflowers » Fri Jul 26, 2019 2:23 pm

This is becoming a pointless verbal dispute of no substance.

'Subjective' does not mean 'unreal'.

If I believe - as I do - that pain is subjective (for pain is made of subjective states) I am a realist about pain - for I am not denying its existence. Likewise, if I believe (bizarrely) that pain is objective (that is, that sensations of pain are 'of' pain and do not constitute it) I am also a realist.

If one is keen to use words in ways that aid understanding rather than hinder it, then a moral subjectivist 'is' a moral realist. They are a moral realist because they do not deny the reality of morality.

Moral realism - if the word is to going to be used sensibly - denotes all of those who believe in the (quell suprise) 'reality' of morality. That is, it excludes error theorists and non-cognitivists, but includes everyone else.

Obviously that leaves a lot to be debated, as there is a world of difference between a subjectivist realist and an objectivist realist. But the point is that in every meaningful sense they are nevertheless all 'realists'.

Anyway, thank you for your suggestions about what I should read, but as well as being incredibly condescending, I think they're quite bad suggestions. First, wiki is not a peer reviewed source. Second, as I have already noted, there is no consensus on what 'moral realism' means, which is why you find authors stipulate what they mean by the term. Third, the point of these terms is to clarify, not obsure. So what I am doing is suggesting how they can be used clearly - that is, in keeping with what one might naturally understand by terms such as 'realism' in other contexts.

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Post by Lay Vegan » Fri Jul 26, 2019 6:35 pm

Sunflowers wrote:
Fri Jul 26, 2019 2:23 pm
If you believe that what makes moral propositions true are subjective states, then you're a subjectivist realist. If you think objective states make them true, then you're an objectivist moral realist. Simple.
Sunflowers wrote:
Fri Jul 26, 2019 2:23 pm
Moral realism - if the word is to going to be used sensibly - denotes all of those who believe in the (quell suprise) 'reality' of morality. That is, it excludes error theorists and non-cognitivists, but includes everyone else.
Ok fine...

My only contention is that these definitions don’t seem to fall within the mainstream understanding of realism/subjectivism.

Realism, as discussed in modern academic philosophy is only a position that moral propositions purport to represent objective facts about the world, and that some of these propositions can be verified or falsified. It is not necessarily a statement that moral statements are robust (i.e., independent of the natural properties of the world, “mind independent,” or reducible to non natural properties. A realist believes the statement “Murder is morally evil” is a statement that reflects objective facts about that world that can verified. In the same sense that declaring the Earth is an oblate sphere can be verified. One must only agree with 2 of 3 theses of realism to be considered a realist. Robust realists seem to believe that moral propositions are “intrinsically” true (non-goal apt). This is not a rational stance, and most academic philosophers fall along the minimalist camp, as well as probably brimstoneSalad.

Technically, to deny both noncognitivism and error theory does suffice to make one a minimal moral realist. The only difference between me and you is that you hold that moral moral statements are dependent of human opinion. @brimstoneSalad is there a generally accepted term for this theory??

@Sunflowers Would it be fair to summarize your position as “moral non-realist” as opposed to “anti-realist?”

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Post by Sunflowers » Fri Jul 26, 2019 7:29 pm

But I think anyone working in this area would agree that terms like 'realism' are terms of art, which is why those who employ them always stipulate what they mean by them. You could not write an academic article and just pop a term like 'realism' into it, for it doens't have a stable meaning within areas, or between areas. You need to stipulate what you mean by it.

I stipulate that I use the term 'moral realist' to mean someone who believes that moral propositions are truth-apt, and that some of them are true.


Subjectivism is not a view about what exists. Not on my usage. It is a view about something's 'mode' of existence. To say of something that it is 'subjective' is to say something about 'how' it exists. Pain is subjective, meaning pain exists 'as' subjective states, if or when it exists. The staatement "pain is subjective" does not, then, assert the existence of anything.

Likewise for objectivism.

In morality, to say that "morality is subjective" is therefore not to say anything about what exists. It is to say something about how morality exists, if or when it does. It is to say that, like pain, morality exists - if or when it exists - as subjective states.

Likewise, if one says that morality is objective, one is saying not that morality exists, but that if or when it exists it exists extra-mentally.

Thus, if you say "morality is objective" this leaves open whether you're a moral realist or a moral error theorist. You'd be a moral realist if, in addition to believing that morality is objective, you also believe that some moral propositions are true. You'd be an error theorist otherwise - but there are plenty of objectivist error theorists.

LIkewise, if you say "moraliy is subjective" this too leaves open whether you're a moral realist or an error theorist. If, for instance, you believe that what it would take for morality to exist is for a god to exist - for you believe (as i do) that morality is made of a god's subjective states - but also believe that no such god exists, then you'd be a subjectivst error theorist. That is, you'd be a subjectivst about morality and also an error theorist about moraliy.


So, moral realism is a view about what exists. Subjectivism isn't. Nor is objectivism. Subjectivist moral realism is hte view that morality exists as subjectivist states when or if it exists and that it exists. Objectivisist moral realism is the view the morality exists extra-mentally if or when it exists, and it does exist.


Now, regardless of whether every academic philosopher uses the terms in this way, is that not a clear and commonsensical way of using these terms?

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Post by Lay Vegan » Fri Jul 26, 2019 11:45 pm

Sunflowers wrote:
Fri Jul 26, 2019 7:29 pm
Now, regardless of whether every academic philosopher uses the terms in this way, is that not a clear and commonsensical way of using these terms?
Ok, so we seemed to have been speaking past each other on what we meant by “realism.”

“Subjectivist realist” may seem intuitive to you, but to most people it sounds self-contradictory and incoherent. In fact, a simple google search of the term yields no helpful results, whereas “non-realism” or “non-objectivism” do (which I why I suggested that label instead).

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mora ... alism/#Sub
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy wrote: To deny both noncognitivism and the moral error theory suffices to make one a minimal moral realist. Traditionally, however, moral realism has required the denial of a further thesis: the mind-dependence of morality. There is no generally accepted label for theories that deny both noncognitivism and the moral error theory but maintain that moral facts are mind-dependent; here I shall use the term “non-objectivism.” Thus, “moral non-objectivism” denotes the view that moral facts exist and are mind-dependent (in the relevant sense), while “moral objectivism” holds that they exist and are mind-independent. (Note that this nomenclature makes the two contraries rather than contradictories; the error theorist and the noncognitivist count as neither objectivists nor non-objectivists. The error theorist may, however, be an objectivist in a different sense: in holding that moral facts are conceptually objective facts.) Let us say that if one is a moral cognitivist and a moral success theorist and a moral objectivist, then one is a robust moral realist. In this section, the third condition will be discussed.
From what I can understand, we both accept that moral facts exist and that some are true, but you believe that they are only true of individual subjective states. Is that correct? If so, your view is actually quite similar to that of minimal moral realists, except the latter would charge moral propositions are derived from some larger objective value system.

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Post by Sunflowers » Sat Jul 27, 2019 5:15 pm

Like I say, and as the Stanford Encyclopedia confirms, there is no agreement on how to use these terms and so everyone must say what they are using them to mean and then move on to actually assessing the views expressed, rather than the terminology used to express them.

So, I am a moral realist and it is clear what I mean by this: I mean that I believe that some moral propositions are true. So, I am not an error theorist, and nor am I a non-cognitivist.

I am also a subjectivist, because I believe that the truth-makers of moral propositions are the subjective states of a god. Not my subjective states, or yours, or those of some collection of us. But those of a god. Thus I am a subjectivist moral realist.

I believe all objectivist positions are crazy. Completely and utterly insane. And I believe that individual and collective subjectivist positions are grossly implausible. I think that a divine command theory is provably true (in the 'beyond a reasonable doubt' sense of the term 'prove').

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