Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The "Queerness" of Moral Truths.

In a time when objective moral truths are continually undermined by rationality there is a great need to re-examine our system of morality and how it is employed. We have inherited a moral code that is inextricably linked to dogmatic religious institutions whose influence has now dissipated, leaving moral absolutes looking, very queer sorts of things indeed.
In order to establish what can be gained by observing the queerness of moral truths there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. Firstly it is necessary to discuss in what ways moral truths can be said to be “queer” and what exactly is meant by that assertion, it also must be seen how this claim could fit in to a moral error theory as a whole, and in turn how this will affect moral discourse in general. The next question to be addressed is how big of a problem we perceive this queerness to be. It could perhaps be argued that we may accept the queerness of moral truths in much the same way as we accept the many queer, unexpected and often confounding findings of modern physics; without it affecting our belief in its fundamental principles. It may be the case though that this observed queerness will necessarily cause us to disbelieve the existence of moral truths, and it must be established how anything could be gained from this outcome. Perhaps it will suffice to say that there is an instrumental gain in simply embracing this new-found truth about moral values. However, it is arguable that this gain won’t be anywhere near enough to account for the considerable doubt and confusion the error theorist will find himself in at this stage. If there is any more to be gained we must ask the question; what is to be done about this new belief that moral truths are to be disbelieved? If moral truths are no longer to be believed in, it may be the case that we should advocate a sort of moral abolitionism, whereby the moral truths and the entire discourse that they connote are completely abandoned. Conversely though, it could be argued that moral truths are too important to be simply written off, that we would lose far more than we stand to gain. If so, perhaps we could hang on to moral truths and their long established discourse as ideas and thoughts, without fully believing in them. In essence we should advocate a sort of moral fictionalism.
After these deliberations, perhaps then we will be in a position to decide how anything could be gained from the observation that moral truths are “queer”.
In order to determine what exactly is meant by the assertion that moral truths are “queer” we should consider John Mackie’s ‘Argument from Queerness’ from which the term is derived. Mackie’s argument is twofold, with one metaphysical component and one epistemological. He states: ‘If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.’ suggesting that if there were to be such things as moral values they would be entirely metaphysically unique. He goes on to mention the epistemological component: ‘...if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.’ It seems that Mackie objects to two conjoining notions ascribed to moral values by Moral Objectivists; prescriptivity and objectivity. According to Mackie, we can’t allow that these two properties be ascribed to an entity without rendering it absolutely metaphysically and epistemologically unique, or in other words; it would have to be a very queer sort of entity indeed. The real problem, as Mackie describes, is the link between the two notions. The worry is that if a moral property, such as the idea of wrongness, is objective or mind-independent then we cannot reasonably attribute it to an action in the natural world, such as an act of deliberate cruelty, yet this is what moral objectivism compels us to do. He states: ‘It is not even sufficient to postulate a faculty which sees the wrongness: something must be postulated which can see at once the natural features that constitute the cruelty, and the wrongness, and the mysterious consequential link between the two.’ The situation would certainly be made far more comprehensible if the ‘moral quality’ of ‘wrongness’ could be replaced by some sort of ‘subjective response.’
So it is now left to us to decide what to make of this idea that moral truths are “queer”. Much depends on how much of a problem we perceive this queerness to be. It could be argued that it is possible to accept the queerness of moral properties without this altering our belief in them. To examine this issue further we must ask the question; queer in comparison to what? Certainly, if we accept Mackie’s assertions then we are left with entities that do seem quite unlike anything else. It’s true, moral properties are very unlike tables, chairs, sound waves, human institutions and biological functions and everything else that we accept as normal, but does it follow that we should be unable to comprehend their existence? Surely, they can only seem queer in comparison to some standard of normality and it seems the standard that is being employed in this case is that of natural science. Advances in modern physics and other pursuits introduce queer or at least unfamiliar entities all the time and we seem to be quite capable of accepting these without doubting the fundamental principles of the science. Perhaps it is the case, as Mackie suggests, that all this phenomena can be eventually explained in empirical terms, with the sole exception of values that exist independently of anything human or natural. In this instance we would have to concede that our belief is at best, unjustifiable. It is difficult to see how anything could be gained from accepting the queerness of moral truths without abandoning our belief, therefore in order to continue the investigation we must suppose that our belief has indeed vanished.
We now must assess how we can be seen to have gained anything by abandoning our belief in moral truths that exist independently of any human enterprise while maintaining assertoric force. It could be suggested at this point that we have discovered a truth about the nature of moral values, and that there is an instrumental gain in banishing from our minds a belief that has been found to be false. Therefore, even if our discovery leads to our abandoning of all moral discourse in general and this in turn leads to widespread confusion and doubt, a situation where we no longer see any reason not to do exactly as we want and to commit acts that we previously would have condemned as morally reprehensible. Even in this case, we have gained simply because a true belief is always preferable to a false one. William James argues that a true belief is an extremely valuable commodity, stating ‘since almost any object may some day become temporarily important, the advantage of having a general stock of extra truths, of truths that will be true of merely possible situations, is obvious.’ The fact of the matter is, as Richard Joyce puts it, ‘We never know whether and in what way a belief may be called upon to serve action, and, given this, it is better that it be true than false.’ So, even if we could somehow force ourselves to perpetuate a belief that we now know to be false, we should not do so because truth has instrumental value.
To continue the investigation, we are now supposing that our beliefs about moral values must be abandoned, while also recognising that we have perhaps already gained something by recognising the truth of the situation. It could be argued however that with our belief in moral truths abandoned we will now be thrown into a state of ethical disarray, and that the gain we have achieved through recognising the truth is no kind of compensation for the fragile and potentially dangerous state of affairs we now find ourselves in.
The truth of the above argument can only be determined by the course of action that we choose to take at this juncture. It depends on whether or not we decide to abandon moral discourse altogether now that we can no longer believe in these objective and prescriptive moral truths. In other words; will we now choose to advocate a sort of moral abolitionism? This choice depends on how we assess the importance of moral discourse. It may be the case that some sort of moral discourse is a vital component or mechanism in the way societies operate and even in the way we relate and interact with one another. Conversely though, it can also be argued that all moral language can indeed by pushed aside in favour of pure reason and rationality. In his book ‘The Myth of Morality’, Richard Joyce considers a non-moral response to crime. He argues that this response, ‘no matter how vigourous’, could not accomplish the same effect as a condemnation, which would have to include a moral judgement. The effect of moral judgement is a sort of binding or fortifying experience among the condemners. Suggesting that ‘moral thinking provides a strong foundation for moralistic aggression towards defectors...A distinctively moral framework may also provide something of a shared experience of value which binds a community together.’ In these deliberations, Joyce has highlighted an important feature of moral judgements, in that they can be a ‘shared experience’. In contrast, a non-moral response to a crime of unprovoked violence or any other conflict where action is required would necessarily have to be an intensely personal and subjective experience. We could ask; the violent criminal could be sent to jail, why is it necessary to also condemn him? An appropriate response could be that without a shared system of moral judgement there would only be this personal non-moral response and there is no institution or system that could be devised that would be able to send a man to jail on these grounds. Without some sort of condemnation of the crime there could be no agreement on what action is to be taken.
Aside from these social problems, there may be a more convincing reason not to support moral abolitionism when its implications are considered on a more personal level. It may be the case that we actually need a moral discourse in order to function properly as humans, as a way of combating our fallacies and shortcomings. Richard Joyce argues that moral discourse could be used as an expedient to help us triumph over our many ‘practical irrationalities’ such as weakness of will and passion, which interfere in our decision making processes even when we can clearly see which action should be taken. One major failing that Hobbes identifies in human rationality is the ‘perverse desire for present profit’7which can stand in the way of doing what we know is the right thing and ultimately the most profitable in favour of immediate benefit. Joyce holds that moral thinking can act as a safeguard against this ‘perverse desire’ and ‘bolster our self control.’ In essence, ‘moral beliefs can help us to act in an instrumentally rational manner’
It seems clear from these deliberations that we can not gain anything through moral abolitionism, and not only do we not gain, but by completely abandoning moral discourse we stand to lose a large portion of our human faculty for rationality, as well as promoting a society of defection and distress. If there is anything to be gained by observing that moral truths are “queer” it will be under the following conditions; the observation will necessarily lead us to the conclusion that we should abandon our belief in moral truths. However, this loss of belief will not cause us to abolish moral discourse entirely as we have established that the losses would be too great. Therefore, to determine whether or not there is anything to gain we must assess a system that allows us to utilise and our long established moral discourse despite the fact that we no longer believe it under the most critical conditions. One suggestion to get around this problem could be to perpetuate the myth that moral truths exist by continually distributing materials that reinforce this opinion, and failing to disclose any argument to the contrary. In essence, a sort of moral propagandism. However, I do not wish to entertain this as a serious option as I do not believe morality to be the sort of thing one can bolster by a purposeful mass deception. This would be a very fragile and foolhardy solution.
There is one alternative that we should consider in more detail, and that is the sort of moral fictionalism put forward by Richard Joyce. In order to adequately assess Joyce’s proposition, it is necessary to first isolate and examine what it means to fictionalise a concept to determine what exactly is meant by the term fictionalism. Once discussed, the term will then need to be applied to the discourse of morality and the implications of this pairing will need to be analysed.
Joyce stipulates that ‘ take a fictionalist stance towards a discourse is to believe that the discourse entails or embodies a theory that is false, but to carry on employing the discourse, at least in many contexts, as if this were not the case, because it is useful to do so.’ On first impression this seems to fit our need very well, but we must ask the question; what does it mean to fictionalise a discourse? Central to the concept is the idea of make-believe, as essentially we are pretending to believe something that, under the closest scrutiny, we actually don’t. As such, if moral fictionalism were to be adopted it would cease to be assertoric. It portends to something like noncognitivism or expressivism but with two important differences. Firstly, Joyce clearly states that ‘the proposal is not that noncognitivism is true of our actual moral discourse. Rather, fictionalism amounts to the claim that noncognitivism might become true, if we were to alter our attitude towards moral discourse.’1 Secondly, traditional noncognitivism holds that when we say something like “social justice is good” we are simply expression our own personal approval towards charity, something like “social justice, hurrah!”, but with the fictionalist stance there is no need for this altered language. We may say “Social Justice is good” as Joyce puts it ‘without assertoric force: not as an expression of a belief, but as an expression of a thought. In order to reinforce this claim we can return to the idea of make-believe, just because we are pretending to believe in moral truths doesn’t mean we have to alter our language to say “Lets pretend that social justice is good” in the same way that when we want to join in a child’s game of make-believe we would spoil the fun if we were to run around roaring and shouting “Lets pretend I am a Lion!”. In order for the game to work we must be resolute and roar “I am a Lion!”. The system works as long as everyone in the group knows the rules. In essence, everyone must be aware that when we start to speak about moral properties, we are withdrawing from assertoric force.
I believe that in this way we can maintain many, if not all of the benefits of a moral system that we still fully believe in. The important question that remains is where do these deliberations leave us in the cause for progressive social change. By employing this fictionalist game don't we surrender the potency of our arguments for social justice, equality and internationalism? I would like to argue that this is not the case. If we are to find ourselves in an intellectual realm where moral truths are no longer absolute we must embrace the chance to reassess and re-evaluate our moral discourse. While moral absolutism, often inextricably bound to religious dogma, can lead to corruption and stagnation, moral fictionalism affords us the ability to combat these vices. The immovable moral system of old has been long and often abused, injustices have become institutionalized and deeply ingrained in the social fabric under the shadow of objective moral truth. Only by withdrawing from full belief in this system can we achieve the perspective needed to redress the balance.


1. Fisher, Andrew and Kirchin, Simon, Arguing about Metaethics, chapter 5-7,(Routledge, 2006).

2. Hobbes, Thomas, De Cive, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1983).

3. Hume, David, Treatise, book 3, 1978.

4. Mackie, John, Ethics; Inventing right and wrong, (Penguin 1977).

5. W. James, Pragmatism:the meaning of truth, (Cambridge, mass: Havard University Press, 1978)

6. Joyce, Richard, The Myth of Morality, (Cambridge, 2001).

No comments: