(outline for presentation, Nov. 5)
Derek Parfit, On What Matters. Vol. 2. Ch 34, “Agreement”. pp. 543-569
(A) There are some irreducibly normative reason-involving truths (some of which are moral truths).
(B) Our knowledge of those truth cannot be based on perception, or on evidence provided by empirical facts – since those truths are not about natural properties.
(C) Positive substantive normative truths cannot be analytic (i.e. their truth cannot follow from their meaning).
(D) We need to be able to recognize – in ways other than perception, giving empirical evidence, or linguistic analysis – the truth of certain normative beliefs in order to (be able to) justify them.
Intuitionism: We have intuitive abilities to respond to reasons and to recognize some normative truths.
1. “intuitive ability” not in the sense of a special quasi-perceptual faculty, but in the sense of being able to recognize what is “intuitively plausible” etc.)
2. Intuitively-based reflective thinking (in assessing the strength of various conflicting reasons, arguments etc) is the only defensible method of reaching the reflective equilibrium.
3. The fact that different people might find conflicting beliefs self-evident is itself not an objection to Intuitionism. (Compare with the possibility of “conflicting visual experiences” and add the clause “after careful reflections” in the normative case)
Argument from Disagreement (against Intuitionism): Even in ideal conditions, there would (in fact) always be normative disagreements. Consequently, we cannot justifiably or rationally believe that our own normative beliefs are true, or that any normative belief might be true.
Convergence Claim (for Intuitionism): If everyone knew all of the relevant non-normative facts, used the same normative concepts, understood and carefully reflected on the relevant arguments, and was not affected by any distorting influence, we and others would have similar normative beliefs.
1. It is an empirical claim (although what counts as ideal conditions is a normative question).
2. “similar normative beliefs”: allows the possibility of mistakes (human fallibility); read as “would nearly all have sufficiently similar normative beliefs”.
3. “distorting influence”: purely procedural; otherwise a trivial claim.
Q: one potential weakness in Parfit’s argument for CC lies in the ambiguity of the notion “distorting influence”, as we shall see in the following.
Parfit’s example of epistemic normative truths:
(J) When some fact implies that some belief must be true, this fact gives us a decisive reason to have this belief.
Note: (J) could be restated as the following in order to avoid the charge of “trivial truism” (being analytically true):
(M) When some fact implies that some belief must be true, this fact counts decisively in favor of our having this belief.
– According to Parfit, (M) is an irreducibly normative claim, stating an irreducibly normative, non-natural truth, rather than a conceptual truth. (Compare: “Every widow was once married.” “We ought not to do what is wrong.”)
Some Metaphysical Naturalists would reject (M). But Parfit argues that if we want to adjudicate the Convergence Claim, we must set aside meta-ethical disagreements and ask ourselves whether everyone would accept (M) in a vaguer, meta-ethically neutral sense. He believes that would be the case (i.e. in ideal conditions everyone would accept (M) as a substantive normative claim).
Q1: Is there any “meta-ethically neutral sense” of (M) at all?
Q2: think about the following claim (and examples such as Plato’s “noble lies” as well as certain defenses of religious beliefs):
(M*) When some fact implies that having some belief leads, on balance, to greater personal and/or social benefits than not having this belief, this fact counts decisively in favor of our having this belief.
It is not evident, at least to me, that in ideal conditions all would accept (M), instead of some believing in (M) while others (M*). Whether one accepts (M) or (M*) depends on what one takes to be the “right kind of reason” for holding an epistemic belief, and therefore on one’s deeper/broader normative commitments and principles. Parfit would have to argue that in ideal conditions there would be (almost) no disagreement over the latter.
Possible causes of moral disagreement
(1) conflicting non-moral beliefs (including religious beliefs) & lack of knowledge on all relevant non-moral facts
(2) distorting influences
E.g. conflicting interests and self-serving bias; commitment to one’s beliefs and unwillingness to admit mistakes and “lose face”
Q: Does counting “commitment to one’s beliefs” as a kind of “distorting influences” risk the danger of begging the question? And can it remain non-trivially “purely procedural”? Think about cases of factual beliefs that are (in a revised/loosened Popperian sense) infalsifiable, such as religious beliefs – how do we come to accept/abandon any of them?
(3) disagreement on ways of application rather than on principles themselves
E.g. monogamy v. polygamy; parenting v. communal rearing of children
(4) different ways of using normative concepts such as “ought”, “wrong” etc
E.g. When Sidgwick says that one ought to save lives of several strangers vis-à-vis her own life, he is using “ought” in its impartial-reason-implying sense (i.e. if one assesses her reasons from an impartial point of view then she would find more reason to prefer the former).
(5) agreeing on which acts are wrong, but disagreeing on why they are wrong
Implication: “Ideal conditions” in CC would include the development of the (single) most plausible systematic normative theory.
(6) borderline cases
E.g. the status of human embryos – disagreement over which does not affect our belief that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings
Q1: Or does it not? Think of Judith Thomson’s defense of abortion by the violinist thought experiment...
Q2: The question of who counts as human beings (members of our moral community) or moral recipients may be a more fundamental normative issue than the notion “borderline cases” suggests...
(7) (falsely make) all-or-nothing assumption (while wrongness in many cases is a matter of degree)
(8) imprecision of certain normative truths
E.g. comparison of different kinds
– “imprecise cardinal comparability” vs. “Linear Model”:
“neither would be better” rather than “equally good” (and not “pointless” either)
Q: imprecision or multidimensionality?
(9) indeterminacy of certain questions
– vagueness of certain concepts; e.g. baldness: “It is not true that Gerald Ford is bald, nor is it true that he is not bald.”
Compare: (R+T) “It is not true that there is any moral objection to early abortion, nor is it true that there is no moral objection to early abortion.”
Q1: Parfit seems to believe that (R+T) is correct. But he never explains how this could be the case. Perhaps he confuses “an objection that has a moral basis/outlook” with “a objection that withstands (careful) moral scrutiny”?
Q2: Parfit admits that the problem with “baldness” can be avoided by substituting it with more precise concepts such as “the number of hairs”, but thinks that in many cases (esp. moral cases) this substitution method does not apply. But no persuasive arguments are given (and the examples he gave seem to conflate imprecision with indeterminacy).
(10) (perceived) overdemandingness of certain moral principles
– for which Parfit thinks indeterminacy is partly responsible
E.g. If we give some modest portion of our income to the poor, it is not true that we are acting wrongly, nor is it true that we are not acting wrongly.
(11) historical relativism
– the fact of historical diversity of moral beliefs actually supports CC, if we think about the challenges to established beliefs, revisions and progresses, and the increasing degree of moral agreement over time
(a) we are making normative progress by learning from disagreements;
(b) we already have sufficiently similar normative beliefs on many important questions;
(c) ethical knowledge can be adequate without being systematic.
The Double Badness of Suffering
– an example of non-vague substantive normative beliefs
on which we have already had sufficient degree of agreement
(A) It is in itself bad (for the sufferer) to suffer.
(B) It is (impersonally) bad when people suffer in ways that they do not deserve.
1. Even though deserved punishment may be impersonally good, it must at least in one way be bad for the sufferer. For otherwise it could not be a punishment at all.
2. Denials of (A) and (B) in history of philosophy are caused by:
(1) distorting factors: e.g. Stoics’ “dispreferred indifferents”, theists’ “real = good = created by God” & the privation theory (as response to the problem of evil), Kant’s definition of “perfection” (as full realization of one’s desire/will), and meta-ethical skeptics, etc;
(2) different uses of normative concepts: e.g. Kant: physical pain is not bad (“bad” read as “morally bad”); Ross: ones’ own pain is not bad (“bad” read as “being something one has a prima facie duty to prevent”)
Q: Notice that “suffering” and “desert” are both thick concepts. Perhaps the real reason why we converge on (A) and (B) is that they are not really substantive, but are merely analytical? E.g., One might think that (A) amounts to no more than:
(A*) It is in itself bad (for the sufferer) to endure (extremely) bad physical or mental experiences.
Similarly (although not as straightforwardly), one might think (B) amounts to no more than:
(B*) It is (impersonally) bad when people suffer (i.e. endure (extremely) bad physical or mental experiences) in ways that those experiences ought not have been endured by them.
and at the same time understand “good/bad” also in terms of “ought/ought not”, thus making (B*) tautological.
– Looks like Ross’s suggestion? Anyhow, it bears on how we adjudicate the deeper meta-ethical disagreement on the nature of badness...