I’m not a moral realist. But I think we definitely have personal morals, the moral norms of the culture we live in, and the moral rules we encode in law. These all interact and influence each other in an ongoing feedback process. They can be studied with psychology, sociology, anthropology, law, history, and probably some other fields I”m overlooking.
But while these things exist, they are often purported to be based on something else “out there”, an objective morality. Some moral realists see this objective morality existing in the divine commandments of a God or a pantheon of gods. Others see it in some form of natural law, which can be accessed through deep meditation or reasoning. A few even think it’s natural law that science can study, although the vast majority of scientists and philosophers think this is misguided, that science can inform our values, but not determine them.
Some moral realists admit we won’t find moral rules in any of those things, but insist nonetheless that they exist in a sort of platonic fashion. This appears to be the position of Russ Shafer-Landau, a view he discussed with Sean Carroll on his Mindscape podcast.
As noted above, I’m not a moral realist, although I wouldn’t mind finding a way to be one. Many ethical arguments would be so much easier to resolve if we could just say, “Let us us experiment,” or, “Let us calculate,” or by some other means that produced an undeniable result.
Unfortunately, while Shafer-Landau sounds like a very nice guy, I found his arguments underwhelming. They seem to boil down to: it would really really stink if there isn’t an objective morality. He can’t stomach it if there is no objective basis to condemn genocide, subjugation of women, murder, or other heinous actions.
Carroll, himself a moral irrealist, accepts that the non-realist must bite a philosophical bullet here. But he points out that doesn’t obligate the non-realist to tolerate those things. I agree. I’d also note that the argument that because we can’t ground a value in some absolute objective fashion, that we’re then not allowed to hold it, is itself a value proposition, one I reject.
Of course, the concern then is we’re reduced to might makes right. Unfortunately I think that’s true. But it’s always been true. Even in a perfectly egalitarian society where the moral rules are worked out by consensus, what is right is being determined by the collective might of that society. Those who don’t agree, are forced to either comply or face the consequences.
It seems like a pretty stark conclusion. But it does have a benefit. Someone who is aware that morals are created by humans for humans, is less likely to be sanctimonious and intolerant about them, more willing to argue for their point of view rather than simply take it to be the right one and the other person’s the wrong one.
To Shafer-Landau’s credit, he admits that if his type of moral realism is true, we’re in the same boat, since there’s no real way to discover what the objective rules are. Carroll notes that, as a moral constructivist, that puts them in the same place as far as their attitudes toward particular moral precepts.
So maybe the overall lesson here is for all of us to be a little less sure that we know what right is, and a little more tolerant of other opinions about it.
Unless of course I’m missing something?