Meta-ethics and progressive politics

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In a post last week, I briefly touched on the importance of making a distinctively moral case for the eradication of poverty, as Trish Garner did in her recent piece for the Tyee. As I noted at the time, this is important in part because the strongest reasons that count for or against any given policy are always moral reasons. It’s also partly because value-independent facts tend to underdetermine policy, meaning that without appeal to the moral reasons that count for or against some policy, the facts are not sufficient to determine which policy is best. Good policy is necessarily both evidence-based and value-based.

Nevertheless, public policy debates are often lopsided; people are generally more comfortable dealing with disagreement about evidence than disagreement about values. This imbalance begins at an early age. Basic education properly aims to give young people a strong grasp of scientific methods for gathering, evaluating and using evidence to reach well-supported conclusions. But students are usually not expected to achieve a similar degree of competence with the methods of systematic moral reasoning. In some education systems, in fact, students are expected to embrace moral nihilism; as the philosopher Justin McBrayer has pointed out, the American Common Core curriculum portrays moral facts as a conceptual impossibility, like five-sided triangles and married bachelors. If there are no moral facts, then moral reasoning and dialogue serve no purpose, and there is no point helping students achieve any degree of competence with moral thought.

Nevertheless, many people find it hard to shake the idea that there are some moral facts — that genocide is wrong, for example, or that you shouldn’t torture babies for fun. Even those who purport to believe that morality is purely a matter of individual taste may find themselves unable to avoid appealing to certain bedrock moral intuitions.

For example, in a column published on CNN’s website last month, Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid dismissed criticism of Donald Trump on the grounds that such criticisms are based on judgments that are “political, and therefore subjective”; in the end, however, Hamid’s conclusions turn out to depend on assigning absolute moral priority to the outcome of a democratic process, understood in the narrowest procedural terms. His pretensions of hard-nosed moral skepticism are mere rhetorical cover, concealing a wildly controversial moral claim that sits at the foundation of his entire argument.

Moral claims are indispensable in political argument. That being the case, it is better if the moral claims that a political argument depends on are articulated clearly and openly, and it is better if people who must evaluate or engage in political argument (if you live in a democracy, that means you) have some competence with systematic moral thought. But people may not bother to develop this competence unless they believe there are moral facts, and that these facts can be known. It is not enough to show that moral claims are indispensable; it must also be shown that some moral claims could be true.

If we find moral claims indispensable — if we find ourselves unable to avoid acting as if they are sometimes true — we already have at least one good reason to think that some moral claims are true. But do we have better reason to think that this is not the case — that there are no moral facts?

One reason commonly cited in popular discourse is the idea (sometimes called divine command theory) that there could only be moral facts if divine decree made it so. If, as many people now believe, there are no such decrees, then there can be no moral facts. In other words, “if God is dead, then everything is permitted.” In religious apologetics, this conditional claim is often used to demonstrate the existence of God by modus tollens: “if God is dead, then everything is permitted; not everything is permitted, therefore God is not dead.” But outside the realm of apologetics, it is more common to see the argument for moral nihilism by modus ponens: “if God is dead, then everything is permitted; God is dead, therefore everything is permitted.”

Should we accept the conditional claim? Unless we have independent reason to believe that everything is permitted (in which case the conditional is superfluous anyway), I think we should only accept this claim if we have an account of how God could make it the case that something is not permitted. If it is not clear how God could make it the case that a given action is wrong, then we have no reason to think that the wrongness of a given action could depend on the existence of God.

As popular as it may be — among atheists and believers alike! — to identify morality with God’s decrees, philosophers have been highly skeptical of this alleged connection at least since the time of Plato. In these two short videos, Stephen Darwall — a philosopher specializing in secular ethics — expertly demonstrates the self-contradictory nature of divine command theory.

As Darwall argues, divine command theory either conflates morality with something else entirely (coercive power, or fear of punishment) or it must presuppose certain moral facts that are prior to God’s commands (such as “you ought to obey God’s commands”) in order to give those commands the necessary moral force. If divine command theory opts for the first of these choices, then it is only a species of nihilism, not a genuine alternative. And if it opts for the second, then it is renders itself redundant by presupposing the very phenomenon it purports to explain. The existence of moral truths was never dependent on the existence of God; if we believe God does not exist, then, we have no special reasons to doubt that moral truths exist.

This conclusion is relevant to both believers and non-believers. If God’s commands do not form the basis of morality, then people of all religious faiths — or none — can recognize each other as peers in the enterprise of moral inquiry. Among peers, moral truths are equally accessible and equally binding, and dialogue and methods of inquiry are equally fruitful. The refutation of divine command theory should make religious and non-religious progressives alike more confident that moral truths exist and that all people can be open to moral persuasion.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality
6. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 6: Equality, contractualism and capabilities

7 thoughts on “Meta-ethics and progressive politics

  1. Pingback: Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime | Popcorn Machine

  2. Pingback: Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality | Popcorn Machine

  3. Hmmm . . . it seems to me that while this is pretty convincing on the claim that divine command theory is false, it doesn’t really make a case for the existence of moral facts. It merely makes the case that IF there are no moral facts, it isn’t because there is no God. It doesn’t deal with the possibility of there being no moral facts independent of whether there is a God. One could argue that there are no moral facts and, even if God existed and commanded things on the basis of moral claims, that would just mean God was full of it. Thus “everything is permitted” wouldn’t be conditional on God’s nonexistence.

    I’d like to note that I am not in fact making this argument, because I do tend to think that there are ways of constructing solid moral frameworks. I’m just saying that THIS article (and those videos) hasn’t really established moral facts. And I think that the existence of deities is irrelevant to such construction, even in the sort of conditional way being mobilized here.

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    • That’s fair. However, my aim in this post is not really to prove that there are moral facts, but rather to undermine an important source of doubt that there are moral facts. I try to address some other doubts — and build a more positive case — in the subsequent posts in this series.

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  4. Pingback: Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge | Popcorn Machine

  5. Pingback: Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium | Popcorn Machine

  6. Pingback: Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 6: Equality, contractualism and capabilities | Popcorn Machine

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