Moral Realism and Utilitarianism--Reframing the Moral Debate

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Moral Realism and Utilitarianism--Reframing the Moral Debate

Postby rehoot on 2011-07-21T19:58:00

In exploring the foundations of utilitarianism, I found the need to resolve the is-ought problem, which led me to the topic of moral realism (ethical realism). It seemed that both topics (the is-ought problem and the moral realism debate) are complicated by two things that affect the entire structure of the argument: (1) the meaning that we have attached to words like "right," "wrong," and "morality," and (2) the questions that are posited as the starting point. I'm wondering what people think of the following framing of the problem and how this framing would affect what we think about the is-ought problem and moral realism.

The is-ought problem began with Hume's assertion that we cannot go from observations of what is (i.e., scientific knowledge) to what ought to be (i.e., moral statements). It seems to me that this problem presupposes that there is something about "morality" that is beyond what we can observe and that this morality exists and should be the force that guides our conscious behavior. For those of us who find value in analytic philosophy as opposed to other philosophies, we do not (or try not to) accept things to exist or to be true unless we have evidence to that effect. This leads to the topic of moral realism and whether morality (as commonly understood) even exists or whether it should be entirely reconstructed to reflect knowledge that can be obtained scientifically.

There are many types of moral realism that are profoundly different from each other, but one form of moral realism argues that the things that should guide our behavior are objective observations about well-being. Specifically, the current and future scientific measures of well-being (such as longevity, self-reported pain or comfort, pain or pleasure assessed with fMRI scans or estimated from such knowledge, cognitive ability that might be affected by diet or poisons or environmental stress...). I am speaking of Sam Harris's book (Harris, S. [2010]. The moral landscape: How science can determine human values. New York, NY: Free Press). Although Sam minces words and uses the word "morality," in the old way while trying to redefine it, in a few places he suggested that we can entirely omit the word "morality" from our discussion. I am starting to think that we can do this and that utilitarians and consequentialists alike can make the choice to omit the word "morality" and simply talk of the metric that is the basis for guiding their behavior (e.g., happiness or maybe well-being).

It seems to me that our vocabulary for morality is heavily laden with concepts that were developed thousands of years ago when people had no understanding of neurobiology or the processes in the mind, body, and environment that drive behavior. They did not know about the biological basis for empathy or aggression. To them, it seemed plausible that our feelings about the need for cooperation or aggression must be driven by magical entities or by spooky principles that are somehow linked to events in the real world.

I'll refer to a recent post both because it covers some topics relevant to moral realism and because some of the text exemplifies the moral topics that interest me at this point: viewtopic.php?f=10&t=257&hilit=moral+realism

One of the posts on that page mentioned what I think was a justification for epistemological realism, which is an antecedent of moral realism (viewtopic.php?f=10&t=257&hilit=moral+realism&start=20#p2563). Cuneo tried to make a similar point, although I couldn't understand Cuneo's version (Cuneo, T. [2007]. The Normative Web. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. [chp. 1]). I think David Oliver's post is a necessary step toward supporting some type of realism.

In the discussion of acting for the benefit of my future self or somebody else (viewtopic.php?f=10&t=257&p=2985&hilit=moral+realism#p2563), we see the questions "Why should I care about my future self?" and "Why should I care about someone else?" My question is whether "morality" must have the attribute of compelling people to act in certain ways or if an alternative view (asking "what is the best course of action") simply points in a direction and people can follow it if they are able to, but there is no "higher power" or "higher principle" that has been assigned the responsibility of making people act according to certain principles.

Does moral realism of the Sam Harris type suggest that getting people to act in certain ways is a worldly problem not much different from solving problems like how to commute to work most efficiently? Why do we assume that a "moral reason" must compel everybody to act in a certain way when even a cursory review of evidence suggests that people have been preaching morality for ages and we still see a wide variety of nonconforming behavior? I think there can be objective facts about which actions lead to happiness or well-being, but that many people lack the self-regulation to force their bodies to do certain things. Our exploration of happiness or well-being might reveal some techniques to help many people in many situations, but these discoveries will certainly fail to help everybody and will fail in many situations.

As for the starting point of morality with respect to the topic of moral realism... how about if we focus on the answer to this question or something like it: "Which methods can help individuals to find the best course of action?" (this would be a personal moral philosophy as opposed to a political philosophy). In contrast, I read some articles in the past week in which the unit of discussion was "reasons," as if reasons were a commodity and the content of the "reasons" was not overly important. I also noticed that the framing of questions can EITHER (A) presuppose the existence of "moral entities" OR (B) reflect an abstraction so that we are no longer talking about the methods that help us to find the best behavior. Type B questions are not necessarily bad, but they displace discussion of the first principles that would need to be resolved before we start exploring the many millions of ways in which people can misinterpret the causes of their actions and desires. An example of Type B questions is from Brent's post here: viewtopic.php?f=10&t=257&p=2985&hilit=moral+realism#p2984 They seem like good philosophy questions, but now with my new perspective (as of this week) I see them as missing or remaining silent on the important answer to the question "Which methods can help individuals to find the best course of action?" (or some variation of that), which would be answered from within the domain of science and perhaps include recommendations for how individuals can deal with the large degree of uncertainty in many situations.

Yes, this is a giant post, but any comments would be appreciated.

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Re: Moral Realism and Utilitarianism--Reframing the Moral Debate

Postby Arepo on 2011-07-22T09:32:00

I don't have time to read this properly right now, but I suggest reading Alastair Norcross's paper 'Rejecting the Right' (PM me if you want a copy), which IIRC (I need to reread it) argues that the concept of good/bad is sufficient for morality, and the concept of right/wrong is an unnecessary addition. I agree - although I'd be happy to reject good/bad with it - but Norcross' argument is the most rigorous one I know in that direction.
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Re: Moral Realism and Utilitarianism--Reframing the Moral Debate

Postby rehoot on 2011-07-22T17:42:00

Arepo wrote:...Alastair Norcross's paper 'Rejecting the Right'

I found this book chapter (chp. 3) by Norcross on this topic (from 2006): ... df#page=56

I found a few others related to this, so that should keep me busy for while.


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Re: Moral Realism and Utilitarianism--Reframing the Moral Debate

Postby Brent on 2011-07-22T18:50:00

Thanks Arepo for the citation and rehoot for the link! It seems like Norcross addresses some themes I have been thinking about lately. I'll definitely be reading the book chapter and maybe some other of his articles. Rehoot, I read your post and I'll work on formulating a response at some point.

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