Realism and Antirealism

Another way to get around the prescriptivist/naturalist standoff would be to insist with the naturalist that there are objective moral truths, but to question whether such truths can be deduced from more basic facts concerning human nature or human institutions. On this "realist" account of moral knowledge (so called because it affirms objective moral realities independent of the knowing subject), moral discourse is less a matter of reason than of careful perception and insight, of developing the capacity to discriminate moral facts and to describe them accurately and adequately. To the extent that moral knowledge rests on "seeing" moral properties, moral realism suggests Moore's intuitionism. Yet, unlike Moore, moral realists claim no special faculty of moral intuition, insist that moral properties are observable in precisely the same way as are empirical properties, and hold that moral judgments and observations are fallible and revisable.

This renewed form of moral realism has been advanced by a number of British philosophers (Platts; McDowell, 1979; Lovibond) influenced by Donald Davidson's theory of meaning and Ludwig Wittgenstein's critique of reduc-tionism in the philosophy of language. From Davidson they have borrowed the idea that to know what any sentence means is to be able to specify the conditions under which it is true. From Wittgenstein they have taken the conviction that there is no way to establish a ground for language that is independent of and cognitively superior to actual language in use. Taken together, these Davidsonian and Wittgensteinian commonplaces work to deflate all forms of noncognitivism.

The noncognitivist needs to rely on a contrast between two kinds of utterances—those that carry truth values and those that do not—and thus insists on two kinds of "meaning" and two kinds of discourse. One kind of discourse can accurately represent facts (usually assumed to be science), and the other does not represent facts, but expresses attitudes and imposes those attitudes on a world plastic enough to accept them (art, poetry, morality). But since determining the meaning of any linguistic statement is inseparable from determining whether that which it asserts is true or false, the noncognitivist cannot plausibly draw the required contrast between first-rate, fact-picturing discourse and second-rate, value-projecting discourse. To know what any expression means is to know what would make it true, and this ability neither demands nor supports any assumptions about the superior cognitive reliability of any one form of discourse (scientific) over any other (commonsense, literary, or moral).

The moral realist argues that there are moral facts just as there are scientific facts, and does not expect moral facts to be reducible to or deducible from any other kind of fact. Moral properties are "supervenient" upon nonmoral properties. One discerns a moral property by enumerating a number of nonmoral properties standing in relation to each other, from which the moral property "emerges" without being strictly entailed by them. "Supervenience" becomes clearer when one turns from examining "thin," abstract moral concepts ("good," "right," "duty") to "thick" moral concepts (concrete, specific concepts, like "courage," "loyalty," or "mercifulness"). To know, for example, that a physician's treatment of an end-stage cancer patient with larger than usual doses of painkillers was merciful involves knowing a great number of facts concerning cancer, pain, the special needs of the terminally ill in general and of this patient in particular, and so on. While one does not infer the moral property of being merciful from these nonmoral facts, the property is a function of them; one perceives the moral fact that this act is merciful in and through perceiving the aforementioned nonmoral facts.

"Seeing" the moral facts in the associated nonmoral facts is a complex skill, demanding discipline, practice, and attentiveness to matters of minute detail. For the moral realist, becoming a morally competent bioethicist is largely a matter of acquiring and honing a certain sensibility, akin to that of understanding a work of art or literature, whereby one comes to notice the moral goods and obligations in the context of medical practice, and to disclose and explicate them in descriptive speech.

A number of moral epistemologists (e.g., Mackie) have complained that the realists' account of supervenience is incoherent. If the supervenient moral properties of a person change (for example, if someone ceases to be courageous or just), it is necessary that other, nonmoral properties also have changed (fleeing from every danger; ceasing to give others their due). Yet if that person possesses all the nonmoral dispositions associated with a moral property (steadfastness in the face of danger; a consistent willingness to keep promises), it cannot be inferred that he or she necessarily possesses the associated moral properties (the person might not be courageous or just, "despite appearances"). Supervenience is supposedly a logical relation between properties, yet because it cannot be interpreted as a form of inference, it becomes an inexplicable fact.

John Mackie subscribes to a form of moral antirealism or "projectivism" that allows for cognitive expressions in moral discourse—that is, the truth or falsity of moral beliefs, the validity or invalidity of moral arguments—yet understands them in an equivocal sense, as a disguised, second-level reflection upon first-level moral judgments and attitudes. The moral idiom forces us to speak as if there were moral facts, but such "facts" are ultimately projections of our attitudes. To insist that moral judgments are more than expressions of attitude would be to reintroduce supervenience, with all its difficulties. Moral antirealists would not exactly deny, then, that moral knowledge is a result of coming to "see things" and describe them in a certain way; they would, however, deny that such descriptions bear more than an instrumental function. The physician who "sees" that a particular act toward a patient is merciful is indeed "seeing" something, but that something is a function of the physician's subjective attitude projected outward toward the patient.

This may not be cause for genuine worry on the realist's part. He or she could, of course, stand firm and endorse the reality of objective moral facts—the instantiation of "thick," descriptive moral properties such as "courage," "patience," and "mercifulness"—in the face of the logically peculiar notion of supervenience. Perhaps supervenience is an inexplicable logical and epistemological fact. So what? Supervenience is a feature of ordinary moral discursive practice, one that morally competent speakers can handle without much trouble. The difficulties that antirealist moral epistemologists claim to have uncovered are more a matter of their a priori prejudices (perhaps their epistemological "scientism") than their discovery of a defect in moral language and moral practice.

The realist, like Wittgenstein, confidently affirms that ordinary moral language is in good working order as it is.

The antirealist, of course, can reply that such "folk" moral philosophy is untidy, plagued with logical ambiguities and desperately in need of philosophical reinterpretation. Thus the clashes between moral realists and moral antirealists recapitulate the earlier standoff between prescriptivists and naturalists. What is at issue is not whether values can be derived from facts, but whether it even makes sense to speak of emergent "moral facts" alongside nonmoral ones.

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