Friday, October 10, 2008

Pragmatism and ethics.

This has been running through the philosophical part of my brain for a little bit (ever since reading Sami Pihlström's Pragmatic Moral Realism, a book I generally sympathize with, although I disagree with some of the -- sparse -- details of Pihlström's particular account). I don't claim it's entirely coherent.

We have to acknowledge that we are all born into moral practices and institutions which have significant impacts on our moral sensibilities. The time when anyone could seriously suggest that environmental factors are irrelevant is long past. I take it that most accept this.

I'm not sure that most have seen the consequence this has for the standard moral realisms and anti-realisms. Because these institutions, in a real sense, make morality (although they do not determine it). At least, morality for us -- which is the only sort of morality worth worrying about. That is, nothing is moral for us except insofar as some institution or practice licenses it as moral. ("Moral" read generally, not as equivalent to "morally good" or "morally right".) Given that, different things could be moral than are currently moral. In time, all institutions and practices die. (The same applies for practical rationality. What counts as a reason in favour of a certain action or against a certain action (and, indeed, how we evaluate these actions) depends on there being a stable set of institutions and practices which make the reasons salient, and define the ways in which and the extent to which these reasons are salient.)

This is not the same as relativism, though. For relativism, to be asserted, requires detaching from the moral practices. Relativism also asserts that any practice is, in principle, as good as any other. This is contradictory. Our moral practices do not assert relativism; they do not claim that any position is as good as any other, as long as it is generated in the right way. We assert, positively, that genocide is wrong, racism wrong, sexism wrong, charity right, kindness right, loyalty right (although we may disagree as to what counts as any of these things and the extent to which they are wrong and right). If our moral practices are what make morality, then we must deny relativism, for it adopts a stance which is either immoral -- for it denies the moral categories which are supposed to be salient for us -- or amoral -- for it denies that moral categories have any salience. In both cases, the relativist puts himself outside of ethical practice as it stands.

This is also not the same as constructivism. For constructivism asserts, with relativism, an indifference to the details of our moral practices. As long as the practices has dubbed something to be moral/morally salient, then it is moral/morally salient. Once more, this requires detachment from the practice itself, a maneuver which is either immoral or amoral. (The distinction between a relativist and a constructivist seems to me to turn on the extent to which they are skeptical about morality; constructivism has greater affinity with realism, relativism with anti-realism. This distinction may collapse under scrutiny, though.)

Finally, this does not make ethics arbitrary or subjective. Institutions and practices emerge over time in response to varying conditions, both genetic and environmental; they can also be seen as the result of collective choices made by rational agents. (I ignore whether these are the same process.) Given that, ethics must either be caused by fixed and prior conditions, in which case it is not arbitrary; or ethics must be chosen to suit the needs of rational agents, in which it is also not arbitrary. The result is not subjective because it is not taken as subjective by agents. I repeat myself here: there is no Archimedean point, no place to stand to consider ethics that is not itself embedded within ethics. The attempt to find such a point is either immoral or amoral, and thus worthy of condemnation rather than praise. Once institutions and practices exist which consider a certain set of principles, values, virtues, or what have you, to be the right, good, bad, evil -- to speak more generally, the moral -- ones, then, unless the institutions and practices certify this as a subjective achievement, it is an objective fact. To deny this assumes that the only real is the really real rather than the real for us, a notion which I am finding increasingly bizarre.

The point is that asserting the value and importance of institutions and practices for ethics requires taking the institutions and practices seriously. And to take them seriously is to not detach and view them from an Archimedean point, but to embed oneself within them and explore their confines. This position is an ethical pragmatism (at least in broad outline): practices matter and are, in fact, definitive of ethics, but we cannot thereby remove ourselves from ethical practice. Communities and related institutions matter, but they cannot be viewed neutrally. To take ethical community seriously requires being part of an ethical community, which denies the possibility of a neutral point of view.


Richard said...

A few thoughts:

(1) Would you say the same of epistemology?

(2) "What counts as a reason in favour of a certain action or against a certain action (and, indeed, how we evaluate these actions) depends on there being a stable set of institutions and practices which make the reasons salient"

Why think that? Non-salient reasons seem perfectly conceivable to me. Cultists may be brainwashed into imagining completely different "reasons" from we would see; that doesn't mean they're right. They could just be irrational.

(3) Your view sure sounds like relativism (if anything is). People with different "moral practices" will have different "moral truths", no? Whether it was wrong of Bob to kill Sally depends on who you ask and what their practices are.

ADHR said...

(1) Yep.

(2) I think we mean different things by "salient". I'm using it to mean something like what someone takes to be a reason. So, it's possible to be (all things considered) irrational, and yet take some things to be salient reasons.

(3) True, but that's not relativism. Relativism has to add the claim that all practices are equally good from some perspective. What I'm denying is that there is such a stand-independent place -- the Archimedean point -- from which to evaluate ethics. So, if there is society A that says Bob was wrong, and society B that says Sally was right, there's no place from which to say that these are equally true. For society A will say the first is true, and society B will say the second is true.

The point is that taking practices seriously requires taking their evaluations as seriously as they do. Relativism tries to pull itself out of ethical practice, which thus treats the practice as frivolous or optional.