On Moral Realism and Mind-Independence (and complex, non-natural properties)

Among non-natural moral realists there is a fascinating debate over whether basic moral properties, such as the properties of ‘goodness’ and ‘rightness’, are simple or complex properties. It is a fruitful debate to have, particularly because it seems many objections to non-naturalism have been against non-naturalist views that posit that ‘good’ is a simple property, such that these objections do not apply to a non-naturalism that takes ‘good’ to be a complex property. I myself initially dismissed non-naturalism altogether because of the metaphysical strangeness of simple non-natural properties – it seemed to make supervenience relations between moral and non-moral properties arbitrary rather than necessary. Recently Philip Stratton-Lake has argued that understanding ‘goodness’ as a complex property provides a more nuanced and attractive way of understanding objectivity in ethics. I want to go over Stratton-Lake’s points, and why they suggest a virtue of non-naturalism over naturalism.

Simple and Complex Properties
G.E. Moore infamously argued that ‘good’ must be a simple non-natural property because it could not be defined by naturalistic reduction, such that it is a non-natural term, but it still carries meaning despite being indefinable, such that it is a simple property. Anti-realists, notably J.L. Mackie, decried Moore’s conclusion and charged that ‘good’ being a simple property is at ends with ‘good’ being something we desire to pursue. For them, the idea of ‘good’ as a simple property does not explain why we pursue the ‘good’. Unfortunately, because Moore and Ross rejected the possibility that ‘good’ was a complex non-natural property, the anti-realists concluded that because ‘good’ is not a simple non-natural property, ‘good’ is not a non-natural property at all – refuting non-naturalism.

Contemporary non-naturalists are making the case for ‘good’ being a complex property, with Stratton-Lake and McNaughton arguing that Moore did not go far enough in his conclusions from his “open question argument”. To them, not only does the open question argument show that ‘good’ is not reducible to a natural property, it shows that no natural property is normative, such that ‘good’ is an essentially normative property, and the way to understand its normativity is by understanding ‘good’ as a complex property. Stratton-Lake writes, “questions such as ‘This is N, but is it good?’ have an open feel. They have an open feel because when we decide that something is good, we conclude that we have reason to adopt some pro-attitude towards it, but in judging simply that it has some natural property, we have not yet formed a conclusion as to whether we have reason to adopt such an attitude towards it” (Ethical Intuitionism, page 8). That ‘good’ entails that we see a reason to adopt a pro-attitude towards the act suggests that ‘good’ is a complex property, in that ‘good’ is a “property of having properties that give us reason to respond in certain positive ways” (Ethical Intuitionism, page 15).

Objective Realism: Non-Naturalism vs. Naturalism
Stratton-Lake makes the brilliant point that taking ‘good’ as a complex property has the added benefit of morality being objective while allowing that moral properties are dependent on the psychological states of human beings. He posits that, “on this view, goodness cannot be objective in the sense that it is utterly mind-independent, for this property cannot be understood without reference to certain psychological states (the pro-attitudes we have reason to adopt). It is, however, objective in the important sense that it is independent of how we as individuals happen to think or feel, and is thus there to be discovered” (Ethical Intuitionism, pages 12-13). Thus, that ‘good’ is a complex non-natural property explains how we can be motivated to pursue the ‘good’ while it still being the case that there are objective truths about what actions are morally right that are not determined by subjective whims or cultural practices.

Understanding ‘good’ in this way allows the non-naturalist to avoid a classic anti-realist argument, but it also suggests, to me, a virtue of non-naturalism over naturalism. In metaethics, the naturalism/non-naturalism dichotomy is a product of the fact/value dichotomy, in the sense that evaluative propositions do not fit into our naturalistic (read: scientific) picture of the world. What this means though, is that naturalists cannot take ‘goodness’ as the complexly normative property that the non-naturalist does. As such, they cannot take advantage of the nuanced way of understanding objectivity that Stratton-Lake argues for. Moreover, they must fend off another version of the anti-realist’s argument: if ‘good’ is a natural property, or reducible to a set of natural properties, and natural properties carry no normative value, then how do we explain the ‘to-be-pursuedness’ built into ‘good’?

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  1. #1 by Larry on February 12, 2014 - 2:19 am

    Thanks for posting this. It’s an interesting and challenging topic. A few thoughts:

    It sounds right to say that “good” is a complex property or a relational property, if it’s a property at all (what is a property anyway?). But let’s say that a thing is good because it has some other property (or properties) or stands in some relation (or relations). Suggesting that it’s a simple property has never been very convincing. So far, so good.

    It even sounds right (to me) to say that it’s a non-natural property (if it’s a property at all). Susan is a good person if she has certain characteristics, mainly with respect to how she behaves in relation to other people. Identifying those characteristics can be tricky, but it seems fair to say it’s not simply a question of having some set of natural properties. There’s more to it than that, as you and Stratton-Lake say.

    It seems to me that the more problematic issue here pertains to the idea that being good is the property of having properties “that give us reason” to respond in certain positive ways.

    “That give us reason” can obviously be understood in two different senses: (1) that cause us to respond in certain ways as a matter of fact, or (2) that provide us with some rational justification for responding in those ways.

    Without having read “Ethical Intuitionism”, I’m pretty that Stratton-Lake doesn’t mean (1), since that would make goodness a natural (although complex) property. But if he means (2), isn’t he simply explaining goodness in terms of what is good (i.e. rational) to have a positive attitude toward?

    It’s clearly good to have positive attitudes toward things when there are good reasons for having those positive attitudes. That’s clearly better than having positive attitudes toward things when there are no good reasons to have those pro-attitudes. That’s undeniable, but it’s hardly informative.

    So with respect to Stratton-Lake’s statement that goodness is “objective in the important sense that it is independent of how we as individuals happen to think or feel”, it seems correct to say that goodness is independent in that sense, if it means we’re rejecting meaning (1) above (but not suggesting that goodness is independent of all human preferences or something like that).

    But he hasn’t explained how goodness is truly objective, since what’s “there to be discovered”, as he says, are “good reasons”, which brings us back to where we started. What are good reasons? Haven’t we gone in a circle?

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on February 13, 2014 - 11:19 am

      Thanks for this well reasoned and insight question, I truly appreciate you sharing your thoughts here.

      Glad to see we’re on the same page on moral properties and their being complex non-natural properties.

      I think you are right in noting that if goodness is the property of having properties that give us reason to respond in certain ways, Stratton-Lake certainly does not mean that moral properties are causally efficacious; that would undermine the (common to moral realists’) externalist thesis on motivation. So we move to your second way of understanding “gives us reason to respond”: reasons for action that give us rational justification for our action.

      Here’s the thing: I don’t see where this definition introduces in ‘good’ in such a way that makes the definition of good circular, as you charge. If an action would cause someone harm, then there is a reason to be motivated not to do the action. The sort of reason under question doesn’t seem like it could be a good or bad reason, it is just a reason, and so I don’t see how appeal to reasons becomes circular. Likewise, we can say that ‘good’ is the property of having properties that give a reason to be motivated to do the action. Moral properties supervene on natural properties without being reducible to them (this is a common thesis of the non-naturalist, though some naturalists have taken it up as well), so in this sense ‘good’ is a non-natural property because it is not reducible to natural properties, however, because it is realized by (supervenes on) natural properties these natural properties establish the reasons for action. Thus, defining ‘goodness’ with reasons for being motivated to respond in a certain manner is not cyclical because natural facts determine the reasons to be motivated, and the reasons to be motivated determine whether the act is morally good. The process moves up from the natural facts to the non-natural facts of goodness and badness, not in a circle.

      Again, thanks for posing this great question, I hope I have sufficiently responded to it.

  2. #3 by Larry on February 13, 2014 - 10:45 pm

    I guess my response would be to repeat that whether something is a reason in sense (2) above is a normative question. We can say that Susan did X for a reason, meaning merely that something led her to do X in sense (1), but she didn’t have a reason in sense (2). A reason in sense (2) has to be a good reason, because if it’s a bad reason, it’s not a rational justification for acting. It might be the excuse Susan offers as her justification for doing X, but we can reply that she didn’t really have a reason (in sense (2))! She wasn’t rationally justified. She had no reason to do what she did (meaning no good reason). Indeed, a bad reason in sense (2) is no reason at all (except in sense (1)).

    Saying that there’s no circularity because it’s not important whether it’s a good reason or a bad reason indicates to me that we’re talking about reasons in sense (1) (it’s merely what Susan thought was a good reason), not in sense (2), which is the sense Stratton-Lake is referring to (as we agree).

    I don’t know if we’re talking past each other, but I’ve struggled with the question of moral realism for a long time, so I’m quite enjoying this discussion (although don’t feel the need to respond immediately or even at all — I won’t take silence as agreement!). I’d also like to thank you for indirectly bringing to my attention some of the other recent work on ethical intuitionism. I just looked at Amazon and see books by Audi, Kaspar and Huemer and a recent anthology called “The New Intuitionism”.

    • #4 by Larry on February 14, 2014 - 12:51 pm

      Thinking about this some more, it feels strange to say that a reason in the normative sense (2) has to be a good reason. Clearly, some reasons are better than others, and it’s often hard to say where the line is between a good reason and a bad reason. But I still think that in order to “qualify” as a reason in sense (2), a reason must fall on the good side.

      Stratton-Lake’s statement that goodness involves something “giving us reason to respond positively” seems to require that the reason be a good one of some kind. Otherwise we fall back into saying “goodness” merely requires something that leads someone to respond positively, which would make goodness completely subjective.

      • #5 by ausomeawestin on February 15, 2014 - 2:07 pm

        I think your response is fair, and I will go about responding to it in a different way this time, but that doesn’t mean that I reject the theory I laid out in my last response.

        So let’s take what you said as true: defining moral goodness with reasons for motivation risks making the definition circular as we are defining a morally good action with a good reason. But the “good” in question is different on each side of the equation, moral goodness is a property that belongs to actions, whereas rational goodness is a property that belongs to reasons. Just because our vocabulary is the same for different concepts doesn’t mean that the concepts themselves are the same; that would be to commit a fallacy of equivocation. It must be remembered that the moral realist is attempting to define moral goodness, not goodness plain and simple, so the non-naturalist can appeal to rational goodness without threat of circle.

        Glad to hear you’re taking another look at ethical intuitionism, it is certainly an interesting epistemological theory. I recommend anything on the subject by Audi, in many ways he is responsible for the recent renewal of interest in intuitionism in the academic realm, and his work on this matter has been the most pioneering. That being said, Huemer’s book is fantastic, and is, for my money, one of the strongest and unapologetically vigorous arguments for intuitionism. Another fantastic book on the subject, though a little more measured in certainty is “Moral Realism: a defense” by Russ Shafer-Landau. I will note that none of these writers make the case for goodness being defined by reasons for pro-attitudes. For a book on that check out Ralph Wedgwood’s The Nature of Normativity.

  1. Review of “Ethical Intuitionism: Re-Evaluations” | ausomeawestin

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