Notes on Robert Audi’s Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, pt II: Ethical Concepts and Moral Realism

Section II: Ethical Concepts and Moral Realism
“Moral Epistemology and the Supervenience of Ethical Concepts”

This essay focuses on the epistemological status of moral principles by attending to whether empiricism or rationalism is better suited for moral knowledge in light of the supervenience of moral properties on non-moral properties; Audi, unsurprisingly, concludes in favor of rationalism. Audi surveys a variety of combinations before concluding that the best positions for the realist are an empiricist reductive naturalism, or a rationalist non-naturalism (in the next chapter Audi considers and convincingly refutes the position of the Cornell realists, who argue for non-reductive naturalism).

On an epistemological level there is certainly something attractive about reductive empiricism: if moral properties are experienced through the non-moral properties they are constituted by, then we can have fairly certain moral knowledge by reducing moral properties to the non-moral properties that we are justified in believing to be present. But the epistemological success of reductive empiricism will not come so easily; G.E. Moore convinced most philosophers that moral properties are not conceptually reducible to non-moral properties, and so while empiricists may hold out by saying that moral properties are ontologically but not conceptually reducible to non-moral properties, such justifications must make multiple assumptions on identity relations which make confirmation of the theory difficult, at best. I suspect that those who are sympathetic to a scientific methodology in metaethics will have no problem with this point, but I find the fact that eventual confirmation of such a theory must come from the conceptual plausibility of the theory serves as a virtue of rationalism.

An outline of the rationalist non-naturalist view is offered, one holding that moral terms are not completely reducible to non-moral terms, there is a priori knowledge of the meaning of moral concepts, non-moral properties are conceptually constitutive of moral properties, and finally, that this conceptual relation between moral concepts grounds a priori knowledge of general moral truths. The idea is that there is a conceptual connection between a set of non-moral properties and the supervenient moral property, and this connection is see to be true through reflection, such that the connection is epistemologically and semantically a priori, though the moral property cannot be reduced to just those occurent non-moral properties as the non-moral properties are only sufficient, and not necessary, for the moral property, so that a reductive definition cannot be offered.

Audi then considers four objections to moral realism, I) that a naturalistic understanding of moral supervenience is not forthcoming, II) that if moral properties are non-natural then they are epiphenomenal and have no explanatory power, III) that one might mistake arbitrary social conventions as a priori knowledge, and IV) there is nothing that connects moral principles as being ‘moral’.

The main voice of the first objection is J.L. Mackie, who asked, when we say that an act is wrong because it is cruel, what does the ‘because’ signify? There seems to be no naturalistic explanation for supervenience that is not strange ontologically and epistemologically. Audi’s response is that the rationalist view in question challenges the presupposition that this relation need be naturalistic and “in the world”, as Mackie claimed. It seems then that Mackie’s objection only causes problems for the naturalistic and empiricism favoring realist.

The second objection is handled much the same way; Audi argues that moral properties likely do not have explanatory power (in the next essay he argues further that they do not), but as the rationalist has never claimed that moral properties have any causal influence in denying empiricism in moral epistemology, the rationalist never posited that moral properties should have explanatory power. If moral supervenience is an a priori conceptual relation then it should be quite plain that the explanatory power is had by the subvening natural properties. So again we see that a popular objection to realism only has force against reductive empiricism and not rationalism.

Objection III is an interesting objection, though Audi is quite right to note that we need not entertain implausibly arbitrary moral standards as a priori given the rigorous reflection through which they are often known. As argued in his “Intuitionism, Pluralism, and the Foundations of Ethics”, self-evidently known conceptual relations, that is, a priori moral knowledge, not need be immediately known, but will frequently be mediately known after long reflection. It seems clear that arbitrary social conventions will not stand up to such scrutiny, and will reveal themselves as not being a priori.

While Audi offered a solution to the unification problem posed by objection IV in “Intuitionism, Pluralism, and the Foundations of Ethics” by arguing for the logic of Kant’s categorical imperative, he offers another method of unifying moral principles as being about the domain of morality: they are rational commands that follow from the impersonality of reason (an argument I’ve shared before due to being very impressed by it). In brief, the argument is that there are rational intrinsic desires (desires a rational person would have for things that are good for their own sake, for example, happiness) and in their non-cognitive presentness to mind these desires contain no concept of self, they only have the mental content of “desiring X”. From the impersonality of the rational desires, it does not follow that I have more reason to sate this desire for myself than for another person. Audi does not make explicit how this resolves the unity problem, but I think it is quite obvious that his idea is that what makes moral principles about morality is that they are grounded in rational intrinsic desires. As a concluding note Audi contends that the empiricist cannot subscribe to such a method of unification because of their being tethered to empirical knowledge. The conclusion of the essay is that rationalism is better equipped than reductive naturalism to face anti-realist objections.


“Ethical Naturalism and the Explanatory Power of Moral Concepts”

In this essay Audi challenges the centerpiece of a popular moral realist position, commonly referred to as Cornell realism, but referred to here as ‘explanationist realism’, and argues that his rationalist position is more true to the way that moral explanations function than explanationist realism (hereafter ER). The central idea of ER is that moral properties can be natural properties even if they are not reducible to non-moral properties if moral properties are causally efficacious and as such fit into our best explanations of the world, mirroring the claims of scientific realism in the philosophy of science. The idea is that if we can reasonably say that “the unjustness of his punishment caused protests” then moral properties function in the causal order, so that we should hold that moral properties are of the natural world.

As is characteristic of his writing style, Audi sets out various metaethical options and the implications of their combinations before getting to the crucial point that there is a profound difference between moral supervenience and scientific supervenience, namely, that while superveneing scientific properties are only ontologically dependent on the subvening properties, moral properties are both ontologically and epistemically dependent on their base properties. While I can know something is “hot” without knowing about the subvening properties that make it hot (motion), it seems I cannot know something is “wrong” without knowing about the subvening properties that make it wrong. If someone claims that a state of affairs is unjust but when asked why cannot offer any natural facts for why it is so, we doubt their understanding of what ‘injustice’. Audi concludes from this that the non-moral subvening properties of a moral term are doing the explanatory work when we offer moral explanations, such that it is dubitable that the moral properties themselves have explanatory power through causal efficacy. This casts considerable doubt on the prospects for ER.

Further specifying how moral supervenience must differ from scientific supervenience, Audi argues that moral supervenience relations seem to be conceptual in the sense that the base properties entail the supervening properties, whereas in scientific supervenience the base properties cause the superveneing properties, such that those supervening properties are natural properties with causal influence. No such causal efficacy is transferred to moral properties in their conceptual entailment. Audi seems quite right in this point, as surely an act of brutality does not cause the higher-order/supervening property of “wrongness” but rather conceptually entails it.

Still, Audi thinks moral properties can be used explanatorily, it’s just not the case that moral properties have explanatory power in virtue of their causal influence. Audi notes that purely moral explanations are uncommon (such as “he did x because y was unjust”), and that moral terms are classificatory in common use (“x is wrong”). As such, when we do say that “he did x because it was good” we may best understand the statement as morally describing the base properties that made the act good, in such a way that we are ourselves expressing a positive attitude towards the act.

The conclusion of this essay, as I see it, is that Cornell realism erroneously takes moral supervenience to be too similar to scientific supervenience for moral realism to succeed from it. The explanatory role that moral terms do play is better met by a rationalist conceptual supervenience, which is not committed to the strange metaphysics of causally influential moral properties.


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  1. Ralph Wedgwood on Cornell Realism and Australian Realism (moral semantics) | ausomeawestin

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