Review of Mark Timmons’ Morality Without Foundations pt I (of III)

Mark Timmons’ Morality Without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism is an indispensable contribution to contemporary metaethics, as it challenges deeply engrained assumptions of the field to articulate a new and exciting theory of moral irrealism. The book proceeds by articulating the criteria by which a metaethical theory must succeed; how the (at the time) most plausible version of moral realism (Cornell realism) could not satisfy both criteria; a substantial argument against irrealism and what is to be learned from it; taking this lesson in hand, the development of contextualist moral semantics; and a contextualist moral epistemology. My overall focus will be on the last two chapters, wherein Timmons develops his positive theory of contextualist semantics and epistemology; however, today’s entry will focus on the first three chapters in order to put everything in place for that entry.

The first chapter is an excellent bit of scholarship on the history of metaethics, moving from the analytic period of Moore to the “post-analytic” period, and how the demands of a metaethical theory have changed in the post-analytic period. Most importantly, it seems, is Putnam and Kripke’s work on synthetic property identities, which opened up the range of theories on offer due to an eye for broad rather than narrow reductionism. In this line, the acceptance of functionalist theories of mind made apparent the compatibility of broad reductionism and naturalism. This compatibility with naturalism is crucial to Timmons, as the other goal of this first chapter is to argue that metaethical theories face two burdens of accommodation, internal and external, where internal accommodation involves our common experience of morality, moral psychology and discourse, and external accommodation involves compatibility with theory outside of morality, such as other philosophical theories, most important of which is naturalism. Timmons thinks that moral realists are better able than irrealists to accommodate internal features of morality, whereas irrealists are better able to accommodate naturalism. The goal of this book becomes the development of an irrealist theory that is better than its predecessors in internal accommodation.

To get things started, in chapter two Timmons attempts to knock his most powerful rival out of contention, the naturalistic moral realism posited by the Cornell realists. The Cornell group utilized Putnam’s work on synthetic identity definitions to great effect, but Timmons challenges the basis of their work by arguing that the thought experiment Putnam used to establish his view, when tailored for discussion of morality, fails. Timmons came to philosophical fame from the development of Moral Twin Earth argument in a series of published papers with Terry Horgan, and I’ve written about the thought experiment at length before, but the general conclusion is that while disagreement about what “water” refers to (H2o or XYZ on a twin earth) seems to only be a verbal/semantic disagreement, disagreement about what “good” refers to seems to be a genuine theoretical disagreement, because moral language is prescriptive, not descriptive, as our point of disagreement with the Twin earthlings is about what action to take, not what property a word refers to. The argument is quite damning for Cornell realism, but since Timmons’ book was published other compelling theories of moral semantics that avoid this argument have been brought forward, notably Wedgwood’s conceptual role semantics for normative terms. Moreover, the realist could concede that there is a “to-be-persuedness” built into normative terms that cannot be captured by non-moral properties, such that though broad reductionism fails, non-naturalism presents itself as an appropriate route.

In chapter three, Timmons takes on the argument from moral error, which he considers to be, given the internal accommodation project, quite troubling for the irrealist due to the common critical practices internal to moral deliberation. The idea is that we engage in moral debate and discussion in the aim to improve our moral standings, such that when we come to a new moral belief, it is not the case that our beliefs are merely changing, but that they are improving in a way that gets us closer to the truth. The irrealist thinks there is not an objective moral truth to be brought closer to, so the irrealist cannot accommodate this common practice of morality. The general idea can be put another way. At times we have the feeling that a moral belief we hold might be wrong, and the best theoretical explanation for this is that we see that our moral belief does not correspond to the moral facts of the matter, which suggests the truth of moral realism. Timmons surveys irrealist responses to the argument from error, the most plausible of which is that when we sense the possibility of moral error we sense that our moral belief would not be held from an idealized standpoint of fully rational observers, or some other naturalistically definable position – “thus, the typical irrealist proposes a broadly reductive account of correctness for moral judgments” (page 83). Timmons expects the realist to keep pushing here and to argue that we worry about the possibility of moral error that goes deeper than this idealized, hypothetical position.

There are two paths forward, one is to continue to defend a reductivist irrealism, the other is to opt for a non-reductivist irrealism. Timmons offers a half-hearted defense of the reductivist route, noting that it seems the fundamental explanation of the possibility of moral error is in the notion that it is always possible to take a critical stance toward another person’s moral judgment, no matter how well situated the speaker happens to be, because it is hard to believe that a person has all relevant factual information, is free from bias and has appropriately weighed the interests of all parties involved. The idea is that this sort of critical stance allows us to be skeptical of the idealized positions proposed by irrealists even if it might not be possible, as the irrealist presses, for there to be error in such a position.

This naturalistic, and thus, reductivist, account of moral error seems plausible at first glance, yet I have my doubts, as it seems that uncertainty about a moral belief can be isolated from the location of the persons that have that belief. The irrealist response equivocates whether it is correct to have a belief and whether a belief is true or false. In moments when we feel the force of the possibility of moral error we do not sense that it might be incorrect for us to have a belief given other facts, we sense that our moral belief just is wrong – there is a difference there that the irrealist fails to appreciate. This point can be seen in that the irrealists’ response to the possibility of moral error involves a formulation of our critical practices towards other persons’ beliefs. Yet we also experience the worry of moral error for our own beliefs and when we do our focus is not on how we have failed to meet the naturalistically definable characterization of an appropriate moral outlook but on the moral belief in which we worry we err. We might think that we have all relevant factual information, are free from bias and have appropriately weighed the interests of all parties involved, and still worry that we are wrong. Timmons’ solution to the problem of moral error fails as it maintains that we worry about a moral judgment being wrong because we can always be skeptical of the position of it’s judger when it seems quite plain that we can be uncertain about a moral judgment without considering who holds that belief.

Timmons’ defense of reductive irrealism is not very convincing, and he must know that it isn’t, because his positive theory is a unique version of non-reductive irrealism, which he develops in the next two chapters, and which I shall explore in the next part of this review.


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