I’ve very much enjoyed the excellent discussions that have been occurring in the comments section of my recent post on the Is/ought gap. All of the commentators have been provocative and informative, but Larry posted some fantastically critical remarks of two positions I was advancing in that post, (I) that the is/ought thesis has no implications for reductivism, and (II) given the is/ought gap, a priori moral knowledge seems to be the only way to clear the yawning gorge of epistemological moral skepticism. As my responses to Larry’s comments became of a length appropriate for an entry in-itself in elaborating on positions I only gestured towards in the original post, I decided to post Larry’s comments and my response as a “sequel” to that post. My only hope is that this entry will yield as much fascinating discussion as the original. Without further ado, here is Larry:
“Regarding your statement that “It seems they purposefully conflate [the “is/ought” gap] with a metaphysical thesis concerning reductivism”. You defined “reductivism” in an earlier post this way: “a reductive account of normativity would … provide necessary and sufficient conditions for a normative property in non-normative terms”.
I’ve always thought the existence of the is/ought gap serves as an argument against this kind of reductive account of normativity (and a better argument against such accounts than Moore’s “open question” argument). In other words, it’s a mistake to think that normative language can be analyzed in terms of or reduced to or inferred from descriptive language, as ethical naturalists have often tried to do, given the existence of the is/ought gap. At some point, as Hume argued, a normative language or assumption will have to come into play in order to allow the transition to a normative conclusion. I don’t think talk about ethical properties supervening on natural properties avoids the problem.
On the topic of moral knowledge, it’s true that IF we do have moral knowledge, it must come from somewhere, but concluding that it must be a priori or from a faculty of ethical intuition doesn’t seem to clarify matters. We might just as well say that most of us have very strong ethical intuitions, which we feel so strongly about that we can’t imagine we’re wrong (we just know we’re right).
Similarly, on the page from Brink’s book that you cite, he says: “Given only nonmoral background assumptions, for example, that moral realism is true [I guess that’s a metaphysical assumption] and the appraisers in question are fully rational and fully informed, the moral fact that [torture] is wrong may provide the best explanation of the nonmoral fact that appraisers unanimously agree that [a given example of torture] is wrong”. He goes on to say that one may question the background assumptions, in particular, that moral realism is true (a claim that he has argued for). Another explanation for the unanimity, of course, is that the appraisers are human beings who grew up in the same culture.
I think that “scientifically minded moral realists” can agree, as you say, that the is/ought gap exists, but making the case for moral realism would be much easier if it didn’t.
While Larry does speak about non-deductive methods of breaching the is/ought gap, and the hypothesis that things would be easier for the naturalistic moral realist if there were no is/ought gap, as I mentioned earlier, my concerns at present are with his comments that the is/ought thesis does seem to suggest troubles for reductivism, and a priori moral knowledge given by ethical intuition. Full disclosure: I don’t think normative properties are reducible to non-normative properties, and I think that if we have moral knowledge then it will be in virtue of some foundational a priori moral truths that are known through reflection.
I think non-reducibility is consistent with the is/ought gap, but I don’t think it follows from the gap. Non-reducibility is a metaphysical thesis positing that the nature of normative properties is not exhaustively accounted for with non-normative properties. The is/ought gap is the thesis that a proposition with a normative term cannot follow as the conclusion from a set of propositions with no normative terms. How the essence of those normative properties is best articulated is a metaphysical question with no answer to be found in the theory that an argument cannot contain a predicate in the conclusion that was not in any of the premises of that argument.
I imagine that the thinking for this connection between the is/ought gap and the non-reducibility thesis is that insofar as the is/ought thesis is about how propositions amount to moral knowledge, and moral knowledge is about moral properties, that non-normative propositions don’t logically imply normative propositions would seem to imply that non-normative properties don’t entail normative properties, and so reducing a normative property by giving it’s necessary and sufficient conditions in non-normative terms is impossible because the is/ought gap suggests that we cannot give the sufficient conditions for a normative property with a non-normative property. We can see immediately that this is wrong, as this would amount to the claim that no set of non-normative properties is sufficient for a normative property. But of course a set of non-normative properties can be sufficient for a normative property, the metaphysical question of reducibility is whether a certain non-normative property is always necessary and sufficient for a normative property. In other words, if we understood the is/ought gap as a metaphysical thesis, then the thesis would be too strong, as it would entail that no non-normative property is sufficient to ground a normative property, and would rule out supervenience.
But I think it’s pretty easy to see where we went wrong with that argument; we changed the subject when we went from talking about how one type of proposition does not entail another type of proposition, to how one type of property does not entail another type of property. We went from talking about epistemology to metaphysics and it turns out the is/ought thesis does not translate well. But we can shift from talk about propositions to properties and still remain speaking about epistemology, it’s just that this wouldn’t have any implications for reductivism. Then we might say, insofar as the is/ought thesis is about how propositions amount to moral knowledge, and moral knowledge is about moral properties, that non-normative propositions don’t logically imply normative propositions would seem to imply that knowledge of non-normative properties doesn’t logically imply knowledge of normative properties. Again, I think all the implications of the is/ought thesis are epistemological, even when we focus on properties rather than propositions.
On Ethical Intuitionism and A Priori Moral Knowledge
Which leads to your comments on moral knowledge. Your objection against a priori moral knowledge, as I understand it, is incredibly incisive. Against my argument that the is/ought gap exists, and so we need a bridging premise with a normative term in order to get us to the other side and the best option for this an a priori foundational moral belief, you note that this explains how we got to the evaluative conclusion just as well as if we hadn’t added the evaluative premise at all. In essence, the idea of ethical intuitions are so mysterious, and thus, meaningless, that adding a belief given to us by ethical intuition as a premise in the argument is really to add nothing at all; we might as well have made the leap from non-evaluative premises to an evaluative conclusion without the premise. I won’t sugarcoat it – this is a powerful objection.
My tentative response is that we need to be careful not to mistake the mysteriousness of the method by which we come to a belief, and the mysteriousness of the belief itself. The reflective process that amounts to what has come to be known as ethical intuition is mysterious to many philosophers. The belief “it is morally wrong to cause (unnecessary) pain and suffering” is not so mysterious, we know what the belief means. We may have trouble implementing it in our choosing between two actions, as it is a general and abstract principle, but by and large, we know what the belief means. For the argument to go through, that is, for the conclusion to follow from the premises, it matters not that the method by which we have a belief is mysterious, all that matters is that the belief itself is not mysterious.
Returning to the example I gave earlier, the belief “To eat factory raised livestock is to financially support factories that cause livestock pain and suffering through the course of their lives” it not itself mysterious, but, upon reflection, the method by which I came to hold that belief is mysterious, it was based loosely on inferences from theories in economics and sociology, which I believe on account of what might best be described as expert testimony. Still, I think most people would allow this belief to function as a premise in an argument I make. The point is we can responsibly hold beliefs without understanding the process by which we come to hold beliefs. Even if it is true that saying that we know something through ethical intuition is uninformative, the belief itself need not be uninformative, and if the belief is informative and not mysterious, regardless of whether it is or is not a normative belief, it can add to an argument in such a way that how the premises lead to the conclusion is less mysterious than if we had made the jump to the conclusion without that premise with mysterious origins. In short, I deny that adding a belief given to us by ethical intuition as a premise in an argument is to add nothing. This measured response might be the most an intuitionist can hope for against your charge. I submit that it is enough to keep intuitionism in the picture.