Margaret Little

margaret-littleThere has been a resurgence of interest in discussing morality as a system of demands — more specifically, the idea that moral obligations, duties, and responsibilities are to be understood as actions we can demand of one another. The notion of what we can demand of one another is a crucial one, well worth keeping for the important work it does, but it is a deep mistake to think that it exhausts the morally deontic realm. The fact that an action or its forbearance is not something we can demand of someone does not settle the question of whether it is morally wrong.

In practice, of course, there is nothing simple about it, which is why the theory provides a substantive account of moral error and disagreement. Apprehending things like cruelty involves exercising a variety of abilities and sensitivities — being aware of what is salient, drawing relevant discriminations, remaining undistracted by irrelevancies, and of course, understanding the moral concepts at issue — none of which are easy.

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  1. shinichi Post author

    Recent Work in Moral Realism: Non-Naturalism

    by Margaret Little

    http://e105.org/maggie/download/non-naturalismarticledoc.pdf

    In practice, of course, there is nothing simple about it, which is why the theory provides a substantive account of moral error and disagreement. Apprehending things like cruelty involves exercising a variety of abilities and sensitivities — being aware of what is salient, drawing relevant discriminations, remaining undistracted by irrelevancies, and of course, understanding the moral concepts at issue — none of which are easy (think how often people fail to see the pain of their own family members). But nor are they immune to development or rational arguments. As McNaughton points out, just as one can take steps to train a novice into hearing the musicality of jazz, one can take steps to train someone into competence with the concept of cruelty.38 And, when faced with disagreement by those already versed in the concept, you can try convincing them by rational means, such as drawing their attention to salient features they missed, noting biases underlying their assumptions, trying to get them, using a descriptive process akin to narrative, to see the situation as you do. None of this is guaranteed to work, of course, but then it is an illusion to think there is any kind of argumentation or justification — even that offered by deductive proof — that somehow “forces” all to understand.

    Some argue, though, that however rich the repertoire for rational discussion, the theory does not make intelligible how using these capacities actually puts us in touch with moral aspects of the world. There are no grounds yet, that is, for thinking we ever believe moral propositions because they are true. Wiggins and McDowell respond by explicitly acknowledging the need to provide such “vindicatory explanations”, but warning against too narrow a notion of what they might look like. Instead of defending, in naturalist fashion, that the device by which we are reliably connected to moral truths is one by which values or moral properties causally affect us, the non-naturalist argues that the reliable mechanism is our “susceptibility to good reasons”. Sometimes the best explanation for why someone holds a belief is the excellence of the reasons she had. For instance, the usual explanation for why someone believes that 7+5=12 is not that she was in causal contact with some abstract realm of numbers, but that she was persuaded by rational (in this case, deductively valid) considerations. Crucially, such an explanation invokes the truth of the proposition believed, albeit indirectly: if the explanation is committed to the reasons being excellent ones, then the theorist positing that explanation will end up accepting them and being committed to the conclusion they uphold. If, then, we find that the best explanation of our moral beliefs is sometimes the compellingness of the reasons for which they are held — a scenario urged as likely, given the difficulties of “explaining away” all moral beliefs — we will find ourselves defending moral realism. This means, of course, that there is no assessing the persuasiveness of such vindicatory explanations in complete independence of our general moral outlook; but that, it is argued, is the general lesson of post-positivist epistemology: there is no transcendent viewpoint from which to judge the reliability of our methods tout court. Indeed, it is failure to take this lesson seriously that tempts us to privilege naturalist explanations of epistemic reliability, as though science, amongst all our theories, reflects the world as it really is.

    Overall, the British non-naturalists work to defend moral realism by insisting that our concepts of truth, justification, and rationality are generous enough to accommodate the distinctive features of morality, particularly its tight conceptual ties to reasons and affective attitudes. Whether a realism so defended will feel satisfying depends importantly on what conception of objectivity we bring to the discussion. The corresponding issue for the naturalist approach, as we saw, is whether their defense will satisfyingly capture our conception of morality’s normativity. As these two issues lie at the very heart of worries about morality’s status, reflection on both approaches will help force us to articulate what is really at stake with moral realism.

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