Want to Discover Moral Truth? Part 1 "How to Be a Moral Realist" by R. Boyd

Before I start I want to give a shout out to fauxphilnews.wordpress.com a blog which I fancy is one of the cleverest blogs I’ve seen in a while.  For those of you who didn’t see (or click on) the link I posted on my fb page, I highly recommend you check it out.  Oh, I should warn you, unless you have some familiarity with philosophy you won’t get a lot of the jokes, but even if you only took a couple of courses you should get most of them. 

Notes and Thoughts on “How to Be a Moral Realist” by Richard Boyd 


I’ve noted before that facebook is a double-edged sword when it comes to getting to know long past acquaintances (in the general sense).  Inevitably, some of the people we went to high school with or met in some prior stage in our lives will end up having views wildly divergent from our own.  Sometimes this is good because it forces us to be exposed to ideas and points of view we might not encounter in our current circle of friends.  And sometimes, it can be annoying or flat out enraging.  But I digress…

So, why bring this up in a post on meta-ethics?  Because, out there in the meta-ethical world there are philosophers (and a lot of regular people) that fancy that there are absolute moral truths and we can come to know them.   This position is called “moral realism”.  But if moral realism is correct, how can I account for the fact that my friends on facebook sometimes post things contrary to what I know is the Truth.  How is it that sooooo many people get it wrong?  And why don’t they just ask me what’s right? I’d be happy to tell them.

Anyhow, Richard Boyd fancys that moral realism is correct.  Lets look at some of his arguments for why, then, since (unlike the rest of you) I haven’t erred in perceiving these objective truths, I will explain what moral views you should have (if I have time). 

Intro to Moral Realism

Moral realims makes three assertions: 

(1).  We can have lots of fun…and by fun I mean “moral statements are the sorts of statements which are (or which express propositions which are) true or false (or approximately true, largely false)”.  For example if I say “you ought to help old ladies across the street,” we can say of this statement that it is either true of false.  We can contrast this with, for example, some other views that say moral statements aren’t true or false but merely express someone’s emotional attitude.  

(2).  “The truth or falsity (approximate truth…) of moral statements is largely independent of our moral opinions, theories, etc..”  In other words, moral truth bears no relation to our subjective opinion; much in the way our thoughts about the physical world have relation to how the physical world actually is. 

(3).  “Ordinary canons of moral reasoning–together with ordinary canons of scientific and everyday factual reasoning–constitute, under many circumstances at least, a reliable method for obtaining and improving (approximate) moral knowledge.”  I fancy this means that common moral notions in conjunction with our methods of reasoning in both ethics and science are sufficient for figuring out and improving moral knowledge.  

A consequence of the view that there really is such a thing as objective morality is that moral terms like ‘good’, ‘fair’, ‘just’, ‘obligatory’ will correspond to real properties or relations.  Furthermore, we can reason our way toward figuring out what kinds of events, policies, and social arrangements these properties and relations correspond to.   Importantly, the claim is not that we presently have reasoned our way to the perfect moral theory but that, just as the methodes of science are self-correcting and progressive, so to are the methods of moral reasoning.

The general objection to suggesting that there are similarities between scientific knowledge and moral knowledge is that scientific theories are value-neutral, objective, and empirically testable.  In order to counter this claim Boyd’s argument will hinge on trying to shew that moral beliefs and the methods used to obtain them are similar to our scientific beliefs and methods of reasoning.  

The Realist View of Science

So, obviously it’s a pretty contentious claim to say there are objective moral facts and we can come to know them through moral and scientific reasoning.  Lets check aus how the moral realist backs this up…

Without making a huge digression into debates within philosophy of science Boyd first wants to assume scientific realism, the idea that reality is prior to thought–i.e., our perceptions conform to reality rather than the other way around.  The opposing position would be that our perception of reality is constructed out of our social structures, theories, and psychology–in other words, we (science included) don’t/can’t perceive the physical world objectively.  

The main argument for supporting the realist position is that it gives a better account than anti-realism of how scientific knowledge (theories) and method have progressively improved. If anti-realism is correct how do we explain the fact that scientific theories have had progressively better predictive power, that we been able to apply our theories to build iphones, that the scientific method has progressively been refined, and that the method has been reliable?  Moving on…

The 2 Important Features of Science for Boyd

Here comes the sneaky part because so long as we accept that science aims at objective reality and that the scientific method allows us to progressively approach objective reality, Boyd argues that there are two important parallels between how science is done and how moral thinking is done.  

First of all science is cumulative and approaches the truth through “successive approximations”.  In other words, science builds on itself and is constantly revising itself based on the latest theoretical modifications.  So, working within a theoretical framework, new information is discovered that brings about a modification of the theory.  

Now, within the modified theory, the same thing happens….over and over again, each time (hopefully) getting closer and closer to truth.  The new theoretical framework lets us better interpret phenomena which in turn leads to improvement in our theory.  If the original theory had been wrong this type of progress would eventually stop.  The revisions occur within a theoretical framework which is modified to fit new information.  What’s important is that the new information isn’t “theory-free”; it’s always embedded in a theory.  

There’s a constant back and forth between theory and new information that is observed from within a theory.  As theories are modified to better fit “reality” we say that the general direction of science is progressive and it obtains closer and closer approximations of truth. 

The second, which is related to the first, concerns the relationship between advances in scientific theory and advances in scientific method.  There is a “dialectical relationship between current theory and the methodology for its improvement”.  What mean this does?  Basically, that as our theories improve with their approximations of truth, so do our scientific methods. 

But the fun doesn’t stop there.  Improved scientific methods of experimentation allow for better science and hence an improvement in theory…and improved theory leads to better methods of experimentation…which in turn lead to better information and better theories…I think you get the point…

“‘Cumulativity’ and Theory-Method Dialectic as Applied to Ethics 

Now think of how this might apply to moral thinking.  When we make moral judgements we are operating within an moral framework which influences how we perceive events.  Occasionally, we can have an experience that suggests that we should modify our theory so we modify our moral theory (unless, of course, you are a fundamentalist of some sort).  This is a cumulative process.   

The problem that Boyd is going to have is to shew that this is necessarily progressive when applied to morality.  I don’t think it would take too long for a many thinking people to point to moral frameworks that could be considered morally regressive (by the thinking persons standards, anyway…).  But how do we explain the fact that the people in those “regressive” frameworks don’t think they’re regressive at all.  They think our framework is regressive.  What can we reference to make any kind of evaluation without presupposing our conclusion?

Regarding the second point, that theory and method are in a reciprocal relationship, is also very plausible.  The difficulty, again, will be to shew that the direction has been/is progressive. 

The big problem I see for Boyd is, given the wide array of moral systems in the world, who do we point to as the analogue to science and who are the analogue to pseudoscience?  Some moral systems say the way to Truth is by looking at this book, others say you can just feel if something’s right, other’s will reference minimizing harm, others will reference maximizing liberty, and others maximizing equality.  Some will reference all of them.  Within science we have some fairly objective criteria to make this general distinction but how do we make this judgment in ethics without presupposing our own methods and results as being the correct ones?

Anyhow, the main thing Boyd wants to say is that the fact that moral judgments are embedded in pre-supposed moral theories and methods is not point against moral realism.  Science operates the same way. 

How Should We Justify our Love Moral Beliefs?

Again, to shew the plausibility of real moral facts and how we might justify them, Boyd makes an analogy with the scientific method.  Although scientists haven’t figured out how magnets work they know a lot of cool stuffs.  But how do they justify their beliefs?

The old assumption was that our knowledge was built upon fixed truths and fixed methods of truth acquisition.  This model is called foundationalism.  Think Descartes.  He strips away all beliefs that can be doubted and is left with only “wax is cool” “I think therefore I am”.  Then because he perceives this solitary truth as something “clear and distinct” he claims, as a method, that anything that he perceives clearly and distinctly must be true.  So, from his one foundational belief and his method of acquiring new beliefs, he rebuilds his entire epistemology.  With variations in what constitutes the foundational beliefs and methods, for several centuries this was the general model for justifying beliefs.

Boyd refudiates this model and opts for a “naturalized  coherentist epistemology”.   Very briefly here’s what this means:  The coherentist part means that we don’t reason from permanent foundational beliefs but our system of beliefs is fluid.  We are constantly adjusting them with experience and deliberation.  Sure, some beliefs are more strongly held than others, but given sufficiently strong evidence, they are all open to revision–either directly or indirectly.   As we adjust certain beliefs to better conform to our experiences, other beliefs that are connected might also be revised.  

Another important notion that comes out of the coherentist picture is that there is a reciprocal relationship between our set of beliefs and how we interpret experience.  An experience that causes a revision in our set beliefs will in turn cause us to perceive subsequent experiences differently, which will cause further revisions.  There is a constant back and forth between how we interpret experience and our particular set of beliefs.  

The naturalized part refers to our methods of justifying beliefs.  In the foundationalist model we have a set of static methods with which we can produce true beliefs.  Naturalized epistemology says that we should also investigate our methods of belief production and use that information to refine them.  For example, visual psychology studies how we go from visual stimulus to belief about what we saw.  Understanding how this mechanism works and the circumstances under which it fails helps us further refine our methods of belief acquisition which in turn helps refine our beliefs.  

The idea is that the more we can refine the ways in which we acquire beliefs, the more our beliefs will approximate “truth”.  And the more our beliefs approximate truth, the better we will be able to refine our methods of belief acquisition….over and over until people ultimately come to know the absolute truth that the flying spagetti monster is the one True god.    

Naturalized Coherentist Epistemology Applied to Moral Thinking

The analogy to moral thinking should be apparent (or is it? …whoa!).  Consider the coherentist part:  we have a web of moral beliefs and as we progress through our lives some of those beliefs will start to change to conform with experience. And of course, some of the moral beliefs will be more amenable to change than others.   The important point being that changes in one belief will impact other interconnected beliefs to varying degrees.  There is continuous dialectic between our moral beliefs and how we perceive the world.  

The interesting part comes when we apply this epistemology to methods of inference.  To naturalize our methods of moral inferences, the idea is that we should learn how it is we make moral decisions and that learning about conditions under which this process is fallible or accurate will help us produce more accurate moral judgements.  These more accurate moral judgments will further allow us to detect conditions under which our methods of moral thinking fail/are successful.   Once again, the idea is that there is a positive feedback loop in the direction of truth.  

This is going to be a similar problem as we saw in the previous section.  With science we have a quasi objective standard by which we can judge the direction of progress.  If a method of inference consistently produces theories that accurately describe observed phenomena, and substantial predictions can be made with those theories, we can say the method of inference is a good one. 

By what standard can we measure the successfulnicity of a method of moral inference?  One person can say, “look, my method is reliable because it shows that abortion is morally permissible”.  The other says, “look, my method is reliable because it shows abortion isn’t morally permissible”.  In science, we can compair two outcomes: my method predicts ‘x’ vs my method predicts ‘y’.   To resolve this we can (often) appeal to what happened, if not immediately, then at some point in the future.   

I’m kind of oversimplifying and running roughshod over a few issues but my point is just that often (but not always) scientific disputes can be eventually resolved by appeals something quasi objective–how well actual results fit with the predicted results and how fruitful our new theory turns out to be.  In moral thinking, this is only possible when we presuppose we are measuring something objective, but supposing there is, it’s not clear how we arbitrate between conflicting views. 

This weakness withstanding I think we can pick out a few good things from Boyd’s treatment of ethical thinking as analogous to scientific thinking.  For instances, there in merit in understanding how we make moral judgments; that is, what’s going on neurologically, sociologically, and psychologically, and any-other-ly.  

A simple common sense example is that we make poor ethical judgments when we are in a heightened emotional state like anger or love (yeah, I went there).  Psychology also tells us we can be “primed” to influence judgments in a predetermined direction.  So, I think there is something to his idea of approaching moral thinking with a naturalized epistemology but I’m not sure it follows that naturalizing methods of moral thought will help us determine whether there are objective moral truths or discover what they might be.  

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