Notes and Thoughts on Parfit and Moral Disagreement (Ch. 34)
Before getting into the philosophy, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the trolley thought experiments, answer these questions before proceeding:
Trolly Q1: You are driver of a runaway tram which you can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other. You are currently on the track to kill the five. Do you flip the switch to change tracks and cause the one man to die to save the 5?
Trolly Q2: This time you aren’t the driver of the runaway tram. This time there’s only one track, and there are 5 workers working on it. If the train reaches them, they’ll all die. You are on an overpass. You notice a fat man whose body weight is such that if you pushed him off he’ll cause the tram to derail and the 5 workers will be saved. Yay! But only at the expense of the fat man’s life. Boo! Do you push him off?
Was your answer different for the 2 questions? The outcome was the same, so why might it be different? What’s the difference between the situations? And most importantly, how do you justify your position? Keep these questions in mind as we discuss this section. In a way Parfit wants to argue that under ideal conditions we’d all give the same answer. There’s a fairly large body of empirical evidence to the contrary, but he’ll probably reply that in some way the ideal conditions hadn’t been met.
Yo, check it! (That means I’m about to drop some knowledge) We is about to talk about D-Rock Parfit’s replies to the argument from disagreement (and some variations). The argument from disagreement is one of the classical arguments against moral realism (that there objectively true moral values). I did a more detailed account of the argument from disagreement in my post on Mackie (Mackie calls it “the argument from diversity”) but for the one or two of you not familiar with the argument it goes a lil’ somethin’ like this:
1. There is somes peoples.
2. The peoples is disagree very muchly about what is goodly and badly.
3. If there were such a thing as objective moral values, we would expect to find agreement, not disagreement.
C. Therefore, it is seeming there are no objectively true moral values, only relative values. I.e., Moral truth is always relative to social/cultural/historical context; it is never objectively true.
Parfit says this argument is badly. He does not like it. Not one little bit!
Two last definitions, normative belief: A belief about something’s value. For example, “telling the truth is good” or “causing unnecessary pain is baaaaaaaad.”
Normative reason: That’s a reason in favour of doing ‘x’. Or, that’s a reason against doing ‘x’. Or, that’s a good/bad reason to do ‘x’.
Ok, enough lol catz language. Lets look at his criticisms. (Can you imagine turning in a whole paper in lol catz language? That’d be awesome. lol.)
I will add one more point. Parfit is going to advance the thesis that ultimately it is our intuition that tells us that certain actions and reasons for actions are morally good. This thesis is contrary to other realist positions that say we can know that something is good either by empirical means or by conceptual analysis.
Parfit’s Main Claims
Yo, check it! Parfit is a moral realist: He thinks that there are objective moral values. More specifically he makes several claims:
(A). There are some irreducibly normative reason-involving truths, some of which are moral truths.
This means there are objective truths about moral values. For example, there are certain things that are objectively good–in the moral sense–to do, and knowing what these things are gives us reasons for or against an action. Morally good things aren’t good because of their consequences, but they are good in themselves. Maybe, helping people is one of these things. “But helping who?” “I don’t know, people who need help!”
(B). Since these truths are not about natural properties, our knowledge of these truths cannot be based on perception or on evidence provided by empirical facts.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Things aren’t good because of some property they have, things are good because they are essentially good. Morally good things are intrinsic goods.
(C). Positive substantive normative truths cannot be analytic, in the sense that their truth follows from their meaning.
Whether something is good is not discoverable by analyzing the meaning of the term. E.g., That “justice” is good, isn’t discoverable through its definition the way that we can discover what a bachelor is by understanding the meaning of “unmarried man”. Identifying something as good isn’t a matter of analyzing the concept of the word.
(D). Our normative beliefs cannot be justified unless we are able to recognize in some other way that these beliefs are true.
Since we can’t know what things are good based on empirical investigation, apprehension of properties, or conceptual analysis, we need another way to be able to identify what things are objectively good.
And, Parfit says, we do have this capacity. Some of our normative beliefs give us reasons in favour/against certain actions and we are responsive to these reasons. Some of our normative beliefs are “self-evident, and intrinsically credible”.
For example: Poking children in the eyes with needles for fun is wrong. According to Parfit, we just know that this normative belief is true. We know this to be true just as we know that a something and its negation cannot both be true (at the same time and place).
Of course the big question is how do we know these assertions to be true without appeal to our sensory perception or definitions? It’s not like I need to see someone poke a child in the eyes to know it’s wrong…Parfit proposes intuitionism: The theory that we have intuitive abilities to respond to reasons and recognize some normative truths.
Parfit is well aware of the problems with intuitionism. Where was people’s moral intuition during slavery? Back then people often argued it is intuitively true that Africans ought to be slaves. And what about wars? People do horrendous things because they take it to be intuitively true that the other side is evil or that they’re on the side of good (see: US military culture, or any military culture for that matter…).
Nevertheless, in the less clear cases we ought not to rely only on intuition about the act. This is where Parfit adds in a requirement that we assess the strengths and weaknesses of conflicting reasons, arguments, and principles. The idea is that, as with particular acts, our intuition gives us “similar abilities to recognize truths about what is rational, and about what we have reasons to believe, and want, and do.”
I’m not sure I agree with him here. I think all one has to do is look at American politics to see that people clearly do not agree on what truths are rational “and what we have reasons to believe, and want, and do”. However, I do agree with him (and Scanlon) that appeal to reasons for/against committing a particular action “is the only defensible method”. I mean, for serious, if you can’t give reasons for why you did something, beyond “I just felt it was the right thing to do”, then you is wack.
The problem for Parfit is in trying to show that people’s intuitions will magically aligne regarding what they think are good objectives, reasons and/or principles for action. To deal with this objection Parfit argues that just because there might be disagreement over what 2 people find to be “self-evident”, doesn’t imply that we don’t have the capacity to find out.
Consider our other senses. People can disagree over what they see or hear, yet we don’t conclude from that that they are blind and deaf. Well…sometimes, I do. Nevertheless, despite their infrequent lapses, we don’t conclude that vison and hearing aren’t reliable ways of coming to know truths about the world.
One more reply to the anti-intuitionists is that people might find that the beliefs over which they disagree aren’t of the self-evident variety; that’s why they’re disagreeing. Well, that’s sounds like a mighty convenient argument for Parfit. “No, no, no! it’s not that one of your intuitions is wrong, it’s that regarding this particular matter, there is no self-evident truth–that’s why you’re disagreeing”. But this reply avoids one difficulty by creating another.
How is it that we are supposed to distinguish between intuitive beliefs that are self-evidently true and those that only appear to be self-evidently true? If Parfit’s answer is that we should resort to our intuition to sort it out, I’m gonna punch him right in the face! Oh! I shouldn’t say that. Parfit’s a nice guy. Almost all accounts of him never fail to mention how nice he is. But anyway, you know what I mean. There’s a vicious circle goin’ on here, and it’s making me dizzy!
Notes and Thoughts on Parfit and Moral Disagreement (Ch. 34)