Which, if any, meta-ethical view do you find most compelling for the purposes of political theory?
Meta-ethics, the study of the ontological foundations of ethics (Sayre-McCord 2012), is one of the big topics for moral and political philosophy. In this essay I argue that conventional constructivism (conventionalism) is the most compelling meta-ethical view for the purposes of political theory. First, (i) I determine what the purposes of political theory are. Then, (ii) I define logical validity and the ability to accommodate pluralism as requirements that a meta-ethical view must fulfil to be compelling for the purposes of political theory. Since conventional constructivism is a cognitivist, minimal realist and non-objectivist view (Bagnoli 2017), I show that a) cognitivism is logically valid, b) minimal realism is reasonably preferable to error theory and c) full-blown realism, opposed to non-objectivism, doesn’t fulfil the requirement of validity. I provide examples which illustrate that this applies also to virtual reality (“VR”). Based on a)–c), I argue that d) non-objectivist conventional constructivism fulfils both the validity and the pluralism requirement for a meta-ethical view to be compelling for the purposes of political theory. I support this with what I call the wake-up argument.
(i) The purposes of political theory
The purpose of political theory is to address “conceptual, normative, and evaluative questions concerning politics and society, broadly construed. Examples are: When is a society just? What does it mean for its members to be free? When is one distribution of goods socially preferable to another?” (List and Valentini 2017, 525). Given space constraints, I focus in this essay on analytic political theory, the core branch of contemporary political theory (ibid.). Analytic political theory is “typically associated with certain features, such as clarity, systematic rigour, narrowness of focus, and an emphasis on the importance of reason.” (McDermott 2008, 11).
(ii) Requirements for a compelling meta-ethical view for the purposes of political theory
A compelling meta-ethical view for the purposes of analytic political theory must be in accordance with the ‘scientific’ nature of analytic political theory. That is, it must be grounded on logically valid arguments. Call this the validity requirement. Besides, compelling meta-ethical view for the purposes of (analytic) political theory must be able to account for the fact that there is – due to a pluralism of ideas, people(s) and cultures – no single right answer to the questions that political theory addresses. Call this the pluralism requirement.
a) Cognitivism is logically valid
Cognitivists (conventional constructivists being part of them) hold that moral claims such as ‘torturing children is wrong’ purport to report facts (Van Roojen 2013). This is plausible, because we talk and reason about moral matters in ways similar to how we talk and reason about ordinary factual matters: if, as the cognitivists suggest, moral claims resemble ordinary beliefs about the world, these moral claims are (analogous to ordinary factual beliefs) also apt for truth and falsity (DeLapp). For example, people, when asked on the street, wouldn’t be hesitant to confirm that they believe the moral claim ‘torturing children is wrong’ to be true. Beyond treating moral claims - like empirical facts - as true or false, it becomes evident that we talk and reason about moral matters in ways similar to how we talk and reason about empirical matters when comparing an argument that involves moral claims (argument 1) with an argument that involves ordinary empirical claims (argument 2) (ibid.):
Argument 1: Argument 2:
P1: Torturing children is wrong P1: All humans are mortal
P2: Sophie is a child P2: Socrates is a human
C: Therefore torturing Sophie is wrong C: Therefore Socrates is mortal
In both arguments prevails the same reasoning pattern (the so-called syllogism) - true premises lead to a true conclusion. This suggests some kind of parity in the cognitive status of those claims. In case cognitivism was not true (moral claims expressing something other than truth-apt propositions) then it would not be clear 1) why we are nevertheless able to deduce a conclusion from moral sentences or 2) how we would otherwise define validity. Consequently, since we appear to be able to legitimately apply the syllogism in argument 1, moral claims must be truth-apt. This approach to defend cognitivism is known as the Frege-Geach Problem which cannot be outlined more in detail in this essay (for a more comprehensive discussion, see Geach 1965 and Schueler 1988).
Not only in the Real World, but also in VR we talk and reason about moral matters in ways similar to how we talk and reason about empirical matters. The fact of being in VR doesn’t put an end to forming (moral) arguments from premises to conclusions. Therefore, in VR one also purports to report facts when expressing moral claims.
Even if these arguments in favour of cognitivism are convincing, there remains a challenge for cognitivists, namely Michael Smith’s moral problem. Smith argues that there is a tension between three intuitively plausible meta-ethical doctrines (one of them being cognitivism). At most two of the following three claims can be true (Smith 1994, 12f):
I. Moral judgments are beliefs, not desires or emotions (Cognitivism)
II. Moral judgments are intrinsically motivating (Internalism)
III. Both beliefs and desires are necessary for motivation (The Humean thesis about motivation)
To sustain cognitivism, either internalism or the humean thesis about motivation must be proved false. Either of the two views can be proved false by delivering convincing arguments for the respective other view. The following illustrations provides good reasons to believe that the humean thesis about motivation is true (and internalism false): a belief b like ‘there is a unique pastry in the bakery around the corner’ is (alone) not enough to motivate a person p who holds this belief to go and get this pastry if she doesn’t care about this pastry. To be motivated to go and get the pastry, a person p needs in addition to her belief b a desire d. Analogously, the belief ‘torturing children is wrong’ must be accompanied by a desire to be moral in order to motivate a person to not torture children. Consequently, the Humean thesis about motivation is valid and internalism is false. This solves Smith’s moral problem and ensures that cognitivism can be sustained.
In VR, motivation works (in human avatars) in the same way as in the RW. Merely holding a belief does also not lead in VR to an action if it is not accompanied by a desire to realise that belief. In VR, to turn moral beliefs into motivation, the role of the desire of being moral might even be more important than in the RW: suppose, one holds the belief ‘torturing children is wrong’ and one knows that torturing AI-driven child avatars (that don’t represent a real human being but are completely artificial) in VR doesn’t harm any real child. In this case it might still be immoral to torture the AI-child in VR – immoral in the same way as it would be to have a Hakenkreuz flag hanging in your private bedroom without harming anyone. But since no direct harm towards a child is involved, the desire to be moral might have to be higher than in cases of direct harm to be motivated not to torture the AI-driven child in VR.
b) Minimal realism is reasonably preferable to error theory
After having shown why it is compelling to believe that moral claims purport to report facts, the question is whether there exist truly such facts – which would lead to (at least minimal) realism (of which conventional constructivism is part) – or not – which would be an indicator for the error theory (Sayre-McCord 1986, 6f). Error theorists argue that we talk as if there were moral facts, but there aren’t any: when a person makes a moral claim or engages in moral discourse, this person tries to report facts and express beliefs much like ordinary factual beliefs, but she is systematically mistaken and deluded, the moral facts to which she purports to report are only an illusion (Lillehammer 2004, 95f). This challenge to (at least minimal) realism is not convincing, because it seems to go against Davidson’s principle of charity in interpreting people: the thought that the entire practice of moral discourse is mistaken in its globality is an uncharitable way of interpreting human practices, unless we have very strong evidence for it – or no better (i.e. more charitable) interpretation is available (Davidson 1991, 158). Since we don’t have very good evidence for this and there is a more charitable interpretation available - (at least minimal) realism - it is reasonable to reject the error theory in favour of (at least minimal) realism.
c) Full-blown realism, opposed to non-objectivism, doesn’t fulfil the requirement of validity
Good arguments for the denial of (i) moral non-cognitivism and (ii) moral error theory show that (at least minimal) moral realism, of which conventional constructivism is part of, is in accordance with the requirement of validity. A minimal realist conceives the moral facts as genuinely existent. Specifying these truly existent moral facts further regarding whether they are mind/subject-dependent or not leads to either full-blown realism (moral facts are mind/subject independent) or non-objectivism (moral facts are mind/subject dependent) (Joyce 2015). Since conventional constructivism is a kind of non-objectivism, I show in the following first that full-blown moral realism doesn’t fulfil the requirement of validity. Based on this, I will then show that that conventional constructivism fulfils both requirements for a meta-ethical view to be compelling for the purposes of political theory.
Full-blown realism can be divided in two sorts: naturalistic realism and non-naturalistic realism. Both sorts fail to fulfil the validity requirement. Naturalistic realism conceives moral facts as being ‘natural’ (or as being supervened on natural facts) (Sayre-McCord 2015). It should be possible to derive certain ‘ought’ facts from these natural facts. But this is logically impossible, since natural facts are ’is’ facts and, according to G. E. Moore, one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ (Moore 1903, § 10 and § 13). Non-naturalistic realism conceives moral facts as being distinct from natural facts (and as not being supervened on them) (Sayre-McCord 2015). Since the natural world is causally closed, it is logically impossible that we could ever learn about these facts, since we could not causally interact with them. Even if the rules of causality constructed for VR differed partially from those of the RW, the constructed VR-rules of causality still wouldn’t enable humans in VR to interact with non-naturalistic moral facts, because they also would be outside of the causally closed virtual world.
 Given space constraints, questions regarding motivation and agency of person-like beings in VR that are powered by computational power and algorithms cannot be discussed in this paper.
 Indirect forms of harm for real children could be that the threshold of torturing real children gets lowered by torturing AI-driven child avatars. See for example: Buckingham, Angela. 2016. “Murder in VR Should Be Illegal.” Vice Motherboard. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/aekaxk/should-murder-in-vr-be-illegal.
Torturing child avatars in VR (representations of real children), of course, leads to a direct psychological harm for children.
- Quote paper
- David Schneider (Author), 2018, Which, if any, meta-ethical view do you find most compelling for the purposes of political theory?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/417210