22 November 1997
Thank you for your letter of 10 November, with your notes on unit 11 of Reason, Values and Conduct. As you may have seen in The Philosopher, next February I shall be giving a paper on 'The Ethics of Dialogue' to the Shap Conference in Cumbria, organised by the General Secretary of the Philosophical Society Michael Bavidge. It's a relatively small, friendly gathering (so I'm told) that has been held for many years, but this will be my first. Writing the units for the moral philosophy programme has been enormously useful in clarifying my ideas on this question!
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206-208. problems with the 'ethics of dialogue' On the question of animals, it is not enough to say that in domesticating animals we have 'taken responsibility' for them. I don't have responsibility to my two ageing word processors even though I'm responsible for them — I am free to abuse them as I will. (Others might object to the waste, but that is hardly a moral objection.) The obvious retort is that animals have feelings. The problem is that our defence of the objectivity of morals is not based on the reality of other's feelings.
The problem with the enforcement of morals arises when we recognise that another person's failure to do as I would do may not be because of ignorance but because he has different moral beliefs. On the view I am defending, one cannot assume an ideal convergence towards a single moral view. When everything possible has been said on the subject, we still disagree.
209-213. the nature of 'truth' Is it the case that we can never know the answers to moral questions, or only that sometimes it is not possible to know the answer? On the first alternative (which I am arguing for) moral questions are just like any other factual question. There are factual questions, for example, about the past to which one can never know the answer. On the second alternative, all our moral assertions are unjustified, since they are all equally based on ignorance. On either alternative, however, one could take a realist or anti-realist line. The realist about moral truth who believes that some moral questions are decidable while others are undecidable says, 'There are some moral facts which we cannot know.' The realist who believes that no moral questions are decidable says, 'There are moral facts, but no human being will ever know what these are.'
214-216. moral judgement I am arguing that there must be more to the objectivity of moral judgements than the simple fact that we allowed to talk of such judgements being 'true' or 'false'. But if there are no 'moral objects', what 'more' could there be?
'It is my own ignorance of the cause of my belief that makes my moral judgement appear objective.' — Good. The question is, If moral judgements are merely expressions of subjective feeling, or based on fear of retribution, or social conditioning, Why do we feel the need to demand that others should do the same as we do? You are right that the subjectivist about morals has to account for the appearance or 'phenomenology' of moral judgements. It is crucially important that we feel them to be more than mere expressions of subjective feeling, or fear, or conditioning etc. In his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Penguin) John Mackie talks of an 'error theory' of morals. In defending subjectivism (as he does) one is diagnosing an error made not just by philosophers defending the objectivity of morals, but equally by anyone who has not thought about the matter philosophically. We are naturally objectivists until we learn otherwise.
217-219. the nature of 'facts' Moral facts, on the objectivist account, become apparent to moral perception and moral reasoning. Now a subjectivist such as Mackie will say that Moral 'perception' is simply the result of the fact that we feel certain feelings of approval or disapproval when we look at the scientifically verifiable, 'empirical' facts. Moral 'reasoning' on this view, is merely the attempt to establish consistency amongst our moral feelings. However, behind the subjectivist's distinction between the realms of the 'moral' and the 'empirical' or 'non-moral' — or so I am going to argue — lies a false estimate of the metaphysical status of non-moral/empirical facts.
Utilitarianism is one of a number of attempts to render moral judgements 'scientific'. There are two points to make here. The first is that utilitarianism presupposes but does not establish the objectivity of moral judgements. (There is a notoriously bad argument that Mill gives near the beginning of his essay Utilitarianism, where he moves from 'Each person desires his own happiness' to 'Each person desires the happiness of all'.) The second point is that the establishment of 'objective' methods, such as calculating what actions would maximise happiness are not necessary for the objectivity of moral judgement.
220-225. correspondence of true statements with the facts Good. You have most of it here. The only thing I would quarrel with is your statement, 'But the wood is in fact only an appearance caused by the arrangement of certain atoms. and the atoms are only an appearance of the arrangement of sub-atomic particles. This reasoning could continue until there are no particles in reality, and no objects in reality, only appearances.' That is not a statement of anti-realism, as I understand it (cf. the metaphysics programme). It looks more like Berkeleian immaterialism! The trouble is, interpreting the statement in that way, the Berkeleian immaterialist can also be a realist, claiming that all undecidable empirical questions 'have an answer in reality' (i.e. an answer in terms of the complete blueprint of empirical reality in God's mind). What I would agree with is what you say a couple of sentences earlier, 'There are no non-moral facts either, only things that we can take as non-moral facts.' That is a fair gloss on the anti-realist claim.