May 17, 2009
I’m a big fan of Danny Shahar’s blog. It is one of my “regular reads” and part of the charm is that his posts are both interesting and epic (in length). Recently, he has posted a series of four (so far) epic posts on metaethics. I never pass up a discussion on metaethics but there is a great deal to cover and Danny is churning out new talking points faster then I can read it all.
However, I will be raising objections to Danny’s (and his friend Vichy’s) conception of metaethics primarily from the perspective of Roderick Long’s work on a praxeological foundation for ethics. While I do find Long’s metaethical theory compelling, my primary reason for selecting this pairing in the metaethical Battle Royale is that they seem matched as nearly perfect opposites. There is, to me at least, an almost eerie correspondance between Danny’s supporting points for moral fictionalism and the aspects of ethical thought that Long seeks to criticize. It seems like the perfect case to flex Long’s theory.
I will draw on a few of Long’s works for this view:
- Economics and Its Ethical Assumptions (mp3 audio)
- Review of Leland Yeager’s Ethics As Social Science
- Anti-Psychologism in Economics: Wittgenstein and Mises
- Wittgenstein, Austrian Economics, and the Logic of Action
- Foundations of Libertarian Ethics lectures & handouts.
Give these a read (or listen, especially the much shorter first three) if you want to know what the hell I’m going on about below. I’m also going to assume the reader is familiar with the thread on Danny’s blog.
Psychologism vs. Anti-Psychologism
[That kicking a baby is wrong], I take it, is literally a projection of our evaluative attitudes towards the kicking of the baby (and its results) onto objective reality (…). But because it’s a projection, we think, “It’s wrong to kick the baby,” and not, “The idea of kicking the baby makes me feel like something’s wrong.”
Adapting an example from Dr. Long (), this psychologistic view of moral discourse ignores the role moral propositions commonly play in logical inference. The argument
- It is wrong to kick the baby.
- Ludwig kicked the baby.
- Therefore: Ludwig was wrong.
is logically valid even if you do not think it is sound (because, for example, you believe all normative statements like #1 are false). However, what if we substitute what, according to Danny, we really mean?
- The idea of kicking the baby makes me feel like something’s wrong.
- Ludwig kicked the baby.
- Therefore: The idea of Ludwig makes me feel like something’s wrong.
The first premise is now just a subjective attitude. It does not logically follow that Ludwig generates a similar feeling in me that the action of kicking the baby does. I would have to consider my attitude toward Ludwig as a separate matter, even if it seems intuitively likely that I would feel something wrong about Ludwig. Likewise, an emotivist approach fails to capture what we do with moral terms:
- Kicking babies, boo!
- Ludwig kicked the baby.
- Therefore: Ludwig, boo!
If the last two arguments seem to be logically valid, careful thinking will show you that it is only because you are inadvertently translating the arguments back to the first one.
To take a more direct approach, however, I should point out that Danny uses “wrong” in way that creates a circularity. If by “X is wrong” we really mean “I feel like X is wrong”, then we also mean (substituting the “correct” interpretation whenever we discover the concept “X is wrong”) “I feel like I feel like X is wrong” and on and on in that manner forever.
Socrates fully accepts the Misesian point that all action is driven by the agent’s own judgments of value. If that is economic subjectivism, then Socrates is an economic subjectivist. But in that case, Socrates’ view is that economic subjectivism entails ethical objectivism. For once we combine the Socrates-Mises point that all action is driven by value judgments with the Socrates-Frege point that the logical form of value judgments requires that they be objective, then the conclusion follows that we cannot act without committing ourselves to the existence of objective value. Ethical subjectivism is not merely indefensible; it is praxeologically indefensible.
Far from being blind urges without cognitive content, then, the values that impel our actions are propositional beliefs that represent certain states of affairs as having the property of goodness. Like any other beliefs, then, they are open to revision through criticism. 
Impositionism vs. Reflectionism
Continuing with the projection theme, Danny says,
The view that money “is” valuable involves a projection of one’s own evaluative feelings about money onto the money itself. It is not literally true that the money is valuable, but it is nevertheless comprehensible to talk about money as “being” valuable, and in fact this is a useful fiction to have — it seems to me that this is similarly true about the moral fiction.
I think this is a mistake to think that the value in the concept of money is imposed on the world by our mind. But this impositionism seems to be Danny’s weapon against what he sees as the incorrect (and only) alternative: reflectionism, the view that values would be imposed on us by the world.
But it does assert that aside from people attributing value to certain things, and aside from the inherent capacity of certain objects to produce valuing reactions in normally functioning human beings, there is no sense in which we can say that they are valuable in themselves. And I think that that’s true.
No third way seems obvious to him. But, beginning with his money example, I think a third way is possible: the Wittgensteinian way. It simply seems incoherent to say that something called “money” could ever not be valuable as a means of exchange; that’s just what “money” means. Something that had all the characteristics of money except for value just wouldn’t be called “money”.
Mises and Hayek agree with Wittgenstein that economic categories legitimately apply only to those items that play the corresponding role in people’s actions. They too invoke the specific example of coins, which count as money only if they are actually used to facilitate indirect exchange. That use is constitutive of money. 
Likewise, by rejecting the queerness (like Mackie) of moral reflectionism, Danny concludes that impositionsim is the final word.
The point is just that it’s not clear what a plausible moral reason can be based on besides the identification of the implications of one’s actions for something that one values. And if one values that thing, then it makes sense to act accordingly — that has nothing to do with morality. Distinctly moral problems (as opposed to prudential problems) arise only when one tries to make the claim that someone ought to value something that they don’t value. Since value is subjective, and since ultimately the universe is just a bunch of stuff in different configurations, it’s going to be difficult to ground such an “ought” claim in something “objective” or “objectively true.” As Vichy might put it, all value is ultimately just bias for one sort of thing over another. And the idea that there can be no literal truth to the matter of what one “ought to value” is basically moral nihilism.
Prudence vs. Morality
In the previous quotation, Danny is claiming that the difference between claims of prudence and claims of morality is the difference between counseling someone on means as opposed to ends. Like, Mises, he doesn’t think the latter is possible because what someone has as a particular end is subjective. As Long points out in describing Mises’ argument, “this argument presupposes the ethical subjectivism it is trying to prove”  by begging the question against the alternative that we all share the same ultimate end. If that alternative is true, then we are back to criticizing means, something Danny acknowledges is open to rational criticism as a matter of prudence. Rather than a prudential should or a moral should, there is just should.
The hook here is to consider the difference between instrumental and constitutive means:
So there are cases where a means can be a constitutive part of the end rather than being an external means to it. And a lot of things that Mises considers ultimate ends you might think are really means, but they’re constitutive means rather than instrumental means. So then the question is: well, can we deliberate about constitutive means? How do we determine whether something is a constitutive means to an end? It seems it’s not a matter of cause and effect any more; it’s more a matter of logical or conceptual analysis. 
Explanatory vs. Normative Value Subjectivism
The understandable appeal (especially for someone with a background in Austrian economics) to value subjectivism confuses being valuable with holding as valuable.
You can have explanatory value-subjectivism, which simply means that in explaining someone’s actions, you appeal to their evaluations, not yours — just as in explaining someone’s actions you appeal to their beliefs and not yours. (…)
So explanatory value-subjectivism doesn’t say anything one way or the other about whether there is such a thing as objective value; it just says that if you’re going to explain people’s actions, you explain them in terms of their desires, not yours.
Normative value-subjectivism, on the other hand, means that there are no objective values, that there is nothing to value over and above just whatever any person happens to want. There’s no right or wrong way to want things; you can’t be right or wrong about your ultimate desires.
So these are two different things, and you can see that at least it’s not obvious that explanatory value-subjectivism entails normative value-subjectivism. 
The moral nihilist argues that moral reasons involve ascriptions of intrinsic value to certain objects, and that this is inconsistent with the subjectivity of value. The moral nihilist does not deny that valuing takes place; he just denies that there is any significance to this fact outside of the realm of subjective valuation.
(…) it’s not clear why we would need a conception of “right” and “wrong” (as opposed to “desirable” and “undesirable”) to talk about virtues if they were really just the appropriate set of tools for achieving a good life. The moral nihilist has no problem with things being desirable or undesirable; he just denies that there is a separate property of “rightness” and “wrongness” that has anything to do with anything.
Both of these jump the gap between explanatory value subjectivism and normative value subjectivism without justifying this move.
Fictionalism vs. Praxeology
Danny wants to propose moral fictionalism as a sort of compromise between the way we use moral language and the, in his view, strong argument for literal moral nihilism.
As I argued, we can have good reason for adopting moral attitudes. And if we acknowledge that our values transform when we recognize certain connections between things, then arguing about values can make sense — if I lead a supporter of slavery to understand just how much like him are the slaves, he may be led to value them in a way that would make him not want to see them treated without regard for their interests. So as far as moral theories are fictionalistic road maps that show us how our values will change in light of certain features of a situation, they can be perfectly consistent with moral nihilism. It’s only when moral theories try to argue that there is something objective or objectively true about our values (as opposed to their being “impartial” or “natural for humans to accept”) that they run into trouble.
I’m not certain that this is not a distinction without a difference. I’m also confused about how we know that these reasons are “good” reasons if they are simply fictions. In fact, if I did not know that Danny was trying to propose fictionalism, I would think he was proposing indirect utilitarianism, the view that we should act “as if” we value certain moral propositions for their own sake when in fact we judge them by consequences. But this indirect approach has some problems. Rather than explain them here, I direct the reader to Long’s review of Yeager linked earlier.
To the extent that we are able to reach some level of agreement (or at least some limits on the range of disagreement) about “moral facts,” we can safely talk as if our evaluations are “impartial,” and therefore effectively the same as “normal reactions to intrinsically valuable objects.”
I suspect that fictionalism is a position in danger of sliding into indirect utilitarianism and once that happens, we no longer need to make the analogy; we can just point out the problems with indirect utilitarianism. In fact, at times, Danny seems to betray this slide:
Again, though, the moral nihilist doesn’t need to suggest that there aren’t ways to live together that are more or less conducive to our mutual happiness, or that we should not do things like create or enforce laws, generate customs, conventions, and norms, etc. The point is just that these will have nothing to do with considerations like “treating people the way they deserve to be treated” or “reflecting the intrinsic value of all human beings.” They’ll just be systems we adopt to promote our wellbeing, much the way that we enter into contractual arrangements to improve our lives.
Doesn’t it seem that Danny is describing the debate not between nihilism and realism, but rather between consequentialism and deontology?
Motivational Internalism vs. Externalism
The concept of value outside of a specific teleological entities actual values is nonsense; and unless something has the potential to actually motivate an actor with actual specific values it is irrelevant. That’s why you have the burden of proof.
But Long has something to say about that as well:
However, I think that what [Mises is] really arguing for here is better understood as a kind of ethical internalism rather than genuine normative value-subjectivism. Ethical internalism is the view that you can’t have any moral duties that you don’t have any motivation to pursue. Now that’s a broad family of theories, because according to some theories the moral duty just gives you a motivation, whereas for other theories, no, you’ve already got your motivations, and the moral duty can’t get its foot in the door unless you’ve already got one. Those are very different kinds of internalism. But still the internalists all agree that there are no moral duties without some corresponding motivation on your part. And I think that Mises is really arguing for that. But it’s important to see that that’s not the same thing as normative value-subjectivism, because it might be that, given your motive, and given some appropriate story, the moral duty really is an objective one. 
Morality vs. Self-Interest
And you can never answer the only important question, “Why should I care what is moral, if ‘morality’ conflicts with my interests?”
But from a eudaimonic perspective, I think I can or rather I can explain why I think the question is incoherent or begs the question: by definition, what is moral cannot conflict with your own interests and “no fundamental conflicts between two persons’ flourishing (i.e. no conflicts not in turn licensed by agent-neutral considerations) are possible” .
I sincerely hope that Danny and Vichy find this analysis interesting and are open to exploring some of these dichotomies, both the ones where I think they have chosen the wrong side and the ones that I think are better suited to dialectical third ways. I’m sure there will be disagreement but I welcome the challenge as a learning process.