Before I discuss why the Argument from Moral Knowledge has pushed me in the direction of moral non-realism—the view that there are no objective more facts but only preferences, folkways, and the like—I want to discuss one of a family of examples that, for me, comprise the most important argument in favor of moral realism.
Suppose Aiden Upstanding is under consideration for a promotion. He’s a good candidate, but knows that a rival for the promotion works longer hours, delivers more value to the company, and has greater financial need. He has reason to believe company leadership is ignorant of these factors, and informs them of the situation. Aiden’s wife asks him why he would be so forthright, given that it could cost him advancement, an opportunity that may not present again for many years. Aiden answers, “Because it was the right thing to do.”
Aiden has provided a reason we can appreciate. His thinking is comprehensible to us. We do not say he is behaving irrationally, even though he has acted against his own best interests. How so? Objective morals: they give us reasons to act, even if we don’t care about them, even if the acts they prescribe frustrate our interests. They are inherently-reason giving (unlikely every other kind of fact in the universe, they reach out and grab us!)
According to moral realism, there is an objective moral fact like, “All other things being equal, it’s right to help one’s employer make informed decisions that impact the success of the company.” That Aiden acted out of deference to this fact is a natural way of explaining our judgement of Aiden as a rational creature.
But all is not well with Aiden. Suppose he is not Aiden Upstanding but Aiden Opportunist. Aiden Opportunist knows exactly what kind of career he wants, knows the kind of work the promotion will entail, its compensation, and how work and compensation will impact his life. So he connives to make his rival for the promotion appear a worse candidate, perhaps by revealing indiscretions she has committed.
Aiden Opportunist appears eminently rational. He is attuned to his desires, fully aware of the consequences of his actions. Indeed, we may judge him as supremely rational. He does not merely let the dice fall as they may or procrastinate, which is assuredly an irrational habit because time spent procrastinating can, by definition, be put to better use.
So the nook for objective morals in my worldview is not so clear. Upstanding is rational if he respects the moral facts; Opportunist is rational if he ignores them. I admit to having writ Opportunist in such a way that he is especially aligned with his desires, which has a way of compensating for flouting morality in the calculus of rationality. And were there an Aiden Depraved, who is psychotically aligned with his desire to rape and murder, I could not judge him supremely rational. Indeed, wholesale flouting of morality edges on insanity no matter how attuned we are to our desires.
Our Righteous Minds
But these gradations do not justify the kind of moral farsightedness I see: political rage, veteran or flag veneration, overweening offense, pronoun locutions. Too rarely do I see a refined moral sensibility, more commonly a hyperactive one. So many believe moral disagreement a reason for entrenchment, though a moment’s reflection proves disagreement among conscientious people is grounds for moderating one’s opinions. Too many seem to think themselves best-calibrated to the moral facts when they are gripped by righteous indignation. But rage does not make us more rational. On the contrary, indignation impairs appreciation for whatever moral facts there are.
This bodes poorly for moral realism. If there are moral facts, we are not so well-calibrated to them. Aiden Opportunist teaches us that they do not seem to obligate us as powerfully as we think they do.
I’ve read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I think him generally right about moral psychology. Our indignation comes first; we justify it after the fact, often with contrived or narrow-minded reasoning. There is fundamental disagreement about the foundations of morality and how to prioritize them. Is respecting sexual taboos more important than civil justice? Is keeping a promise more important than giving to charity? Should wealth or opportunities for wealth be generally the same among person or only among people that work equally hard? People disagree.
I’ve read my Nietzsche. I do not think the particulars of his genealogy of morals plausible, but the idea that morality should be historically and culturally mediated, inherited and innovated upon over generations, is plausible. I am not a cultural relativist, no more than Nietzsche was. Like him, I’m a moral non-realist (or so skeptical about objective morals I might as well be). A cultural relativist says morals are real, objective on the level of individual cultures. But disagreement over morals is both more granular than cultures because factions and individuals within cultures disagree, and less granular because there is much about morality that is a shared evolutionary or pan-cultural inheritance. We disagree about the foundations of morality, but those foundations still sketch the dimensions of our moral reasoning. Most agree on the worth of loyalty, care, fairness, and promise-keeping, even if our prioritization of these and other virtues diverge.
So why don’t I occupy a sort of half-way house, cling to the virtues we can sort of agree upon, and jettison the rest? Because our opinions on those could have been otherwise. Evolution could have forged us into more hierarchical creatures or less altruistic ones. History could have happened otherwise. Elevating these sorts of accidents to the level of metaphysics, the furniture of reality, seems like so much grasping, unscrupulous backing of common sense.
Does this change how I act? Not really. I still have my preferences. They are as moral as they ever were. I will still condemn atrocity and praise exemplary acts, even though I will only be justified in so doing within the narrow horizon of my preferences. Does this mean that psychopaths, dictators, and narcissists are wrong for preferring otherwise? Of course not, but I hope that their preferences never triumph.