Having posted on Mackie’s argument from relativity some time ago, I’d like to return to it now and ask whether the argument (or at least what I think is the best version of it) is inconsistent with other components of Mackie’s error theory.

In its simplest form, the argument claims that first-order moral disagreement is sufficiently deep and pervasive that the best explanation of this disagreement is that there are no objective moral facts to which we can appeal to settle such disagreement.  In short, fundamental moral disagreement (disagreement at the level of basic moral principles or beliefs) is rationally intractable.  If this is so, then moral disagreement cannot be traced to one party to the disagreement having the correct conception of the relevant moral facts, while the other has an incorrect conception. 

We can put this  in more exact terms:
A maintains that intentional killing of the innocent is always wrong.
B maintains that intentional killing of the innocent is not always wrong.

Since their disagreement only casts doubt on the existence of objective moral facts if it is rationally intractable, then let us equip A and B with all the rational tools necessary in order to isolate their disagreement and test its intractability:

Super-A is A but with perfect non-moral knowledge, no defects of rationality, etc.
Super-B is B but with perfect non-moral knowledge, no defects of rationality, etc.

Now, would super-A and super-B come to agreement — or is it possible that they would continue to disagree? We can, I think, grant that they might come to an agreement.  Yet if we believe that it is possible for their disagreement to survive, then this is a powerful reason to conclude that there are no objective moral facts: Intuitively, since super-A and super-B have not settled upon what the moral facts are, and we cannot attribute this to a rational or epistemic shortcoming of super-A or of super-B, then the most economical explanation is that neither A nor B have failed to discern the moral facts correctly because there are no moral facts for them to correctly discern.

But notice that if this is correct, then the disagreement must originate in some non-rational state of super-A and super-B, perhaps (as Mackie suggests) to their commitments to competing ‘ways of life’.  I gather that such commitments must, in order to honor the stipulations of the argument I just gave, be desire-like rather than belief-like: For if they were belief-like, then because belief can be rational or irrational,  the commitments themselves would be candidates for what super-A and super-B are cognitively equipped with. This doesn’t entail that super-A and super-B do not have a disagreement in belief. (If it did, then Mackie would not be a cognitivist and an error theorist, but a non-cognitivist.) But it does strain the Humean psychology that Mackie seems to defend (notably in sections 6 and 9 of Ethics, chapter 1).  If beliefs and desires are original existences such that the existence of a belief never implies the existence of a desire and vice versa, then we need an account of why an individual’s non-rational commitments become regularly correlated with certain moral beliefs.  Why does A’s commitment to a way of life, one strongly opposed to killing the innocent, necessarily result in her *believing* that intentional killing of the innocent is always wrong?  That it does is a coincidence  in need of explanation.

I don’t know if this point has been discussed before (maybe by quasi-realists?), so if anyone’s able to point me in the right direction …

6 Replies to “Mackie and disagreement revisited

  1. I think your phrase “original existences” is trying to do a little bit more metaphysical work than it can manage. Just because no desire logically entails a belief, I don’t see why one should accept that no desire causally influence beliefs in more or less predictable ways; wishful thinking as a form of cognitive bias is a commonplace in psychology.
    Error theory as I understand it is a projectivist model in which persons are systematically mistaken (perhaps by the cognitive surface syntax of evaluative discourse) about what their moral judgments amount to. I don’t think an error theorist needs to make the strong claim that “A’s commitment to a way of life, one strongly opposed to killing the innocent, necessarily result[s] in her *believing* that intentional killing of the innocent is always wrong,” just that such strong life-commitments often do so.

  2. Assuming you are interested in potential explanations of a non-necessary connection:
    I just read Richard Joyce’s books and thought I would mention them. He provides an evolutionary explanation of our making moral assertions and experiencing moral emotions. Roughly put: he thinks that we can explain these by appeal to the advantage that cooperation yields and to the way that making moral assertions and experiencing moral emotions serve as comparatively more effective means to that end. He suggests, then, one explanation of why our moral beliefs tend to line up with our commitment to a cooperative way of life.

  3. Michael,
    I think “rational” is doing a lot of contestable work in this argument. In particular, the following line of thought seems tenable to me, though I’m not sure I “ten” it:
    Philosophers generally know all the arguments for and against any given position, yet they continue to disagree about the right answer (morally as well as elsewhere). It would be a minor miracle if this disagreement did not originate in “biographical” facts: history, sociology, temperament, political convictions, etc. The irrealist may conclude that, since these factors do not bear on one’s rationality, there are no facts to discern; the realist may conclude that, since there are facts to discern, these factors bear on one’s rationality. Roughly: failure to desire the good is going to hamper your ability to know the true, and conversely, and contrapositively.
    I think this line of thought was more conducive to the ancients than to our own time. For example, Plato’s dialogues are full of characters whose desire-like commitments influence their philosophical positions, both negatively and positively.

  4. I’m not nearly as impressed by Mackie’s argument as Michael is. I’m not 100% clear about how Michael is using the term ‘rational’; but usually, the term is used so that “rationality” is — to put it roughly — a *procedural* evaluation. Rational thinkers may be ill-informed or deceived about the facts (e.g. rational thinkers may be the victims of a Cartesian evil demon), but their reasoning conforms to certain canons of good reasoning, and so on.
    I see no reason whatsoever to suppose that *procedurally* rational thinking, plus knowledge of all the relevant *non-moral* facts, must be capable of leading every thinker to all the moral truths. Surely it makes a difference what pre-theoretical moral intuitions the rational thinker starts out with. If your initial pre-theoretical moral intuitions are sufficiently squiffy, then perhaps, however procedurally rational your quest for “reflective equilibrium” may be, and however many of the relevant non-moral facts you may know, there might just be some moral truths that you will never reach.
    So, in a case of rationally intractable moral disagreement of the sort that Michael describes, the realist can simply say that one side to this disagreement has a false belief because his initial pre-theoretical intuitions were unreliable in the relevant respect, while the moral intuitions of the other side were at least in that respect more reliably aligned with the truth. I don’t see why this is obviously less plausible explanation than the explanation that Michael calls “more economical” — that neither side to the disagreement has failed to discern the moral facts correctly because there are no moral facts to be correctly discerned.
    I accept that the moral realist has to offer a convincing moral epistemology. Mackie was right to complain that just appealing to “a mysterious faculty of intuition” is a “lame answer”. We need a good story about (i) where our moral intuitions come from, (ii) why it is rational for us to trust our intuitions — especially given that these intuitions are clearly not guaranteed to be reliable — and (iii) what could possibly explain how these intuitions could ever, under favourable circumstances, be a reliable guide to the truth (and what could explain why, under less favourable circumstances, they can fail to be reliable). It is this epistemological challenge to the realist that forms the heart of what Mackie calls the epistemological side of the “argument from queerness”. Mackie was right that the realist must meet this challenge (but far too hasty to proclaim that the challenge cannot possibly be met).
    What I don’t see, however, is that Mackie’s “argument from relativity” adds anything to this epistemological challenge, as Michael seems to think.

  5. Ralph,
    Thanks for your remarks. Perhaps I gave the impression of being more positively disposed toward Mackie’s position and/or this particular argument for it than I intended. I was simply trying to provide the most forceful reconstruction I could. The thing I like about this particular descendant of the argument from relativity is that it doesn’t hinge on actual moral disagreement. As a matter of Mackie interpretation, this is important because Mackie says that deep and pervasive moral agreement would not be evidence for the existence of objective moral values, whereas deep and pervasive disagreement is evidence against the existence of objective moral values. This argument helps us make sense of why Mackie might have said this.
    Another way to put your point (which I agree with) is that giving super-A and super-B only perfect (procedural) rationality and non-moral knowledge begs the question if moral knowledge requires something more than this. You seem to be proposing that one exercise this rationality over correct intuitions. I would suggest that perhaps we must equip super-A and super-B with something more affective as well: sympathy or other moral emotions, virtuous dispositions, etc.

  6. As it happens I just posted about Mackie’s argument from relativity on my own blog, which I’ve just set up. I’d welcome any input from you folks on this idea…
    If Mackie’s argument is successful for morality (and I’m not assuming that it is), then might it be successful for philosophy in general? (That is, couldn’t we adapt it to establish the conclusion that there is no truth in philosophy, just as there is no truth in ethics?). Even if Mackie’s argument is unsuccessful for morality, perhaps there is a way to make it work for other subject matters? And if we could stretch it in this fashion, would this amount to a reductio?
    I’m assuming that adapting the argument in this way is somehow daft and can’t be done – say because ‘philosophy’ isn’t even a proper ‘discourse’ – but I think it might still be interesting to think about why (e.g. what makes a discourse a ‘proper discourse’ anyway?).
    You can find a more extended version of these thoughts by going here and clicking on ‘Blog’.

Comments are closed.