Monday, November 25, 2002


This is metaethics, and it's not greatly important to life. It's only important to philosophers who stroll with their head in the clouds and fall down holes as a result! John Jay Ray posts on the nature of moral judgment today. He says judgments of right and wrong might be merely personal recommendations rather than statements of objective oughts.

David Hume demonstrated that there are no objective oughts. But still, moral judgments aren't personal recommendations. Moral judgments can be true or false, but recommendations can't. So, they can't be the same thing. I'd suggest that moral judgments are statements of shared recommendations, and more precisely, statements of what the majority in one's society all recommend when they're being consistent with their other recommendations and the relevant facts. And in order to be moral judgments, rather than culinary judgments, they have to be recommendations about the desirable balance of altruistic and self-interested desires.

John is right to connect this British sentimentalist view to conservatism. People who claim to have important objective judgments almost always want society to change radically. They claim that there is some way we ought to live even though we don't desire to live that way. Conservatives suggest that it makes good sense, and can't be wrong, for us to live as we prefer. You might object that cruel and oppressive ways of life are wrong even if preferred. But recall that what is in question is where to strike a coherent balance of altruistic and self-interested desires. Cruel and oppressive ways of life don't do that. There are many plausibly moral ways of life to be conservative about. Confucian conservatives prefer their way (and Mencius was a sentimentalist, by the way), while Westerners prefer theirs. There is no single, absolute, objective morality. Though this doesn't mean "anything goes" (it rules out slavery, Nazism, castrating little girls, and probably Islamic sharia), it does mean that we should be conservative and live as we prefer. Conservatism is the only rational way to live, as I've argued before. Prudential rationality is conservative in its very nature. To look for objective values independent of preference is probably delusional. Anyway, no one has ever come up with a plausible theory of what it would mean to be an "objective moral fact". (This doesn't mean you can't have a career at fine universities spilling more ink in utter ignorance of Hume's conclusive demonstration.)

(This gives us the reduction of ought to is: What we ought to do is the same as what it is that we coherently prefer to do, when coherent in our preferences, in line with the relevant facts, and have struck what counts as a balance between altruistic and self-interested desire. By the way, Hume famously said that you can't get an ought from an is, but also famously reduced morals to sentiment. How could this be? Well, the 'is' he had in mind was objective, desire-independent facts. Once you factor in desire, voila, reduction is at hand.)