"The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." (Martin Luther King) -/- A moral explanation is an explanation of a particular or type of event (or fact or state of affairs) that features moral terms in the explaining phrase. Here are some examples. First, one way of the above quote is as the claim that, in the broad sweep of history, societies tend toward more just institutions, and that they do so precisely because these institutions (...) are just. This is a moral explanation of social development. Second, historians might claim that “The injustice of slavery contributed to its demise”: this is a moral explanation of a historical event. Third, I might say that “I believe that Hitler was morally depraved because he was morally depraved”: this is a moral explanation of a moral belief. Finally, philosophers sometimes say things like “In the original Trolley case, it is morally right to flick the switch, because this will lead to the morally best outcome”: this is a moral explanation of a particular moral fact. -/- The issue of the availability of moral explanations of these types is relevant to both normative ethics and metaethics. In normative ethics the availability of moral explanations is bound up with the possibility of general normative theories. In metaethics the issue of moral explanations is closely tied to the doctrine of moral realism. In what follows I first trace the relevance of moral explanations to normative ethics and metaethics, before considering some examples in detail. (shrink)
This paper is a reply to Michael Lynch's "Truth, Value and Epistemic Expressivism" in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research for 2009. It argues that Lynch's argument against expressivism fails because of an ambiguity in the employed notion of an 'epistemically disengaged standpoint'.
In this paper I argue that the common practice of employing moral predicates as explaining phrases can be accommodated on an expressivist account of moral practice. This account does not treat moral explanations as in any way second-rate or derivative, since it subsumes moral explanations under the general theory of program explanations (as defended by Jackson and Pettit). It follows that the phenomenon of moral explanations cannot be used to adjudicate the debate between expressivism and its rivals.
Many philosophers argue that the face-value of moral practice provides presumptive support to moral realism. This paper analyses such arguments into three steps. (1) Moral practice has a certain face-value, (2) only realism can vindicate this face value, and (3) the face-value needs vindicating. Two potential problems with such arguments are discussed. The first is taking the relevant face-value to involve explicitly realist commitments; the second is underestimating the power of non-realist strategies to vindicate that face-value. Case studies of each (...) of these errors are presented, drawn from the writings of Shafer-Landau, Brink and McNaughton, and from recent work in experimental metaethics. The paper then considers weak presumptive arguments, according to which both realist and non-realist vindications of moral practice are possible, but the realist vindications are more natural. It is argued that there is no sense of ‘natural’ available that can make these arguments work. The conclusion is that all extant presumptive arguments for moral realism fail. (shrink)
This paper applies the theory of teleosemantics to the issue of moral content. Two versions of teleosemantics are distinguished: input-based and output-based. It is argued that applying either to the case of moral judgements generates the conclusion that such judgements have both descriptive (belief-like) and directive (desire-like) content, intimately entwined. This conclusion directly validates neither descriptivism nor expressivism, but the application of teleosemantics to moral content does leave the descriptivist with explanatory challenges which the expressivist does not face. Since teleosemantics (...) ties content to function, the paper also offers an account of the evolutionary function of moral judgements. (shrink)
In this paper I grant the Humean premise that some reasons for action are grounded in the desires of the agents whose reasons they are. I then consider the question of the relation between the reasons and the desires that ground them. According to promotionalism , a desire that p grounds a reason to φ insofar as A’s φing helps promote p . According to motivationalism a desire that p grounds a reason to φ insofar as it explains why, in (...) certain circumstances, A would be motivated to φ. I then give an argument favouring motivationalism, namely that promotionalism entails that agents have reasons to perform physically impossible actions, whereas motivationalism entails that there are no such reasons. Although this is a version of the ‘Too Many Reasons’ objection to promotionalism, I show that existing responses to that problem do not transfer to the case of reasons to perform physically impossible actions. In the penultimate section I consider and reject some objections to motivationalism made by promotionalists. The conclusion is that Humeans about reasons for action should prefer motivationalism. (shrink)
This paper advances three necessary conditions on a successful account of sentential negation. First, the ability to explain the constancy of sentential meaning across negated and unnegated contexts (the Fregean Condition). Second, the ability to explain why sentences and their negations are inconsistent, and inconsistent in virtue of the meaning of negation (the Semantic Condition). Third, the ability of the account to generalize regardless of the topic of the negated sentence (the Generality Condition). The paper discusses three accounts of negation (...) available to moral expressivists. The first—the dominant commitment account—fails to meet the Fregean Condition. The two remaining accounts—commitment semantics and the expression account—satisfy all three conditions. A recent argument that the dominant commitment account is the only option available to expressivists is considered and rejected. (shrink)
In this paper I argue that the explanationist argument in favour of moral realism fails. According to this argument, the ability of putative moral properties to feature in good explanations provides strong evidence for, or entails, the metaphysical claims of moral realism. Some have rejected this argument by denying that moral explanations are ever good explanations. My criticism is different. I argue that even if we accept that moral explanations are (sometimes) good explanations the metaphysical claims of realism do not (...) follow. (shrink)
This paper elaborates and defends an expressivist account of the claims of mind-independence embedded in ordinary moral thought. In response to objections from Zangwill and Jenkins it is argued that the expressivist 'internal reading' of such claims is compatible with their conceptual status and that the only 'external reading' available doesn't commit expressivisists to any sort of subjectivism. In the process a 'commitment-theoretic' account of the semantics of conditionals and negations is defended.
Many expressivists have employed a claim about the practicality of morality in support of their view that moral convictions are not purely descriptive mental states. In this paper I argue that all extant arguments of this form fail. I distinguish several versions of such arguments and argue that in each case either the sense of practicality the argument employs is too weak, in which case there is no reason to think that descriptive states cannot be practical or the sense of (...) practicality the argument employs is too strong, in which case there is no reason to think moral convictions are practical. I also discuss and dismiss an attempted patch of such arguments provided by Humean Psychology. The conclusion is that expressivists need to look to sources other than the alleged practicality of morality to support their position. In concluding remarks I suggest one such alternative. (shrink)
Moral discourse is propositionally clothed, that is, it exhibits those features – such as the ability of its sentences to intelligibly embed in conditionals and other unasserted contexts – that have been taken by some philosophers to be constitutive of discourses that express propositions. If there is nothing more to a mental state being a belief than it being characteristically expressed by sentences that are propositionally clothed then the version of expressivism which accepts that moral discourse is propositionally clothed (‘quasi-realism’) (...) is self-refuting. Fortunately for quasi-realists, this view of belief, which I label ‘minimalism’, is false. I present three arguments against it and dismiss two possible defences (the first drawn from the work of Wright, the second given by Harcourt). The conclusion is that the issue between expressivists and their opponents cannot be settled by the mere fact that moral discourse wears propositional clothing. (shrink)
What are the conditions on a successful naturalistic account of moral properties? In this paper I discuss one such condition: the possibility of moral concepts playing a role in good empirical theories on a par with those of the natural and social sciences. I argue that Peter Railton’s influential account of moral rightness fails to meet this condition, and thus is only viable in the hands of a naturalist who doesn’t insist on it. This conclusion generalises to all versions of (...) naturalism that give a significant role to a dispositional characterisation of moral properties. I also argue, however, that the epistemological and semantic motivations behind naturalism are consistent with a version of naturalism that doesn’t insist on the explanatory condition. The conclusion is that those naturalists who are attracted to accounts of moral properties such as Railton’s would do better not to insist on this\break condition. (shrink)
The moral belief problem is that of reconciling expressivism in ethics with both minimalism in the philosophy of language and the syntactic discipline of moral sentences. It is argued that the problem can be solved by distinguishing minimal and robust senses of belief, where a minimal belief is any state of mind expressed by sincere assertoric use of a syntactically disciplined sentence and a robust belief is a minimal belief with some additional property R. Two attempts to specify R are (...) discussed, both based on the thought that beliefs are states that aim at truth. According to the first, robust beliefs are criticisable to the extent that their content fails to match the state of the world. This sense fails to distinguish robust beliefs from minimal beliefs. According to the second, robust beliefs function to have their content match the state of the world. This sense succeeds in distinguishing robust beliefs from minimal beliefs. The conclusion is that the debate concerning the cognitive status of moral convictions needs to address the issue of the function of moral convictions. Evolutionary theorising may be relevant, but will not be decisive, in answering this question. (shrink)