Thursday, 25 March 2010

Moral Realism

A recent talk by Sam Harris addresses the problem of moral relativism and posits a basis for a certain kind of moral realism. The onus of the talk is around two axes. On the one hand, he claims that we can say as a matter of "fact" that acting on certain beliefs can reliably be said to lead to greater human suffering. This basis of the claim for moral realism is one that is not further differentiated by Harris which is a clear difficulty since we could understand this to be an argument for utilitarianism or, at least, consequentialism. Certainly there are consequentialist elements to what Harris has claimed since the evaluation of the beliefs in question is being understood to be grounded on what they will bring about. Further, since what is being brought about is determined in related to pain and pleasure the recourse is being had to understanding well-being in a hedonic way.

The other main axis of the argument is that the question of determination of moral beliefs is one that we should, in a globalised world, aim to fix through an understanding of where permissible disagreement will be found. The grounds of permissible disagreement, in other words, will be fixed in some sense in relation to what is going to bring about the better outcomes. 

Harris' argument is one that is well illustrated, as when he points out that we don't trust the Taliban to have a reliable guide to physics and that we should regard their view of morals in much the same way. Certainly there are very good grounds for saying that moral beliefs formed from fundamentalist convictions are broadly not ones that will produce good results even though saying this seems to move one towards a certain kind of consequentialist position. However if well-being is comprehended in relation to what John Rawls called basic goods then we need not see this admission as one that simply supports consequentialism. On a broader level it is interesting to relate the point about the "convergence" that Harris speaks of that should be at work in reasonable views of the good with the Rawlsian notion of "overlapping consensus" and ask whether the view of Harris may not, rather than simply buttressing the consequentialist view of morality, in fact support a Rawlsian one. I will return in later postings to the difficult question of how much either view relates to the Kantian position. It is also worth thinking through the relationship between the argument advanced by Harris and the position of Ralph Wedgwood that there is a certain tendency of moral philosophy to generally narrow the scope of moral disagreement. If Harris' position is allied with that of Wedgwood then perhaps the solution to the global problem Harris mentions is more moral philosophy! Now that, surely, would be a good outcome.

Harris' overall position of endorsing a sense that there are "moral facts" is also one we might wish to consider in relation to the positions that are at issue in moral philosophy. If we view the appeal to the notion that there are "basic goods" in some sense to be alright then perhaps a certain kind of moral realism can be adopted in a number of different types of moral position though there might well be serious differences concerning how the status of these goods is considered. As I have suggested in previous postings there are definite problems with simply assuming that certain givens are, in themselves, that is, without reference to rational willing, to be taken to be "good".

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