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Shameless realism goes robust

David Enoch interviewed by Richard Marshall.

David Enoch is a groovy moral philosopher who has written a book called Taking Morality Seriously because he does and thinks we should too. He thinks morals don’t depend on us at all, doesn’t claim naturalist metaphysical credentials, isn’t sure if he’s a Platonist but is sure that he’s a shameless robust realist. Which makes him hardcore.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Was it always on the cards or did it come as a surprise?

David Enoch: Well, as a kid I always wanted (or thought I wanted) to be a lawyer. This remained the situation until my first few weeks in law school – where I was both disillusioned about the law, and introduced to philosophy (through a good introduction to jurisprudence class). Still, it wasn’t exactly a surprise, I guess. I was always interested in (what I would today characterise as) philosophical issues and discussions. You might ask why I was interested in them in the first place, but I don’t know the answer to this question. Sometimes it seems to me that a better question would be “Why isn’t everyone?”.

3:AM: You’ve defended a position called moral realism. You say a good way of understanding what a moral realist is is to say what it isn’t. So what isn’t moral realism, what does it reject?

DE: There is, as you might imagine, more than one thing that moral realism isn’t. Perhaps a good way of dividing the possibilities here is as follows: One thing Robust Realism (my specific version of moral realism) isn’t is the kind of theory that tries to save some discourse by lowering expectations, that is, by interpreting it as less committed than we would otherwise think. So for instance, some people think that moral discourse can best be understood as not committed, at the end of the day, to any moral entities, or purely objective moral properties, and the like. But I am not willing to go for any compromising view of this kind. I think that our moral discourse, property understood, is just as committed as it seems to be – to moral facts (like that fact that humiliation is wrong), to objective value (like the value of autonomy, perhaps, and the negative value of pain), to moral properties (like rightness and wrongness), to other entities (reasons, perhaps, or rights, and duties), and so on.

Another option Robust Realism is naturally contrasted with is an error theory – the claim that the commitments of moral discourse, perhaps like those of discourse about witches or of astrology, are not made good on by the universe, so that moral discourse (again, like witch-discourse and astrology) embodies a systematic error. In other words, then, Robust Realism is the view according to which the commitments embedded in moral discourse are just as “heavy” as you would think they are; and furthermore, they are met. So all (so to speak) is well.

3:AM: You think there are strong motivations for taking a moral realist position – you want a serious moral discourse and in particular you want a position that can handle disagreement and reflect what moral disagreement feels like in real moral disputes outside of the classroom? You think there’s a danger of missing this in some positions taken towards morals – that in some alternatives disagreement seems more like a lifestyle choice and you think that misses the true flavour of moral disagreement. This is something you say a lot about in your book. Can you explain why you think this is a crucial element, and give examples to illustrate your idea?

DE: Well, the point is often made that moral disagreement feels like real, serious, factual disagreement, and not just like a matter of taste (or even, as you say, a lifestyle choice). Think about what it feels like to disagree with someone about whether, say, eating meat is morally wrong, compared to what it is like to disagree with someone about whether chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla ice cream. But I want to go further than that. So suppose we only have money for one scoop of ice cream, to share between us. I prefer chocolate, and you prefer vanilla. Here, it seems to me that it’s not just a matter of how this controversy feels, it’s a matter of how it should be dealt with morally – even though I prefer chocolate, I should be willing to compromise, and opt for a symmetrical solution (perhaps we should order our joint-second-best, strawberry). But in cases of moral disagreement often no such symmetrical response is called for, and one of the parties is entitled to stand her or his ground.

3:AM: Does this then link to the requirement of some sort of objectivity, in contrast to a relativity or subjectivity? It’s tricky to nail what anyone means with these terms, so can you have a go at trying to say what you mean by an objective moral discourse? Are you saying that we have objective moral facts?

DE: You’re right that it’s tricky to say what exactly objectivity (or relativity, or subjectivity) means, so I am happy to bypass it. Why does it matter whether a discourse is objective, or captures objective facts? It seems to me that the distinction between the two kinds of disagreement and conflict, according to what the appropriate moral response to them are (as explained above) captures something important, significant, and pretty close to what many of us have in mind when we talk about objectivity. So I am happy to just use these terms: for some disagreements and conflicts – as in the ice cream flavor example – a symmetrical solution is called for; for others, it isn’t, and we may be justified in standing our ground. On this distinction, where does morality fall? I say – the latter. Some would say – the former. But it’s important to note that some of those who reject Robust Realism (my favourite metaethical view) will insist that they can accommodate the reply here that I think is called for. And then the trickiness of discussions of objectivity resurfaces, I’m afraid.

3:AM: So are you arguing that there are moral facts, as opposed to strongly held beliefs?

DE: That’s certainly a part of it, yeah. But there’s more – I’m saying something about the nature of these facts, roughly, that they don’t depend, in their very nature or constitution, on us and our attitudes.

3:AM: Is your realist view one that reduces morality to rational responses? And if so, isn’t there the criticism that it changes the subject – someone who answers the question what should I do by talking about what her response would be in a certain situation might be thought of as avoiding the moral dimension rather than speaking to it?

DE: I’m not sure I understand the objection – to see whether it works, it seems to me, more has to be said about what a rational response comes to. But anyway, I do not offer such a reduction – or any other one, in fact. Of course, it’s possible that whenever, say, an action is wrong, a fully rational person would respond to it in a certain negative way. Whether this is so depends, again, on what exactly is meant by “rational”. But even if this is so, it’s one thing to say that whenever an action is wrong a rational person would respond to it in a certain way, and quite another to say that the rationality of such a response is just what wrongness is. And I certainly don’t go for this last claim.

3:AM: There are different kinds of moral realist aren’t there? What marks out your brand as different from others?

DE: Primarily, I think, that I go all the way. Unlike some realists, I do not claim naturalist credentials. I don’t offer a naturalist reduction of the moral facts, nor do I claim that my realism is compatible with a naturalistic world view (very roughly, the thought that all there is is the kind of stuff physics and some other sciences tell us that there is). Unlike some other realists (they are sometimes called “quietists”, and are fairly popular these days), I do not pretend that I can have my realism and eat my ontology too – I don’t pretend, in other words, than I can have all I want without committing myself metaphysically. So I sometimes like to call my kind of realism “shameless realism”.

3:AM: What makes your realism more satisfactory than these rivals? Are you a Platonist?

DE: I’m not sure whether I’m a Platonist, because I’m not sure what Platonism comes to. If it’s meant as a reference to Plato, then I’m afraid I don’t know enough about Plato to answer. But I am much more of a Platonist than the kind of realists I mention above – I do, for instance, believe that there are moral (and other normative) facts and properties, that they don’t depend on us, that when we’re successful we discover rather than create or construct them. Of course, there are other things in Plato to which I am not committed. One-word classifications are often unsatisfying. Philosophy is hard.

What makes my Robust Realism more satisfying than other kinds of realism? Well, I think that shamelessness is a philosophical virtue. It is worthwhile – and often also productive – to pursue a line of thought to its end. And I put a very high value on intellectual honesty. I think, for instance, that there’s almost something dishonest in thinking that we can have everything us realists want without in any way committing ourselves ontologically. I think that the honest thing to do is to say what we really want, and then see if we can get it. In our context, what we want (I think) is Robust Realism. And if we can’t get it, then error theory is the way to go. But of course, this is putting things in a slogan-kind-of-way. I do think that Robust Realism is a better characterisation of what we want here, or more precisely, of what moral discourse and practice commits us to. If I am right about this, this is a major advantage of Robust Realism over its rivals. But this “if” is a big one, and the debate goes on.

3:AM: Do you link your moral realist view to ideas about agency?

DE: Sometimes thoughts about what is constitutive of agency are offered as a way to get much of what the realist is after (some kind of objectivity, perhaps, or a reply to some skeptical worries) without going the full realist (or anyway robust realist) mile. I think that such attempts fail, and such a failure is relevant, of course, to my Robust Realism – it again shows that softer, more compromising views are not successful.

3:AM: Why do many moral epistemologists find your position unacceptable? How should a moral realist respond to this?

DE: I guess different epistemologists have different reasons. (This is not a major surprise, is it?) My favorite challenge (partly modelled on things from Street, Gibbard, Joyce, and others) has the following shape: On my Robust Realism, there are moral facts, which are abstract, causally inert, and in no way dependent on us and our attitudes. Still, we manage to know some things about them, at least some of the time (I’m not a skeptic, after all). So there’s a nice (if not imperfect) correlation between our moral beliefs and the moral facts. But what explains this correlation? There’s no causal influence, on Robust Realism, in either direction. So: if there is no such correlation, Robust Realism is committed to skepticism about moral facts (maybe they exist, but we can’t know anything about them); and if there is a correlation, Robust Realism lacks the resources to explain it, and it remains entirely miraculous. But theories that are committed to highly implausible claims (like moral skepticism) or to miracles should be rejected. So Robust Realism should be rejected.

How should the realist respond? It seems to me that the best way forward is by offering some kind of a third-factor explanation, some other thing that explains both the moral facts and our moral beliefs, or that ties them together in some other ways. You can think of such explanations as the generalisation of pre-established-harmony explanations. I offer one instance of such a response in the book, but there are now in the literature several others as well – they differ in their details, but share the third-factor-explanation structure.

3:AM: Presumably you also need to fit your objective realist moral discourses into a naturalist metaphysics. So how do you do this? Is this where a supervenience claim is required? How do you understand supervenience in this context because I think you think it’s a crucial element to defending the realist position don’t you?

DE: Ah, but what is it for a metaphysics to be naturalist? If it’s something like the claim that all facts are natural facts, under a natural understanding of “natural”, then I am defiantly a non-naturalist. (Shameless realism, remember?) But some people think that it suffices for qualifying as a naturalist that one believes that all facts supervene on natural facts. If so, count me in! But my reason for this is not that I care about joining the naturalist club, but rather that a supervenience claim of some kind seems to me extremely compelling on independent, intuitive grounds. I just can’t get my mind around a possibility where two actions (say) are alike in all their non-moral properties, but only one of them is wrong. So showing that Robust Realism is compatible with a plausible supervenience requirement is indeed crucial – simply because denying supervenience is so implausible.

3:AM: You think there’s some satisfaction in a ‘partners in guilt’ argument but it doesn’t go far enough. This is the issue of a priori knowledge. Can you explain your thoughts around this issue, in particular your thought that whereas expert testimony works in maths, say, its not compelling in morality? Doesn’t this ignore the reliance on religious testimony (eg the ten commandments) that works for loads of people? And given that you think there are moral truths then why couldn’t testimony work? This seems to be a big problem for moral realism if moral discourse in principle is asymmetric to other a priori domains like maths?

DE: OK, a lot going on here. First, there’s the partners in guilt strategy. You’re right in your characterisation of my attitude towards it. It doesn’t go far enough because even if I show, say, that a certain objection to moral knowledge is equally an objection to a priori knowledge in general, I haven’t yet shown how to respond to it. But this strategy is not without value either, because it can at least serve to support our belief that a response is available, even if we haven’t quite pinpointed it yet.

As for expertise and related phenomena: well, I don’t think that there is anything like an in-principle asymmetry here. I think that moral expertise is possible, and (even more confidently) that moral deference is often justified. (This is not an issue I discuss in the book, but in a paper I am now working on.) But I agree that there’s something fishy about moral expertise and deference, indeed more so than about expertise and deference in some other domains. For me the challenge, then, is to explain this fishiness in a way that’s compatible with Robust Realism.

3:AM: How do you distinguish your moral realism from normative realism like that someone like Scanlon proposes? Both views place objective reasons at the heart of their explanation and have to explain why these facts are not causally and motivationally inert for action but doesn’t moral realism have a problem explaining what the extra moral element is that they bring over and above just a non-moral normativity?

DE: Actually, my official view is first and foremost a normative rather than a moral Robust Realism. I don’t have a positive argument for moral realism. I just note that if you buy my arguments for Robust Normative Realism and also for (not-necessarily robust) moral realism, any view other than Robust Moral Realism is seriously under-motivated. The comparison to Scanlon is tricky, though. First, he reduces morality to some other normative stuff. I am not convinced by his reduction, nor am I sure that any reduction of this kind is either needed or likely to work. Also, Scanlon is one of those people who think they can have their realism while remaining metaphysically non-committal. And I, to repeat, am a shameless realist, happy to wear my metaphysical commitments on my sleeve.

3:AM: How does your position work in terms of legal philosophy, in particular legal positivism that is pretty anti-realist? Do the same arguments work for the normativity of law as they do for morality? If they do, then is legal positivism’s assumption that a naturalised jurisprudence requires anti-realism threatened?

DE: I don’t think that there’s anything remotely anti-realist about legal positivism. Legal positivism, as I understand it, is primarily about the (conceptual) relations between legal validity and moral content. It is entirely neutral on how the latter is to be understood. I don’t think the analogy between legal and moral discourse is at all that compelling. I don’t know what exactly people mean by “the normativity of law”, and to the extent that I do understand, I don’t know why they think that law is normative in any philosophically interesting way. I think that legal discourse is much more closely analogous in this respect to discourse about what manners requires, or what would and would not be fashionable, than to moral discourse.

3:AM: And finally, for the metaethicists here at 3:AM, can you recommend five books (other than your own which we’ll be reading straight after this of course) that will takes us further into your philosophical world?

DE: Straight after this? You mean you haven’t already? Here they are, then:
1. Alexander Miller, Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics
2. Michael Smith, The Moral Problem
3. Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defense
4. Mark Schroeder, Slaves of the Passions
5. Graham Oddie, Value, Reality, and Desire


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 22nd, 2012.