January 6, 2023
What is metaethics? Is moral objectivism the same thing as moral realism? When philosophers examine sentences like "Murder is wrong", are they generally more interested in (1) the role that the language is playing in a social interaction (e.g., that it's an imperative or that it expresses an emotion) or (2) the concepts themselves and their relations? Could it be the case that all moral statements are false? What do we know about how people actually use moral language in everyday life? Or do people even have any idea what they're doing when they use moral language? We're familiar with the idea that cultures vary in how they emphasize and value moral concepts; but are there cultures that have radically different moral concepts than our own (i.e., cultures that might not even have the concepts of modesty or honor in the first place, or that might have moral concepts that have never occurred to us)? Are there cultures that have have no moral concepts at all? What does it really mean to say that someone "should" do something? What is the use of intuition in philosophy? Where is philosophy going wrong today?
Lance S. Bush is a PhD student in social psychology at Cornell University. Most of his research focuses on moral psychology, metaethics, and methodological issues in experimental philosophy. He is also interested in psychological factors relevant to effective altruism and existential risk, particularly cognitive biases, reputational concerns, and other psychological phenomena that inhibit altruism and concern for the distant future. Email him at email@example.com or learn more about him at LanceSBush.com.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Lance Bush about metaethics, perspectives on moral philosophy, and problems with morality research.
SPENCER: Lance, welcome.
LANCE: Thanks for having me.
SPENCER: Today, we're gonna talk about a topic that, to some people, is one of the most important topics, which is the question of what should we do? Or, what does it mean to be moral? Does it mean anything at all? If so, what is it actually? Do you want to get us started on defining metaethics, and then we can dig into the details there?
LANCE: All right. Metaethics is a branch of ethics that deals with abstract and fundamental questions about the nature of morality. Questions about the sort of metaphysical and epistemological status of moral claims, of moral facts. So central questions might be stuff like, is there such a thing as moral truth? If there is, how can we know about it? What's the nature of moral truth? Questions like that. Questions that are not directly dealing with what we should do, or which specific principles we should follow, or what virtues we should cultivate. But really, these more abstract questions like, what does it even mean for something to be a virtue? What does it even mean for something to be morally right or wrong?
SPENCER: Right. Sometimes people divide ethics into three parts, right?
LANCE: Yeah. The typical division that people tend to use is this distinction between metaethics, which is this abstract set of questions. Then you go through this increasing level of concreteness. Metaethics deals with stuff at the highest and most abstract and fundamental level. In the middle, you have normative ethics. Normative ethics is where I think a lot of people are familiar with disputes in ethics, so the classical dispute between deontology and utilitarianism. Normative ethics is sort of intermediate between applied ethics — which I'll get to in a second — and metaethics in that it deals with formulating the principles or rules that should govern morally right and wrong action. People are probably most familiar with utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, which are the classical three camps within normative ethics. It's really just trying to figure out when an action is morally right or wrong. What is it right or wrong in virtue of? Is it right or wrong because of the consequences? This would be utilitarianism, consequentialism, and other consequence-focused theories. Is morality more about cultivating a certain virtue or character? This is what virtue ethics focuses on. Deontology takes this sort of rule-based approach to ethics, where it's not about necessarily the consequences. Although deontologists can and do care about consequences, it's largely about conformity to certain rules. Deontologists will tend to focus on things — like there are certain rules that you ought to conform to independent of the consequences, or at least — not exclusively with respect to the consequences. The locus of moral concern for deontologists is often the action itself. A deontologist might say something like "murder is wrong," or "stealing is wrong," at least under specific circumstances. It's wrong in virtue of the nature of the action, and not merely or exclusively its anticipated consequences. Normative ethics just deals with this question of whether we've got this sense of what's right or wrong. And now it's just a question of which theory do we want to go with, for what governs morally right and wrong action. And finally, you have applied ethics. Applied ethics deals with concrete and specific issues. This would be issues like, is euthanasia morally permissible? Is abortion morally permissible? If so, under what circumstances? So applied ethics, as you can see, could have any particular normative theory you could apply. You could say, "Well, if you're a utilitarian, what would a utilitarian say about abortion? What would be the deontological approach or a virtue ethical approach say about abortion?" Applied Ethics is basically just taking whatever normative system that you want to work with, whatever metaethical system you want to work with, or even just setting those questions aside and just asking this direct question. “In this particular case, is this action morally right or wrong? Is it permissible or is it impermissible? Is it obligatory?” So, it's really just dealing with specific concrete cases.
SPENCER: Okay, great. That was a great summary. Now, stepping back to metaethics, which I take to be like ‘ethics WTF???' What is this ethics thing? How does it work? How do we justify and so on? What are the typical positions that people take with regard to it?
LANCE: There's a variety of different questions that one could ask in metaethics. The one I tend to focus on — and that tends to be the biggest topic within metaethics — is the nature of moral truth. There's a number of ways of taxonomizing the different sorts of distinctions. But the biggest distinction is between moral realists and moral anti-realists. A moral realist is someone who thinks that there are stance-independent moral facts. An anti-realist is someone who does not think that there are stance-independent moral facts.
SPENCER: What does stance mean in there?
LANCE: A stance, in this case, refers to the values, standards, preferences, some sort of attitude that a real or hypothetical agent could have about what's morally right or wrong. The reason I say hypothetical is, you could say something like murder is wrong. That could be true or false relative to my standards, or your standards, or the standards of a group. But we could even talk in principle about the standards of a holy book that has particular sets of rules laid out in it. We could say, "According to this book, murder is wrong," or something like that. A stance is a particular perspective on or position about what is morally right or wrong.
SPENCER: Got it. Are you saying that a realist believes that there are moral truths that don't depend on one stance? Is that right?
LANCE: That's right. They would say, "To the extent that murder is wrong — in a stance-independent sense — it's made true in a way that doesn't reduce to, or is not cashed out in terms of any particular individual stance, or the standards of particular groups, or any particular book. It's true independent of, that it's not made true by the preferences or goals or values of people or groups.”
SPENCER: When someone says they believe in objective moral truth, is that the same as saying they're a realist?
LANCE: There's a lot of slipperiness in the terminology that's used in metaethics. This is true in philosophy more generally. It's unfortunate that metaethicists have not sat down. They haven't had some sort of big meeting where they've all got together and said, “We're going to agree to use terminology, and it's really rigorous, clear and consistent way.” When I talk about objectivism, I'm almost always using it in a way that just means stance-independent. So, I tend to use it that way. Probably most philosophers do, especially philosophers in my field, but I couldn't guarantee you.
SPENCER: Okay, so when someone says they're a realist, would that mean they would tend to agree that there are some statements about morality that are objectively and universally true? For example, a statement like “murder is wrong.” They might not endorse that statement in particular as universally true, but that there exist some statements that they think are universally true.
LANCE: It's going to depend on what you mean by universally true. I tend to reserve the term universal to refer to the scope of a normative moral principle, rather than what makes it true. Even if you're an anti-realist — for instance, a moral relativist — you could still endorse a universal moral rule. For instance, I could think that, according to my moral standards, everyone should do such and such. In that respect, since I think everyone should do it, it would be universal in scope. Even if what makes it true is relative to my standards or preferences. I see universality and stance dependence or independence as orthogonal to one another.
SPENCER: I see, that makes sense. So universal refers to who it applies to. To realists, what makes the statements about morality true?
LANCE: It's going to depend on the particular realist. Earlier, I said that the primary distinction is between moral realists and moral anti-realists. Within moral realism, you're going to get subcategories of different types of realists. The biggest division there is between moral naturalists and moral non-naturalists. Moral naturalists are going to regard these moral facts as facts that are consistent with and understandable in terms of the sciences. They'll take a moral claim to be one that maps on to a particular nonmoral claim. Typically, a naturalist will say that, because moral facts are just some type of natural fact, you can sort of reduce or explain the moral facts in terms of these natural facts. For example, a moral naturalist might say, “Moral facts are just facts about what increases happiness and decreases suffering.” Then you could go out of the world, and you could see, “Okay, well, there are facts about what increases happiness and decreases suffering.” Those are facts about the way that the world is. There are certain psychological facts and other observable phenomena and moral facts just map onto those facts.
SPENCER: Would Sam Harris' view fit into this?
LANCE: Yeah, I would think of Sam Harris as a moral naturalist.
SPENCER: Right, because he has the book “Moral Landscape,” which is about how we can use science to help with moral questions like figuring out how to make societies that have human flourishing as opposed to lack of flourishing.
LANCE: Right. I would interpret Harris as a naturalist. I don't know if he says he's a moral naturalist in the book. One thing to note about Harris is that he's kind of operating outside the conventional framework of contemporary analytic metaethics. And even has an end note in the book, where he says that he just finds all that very boring. It might be a little hard to place him if you really were trying to, just because he's trying to circumvent the whole contemporary metaethical discourse in the first place and detour around it. He looks like a naturalist to me, but I don't know if he would accept that if you were to ask him.
SPENCER: Okay. And then what is a non-naturalist?
LANCE: It's a little harder to say what a non-naturalist is. It's more about what they're not than what they are [chuckles], so they're not naturalists. They don't think that the moral facts are reducible to, or explicable in terms of, natural facts. They can't be identified with any particular natural fact. Why exactly they think that's the case is going to vary on a case-by-case basis. It would be hard to give any general answer. It's just going to come down to the particular non-naturalist account.
SPENCER: Could it be supernatural facts like facts related to God that determine morality?
LANCE: It could be, but I wouldn't typically think of non-natural. That's not the first thing I would think of when I thought of non-naturalism. If you look at a lot of the contemporary non-naturalist accounts, these are going to come from people like Mike Huemer, Russ Shafer-Landau, Terence Cuneo. A lot of these non-naturalists are — I don't know any case on all of them — but their secular accounts that are completely compatible with not being a theist, and not thinking morality is grounded in God. It could be grounded in certain sorts of a priori knowledge that one can acquire through reasoning. None of that is dependent on the existence of God or makes the facts about God's will or interest or anything like that. You can think of it closer to how you might think of certain sorts of mathematical facts. You don't go out and find two plus two equals four in nature. But you might still, nevertheless, think two plus two equals four is a certain kind of truth. That it's an objective truth. It's a stance-independent truth that two plus two equals four, but it's not supernatural. Nor are there like pieces of numbers floating out there in the world. It's just the thing that one can acquire knowledge of both without having to appeal to science or to God.
SPENCER: Okay, that's helpful, and then to switch to the anti-realist branch of the metaethics tree?
LANCE: Anti-realism tends to get split into three camps. The three camps are relativism, error theory, and non-cognitivism. All three views tend to be cashed out in terms of how they analyze the meaning of a moral claim. Let's just take a really simple, straightforward moral claim like “murder is wrong.” The relativist will say, “murder is wrong” can be understood, or in a certain sense, you could translate it or unpack its meaning in such a way that it contains this implicit indexical element. That might sound really fancy — this is the way Richard Joyce phrases or describes relativism — but it's really not. We're all familiar with indexical terms like I or me or you or something like that. So, if I said, “I am Lance,” that sentence would be true. If you said “I am Lance,” that sentence would be false. The truth status of the sentence, “I am Lance” or “My name is Lance” can vary depending on who the speaker is. The reason that it can vary is because “I am Lance” or “My name is Lance” has that indexical element in a particular term that allows the truth to vary in accordance with who the speaker is. The moral relativist just treats moral claims as having the same sort of meaning. There's nothing mysterious or metaphysically bizarre about what the relativist thinks the truth status of moral claims is. One way of understanding it would be the sentence, “murder is wrong.” If I say it, and I believe murder is wrong, and the meaning of moral claims is true or false relative to the standards of individuals. Then we could understand “murder is wrong” to mean something like murder is inconsistent with my moral standards. Well, what if that's true? What if it is inconsistent with my moral standards? Well, now the sentence is true. “Murder is wrong” just means murder is inconsistent with my moral standards. That's true. There you go, moral truth. But if someone does not believe murder is wrong — and they say “murder is wrong” — now that sentence is false. The truth status of the moral claim “murder is wrong” can vary depending on the moral standards of the person making the claim. What this can result in is, it could result in, let's say, I consider murder to be wrong, and someone else thinks murder is permissible. If I say murder is morally impermissible, that would be true, because it means murder is inconsistent with my moral standards (and it is). And if someone else says murder is permissible, and if they believe murder is permissible, now that statement would also be true because it would mean something like murder is consistent with their moral standards. In that case, you can actually have the claim “murder's wrong” to be true when one person says it, and false when another person says it, without there being any sort of logical contradiction or serious philosophical problem with understanding the meaning of that sentence.
SPENCER: What about someone who thinks that it depends on what culture and what is right and wrong?
LANCE: That gets really tricky because how does the culture determine whether an action is morally right or wrong? Is it the consensus of the culture? 51% of people within a particular culture think something's morally right or wrong, then it is morally right or wrong relative to that culture's standards? Or is it the authority figures in that culture? Is it some sort of institution or procedural process — if they voted to make something illegal is — that somehow relevant to whether it's wrong? There would be this difficulty in specifying what it is about the culture that makes it wrong. Is it a consensus? Is it a supermajority? A relativist could, in principle, explain how they're relativizing the moral facts, and that poses some difficulties. It's not necessarily insurmountable. But another difficulty a cultural relativist might run into is, how do we determine which culture? If I am an adult, and I move to another country, am I subjected to their moral standards, or the moral standards of the culture that I came from? What if we're moving to a new area and its people are from different cultures, which cultural standards are enforced in any particular situation? It's unclear. There's going to be difficulties in specifying which culture the truth of a moral claim is relativized to. One way of getting around that as you could just say, it could just be understood as true or false relative to any of these standards. It could be that if someone says, “murder is wrong”, you could talk about whether it's true or false relative to that individual standards, whether it's true or false relative to the standards of some specified culture that they come from, whether it's true or false relative to some sub-community they come from. In principle, you relativize the truth value to any number of different standards. That's going to immediately be super duper complicated. I don't know how a relativist is supposed to thread that needle.
SPENCER: Yeah, it seems like relativism brings up a whole bunch of questions that are difficult to make precise.
LANCE: Yeah. One thing I would say, though, about that is just because there are complications and difficulties that emerge — you encounter this problem with cultural relativism, which is how do you even determine if someone says murder is wrong? How do you determine what standard it's relativized to? What counts as their culture? Just because those questions are difficult — doesn't mean that one couldn't give a principled answer, however nuanced, and even if it turned out to be convoluted, it might still work as a philosophically defensible answer.
SPENCER: Right. In physics, we can have theories that are really difficult to understand, formulas that are difficult to write down, it doesn't mean they're wrong.
LANCE: Right. But another caveat about that, though, is that it becomes increasingly implausible if one is trying to say that the person means to refer to some particular category or group. If it's really inscrutable, what group could they be referring to? It would be a little bizarre to attribute to that person the intention to be relativizing their moral claim to a particular group. If I went around, and I was committed to cultural relativism, and I say, “murder is wrong.” What do I mean exactly? Relative to what exactly?
SPENCER: Yeah, this brings up something that I find confusing about this whole discussion, which has to do with what we are really talking about here. Are we talking about the way people use words? Or are we talking about the thing that they're attempting to point to? In our society today, we use the word dog to refer to these fuzzy creatures that like being pets or whatever, right? We could have a discussion about the word dog and what people mean by it. But we can also have a discussion about dogs, the animals themselves. Sometimes in discussions of morality, I'm not sure what people are trying to talk about. You mentioned, with cultural relativism, we could be talking about the intention someone has when they say something's immoral. But then we could also be talking about them attempting to point to something beyond just the word they're using, but the thing itself. Does that make sense?
LANCE: Yeah, it does. There is something very strange about the way people in metaethics have gone about formulating these theories.
SPENCER: So, what is the cognitivism versus non-cognitivism distinction?
LANCE: The cognitivism versus non-cognitivism distinction is a distinction about the meaning of moral claims. Cognitivism holds that moral claims are truth-apt. That means they're capable of being true or false. This would be very, very similar to someone saying something like carbon atoms have six protons or something like that. That's the thing that could be true or false. In this case, it's probably true. But you could also make false claims. You could say, “George Washington was born in 2002,” or something like that. That claim would be false, but it's still truth-apt because it's the sentence that's intended to be capable of being true or false. When it's expressed, it's propositional. It's the thing where the intention of the speaker is to try to make some claim about what the world is like or what is true or false. Non-cognitivism is the view that moral claims aren't even in the business of trying to be true or false. Another way to put it is that they're not propositional or they're not truth-apt. We already have examples of this outside of a moral context. This could refer to imperatives, something like “shut the door.” That can't be true or false. Or exclamations like if someone goes out, that can't be true or false. It's not even intended to be true or false. Non-cognitivism is this view of morality where it says, “Look, it's not even that moral claims are true or false in some relative sense, or that they're systematically false.” It's that moral claims aren't even attempting to be true or false. They can be understood, for instance, one of the most classic positions in non-cognitivism is emotivism. Emotivism looks at moral claims and it says, “Actually, the best interpretation of something like murder is wrong.” Although it superficially looks like a sentence that could be true or false, it's actually just expressing an attitude or an emotion. It's often called the Boo Hurrah theory. You could think of it as “murder is wrong,” the best translation of that would be something like “murder, boo.”
SPENCER: Okay, got it. Stepping back, what's at the very top of this hierarchy? Is the top, cognitivism versus non-cognitivism? Or do you put realism and anti-realism at the top?
LANCE: I don't know that they can be neatly fit in the top because cognitivism is consistent with both realism and anti-realism.
SPENCER: Okay, so there's just two different distinctions. There's the realist versus anti-realist and then there's a cognitivist versus non-cognitivist, and those can kind of simultaneously coexist.
LANCE: It's a little complicated because there are a few obscure positions in metaethics. I might be tempted to say all realist accounts are cognitivistic, but I don't even think that that's true. You have this paper by Kahane, “Must Metaethical [sic] Realism Make a Semantic Claim?” and his answer is no. It could be that you could think that the correct descriptive account of the meaning of ordinary moral claims is that they're not truth-apt. Nevertheless, there are stance-independent moral facts, independent of how people speak or think. Unfortunately, the distinctions are orthogonal. But it's a sufficiently obscure and odd position to take to be a non-cognitivist and a realist, that I don't know that there's a single person in all philosophy that endorses that. But it's possible in principle.
SPENCER: Stepping back for a moment, we started talking about anti-realism. Under that, we talked about relativism. But now, we're going to talk about the other theories under anti-realism. Error theory is next. What's Error Theory?
LANCE: Error theory makes a bold and perhaps seemingly strange claim, which is that all moral claims are false. That might sound really strange, but it's not strange when you consider examples that are very similar to it. The classic comparison would be something like referring to witches or referring to unicorns. Suppose that unicorns don't exist — as I imagine, most people probably don't believe in unicorns — if you were to run into someone that started giving a detailed description of a unicorn. If they said, “This unicorn was opalescent, and it had a big glowing horn, and it could heal people with a touch.” You would be able to cash out all of those sentences as false. They wouldn't be non-cognitivistic because they would be intended to express something that's true or false, but they will all be false. And the reason they will be false is because unicorns don't exist. What you can see about those sentences is that the reason that references to the characteristics of unicorns would be systematically false is because unicorns don't exist. Any attempt to describe the specific characteristics of a unicorn implicitly presupposes that unicorns exist. And because they don't exist, that makes the claim false. The error theory says basically the same thing about unicorns. But they just transpose that over to morality and they say, “Okay, when people are making moral claims, they're trying to say something that can be true or false, but they're implicitly committed to something that doesn't exist.” The error theorist might say, “Look, moral realists are right in their semantic claim. They're right that when people say things like ‘murder is wrong', they're trying to refer to the stance independent moral facts.” It's just that there are no stance-independent moral facts. So, when a person says ‘murder is wrong', they mean it as a stance-independent moral fact that murder is wrong. Well, there are no stance-independent moral facts, so that statement is false. So, the same would apply to all other moral claims. They're all attempting to refer to things that simply don't exist.
SPENCER: Under anti-realism, our third subcategory is non-cognitivism. We've already talked a little bit about cognitivism and non-cognitivism, but do you want to go into that a little more in-depth?
LANCE: Sure. A non-cognitivist is an anti-realist that believes that moral claims don't have truth value. They're not capable of being true or false. We would typically say that they're not truth-apt. Now, there are different accounts for what they do mean, instead of expressing something that could be true or false. The classical version is emotivism, which basically just says that when people say something like ‘murder is wrong,' what they're really doing is they're just expressing an emotion. It could be an emotion of disapproval in the case of things that we might say are morally wrong. A sentence like ‘murder is wrong' is really just a way of saying “murder, boo.” The same could be said for positive moral actions. A person that thinks it's morally good to act heroically or something. If they say it was good that they did that, or you morally ought to do that, they mean to convey an attitude of approval, “like taking care of your children, yay.” Again, not really capable of being true or false. There are other ways of being a non-cognitivist. For instance, you could believe that moral claims express imperatives. When someone says, “murder is wrong,” that really means, “don't murder.” There's different ways of cashing it out. What unifies all of these non-cognitivist accounts is that moral claims aren't even really in the business of even attempting to say anything true or false. As a consequence, since moral claims aren't saying anything true or false in the first place, there just are no moral facts.
SPENCER: Okay, cool. I know that that can be a lot to take in. We'll link in the show notes to a really wonderful diagram Tommy Crow made that kind of shows you in a map many different ethical positions and how they connect. So, I definitely recommend checking that out.
LANCE: I really like that diagram. I think it's super clear and super helpful. It gets double thumbs up for me.
SPENCER: Awesome. All right. I brought this up a little earlier, and we just had to come back to it. But I think there's a really interesting question about, when you're talking about more claims, are you talking about what people believe they're doing? Or are you talking about the thing that they're attempting to point to? What's your reaction to that?
LANCE: It's a bit tricky. This is something that I think has not been adequately addressed in metaethics. There's this amazing paper by Michael Gill called Indeterminacy and Variability in Metaethics, and it has had a massive influence on me. What Gill does in his papers, he says, “Look, the contemporary discussion about metaethics, if you look back over the 20th century, what happened there is that people were trying to figure out what people meant when they were making moral claims.” What they would do is they would start with these central cases, these paradigmatic cases of moral claims, like murder is wrong. And what a moral realist might do is they might take some sort of situation or sentence that looks like it really fits well with the realist analysis of what a person is doing. An anti-realist might do the same. A non-cognitivist might say, “Look, in this sort of situation, it looks like a paradigmatic instance of a person engaging in moral reasoning or moral language.” But it seems like it best fits with a non-cognitivist analysis. It really looks like, in this particular circumstance, that a person's trying to issue a command to somebody. They're trying to get them to do something. That looks like a paradigmatic instance of a moral claim. So, we can analyze morality in these non-cognitivist terms. And then, what both of those approaches do — the realist and the anti-realist — is they would start with their paradigmatic central cases that were consistent with their view. Then they would say, “Ah, I recognize that there's all these apparent exceptions that don't fit well with my view,” and then they would try to explain them away. They would get into all the fancy philosophical reasoning to try to explain away all the alternative accounts. What Gill says is, “Look, maybe people just sometimes use moral claims in a way consistent with realism. And they sometimes use them in a way that is consistent with anti-realism. Maybe sometimes when people make moral claims, they're not committed to any of these positions, so they just don't have any determinate position at all.” What's strange about the whole situation is that philosophers were engaged in this approach, completely in the armchair; they weren't really going out and actually studying how people use moral claims in the real world. This is something that I've continued to encounter myself when I talk to moral philosophers. One of the things that is true of all of the metaethical theories I've laid out — these would be various types of moral realist accounts, and all of the anti-realist accounts; error theory, relativism, and non-cognitivism — one thing you'll notice about them is that the central claim for all of these positions concerns the semantics of the meaning of moral claims. The question I have for philosophers is, which moral claims are they talking about? When I've asked philosophers this, they'll say things like, “Well, I'm talking about sentences like murder is wrong.” Of course, if you ask me what's a moral sentence and I say, “a sentence like murder is wrong.” I'm not actually expressing a moral sentence as they are used in the real world. What I mean by that is, if you were studying behavior, if you were studying violence or aggression, what you could do is you could go out in the world and you could actually observe people behaving violently — like a person hitting another person, you could go and see a kid hit another kid on the playground or you could go to watch an MMA fight and see people punching each other — you'll be observing the actual behavior. But what if I said, “Well, what do you mean when you're studying violence, can you give me examples?” And someone says something like, “One person punching another person.” The “one person punching another person” is not an actual instance of violence. It's a description of the things that you study. This is the problem that I have with moral philosophers. They're not actually studying real moral sentences as they're actually used. They're studying hypothetical or toy moral sentences. Instead of studying how people actually use a sentence by going out and actually observing a real human being making a moral judgment in the real world, they'll take something like “murder is wrong”. That completely decontextualized that sentence “murder is wrong”. It's not uttered by anybody in particular. It's not that anybody actually engaged in a real moral judgment. It's just a sort of toy, a hypothetical one that exists in the platonic universe that the philosopher's dreamed up. When philosophers are trying to analyze the meaning of moral claims, I'm not sure what they're trying to analyze. It looks like they're analyzing hypothetical or toy moral sentences, they're not analyzing actual human behavior. That removes all the rich, contextual factors that contribute to what people are actually meaning and doing when they make moral judgments, and when they express moral claims in the real world.
SPENCER: I'm imagining someone trying to analyze, what do people really mean when they say, ‘fuck.' They mean lots of things [laughs]. You need a lot more information to be specified to understand what someone means when they say ‘fuck'. They could be angry, they could be wanting to have sex, they could have just made a mistake, but it does seem rather confusing. If you think you're talking about what people mean, then you need to go study what people are doing. It would be a form of psychology. I do think, though, that some people don't think they're talking about what people mean. They're trying to get deeper than that. They're trying to study dogs, not the word dog. They think that people are pointing at something that's independent and trying to study that. Is that not the case?
LANCE: I think it is the case. But if that's so, it's very puzzling that they focus so much on moral language, and they will explicitly frame their accounts in terms of what ordinary people mean. Something you'll get from both realist and anti-realist is things like, “when people make moral claims, they mean to say.” They'll even say stuff like “when the lay person” or “when the person on the street says ‘murder is wrong', they mean to say.” I don't have it handy, but I could give you a big list of quotations from prominent philosophers all through the 20th century up to today, where they very clearly seem to be offering accounts of what they take non-philosophers to mean when they make moral claims. I think that you are probably correct that what these philosophers are really interested in is the moral facts themselves, not the meanings of words. Yet, their approach seems to be to study what they take people to mean when they make moral claims. But for some puzzling reason, they don't go out and do the empirical work to study what non-philosophers mean. They just presume to know what ordinary people mean, without actually engaging in the empirical research.
SPENCER: This seems to connect to the idea of experimental philosophy. Do you want to talk about that for a minute?
LANCE: Sure. Experimental philosophy is this approach to philosophy that emerged maybe about 20 years ago now. The idea was to address traditional philosophical questions using social scientific methods. Typically, by providing surveys that take the thought experiments and questions about the philosophical issues that interest philosophers and presenting those to non-philosophers and seeing how they respond.
SPENCER: And do you feel that this has actually helped the field move forward?
LANCE: I don't know. Experimental philosophy seemed like this fad that got really popular. Some people were really excited about it. Some people were super critical of it. It seemed to spawn a lot of discussion. But lately, it seems like that enthusiasm has died down. It looks kind of like experimental philosophers have gone off and done their own thing. There doesn't seem to be, from my perspective, a whole lot of crosstalk between people doing experimental philosophy. I guess you could say, mainstream philosophy anymore. I think that that's really unfortunate. I would say, I don't think it has caused too much progress within the field of philosophy, but someone in the trenches doing experimental philosophy might have a different perspective, depending on the issue.
SPENCER: Do you think experimental philosophy can actually help us get to the bottom of some of these questions, regardless of whether philosophers are actually listening to those results?
LANCE: I think it can, but I think it can only in a sort of roundabout way. Part of what I think experimental philosophy has the power to do is to draw attention to and raise questions about metaphilosophical issues related to what philosophers are even trying to do, what kinds of questions they're trying to ask, and what the proper methods for exploring those questions might be. This is what I've already alluded to, which is that if the person doing metaethics is really interested in what non-philosophers mean when they make moral claims, then they need to be very clear on whether they're making a claim about the psychological states or the mental representations that are at play when a non-philosopher says ‘murder is wrong'. If they're trying to offer some sort of externally adequate semantic account of the meaning of moral claims, or if they're trying to do something else entirely, if they're trying to say, “Here's what a competent speaker of a particular language would say, under certain sort of idealized circumstances.” (Like if they were fully informed, and ideally rational and engaged in adequate philosophical reflection.) If they're doing the first two projects, it seems like the proper methods should be the kinds of methods used by experimental philosophers. But if it's the third one, then it's not clear why they lean so heavily on claims about what ordinary people allegedly mean. It's important to emphasize that if philosophers want to both simultaneously deny that they're making empirical claims about what ordinary people mean, and then they go around appealing to what appear to be claims about what ordinary people mean. At the very least, they're not being very clear about what they're doing and how they think that they're going about doing it.
SPENCER: In metaethics, what view do you hold?
LANCE: I'm a moral anti-realist.
SPENCER: All right, and then which serves a specific sub-branch under anti-realism? We talked about three: relativism, error theory, and non-cognitivism.
LANCE: Unfortunately, I don't fit into any of those categories.
SPENCER: Would you say you have your own unique view?
LANCE: I don't know if my view is unique. But it doesn't seem to be well represented or explicitly represented in the philosophical literature at all, as far as I'm aware of.
SPENCER: Have you tried to put it into philosophical literature?
LANCE: Not yet.
SPENCER: [laughs] Interesting. All right, so what's your view?
LANCE: The view that I currently espouse doesn't really have any sort of published name that I'm aware of. That puts me in the fantastic position of getting to name it myself. The name I'm currently going with is moral quietism, or you could say metaethical quietism.
SPENCER: Nice, I like it.
LANCE: Quietism is this perspective on any given philosophical issue, where the issue is ultimately due to conceptual or linguistic confusions, that once you become aware of them and adequately address them, the problem in question dissolves. It just fizzles out, and you become quiet about it. There's just no longer an issue. It's an approach that says, “Okay, this particular philosophical issue —- once we get super clear on what we mean —- what we thought was a problem is no longer a problem.” A classic case where I take this position is on the issue of free will. There's this long-standing dispute between libertarian approaches to free will and compatibilist approaches to free will, the people that say we have neither. And there are incompatibilists, and they say nobody has any free will. I think in these cases, if someone got super specific on what they meant by free will, that many of these questions would just dissolve. One could just recognize that the issue came down to certain misuses of language, certain confusions about the relevant concepts. Once those are cleared away, once you clear away the brush, there's nothing there anymore.
SPENCER: Right, so it's sort of like we're being imprecise, but if we were precise, we'd realize there isn't a mystery that we're trying to solve at all.
LANCE: Yeah. Maybe an even better example is the classic one, ‘If a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound?' Well, if by ‘make a sound' you mean ‘does it produce vibrations in the air that are perceived by an agent', then no, there's nobody there. If you mean ‘does it produce vibrations in the air that are consistent with a non-perceptual description of sound vibrations that we would typically use to say ‘this is what sound is'', then yes, that does occur. Once you get clear on what you're talking about —- vibrations in the air, or the perception of a sound —- then it's no longer an interesting question. The answer is yes in the first case, and no in the second, decisively.
SPENCER: Right. For example, in the free will case, we might say, “Well, if by ‘free will' do you mean ‘violating the laws of physics through your own choice'? Well, that doesn't seem to make sense. What do you mean to violate the laws of physics? If by ‘free will' we mean ‘acting in accordance with what you want to do', well then, yeah people do that,” etc. You kind of...
LANCE: Exactly, exactly.
SPENCER: The mystery kind of goes away. Yeah.
LANCE: Clearly, people act consistently with their goals and values, at least some of the time. If what you mean by free will is the capacity to act consistently with your goals or desires —- and just trivially, I just ate what I wanted for lunch yesterday —- I guess I have free will. The question becomes if not meaningless, it at least becomes trivial or uninteresting.
SPENCER: Now, I'm not too familiar with his writings, but this makes me think about Wittgenstein, and his talking about to what extent is philosophy language games? Do you think that this is connected to his work?
LANCE: Absolutely, but in an interesting way, I never really read Wittgenstein so, as far as I could tell, my position on the matter is mostly developed through discussions with people and not really from reading the relevant philosophy. Right now, I've just started reading a book called Wittgenstein's Metaphilosophy by Paul Horwich, and what I'm finding in that book is that Horwich is laying out this metaphilosophical approach that he attributes to Wittgenstein. It looks disturbingly like the kind of position that I was already taking. Now, that doesn't mean that I reinvented that concise position on anything — I wouldn't make such a bold claim as that — but I suspect that really the way that I arrived at this is because I took courses at universities in western analytic philosophy institutions. It's likely that the kinds of insights that Wittgenstein and other people had — ordinary language philosophers and others — trickled up through the people that have carried on the legacy of philosophers like Wittgenstein, and that it was from discussing things with other people that I arrived at these views.
SPENCER: I'd be curious to have you make the strongest argument you can on the fly about why you think people should accept moral quietism. Why is it that you think that if we were to make our claims about morality really precise —- in what we're talking about —- that a lot of this mystery would dissolve?
LANCE: Okay, there's a few parts to this. We'll go through it part by part. What that means is — again, it might sound really fancy — but what it means is that if you take something like ‘murder is wrong', the relativist will say that that moral claims and all other moral claims are true or false in a relativistic way. The error theorist says all moral claims are systematically false. And the non-cognitivist says no moral claims are capable of being true or false. What you'll notice about all three positions is that they're typically framed as claims about the meaning of all moral claims. My concern with all three of these positions is that I don't think it's true that when people make moral claims that they mean to say something that is identical across all speakers in all contexts. I take that to be an empirical claim, and I take it to be extremely implausible, that it will actually turn out to be true that when everybody makes moral claims, they're implicitly committed to the existence of stance-independent moral facts. I reject any account of error theory that says all moral claims are systematically false.
SPENCER: I totally agree with you there. That just seems clearly true that people don't mean the same thing all the time when they make moral claims. But I suppose that one response to that would be, people say lots of different things that sound like moral claims, but the ones that are the real moral claims — the ones that actually are the thing we're talking about here — are only this kind of sub-class of what people say.
LANCE: Right. That is what I suspect some proponents of both realist and anti-realist accounts would favor. They would say, “Of course when I'm saying that moral claims are not truth-apt, I don't mean that literally 100% of the times someone has made a moral claim throughout all of human history, not a single person has ever attempted to say something that they took to be true or false, because of course, the non-cognitivist recognizes that there are cognitivist philosophers, and those people, at least, when they're making claims — like murders wrong — are presumably attempting to report facts. The non-cognitivist would have to acknowledge it. Some people are trying to make propositional claims with a moral language. Then there's also people that lack the relevant linguistic competence in a particular language, or they might be confused, or they might have studied enough philosophy to develop an idiosyncratic position on the matter. There's all sorts of ways that a person could use language in noncentral or non-primary ways that are parasitic on or dependent on a central or primary meaning. All the person appealing to relativism or error theory is trying to do is just say, “Look, for the most part, this is all people are trying to do. The rest of these usages are just auxiliary uses that are not really the primary and central use.” I understand that. But if that's true, again, I have to ask the question of, if they're trying to say that the primary use of moral claims is to convey an emotion or an imperative or to appeal to the existence of stance-independent moral facts, those strike these empirical claims, and none of these accounts are well supported by — to my knowledge — a single empirical study that seems to decisively favor them.
SPENCER: Are you saying that because when people make moral claims or moral statements, there's so many different things that they actually mean in practice, that there's going to be no category that you're going to be able to say, “Well, okay, almost all of them are in that category?” Or are you just saying that nobody's done the research, so we really don't know?
LANCE: People are doing the research on this. But the research is a little tough to interpret and that is a big topic all on its own. What I'm getting at is that I don't see any particularly good a priori grounds for claiming that any particular interpretation like that moral claims, or cognitivistic or non-cognitivistic, that they refer to stance-independent facts, or they refer to relative facts. I don't know of any good arguments to show that one of these particular accounts is preferable to such an extent, that we can consider all the other apparent usages to be noncentral, or just sort of unusual or rare or aberrant. I certainly don't think that there's good evidence that, for instance, if you're an error theorist, and you claim when people make moral claims, they're trying to refer to stance-independent facts. If you could show that this is true of 99% of people, but that 1% of people speak like relativists, or they speak with non-cognitivists, you could say, “Come on, that's good enough,” and I would agree. But they don't have anything like that kind of evidence. You have in recent surveys, one of the recent surveys found that the most common response was non-cognitivism. Another survey found that most people tended to favor some type of relativist position.
SPENCER: You're talking about lay people here.
LANCE: Yes, lay people.
SPENCER: What would you think of the claim that it's not about how often people use words in different ways, but there's a certain type of usage? That's really what we're talking about when we talk about morality. For example, someone might say, ‘Sure', sometimes people say, ‘That's wrong' just to mean ‘I don't like what you're doing' or to express emotion or to say, ‘Boo that'. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about morality. We're actually talking about this specific type of way people use moral language.
LANCE: I have a few concerns. One would be that it seems almost stipulative. When people are making moral claims, I just mean to refer to those claims, whereby people are referring to stance-independent moral facts. What if that turned out to be only like 2% of the time that people made moral claims? What if most of the time people actually were just expressing emotions? Now, it'd be pretty strange to focus on that unusual use of moral claims. Again, it looks like empirical questions about how often people are using moral claims in the way that you're specifying as the way of interest. That question — that empirical question — of how frequently people use it in that way, still seems to loom large. Another issue with that view is, it's a little unusual to just say, ‘Well, this is just what we're talking about.' How did you determine that? Because you said so? Someone can just declare that they mean to refer to a specific subset of moral language. I don't know that there's some fact of the matter that what they've chosen to refer to is the correct thing to talk about, or that it's what we are talking about, or it's what philosophers are trying to talk about.
SPENCER: Okay, got it. You've explained why you kind of reject the anti-realism branch. What's the next kind of piece of your argument about why you believe in moral quietism?
LANCE: The first part of this is that I reject the uniformity and determinacy assumption, which is when people make moral claims that they tend to be attempting to make the same moral claims as one another. People mean the same things as one another and there's this determinate metaethical count. What I did not discuss is the second part of that. So, I reject uniformity. But the other part of this is determinacy. In my own research, I've started to suspect that the reason why we get the kind of empirical results we get — when we go out and we ask people questions about metaethics, they're all variable and all over the place and people struggle to understand the questions that they're asked — isn't because of metaethical pluralism, which would be when people are moral relativists, some people are more realists, some people are non-cognitivist. Rather that, by and large, people aren't really any of these things and that metaethical positions are not really governing the way that people speak and think about morality at all. That these are external, hyper-theoretical impositions that philosophers have dreamed up and are then imposing on and imagining is a feature of the way that ordinary people speak and think about morality. But that it's not really a substantive feature of the way that people speak and think about morality in the first place. To give an example, because that might sound weird or implausible or obscure, imagine you had two friends and they're planning a barbecue. You have Alex and Sam. Alex says, "Hey, I don't know if it's a good idea to do the barbecue this weekend. I think it's going to rain. I looked at the weather report." Then Sam says, "Well, either it's going to rain or not rain. Let's just take a chance and have a barbecue." In that case, you have Alex and Sam making claims about the future. They're making causal claims about what will happen or what might happen. Probabilistic claims, either it will happen or won't happen. All these claims that seem completely conventional and ordinary. This is a common conversation people might actually have. But you could ask this question, "Well, there are different accounts of the way that events occur, according to different accounts of how we interpret quantum mechanics." You have the Copenhagen account, you have the Mini Worlds account, you have these hidden variable accounts. You could say that when Alex or Sam says something like, "I think it might rain this weekend." And then the other person responds, "I don't know. Either it will or it won't." You could say, "Are they committed to having many worlds, where it will rain in one universe, but not in the other? Are they committed to the Copenhagen account where there's some probabilistic outcome where it might rain, it might not, but it will determinately do either one or the other, but not both?" I think it would be absurd to think that the person is implicitly appealing to one of those theories. Or that the only way to make sense of their claim — about whether it's going to rain on the weekend — is to refer to these quantum mechanical accounts. That's just not a part of how people think and how people speak when ordinary people make claims about future events. The same thing could be true for metaethics. That when someone goes around saying something like ‘murder is wrong', there's not any specific determinate metaethical position, that's even built into what they're trying to say on any implicit level or any explicit level. It's just not a part of what a person is trying to do. If that's correct, then the question then becomes, well, what is it they are trying to do? But that is a question for the descriptive empirical sciences. It's not really a question that philosophers are going to readily be able to resolve from the armchair.
SPENCER: Yeah, I love the quantum mechanics example because I think that really makes it clear. It seems to me when people make moral judgments, a lot of times what's happening is that they experience an internal feeling. That is the feeling we associate with something being bad or good. They're just verbalizing that feeling and that feeling evolved over millions of years because having a moral sense actually is useful for survival. I wonder how you react to me saying that?
LANCE: I'm not so sure about that. I don't know exactly what the relationship is between emotions and moral claims. But the first thing to say is that different emotions seem to manifest in different types of moral claims. One could exhibit compassion, or anger, or outrage. One could exhibit a variety of different emotions that could all be associated with different types of moral judgments. At the same time, people are often capable of making rather sober moral judgments and pronouncements under particular contexts. You can imagine a judge presiding over a case or a jury that's responding to some conviction, where they're now in charge of sentencing. They might do their level best to get as clear and non-emotional a state of mind as possible before attempting to render a moral judgment. That strikes me as just as much a meaningful type of moral judgment as one where a person is experiencing a very strong salient emotional state. I think emotional states are involved in some moral judgments, but not in others, that different emotions are involved in different ways. I think the interplay between emotion and moral judgment is complicated and variable, just as much as the potential metaethical commitments is, at the very least, complicated and variable, if not absent entirely.
SPENCER: I think I mean something a little bit different than when you interpreted me as meaning. I'm not talking about emotions like anger, anxiety, and things like that. I'm saying that it feels to think something is good or bad. What I often take people to be doing when they're making moral judgments is they're thinking about a state of the world or an action or person. And they're experiencing some experience of it being good or bad. And they're using that to guide how they feel about it and then they can make proclamations like that's bad, or that's immoral, or whatever.
LANCE: I see. Would you say people are consulting their normative phenomenology? Like when a person is considering something like murder or abortion, they're considering their subjective experience of how that seems to them? And that part of how that when they're considering that is that it might seem bad or seem good in some morally valenced way?
SPENCER: Yeah. I definitely don't think that's all that's happening. That's not always what's happening, but I think that a lot of times what is happening. And I think that helps explain experiments where you do things. Jonathan Haidt did some famous experiments — which I'm sure you're aware of — where he described a situation of someone having sex with their sister, but they use contraception so there's no way that you'll get pregnant. They did it once, and they decided never to do it again. And they both viewed it as a positive experience. It brought them closer together. People would still have this negative feeling about it and would still want to proclaim that it's immoral. Another example would be someone having sex with a dead chicken. People would have this sense that it's immoral, but they couldn't explain it. And to me, those experiments fit into this view of someone's having this internal experience of this being bad, which I think is something we evolved. I think much like the way we can have an internal experience of something tasting good. But this is a different kind of internal experience that feels more universalized, like ‘Oh, this thing's bad. It's not just bad right now or just bad to me. But no, this is bad'. Then from there make our judgments.
LANCE: A couple things; one thing I would say is that I'm not sure that a capacity for having distinctively moral reactions to things is itself a product of evolution. That might sound surprising coming from me for people that know that I have a background where I've done a little bit of work in Evolutionary Psychology. I do think humans are a product of evolution and the human mind is, and I very much take that view that the human mind has been shaped by evolution. But, I don't necessarily think that a capacity for distinctively moral cognition is a product of evolution. There's this great paper by Machery and Mallon, where they say this claim that morality evolved is actually ambiguous, and it can be divided into at least, or disambiguated, into at least three different claims. One is that some of the psychological components involved in moral judgment evolved. One is a capacity for normative cognition of all, thinking in terms of things being good, bad, or right or wrong. The third and strongest claim is that a capacity for distinctively moral cognition evolved. This would be a special type of normative cognition that is distinctively moral. While the evidence for the first two might be fairly solid. Of course, some of the psychological components involved in moral judgment are a product of evolution. And of course (well, not necessarily, of course) but there's good reason to think that normative cognition evolved. It's not so clear that thinking in distinctively moral terms evolved. This is another part of why I am a moral quietist. It's not simply that I reject moral realism and I don't think that there are stance-independent moral facts. I also have an issue with the very notion of there being some principled distinction between moral and nonmoral considerations. When you ask people to explain what they mean by ‘moral', or to distinguish moral concerns from nonmoral concerns, when you ask that question, you get quite different answers from different people. And I don't see any principled means of resolving those disagreements. Some people might say moral concerns quite clearly. They might even say some sort of analytic truth about them that you are just self-evident or obvious. You can just figure it out through reasoning that moral concerns are primarily concerns related to harm and happiness and certain psychological states. Other people might focus on fairness, other people might focus on other sorts of moral considerations. And I don't know that there is any fact of the matter that would allow us to say this is a correct account of what distinguishes moral concerns from nonmoral concerns. If that's the case, it might turn out that this notion, morality, is itself a kind of fuzzy, ill-defined, almost pseudo concept that isn't really picking out anything in particular. It might just be that the term ‘moral' is an idiosyncratic feature of certain cultures and societies that isn't used in a principled way to refer to any distinctive phenomenon.
SPENCER: I may agree with you. You'll get a lot of different answers, but I do think it is a distinctive phenomenon. Going back to my explanation — the evolution — I think that there's a difference between I like chicken (the flavor) and it's bad to do the thing you're doing. I think the difference is that there's this universalizing element to morality. My personal opinion is that it is a thing that evolved because it helps groups coordinate to avoid actions that are harmful for the group. For example, a lot of cultures — not all cultures — but a lot of cultures have taboos against touching dead bodies or cannibalism. There are a few exceptions, but primarily they do, and there's a really obvious reason why that would be, which is that you can catch diseases from dead bodies. It's actually good for the whole group for everyone to think, "It's not just bad if I touch the body, but it's bad if everyone touches their body, or anyone touches it, because it can affect all of us.” Of course, they're not doing that reasoning, but it seems like we have this intuitive feeling that it's bad to do that.
LANCE: People probably have a variety of different tendencies to engage in certain kinds of normative judgments. People will judge things as good or bad. People feel things like shame and guilt. Those might all be universal characteristics. But what I'm concerned with is what unifies those as moral concerns rather than some other kind of concern. It's already the case that we have certain social conventions. There's conventions about how people can dress. You probably would get in trouble if you went to a serious job in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt or something like that. If you showed up to a funeral in your pajamas, people might regard certain actions as unconventional or inappropriate without necessarily regarding them as morally wrong. It does appear that, at least in many populations, people draw distinctions between moral conventions and nonmoral conventions. If that's the case, then there could be this question we could ask, which is, what distinguishes the moral concerns from the non-moral concerns? I think that there isn't a good answer to that question. There just isn't any fact of the matter about what considerations are moral and what considerations are not moral.
SPENCER: I guess I would say that has a different psychological effect when you think someone has acted immorally versus if you think they've just kind of committed faux pas. It's sort of the difference between thinking someone's bad and thinking someone is lacking social skill or low status. To me, that seems like an important psychological distinction.
LANCE: That may be the case in the way you distinguish it. But, research on the moral conventional distinction and other attempts to see how people from different cultures and subcommunities think about the distinction between moral and nonmoral concerns, often reveals that the kinds of characteristics that you or I might attribute to moral concerns but not to nonmoral concerns, that cluster of characteristics would come apart. That people will attribute some of those traits to things you and I might consider to be conventions. They might attribute some of the characteristics that you and I might apply to social conventions to what we would consider to be moral violations. In other words, it looks like there's evidence to support this claim that the way that you draw the moral versus nonmoral distinction isn't culturally universal.
SPENCER: It's absolutely not universal. That makes perfect sense to me, because whatever this thing is, it's clear that it's significantly culturally programmed. What's going to fall into the moral bucket is going to depend on what you saw around you when you were growing up, and what other people did, and what other people judge, and so on.
LANCE: Right. I would even go so far as to suggest that there may be cultures and societies that don't have a moral bucket, at all.
SPENCER: I'm not aware of any of those. But it would be fascinating if they existed. Do you know of cases like that?
LANCE: I can't confirm this because I'm not a native speaker of the relevant languages. But there is some empirical research showing that Mongolians don't think about the normative landscape in the same way as people from Western or weird populations do. Some of the terms that one might use to try to translate moral as at least an English phrase into Mongolian doesn't really work very well. The primary normative terms and concepts that they use are actually quite different from people from weird populations.
SPENCER: I know you're not a moral realist, and we've talked about how there's two different sub-branches of naturalist and non-naturalist. Do you want to go into why you're a non-naturalist?
LANCE: Yeah. I think of the two, the easier one for me to deal with is naturalism. And why I don't really accept naturalism, here's the issue I have with naturalism — this is a pretty standard objection — it's often called the triviality objection. The concern I have is that if moral facts are a certain kind of natural fact, for instance, if moral facts are facts about what promotes cooperation. Let's say that that's true, there are these facts about cooperation. Then we're gonna say that those are the moral facts. Well, even if that's true, it's not obvious why I should care, or why I should do anything in response to those facts. A naturalist might say, “Well, so what, if you don't care,” is still a moral fact. But I had thought that concern with morality was trying to tell us what we should do, what we shouldn't do, what's good, what's bad. If you're just saying moral facts are just facts about what increases happiness or decreases suffering or promotes cooperation or whatever, someone could just say, “Okay, I acknowledge that those are the alleged moral facts. And I'm going to go about doing what I want, because I don't care about that”. That seems to be a problem. It seems like you're just saying moral facts are certain kinds of descriptive facts. And I am not under any rational obligation, or as far as I could tell, any kind of obligation to respond to a descriptive fact in any particular way. I can still go about making decisions based on my goals and my preferences. I could just not care about these alleged moral facts. It's not because I wouldn't care about these facts if they were true, therefore, they're false. I'm not making a claim like that, which would be really silly. It's just that it seems like naturalists are offering something that's just off track. It's not even about what we were trying to figure out in the first place. I had thought we were trying to figure out certain kinds of normative facts. And it's unclear to me how naturalists can provide us with those normative facts. On the one hand, if they're not even trying to do that, it almost seems like they're changing the subject. If they do think that they could do that, I haven't heard a compelling argument for how you can get normative facts out of the naturalist framework.
SPENCER: Is this the is-ought gap?
LANCE: No. I see the is-ought gap as a problem. It's like a pretty run-of-the-mill problem for logic where you just can't introduce stuff in your conclusion that's not in the premises somewhere. It's just a standard version of that. So, it's not really an is-ought problem.
SPENCER: Alright, so that's your objection to naturalism. Then what about non-naturalism?
LANCE: Non-naturalism is where I start being a little different from the way that most philosophers — especially ones that have published articles on moral realism and anti-realism — are coming from. The error theorists might say something like, “Okay, the moral realist says that these are stance-independent moral facts.” Well, there are no stance-independent moral facts. They might say that they are metaphysically strange, or they're superfluous. There's no reason to suppose that they exist. They might make a host of other claims, where they try to say, “Okay, this proposal that the realist has, they're just mistaken about it.” That's not what the world is like. I have a deeper, more fundamental issue with this notion that there are stance-independent moral facts that have this normative element to them. That there could be a fact — like you should not commit murder — independent of whether it'd be consistent with your goals or desires to do so. The problem is that I don't know what they mean by those claims. I don't know what it would mean for there to be a stance-independent moral fact. Now, of course, it does not follow that because I don't understand a particular term or concept, therefore, it's false or non-existent or unintelligible or something like that. The problem is that if you go and look in the literature, and you look for explanations of what it would mean for there to be a stance-independent moral fact, what you'll find is a host of terminology like categorical reasons, or irreducible normativity, or external reasons. Realists will employ all these philosophical terms of art where they use all these terms. I don't know what the terms mean, but this is where it gets interesting. They can't explain what the terms mean. So when you ask them, ultimately, what you'll get is — for instance, let's say you ask a non-naturalist realist what it means to say murder is wrong. They'll say, “Oh, well, there's a stance-independent moral fact that murder is wrong.” If you ask them what that means, they'll say it means that you shouldn't murder someone independent of whether it would promote your goals. And then if you ask them what they mean by ‘shouldn't', they might say, “Well, you have a reason to not murder people.” And then if you ask them, “Well, what do you mean, I have a reason.” They would say, “Well, the fact that murdering a person would result in their death, or the fact that your action would be an instance of murder, counts in favor of you not doing it.” For something to be a reason, means that counts in favor of that thing. What does that mean? How does it count in favor?
SPENCER: Right. There's a bunch of terminology that's kind of pointing at other terms, but you can't get to the root thing that they're actually talking about.
LANCE: Right. There doesn't appear to be any sort of conceptual entry point for someone that doesn't agree or claim to possess the concepts that they have that would allow the person that doesn't have those concepts to know what they're talking about. When push comes to shove, what they'll say is that their notion of an ought, or a reason, or whatever it is, is a primitive concept or unanalyzable concept. It's not a concept that can be explained; you either get it or you don't. I find this to be deeply unsatisfactory as an account of realism. One, because I don't understand it. Two, because it's not simply that I don't understand — and there's an explanation on offer, and it's too murky or inscrutable or complicated for me to get — it's that they're not even attempting to offer an explanation. They're just saying this isn't the thing that calls for an explanation; it's too primitive. If you challenge a realist on that, they might say something like, “Well, you already accept other primitive concepts. So, what's wrong with this one?” The problem I have with that is what's to stop someone from claiming any concepts they want are primitive concepts and saying, “Therefore, I don't have to explain or defend or justify this particular account, or claim, or concept, or whatever it is”? It looks like anyone could do that for anything, and that creates a problem, which is, suppose that it turns out to be that moral realists are conceptually confused, that they have this interconnected web of mutually inter-defining terms that are ultimately meaningless and can't be cashed out in any sort of intelligible way, but because of their intuitions, and because of the philosophical methods that they've employed, they're somehow convinced that this is all meaningful. But they can't explain it to anybody. Suppose that it turns out that it's really the case, that it is unintelligible and nonsensical and incoherent whatever. Then, you could consider some counterfactual where that wasn't the case; it actually is intelligible. How could we tell the difference in principle? In other words, how can we distinguish, what criteria can we use to distinguish legitimate appeals to primitive or unrealizable concepts from illegitimate ones, where the person is claiming that they have a genuine, unanalyzable or primitive concept, but in fact, it's just meaningless nonsense. How can we distinguish those two from one another? Because I don't know. So, if realists, if their account, if the non-naturalist realist is appealing to intelligible concepts that I — for whatever reason — don't have access to, I don't know how to distinguish that case being the case from them talking nonsense. They don't seem to have any account either for distinguishing the two.
SPENCER: Right. I think the word ‘should' is a really tricky one. On the one hand, I think a lot of people when they hear the word ‘should' in like, “You should do that,” they think they know what you're saying, but when you actually try to analyze it precisely, I find it — which I think sort of what you're pointing at — extremely difficult to give a precise definition of should that makes any sense at all, beyond the regular things we use in conversation. Like, “I want you to do that,” or, “It'd be good for you to do that,” or “It would help you achieve your goals to do that.” But what does it mean that you should do something, but not with respect to any particular set of goals?
LANCE: Right. You might be told, “Well, you shouldn't do that independent of your goals, because you have a reason to not do that.” And for me, I don't know what that means to say ‘I have a reason'. So, I can give an account of the way I use the term ‘reason'. If I say that I have a reason to do something, that's just a fact about the consistency relation between a goal that I have and some means of achieving that goal. What I mean is, let's say I go and get a drink of a glass of water, and you say, “What was your reason for doing that?” I might say, “because I was thirsty,” or “because I wanted a glass of water.” Ultimately, I can end up cashing out the notion of a reason. So, we can say a reason refers to the relationship between some goal and some means of acting consistently with that goal. Ultimately, reason gets reduced to some sort of descriptive claim, and I think that this is generally true of normative claims. I think that we can eliminate or reduce normative claims to certain types of descriptive claims. Therefore, there's nothing sort of irreducibly normative that's left over. But this is not what I think a lot of non-naturalists want. They want to have this irreducible normativity. There's some things you should do, some things you shouldn't do, and some things you have reasons to do. And that can't get conceptually broken down into its sort of atomic parts. Those parts end up just being descriptive. It really is normative in a way that you can't get rid of. I don't know how to make sense of that. I don't know what it would mean to say that I shouldn't do a thing, independent of my goals or standards or values. I can ask, “Why should I” but they would just say, "You just should. You just have a reason.” A lot of this is really strange. It's not simply that I don't know what realists mean when they talk about reasons. I don't know what it would mean to have a reason. How does one have reasons? They might say something like ‘facts provide reasons'. So, the fact that touching a hot stove would burn your hand provides a reason to pull your hand away. I find that to be a very strange way of thinking about why I would pull my hand away from a stove. The reason I would pull my hand away from a stove is because it hurts, and I don't want to be hurt. It's not simply the fact that the stove is hot or would burn my hand that's prompting me to pull it away. But because of certain descriptive facts about my preferences and values. You could imagine some sort of fire being that really likes fire or a person that, for whatever reason, has it in their interest to touch a hot stove to do it, and they would not pull their hand away, and they would not want to pull their hand away. I don't think it would make any sense to say that they should pull their hand away if it would promote their goals and interests. This notion of reasons just sounds very strange to me. This notion that facts can provide reasons — I don't know how a fact provides a reason — it all just sounds like very strange ways of framing things. What's especially puzzling about it is that realists will not only employ these concepts in ways that seem very far removed from the way ordinary people speak and think. But they'll also claim that their position is the common sense position. They will claim that this is how ordinary people speak and think about moral issues. Again, this strikes me as an empirical question. I don't think there's good empirical evidence that it's true. This seems like a very heavy philosophical position to impute to ordinary people.
SPENCER: My personal suspicion about what's going on here — and this goes back to the evolutionary view on this — is that we have these strong internal feelings about what's good and bad. And, they have the property of feeling universal, because that's what makes them useful evolutionarily. Because these are the things that are not just about ourselves, they are about our whole tribe. We don't just want to do them ourselves, but we want other people to be good too. We don't want to just not be bad ourselves; we want other people not to be bad. Basically, we try to enforce these on others — our moral kind of feelings — and so they feel universal to us. And that a huge amount of confusion comes about because of the feeling that these are universal. We're so convinced that they're universal, that we come up with really complex arguments for why they must be really there, must really be facts, or whatever. And here I mean universal not in the sense of applying to everyone, but in the sense that there's something beyond just our own psychology. That there's something sort of objective about them.
LANCE: I understand that. I would say a couple things. One is, as far as I could tell when I introspect, I don't have these feelings. I don't feel that things are universal and the respect that you report. But it's possible that I have a very unusual phenomenology or that in virtue of studying the topic so long, I have developed an abnormal psychological perspective on the nature of morality. But what I would also point out is that if you go and talk to students at a college, or you go and look at the survey results, you will find a lot of people that at least appear to report being some type of moral relativist or other type of anti-realist. So, it looks like it's well within the framework of human psychology for people to not really feel the pull of the universalizability of moral standards. A lot of people seem to have this live-and-let-live attitude or they're hyper-tolerant to people from other cultures and communities. I don't see a lot of people clamoring to impose their moral standards on people in other parts of the world. So, I'm not so sure that that experience or phenomenology or perspective on morality is that widely shared. I think people might be a lot more variable.
SPENCER: I agree that people can vary. However, I think there's also two different things that we're talking about here, to some extent. There's the low-level experience you have, which happens automatically and subconsciously. You can become aware of it, but it's sort of very fast. Then we have this intellectualizing about that phenomenon. And so, when Jonathan Haidt would do those experiments, where he asked people how they felt about someone who had sex with a dead chicken, the way I interpret what happened there is they would have an immediate negative reaction to the people having sex with that chicken. And then the kind of intellectual stuff would kick online, which is much slower, and then they try to explain their view. So, I think what's happening is when you ask survey questions about how people think about morality, you're just actually activating quite a different system than when you have someone directly witnessing something and experiencing it.
LANCE: Yeah, that seems very plausible. I am very much on board with criticizing a lot of contemporary empirical research in moral psychology for pulling people out of the situations that they would ordinarily be in when they make moral judgments. Moral judgments in the real world occur in contexts where there are stakes.
SPENCER: Oh yeah, absolutely agree. I think when you describe someone doing an act like that, you get a little simulation in your mind of that happening, at least some people do. And that allows them to at least somewhat engage with the real scenario. But people vary in how intense those internal simulations are. So yeah, putting them actually in that scenario I think, would produce a much stronger reaction and a more consistent reaction as well.
LANCE: Yeah. And that type of research is so uncommon to put people in real-world scenarios, or to do field experiments where the study is actually conducted in a real-world situation. Those are quite rare. There's not a lot of questions that are explored using those methods. As a result, a lot of contemporary research in moral psychology is impaired by not really looking at how people think in the real world. And I don't know how many people are familiar with how a lot of research is done today. A lot of research is done today using online survey platforms, where people are paid small amounts of money to fill out surveys. They'll often sign up for a website where they do this and they'll fill out dozens or hundreds of surveys, even thousands of surveys. The participant pool in your studies are people that are doing their best to get through surveys so they could make some money. And the circumstances of doing that are quite different from the circumstances in which the psychological phenomenon you might be interested in ordinarily occurs. That's something to keep in mind; that a lot of research is done in this very anonymous, faceless way. I, myself, do psychological research, and I have almost never, in the past few years, directly interacted face-to-face with a research participant.
SPENCER: Before we wrap up, I want to make sure you have time to give the more constructive or positive case for quietism, in terms of, how do the moral questions kind of dissolve when you start looking at them from your perspective?
LANCE: Yeah. As a quietist about these issues, I don't think that there's any principled distinction between moral and non-moral considerations. I don't think that there's any substantive philosophical questions that are worth pursuing when it comes to figuring out if there are stance-independent moral facts or not. I think that the whole notion of a stance-independent normative fact is just conceptually confused. Once you just satisfy that question, we're not even gonna bother with the question of realism. We're not going to bother with the question of trying to offer some sort of really principled, rigorous distinction between moral and non-moral considerations. It might seem like I'm providing this really pessimistic view on things, that there is no morality. There's nothing to talk about here. Let's move on with our lives and not bother. But I actually think that's where all the interesting work can begin, once we reach those conclusions. Because it's very clear that people go around in the world using moral language, making moral claims, having moral emotions, or there's an interplay between emotions and moral judgments. There's all of these phenomena out there. And we still need to study that. There's still a lot of questions to ask about what people are really doing when they think and speak in moral terms, and in normative terms more generally. So, what I would say more constructively is that once you quiet up about one issue, you could turn your attention to what you might call the real issues, or to the issues that we should have been looking at all along. In this case, what I think we should be doing, from the empirical perspective, is doing more descriptive research. More bottom-up research, where I think more people should be engaged in anthropology and empirical linguistic approaches, where they go and they actually gather large amounts of data about how people are speaking and thinking about morality. Someone could get data off of how people talk on Facebook, or Twitter, or chat rooms, or public speeches. They can start analyzing that and trying to really figure out how people are using moral language using big data and stuff like that. So that's the empirical evidence that we can start really getting more raw, descriptive data about what people are doing. And once we have all that data, then I think it might make sense to start trying to develop comprehensive theories, and to try to work out which theory is correct using experimental methods. I think psychologists kind of jumped the gun and were too quick to move towards experiments and theories, rather than doing this descriptive work. So that's the empirical end. On the philosophical end, if we set aside these questions of wondering whether there are the stance-independent moral facts and all these sorts of abstract metaethical questions that may not have any practical relevance. If we set those aside, we can ask questions that do have practical relevance. If we don't think that there are these objective moral facts, or we think that if there were, we wouldn't care about them, we could still talk about what you care about, and what I care about, and what different people care about. And they're still going to be facts about the best ways of negotiating or navigating our differences and what we care about, in order to arrive at norms and institutions that are mutually optimized for our collective interests. There are facts about how to do that, well, there are facts about how to do that poorly. And it seems incumbent on us if we want to get what we want, to consider what those facts are, and to strive towards that. So again, there's a lot of interesting philosophical work to do there. And there's a lot of empirical work to do there as well. So, what I would say is that, once we set aside what I take to be the distracting questions in metaethics that we ought to take a quietistic approach towards, what we're left with are all these practical questions of how to navigate the world to devise norms and institutions and habits and ways of thinking. All the tools of thinking and acting and reasoning and building a society that we want to live in. If that's not something worth doing, I don't really know what would be a useful thing for philosophers and people that care about ethics to do.
SPENCER: Lance before we wrap up, I was thinking of doing a quick fire round where I ask you a bunch of difficult questions, but you limit yourself to a relatively short response. How does that sound?
LANCE: Sounds good.
SPENCER: All right, so first quickfire question, what is normative entanglement?
LANCE: Normative entanglement is a rhetorical strategy that sometimes occurs in arguments typically used by moral realists where they'll say something like, “Do you think torturing babies for fun is wrong?” And if an anti-realist says, “Yes,” then the realist will interpret that as them conceding to the realist. That there are these objective moral facts that one of the objective moral facts is you shouldn't torture babies. If they say no, then the moral realist will interpret that or react as though the anti-realist is saying that they're okay with torturing babies. That they're not opposed to torturing babies. What's going on here is that if you look at that question — is it morally wrong to torture babies — it's a normative question. The metaethical question is embedded inside the normative question. In other words, it's asking two questions at once, and to say no to the metaethical component, like, do you think that there's a stance-independent fact that it's wrong to kill babies? If you're trying to say no to that and you say no to the question “Is it morally wrong to kill babies?” It sounds like you're saying that it's also not just the metaethical side of things, but also normatively, that you're okay with killing babies. So, it's like a trick question. It's almost like a double-barreled question or you're concealing one question inside of another for the rhetorical purposes of making it look like the anti-realist either has to concede to the realist or that they're okay with killing babies. It's not really an appropriate move. And I think that moral realists should stop doing this.
SPENCER: Very sneaky. All right. So, what is the role of intuitions with regard to moral realism?
LANCE: The role of intuitions is going to vary depending on the philosophical position in question. One of the common uses of intuitions would be with respect to phenomenal conservatism. Phenomenal conservatism holds that if you have some intuition that something is the case that this provides some prima facie justification for believing it. That may be defeasible, but it's justified in the absence of defeaters. Those are reasons that would undermine that belief. I can give an example. If you look outside and you see a tree, we might say something like, “You have some degree of justification for believing there are trees unless someone presents good enough evidence that there are not trees.” And a moral realist might say, “Look, if I have the intuition that it's objectively wrong to torture babies for fun or something like that, that I'm justified in believing that intuition unless someone can provide good reasons to the contrary.” So, it can kind of serve the role of shifting the burden of proof onto the anti-realist to show why the realist is mistaken. And that's one role that intuitions conserve.
SPENCER: What about intuition and philosophy as a whole? Can you just give a quick thought on that?
LANCE: So, intuition is one of these terms that is used very widely and very inconsistently. Intuitions in philosophy seem to, at least in some cases, serve evidentiary roles. That is, they serve to support certain sorts of conclusions. And that seems to be ubiquitous in philosophy. But it's a matter of considerable dispute. Whether they serve an evidentiary role, what that evidentiary role is, when it's appropriate to appeal to them, what sorts of considerations can override them, it's philosophy. Everything remains up for grabs. But typically, intuitions are used in support of certain sorts of philosophical conclusions.
SPENCER: This is a big topic also. But if you had to just say one or two things about where you see philosophy going wrong today, what would you say?
LANCE: I think one of the biggest problems in philosophy is the hyper-focus on language. And the tendency to think that we can read off of the way that people use terms what the fundamental nature of reality is. It seems like the new philosophers think that facts about how people speak or think provide some direct and immediate insight into the fundamental nature of reality in a way that strikes me as premature and unmotivated and not very well-supported.
SPENCER: Do you think that we need more interdisciplinary work to make progress in philosophy?
LANCE: Yeah, I do. I think that one of the primary values you could get out of philosophy is lending conceptual and terminological clarity to other disciplines. And that philosophy has a lot to offer other fields. At the same time, I think that philosophers themselves would benefit immensely from engagement with science and other sorts of fields. So, in my own case, studying psychology, especially developing a better understanding of heuristics and biases, cross-cultural differences in the way that people think — like understanding how weird populations (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic populations, one that I come from) — how we are psychologically not very well representative of humanity as a whole. Those sorts of results in psychology have served immensely to curb and modify and shape and inspire the way that I think about philosophical issues. So, I would think virtually every philosopher would benefit immensely from studying psychology, especially certain sub-areas of psychology. But also more generally, when philosophers want to talk about metaphysics. I think having a familiarity with cosmology or physics is a good idea. If philosophers want to talk about epistemology, it seems to me very strange to get into epistemology and to not be especially again familiar with psychology and heuristics and biases. And with ethics, to not be familiar with empirical work and moral psychology, again, strikes me as very unusual. Because these empirical findings just strike me as so deeply relevant to thinking about philosophy in the proper way. Philosophers can be highly subject to this typical mind fallacy, where they suppose that other people must think the way that they do. And when you understand that some people lack an internal monologue where they lack mental imagery or people from different cultures think wildly differently than people from your own culture. Just those insights alone can curb incautious projections of one's own ways of thinking onto the way one imagines other people think.
SPENCER: Alright, last question for you. In the PhilPapers survey where a whole bunch of philosophers in academia are surveyed about their views, what was your reaction to the results related to morality and moral realism?
LANCE: The first one is despair. It bothers me that moral realism is as popular as it is. On the one hand, it's good to have people to have disputes with. If everybody was a moral anti-realist, I wouldn't have the topic that I like talking about the most to talk about. There just wouldn't be anybody to disagree with. On the other hand, I don't think that moral realism is a philosophically defensible position. I don't think that there are good arguments for it. And I don't think it seems intuitive, but I can't explain the concepts that I'm purporting to find intuitive, it is a very substantive account to have about. I don't think it's very practical or useful to think in those terms. So, it really bothers me. The question for me that's really interesting is why do most philosophers endorse moral realism? And this is an actual piece of evidence that moral realists could use against my position. I can come in here and very confidently say that I think moral anti-realism is a much more defensible position. It's a correct position, it's suited, it's much more likely. I could say all those things. But someone could turn right around and say, “Well, if that were the case, why do all these super well-educated people that have studied the topic so much reach totally different conclusions? When in fact, moral realists outnumber moral anti-realists among academic philosophers by more than two to one.” So, if my position really were so defensible and correct, why am I in the minority on this? And I think that that's a tough question. But I think that it points to, and I think that the best explanation is not the more realists are correct and that's why most philosophers endorsed more realism. I think the answer is going to turn on complicated and tricky issues in the sociology of philosophy and in metaphilosophy. Roughly, the issue here is that, if a whole bunch of people are using the same faulty methods, then they could tend to converge on certain sorts of conclusions, for reasons that are not independent of one another. So, the mere fact that a majority endorsed that view doesn't provide a whole lot of evidence that the view is correct if it can be shown that the methods they are using are arriving at those views are faulty. We wouldn't take, for instance, the fact that say most people that write horoscopes believe in astrology is really good evidence of astrology, because we recognize the underlying reason someone would have for thinking astrology is real are probably not very good. So, if it turns out that the methods that analytic philosophers tend to use are not very good, then it might not be surprising if a majority of them end up endorsing a view that's not correct. So that would be one consideration. The other is an idea that recently occurred to me and that I've been thinking about, is my own experience as a graduate student in a philosophy program. Since leaving that graduate program, if you endorse an unconventional or unorthodox view on a philosophical topic, people will often really push you on that. So, I tend to reject the hard problem of consciousness and I don't really think that there's qualia or phenomenal consciousness. I remember reporting that I took this position, which is a position endorsed by Keith Frankish, Dan Dennett (there are philosophers that endorse this position, but it seems to be a minority view). When I expressed sympathies for this view, the reaction from other people was often incredulous, or flabbergasted, or in some cases, borderline hostile. I would have people almost put pressure on me like, “Don't you have this intuition? Don't you have this intuition?” And it's the same thing with moral realism. So, in some ways, I might be different from a lot of moral anti-realists that might say, “Look, I have the intuition that there are these objective moral facts. It's just that on reflection, I end up thinking the intuition is mistaken.” But I don't even have the intuition. And I've encountered this repeatedly in discussions where people just are incredulous or can't fathom that I don't share their intuitions. And I felt pressure to accept. It's almost like people just want me to say, I agree for the sake of agreeing. And I imagine some people, maybe they've done that. Maybe they've sort of duped themselves into accepting a philosophical position that they don't really think, because they might be thinking, well, if everybody else has this intuition, maybe I do have the intuition, but I don't realize it. Or they might engage in some degree of self-deception, or even just deceiving others in order to get along and to be socially accepted. So, I'm starting to suspect one factor that could drive philosophical consensus is simply social pressure.
SPENCER: Well, I think it's really cool that you're trying to reformulate philosophy without intuition that is sort of indefensible. It's one thing to use intuition with a strong defense for why you're using it, but it's another thing to just use it and then just declare it infallible in some way.
LANCE: Yeah, that's probably something worth mentioning. The way that intuitions seem to be used in practice. I mentioned phenomenal conservatism, and you will have some realists say, “Look, I have this intuition that, for instance, it's objectively morally wrong to torture babies just for fun.” Now, I concede it's an intuition. And it's possible that I'm mistaken about this. But the onus is on the anti-realist to show why I'm mistaken. That might look like an intellectually humble position where you're saying, “Look, I'm going to assume that I'm right about what seems true until someone could show me that how things seem isn't how they are.” That on the surface looks like a pretty defensible position. And I think in certain respects it is. The problem is how it operates in practice. In practice, I've seen realists say things like ‘any argument against moral realism is less plausible than moral realism'. And so, you can kind of get this exchange where an anti-realist could present an argument against realism. And the realist could say, “Okay, look, I have an intuition that realism is true. You have this argument against realism. Let's say it counts a couple points against realism. But I don't think you quite understand how strong this intuition is. I have a super-intuition that moral realism is true and it's three points in favor of realism.” And so, the anti-realist kind of grumbles and goes off and they come up with another argument. They come back, and they have a new argument. And it's got five points against realism. But the realist then responds, “I don't think you understand. I super-duper have the intuition that realism is true.” There's eight points in favor of it. So, you could get this thing where it looks like the realist intuition is so arbitrarily strong, that it's not even clear what arguments against realism could, in principle, overturn the confidence that the realist has in that intuition. And so, intuition isn't serving a mirror, evidentiary role. It's serving the ultimate decider role where no matter what the evidence is, one way or the other, the realist is just incorrigibly committed to realism because it's just so intuitive. And that strikes me as a suspicious position to take.
SPENCER: Right and that could explain a lot. Because if you start from the point of view that, “Okay, morality has to be “real”, and then you try to prove that it's real [laughs].” That actually can explain a lot of weird stuff going on, in my opinion. Lance, thanks for coming on. This was really fun.
LANCE: Yeah, thank you.
JOSH: A listener asks: If you cook, then what dish are you best known for?
SPENCER: To be honest, I'm a terrible cook. I think for me, when I'm ready to prepare food for myself, it's always just about how quickly I can make it. So, I'm known to do things that other people find appalling. Like one thing I do is, I take a bunch of rye crackers, and I put them in a bowl, and I add on balsamic vinegar, some olive oil, nutritional yeast. And I'll just, with the back of the spoon, crush it and I'll just eat it with the spoon [laughs]. So, other people do not think this is food, but it actually tastes pretty good. So, I recommend it.
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