Article Summary: “Ethics as Philosophy: A Defense of Ethical Nonnaturalism” by Russ Shafer-Landau

Shafer-Landau, Russ. “Ethics as Philosophy: A Defense of Ethical Nonnaturalism” in Metaethics After Moore, eds. Mark Timmons and Terry Horgan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 209-233.

Summary

Shafer-Landau (SL) uses an analogy between ethics and philosophy more generally to combat several common objections to moral realism. These objections include the ideas that intractable disagreement about moral facts implies antirealism and/or undermines justification for moral belief, and that the causal inefficacy of moral facts suggests that they do not exist.

SL disputes both forms that the objection that disagreement implies antirealism can take: the form that merely cites the disagreement as evidence of antirealism, and the a priori argument which posits that even perfect moral reasoners would come to disagree about moral facts. SL concludes that the former is inconclusive, at best: many lurking variables, such as self-interested bias, may be causing disagreement. SL then suggests that the ‘perfect reasoners’ of the a priori argument cause no problem for moral realism, because there can be a gap between reason and facts. In other words, it might be the case that no amount of reason can get us to moral truths; regardless, moral truths would still exist.

SL invokes his analogy between ethics and philosophy more generally to show that intractable disagreement is not sufficient evidence for antirealism: such disagreements abound in philosophy, and yet no one says that philosophical truths do not exist. Likewise, intractable disagreement over moral facts does not mean antirealism is correct.

The nail in the coffin for this line of argument, according to SL, is that it does not survive its own standards. If that which is disputed is not real, then neither is the principle that that which is disputed is not real, since indeed the principle is itself in dispute.

SL’s next target is the idea that intractable disagreement means that informed participants in a debate will inevitably beg the question when attempting to justify their moral beliefs to one another. According to SL, these individuals can still be justified in their beliefs; the reason this is so is that there is a distinction to be made between holding a belief justifiably and being able to justify it to others. So, individuals can hold justified beliefs while not being able to justify them to others. This is no problem for moral realism.

Finally, SL attacks the argument that only causally efficacious entities exist. Since normative facts in ethics are not causally efficacious, so the argument goes, they do not exist. SL rejects this and invokes his analogy between ethics and philosophy to show why: surely, normative facts in epistemology exist. One such fact is that we ought to hold beliefs for certain reasons. But there is not fundamental difference between normative facts in epistemology and in ethics. Therefore, normative facts exist in ethics, even if they are not causally related to other entities.

SL then attacks the presuppositions which undergird the view that all that exists is causally active. These presuppositions include the idea that all which exists is that which is scientifically verified (the ontological principle), and that all we ought to believe is that which we experience (the epistemological principle). SL shows how both principles are double-edged swords: the ontological principle is itself a scientifically unverified entity, and thus it fails to meet its own criteria. Likewise, the epistemological principle is not experienced, and thus ought to be rejected by its own standards.

Logical Outline

Argument One (Disagreement doesn’t mean antirealism is true)

  1. If antirealism is correct, then if any doctrine is subject to intractable disagreement, it has no truth.
  2. Doctrines can hold truth and still be subject to intractable disagreement.
  3. Therefore, if antirealism is correct, then antirealism’s central claim holds no truth. (1,2)

Argument Two (Antirealism is self-defeating)

  1. If antirealism is correct, then if any doctrine is subject to intractable disagreement, it has no truth.
  2. The antirealist assumption that what is subject to intractable disagreement contains no truth is itself subject to intractable disagreement.
  3. Therefore, if antirealism is correct, then antirealism’s central claim holds no truth. (1,2)

Argument Three (Internal vs. External Justification)

  1. If antirealism is correct, then question-begging in an attempt to justify belief(s) undermines all potential justification.
  2. There are least two sorts of justification: justifiably acquiring a belief and justifying that belief to others.
  3. Therefore, it is not the case that question-begging undermines all potential justification. [1-2]
  4. Therefore, antirealism is false. [4,1]

Argument Four (Antirealism bans all normativity)

  1. Normative facts are sufficiently similar in ethics and epistemology as to be logically equivalent
  2. If the causal test is an accurate ontological test, then normative facts do not exist in ethics.
  3. Therefore, if the causal test is an adequate ontological test, then there are no normative facts in epistemology either. (1-2)
  4. There are normative facts in epistemology.
  5. Therefore, the causal test is not an adequate ontological test. [4,3]

Argument Five (Ontological principle is self-defeating)

  1. The ontological principle holds that we should only believe that that which has been scientifically confirmed exists.
  2. The ontological principle has not been scientifically confirmed.
  3. Therefore, the ontological principle is self-refuting. [1,2]

Argument Six (Epistemological principle is self-defeating)

  1. The epistemological principle holds that we should only believe in that which we have experienced.
  2. The epistemological principle cannot be experienced.
  3. Therefore, the ontological principle is self-refuting. [1,2]

Symbolization

Argument One
1. A → (∀x)[(Px ∧ Dx) → ¬Tx]
2. (∀x)(Px ∧ Dx ∧ Tx)…Therefore, ¬A
3. A → [(Pa ∧ Da) → ¬Ta](1, UI)
4. (Pa ∧ Da ∧ Ta)(2, UI)
5. A → [¬(Pa ∧ Da) ∨ ¬Ta](3,DeM)
6. A(IP)
7. ¬(Pa ∧ Da) ∨ ¬Ta(6, 3,MP)
8. (¬Pa ∨ ¬Da) ∨ ¬Ta(7,DeM)
9. Ta(4, SIMP)
10. ¬¬Ta(9,DN)
11. (¬Pa ∨ ¬Da)(10, 9,DS)
12. Pa(4, SIMP)
13. ¬¬Pa(12,DN)
14. ¬Da(13, 11,DS)
15. Da(4, SIMP)
16. Da ∧ ¬Da(14, 15,CONJ)

Where A=Antirealism is correct, P=Philosophical doctrine,
D=Disagreement over, T=Truths to be had

Argument Two
1. A → (∀x)[(Px ∧ Dx) → ¬Tx]
2. (Pa ∧ Da) → ¬Ta(1, UI)
3. Pa ∧ Da…Therefore, ¬Ta
4. ¬Ta(3, 2,MP)

Where A=Antirealism is correct, P=Philosophical doctrine,
D=Disagreement over, T=Truths to be had, a=antirealism

Argument Three
1. [A → (∀x)(∀y)[[(Px ∧ Py) ∧ (Jx ∧ Jy) ∧ Dxy] → (Bx ∧ By)]]
2. (∀x)(∀y)[[[(Px ∧ Py) ∧ (Jx ∧ Jy) ∧ Dxy] → (Bx ∧ By)] → [(¬Sx ∧
Sy) ∧ (¬Ox ∧ Oy)]]
3. A → (∀x)(∀y)[(¬Sx ∧ ¬Sy) ∧ (¬Ox ∧ ¬Oy)](1, 2HS)
4. (∀x)(∀y)[(Sx ∧ Sy) ∧ (¬Ox ∧ ¬Oy)]…Therefore, ¬A
5. A(IP)
6. (∀x)(∀y)(¬Sx ∧ ¬Sy) ∧ (¬Ox ∧ ¬Oy)(5, 3,MP)
7. (¬Sa ∧ ¬Sb) ∧ (¬Oa ∧ ¬Ob)(5, UI)
8. (Sa ∧ Sb) ∧ (¬Oa ∧ ¬Ob)(4, UI)
9. (¬Sa ∧ ¬Sb)(7, SIMP)
10. (Sa ∧ Sb)(8, SIMP)
11. (¬Sa ∧ ¬Sb) ∧ (Sa ∧ Sb)(9, 10,CONJ)

Where A=Antirealism is true, P=Person, J=Justified, Dxy=X disagrees
with Y, B=Begs the question, S=Holds justiifed belief, O=Can justify
belief to others

Argument Four
1. C → ¬M
2. M ≡ E
3. E…Therefore, ¬C
4. (M → E) ∧ (E → M)(2,EQUIV )
5. E → M(4, SIMP)
6. M(5, 3MP)
7. ¬¬M(6,DN)
8. ¬C(7, 1,MT)

Where C=Causal test is reliable ontological test, M=Normative facts exist
in ethics, E=Normative facts exist in epistemology

Argument Five
1. (∀X)(¬Sx → ¬Ex)
2. ¬So…Therefore, ¬Eo
3. ¬So → ¬Eo(1, UI)
4. ¬Eo(2, 3,MP)

Where S=Scientifically verified, E=Exists, o=Ontological principle

Argument Six
1. (∀X)(¬Dx → ¬Ex)
2. ¬De…Therefore, ¬Ee
3. ¬Derightarrow¬Ee(1, UI)
4. ¬De(2, 3,MP)

Where D=Directly experienced, E=Exists, e=Epistemological principle

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