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Axiological Realism

  • Joel J. Kupperman (a1)


Many would consider the lengthening debate between moral realists and anti-realists to be draw-ish. Plainly new approaches are needed. Or might the issue, which most broadly concerns realism in relation to normative judgments, be broken down into parts or sectors? Physicists have been saying, in relation to a similarly longstanding debate, that light in some respects behaves like waves and in some respects like particles. Might realism be more plausible in relation to some kinds of normative judgments than others?



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1 A good entry into the first stages of this debate is afforded by Essays on Moral Realism, Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey (ed.) (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988). See also Morality, Reason, and Truth, Copp, David and Zimmerman, David (eds) (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985).Gibbard's, Allan, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990) is an exceptionally sophisticated naturalistic account of morality that can be read as creating a case for anti-realism, and many of the comments in this essay will be addressed to Gibbard's book.

2 Cf. Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1990), 56.

3 For a brief characterization of axiology see my ‘Axiological Ethics’, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Ted Honderich (ed.) (Oxford University Press, 1995). See also Findlay, J. N., Axiological Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1970), and Chapter 6 of my Character (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). For a dividing line between morality and other forms of normative judgment, see Mill's, Utilitarianism, Chapter 5, para. 14.Gibbard, Allan echoes Mill's division; see Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, p. 293, and also ‘Moral Concepts: Substance and Sentiment’, Philosophical Perspectives 6, Tomberlin, James E. (ed.) (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1992).A lengthy discussion of the boundaries of morality is found in my Foundations of Morality (London: Geo. Allen & Unwin, 1983), Chapter 1.

4 A Treatise of Human Nature, Selby Bigge, L. A. (ed.), second edition revised by Nidditch, P. H. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 475 ff.

5 Cf. Strawson, P. F., ‘Social Morality and Individual Ideals’, Philosophy 36, No. 136 (01) 1961.

6 ‘Do We Desire Only Pleasure?’, Philosophical Studies, 34, No. 4, (November 1978).

7 For cognitive psychotherapy, see Brandt, Richard, A Theory of the Good and the Right (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

8 See my ‘Suffering, Joy, and Social Choice’, Public Affairs Quarterly, 8, No. 1 (January 1994).

9 See Isenberg, Arnold, ‘Critical Communication’, in Aesthetics and Language, Elton, William (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953).

10 See Malcolm, Norman, Ludwig Wittgenstein. A Memoir (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 100.

11 The late Andy Warhol was quoted as saying, ‘I love to be bored’; and this might be thought to provide a counter-example to my claim. His remark might be interpreted as saying either (1) that boredom for him was a pleasant emotional experience, or (2) that he was motivated to pursue and have more of what he thought boring, or (3) both. We cannot rule out a priori that someone might be motivated to pursue what he or she thinks boring, although it remains true that for most of us an urge to squirm away from the experience is part and parcel of being bored. Let me suggest, on the other hand, that we can rule out a priori that someone might enjoy being bored. If one enjoys something entirely unexciting and uneventful (such as a film of someone sleeping), ‘bored’ is simply not the word for one's response.

12 Strawson, P. F., ‘Truth’, Truth, Pitcher, George (ed.) (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1964), 37. Bede Rundle has pursued this point, arguing that if facts were in the world, it should be possible to say where; ‘yet there appears to be no answer to such a question as “Where is the fact that inflation has fallen?”’ Facts are ‘undetectable by the senses or by any scientific instrument’. See Rundle, Bede, Facts (London: Duckworth, 1993), 10.

13 In his Introduction to Essays on Moral Realism, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord places emphasis on the view that assertions are ‘literally true’ (cf. 5) as an earmark of realisms. It is not clear what work the word ‘literally’ does here. Someone could be an ontological realist in the sense in which ontological realism opposes Berkeley's idealism without holding that there is only one correct story to be told about the mind-independent stone one kicks: does this require a literal truth about the stone? Apart from this, one may be uneasy with the word ‘true’ in connection with ethics. At the risk of sounding finical, let me say that the word ‘true’ is at home in cases in which claims that look both simple and discrete are assessed in terms of correspondence with a reality. More complicated claims (e.g. scientific theories) that present themselves as webs of belief more naturally are termed ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’, and it seems more idiomatic to accept ethical claims as ‘correct’ or ‘right’ that as ‘true’. A great deal of high-powered recent philosophy has been simple-minded in its employment of a single term (e.g., ‘desire’, ‘belief) for a broad range of diverse cases, and the word ‘true’ especially has been used as a blunt instrument of language.

14 Cf. Solomon, Robert, The Passions (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1977); Sousa, Ronald de, The Rationality of Emotion (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1987); and Armon-Jones, Claire, Varieties of Affect (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991). Armon-Jones does not place as much emphasis as Solomon and de Sousa on a cognitive element of emotion; but her book is eminently compatible with the reflection that moral emotions can involve construing (seeing) something as impermissible and disturbing, and that this could be given high or low marks as a cognitive performance. See McDowell, John, ‘Virtue and Reason’, Monist 62 No. 3 (07 1979) for a consonant line of thought. Two good recent books that connect emotions and ethical judgments are Gaus, Gerald, Value and Justification (Cambridge University Press, 1990), and Oakley, Justin, Morality and the Emotions (London: Routledge, 1992).

There is a circularity problem in Gibbard's analysis of analysis of moral emotions if something like Robert Solomon's analysis is correct. See D'Arms, Justin and Jacobson, Daniel, ‘Expressivism, Morality, and the Emotions’, Ethics, 104, no. 4 (07 1994) and Wise Choices, Apt Feelings 149.

15 Harman, Gilbert, ‘Moral Relativism Defended’, Philosophical Review 84 (1975), and The Nature of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), Part I; Sturgeon, Nicholas, ‘Moral Explanations’, in Copp and Zimmerman, (eds), Morality, Reason and Truth (and reprinted in Sayre-McCord, Essays on Moral Realism). One should note also Thomas Nagel's contention that the requirement set by philosophers like Harman and Mackie is an unreasonable one. See ‘The Limits of Objectivity’ in Sterling McMurrin, (ed.), The Tanner Lectures (Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 114n. Of interest also is McDowell's gambit, which offers a carefully qualified analogy between ethical and secondary qualities. See ‘Values and Secondary Qualities’, in Honderich, Ted, (ed.), Morality and Objectivity (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985).

16 Rosen, Michael, ‘Must We Return to Moral Realism?’, Inquiry, 34, 1991, p. 194.

17 Much depends, it should be clear, on what one holds to constitute ‘moral realism’. Moral anti-realists want it to hinge on ‘moral facts’, whatever these might be; if this is the issue, then Gibbard's argument has considerable strength in relation to morality, although nothing like it has much strength with regard to axiology.

18 The author wishes to thank Jonathan Bennett, Diana Meyers, and Kwong-loi Shun for helpful comments on a first draft of this essay.


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