Skip to main content Accessibility help

Moral Facts and Best Explanations*

  • Brian Leiter (a1)


Do moral properties figure in the best explanatory account of the world? According to a popular realist argument, if they do, then they earn their ontological rights, for only properties that figure in the best explanation of experience are real properties. Although this realist strategy has been widely influential—not just in metaethics, but also in philosophy of mind and philosophy of science—no one has actually made the case that moral realism requires: namely, that moral facts really will figure in the best explanatory picture of the world. This issue may have been neglected in part because the influential dialectic on moral explanations between philosophers Gilbert Harman and Nicholas Sturgeon has focused debate on whether moral facts figure in relevant explanations. Yet as others have noted, explanatory relevance is irrelevant when it comes to realism: after all, according to the popular realist argument, it is inference to the best explanation of experience that is supposed to confer ontological rights. I propose to ask, then, the relevant question about moral explanations: should we think that moral properties will figure in the best explanatory account of the world?



Hide All

1 I will use the terms “moral properties” and “moral facts” interchangeably in what follows. So, for example, one might say that inflicting gratuitous pain on a sentient creature has the property (or feature) of being morally wrong, or one might say that it is a (moral) fact that the infliction of such pain is morally wrong.

2 See, e.g., Jerry Fodor's defense of the reality of the attitudes in Fodor, Jerry, Psychosemantics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), chap. 1; and Richard Boyd's defense of scientific realism in, e.g., Boyd, Richard, “Scientific Realism and Naturalistic Epistemology,” in Asquith, Peter D. and Giere, Ronald N., eds., PSA 1980, vol. 2 (East Lansing, MI: Philosophy of Science Association, 1982).

3 Harman, Gilbert, The Nature of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); Sturgeon, Nicholas, “Moral Explanations,” reprinted in Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey, ed., Essays on Moral Realism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988); Harman, Gilbert, “Moral Explanations of Natural Facts—Can Moral Claims Be Tested against Moral Reality?Southern Journal of Philosophy 24, supplement (1986): 5768; Sturgeon, Nicholas, “Harman on Moral Explanations of Natural Facts,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 24, supplement (1986): 6978. In later work, Sturgeon has argued, with some plausibility, that “nonmoral explanations do not always appear to undermine moral ones. ”Nicholas Sturgeon, “Nonmoral Explanations,” Philosophical Perspectives 6 (1992): 111–12. This point, however, even if correct, has no bearing on the argument of this essay, which supposes that the question is not whether nonmoral explanations undermine moral ones, but which explanations are best.

4 See, e.g., Brink, David O., Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 187 ff., which discusses the issue in terms of explanatory “relevance” and “irrelevance.”

5 See Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey, “Moral Theory and Explanatory Impotence,” in Sayre-McCord, , ed., Essays on Moral Realism, 272–74.

6 The “Cornell realists” are defenders of moral realism such as Richard Boyd and Nicholas Sturgeon (who teach at Cornell), as well as their students, such as David Brink.

7 As noted above, the IBE arguments for realism claim that we are entitled to infer the real existence of those facts that figure in the best explanation of our experience. Arthur Fine has argued that as a defense of realism, IBE begs the question, which is precisely about the legitimacy of such an inference (namely, the IBE by which scientists posit unobservable entities). Bas van Fraassen, in contrast, has asked why we should think that what happens to be our best explanation should warrant an inference to truth. See Fine, Arthur, “The Natural Ontological Attitude,” in Leplin, Jarrett, ed., Scientific Realism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 8491; and van Fraassen, Bas, Laws and Symmetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 142–49.

8 Sayre-McCord, , “Moral Theory and Explanatory Impotence,” 267–68.

9 Railton, Peter, “Moral Realism,” Philosophical Review 95, no. 2 (1986): 172. Note that none of this constitutes a bar to realism; Railton's realist program, for example—in both ethics and philosophy of science—eschews IBE. See also Railton, Peter, “Explanation and Metaphysical Controversy,” in Kitcher, Philip and Salmon, Wesley, eds., Scientific Explanation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

10 Thagard, Paul, “The Best Explanation: Criteria for Theory Choice,” Journal of Philosophy 75, no. 2 (1978): 7692. I ignore a third criterion Thagard introduces, that of analogy. This is the thought that “other things being equal [i.e., without sacrificing consilience or simplicity], the explanations afforded by a theory are better explanations if the theory is familiar, that is, introduces mechanisms, entities, or concepts that are used in established explanations” (ibid., 91). This criterion is more contentious than are the other two, and is arguably more obviously inhospitable to moral explanations.

11 Ibid., 79.

12 Ibid., 87.

13 The simplicity criterion is, then, a relative of Ockham's razor.

14 This objection, especially with respect to consilience, was urged on me in conversation by Julia Annas.

15 See Friedman, Michael, “Explanation and Scientific Understanding,” Journal of Philosophy 71, no. 1 (1974): 519.

16 That Thagard has accurately captured these criteria is nicely illustrated by this passage written by a mathematician reviewing a book by a physicist:

The great ambition of scientists is to grasp the far from obvious nature of the physical world at ever more fundamental levels, and in doing so, to unify our understanding of phenomena that had previously appeared to be disparate. We have been enormously successful in this, demonstrating that complex objects are made from simpler components, and they in turn are made of even simpler ones.… [U]nderlying the immense complexity of life is a simplicity of microscopic composition.

Ellis, George, “Good Vibrations,” review of The Elegant Universe, by Greene, Brian, London Review of Books, 03 30, 2000, 14.

17 Cf. Wright, Crispin, Truth and Objectivity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

18 Cf. Sturgeon, , “Moral Explanations,” 245: “I do not believe that Hitler would have done all he did if he had not been morally depraved.…”

19 Brink, , Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, 183.

20 Harman, , The Nature of Morality, 6.

21 For Nietzsche's version of these kinds of naturalistic arguments, see the discussion in Leiter, Brian, “The Paradox of Fatalism and Self-Creation in Nietzsche,” in Janaway, Christopher, ed., Willing and Nothingness: Schopenhauer as Nietzsche's Educator (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), esp. 230–35; and in Leiter, Brian, “One Health, One Earth, One Sun: Nietzsche's Respect for Natural Science,” Times Literary Supplement, 10 2, 1998, 3031. For a longer treatment, see Leiter, Brian, Nietzsche on Morality (London: Routledge, 2001). Nietzsche's and Freud's approaches are compared in the book and in the TLS article. For Freud's naturalistic explanation of moral judgment, see especially Freud, Sigmund, “The Dissection of the Psychical Personality,” in Freud, New Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis, ed. and trans. Strachey, James (New York: Norton, 1965).

22 I am assuming—not uncontroversially these days—that Freud's theory is basically true, or at least that the part of the theory concerned with explaining the nature of and capacity for moral judgment and conscience is true. The standard reference point for the contrary view is Grünbaum, Adolf, The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). (Strictly speaking, Grünbaum argues only that Freud's theory is not warranted by the evidence adduced, not that it is false.) Frederick Crews's shrill polemics notwithstanding, Grünbaum's critique has itself been demolished in a series of papers, of which the most important are Fine, Arthur and Forbes, Mickey, “Grünbaum on Freud: Three Grounds for Dissent,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 9, no. 2 (1986): 237–38; Hopkins, Jim, “Epistemology and Depth Psychology: Critical Notes on The Foundations of Psy choanalysis,” in Clark, Peter and Wright, Crispin, eds., Mind, Psychoanalysis, and Science (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988); Sachs, David, “In Fairness to Freud: A Critical Notice of The foundations of Psychoanalysis by Adolf Grünbaum,” Philosophical Review 98, no. 3 (1989): 349–78; and Wollheim, Richard, “Desire, Belief, and Professor Grünbaum's Freud,” in Wollheim, The Mind and Its Depths (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). Empirical confirmation of aspects of Freudian theory from nonclinical settings is presented, among other places, in Adams, Henry E., Wright, Lester W. Jr., and Lohr, Bethany A., “Is Homophobia Associated with Homosexual Arousal?Journal of Abnormal Psychology 105, no. 3 (1996): 440–45, in which the authors report experimental evidence of the role of reaction formations in homophobia.

23 Freud writes, “With his abandonment of the Oedipus complex a child must … renounce the intense object-cathexes which he has deposited with his parents, and it is as a compensation for this loss of objects that there is such a strong intensification of the identifications with his parents which have probably long been present in his ego.” Freud, , “The Dissection of the Psychical Personality,” 57.

24 Freud writes, “His aggressiveness is introjected, internalized; it is, in point of fact, sent back to where it came from—that is, it is directed towards his own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego as super-ego, and which now, in the form of ‘conscience’ is ready to put into action the ego the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other, extraneous individuals.… Civilization, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual's dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.” Freud, Sigmund, Civilization and Its Discontents, ed. and trans. Strachey, James (New York: Norton, 1961), 7879. This account mirrors the account Nietzsche presents in the second essay of Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality (1887).

25 Deigh, John, “Remarks on Some Difficulties in Freud's Theory of Moral Development,” reprinted in Deigh, The Sources of Moral Agency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 66.

26 Deigh, John, “Freud, Naturalism, and Modern Moral Philosophy,” reprinted in Deigh, The Sources of Moral Agency, 127.

28 Recent years have witnessed an odd marriage of Freudian insights and Kantian strictures in the work of some Anglo-American moral philosophers, including Deigh. See also Scheffler, Samuel, Human Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), chap. 5; and Velleman, J. David, “A Rational Superego,” Philosophical Review (forthcoming). These writers believe that Freud's theory can be divested of Freud's explicitly antirationalist interpretation. Deigh, for example, complains that “the belief that [moral] judgment has motivational force solely in virtue of its being invested with instinctual force is not philosophically innocent” and that Freud simply begs the question against the rationalist who denies that premise. Deigh, , “Freud, Naturalism, and Modern Moral Philosophy,” 129. The difficulty, of course, is that for Freud this is an empirical question, not a philosophical one, and the empirical evidence favors his interpretation—or so Freud believes. (Oddly, Deigh makes the conclusory assertion that Freud did not have “evidence to support [his interpretation]” [Ibid., 130], but gives no argument or discussion on this point.)

29 Blackburn, Simon, “How to Be an Ethical Antirealist,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 12 (1988): 361–76; Gibbard, Allan, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990). See also Harman, Gilbert, “Explaining Value,” Social Philosophy and Policy 11, no. 1 (1994): 229–48, esp. 238–39. For skepticism about such evolutionary accounts, see Sturgeon, Nicholas L., “Critical Study of Gibbard's Wise Choices, Apt Feelings,” in Noûs 29, no. 3 (1995): 402–24, esp. 415–18.

30 Gibbard, , Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, 108, 116. Among Sturgeon's more interesting objections to the speculative evolutionary story is the following: “[Gibbard] believes … that humans evolved biologically to have a separate motivational faculty, a ‘language-infused’ norm-acceptance system that emerged as we became language-users.… [E]valuative language thus emerged to play a special role, that of expressing the norms so accepted.” Sturgeon, , “Gibbard's Wise Choices, Apt Feelings,” 407. The puzzle, then, is why “we don't now find natural languages better adapted to the function Gibbard identifies.” Ibid. In other words, why didn't evolution also select for language with a noncognitive surface grammar, instead of the cognitive surface grammar that noncognitivists must work so hard to reinterpret?

In the speculative evolutionary mode of thinking that this objection invites, some answers do suggest themselves. For example, it was probably advantageous in terms of facilitating successful coordination and cooperation for humans to employ a language with a uniform syntax rather than to have evolved many specialized syntaxes, especially since evolution has no reason to take sides in the debate between realism and antirealism (or cognitivism and noncognitivism). Indeed, a cognitive-looking syntax may have enhanced the value of normative talk for coordination. Only the claim that there are no moral facts—a claim on which, to repeat, evolution is utterly neutral—creates a dilemma for the philosophical interpretation of normative talk. Recall that a primary motivation for noncognitivism is the thought that if there are no moral facts and we take the syntax of normative discourse at face value, then it is mysterious why normative talk persists: why would a putatively fact-stating discourse that states no facts have held on for so long? Noncognitivism vindicates the point of normative talk even in the absence of normative facts.

31 Gibbard, , Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, 121, 108.

32 I will assume, plausibly, that altruism is central to morality, so that we have explained a lot about morality when we have explained why we prize altruism. Altruism is, of course, central to a number of influential moral philosophies—from Schopenhauer's to Thomas Nagel's—and it enjoys pride of place in commonsense moral thinking as well.

33 Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: Murray, 1871), 166.

34 Sober, Elliot and Wilson, David Sloan, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish behavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

35 See, e.g., Smith, John Maynard, “The Origin of Altruism,” review of Sober, and Wilson, 's Unto Others, Nature 393, no. 6686 (1998): 639–40; or the polemic in Richard C. Lewontin, “Survival of the Nicest?” review of Sober, and Wilson, 's Unto Others, New York Review of Books, 10 22, 1998, 5963.

36 The theory is first sketched in Hamilton, W. D., “The Evolution of Altruistic behavior,” American Naturalist 97, no. 896 (1963): 354–56. It receives its classic formal expression in Hamilton, W. D., “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior I,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 7 (1964): 116; and Hamilton, W. D., “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior II,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 7 (1964): 1752. All these papers are reprinted in Hamilton, W. D., Narrow Roads of Gene Land (Oxford: W. H. Freeman, 1996); future references to them will use the reprint pagination. In a 1975 paper, Hamilton himself displays some sympathy for a kind of group selectionism, though he does so on the basis of formal modeling reasons that would take us far afield. See Hamilton, W. D., “Innate Social Aptitudes of Man: An Approach from Evolutionary Genetics,” reprinted in Hamilton, , Narrow Roads of Gene Land, esp. 337.

37 Hamilton puts the point as follows:

[T]he ultimate criterion which determines whether [gene] G will spread is not whether the behavior is to the benefit of the behaver but whether it is to the benefit of the gene G; and this will be the case if the average net result of the behavior is to add to the gene pool a handful of genes containing G in a higher concentration than does the gene pool itself. With altruism this will happen only if the affected individual is a relative of the altruist, therefore having an increased chance of carrying the gene, and if the advantage conferred is large enough compared to the personal disadvantage to offset the regression, or ‘dilution’ of the altruist's genotype in the relative in question.

Hamilton, , “The Evolution of Altruistic Behavior,” 7.

38 If no NE works, then moral explanations of moral belief and judgment might seem to win by default. Even this strikes me as doubtful, however. Why should moral explanations be the default position, when they play a role only in parts of folk explanations (and the speculations of various moral realist philosophers) and have been utterly neglected by all serious empirical researchers? Psychoanalytic explanations (more controversially) and evolutionary explanations (uncontroversially) have established their explanatory credentials in many domains, even if details of their accounts of moral judgment might be disputed.

39 Thagard, , “The Best Explanation,” 87.

40 For examples of this approach, see Sayre-McCord, , “Moral Theory and Explanatory Impotence”; and Copp, David, “Explanation and Justification in Ethics,” Ethics 100, no. 2 (1990): 237–58.

41 See Railton, Peter, “Naturalism and Prescriptivity,” in Paul, Ellen Frankel, Miller, Fred D. Jr., and Paul, Jeffrey, eds., Foundations of Moral and Political Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

42 Railton, , “Moral Realism,” 205.

43 Nagel, Thomas, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 144. A very interesting and important critique of Nagel's metaethical views in this regard can be found in Sigrún Svavarsdóttir, “Objective Values: Does Metaethics Rest on a Mistake?” in Leiter, Brian, ed., Objectivity in Law and Morals (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Ronald Dworkin has recently objected to the “best explanation” test in terms similar to Nagel's; see Dworkin, Ronald, “Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Believe It,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 25, no. 2 (1996): 87139. Dworkin's views are described and criticized in detail in Leiter, Brian, “Objectivity, Morality, and Adjudication,” in Leiter, , ed., Objectivity in Law and Morals.

44 John McDowell has built a whole realist program around a sometimes glib contempt for naturalistic constraints, and, not surprisingly, his is a promiscuous ontology, including moral, aesthetic, and comical facts, among others. The plausibility of McDowell's grounds for dismissing naturalistic constraints—grounds that are not always easy to discern—requires examination. For doubts about McDowell's program, see Sosa, David, “Pathetic Ethics,” in Leiter, , ed., Objectivity in Law and Morals; and Leiter, , “Objectivity, Morality, and Adjudication,” pt. 4.

45 Putnam, Hilary, “Replies to Brian Leiter and Jules Coleman,” Legal Theory 1, no. 1 (1995): 81.

46 Sayre-McCord, , “Moral Theory and Explanatory Impotence,” 274–75; for a similar point, see Brink, , Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, 193. Gibbard, it should be noted, agrees on this point, saying that “[e]ven if I am right that normative judgments have coordination as their biological function, that does not by itself show that there is no kind of fact … to which these judgments are adapted to correspond. One might imagine a program of ‘normative realism' that proposes a kind of fact to do the job.… I, myself, though, have found no kind of fact that works…” Gibbard, , Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, 116.

47 Boghossian, Paul and Velleman, J. David, “Colour as a Secondary Quality,” Mind 98, no. 389 (1989): 97. See also Boghossian, Paul and Velleman, J. David, “Physicalist Theories of Color,” Philosophical Review 100, no. 1 (1991): 67106. Note, of course, that Boghossian and Velleman do not attack color realism on explanatory grounds, but rather on the grounds of certain epistemological and phenomenological problems that arise when we try to construe color properties as being identical with or supervenient upon the scientific facts about light and vision that explain them. For a summary of this point, see pp. 82–83 in the first article; an extended treatment appears in the second.

48 A different route against the color analogy is suggested by Blackburn in “How to Be an Ethical Antirealist.” Blackburn claims that the naturalistic picture is motivated by two elements: “(1) the fundamental identification of the commitment in question as something other than a belief; (2) the existence of a neat natural account of why the state that it is should exist” (ibid., 363). (1) is what is crucial here: Blackburn's idea is that states of mind that are not beliefs simply lend themselves to naturalistic accounts in a way that belief-states do not. “[T]he fundamental state of mind of one who has an ethical commitment makes natural sense” on the naturalistic story, he says, and this is because this “state of mind starts theoretical life as … a stance, or conative state or pressure on choice and action” (ibid.). Now, while Blackburn thinks there is an EE for color just as there is for moral value, thus satisfying (2) in both cases, he thinks there is a difference between the two when it comes to (1): “[T]here is no way that I can see usefully to contrast color commitments with beliefs. Their functional roles do not differ. So, there will be no theory of a parallel kind to develop, explaining why we have propositional attitudes of various kinds toward color talk, or why we speak of knowledge, doubt, proof, and so forth in connection with them” (Ibid., 373). As a result, the naturalistic story about color will not help us make “natural sense” of the “color commitment.” For this account to really undercut the color analogy, however, much more would have to be said about the first of the two elements in Blackburn's picture: immediately, it is not obvious that naturalism could not consume conative states and belief-states in its wake (think of the strong program in the sociology of knowledge).

49 Perhaps this is not true of all identity claims: consider, for example, the identification of the morning star and the evening star. However, reductive identifications—reducing one class of things to a wholly different class of things—plainly require a substantial theoretical edifice to motivate them. It is, to put the matter gently, hardly obvious, for example, that “morally right” just picks out “maximizations of utility.” Theoretical complexity, however, requires an epistemic payoff, such as consilience, at least when we are comparing explanations.

50 By physicalism, I will just mean the doctrine that everything that exists is physical, that is, occupies some discrete points in space and time.

51 Supervenience claims are the most common in the moral realism literature, so I will largely focus on them in what follows.

52 See, however, the discussion of Railton's program in note 81, below.

53 This is true, I think, of almost all of Sturgeon's examples. My own feeling is that if I were seeking an explanation for Hitler's conduct and was offered the explanation “He was morally depraved,” I would take such an answer to be a bit of a joke: a repetition of the datum rather than an explanation. Contrast Sturgeon's moral “explanation” of Hitler with a sophisticated, and not at all vacuous, account such as that provided in Erikson, Erik H., Childhood and Society, 2d ed. (New York: Norton, 1963), 326–58. Erikson's account makes no use of putative moral facts to explain Hitler's behavior.

54 See Fodor, Jerry A., “Introduction,” in Fodor, , The Language of Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).

55 Sayre-McCord, , “Moral Theory and Explanatory Impotence,” 276.

56 Trust, of course, also seems engendered by much else besides honesty: in the political realm, it is notorious that people trust their leaders notwithstanding a long and familiar history of deceit (consider Americans during the Persian Gulf War, trusting their leaders notwithstanding the experiences of Vietnam and Watergate). With respect to government, it seems more likely that it is what the anarchist Randolph Bourne called an attitude of “filial mysticism” toward the state rather than honesty that accounts for the willingness of the citizenry to “trust” the authorities. We might prefer an explanation of trust (if there were one) that would cover all these cases of trust-engendering.

57 The moral realist might protest that moral explanations have ceteris paribus clauses, and so there will naturally be exceptions to the regularities. The skeptic might ask, however, for a specification of the parameters of both these claimed regularities and their exceptions. Appeal to ceteris paribus clauses without any account of what these parameters are simply permits the defender of folk moral explanations to discount any counterexample to his claims with some hand-waving about “ceteris paribus.”

58 This question is just a variation of the question posed by Harman's account of the flaming cat case in Harman, , The Nature of Morality, chap. 1.

59 Brink, , Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, 195.

62 Ibid., 194.

63 In their classic 1948 paper discussing the covering-law model, Hempel and Paul Oppenheim set out one of its central tenets: “an explanation of a particular event is not fully adequate unless its explanans, if taken account of in time, could have served as a basis for predicting the event in question.” Hempel, Carl and Oppenheim, Paul, “Studies in the Logic of Explanation,” reprinted in Pitt, Joseph C., ed., Theories of Explanation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 12.

64 Hempel, Carl, “Aspects of Scientific Explanation,” in Hempel, , “Aspects of Scientific Explanation” and Other Essays (New York: Free Press, 1965), 369.

65 One possible exception is found in Thomas Haskell's account of the demise of slavery in his contributions to Bender, Thomas, ed., The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolition ism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). It is unclear, however, whether Haskell's account depends on slavery being really wrong or simply on people believing it to be wrong (conjoined with the rise of national and international markets, which both altered people's sense of self and responsibility and made slavery more visible as an institution than ever before). In the case of the demise of segre gation, the standard historical accounts emphasize three factors: (1) the migration of Southern blacks to the North (in the wake of the collapse of the Southern agricultural economy), which gave rise in the 1930s and 1940s to congressional districts in which blacks had real political power; (2) the frustration of black World War II GIs who faced segregationist impediments to seizing GI Bill opportunities, and who, in conjunction with newly empowered black labor-unionists, came to constitute much of the leadership of the civil rights movement at the local level; and, most importantly, (3) Cold War imperatives to do something about Jim Crow, which impeded efforts to win the hearts and minds of Africa and Asia.

66 I am assuming here, with Fodor and others, that multiple realizability blocks reduction. In fact, this seems to me true only on contentious assumptions about reduction, but these issues would take us too far afield. For critical discussion of the multiple realizability argument, see Kim, Jaegwon, “Multiple Realization and the Metaphysics of Reduction,” reprinted in Kim, Supervenience and Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); and Leiter, Brian and Miller, Alexander, “Closet Dualism and Mental Causation,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 28, no. 2 (1998): 161–81, esp. 171–73.

67 Cohen, Joshua, “The Arc of the Moral Universe,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 26, no. 2 (1997): 94.

68 Ibid., 124. See also Ibid., 95: “I am concerned with the consequences of slavery's injustice … and not simply the consequences of the fact that some people think of it as wrong.”

69 Ibid., 93.

70 Ibid., 116.

71 Ibid., 94.

73 Ibid., 123. Cohen fudges here, and says only that the moral convictions are “explained in part by the injustice of slavery” (ibid.). However, this claim would only suffice if it were shorthand for “[T]he injustice of slavery is part of the best explanation for the moral convictions.” It is not clear that this is what Cohen claims, or what he is entitled to claim.

74 Ibid., 128–29.

75 It would have to be possible, of course, to define the relevant notion of “interest” without its being a fundamentally normative notion. However, we can surely equate “interest” with, for example, what agents would desire under appropriate conditions, and do this without endorsing such desires.

76 Cohen, , “The Arc of the Moral Universe,” 120. For Rawls's and Scanlon's accounts, see Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971); and Scanlon, T. M., What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

77 Cohen, , “The Arc of the Moral Universe,” 132.

79 Ibid., 93.

80 That is, contractarian moral theorists such as Rawls and Scanlon; see note 76 above.

81 In particular, I have said nothing about Railton's theory, the most detailed in the literature. Railton presents us with a slightly different—and also more complex—case, since he is alone among contemporary moral realists in regarding his program as reductionist by way of reforming definitions of moral terms. See Railton, , “Moral Realism”; and Railton, , “Naturalism and Prescriptivity.” This still does not, however, relieve Railton of the explanatory burden: if our explanatory account of the world is to include reforming definitions of moral terms in naturalistic terms, there must be some explanatory gain to justify doing so. In rough summary, Railton's approach is this: Railton claims that “what is morally best” is “what is instrumentally rational from a social point of view” (Railton, , “Moral Realism,” 200), but he also claims that we can explain certain historical developments in terms of “a mechanism whereby individuals whose interests are denied are led to form common values and make common cause along lines of shared interests, thereby placing pressure on social practices to approximate more closely to social rationality” (ibid., 199). Thus, in short, instrumental social rationality—or deviations therefrom—explains historical change, but instrumental social rationality also is just that to which “morally right” refers. Railton also seems to argue that we do get a gain in consilience from this moral explanation: on Railton's story, seeing the connection between the explanatory mechanism, social rationality, and morality allows us to appreciate certain general historical tendencies in the evolution of moral norms (ibid., 195–96). Note three points about Railton's proposal: (1) for it to work at all, Railton's quite specific reforming definition of “morally right” must be independently defended (Kantians and constructivists, among others, will dissent); (2) this reforming definition must really afford us some explanatory gain; and (3) the explanatory theory itself must be a good one if the explanatory considerations are to support moral realism. The refreshing amount of explanatory detail that Railton provides also makes his theory a clear target for critics of the explanatory paradigm: see, e.g., Rosenberg, Alexander, “Moral Realism and Social Science,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 15 (1990): 150–66. Even supposing that Railton's theory could overcome the explanatory objections, it will still falter, I believe, because of its proposed reforming definition. Here, however, it will be considerations pertaining to the diversity of recognizably moral opinion, rather than explanatory impotence, that will prove fatal to the theory. I plan to address these issues elsewhere.

82 Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power, sec. 428.

* My thanks to Julia Annas and Allan Gibbard for comments on much earlier versions of portions of this material, to Ben Zipursky for comments on a more recent draft, to William Forbath for guidance on historical questions, to Sahotra Sarkar for guidance on evolutionary biology, and to this volume's editors and contributors for their helpful questions and comments on the penultimate version.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed