Saturday, 21 February 2009

Moore and the subjectivists

Why is Moore's Open Question Argument and his (three) naturalistic fallacies so popular with moral subjectivists? The oddness is, that to invoke the naturalistic fallacy involves presuming that there are basic objective features of the world that the reducer is mistaken in reducing. However moral subjectivists deny that any such objective features exist, so are they not contradicting themselves when they invoke the "naturalistic fallacy" ?

There are two answers to this. They are either invoking a different naturalistic fallacy or they are defending an ontological claim that they, surprisingly, share with non-reductive moral objectivists.

So the first answer is that they use this argument to point out a different naturalistic fallacy. What could this be? It makes most sense that this is related to the fact-value distinction, so we might explicate it as the fallacy of "reducing a subjective value to an objective fact"? This or something like this, however depends on the reduction under examination, and can also be objected to by importing Mackie's direct objection to the Open Question argument. That is importing his 'trading off the inderminancy of "good" ' to now apply to 'objective'. That will be the topic of the final post in this (unplanned) series on Moore.

However, if one objects that my posited version is different to more typical naturaistic fallacies, then which one is being invoked - by subjectivists? I am beginning to wonder how many different naturalistic fallacies there are. Apart from Moore's three - which subjectivists cannot use without contradiction - the best known one is "because it is natural does not mean it is good" (which is really an application of Hume's Is-Ought distinction). Still that is not what a reductive naturalist is necessarily doing. What is common to any ethical reduction is to deny a distinct ontological status to "good", as in there are no additional moral facts of the matter apart from the natural facts. This leads to my second answer.

Let us examine the issue of synonyms. Is Moores challenge to a reductive naturalist to propose a synonym for "good"? Technically a synonym for "good" is a co-referentially transparent substitution for "good" that retains semantic value or intensional meaning in relevant contexts . Well I objected to the synonym argument in my More on Moore post and I want to clarify this here.

Anyway does this answer the Moorean intuition which relies on referential opacity (as opposed to a synonym's transparency) that is that there is no such substitution for "good", the intuition that good is "referentially opaque" (the semantic value changes and so the proposed synonym is not, in fact, a synonym)? In one sense yes, the Moorean challenge is to propose such a substitution and in one sense that means they are asking for a synonym and what else can "synonym" mean but a referentially transparent substitution that retains intensional meaning (sorry for the philosophical jargon this is the first time I have developed this argument I hope to make it more concise in future posts)?

However I aslso noted in that post that "large" is a synonym for "big" but that is looks like a different type of synonym. Why? Well with "big->large" no reduction occurs and the ontological status remains the same. Whereas with "good->such as to fulfil the desire of the kind in question" a reduction occurs and the ontological status changes.

Surely we could easily label them as reductive and non-reductive synonyms and my prior objection to the use of synonyms was that it appears, certainly with those subjectivists with whom I have debated the Open Question argument, that they would only accept a non-reductive synonym and refuse to accept a reductive synonym. However this is not quite right. Rather they are focused on the ontological status and it would be uncharitable here to argue that they are equivocating over reductive versus non-reductive synonyms.

What they appear to defend is a certain ontological status to moral terms, that they are purely subjective. This is of course the opposite to non-reductive objectivists who argue that they are purely objective and basic. However what they share in common is an objection to changing the ontological status of such terms, which is exactly what a reductive naturalist, in accordance with methodological reductionism, assumes can be done and then attempts to do.

And here is how the subjectivists can use the Open Question argument to defend their subjectivity without contradiction (at least with respect to apparently invoking the naturalistic fallacy). They have an intuition that is built into these moral terms and any attempted reduction conflicts with this intuition, namely that its ontological status cannot be changed, that these terms are purely subjective. Of course, it then becomes that it is this pre-supposition that is being challenged by the reductive naturalist and the subjectivist cannot just assumed it a priori and then rule out any answers because it conflicts with their intuition. There still resides similar circular reasoning that applies when non-reductive objectivists use this argument. The Open Question argument is still primarily refuted by showing it is an Argument from Intuition. Now there are two concluding thoughts one this.

Fyfe applies the Masked Man Fallacy to reject the Open Question argument, which is another and less technical way of saying it relies upon the intuition of referential opacity. However the masked man and the brother of the mayor are both of the same ontological type - they are still both men. Still his argument whilst logically quite correct, just does not address the ontological qualitative aspect of the intuition. That is why I prefer the Evening/Morning Star argument as there is not only a quantitative change but also a qualitative change 0f ontological status from moving from two distinct stars to one planet. Still I wonder if there are better versions since really the Open Question argument relies upon something like one star and one planet being reduced to one planet?

Finally once this intuition is made explicit and made the topic of discussion, then we are no longer using the Open Question argument as without it does not work. There are of course other arguments that can be used. As I have said before the original and best is still Hume's Is-Ought distinction which I will revisit in the near future. There is one other aspect of this I still wish to explore which is Mackie's 'trading off the indeterminancy of "good"' and then I will be done with Moore. Promise!