Note: The below entry is not the writing I have been slowly pecking away at for the last 6 months. Rather, they are some thoughts that have occurred to me in the process of writing along with a few other miscellaneous topics.
To begin, a bit of genealogy on the development of my current intellectual adventure: as many of my projects, the response comes from a question posed to a friend about whether ethics, or morality (I don’t remember which), is relative or objective. My two knee-jerk reactions to the question are that, first, this is not the proper dichotomy: they are not mutually exclusive in the way the question implies; the contrast usually presented as either objective/subjective, or absolute/relative. (I later found that this confusion is not uncommon, even among professional philosophers. I believe the confusion stems from the conjunction of some first and second order ethical positions.) Second, while I have a proclivity toward ethics as objective (though not real), the overall line of discussion is not productive in working out ethical dilemmas, or resolving the meta-analysis of positions.
I would like to be able to argue that, like many classifications of people’s positions, the labels absolutism, relativism, objectivism, and subjectivism are not helpful in determining what position one may have on a particular ethical topic. For example, if someone self-identifies as a moral relativist, some may conclude that the person believes abortion is permissible. However, the person may believe that the moral and legal realms are distinct and hold that, while nothing can be meaningfully said about its morality, it should be illegal. Or, it could be that it could not be true that abortion is wrong, due to beliefs about ethical propositions and truth, but hold that abortion is, nevertheless, morally impermissible. For those familiar with the diversity of philosophical positions, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, or even be controversial.
My writing project tries to articulate the range of beliefs one may have while maintaining one of these labels. In familiarizing myself with the field, my reading has included Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by Bernard Williams and Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong by J. L. Mackie. While reading and writing on the subject, I’ve realized that the more commonly debated topic is not what positions people hold, but which can be consistently be held, or even which are correct. Understandably, this is the more interesting and substantive claim. As a result, I’ve wanted to engage the subject matter at this level, though I have not.
In thinking about the change in topic, I realized that the problem with the writing project as a survey of possible ethical positions takes no regard for the rational plausibility of a belief set. The resulting argument from the initial line of reasoning is the more trivial position that it is possible for any person can have any set of beliefs. This is an obvious fact about consciousness. However, this is less than the more substantive position demonstrated in the above example. Thus, to reframe my point, borrowing from Mackie’s terminology, some particular first order ethical position does not entail some subset of second order ethical positions, or vise-versa. Further, the terms themselves are not particularly enlightening to one’s position within their respective conceptual territories. In other words, my position may be more similar an argument Williamson recently made in his recent NY: Times’ article “What is Naturalism.” I also recently ran across the book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis by Richard J. Bernstein which seems to touch on the subject I’ve been ruminating on. If this is the direction I’m headed, maybe I should just start reading Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Rorty) and engage in that debate. After all, I’ve been meaning to read Rorty’s book for sometime.
The line of research may be too much of a diversion from my other interests. David Gauthier’s book Morals by Agreement turned me on to the notion that our moral concerns are an expression of problems with economic externalities and/or the prisoner’s dilemma. Along these lines (I think), Amartya Sen has done some work with the failure of markets to meet the needs of people (Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation). Both Sen and Martha Nussbaum are working on a conception of capacities in terms of positive freedoms that relates back to the previous work in poverty and famines, though Nussbaum has a different perspective/focus than Sen. Following this line of thought, many of our more pragmatic ethical problems can be productively addressed through other work in externalities (see Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Ostrom, and Social Choice and Individual Values, Arrow). Economists, along with others, work in rationality with regards to the prisoner’s dilemma could help produce systems that motivate people to be more moral. That is, by working on how to reduce free riders, we can further refine our welfare system so that less take advantage of it.
In a sense, the viability of the work in externalities with regard to resolving moral problems relates to my conclusions about the discussions surrounding moral relativity, and more generally metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy. That is, I take a pragmatic approach to resolving ethical dilemmas in part due to the inability for some lines of discussion to produce substantive conclusions. The skeptical stance toward the relationship between an ontology for, or from, ethics is, in part, the subject matter of my current writing project.
 Here’s Mackie’s description of first and second order positions: “..first order moral views, positive or negative: the person who adopts either of them is taking a certain practical, normative, stand. By contrast, what I am discussing is a second order view, a view about the status of moral values and the nature of moral valuing, about where and how they fit into the world” (16, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong).