For the purposes of later work on meta-ethics, it will be helpful for me to summarize Cornell Realism for my audience. To do so, I’ll be summarizing some of chapter 8 in Miller’s Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics.
A cognitivist theory of meta-ethics holds that moral judgments are truth-apt – they are the kinds of things that can be true or false. That is, when I say “Murder is wrong,” I’m not just expression an emotion (as many non-cognitivists would say), I’m trying to make a claim that I think is true.
One cognitivist theory called error theory holds that moral judgments are truth-apt but always false. This is analogous to atheism, which is an ‘error theory’ about God. Atheists usually think that people are making claims about God, but that these claims are systematically untrue because God doesn’t exist. Likewise, the moral error theorist says that people make claims about moral facts, but these claims are systematically untrue because moral facts don’t exist.
Another cognitivist theory called Moorean intuitionism says that moral judgments are truth-apt and that moral facts do exist but are not part of the natural world.
Other cognitivist theories hold that moral judgments are truth-apt and that moral facts exist in the natural world. Among ethical naturalists, there are reductionists and non-reductionists. Reductionists think that moral properties reduce to non-moral properties. Non-reductionists think that moral properties are irreducible natural properties in their own right.
Today we look at a cognitivist, naturalistic, non-reductionist theory of meta-ethics: Cornell realism. (It is named this because it was developed by professors with close connections to Cornell University.)
But first: what would it mean for moral properties to be natural properties if they are not reducible to non-moral properties? According to non-reductionists, moral properties ‘are constituted by’, or ‘are multiply realized by’, or ‘supervene upon’ non-moral properties, but they do not reduce to non-moral properties. Miller illustrates the difference by asking us to consider the moral property of rightness:
We can imagine an indefinite number of ways in which actions can be morally right. [Non-reductionists] think that, in any one example of moral rightness, the rightness can be identified with non-moral properties (e.g. the handing over of money, the opening of a door for someone else, etc.). But they claim that, across all morally right actions, there is no one non-moral property or set of non-moral properties that all such situations have in common and to which moral rightness can be reduced.
For example, one might argue that certain natural kinds like ‘catalyst’ or ‘organism’ are not obviously reducible to natural kinds in physics, and that mental types like being in pain is not necessarily reducible to neurological types like being in a state of C-fibre stimulation, and yet these things play a role in successful scientific explanations. Likewise, it might be that moral properties like ‘rightness’ are not clearly reducible to natural kinds in physics, and yet they are natural properties that can play a successful role in explanations.
But do moral properties play a role in successful explanations? Gilbert Harman thinks not – at least, not unless moral properties are reduced to natural properties (which is something that non-reductionists by definition don’t do).
Imagine some hoodlums pouring gasoline on a cat and setting the poor creature on fire. Does the wrongness of their action pull its weight in our explanation of the action? No. We can explain the action by appeal to ordinary psychological facts. And does the wrongness of this action pull its weight in our explanation of why witnesses came to believe that the action was wrong? No. Again, we need only appeal to ordinary psychological facts – for example those of evolutionary psychology and cultural influence.
We can explain everything about this story with ordinary non-moral facts. Moral facts are shaved off by Occam’s razor as unnecessary.
Nicholas Sturgeon replies that Harmon’s reductionist requirements are too strict, and then offers an example of an explanatorily efficacious moral fact:
…the fact that Hitler was morally depraved explains (at least in part) why he instigated and oversaw the death of millions of persons; the fact that Hitler instigated and oversaw the death of millions of persons explains why I believe that Hitler was morally depraved. So the fact that Hitler was morally depraved explains (in part) why I believe Hitler was morally depraved.
Harman replies that no mechanism has been offered for how the wrongness of Hitler’s acts is supposed to explain how we come to believe that Hitler is morally depraved. It is not as though the wrongness of Hitler’s act affects the quality of light reflected in the observer’s eye, or something.
Of course, the debate between Cornell realists and their critics is far more complex than this, so if you want more of the story you should read Miller’s chapter on it and continue from there.
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