Should moral skeptics keep talking about ethics?

Another question, this time on meta-ethics:

An error theorist is someone who denies that moral truths exist. So when we make moral statements like ‘murder is wrong’ what we try to do is describe a fact about the world, in the same way we do when saying things like ‘I am typing on a physical laptop right now’. The latter is a fact. The former wants to be, but there’s nothing in reality for it to correspond to. Hence the error is our mistake in thinking there can be moral truths. There cannot. So any statement like ‘murder is wrong’ it itself necessarily wrong.

This thought can be motivated by various considerations. One might be the sheer weirdness of the idea that there are immaterial entities ‘out there’ that moral statements are about. Another is the odd story we’d have to tell about the relation between moral facts, and moral motivation. Morality is, after all, something people are often willing to die and do other very demanding things for. So if all moral statements are is a description of the world in the same way scientific claims are, then how do we explain this powerful effect?

And that thought in turn leads the skeptic to think that the real genesis of these moral claims that masquerade as truths lies in the way they reflect our personal beliefs, cultural practices and so on, shedding light on the way we identify with them and can become so impassioned by them.

So the question arises: if you think the above is an accurate depiction of the truth, why, exactly, would one continue to discuss moral questions like ‘is abortion wrong?’ in the knowledge that there is no correct answer?

Both the reasons for and against continued engagement are implicit in what we have said. On the one hand, it looks like the prima facie problem is that the error theorist has an epistemic responsibility to stop discussing moral problems. That is, in light of his discovery and subsequent knowledge of what’s really going on in moral discourse, how could he possibly continue to consciously recklessly spout blatant falsities?

And yet, as they found out, moral claims are intrinsically linked to a sense of what we subjectively value, and so it is perfectly natural to wish to continue engaging in moral discourse to express one’s reactions to various phenomena regardless of whether one is a moral realist or not. This is Russell’s defence, and Mackie is similarly keen on it: we may know that there are no moral truths, but we’re still utterly convinced that abortion is ‘wrong’, and we can’t help but continue to express it.

Whether this constitutes ‘wholehearted’ engagement is, I guess, solely a matter of definition, with my intuitions erring on the the side of: no.


One thought on “Should moral skeptics keep talking about ethics?

  1. Of course, just because something is true or not true doesn’t mean a meaningful discourse can’t be established surrounding it. Talking about a fictional story, for example, doesn’t stop us from enjoying the conversation, even though the story itself did not occur.

    Indeed, often the most important things in life are statements that go beyond truth. A priest saying “I now pronounce you man and wife” at the altar, for example, is neither true nor false. The statement doesn’t refer to anything but itself. And in order for there to be a truth to it, it needs to point to some external world.

    Moral statements are not meant to be actual truths, even though the way they are constructed can lead one to believe that. Moral statements are not about anything, but are instead ways of projecting into or influencing the future. Thus, I think it’s perfectly possible for a error theorist to engage in moral discourse without contradicting himself.

    Mark Blasini

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