Monday, May 3, 2021

A constraint on metaethics

Suppose that we lived lives like ours in a world (possible or not) whose metaphysics included nothing like moral duties except that there was a loving God and he issued commands. If in that world we used the phrase “morally wrong”, that phrase would refer to the property of being forbidden by God.

Or suppose that we lived lives like ours in a world (possible or not) whose metaphysics included nothing like moral duties except that we had Aristotelian forms and they specified what the will should will, the phrase “morally wrong” would refer to the property of being contrary to what our form says the will should will.

But suppose now we lived in a world where there was nothing like moral duties, no God, no forms, but buried underground and unseen by humans there was a stone tablet that arose from a random volcanic process millions of years ago. On these tablets by chance there were markings that looked just like French sentences, and when interpreted as French sentences, they stated imperatives, like the Golden Rule, that that fit very well with our intuitions about what are the core moral duties. I doubt that the phrase “morally wrong” would refer to the property of being contrary to what the stone tablet would enjoin if it were interpreted as French. (I am careful in my wording, because strictly speaking the stone tablet, being the product of random processes, does not contain any sentences—it only contains markings that look like sentences of French.)

Suppose my intuition is right. What is the difference between the third case and the first two? Here is a hypothesis. In the divine command world, presumably our beliefs about what we call “morally wrong” have some sort of a connection to the commands of that God. In the Aristotelian world, our beliefs about the “morally wrong” presumably come in some way from the Aristotelian forms. But in the stone tablet world, the “morally wrong” beliefs have no connection to the stone tablets, except that the stone tablets happen to fit them.

This suggests an important constraint on metaethics: our beliefs about the morally wrong had better have a real connection—perhaps even a real causal connection—with their grounds. If this constraint is right, then evolutionary debunking arguments against morality cut more deeply than is recognized: if the arguments correctly show that our “moral concepts” lack a relevant connection with any grounds, then our “moral beliefs” not are not knowledge, but they are in fact just nonsense.

Of course, I want to turn this around: given that our moral beliefs are not mere nonsense, it follows that they have a real connection with grounds, and this undercuts the idea that we are mere products of completely unguided evolution.


Walter Van den Acker said...


none of this follows, because even if we were are mere products of completely unguided evolution, it would still be true that some things are good for us and others are bad for us.
And that's the connection and the ground you need.
And if I, also a mere product of completely unguided evolution, were to write some 'rules' down in French, then, according to you, this would not be French at all (and my reply here isn't English) but what it said would still be true.

Dominik Kowalski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Benjamin Stowell said...

I directly see that 2+2 = 4 and I directly see that "P & ~P" is false. I do not directly see my evolutionary history or that God created the universe. So whatever lead me to have reason and self-awareness, I nonetheless have it, and it's this state of having reason and self-awareness that gives me access to moral reasoning. Moral facts are grounded in the truths this reasoning reveals. So I don't know what evolutionary debunking arguments can accomplish. Though I'm fine with saying that the probability of seemingly designed creatures (complex, moral, conscious) is much higher on (Christian) theism than atheism. And if I wanted an epistemic argument against naturalism, I'd be more attracted to threats of global skepticism that Pruss et al have defended.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It's pretty common, especially in physicalist circles, to think that aboutness is to be accounted for at least in part causally. What makes my horse thoughts be about horses is in part a causal connection between my thought and horses (perhaps quite indirect, involving the testimony of others). But then just as my horse beliefs could not be about equine reality if they evolved without any connection to equine reality, so too it seems that my moral beliefs could not be about moral reality if they evolved without any connection to moral reality.