An Argument Formalization of “Realism,” by Michael Smith
(Also available as a PDF)
[Note to the reader:
‘<Pn>’ means that premise Pn is implicit. ‘SPn’ means Sub-premise n, and ‘SCn’ means Sub-conclusion n.]
A. Thesis: Moral Realism is true.
B. Smith sets the stage for his arguments: Most people want to have the right beliefs about what’s moral and what’s not. Philosophers want that as well, but they are also concerned about whether two features of our conception of morality are consistent:
1. People ordinarily treat moral judgments as being objective; we think we might be wrong about moral matters and debate with each other about who’s right.
2. People’s moral judgments motivate them to act in certain ways.
C. Smith introduces the Standard Picture of Human Psychology (SPHP), which also has two features:
1. There are two different types of mental states:
a. Beliefs, which represent something as being the case.
b. Desires, which represent that something is to be the case.
2. Desires cannot be rationally criticized unless they are based on beliefs that were established irrationally.
D. Smith continues to set the stage: Given the SPHP, beliefs cannot rationally influence our desires unless our desires are founded on irrational beliefs.
E. Smith outlines the implications for morality: Because of point (D), if our moral judgments express beliefs they cannot motivate us to act. If they express desires, it is odd that we would think of them as being objective. Thus the two features of our conception of morality seem not to sit well with each other.
II. Main Arguments:
A. An argument that the SPHP implies moral judgments don’t express facts about reasons
P1. Moral judgments concern one’s reasons for acting
<SP1.> On the SPHP, only desires can motivate one to act.
SP2. One’s judgments concerning one’s reasons can motivate one to act.
SC1. On the SPHP, one’s judgments concerning one’s reasons for acting must express desires.
C1. From (P1) and (SC1) it follows that, on the SPHP, it’s not true that one’s moral judgments concern facts about one’s reasons for acting as one does.
B. An argument for the distinction between motives and reasons
P1. According to common sense, one can be motivated to act by a desire that’s not worth satisfying.
P2. According to common sense, desires that aren’t worth satisfying don’t give one a reason to act.
C1. According to common sense, one can be motivated to act but not have a reason to act.
C. An argument for the incorrectness of the SPHP
P1. On the SPHP, desires which are not based on false beliefs cannot be rationally criticized.
P2. It’s not true that desires which are not worth satisfying cannot be rationally criticized.
SP1. Some desires which are not worth satisfying are not based on false beliefs.
SC1. From (P1) and (SP1), on the SPHP, some desires which are not worth satisfying cannot be rationally criticized.
C1. Since (SC1) contradicts P2, the SPHP is incorrect.
D. Smith brings out the implications of these arguments: The SPHP is inadequate because it fails to distinguish reasons and motives. Smith thinks that to be ideally rational one must be cool, calm, and collected (CCC). Our reasons for acting don’t derive from what we do desire but from what we would desire if we were ideally rational. This gives Smith a way to argue that desires which are not based on false beliefs can still be rationally criticized.
E. An argument that one can be rationally criticized for desires not based on false beliefs
P1. Someone could actually believe that they would desire to give to famine relief if they were CCC, but not be CCC and hence not desire to give to famine relief.
P2. It is an ideal of rationality to actually have the desires one would have if one were CCC.
C1. From (P1) and (P2), someone who believed that they would desire to give to famine relief if they were CCC but didn’t actually desire to do so could be rationally criticized for violating an ideal of rationality.
F. Smith concludes that the SPHP has a false consequence, which is that moral judgments express desires.
G. However, Smith thinks that for moral realism to really be out of harm’s way, people’s reasons for acting must be the same in identical circumstances. Even if we were ideally rational and hence CCC, some would suggest that we might not converge on a common set of moral judgments. If that were possible, Smith thinks moral realism would be false. He grants that we have not yet reached a convergence, but he ends his piece with the optimistic thought that under better conditions we may eventually reach one.
Smith, Michael. “Realism.” Ethical Theory: An Anthology, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007
(Also available as a PDF)
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