An Outline of an Argument for Robust Metanormative Realism
Oxford Studies in Metaethics 2 (2007), 21-50.
30 Pages Posted: 20 May 2015
Date Written: May 17, 2015
Robust Metanormative Realism is the view, somewhat roughly, that there are non-natural, irreducibly normative truths, perfectly universal and objective ones, that when successful in our normative inquiries we discover rather than create or construct. Normative truths include – but are not limited to – the truths of morality, so Robust Metanormative Realism is the natural generalization of Robust Metaethical Realism. Robust Realism – in either its metaethical or more general metanormative form – is out of philosophical fashion today, and is being often criticized, but more often ridiculed or ignored, by supporters of such -isms as Noncognitivism, Ethical Naturalism (either in its old-fashioned, a priori, version, or in its more recent, a posteriori, not-reductive-in-a-strict-sense-of-this-term, version), Dispositionalism, Constructivism, Relativism, Subjectivism, and Error Theories of different shapes and forms (this list of the non-robust-realist metanormative options is neither exhaustive nor exclusive). In this paper I embark on the project of defending Robust Meta-normative Realism.
Rather than engaging in a detailed examination of common objections to Robust Realism – a project others have been working on, and one that I too embark on elsewhere – in this paper I develop a positive argument for Robust Realism. In the literature criticizing such realism, it is often noted that no positive arguments have been offered for the view, and even supporters of this view often acknowledge as much, and proceed to focus on criticizing other views, and on rejecting objections to their own. There is, of course, nothing wrong with such projects. But it would be especially exciting and useful if a positive argument for Robust Realism could be constructed. Hence the importance of my work (if it succeeds).
My argument proceeds by analogy with indispensability arguments in the philosophy of mathematics, and – more generally – inferences to the best explanation. I argue that irreducibly normative truths are indispensable, though not explanatorily indispensable. Rather, they are deliberatively indispensable. And I argue that deliberative indispensability is just as respectable as explanatory indispensability, and that the former – just like the latter – can rationally ground ontological commitment. In some more detail: Just as the fact that our best (explanatory) scientific theories quantify – for instance – over electrons gives us sufficient reason to believe that electrons exist, so to the fact that our best ways of deliberating – of asking ourselves what to do – are committed to the truth of some normative claims (robustly-realistically understood) gives us sufficient reason to believe that there are such normative truths.
I begin by presenting what I call “Harman’s Challenge”, according to which moral facts are explanatorily redundant, and we therefore have no reason to believe they exist. I distinguish two strategies of responding: Claiming that moral truths are after all explanatorily indispensable, or rejecting the explanatory requirement altogether. I give my reasons for being suspicious of the former, and focus on the latter. The way to reject the explanatory requirement but nevertheless avoid ontological profligacy is by insisting that normative facts – if we are to have a reason to believe in them – must be indispensable in some other, non-explanatory, way.
I then present an account of indispensability and a phenomenological account of deliberation. The conjunction of the two entails that deliberative indispensability is just as respectable (in the relevant sense) as explanatory indispensability, and so that arguments from deliberative indispensability can ground ontological commitment if arguments from explanatory indispensability can.
The indispensability premise itself – that irreducibly normative truths are deliberatively indispensable – follows from the phenomenological account of deliberation offered, together with a rejection of alternative metanormative views as unable to accommodate deliberation.
Keywords: Moral Realism, Robust Realism, Metaethics, Indispensability
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