(I previously made a post titled “The Argument from Authority”, where I tried to explain my argument against Parfit’s version of moral realism. The argument was inspired by a long conversation I had with some other graduate students. I tried to capture each point we talked about, but this made the post confusing and I don’t think anyone besides me understood what I was talking about. So, I’m deleting the old post and writing a new, hopefully more clear, version of my argument from authority.)
Are there inescapable reasons for us to act morally? In On What Matters, Parfit argues that moral reasons exist and necessarily apply to all people – no matter who you are or what you care about, you have reasons not to murder other people.
I want to separate Parfit’s position into two claims: 1. If “M” exists, then everyone has reasons to act morally, 2. “M” exists.
Standard arguments against realism challenge claim #2:
-Mackie’s Argument from Disagreement: “M” is unlikely to exist, because widespread disagreement on moral issues is better explained by the hypothesis that morality is a human construct affected by social structures than the hypothesis that people are incorrectly perceiving moral truths.
-Mackie’s Argument from Queerness: “M” is unlikely to exist, because “M” would have to have properties quite unlike anything else in the observable world (it must have the property of creating/imposing moral reasons)
-Street’s Darwinian Dilemma: “M” is unlikely to exist, because our evaluative views are better explained by an evolutionary story claiming that certain evaluative views provide advantages for reproduction or survival, than by a story that explains the survival of evaluative views with objective values. (Street argues against value realism, which claims that values are a real part of the world. I don’t think she would want her argument to be used against moral realism, since she believes many features of morality can survive the rejection of value realism. I’m including her argument because the values Street rejects are precisely the type of values moral error theorists reject, and many error theorists believe common moral realism is committed to value realism)
As I see it, these three arguments against realism are all concerned with the metaphysics of morals. Each argument focuses on whether it is rational to believe moral values exist, similar to how a metaphysical argument about God would focus on whether it is rational to believe God exists.
I don’t want to make a metaphysical argument against Parfit. It’s too difficult a task to prove that something does not exist, and our empirical inadequacies make it easy to settle on “well, M either exists or it doesn’t, we just don’t know if it does”.
Instead, I want to focus on claim #1: If “M” exists, then everyone has reasons to act morally. This claim is a hypothetical, so it concerns the relation between M’s existence and inescapable moral reasons. Basically, would the existence of “M” sufficiently create/constitute inescapable moral reasons? Note that “M” is a meaningless variable – I do not want to commit to a specific definition of “M”, since realist views differ from one another and I want my argument to apply to all externalist moral realists.
My Argument from Authority challenges the hypothetical claim for any and all possible definitions of M. I claim that, no matter what realists substitute for “M”, the consequent of the claim does not follow (there will still not be inescapable moral reasons). I defend my position with an appeal to practical reasoning and the claim that we are each the final judges in our own practical reasoning. When deciding whether I have a reason to X, it is ultimately up to me whether the consequences of X provide reasons for or against doing X. This view is voluntarist (our reasons are created by decisions of the will).
Think of the ability to satisfy questioning in the practical reasoning process as a type of authority – only an authority on reasons could claim that X is a reason because the authority endorses X. For my own views, I am the only authority I recognize. No other person, thing, or entity could satisfy my question “Why should I do X?” with a “because I endorse X” answer. I argue that other people are capable of taking the same stance (though obviously not required to, because that would contradict my views).
Recall the hypothetical claim – If “M” exists, then everyone has reasons to act morally. Understood in the context of practical reasoning, the hypothetical claim holds that if “M” exists, there is an authority outside of us that can satisfy the “Why should I do X?” question. I deny the possibility of this claim being true. No matter what might exist, nothing outside of me could constitute an authority over my practical reasoning process. This claim can be presented as a challenge to moral realists: make up any entities you want, and you still won’t be able to explain why that entity has authority over my practical reasoning process.
Here’s an easy example of how the Argument from Authority would respond to a particular realist view. Consider Divine Command Theory, which claims that what is right just is what God commands. So, God has an authority over us to determine what we should do. Like arguments against moral realism, arguments against Divine Command Theory can take the metaphysical route: for reasons XYZ, it is unlikely that God exists. My argument avoids the metaphysical debate about whether God exists and focuses on the hypothetical: “If God exists, then what God commands is right”. I deny the hypothetical claim – even if God exists, God’s commands do not have any authority over my practical reasoning process. If God wants my evaluative views to match God’s views, God needs to cheat by threatening hell or promising reward. Without threats/rewards, God’s opinion on what is valuable is just another opinion like my own.