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Harman The Nature Of Morality Notes

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Gilbert Harman - The Nature of Morality Chapter One: Ethics and observation

Can moral principles be tested in the same way as scientific principles - can we ever perceive the rightness or wrongness of what someone does?
○ though we say we can see that an act is wrong, can we ever test the wrongness of what we see? if not, then it could be a reflection of anything - a moral sense, an upbringing In both science and ethics, general principles are invoked to explain particular cases
○ and, in ethics, these general principles can be tested by appealing to particular judgements that certain things are right/wrong, just/unjust etc In science we need to make assumptions about physical facts in order to explain the occurrence of observations that support a scientific theory e.g. the observation of a vapour trail in a cloud chamber only confirms a scientific theory to the extent that there actually was a proton going through the cloud chamber - we must assume the proton to explain the observation
○ BUT in ethics we can explain the occurrence of moral observations without assuming the existence of any moral facts - all we need to explain someone saying 'Killing is wrong' is to assume some psychology and more or less well articulated moral principles

Chapter Two: Nihilism and naturalism

1. Moral nihilism
● Nihilism = no moral facts, no moral truths, no moral knowledge
○ this can explain why moral facts don't help us to explain observations - there are no such facts
○ extreme nihilism - nothing is ever right or wrong
○ moderate nihilism - non-cognitivism/expressivism
■ on this view, we shouldn't expect moral judgements to help to explain observations because such judgements are akin to 'Alas!' or 'Close the door!'
■ both forms conflict with our ordinary way of talking e.g. 'it's true that x is wrong'

2. Reductions
● Even if assumptions about moral facts don't directly help us to explain observations, moral facts may be reducible to other sorts of facts, assumptions about which do help to explain observations
○ this may in turn give us evidence for assumptions about moral facts
○ e.g. we can explain colour perception without assuming that objects have colours, by reducing colour to particular reflective properties of objects
■ this would help us to explain colour perception, but would not prove that there are no facts about colours, just that these facts are not additional facts, over and above physical and psychological facts

3. Ethical naturalism: Functionalism
● We could define goodness in terms of natural function: e.g. a good watch is one that tells the time correctly, a good heart is one that pumps blood constantly
○ alternatively we could call this functioning 'answering relevant interests'


good farmer, good soldier, good thief this would be to define goodness in terms of natural facts; relative to a cluster of interests/roles/functions Problem: the question for morality is what we ought to do, taking all interests into account
○ can this evaluation of interests be based on factual judgements?
■ this might in part be rectified if we had less vague standards e.g. of what we want from teachers
■ but even then, sometimes indeterminacy is unavoidable

4. The open question argument
● 'I agree that for P to do D would be for P to do something that is C, but ought P to do D?'
○ this remains an open question, because describing an act is not the same as endorsing it
● But the nihilist/non-naturalist must show that the question is genuinely open in the relevant respect
○ it would be question begging against naturalism to simply say that describing an act as having certain natural features cannot amount to endorsing the act
■ e.g. question could be rephrased as 'I agree that, if P does D, P will satisfy the relevant interests, but ought P to do D?'
● then we need to define 'the relevant interests' naturalistically
● It may be an open question whether water is H20, but this doesn't mean that water is not H20, so we shouldn't trust this form of argument
○ the OQ argument must be aimed at someone who thinks that a naturalistic definition captures the meaning of moral terms in the sense that judgements we make are synonymous with judgements that describe natural facts

6. Why ethics is problematic
● So we don't have to accept ethical nihilism simply because moral facts don't seem to help explain observations - we might hope for a naturalistic reduction of moral facts
○ but reduction to facts about interests, roles and functions would be complex, vague and difficult to specify
● Whereas for e.g. colours, it seems plausible that even after reduction we will continue to explain colour perception with reference to what colour something is, this doesn't seem to be the case for ethics
○ citing moral facts seems less helpful than citing moral views/sensibilities in explaining moral observations
● Since moral facts seem neither precisely reducible nor useful in practice in our explanations of observations, it remains problematic whether we have any reason to suppose that there are any moral facts Chapter Three: Emotivism as moderate nihilism

1. Emotivism: The basic idea
● Nihilism = no moral facts, no moral truths, no moral knowledge
○ moderate nihilism - this doesn't mean we have to abandon morality: morality doesn't describe facts but does something else
■ e.g. moral judgements express the feelings or attitudes of the speaker
■ moral disagreement = disagreement in attitude

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