A Reply to Lance Bush’s Objections to Moral Realism

I had the privilege of discussing moral realism with my good friend Pat Flynn, and I would like to make a brief response to Just Questions (aka Lance Bush) who has stirred some of my thinking on this issue. Pat Flynn has also recently written a response here. I thank Lance for the dialogues he has had with me, and for advancing the discussion.

Where’s the Empirical Beef?

First, he replies by claiming I “never provided any empirical evidence that all or nearly all people experience morality in a way consistent with moral realism.” But this is precisely what the moral datum does! For example, suppose I said nearly all human being have experiences in a way consistent with real consciousness. It would be strange to reply, “But you never provided empirical evidence of this!” Surely pointing out that we all exhibit certain behavior that reflects consciousnesses suffices to show this. Similarly, showing that we all exhibit certain moral behavior (e.g, engaging in moral reasoning, believe some moral statements to be true, and believe there’s real moral progress) also suffices.  

Second, he proceeds to refer to some studies that asserts moral anti-realism is more common than realism. Suppose someone told you, “There are some studies that show anti-realism about other minds is more common than realism about other minds!” You would think that the reasoning for such a conclusion is far more dubious and less obvious than your commonsense data. It also just seems implausible to say we are unjustified in regarding mind realism to be commonly held until we have some peer-reviewed studies telling us that it is. Now don’t get me wrong, such studies are valuable, but we don’t need them to be justified. As of now, that scientific data is very limited and weak. Some data (Zijlstra, 2021) seems to provide some evidence that realism is the majority, but others do not, so there’s really no scientific consensus to appeal to here.  

But even if it was the case that anti-realists outnumbered realists about other minds, this wouldn’t undermine the common sense argument for realism. In order for common sense to be common, it does not require common belief, only common experience (the datum) in virtue of our natures and our relation to the world. I do think that common belief naturally follows, but it does not necessarily follow. It is possible to be conditioned by society, philosophy, religion, or whatever to generate a different belief.  However, this would be a defect or a failing of sorts because it conflicts with our natural dispositions. So long as experiencing other minds remains common, realism about other minds remains common sensical, regardless of what others may happen to believe.  

The difficulty here of course is that we never experience other minds directly (i.e, from a first person POV), only indirectly through behavior and speech. Nevertheless, we do experience the effects of other minds and instinctively infer that they too must have minds on basis of being acquainted with our own minds. And yet we find mind realism perfectly justified even though it is in principle impossible to justify the existence of other minds scientifically because we can never have first-person access. No peer-reviewed research can overcome this. Empirical studies may shed light on how common belief in mind realism is, but it won’t be able to shed light on whether it is common sense. Why should it be any different for our moral experience?  

Moral Realism, Therefore Bigfoot?

Third, Lance objects that if the default position is realism, then this would entail that the default position “should be that all religions are true, that all paranormal phenomena are real, and so on.” But this does not follow at all because I defined common sense rather carefully. I said that any experience that is common to all of mankind, or fundamental to our natures, would alone warrant realism as the default position. Suppose I had some supernatural experience that Islam was true. That experience is very particular and not shared by human nature as such, whereas the experience of pain in general would be shared by humans because being able to experience pain is essential to our natures. Something is common sense if and only if it is a natural inference from a general experience (i.e, not any particular pain as particular but just pain in general) that derives out of our proper natures, and is fundamental to that nature in the sense that it is common and forms the basis of all human experience. We do not need to say that this natural inference is actually made by everyone in order for it to be common sense.   

A good way to illustrate this would be perception. I may perceive at t1 that object x is Bigfoot, but it turns out that it was a large gorilla. That instance of perception at t1 was faulty, but this is distinct from saying that perception itself is faulty. If you were to say that the faculty of perception itself was faulty, this would be a radical claim that seems obviously false. It’s fine to question individual instances of perception, but to question perception itself is highly implausible. But why do we think that? Well because realism about fundamental faculties / experiences is the default position in the absence of a strong defeater. This rules out making realism about bigfoot and other particular entities or experiences the default position because they’re not fundamental and derived from human nature itself.  

Not My Common Sense!

Next, Lance objects, “I don’t think what Gil takes to be the datum is the datum.” But he doesn’t exactly explain what he takes issue with. Does he deny that people engage in moral reasoning? That people act as if moral claims are true? That they take them as if they have some authority? It would be incredibly strange if he did. One need only look at the abortion debate to see otherwise. He then objects that he just doesn’t share this experience. He believes moral realism to be absurd, and claims that none of his judgements or experiences even hint at realism.  

How should we reply? Well, I don’t need to dispute the accuracy or sincerity of his self-report. The disagreement isn’t so much with the datum or the experience itself – as he very much engages in the same sort of moral reasoning and behavior as others – but with his interpretation of that datum. Somewhere along the way, his natural disposition to believe in moral realism was underdeveloped or corrupted. Probably in part muddled by modern philosophy. To be clear, I don’t mean that as an insult to his intelligence because he’s clearly quite intelligent. Nor do I mean to dismiss his view by some psychological-historical assessment. I only point this out to say that my view can explain why cases like his exist without threatening my contention that moral realism is common sense.  

How to Find Common Sense

This is because again, there’s a distinction between common sense beliefs and common sense itself. That other minds exist would still be common sense even if the majority were conditioned to believe otherwise. Only beliefs that are consistent with common sense itself count as common sense beliefs. In those rare cases where a person is incapable of seeing it as common sense, their instinctive faculty (aka intuition) is faulty so we must resort to the deliberative, rational faculty to settle the dispute. The instinctive faculty by itself normally suffices to provide good justification, but the rational faculty strengthens and refines that justification. The rational faculty essentially looks at the datum (i.e., the lived experience fundamental to humans in virtue of their natures) and then determines the most natural, prima facie interpretation.  This is because the intellect must take being at face value in order to know anything at all, or engage in any sort of reasoning. 

We are without a doubt confronted with the reality (or being) of morality: in our every day discourse, the way we structure societies, in our behavior, and our rational appeals to it as if it is authoritative and true. You could interpret all moral being itself to be a human construct, but this wouldn’t be the most natural interpretation. I could likewise interpret all my perceptions  of the external world as constructs of the Matrix or Descartes’ Demon, but we don’t think that’s a natural interpretation. Possibility is not actuality. No, we instead take being at face value: it is as it appears to be until proven otherwise. The same applies to morality. 

Because the intellect has a natural instinct to take fundamental being as real until proven otherwise,  we should be moral realists. I would challenge Lance Bush to show, using our rational faculty, how anti-realism is just as plausible (if not more so) than moral realism using just the moral datum itself. The reason I restrict it to just the moral datum is because we are working with what is most natural and common to human experience. If you introduce hyper specialized knowledge like quantum mechanics to claim external world skepticism is in fact the common sense view, then this would be to simply misunderstand what common sense is. Such a view is contrary to common sense, and the opponent should just embrace it as such if he wishes to go that route.

Much more can be said, but I hope this serves to clarify my position. 

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