Ethics and the fact/value dichotomy

I went to the first day of this conference at Harvard on Tuesday. My main takeaway was a humbling one: I realized that I have a lot to learn about 20th century American philosophy, and that I dislike detailed discussions of ontology. Keeping in mind that I still have a lot to learn, it also reinforced my faith in neo-pragmatism and my skepticism of both analytic and continental philosophy.

I was only able to make it to the first day of this four-day tribute to the life and works of Hilary Putnam; my wife just got a job, our retired research beagle has separation anxiety, and one day of ‘camp’ was expensive enough. The day was divided into three sessions: one on ontology, one on ethics, and one on perception. The first and the third, while fascinating, flew right over my head.

The second session, on science and ethics, contained an interesting talk by Tim Scanlon on the fact-value dichotomy. This idea, originally from David Hume’s assertion that ‘you can’t get from an is to an ought’, has been getting a lot of play recently: Peter Singer’s embedded video agrees, and he argues that the biologically natural and the normative are two distinct spheres; Sam Harris’ recent work is on the other end of the spectrum, denying, at least partially, that the dichotomy even exists.

My main impression of both ethics talks (the other was by Mario de Caro, who provided less original work and more of an overview of Putnam’s positions) was that Aristotelian virtue ethics was much more important to most people in the room than were either consequentialism or deontology. Indeed, de Caro explicitly stated that Putnam rejected both positions in favor of moral particularism. De Caro distinguished between ontological realism, semantic realism, and ontological/semantic non-realism, placing Putnam in the semantic realist camp. I definitely hope to learn more about his views when I get back into grad school.

Scanlon’s talk addressed facts and values by setting up a the following 4 place relation: R (p, x, c, a). He distinguished between pure normative claims, pure non-normative claims, mixed normative claims, and the the impact of ‘thick’ concepts like cruelty and cowardice. His central point was that purely non-normative claims have nothing to say about pure normative claims, and the fact-value relationship only holds for mixed normative claims. This was also how he got around supervenience and covariance (the idea that normative facts are fixed by non-normative facts, and that normative facts depend on non-normative facts, respectively).

As the argument is constructed, this makes sense. And, indeed, Scanlon agreed in the Q&A that utilitarians are using the same moral vocabulary but have different ideas of what constitutes a pure normative claim. All that was really missing here was an accounting of what actually counts as a pure normative claim…but this wasn’t the point of this particular discussion, I guess. I gather than Scanlon’s conception of the domain of the moral is centrally concerned with rational agents rather than with a broader conception of sentience, so this explains where we would part ways. I would like to read more of his on the justification for different moral claims.

In the Q&A, someone asked Putnam “how can we prove that the Nazis were bad”, to which he responded “rigor can only go so far in ethics.” I agree both with this claim and with Scanlon’s configuration of the purely normative versus the non-normative and the mixed, but this necessary lack of rigor–and this is where something like Rorty’s ironism comes knocking–is problematic once we start tearing down anthropocentric barriers. Some would say it’s cruel to serve coffee with gallons of factory-farmed milk at a conference on ethics, for example. Just sayin’.

Putnam stated that he believed some societies were crueler than others (Sparta, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist Russia were examples), but I’m wondering what, if anything, either Putnam or Scanlon has written on the structural violence committed against nonhuman animals in the industrialized West. Putnam also professed his faith in the Enlightenment project, so his corresponding (speciesist) humanism makes sense in this context.

I really enjoyed the ethics Q&A. There was lots of engaging back-and-forth on the possibility of ‘objectivity without objects’, on Dewey, on ‘degrees of cruelty’ and the concept of moral progress. In fact, I wish it had gone on for eight hours, and that we could have skipped over the philosophy of perception and ontology. My general takeaway from this lecture was that I need to learn more philosophy, at the very least so I can understand what people are talking about when they talk about disquotation and mereology.

Oh, and Bittman’s Opinionator piece in today’s NYT, on how we’re dangerously addicted to meat, is excellent. As usual.

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