Bob and Alice
Neither Bob nor Alice are philosophers, so they do not articulate their metaethical beliefs philosophically. Nonetheless, they have relatively sophisticated outlooks on moral thought.
Bob believes that moral truths are objective, and you can be right and wrong on your thinking about morality. Killing is generally wrong is true in much the same way as it’s true the sun will rise tomorrow. If Bob became a philosopher, he’d probably decide that his metaethical beliefs are best captured by a strong form realism.
Alice believes that morality is more like a set of potent feelings she has. She does nonetheless aim for consistency in her ethical views, in much the same way as you’d likely aim for consistency in any set of goals you have.
I’m interested in the question of whether or not Bob and Alice’s respective views will affect their stances on first order ethical issues and their approach to ethical deliberation, in a way that has practical consequences for the moral choices they make. However, I’m not mainly interested, at least in the context of this blog post, in purely psychological effects. It may be that there is a correlation between thinking like Alice thinks and taking ethics less seriously, but this relationship is not essential to the ideas themselves. I’m looking for consequences that follow conceptually. In the language of philosophers, I’m looking for ways the metaethics of Bob and Alice will change their normative and practical ethics. In what follows, we’ll examine this.
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Examples of how Alice and Bob’s positions might affect their stances on real world ethical questions
1. The value of democracy
Alice and Bob might have many reasons to support democracy. For example, both might agree that we should have a democracy because everyone deserves a say on the laws that govern their lives- or even that no government can be legitimate unless citizens have a say in it. They might like democracy because they think its outcomes are generally fair or they might like it because they think it helps ensure stability, or one of many other reasons.
However Bob has a reason to like democracy that Alice doesn’t have. More people forming ethical views on disputed topics from a variety of viewpoints might be more likely to ‘get it right’ and grasp the underlying ethical truth of the situation. A similar argument doesn’t exist for Alice. Or, it is better to say, a sort of limited ersatz version of this argument may be available, the details of which we won’t get into here (happy to cover it in the comments if asked), but the full argument isn’t. The ersatz argument is only persuasive in a more limited range of conditions.
2. The importance or otherwise of ‘debunking’ arguments
Suppose Alice and Bob read a paper from the institute for evolutionary debunking. Both Alice and Bob are of the opinion that incest is wrong. This new paper however suggests that the widespread consensus incest is wrong is just a result of evolution, our brains do not fully understand that there is little risk of birth deformity if contraceptives are used. Later, they each read a paper from the institute of developmental debunking, showing that certain kinds of ethical beliefs- beliefs Alice and Bob share- are a hangover from certain early childhood experiences.
For Alice, this means very little. She has no belief that her feelings about ethics refer to a larger ethical world. They simply are what they are. Their historical origin as an evolutionary artifact is irrelevant. If Alice found out that some ethical belief of hers was likely the result of some bit of minutiae from her early childhood, this also need not trouble her in her beliefs at all. If finding out these truths did change her ethical views, it would be due to a psychological or aesthetic rather than logical or conceptual push.
For Bob, this is not true at all. He may be deeply troubled by these results from evolutionary and developmental psychology, and he may be left uncertain as to whether or not his ethical intuitions are to be trusted in at least these cases. He may abandon or modify certain ethical outlooks as a result of reading this papers. For example, after reading these papers, Bob has reasons Alice doesn’t to think that incest between consenting adults should be legalized.
3. The value of theoretical virtues and parsimony in first order ethics
Alice and Bob face a difficult ethical scenario, the details of which don’t matter. They both create an elaborate ethical theory to explain their outlook and how it would work in different counterfactual situations.
Bob may (I emphasize may) be a little troubled by this. Generally speaking, when we are trying to grasp the world, parsimony is a hint that we might be right. This may lead Bob to prefer ethical theories like utilitarianism, the golden rule or the categorical imperative- and the attendant practices.
Alice is unlikely to be especially troubled. Perhaps she has a taste for elegance, and perhaps this leads her to avoid over complex theories to a certain degree. In the final instance though, her feelings are her feelings, and they can be as elaborate as she likes. She may (like me) happen to have relatively compact consequentialist intuitions, but this is, so to speak, an accident
4. The possibility of ethical uncertainty and the long pause
A number of authors in what is now being called “the longtermist” tradition have advocated for what they call “the long pause” before we start making irrevocable changes- for example, spreading out throughout the cosmos at close to the speed of light, putting us permanently out of touch with each other. The idea is that this will give us time to consider hard ethical questions, and find the right- or at least better- answers before we go out traipsing across the infinite cosmos.
Bob may well find this position attractive.
I don’t want to say that it’s impossible for Alice to support the long pause, but she will need different arguments to the arguments that might persuade Bob. These arguments will likely not just be a change in terminology. There is a real chance that Alice may- rationally- be left cold by these arguments. I myself believe something like Alice’s position, and I am skeptical of the long pause for exactly this reason. If a long pause were likely in expectation to lead the world closer to my ethical views (or the ethical views I would hold were I fully consistent) that might be a reason to endorse it- but why think this? Without an external set of moral truths to approach, the argument loses its force.
What about more individual deliberation? It is true that neither Alice nor Bob are strangers to difficult ethical uncertainty- in Alice’s case, feelings can be complex, and initially inconsistent, and need to be sorted through. Nonetheless it does seem likely that there are scenarios in which Bob might want more time to stop and think about his actions, whereas Alice finds that superfluous- she has already worked out where she stands.
Another way that uncertainty might strike Alice differently than Bob is that she might be more ready to say that ethical questions simply have no fully satisfactory answer. Since for Alice, ethics is a matter of sentiment and no one ever made the promise that our feelings would be clean, she may be unsurprised to find certain ethical dilemmas where both choices are subjectively painful.
Bob on the other hand, may keep thinking, reasoning that with enough thought he might yet be able to find the underlying ethical truth of the situation, and the discovery of such, and the full comprehension of why it is right, will sweep away his doubts and hesitations. This isn’t strictly necessary- there are philosophers who hold views like Bob’s who think that clashes of value are possible- but there does seem to be a conceptual connection.
In other work I have argued that Alice is surely right in a sense because there is no part of me that thinks that I might later discover that slavery is inherently good. This total certainty on questions of fundamental value- despite the fact that others disagree- is most easily made sense of if ethical anti-realism is true. However, most philosophers, upon reading this argument for ethical anti-realism, get grumpy and say it’s ridiculous, so your mileage may vary I suppose.
Faith in ethical dialogue
The question of how much resources we should invest in ethical dialogue is itself an ethical question.
Bob and Alice both meet someone who has radically different views to them. Saul believes that people should be able to voluntarily sell themselves into permanent slavery. Both Bob and Alice might make different efforts to convert the stranger to their viewpoint- for example, appealing to their sense of empathy, or appealing to other ethical viewpoints the stranger holds that might seem to contradict their pro-slavery position.
Nonetheless, despite agreement that there is some possibility of progress, it seems as Alice will be more skeptical than Bob as to the possibility of progress through ethical dialogue- which is not to say she will dismiss the possibility. Indeed both may agree that the world needs more ethical dialogue, not less. but there will surely be some situations in which Bob thinks dialogue is worthwhile and Alice doesn’t.
This isn’t a normative outcome, but I want to mention it in passing: If Bob believes that ethics can be derived directly from reason, as many people like Bob ultimately conclude, he may think that there is something defective about the capacity for reasoning of sociopaths, and perhaps even bad people generally. This will lead to interesting divergences on questions of psychology between Bob and Alice. Although his view doesn’t strictly require it, Bob may guess that such people lack certain abstract reasoning faculties, a result empirical experiments may or may not support.
What about Charlie, who thinks that moral claims are objectively true, and it just so happens that they're the same as Charlie's very potent feelings?