Review of Smith Michael, ‘Realism’, as part of Ethical Theory: An Anthology, (ed.) Russ Shafer- Landau. Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Michael Smith’s Realism is a work of remarkable scope and ambition. It addresses an issue which has the potential to question and debunk the entire ethical tradition, something which is, in Smith’s own words, “threatening to make the very idea of morality look altogether incoherent”. What is interesting in his paper is the way in which he takes up this threatening issue, deciphers all its possible entrances and then fills it up so that it no more gives the impression of being a problem of Herculean strength.
One look at the paper and you know that this is exactly what is happening. But as Heraclitus once said that we cannot step twice into the same river, similarly a second reading of the text does an amazing thing. It gives the reader the joint readership of this essay! This is not so difficult to explain when we understand that the first reading changes (even if very minutely) everything that we are and everything that we know. The second reading can never be free from the taint of the first. With a changed lens, we see that the object we were attempting to look at is no longer the same.
The second reading gives the reader an understanding of various dichotomies that Smith tries to reconcile. Along the way, he discusses a battery of ethical/meta-ethical concepts like belief, desire, reason for action, et cetera. It would take immense courage to review a paper of such a class and I cannot begin to do justice to it right from the start. What I shall rather do is summarize the main ideas of the paper along with raising some concerns along the way.
For a humble beginning it would suffice to say that moral realism is the view that in some sense there is an objective moral reality. Realism thus asserts that morality is objective. For a realist, it is also undeniable that morality provides us with reasons for action. But the standard picture of human psychology (as presented by Hume) suggests that to have a reason for action we must have a desire; and desire seems to be subjective. And in this case one person’s desire may not resemble with the desires of another. It is this difficulty for realism which is the theme of this article. In here, Smith claims to having solved the moral problem by giving an account of moral judgments in terms of what one would desire if one were fully rational.
Smith begins the essay with an obvious yet perplexing proposition. He asserts that we take moral appraisal ‘for granted’ and yet worry about ‘getting it right’. It is this proposition which later grows into one of the many dichotomies he discusses, to which we shall return later. Smith thus mentions the two distinct features of moral practice- its objectivity and its practicality, and goes on to show that these two features of moral practice have both metaphysical and psychological implications. These implications are utterly distinct in all possible manners and it is this point where the real issue surfaces.
The first feature of moral practice is its objectivity which, Smith claims, is implicit in getting the answer ‘right’. And why not? If philosophers are after getting the right answer, that surely implies that there are such right answers, i.e. there are distinctive moral facts. Moral practice as being objective has further following implications-
Metaphysical Implications: There are moral facts determined by circumstances, and that, by arguing, we can discover what these facts are. What does this mean? I understand it to mean that Smith, without being explicit, draws a dichotomy of ‘higher order fact’ and ‘lower order fact’ . Lower order fact would limit itself to the phenomenal consequences/ ends of actions (facts about the consequences of an action). And higher order facts would be something not of this or that action but of moral concepts itself (facts about the rightness/ wrongness of actions).
Psychological Implications: By making a moral judgment we express our beliefs about these so called ‘higher order’ moral facts. The objectivity of moral judgments has another psychological implication which is that people who have moral beliefs might/might not desire to act on them, and this is something for which they cannot be rationally criticized.
So much for the objectivity of moral judgment. Next Smith addresses the second feature - practicality- of moral judgments. The practicality of moral judgment is the idea that to have a moral opinion is to have a corresponding reason and hence motivation to act accordingly.
Reason ►motivation ►action (based on moral judgment)
The psychological implication of the ‘practical’ aspect of moral judgment is that when we make a moral judgment it is due to certain desires, and since worldly facts do not/cannot alter the desires, it amounts to saying that our moral judgments are based on/ are expressions of our desires.
The metaphysical implication is that when we make a moral judgment we are not considering any moral facts but only our immediate desires.
Now if we closely look at the pattern of the argument, we get to see crystal clear what is the problem with which Smith has been grappling for quite sometime now. If we notice the psychological implications of both the objective and practical features of moral practice then we notice that they both assert just the opposite of each other (as shown by the underlined part). As Smith writes:
“The objectivity of moral judgment suggests that…our moral judgments express our beliefs about moral facts…And the practicality of moral judgment suggests…that our moral judgments express our desires.”
Before beginning to examine Smith’s proposed solution to this problem, it is worth a mention that before getting into this juncture, Smith also refers to the psychological make up of human beings and then talks about how that is composed again, of two opposing features, desires and beliefs. According to Smith, belief can be rationally criticized while desires cannot be rationally criticized. The significance of these opposing psychological states lies in its impact on human action, which is much apparent when
“A human action is a product of these two forces: a desire representing the way the way the world is to be, and a belief telling us how the world is and thus how it is to be changed, so as to make it that way”.
However, if this is true, then, what is one to comprehend of the conception of an ideal world? For instance, when Gandhi worked towards actuating a Hind Swaraj or when Plato wrote the Republic (his ideal world!), were these ideal worlds beliefs or desires? An ideal world cannot be a belief because as per Smith’s definition a belief is how the world actually is, whereas an ideal world is a world that is not is but ought to be (thus it is called ‘ideal’). However it is befitting, if one is to use Smith’s understanding of desires, that the ideal world then is a desire, representing the way the world is to be. And so, if desires are not to be rationally criticized, then Popper’s entire philosophical enterprise in Open Societies and Its Enemies is a philosophical mistake. Smith’s relation to human action is certainly important, if one is to rely on the arguments presented by William K. Clifford in The Ethics of Belief, where it is asserted that actions are based on beliefs and hence no belief should be accepted uncritically, without a justified reason. And in all fairness, Smith is to be credited for his consideration that desires are reason neutral only when they are based on irrational beliefs ( this, he explains with the spider and the odour example ).
Another point of concern is Smith’s assumption, which he accepts very uncritically, is his idea that there are moral facts which are determined by circumstances, and that, by arguing, we can discover what these objective moral facts are. Now at the very outset, we see that a case of realism is not being argued for, but it is being stated. Many scholars may come to in fact argue against the fact that there exist any moral properties at all! I am unsure what Smith means here when he says, that ‘by arguing, we can discover, what these moral objectives are’ because here he seems to be putting the cart before the horse. If Smith is out there to establish a form of ‘realism’ then shouldn’t he be demonstrating the existences of these moral facts procedurally, rather than only mentioning it?
There is no denying that the genius of Smith lies in his approach to deal with this whole set of nuance created by the trilogy of reason, belief and desire. However, since Smith is dealing with a task so important, so influential that if all goes right, it might just end up the whole debate of moral problems and ethical realities, it is a must that his assertions go well with other theories that are important as his himself. One point which seems a bit critical is where Smith asks us to consider that we did something wrong if we refuse to give famine relief. Giving a justification he says, that “it seems we come to think that we failed to do something for which we had good reason to do”. And this occasions serious puzzlement. That implication surely seems to be correct as it is also raised by Marc Hauser in Moral Minds. However, there seems to be nothing wrong by refusing to give famine relief. The puzzlement really comes across when a person might reflect and think that an injured child might perhaps invoke a stronger urge to help, and than a starving child. Hauser’s answer to the puzzle seems more satisfactory, in comparison to Smith’s assertion of doing something wrong by refusal to give famine relief. According to Hauser:
“In our past, we have only been presented with opportunities to help those in our immediate path…There are no opportunities for altruism at a distance. The psychology of altruism evolved to handle nearby opportunities, within arm’s reach. Although there is no guarantee that we will help others at close proximity, the principles that guide our actions and our omissions are more readily explained by proximity and probability. An injured child lying on the side of the road triggers an immediate emotion and also triggers a psychology of action and consequence that has a high probability of success. We empathize with the child, and see that helping her will most likely relieve her pain and save her leg. Seeing a picture of several starving children triggers an emotion as well, but pictures do not evoke the same kind of emotional intensity as the real thing. And even with the emotions in play, the psychology that links action with consequence is ill prepared.”
Unlike Smith, Hauser is humble to confess that he cannot conclude from such an instance that ‘our intuitions always provide luminary guidance for what is morally right or wrong. He quotes Jonathan Baron and then explains at length that intuitions can lead to unfortunate and even detrimental outcomes. He does assert that reasoning and emotions both play some role in our moral behaviour, but neither can do complete justice to the process leading up to moral judgment. While Hauser’s conclusion is purposefully ambiguous and leaves a lot of scope for investigation, it certainly seems to be more appropriate in comparison to the way Smith presents a brief account of how human psychology functions and lead to actions. This is because Hauser still keeps in mind the complexity of human beings and the concept of morality, whereas Smith on the contrary seems to firmly believe in moral realism and his arguments seem to revolve around a way to explain it, and not really understand alternate possibilities in this essay. There is another essay by Michel Smith, ‘Moral Realism’ where alternative possibilities namely, expressionism and nihilism are discussed. But then there again the agenda is to establish moral realism.
Upto this point was a brief summary of Smith’s formulation of the issue which, if not solved, would make the whole idea of morality incoherent, and some of my observations. Now it is only better that Smith’s proposed solutions is discussed so that we can assess how far he succeeds in his endeavour. For once he defines moral realism as the ‘metaphysical view that there exists moral facts’. And out of Realism (there exists moral facts), Irrealism (there are no moral facts, nor are they required) and Moral Nihilism (there are no moral facts but its not that they are not required) Smith argues for realism. He sees the combination of reason and motive as the main culprit. If only it could be somehow proved that being motivated to do an act and the reasons to do that act are different, it would suffice. And Smith does this by the ‘baby bath analogy’ where he shows that the being fed up of the crying baby you are overcome with a desire to drown it; means you are motivated to drown it; but have no rational reason to do so.
Smith is quick to show that the standard psychological picture fails perfectly in the cases where the subject is ‘cool, calm and collected’. Because if one is cool, calm and collected there is not any kind of emotional outburst. And this, he says, “is the key to reconciling the objectivity with the practicality of moral judgment.” And why not! The objective fact of being calm and collected reconciles with the practical moral judgment of not acting on the basis of emotional outbursts. And the moral facts that smith has been aspiring to establish throughout the essay can be found if desired from a cool and collected state of mind. And with this, Smith redesigns the boundary where now desires can be rationally criticized even when they are not based on any irrational beliefs. The psychologist comes up with another point saying that even under such highly reflective state of being cool, calm and composed, there can be differences in our desires because there is a ‘fundamental relativity’ in the reasons we have. Smith, for his part, doesn’t believe the ‘reasons are relative’ because via forums and discussions we can always alter the beliefs and desires (to some extent) of the other person. And had reason been relative, this would have been impossible.
So, this is how Smith proposes to establish the objectivity of moral facts. This seems to me to as one of the best pieces endorsing moral realism; best in scope; method; and treatment of other related theories, minus few points which struck me as not being in line with the normal flow of arguments. It might be quite possible that Smith has dealt with it in some other of his work but as far as my understanding of this text goes, these points need clarifications.
Though Smith is not explicit about his arguments against externalism about motivation, the text suggests and infact depends upon it for the establishment of many important premises which ultimately led to the conclusion that ‘there are objective moral facts’. As a record, externalists about motivation deny that there is any conceptual or internal connection between making a moral judgment and being motivated to act on it.
Internalists about motivation (Smith being one of them) assert that there is such an internal connection between judgment and motivation.
Smith’s point is that the externalists, in order to get the conceptual truth, have to appeal to motivation which is grounded in a bare concern with what morality prescribes; whereas the internalists can have a direct appeal to motivation grounded in a concern for right-making features. Smith held that moral judgment necessitates motivation, and therefore, unlike the externalists, the internalists so not need to appeal to any pre-existing desire. They can say that moral judgment gives rise to a new desire for the particular thing that has been positively appraised. The externalists lack this resource, and so must instead appeal to a general pre-existing desire that will cover whatever their particular moral judgment might turn out to be.
But the point is, I don’t see how Smith can accommodate anything like a motivational necessity. On the motivational side he is a Humean. Beliefs and desires are distinct existences. This looks perplexing!
In sum, this is a highly ambitious and engaging piece of work which develops a number of novel arguments for what is sure to be a controversial set of mutually supporting and philosophically interesting positions. Despite the philosophically immature critical observations made by me (which is the product of the mind of that of a trainee), the essay is an excellent piece of work. Smith has done more than enough to instigate another round of forums and discussions so that the best minds in the world of ethics can test their higher reflective state (cool, calm and composed, I dare say).