Michael Huemer: Ethical Intuitionism | Who Shaves the Barber? #32

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Michael Huemer

Are there moral facts? If so, are they objective? Where do they come from? Do we have reason to think – or doubt – that our immediate ethical intuitions tell us what they are?

These are the questions I discuss this week with professor Michael Huemer. The metaethical landscape can be split up as follows: realists (those who think there are objective ethical facts) and anti-realists (those who don’t). Realists, in turn, fall into two further camps: naturalists, who think objective ethical facts can be reduced to descriptive facts about the world; and ethical intuitionists, who think ethical facts (or “evaluative” facts) are of a different sort and cannot be reduced to descriptive facts. As Huemer puts it, ethical intuitionists argue that ethical facts have a different type of ontology. We go on to discuss the reasons we should trust our ethical intuitions to reveal moral facts, why ethical intuitions seem shakier than perceptual ones, and what the source of moral facts is. Finally, Huemer gives us a teaser for his upcoming book, Paradox Lost, in which he claims to solve ten famous paradoxes, including the LiarSoritesNewcomb’s, and the Sleeping Beauty problem.

Next weekTimothy Williamson: Epistemicism



Interested in metaethics? I’ve discussed it before, with Tomasz Kaye.

Special thanks to Jackie Blum for the podcast art, and The Tin Box for the theme music.
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Moral Duties and Public Goods: A Reply to Long

Moral duty?

Roderick Long’s essay “On Making Small Contributions to Evil” tackles a deep problem in ethics and rational actor theory. Suppose you, individually, decide to stop recycling – will that make any detectable difference for the environment? Suppose you stop eating meat for ethical reasons – will that result in the death of even one less animal? Suppose you vote in the general election – will that make any detectable difference to the election result? Most likely: no, no, no.

This seems like a problem. It feels like there are ethical imperatives involved here – certainly, we should recycle if it is good for the environment. At the same time, are there really ethical imperatives without consequences? Does that make sense?

Eradication of evil as a public good

Long’s essay conceptualizes this issue as one about the provision of public goods. Public goods are goods that are non-excludable (that is, it is very difficult to exclude someone from using them) and non-rivalrous (their utility isn’t diminished by one more person’s use). A beautiful sunset is an example: anyone can benefit and it doesn’t diminish anyone’s benefit if an additional person benefits. Same goes for lighthouses, national security, and asteroid defense.

Public goods tend to be underprovided by the market because of the “free-rider problem”: if the good is non-excludable, why would you ever pay for it? If you had the choice, would you pay in for national security? Why bother? Even if you don’t, so long as your neighbors do, you’ll still benefit.…

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Collective Agency and the Pretense of Ethics

There’s a problem about political discourse that’s been bugging me for a while and I think I finally understand what it is.

Ethics presumes agency. It makes no sense to make an ethical demand of an entity that is not an agent. It’s why we don’t demand of the Earth that it stop producing hurricanes. We can wish things were one way or another, but we can only add a “should” if we’re talking about something an agent can make a choice about.

I see no reason to imagine there is such a thing as “collective agency”. Indeed, there are powerful reasons not to believe in agency of any sort, even individual. But individual agency also has a lot going for it, not least of which is the visceral experience of having choice over personal actions. In the case of “collective” actors, there is no corresponding experience of agency that needs to be accounted for. This seems like good enough reason to regard collective agency as a useful fiction.

So when we say, for example, “war is wrong”, whose action are we talking about? War is not an action individuals take, only groups. So it is not subject to ethical evaluation. As something caused by an entity with no moral agency, war is more like a hurricane than like a murder.

Of course, that’s not the end of ethics and war. It’s plausible to argue that individual participation in war is wrong. And it’s important to note that if each moral actor acted ethically, the non-ethical but still very unfortunate events we call wars would no longer happen.…

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