SOPhiA 2017

Salzburgiense Concilium Omnibus Philosophis Analyticis

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Programme - Talk

Why Humeans are committed to Moral Nihilism
(Ethics, English)

Since John Leslie Mackie's ''popularization'' of moral error theories in meta-ethics, increasing attention has been focused on how to escape the conclusion that there are no moral facts. In this essay I argue that a Humean conception of normative reasons as being relative, i.e. lacking convergence on agent's normative reasons, is incompatible with the existence of categorical imperatives, without which morality lacks objectivity, i.e. authority. If there was a criminal who tortured innocent children for fun, then we would neither want to say that his act was wrong according to some institution -- as that would make morality no different from etiquette or, worse, 'Nazi morality' for that matter, nor would we want to accept the wrongness of our moral judgement if he claimed that his one and only goal and pleasure in live is to torture innocent people. Richard Joyce (2001) refers to this as the moral rationalist's ''metaethical dilemma''; ''one horn is alienation of an agent from her normative reasons, the other horn is moral relativism'' (p. 80). While the first horn eliminates the special authority of morality, the second horn eliminates the inescapability of morality by citing different desires, both properties being a conceptual part of morality. This is why Kantian categorical imperatives capture moral discourse so adequately. However, as Kant anticipated, Humeans cannot evade the following valid argument for the moral error theory postulated by Joyce:

1. If x morally ought to Φ, then x ought to Φ regardless of whether he cares to, regardless of whether Φing sastisfies any of his desires or furthers his interests.
2. If x morally ought to Φ, then x has a reason for Φing.
3. Therefore, if x morally ought to Φ, then x has a reason for Φing regardless of whether Φing serves his desires or furthers his interests.
4. But there is no sense to be made of such reasons.
5. Therefore, x is never under a moral obligation. (2001, p.42)

I argue that the Humean move to moral subjectivism by denying (1), is just moral nihilism in disguise, as categorical imperatives are a necessary part of morality. If Williams' conception of morality allows that some agents simply do not have a reason not to torture children for fun, or worse ought to torture children, this is a prima-facie ground to reject calling such a conception morality at all. The relativistic conception of normative reasons is incompatible with the non-relative conception of moral reasons that is required for categorical imperatives. Employing both commits the Humean to a moral error theory. As Joyce (2016) points out, ''one's reason to move a chess piece in a certain manner exists only in virtue of some human-decreed system of rules. But moral rules, according to Mackie (1977), have their reason-giving quality objectively; we do not treat them as norms of our invention, for to do so would rob them of their practical authority, which is, arguably, their whole point'', something Kant was right to fear as a result of Hume's work.


Chair: Zsolt Ziegler
Time: 16:50-17:20, 13 September 2017 (Wednesday)
Location: SR 1.007
Remark: CHANGE. The talk is cancelled!

Walter Veit 
(University of Bayreuth, Germany)

Walter Veit is a Philosophy & Economics student at the University of Bayreuth. His research focuses on philosophy of science (in particular biology), evolutionary explanations (in particular explaining altruism with evolutionary game theory and evolutionary psychology) and metaethics (in particular the moral error theory/nihilism).

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