Moral Differences: Truth, Justice, and Conscience in a World of Conflict

Moral Differences: Truth, Justice, and Conscience in a World of Conflict

by Richard W. Miller

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In a wide-ranging inquiry Richard W. Miller provides new resources for coping with the most troubling types of moral conflict: disagreements in moral conviction, conflicting interests, and the tension between conscience and desires. Drawing on most fields in philosophy and the social sciences, including his previous work in the philosophy of science, he

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In a wide-ranging inquiry Richard W. Miller provides new resources for coping with the most troubling types of moral conflict: disagreements in moral conviction, conflicting interests, and the tension between conscience and desires. Drawing on most fields in philosophy and the social sciences, including his previous work in the philosophy of science, he presents an account of our access to moral truth, and, within this framework, develops a theory of justice and an assessment of the role of morality in rational choice. In Miller's view, we are often in a position to claim that our moral judgments are true descriptions of moral facts. But others, relying on contrary ways of moral learning, would reject truths that we are in a position to assert, in dissent that does not depend on irrationality or ignorance of relevant evidence or arguments. With this mixed verdict on "moral realism," Miller challenges many received views of rationality, scientific method, and the relation between moral belief and moral choice. In his discussion of justice, Miller defends the adequacy, for modern political choices, of a widely shared demand that institutions be freely and rationally acceptable to all. Drawing on social research and economic theories, he argues that this demand has dramatically egalitarian consequences, even though it is a premise of liberals and conservatives alike. In the final chapters, Miller investigates the role and limits of morality in the choice of conduct, arguing for new perspectives on reason and impartiality.

Originally published in 1992.

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"This sophisticated book addresses issues currently at the center of debate in moral and political philosophy.... Moral Differences is challenging and impressive."Philosophical Review

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Moral Differences

Truth, Justice and Conscience in a World of Conflict

By Richard W. Miller


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07409-2



In philosophy these days, disputes about 'realism' are at the center of most stages. In particular, attention is fixed on disputes over topics entitled "scientific realism" and "moral realism," respectively. In the former, people discuss what justification, if any, we have for supposing that science reveals the existence of kinds of things that could not be known to exist without the aid of scientific theories. In the moral realism dispute, the direct concern of the first part of this book, people discuss what kinds of justification, if any, we have for supposing that moral inquiry reveals to us objective moral facts.

Whether moral realism is true is, in a way, a good question. Many people ought to be obsessed with it, now. In the generation now passing from the scene in English-speaking philosophy, large questions about justification, truth and meaning were often resolved in a positivist framework, by applying utterly general rules concerned with logical form, rules dictating appropriate relations between truth claims and sense-experience. In the 1950's and 1960's, the positivist project was devastated, by Goodman, Kuhn, Quine, Putnam and others, where it had been most vigorous, in the discussion of scientific inquiry and of everyday inquiry concerning material things. On this same terrain, in the course of the late 'sixties and early 'seventies, Putnam, Boyd, Kripke, Feyerabend and others began to construct a variety of new, often opposing standpoints to replace the one that had been destroyed. Though the work of construction, collaboration and debate furiously continues, the new ideas about truth and justification, first employed in the "scientific realism" controversy, have been seized upon to advance the "moral realism" controversy, as well. Similarly, Wittgenstein's new ways of thinking about justification and truth found important parallels in Foot's work on moral belief and justification, topics far removed from Wittgenstein's favored terrain in the philosophy of mind and mathematics.

In addition to these academic reasons why the question of moral realism is good to ask now, there is a frighteningly nonacademic reason. While responsible people continue to seek a secure moral basis for assessing the proposals that dominate political controversy, many now wonder whether any satisfactory means of assessment exists. In the 'fifties and early 'sixties, at least among most English-speaking intellectuals, broad political outlooks tended to be the same. Later, differences sharpened, but still it seemed to most that shared moral first principles would dictate a single just politics if only the relevant social facts were known. In the present gray haze, it is unclear to many people how the facts, as they seem to be, can sustain any adequate basis for political choice. Partisans of noninterference in market processes have never promised so little. Believable defenders of capitalism have largely given up proposing that it can provide jobs, decent housing and a reasonably crime-free environment for everyone willing to work in advanced industrial societies, much less the poorer ones. In the United States in the 1980's, a decade in which the Gross National Product increased by 29.2% in constant dollars, those who worship at the altar of capitalist growth confronted these trends: a decline, from 1979 to 1987, in average real income among the poorest fifth of families of 9.2% while the real income of the highest fifth increased by 18.7%; a decline, in the same period, of real income of the poorest fifth of families with children of 13.8% while the highest fifth with children gained the same 18.7%; a 1.8% decline in real hourly wages from 1980 to 1989 while dividend and interest income per capita increased by 44.2%. Yet while the social impact of market-based production has become disheartening for people in market economies, socialism has never seemed less attainable in a form that might attract most people in an advanced industrial society. Once basic necessities are provided for all, the rigidities and inefficiencies of central planning come to the fore. And experiments in "market socialism" have, so far, been as self-destructive as the sternest defender of central planning ever supposed. To the similar dismay of politically responsible people, electoral choices often seem empty to those who live in long-established democracies, while the fate of those who do not is often settled by international economic transactions over which they would lack influence in any feasible political arrangement. Among those who are impressed by failures of central planning, but not swept up by capitalist triumphalism, our turn-of-the-century gives rise to a general moral anxiety. This is a good time to wonder what justification there could be for supposing that any basic political program is based on moral truths. Other cultures have posed broad questions about justification and truth when old political assumptions were destroyed yet not replaced. Hume's Britain comes to mind, and so does the Central Europe of Mach, Nietzsche and Freud, an intellectually gratifying, otherwise horrifying analogue to the circumstances that make it right to debate moral realism today.

At the same time, the question of whether moral realism is valid is a bad one. When people debate this issue, they raise a variety of questions. The label, "moral realism," reflects and encourages a tendency to assume that these questions all have the same answers. Yet they need not. I will argue that they do not. Here, in particular, are three important questions about truth, justification and morality that could have very different right answers, "realist" in response to some, "anti-realist" in response to others, as those terms are usually applied.

First, there is a question about truth. In what cases, if any, is one in a position to claim that a moral judgment is a true description of a state of affairs? Since nothing is right or wrong just because one thinks it is (perhaps along with fellow-thinkers), this amounts to the question of whether one is in a position to make claims about objective moral facts.

A judgment could have the special warrant that the first question describes because of a justification provided by one's own framework of background principles, i.e., principles that one applies to evidence in the form of nonmoral statements of empirical fact in order to reach moral conclusions. (Of course, the framework and its use may have to be of special kinds to justify claims to moral truth. Different answers to the first question often depend on different views of the appropriate constraints.) A second important question is concerned with confrontations between different frameworks.

It is an utterly uncontroversial fact about us humans that we often present justifications of moral judgments, justifications partly appealing to empirical findings that are not, taken individually, intrinsically moral. One might well ask in what instances, if any, one could support one's judgment with a case so strong that any actual person who has lived would have to share the judgment, if she accepted the same nonmoral findings, rationally reflected on the arguments, and was not a victim of some process or attitude (or of the absence of some process or attitude) which she regards as a source of misjudgment. In posing this question, one reaches far beyond oneself to consider one's capacity to resolve disagreements with every potential disputant who has actually existed. Every framework for answering moral questions that has actually been employed is a relevant basis for disagreement. But in two respects, the scope of the relevant disputes is narrow. First, one only considers what room for rational dissent there is among those who accept the same nonmoral findings. In assessing the security of most moral judgments, this restriction is a way of avoiding a waste of time on the obvious. For usually it is obvious that a rational, otherwise qualified moral judge would reach a different judgment in light of different findings. Also, one matches one's powers of justification against all frameworks that there have been, but not against all possible ones. The goal is not a justification that would end all possible rational dissent.

Special though its scope may be, this question about justification is important, in two ways. First, it is the question about the justification of morality that has the most direct bearing on what might be called the morality of justification, those moral constraints on action that require the existence of justifications of certain kinds. The most important claim in the morality of justification is that an action backed by coercion—for example, a normal exercise of state power—should be justifiable, in principle, to anyone who is hurt. It will prove extremely hard to say what is necessary to satisfy this requirement, as it is intended. However, a justification with the special scope that has been singled out would surely be sufficient. Suppose there is an imposition justified by an argument that every actual person would accept if he or she were well-informed, grasped relevant concepts and arguments and otherwise exercised all the capacities and attitudes whose positive relevance he or she accepts. Then the interference has a justification as universal as anyone requires. It is not suspect in the same way as a criminal statute producing results that most of us value on the basis of ultimate standards that some of us do not share, even though equally well-informed, rational and conscientiously seeking undistorted moral judgment. If some possible person who has never lived would not approve, despite relevant qualifications for judgment, that will hardly matter for the morality of justification, which seeks to avoid actual harm. (Admittedly, frameworks which no one applies any longer would be irrelevant as well. One might frame a more restricted version of the second question, addressed to contemporaries. But there is always a risk that a generally obsolete framework will turn out to have living partisans. In this preliminary survey of major distinctions, I will not bother to distinguish these two versions.)

The second question also singles out a kind of justification that is of special cognitive interest. Such justification would meet the demands that are satisfied when a hypothesis is confirmed in the development and testing of scientific theories. For scientific confirmation requires fairness to all actual competing frameworks, not neutrality among all possible frameworks.

The demands of fairness in confirmation are due to the need to rely on a framework of background principles to connect data with hypotheses. The findings of ordinary, unaided sense perception (for example, the perception of a curly streak in a cloud chamber as against the perception of a K-meson using a cloud chamber) only confirm hypotheses in theoretical science in light of background principles used to interpret the raw findings. More specifically, any argument from data to hypothesis can be put in the form, "These are the data and the best explanation of how they came to be would entail the approximate truth of this hypothesis and the basic falsehood of its rivals"; which explanation of the data is best will depend on further propositions, as grand as the most all-embracing principles of symmetry and conservation in physics or as humble as descriptions of circuitry in an apparatus. If a disagreement about a hypothesis depends on a difference in background principles, it is question-begging to argue that data confirm the hypothesis when this argument presupposes the falsehood of principles in the framework of some who reject the hypothesis. Confirmation is less question-begging than this. It is a process of fair explanatory comparison, fair to rival hypotheses and their accompanying frameworks.

For example, it would have been question-begging for Galileans seeking evidence that confirmed their heliocentric claim to assume that if telescopes reveal terrestrial reality better than the naked eye, they had to give superior access to celestial reality as well. For this conflicted with Aristotelian beliefs about the radical difference between celestial and terrestrial matter and the prima facie fitness of natural organs for observation. As it happens, Mars, when viewed from the earth with a telescope, varies in brightness in the course of a year, the heliocentric expectation of Galileans, while it does not vary significantly when viewed with the naked eye, the geocentric expectation of Aristotelians. Neither side had a non-question-begging argument from the total data about variations in the brightness of Mars to the truth of the astronomical hypotheses at issue. So neither could claim that the data confirmed their favored hypothesis, even though a Galilean (or, an Aristotelian) could argue from data to the favored hypothesis within the framework he believed and employed in his research.

In the natural sciences as we now catalog them, physics, astronomy, biology and geology, it has turned out to be possible to resolve most important disagreements through a fair process of explanatory comparison. Of course, the originators of a new option that will ultimately triumph sometimes lack the means to defeat the old outlook while treating its framework fairly. But when we look at the great consolidators of scientific revolutions, Newton in contrast to Galileo, Charles Darwin in contrast to Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck, it is striking how well they succeed in being fair. Newton takes advantage of a shared optics, very close to commonsense lore of light and shadow, to show that Aristotelians and, for that matter, Cartesians, lack a valid mechanics of celestial motion. Optical reasoning, even from naked eye observations, shows that comets would smash the celestial spheres, and that they lack the swerves that Cartesian vortices would produce. Yet everyone accepts that the regularities of celestial motion stand in need of an explanation. And Newton's larger astronomical success, as he describes it, extracting an ascription of causal influences from some data which dictates trajectories fitting quite different data, is strong support for his celestial mechanics, on any view. Charles Darwin's tact in treating rival explanatory frameworks fairly is even more obvious. In The Origin, he constantly demonstrates that natural selection is a source of superior explanations, rated in light of beliefs about variation, competition, inheritance and creative intelligence that creationists share. Thus, the most delightful of his many arguments concludes with appropriate gloating over the fairness of his triumph, "Why, it may be asked, has the supposed creative force produced [distinctive endemic species of] bats and [of] no other mammals on remote islands? On my view this question can easily be answered; for no terrestrial mammal can be transported across a wide space of sea, but bats can fly across."

In seeking to confirm hypotheses, scientists mean to be fair to rival frameworks actually applied to the actual data. But they do not seek any greater universality. Obviously, they do not seek a justification that would be acceptable no matter what the data. Science is empirical. A bit less obviously, they do not seek a justification that any possible rational investigator would accept, on the basis of the actual data, no matter what possible framework was employed to interpret it. Indeed, there is no need to be fair to all future frameworks. Newton's use of astronomical observations is a paradigm of confirmation. But given the limits of accuracy of which he was aware, his data do not discriminate between his celestial mechanics and relativistic celestial mechanics. The rational consensus that scientists seek, in testing hypotheses, is the same mix of the actual and the hypothetical as singled out by the second question about moral judgments. They seek a consensus to which all actual investigators would be led if each were to respond rationally to all the evidence actually available, rationally responding in light of principles each actually employs in interpreting evidence. (Of course, in this process of response, it might be irrational for someone acquiring certain evidence and arguments not to modify some principle which he would otherwise have employed to interpret evidence.)


Excerpted from Moral Differences by Richard W. Miller. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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