Oct 5, 2022·edited Oct 5, 2022Liked by Richard Y Chappell

> I think it’s important that moral philosophers be rationalists (in the above sense). Sentimentalism (as understood here) is a kind of anti-philosophy, a refusal to reflect systematically on what matters. But we need such reflection, if we are to have any hope of uncovering new truths, or improving upon our untutored reactions. While it’s always possible for systematic thought to lead one further astray—an inconsistent Nazi is better than a consistent one!—careful philosophical inquiry remains our most reliable means of non-accidentally improving our epistemic position on moral matters. Or so I believe.

I know I've made this point in your comment section before, but the argument expressed in this paragraph still just seems bizarre to me.* Yes, your 'sentimentalism' is an opposition to systematic ethical theory (although it is not a 'refusal', as typically 'sentimentalists' have cogent arguments for why systematic theorising is a mistaken practice; they don't just declare that it's icky and for girls) - that much is true. But it simply does not follow that we must do such systematic theory 'if we are to have any hope of uncovering new truths, or improving upon our untutored reactions'. Moral thinking can proceed unaided by systematic theory - Arendt's 'thinking without a bannister' - and still allow us to improve upon naïveté and irrationality.

To give just one example, Williams, who you mention, famously made a quite important intervention to try to rescue the reputation of shame as a moral emotion, arguing that it could be much more productive and (indeed) conducive to self-respect and moral agency than has typically been assumed. None of his reasoning assumes anything like systematic moral theory, and his conclusions cannot be reconstructed as a systematic theory, but - if his arguments are sound - they offer a powerful 'uncovering' of truth and the possibility of 'improving upon our untutored reactions'. If you want to deny this, you have to deny that his arguments are sound (not an unreasonable position), and thus have to get into the first-order issues at play - which is already to admit that there is first-order substance to non-systematic ethical thinking.

Much the same, of course, could be said of Arendt or (certain readings of) Anscombe, and of many forms of Humeanism. Indeed, 'sentimentalism' is no more an 'anti-philosophy' than Humeanism is: arguing that a certain style of reasoning (viz., systematic moral theory) has limits is not the same as a refusal to think, and indeed is quite the opposite (https://personal.lse.ac.uk/ROBERT49/teaching/ph103/pdf/Hume_1748_Enquiry12_OnAcademicalOrSkepticalPhilosophy.pdf). (It is worth noting that Hume was a sentimentalist in the no-scare-quotes sense!)

There are, of course, arguments to be made for systematic moral theorising - for example, various full-blooded forms of moral realism seem to entail sufficiently strong deontic logics to render particularist 'sentimentalism' incoherent. But the idea that we should back systematic theory because without it we would have no way to get 'better' at morality** seems completely empty to me - first, because (as mentioned above) it's not the only way to think about ethics; second, because it's not clear that systematic moral philosophy actually has a particularly great track record of contributing to 'better' ethics.

*The last time I commented in this vein, you said you weren't making an argument, but in this paragraph it pretty clearly is an argument.

**I use this vague formulation to avoid the disputes about moral knowledge that follow from your use of the term 'epistemic position', which could very easily be accused of begging the question.

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I think that also accepting moral realism affects how sympathetic we'll be to various theoretical virtues. Simplicity doesn't matter if you're an anti-realist, it plausibly does if you're a realist. Similarly, anti-realists will be less moved by arguments like "your view entails a puzzling type of strongly emergent value," and by arguments that appeal to the historical track record of various moral theories. I also think anti-realists would be more likely to be particularists -- if there's no fact of the matter, we may expect our intuitions to be a hodge podge of different moral sentiments.

Overall, it seems like moral realism makes normative ethics more interesting and robust.

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>"I worry that this metaethical view will swiftly lead to sentimentalist complacency, at least for most people."

Assuming you believe that metaethical views can be true or false, is it more important to adopt metaethical views that are true or metaethical views that have good psychological consequences (e.g. avoiding "sentimentalist complacency")? How much attention should we pay to such psychological consequences when deciding what metaethical views to accept?

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My reaction to Sebo’s repugnant conclusion is to think that there’s no fact of the matter. I don’t endorse the rationalist or the sentimentalist’s views, and I think the correct response is to view this as a false dichotomy.

I certainly don’t endorse the conclusion that we should be rationalists about the matter. Why should we be? When you say, “Sentimentalism (as understood here) is a kind of anti-philosophy, a refusal to reflect systematically on what matters.” I do not agree. I don’t think it is, or at least I don’t think that it must be, anti-philosophical.

I am sympathetic to the sentimentalist, but such sympathies need not stem from a “refusal” to “reflect systematically on what matters,” as though this is a legitimate project, but a rejection of the notion that there is anything substantive to systematically reflect on in the first place. And to insist that there is (not that you’re doing so) would beg the question against myself or anyone else who denies this on philosophical grounds. For comparison, it wouldn’t be anti-philosophical for an atheist to refuse to systematically reflect on the nature of the Trinity. One can, on philosophical grounds, deny theism, and, as a result, such questions become moot. Likewise from a potential sentimentalist’s perspective, or my own.

I’m a bit puzzled as to why you think sentimentalism could lead to complacency. Why do you think it would do so? And why would giving up moral realism have any implications for your normative values? To me, this sounds a bit like someone saying that if they came to believe their favorite food wasn’t objectively tasty, and was merely subjectively tasty, that they’d become less interested in eating it, and more indifferent between eating their favorite foods and foods they despise. And that would strike me as a very strange reaction. I don’t think food would taste any better if gastronomic realism were true, and I don’t think people’s lives would matter any more to me if moral realism were true.

Regarding normative authority: I find this to be one of the most perplexing features of realism of all. I am only interested in acting in accordance with my personal values. If the objective moral facts were inconsistent with my goals, I wouldn’t care at all, and would simply not comply with them. Realists insisting that I’d be making some kind of “mistake,” and could somehow show this were true, all this would lead me to conclude is that I am committed to making certain kinds of mistakes, which I’d then proceed to make. The kind of “authority” moral realists seem to want doesn’t have any teeth. We could just ignore it, and there are no meaningful consequences. The only consequence seems to be that my actions wouldn’t be anointed with particular terminological designations, as though the mere act of labeling an action “bad” or “wrong,” is some kind of cosmic sanction against it.

In your conclusion, you state, “Moral realism, with its associated belief in stance-independent moral truths, encourages uncomfortable yet intrinsically plausible principles like impartiality.”

What do you mean by “intrinsically” plausible?

“This seems an important point. For the truth (on robust realism) may diverge significantly from your personal values—and what’s more, you can appreciate that there’s some sense in which the true values matter more than your personal values do. “

This is the kind of remark I find truly perplexing. “True moral values,” don’t matter more *to me* than my personal values do. And my personal values are the only kind of mattering that matters to me. In other words, the only things that matter to me are precisely those things that matter to me, and it doesn’t matter to me whether something “matters” independently of how much it matters to me. I am baffled at the notion that anyone else would care how much things “matter,” rather than how much things matter to them. Why does it matter to you how much something “matters”?

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“Only on this view, I think, does it make sense for us to constrain our personal values in light of possible views that we’re confident we would never ourselves endorse.”

I have trouble understanding the phrase, “constrain our personal values.” My values are my values. What does it mean to constrain them? That I think of myself as fallible, so I may be mistaken? That I think of others as disagreeing, and not being obviously mistaken to do so? That I tolerate other persons living according to other values? Maybe I missed something important in the article, nothing really seems to fit here for me.

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