Wednesday 9/11

Standards of Evaluation

Please note that we have the first of our examinations today. We'll begin with the exam, so it is very important that you arrive on time. Plan on 45 minutes or so for the exam, after which I'll summarize our discussion of moral normative theory and the standards by which we will evaluate such theories.

Readings

Notes

Synopsis

Today we took the first of our examinations. It seemed to go well, although we'll have to wait for Brianna to go over them to know for sure.

In the remaining thirty minutes or so we completed our discussion of the Standards of Evaluation by developing the Standard of Reflective Equilibrium.

Recall that the implications of scientific theory are descriptive statements: Science seeks to describe the way the world is, and thus enjoys a significant advantage insofar as experiments can be conducted to determine whether the world in fact is the way the science describes it as being.

The implications of ethical theory are, however, prescriptive statements. Ethics seeks to prescribe the way the world ought to be. Learning how the world is by experiment is no test for how it ought to be; hence we cannot conduct experiments in ethics.

What we can do, though, is conduct thought experiments to tease out our reasoned intuitions--emphasis on 'reasoned' or 'justified'. Enter, that is to say, the Standard of Reflective Equilibrium.

Recall that according to this standard, an acceptable (read: "possibly true") moral normative theory must cohere with the moral intuitions together with the arguments of experienced and intelligent moral agents.

Now, it is important to note that no theory could be true which fails to meet the standards of Clarity and Coherence.

But it is possible for a theory to fail the standard of Reflective Equilibrium and still be true. Remember that using even our best justified moral intuition to test a moral normative theory is touchy at best. At one time, moral intuition held that it was morally permissible to own another person--i.e., slavery was held to be morally right--and it was controversial to argue otherwise!

Moral intuition--even that for which we demand clear and careful justification--can be dramatically, sometimes tragically, faulty. This is why the standard of Reflective Equilibrium is so-named: Our best (read: "most defensible") moral intuitions can be used to test the implications of a theory, with the caveat that our best theories should likewise inform our best moral intuitions.

For example, some experienced, intelligent people in the U.S. insist that their moral intuition implies that homosexuality is morally wrong. But our best theories--the moral normative theories not rejected by the Standards of Evaluation, thus giving us good reason for thinking that one of them will turn out to be true--imply, contrariwise, that homosexuality is morally permissible. Since one of these theories, or some refined version of one of these theories, will likely turn out to be true, we have good reason for rejecting what their moral intuition implies about homosexuality.

To help clarify our discussion of the Standards of Evaluation, let us adopt the following terminology. We shall say that an ethical theory

  1. Fails to meet a standard of evaluation if an apparently sound argument can be given to show that the theory does not meet the standard and there do not appear to be any counter-arguments available to show that the argument is unsound.
  2. Arguably Fails to meet a standard of evaluation if an argument can be given to show that the theory does not meet the standard and yet there appear to be counter-arguments available to show that the argument is unsound.
  3. Arguably Passes a standard of evaluation if arguments to show that the theory fails appear to be unsound on the basis of suitable counter-arguments.
  4. Passes a standard of evaluation if there do not appear to be any arguments available to show that the theory fails.

So it is possible, resuming our discussion of Reflective Equilibrium, for the true moral normative theory to arguably fail to meet the standard of Reflective Equilibrium since our best moral intuitions could be, quite simply, mistaken.

Next time we will illustrate our Standards of Evaluation by applying them to a moral normative theory (ethical theory) which is at once very popular and yet so gracelessly fails the standards that it serves as an excellent illustration of what not to do in putting forward an ethical theory.