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28.8.07

Metaethics

Chris at Mixing Memory describes a study of laypeople's metaethics -- that is, what they think about the status of ethical rules (e.g. are they objective) and how they're justified. What I found interesting was this bit (bulleting added):

Finally, at the end of the study, participants were asked to indicate how they justify their moral beliefs. They could choose from the following justifications:
* "ordained by a supreme god,"
* "every good person on earth, regardless of culture, holds these beleifs,"
* "a society could not survive without its citizens holding these beliefs,"
* "their truth is self-evident."
Each participant could pick as many of the different justifications as he or she wanted.


This list seems curiously incomplete. My own view (which is that thinkers like Habermas and Hare are in the right neighborhood in terms of basing ethics on the inevitable presuppositions of acting and explaining one's actions to others) isn't in there, but I wouldn't expect many non-philosophers to volunteer that idea. More surprising is the absence of any of the following:
* "That's the way I was raised" -- to academics, citing upbringing sounds like just the way you'd dismiss someone else's beliefs as socially constructed. But many laypeople cite their own upbringing as authoritative. An action is wrong or right precisely because my mom or dad taught me so. (Though it at times becomes circular, when the moral authority of mom and dad is justified on the basis that they do, and teach, morally right conduct).
* Some version of the harm/consent principle. I'd speculate that in a modern Western society, this would be the most popular justification, even if only for reasons of social desirability, because in a liberal society harm/consent is considered the least controversial basis for making a claim against others. Of course, you now get into questions of overlap among the rationales, since most of the other metaethical foundations have the harm/consent principle as a derivative rule. But I think there are many people whose metaethical reasoning stops with harm/consent as the bedrock axiom.
* "Wrong actions are disgusting/shameful" -- this represents a sort of affective (emotion-based) intuition, in contrast to the more cognitive (thinking/logic-based) type of intuition implied in "their truth is self-evident." Here actions are wrong if they feel bad (for a normal person) to do or think about.
* Conscience -- The idea of conscience may overlap somewhat with the two forms of intuition, or with religion (since consciences are often described as god-given), but I think it's plausible that many people would see it as a separate possibility. For them, the conscience is conceived of as a quasi-independent homonculus supplying expert ethical advice.
* Enlightened self-interest -- in contrast to the statement about the stability of society (which may be maintained by moral rules that sacrifice some individual's benefit), one may believe that morally right conduct is that which benefits the actor in the long run. My impression is that this is one of the most common views among young, educated people in the West.
* "I don't know, it just is" -- this option is important because many studies have shown how people cling to their moral evaluations even when the scenario they're evaluating is constructed so as to undercut all of their claimed rationales. This claim expresses a confidence that there is a deeper justification (in contrast to explicit intuitionism), but without being able to specify what that justification is.

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