Harman addresses the question ‘Is There a Single True Morality?’ he addresses that in philosophy, this issue is still unresolved. He breaks down the issue as being between relativists and absolutists who believe that there is a moral code that applies to everyone.
There are two different approaches that can be taken when answering this question.
1. Finding a place of value and obligation in the world of science
2. Ignoring this and concentrate on ethics autonomously of science
Both sides agree that we must begin with our initial beliefs and consider possible modifications that will make these beliefs more coherent with each other. The ultimate hope is to find a reflexive equilibrium between the two sides of the argument. Harman writes that the conflict between the two sides is how values and obligation fit into a world of facts if at all. Harman names the two approaches with the former being referred to as naturalism and the latter as being autonomous ethics.
Harman defines naturalism as “the thesis that moral judgement can be analyzed into or reduced to factual statements of a sort clearly compatible with the scientific worldview” (Harman 167). This perspective stipulates that for there to be a single true morality, it is necessary for it to be consistent with our scientific worldview as this is the way that facts about the world come to be. There are two different views that this can lead to.
1. A naturalistic reduction
2. The view that ethics can’t fit into the natural world
The latter is going to be a much more accepted view than the prior as it is very difficult to form a naturalistic reduction about ethics. The latter represents the view of moral nihilism, which opposes absolutism, as it stipulates that ethics requires the absolute values which have the property that anyone aware of them must be motivated to act morally but since science has no place for these sorts of entities, this is not a tenable view (Harman 167). Naturalism can also lead to a non-cognitive analysis which states that moral judgements recommend a certain course of action.
Autonomous ethics is the view that “we attach no special importance to saying how obligations and values can be a part of this world” (Harman 168). This view is the opposite of naturalism and states that moral obligations are not dependent on science. Typically for this approach, an initial assumption of moral absolutism leads to the thesis that there are “basic moral demands that apply to all moral agents” (Harman 168). It claims that “each of us has insight into truths of certain moral principles” (Harman 168). Harman clarifies that there are many ways in which ethics can be pursued as a discipline independent of science. Autonomous ethics does not have to lead to a person being an absolutist but in many circumstances, it does.
Why do we believe what we believe?
Naturalists believe that there are important differences between being our “factual and moral beliefs” (Harman 170). They believe that moral beliefs can be explained in terms of upbringing, psychology etc. without having to appeal to an independent realm of values and obligation. Harman writes that naturalists want to be able to locate value, justice, right, wrong etc. in the same way that they can locate colors and temperature through science. Many naturalists are relativists since most will believe that there is no naturalistic reduction of morals to science and because of this, they will be unable to conceive absolute truths about the world.
Defenders of autonomous ethics claim that we believe something is good, right or wrong, just because it is. While naturalists argue that ethics can be explained solely through science, defenders of autonomous ethics believe that there are other factors that also affect ethics. They argue that it is more intuitive that there are things that we know are right or wrong than that all morals come from science. For the most part, this approach of having an ethics autonomous of science leads to an initial assumption of moral absolutism which states that there are basic moral demands that apply to all moral agents.
Moral Absolutism Defined:
Harman defines moral absolutism in the text as “a view about the moral reasons people have to do things and to want to or hope for things” with absolute values as being “a belief that there are things that everyone has a reason to hope or wish for” (Harman 171). He also stipulates that for his purposes, he is also going to count an ideal moral code as a form of moral absolutism but that there is not an absolute moral code that everyone ought to follow.
Argument for Relativism:
Premise 1: A person with a sufficient reason to do something might fail to reason in this way only because of some sort of empirically discoverable failure.
Harman lists inattention, lack of time, failure to consider, ignorance of certain available evidence, an error in reasoning, some sort of irrationality, or weakness of will as potential reasons for why a failure to do as one ought could occur.
Premise 2: There are people such as certain professional criminals who don’t act in accordance with alleged requirements not to harm or injure others where it is not due to inattention or failure to consider etc.
There are people such as criminals who clearly do not adhere to these requirements and will rationally decide to inflict harm on others. It follows from this that there are people who do not have sufficient moral reasons to adhere to general prohibition of harm. Harman writes that this does not excuse them of this but rather criminals may just not have sufficient reason to act in accordance with the principle.
Assessing premise 1-
The naturalist argues that it is due to inattention, lack of focus etc. that someone would fail to do something that they have sufficient reason to do. All of the reasons given are instances of failure that can be empirically shown to make someone do something that they have sufficient reason not to do, but an absolutist argues that it does not have to be something that can be attributed to science such as just being irrational, or they could just be immoral. “It appeals to the notion that something is wrong with someone where what might be wrong is simply that the person is bad or immoral” (Harman 175). In essence, the conflict between these two views comes down to the naturalist arguing that the aspects of failure are compatible with the scientific worldview while the absolutist argues that they do not have to be.
Assessing premise 2-
Absolutists allow grounds not reducible to science to explain why someone, a criminal for example, would do something that they have sufficient reason not to do. The naturalist recognizes that there are such people such as criminals who do things that they have sufficient reason not to do and no scientifically grounds for thinking that this is an illusion. The autonomist assumption is that criminals will harm other people because they are irrational, something that is not scientifically calculable, which can account for this illusion.
Example- A criminal could apply the moral that one shouldn’t harm others, but only to his own in group which would still allow him to justify harming others that aren’t within his group.
An autonomist would say that the moral principle that you shouldn’t harm others is universal and wouldn’t apply only to those in the in group of the criminal. The relativist will argue that if rationality is conceived normatively, then it will become a relative notion. In the end, a naturalist will only consider naturalistic aspects of the criminal where the absolutist, as an autonomist will think about an unreduced normative aspect which is something that a naturalist can’t appeal to (Harman 176). Both of these premises depend on an assumption of naturalism and so an autonomist can reject these premises by appealing to autonomous ethics.
Naturalists argue that beginning with our initial beliefs, we are led to develop a view of the world that must be consistent with science while defenders of autonomous ethics argue that we begin with our initial moral beliefs and from there search for general principles. Harman ultimately concludes that one’s answer to the question: Is there a single true morality? depends on to whether one believes that moral judgements have to be consistent with a scientific worldview. Depending on their answer to this answer one can become either a naturalist or a defender of autonomous ethics which Harman concludes, are both acceptable views.