TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Defending Moral Realism

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Lukas Szrot looks at Anthony M. Matteo’s “In Defense of Moral Realism” from Telos 106 (Winter 1996).

Anthony M. Matteo’s “In Defense of Moral Realism” offers a fascinating argument. He begins with the seemingly innocuous premise that philosophy, and by extension theorizing of any stripe, should be linked to what people actually do. Philosophy of science is his analogue, the obtuse, jargon-laden pages of such work often seeming to generate little useful insight for the practitioners of science. An account of morality, by analogy, should be useful to practicing moral agents.

Matteo discusses an ineradicable connection between metaphysics and ethics, and associates “antirealist” ethical approaches such as emotivism and relativism with the ascent of positivism.

Hilary Putnam has been particularly vocal in stressing the need for a broader concept of rationality than positivist epistemology allows, one able to make sense of complex theoretical and practical judgments. “[T]he idea that science (in the sense of exact science) exhausts rationality is seen to be a self-stultifying error. The very activity of arguing about the nature of rationality presupposes a conception of rationality wider than that of laboratory testability. . . . [A]ny conception of rationality broad enough to embrace philosophy—not to mention linguistics, mentalistic psychology, history, clinical psychology, and so on—must embrace much that is vague, ill-defined, no more capable of being ‘scientized’ than was the knowledge of our forefathers. The horror of what cannot be ‘methodized’ is nothing but method fetishism; it is time we got over it.” (66)

It would seem that philosophers, theorists, and experts across many fields have every reason to agree with Putnam, or else their own intellectual endeavors would be excluded by their own definitions of rationality. Matteo argues that “when not filtered through the distorting prism of a flawed epistemological model, moral experience teaches that ‘facts’ and ‘values’ are not utterly distinct: well supported ethical norms must have a factual basis in what does and does not produce human well being (eudaimonia)” (66, italics in original). There is such a thing as human nature, given the seeming commonality between human beings across time and culture, even if we cannot pin down explicitly what that nature is. There is less disagreement in ethical precepts than relativists would lead us to believe, for societies that ignore “macro-level” ethical duties, such as caring for offspring and dealing honestly with peers, do so at their own peril. A second theme emerges: “In ethics, disagreement about some fact does not imply that there is no fact to be found” (67).

Then, a poignant appeal:

Consider, in this context, the numerous tribal and ethnic conflicts in the world today. It is sobering to realize that those directly responsible for the carnage, and those who indirectly support their efforts, are not moral aliens. They love their families, are loyal to their friends, and can be compassionate to those of their own circle. They differ from more peaceful human beings in that they assume that members of tribes or ethnic groups which are their historical enemies are such a lesser breed of humanity that they ought not be accorded equal treatment and protection but are fit objects of pillage, rape, and slaughter. (70, italics in original)

Without postulating a common ethical bond implicit among all human beings, how might one go about criticizing such behaviors? Matteo seems to accuse relativists of overplaying their hand: the cultural distinctiveness of different groups of humans, developing in different parts of the world to meet different needs, rightly resists outside pressures toward Weberian de-differentiation, the transformation of every corner of the world into a reflection of Western, technocratic-consumerist society. Matteo is explicitly aware of this oft-brandished counterargument to any suggestion of universal ethical precepts, and seems to support (at least by acknowledging as probably inevitable) the continuation of such diversity. However, it is possible to respect other cultures while also championing universal moral truths. “But, if human nature explains the large scale ethical similarities among communities, why are there ethical differences? Can those committed to moral realism provide a more plausible account of such differences than relativists?” (69).

Matteo’s answer to this question is threefold. First, communities can, and at times do, fail in their ethical duties. The child prostitution business in East Asia offers a stirring counterexample to the relativist pronouncements that situate morality within socio-historical consensus. Second, Matteo turns to the question of universal versus particular conceptions of human beings. Ethical relativism falls flat in the face of the dehumanization of the enemy “other.” If ethics are relative to time and place, there is no remedy for such atrocities; relativists cannot even offer a consistent basis for moral indignation. Matteo’s third point reveals the source of confusion in relativist thinking: “The justification of a belief is relative to historical and social context, but not its truth” (71). After all, as Matteo points out, people once thought the earth was the center of the cosmos. “Earlier generations were no doubt justified in believing that the earth was flat and located at the center of the solar system, but they were nonetheless mistaken. Given what is known today, it is impossible to hold such beliefs” (71).

Having dealt with relativism, Matteo then turns to pragmatist conceptions of morality. Although the pragmatist is correct to note that “community members manifest little anxiety about philosophical vindication of their run-of-the-mill ethical practices,” it is “precisely because they are rooted in a metaphysical foundation so deeply entrenched and widely accepted in their traditions . . . [that it goes] unquestioned” (72). Metaphysics is anathema to pragmatists and nonfoundationalists. However, Matteo views morality sans metaphysics as unable to establish or maintain the objectivity of ethical demands. “Nietzsche went to the heart of the matter on this issue. If all metaphysical support for moral beliefs and practices is jettisoned, then intellectual honesty demands a transvaluation of values with only the will-to-power as a justification for moral preferences” (74).

Matteo goes on to suggest, “The fact is that any ‘scientific’ account of human behavior solely in terms of genes and environment simply cannot do justice to the intentional and valuational aspects of human beings. One might as well expect the aesthetic qualities of the ‘Mona Lisa’ or ‘Starry Night’ to be explained in toto by a chemical analysis of the paints used respectively by Da Vinci and Van Gogh” (75). Here Matteo cautions against a pernicious reductionism that renders human beings “nothing but” a bundle of chemicals reacting to external stimuli. Human beings learn, grow, and create in ways that are not readily accounted for in these terms. We are more than the sum of our parts, to use a familiar cliché; we are an instance of self-consciousness, of emergent complexity (whatever that might mean), and are better understood in such terms. Accounting for human behavior requires the broader and deeper levels of analysis offered by historians, social theorists, and others whose work, as Putnam argues, resists being “scientized” in any methodologically exact sense. The interactive facets of human behavior cannot be adequately explained away by a quasi-behavioristic analysis.

Matteo goes further:

Undergirded by this more expansive epistemology, the works of ancient and medieval moral theorists could then be read as an aid in the contemporary search for an adequate theoretical foundation for distinguishing good from evil. Then it may even be possible to reintroduce theological and philosophical terms such as God, sin, virtue, soul, natural law, and human telos when seeking to explain human behavior . . . this should not be done out of some conservative or antiquarian perversity, but because honest scrutiny has revealed that moral experience just cannot be adequately articulated without them. (76)

Viewing theological and philosophical concepts as integral to human solidarity bears fruit when delving into sociology and anthropology. Yet we must remain on guard against relativism, for different (and no more or less socio-historically contingent) metaphysical notions are present in other cultures, and it is unclear a priori how Western, or specifically Judeo-Christian, metaphysical views lead unproblematically to “objective, universal moral truth” while others do not. Matteo has adroitly addressed some of the profound and fascinating difficulties in attempting a systematic, philosophical examination of ethics.

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