Part 4 (“Ethics”) of Knowledge, Reality, and Value contains four chapters that seem extremely reasonable to me, and one that continues to strike me as deeply wrong.  As a result, I’m going to split the discussion into two parts.  This week: the extremely reasonable Chapters 13-16.  Next week: The deeply wrong Chapter 17.

As usual, I will focus almost entirely on my disagreements with Huemer’s careful, enlightening, and inspiring book.

Chapter 13: Metaethics

When defending moral realism, Huemer places a fair amount of weight on linguistic evidence:

The most obvious problem with non-cognitivism is that moral statements act exactly like proposition-asserting statements in all known respects. They do not act like interjections (like “Ouch!”), commands (like “Pass the tequila”), or any other non-assertive sentences.

While I agree with Huemer’s conclusion, I find this evidence less probative than he does.  Why?  Because human beings often frame non-assertions as assertions for rhetorical effect.  “Yay for the Dodgers!” is almost equivalent in meaning to “Dodgers rule!”  Yes, grammatically you can say, “The Dodgers rule is false,” but not “Yay for the Dodgers is false.”  But at least for football fans, the former is almost equivalent to, “Boo on the Dodgers!”

The introspective evidence against non-cognitivism is much stronger.  While many people treat ethics as a team sport rather than an intellectual endeavor, almost no one will admit to doing so.  Why?  Because almost everyone thinks that moral reasoning, unlike sports fandom, is supposed to be a search for moral truth, not a celebration of identity.

Okay, I think this might be what is really motivating nihilists and other anti-realists: Objective values are weird. In fact, one famous argument against moral realism is officially named “the argument from queerness”. If there are objective values, they are very different from all the things that science studies…

Maybe weirdness just amounts to being very different from other things. But then, lots of things are weird in that sense. Matter, space, time, numbers, fields, and consciousness are all weird (different from other things). Why should we believe that weird things don’t exist? This is just a very lame argument.

The underlying idea, I think, is that STEM contains the totality of “real knowledge” and everything else is just poetry (or garbage).  Thus, I’ve known quite a few engineers who scoffed at the idea of “social science.”  Why did they scoff?  The problem was not merely that social science has been intellectually subpar so far; the problem is that social science is just too imprecise/subjective/whatever to ever be intellectually satisfactory.  Of course, engineers have social science views, too.  At the meta-level, though, they think these discussions are inherently phony.  And if that goes for social science, obviously it will go for ethics as well.

Huemer and I would agree that this view is absurd, but that’s what we’re up against.

Chapter 14: Ethical Theory, 1: Utilitarianism

Huemer’s chapter on utilitarianism is great.  My only notable disagreement comes near the end:

That being said, utilitarianism is not a crazy view (pace some of its opponents). I grow more sympathetic to it as time passes.

I say utilitarianism is utterly crazy.  After all, as Huemer previously told us:

It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate how extreme the demands of utilitarianism really are. If you have a reasonably comfortable life, the utilitarian would say that you’re obligated to give away most of your money. Not so much that you would starve, of course (because if you literally starve, that’ll prevent you from giving away any more!). But you should give up any non-necessary goods that you’re buying, so you can donate the money to help people whose basic needs are not met. There are always plenty of such people. To a first approximation, you have to give until there is no one who needs your money more than you do.

If that’s not crazy, what is?

And yes, the right answer to the Trolley Problem is that you may not murder one man to save five.  (Even if you think otherwise, however, don’t miss the Trial by Trolley card game!)

Chapter 15: Ethical Theory, 2: Deontology

Here’s another example, which Kant actually discusses: Say you’re sailing a cargo ship. Your ship has cargo that belongs to someone else, which you promised to deliver to its destination. The ship runs into a storm, and it is in danger of sinking unless some weight is thrown overboard. According to Kant, it would be wrong to throw any of the cargo overboard, since that would involve breaking your promise and intentionally destroying someone else’s property. So you just have to take your chances. Maybe the ship will sink, destroying the cargo and killing everyone aboard, but at least you would not have intentionally destroyed it.

As you’ve probably noticed, that’s also crazy. I think all this is much crazier than utilitarianism.

I’m tempted to say “equally crazy,” but Kant makes the added mistake of forgetting implicit and hypothetical contracts.  Namely: Most customers wouldn’t want the crew to have this level of care, because they’d have to pay a markedly higher price to purchase this ultra-premium service.  Even on his own terms, then, Kant should only condemn the crew for destroying cargo if customers paid an explicit upcharge to die before destroying cargo.

Though the chapter is great, Huemer is oddly ambivalent at the end:

Finally, moderate deontology requires drawing seemingly arbitrary lines, and it also seems to create the possibility of cases in which two or more actions are each wrong, and yet the combination of them is morally okay.
Overall, I judge the problems for moderate deontology to be the least bad.

There is little reason for “arbitrary line” problems to bother an intuitionist.  Should you murder one innocent to save X lives?  We have clear intuitions for X<5, which, given the uncertainty of the world, resolves almost all cases.  And for the “two or more actions,” problems, what’s wrong with implicit or hypothetical consent, which Huemer analyzes in depth in The Problem of Political Authority?

Is moderate deontology fully intellectually satisfactory?  No.  But why the doleful “least bad” rather than the hopeful “rather good”?

Chapter 16: Applied Ethics, 1: The Duty of Charity

After a fantastic discussion of the Drowning Child argument, Huemer veers into social science:

It is true that there is a correlation between fertility (birth rates) and poverty – the countries with high fertility tend to also be poor. This is not, however, because fertility causes poverty. It’s the reverse: Poverty causes people to have more children. When people’s income goes up, they do not generally increase the number of children they have; they decrease it.

In terms of raw averages, Huemer is right: If you regress fertility on income alone, higher income predicts lower fertility.  However, if you add more variables, the picture changes.  At least in the US, for example, the highest-fertility people have high income combined with low education.  (A few paragraphs later, Huemer discusses the fertility-education connection, but as far as I can tell he doesn’t treat this as a competing hypothesis).

How can this be? When people get more money, they can afford to have more children, so why doesn’t their fertility increase? The answer is basically that children take up your time, and, in wealthy nations, people have other things they’d like to do with their time. For one thing, if you have lots of kids, that can interfere with your career; so the better your career prospects are, the greater the deterrent to having kids.

Lots of economists say the same, but on reflection this is hardly adequate.  Taking vacations “interferes with your career,” too, but richer people take more vacation time, not less.  What’s really going on is quite puzzling.  I spend most of chapter 5 of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids trying to figure it out.

Taking all this into account, if we can alleviate world poverty, this would actually reduce population growth. We’ll get a smaller population, living at a higher standard of living.

If true, this is probably the best consequentialist argument against alleviating world poverty.  After all, most poor people are happy to be alive.  If saving the lives of the most miserable of the world’s poor causes their total population to greatly shrink, how is that a win?


Let me close with one of the best gems in this portion of the book:

Intuition is just like reason, observation, and memory in this respect: You can’t check its reliability without using it. You probably don’t think (and very few moral anti-realists think) that we should ignore reason, observation, and memory; therefore, you also shouldn’t ignore intuition merely because it can’t be checked without using intuition itself.

The analogy to memory is especially compelling.  Memory is highly fallible.  Memory varies so much between people.  Yet we can’t do without it.  Even math relies on memory!  After all, at any stage in mathematical proof, you are relying on your memory that previous steps were accurate.

The same applies at least as strongly to natural science.  Unless you’re directly staring at something, natural science is based not on observation and experimentation, but on what we remember about past observation and experimentation.

Fortunately, that’s OK.