How should we do ethics if we cannot rely on not-justified-inferentially premises? Greene (2014) and Singer (2005) propose some kind of consequentialism. But there is insufficient reason to accept that problems of cooperative living are best solved by computing a singe attribute. And cutting up healthy people to distribute their organs will not end well.
A better approach may be to accept that we do not know anything much about ethics and adopt the attitude of a successful gambler. In making moral decisions, having a consistent set of principles is not the goal. Identifying and exploiting favourable risk-reward ratios is.
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How should we do ethics if we cannot rely on not-justified-inferentially premises?
Greene (2014) and Singer (2005) propose some kind of consequentialism. Such theories have many implications covering every decision you and I make, large or small. But the arguments for them are not compelling. There is insufficient reason to accept that the problems of cooperative living are best solved by computing a singe attribute. And cutting up healthy people to distribute their organs will not end well.
Rawls (1999)’s idea of reflective equilibrium would lead to a kind of subjectivism. We each start from whatever not-justified-inferentially premises seem right to us. This might work reasonably well as long as people have the same sense of what seems right. But you and I live in societies containing multiple cultures between which there may be significant differences in what seems right (see Operationalising Moral Foundations Theory). Since we face challenges that we can only solve together within the limits of democracy, an approach to ethics based on reflective equilibrium fails on the most basic requirement. Our ethical abilities should facilitate cooperative living.
Perhaps the difficulty we find ourselves in will drive us to meta-ethics. Perhaps we should think of ethics as more like language or religion than like physics after all. Linguistic abilities enable us to communicate to some degree. Environmental and technological changes place new demands on communication. What evolution and experience provide can be enhanced by cultural innovations such as systems of writing and standardization. These are especially effective when based on a deep understanding of the psychological processes that enable any communication at all. Maybe discoveries in ethics also require collective cultural innovation.
Meanwhile we face practical problems with ethical aspects. Choosing careers, giving money and time, staying here or moving there. Some people even experience buying a coffee, shopping for food and disposing of their waste as actions with an ethical dimension. Here I think it is helpful to know that we do not know what is right. The complexity of even the most mundane decisions contrasts with the slender justification we might have for any general ethical principle or theory. This is just the kind of situation that calls for gambling.
We can make bets. To illustrate, consider Pogge’s question:
Do ‘the global poor have a much stronger moral claim to that 1 percent of the global product they need to meet their basic needs than we affluent have to take 81 rather than 80 percent for ourselves’? (Pogge, 2005, p. 2)
Confidently making a bet on the answer to this question does not require knowing ethical truths. Nor does it entail commitment to any ethical principles. Gambling is about identifying and exploiting favourable risk-reward ratios, not about having a consistent set of principles.
Pogge’s approach also illustrates one way in which philosophy is useful independently of yielding knowledge of ethical truths. Much of Pogge’s argument is an attempt to show that opposing ethical theories generate the same answer to the above question. And, in particular, that libertarianism, which is usually thought of as strong on property rights and so opposed to redistribution, does nevertheless support a positive answer to his question about the global poor. As ethical gamblers, the existence of multiple routes to the same answer, especially multiple routes with inconsistent starting points, is exactly the kind of thing that can increase our confidence in a bet.
Claims made on the basis of perception (_That jumper is red_, say) are typically not-justified-inferentially.
Why not just say ‘noninferentially justified’? Because that can be read as implying that the claim is justified, noninferentially. Whereas ‘not-justified-inferentially’ does not imply this. Any claim which is not justified at all is thereby not-justified-inferentially.