The Dennes Room

Event Detail

Thu Nov 13, 2008
Howison Library, 4:10–6 PM
Philosophy Colloquium
Nishi Shah (Amherst College)
The Limits of Normative Detachment

John Mackie famously argued that the objective purport of moral discourse requires that values be part of the fabric of the universe, but that the universe, at least as it has been disclosed to us by the natural sciences, contains no such “queer” properties. Nor have the natural sciences disclosed any perceptual or other capacities that would allow us to detect the presence of such properties, even if they did exist. Mackie thus claimed that moral judgments are not what they sometimes appear to be: warranted, true statements of objective fact. The Kantian strategy in ethics is to demonstrate that certain norms are inescapable for practical agents. I want to investigate whether there is an interpretation of the Kantian strategy that can answer or at least mollify the worry pressed by error-theorists that our normative judgments are based on an illusion. Is there a way of understanding the Kantian strategy as a method of arriving at normative truths? If not, might the Kantian strategy be used to undermine the threat that we are duped in our judgments about such fundamental norms in some other way?

The first section of the paper explores a tempting line of thought that leads to a constructivist interpretation of the Kantian strategy. Constructivism, if true, would justify treating the Kantian strategy as a method for arriving at normative truths. I will argue, though, that a constructivist interpretation is of dubious coherence, and in any case is unavailable to those who seek to apply the Kantian strategy across the board to doxastic and practical norms alike. The second section examines a more defensive strategy that the Kantian might employ against an error-theorist. I describe an argument that attempts to show that, even absent a demonstration that it is a method for arriving at normative truths, the Kantian strategy, if applied to both practical and doxastic norms, is invulnerable to any completely general argument that all of our normative judgments are false. I conclude with some reflections on the implications of this argument for the practice of metaethics.