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Jeremy Corren

Moral Mechanics and Social Optimization: A Pragmatic Defense of Moral Realism

Meta-ethical discourse among skeptics and realists aims to demystify the second-order properties of
moral facts. These properties include their ontological status, the source of their normative force, and
the ways in which they can be observed and verified. Moral skeptic J. L. Mackie argues for an error
theory, according to which objective moral facts do not exist, and objective moral statements
presupposing the existence of these facts are necessarily false. Mackie begins his defense of moral
skepticism with (1) the argument from queerness: the existence of objective values is implausible
on the grounds that they would need to be inherently moral and action-guiding; furthermore, were
they to exist, the tenuous connection between moral and natural properties casts doubt on the
possibility of observing and verifying them. Also making (2) the argument from relativity, Mackie
points to fundamentally irresolvable moral disputes across cultures as evidence that moral statements
do not reflect objective values but subjective attitudes.
In this paper I will attempt to argue a pragmatic defense of moral realism, in which I suggest that
by reconsidering our base assumptions about moral facts, we can lay the groundwork for a rationally
sound, socially applicable doctrine of practical morality. I counter Mackies argument from queerness
by citing life-value as the basic objective moral fact, one necessary for any kind of practical moral
discourse in which secondary objective values can be derived. I propose translating the metaphysical
definition of objective moral values into an operational definition of effective moral mechanisms,
measurable with respect to their efficacy as tools for optimizing social outcomes. Citing David
Brinks externalist view, I claim that moral facts or mechanisms need not be intrinsically motivating
but instead typically reason-giving for moral action. I hold that this revised definition of moral facts
is more conducive to scientistic moral inquiry involving empirical observation of moral mechanics
and statistical evaluation based on probabilities of social efficacy. This seems to be a sufficient litmus
test for differentiating objective moral goods versus non-goods, or in traditional language, what
works versus what does not. I counter the argument from relativity by arguing that if moral systems
do in fact share the basic objective fact of life-value, individuals across cultures can collectively
derive secondary objective values through collective moral reasoning: in this way, a shared theory of

moral valuecan be constructed on a global scale. I conclude by discrediting Mackies suggestion that
collective idealistic moral reasoning and ordinary moral thought are mutually exclusive.

I. Counter to the Argument from Queerness

Existence of objective moral facts


Mackie begins his account of the queerness of moral facts by supposing that, should they exist,
they would be entities or qualities of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the
universe. (38) He proceeds to pose the question: what is it that gives a value its intrinsic moral
essence, and how is it objective? Mackie demonstrates the queerness of moral facts by assailing a
traditional metaphysical construct of moral value, as conceived in Platos Theory of Forms. However,
dedicating a large part of his discussion to what he describes as being among the wilder products of
philosophical fancy, Mackie sketches out a picture of objective moral value that is conveniently
doomed to disproof from the outset. (41) In the interest of honest and reasonable analysis, I propose a
reconsideration of the moral fact by moving from an abstract metaphysical concept to a more
tangible, pragmatic one.
Whether moral facts exist at all might be elucidated by some discussion about how moral value is
derived. It would not be farfetched to assume that the most basic form of value is derived from the
mere fact of existence; any secondary forms of value depend firstly on this fact. The moral realist
must claim that existence is objectively better than nonexistence in order to judge right from wrong.
Thus, whatever properties are conducive to the protection and sustenance of life-value are morally
good in an objective sense. Whatever facts are contingent on this basic fact of life-value can be called
secondary objective values. Now I will attempt to move from this raw definition to an operational
one in the context of human social life.
On a day-to-day basis, humans face circumstances in which they must choose between
alternatives, which demands some form of practical reasoning. Rational deliberation is meant to
direct the agent towards the best course of action with reference to some typically self-centered aim.
Moral deliberation is meant to direct the agent towards the best course of action, measured not only
by its efficacy in achieving a desired aim, but also by how that action sits in accord with some
normative code. Normative codes tend to prioritize collective social aims over essentially individual

ones, yet they frame their priorities in such a way that individual and social values can be reconciled
on the whole. But what makes a moral proposition about what is right or wrong true or false?
The operational definition could be stated thusly: a moral fact is no more than a condition or set of
conditions that either optimizes or worsens social outcomes for a given set of individuals. What is
morally right is that condition that facilitates social optimization. Here we can define social
optimization as the state of affairs in which the basic moral fact of life-value is best sustained. Each
action that contributes to social optimization, or the sustenance of life-value for individuals within a
social group, is objectively morally good, and that which threatens this state of affairs is objectively
morally bad.A moral fact about what is right to do in a given situation can be viewed as a policy that
directs each member of a group to perform the action which contributes to social optimization. In this
way, it would be better to judge a moral fact by its efficacy or inefficacy with reference to standards
of collective well-being, as opposed to whether it bears truth or falsity. So far, I have only claimed
that objective moral goods, which I relabel effective moral mechanisms, are those which maintain
social well-being as derived from life-value, and I will not make any substantive moral arguments
about what these mechanisms specifically engender apart from this general idea.
The moral skeptic might voice two concerns: firstly, that on a materialist view, it does not
necessarily follow from any empirical fact that life objectively holds value, and that treating this as
the basis for secondary objective values is by no means valid; secondly, that even if this value were
agreed upon, arguments could be leveled against the principle of equal life-value. The realist cannot
prove per se the objective worth of lifebut he can find good reason to accept it as a basic moral
fact simply because it is a necessary assumption for moral discourse. The materialists rejection of
this fact may be irrefutable, but his rejection would also close the door altogether on any further
discussion, in particular about what could be promoted or discouraged in accord with life-value. It
should be noted that my argument for assuming this basic moral fact is grounded in pragmatist
concern rather than rigorous metaphysical argument. But consider an analog for this moral quandary
in natural science. Physicists disagree about the nature of free willit cannot be proven or refuted on
purely empirical grounds. Still, one can reasonably assert that the belief in free will is a necessary
precondition for any kind of discourse about human circumstances at all. An individuals position on
this issue may or not be compatible with a deterministic worldview, but practical constraints demand
it of him anyway. The same holds for the individual who must perform a logical leap in order to hold
moral assumptions about life-value. Secondly, I must deal with the problem of value-allocation, in

which some may proceed from the basic moral fact I assumed by hierarchizing life-value within a set
of individuals to forge an unequal society. This is a powerful challenge to the moral realist, and I
could do no more than respond that while it is both reasonable and in the social interests of humans
to assume life-value, instating unequal value-distribution would require non-arbitrary justification. I
would reject the possibility of doing so primarily due to the absence of unequivocal evidence in
support of differentiating the value of persons, especially according to the standards of social
optimization we derived from our basic principle.

Objective prescriptivity of moral facts


Mackie advances his skeptical position by challenging the notion that moral facts motivate agents
to perform correct moral actions. He takes issue with the doctrine that the mere knowledge of a moral
fact (putting aside the possibility of knowing and verifying moral facts until later on) automatically
provides the knower with a direction and an overriding motive. (40) Mackie poses the question:
what about a moral fact makes it intrinsically motivating? Mackies question challenges the realist
with an immediate epistemological difficulty.
David Brink provides some latitude for the moral realist in his response to Mackie, in which he
draws a distinction between internalism, the doctrine that mere recognition of moral facts
necessarily motivates or provides reason for action and externalism, which denies this. (114) Brink
contends that the existence of moral facts is not dependent on internalism, and therefore, objective
moral values can be recognizable but not necessarily motivating. This argument falls neatly into the
lap of the pragmatic moral realism I argue for. I have chosen a social context as the relevant backdrop
of this discussion, and in this context, laws and social obligations function as moral mechanisms that
optimize social outcomes. In accord with the externalist view, these mechanisms are not
automatically motivating; if they were, they would psychologically coerce individuals into
performing specific approved actions.
Mackie would balk at this position and ask: what sort of weight does an objective moral value
carry if it is not intrinsically motivating? He might ask how a value has moral relevance at all if it is
not action-guiding. I would ask him to consider two cases, both of which concern the consequences
of acting against the mechanisms that express these values. We will deal first with the breaker of
laws. Suppose that a man performs a crime; he will be immediately penalized for his actions. Acting
against moral mechanisms of a legal nature is effectively deterred by the punishmentthus, the

moral value is in some way motivating, even if not intrinsically. Moreover, by this reasoning, actions
that worsen social outcomes will be de-incentivized. We then turn to the social transgressor, he who
commits not a crime punishable by law but some offense that invites the bad opinion of others. The
social losses, in the form of damage to reputation and personal integrity, diminish this person's
capacity for what Brink calls social intercourse, which he claims all social animals have needs
and desires for. (122)
Still, Mackie might persist in his criticism by retrieving the case of Humes sensible knave. Recall
the description from Humes AnEnquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:
a sensible knave, in particular incidents, may think that an act of iniquity or infidelity will make a
considerable addition to his fortune, without causing any considerable breach in the social union and
confederacy. That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule, but is liable to many exceptions;
and he, it mayperhaps be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and
takes advantage of all the exceptions. (193)

On first glance, Humes case serves as a powerful objection to the externalist view. But setting the
effect of the rhetoric aside, what would this look like from a statistical standpoint? Eventhe sensible
knave could only takeadvantage of all the exceptions without ultimatelycausing any considerable
breach in the social union by abiding, in large part, by the social obligations expected of him. His
opportunity to cheat the system is facilitated by thediligent protection on his part of some social
integrity. If he sees a personal advantage in lying in certain cases, the knave can only continue to
serve his own ends in this way if he preserves some part of his integrity by usually telling the truth. If
he lied in every situation, the resultant distrust would eliminate future opportunities to do so
successfully, while at the same time maintaining his position. Thus, on some probabilistic account of
the ratio of right- to wrong-doing, even the sensible knave would be held to non-legal moral
standards the majority of the time. This is in agreement with Brinks contention thatmoral facts will
as a matter of fact at least typically provide agents with reasons to do the morally correct
thing. (115)

Observability and verifiability of moral facts


Mackie, working from a scientistic perspective, submits that moral facts, unlike scientific facts,
cannot be empirically discovered, validated, and induced into a theoretical framework in the same
way scientific facts can be. He assails quasi-scientific moral investigation on the grounds that an

alleged moral fact, such as wrongness, cannot be a logical or semantic necessity in relation to a
physical fact, such as the infliction of pain. (41) In particular he doubts that the relationship between
moral and physical facts are distillable to supervenience, which Brink defines as a relation of "causal
dependence. (120)Brinks account of supervenience positsthat wrongness, for example, might be
considered a higher-order property of pain infliction in the same way mental states, such as desire
or belief, supervene on specific neural configurations. Still, I suspect that Brinks analogy between
moral facts and mental states would do little to convince Mackie with his materialist convictions.
If this is the case, perhaps a more pragmatic analysis would serve the moral realists aims in this
argument better. Naturally, some discussion of the nature of both facts and empirical inquiry is in
order. A scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation. Consider this example from biology:
a microorganism is classified as a pathogen when its habitation within a given macro-organism
causes the host to contract disease. Because the pathogen destabilizes and causes significant
biological damage to the macro-organism in question, scientists describe the microorganism as an
infectious agent. Now consider a member of society who performs aggressive actions such as
violent assault or murder. Because his actions destabilize and cause significant social damage, or deoptimization, to the greater social system, this person is labeled amoral. This value-judgment
follows from the definition of a moral fact as a condition which either contributes to or diminishes
social well-being.
The skeptic might cite the fact that such labels are not categorically definitive of either the
microbiological or human social phenomena they describe. Certainly there are aberrations with
regards to the biological or moral status of agents within systems. In the biological case, a pathogen
might make its home within certain hosts without damaging themin the same way, a person may
perform an non-law abiding action in circumstances that are to some degree justified, or that at least
do not level significant damage against society at large. In the case of the anomalous microorganism,
scientists do not question the general harmfulness of pathogens, but rather they refer to statistical
data and estimate probabilities about the biological consequences of an interaction between two types
of organisms given their characteristic properties. Similarly, those who participate in moral inquiry
can draw conclusions about which actions or conditions facilitate social harm by an analogous
empirical process. This process could consist of recording the likely consequences of said actions or
conditions in a variety of situations and deriving from the resultant probability a reasonably objective
claim about their moral value.

II. Counter to the Argument from Relativity

Cross-cultural variance among moral standards


Having countered the skeptical argument that moral facts are metaphysically and
epistemologically queer, I turn to Mackies argument from relativity, which posits that considerable
variation in moral standards across cultures reflect fundamental disagreements about moral values. If
it were true that disagreements about basic moral problems were irresolvable, as Mackie claims, the
advocate for objectivist moral realism would face an unfeasibly difficult path.
In response, I will reiterate and attempt to strengthen the argument that Mackie himself
acknowledges as a powerful counter to moral relativity. In the social framework Ive established, one
might work from the ground up. First we must ask: is our basic objective moral fact of life-value
cross-culturally importable? Any sociocultural moral code that decries the very value of life would be
a gross aberration in comparison with the global majority of human communities. Notwithstanding
moral disagreements on certain secondary moral values, the widespread agreement that life ought to
be protected supports the pragmatic moral realists general premise. And if it is true that cultural
variances do not run so deep as to dispute the basic moral fact from which all others must follow, it
might be possible to iron out some of these secondary moral disagreements. Brink makes the case
that a great deal of moral disagreements stem from disagreements about non-moral facts. (117) It is
a compelling notion, that given the superficial differences in secondary disagreements, interlocutors
in cross-cultural moral discourse could very well construct a shared theory of moral value, with the
validity of secondary values being measured with respect to the degree that they protect and follow
from the basic fact of life-value. The argument from disagreement holds little weight in light of
fundamental moral objectivity and its role as a standard-bearer of objectivity for more specific
values.

Collective moral discourse, ordinary moral thought, and subjective attitudes


Mackie attributes the idea of widespread agreement about basic moral principles to high-minded
ethical idealists, who prescribe moral mechanisms that are very far from constituting the whole of
what is actually affirmed as basic in ordinary moral thought. (37) In other words, when an
individual describes an action or condition as wrong, this is not a reflection of a universalizable
principle but a subjective response, consisting, in unequal parts, of rational and emotional

compulsions. While most of Mackies complaints against moral realism are well qualified, this part
of the error theory appears specious at best. His strategy is best explained as denying the plausibility
of cross-cultural moral values by citing the divide between idealized moral systems and ordinary
moral thought. This strategy seems deeply flawed in its overt conflation of descriptive and normative
ethics. As we have stated here, objective moral values can be sufficiently verified as moral
mechanisms in relation to social outcomes. It is a necessary precondition of establishing the validity
of these mechanisms that the members of a society engage in serious moral discourse. Collective
reasoning predicative of what might be called social group agency helps to iron out the
inconsistencies brought on by personal biases stemming from particular non-factual beliefs, desires,
and emotions. This is the same model by which representatives of different societies can reach
common moral ground.
We can counter Mackies strategy in another way by investigating the relationship between
objective and subjective moral statements. Consider the instance in which an individual makes a
semantically objective moral statement about the validity of some action, in the form of the
unconditional X is wrong or Y should not do X. It would be negligent to ignore the subjective
influences on the statements construction, namely psychological factors such as non-factual belief or
desire. However, I want to draw attention to the fact that a moral claim can be simultaneously
informed by the individuals knowledge of its objective value, or its mechanistic social utility, as well
as by subjective psychological factors. The widely-agreed-on objective moral principle of life-value
in addition to derivative secondary values, such as rights to property, are effective foundations for
mechanisms of social optimization; at the same time, they are further validated by certain core
psychological states of belief and desire. There is no reason why objective and subjective
descriptions of moral values need be mutually exclusive, especially when values are strengthened in
the event that social and psychological notions coincide.

III. Conclusion

In a debate whose coherence is threatened by the inevitable ambiguity of metaphysical argument, I


hope to alleviate some of the obstacles in meta-ethical discourse by introducing a practical social
framework in which to address as lucidly as possible the elusive second-order properties of moral
facts. Dealing first with Mackies formulation of the argument from queerness, I began by assuming

the moral fact of life-value as a basis for deriving secondary moral values; I also proposed
constructing objective moral facts as either effective or ineffective moral mechanisms with respect to
shared standards of social optimization. I supported an externalist angle for the moral realist, citing
legal and social limitations as typical reason-givers for moral action. In response to questions about
the epistemological difficulties of moral inquiry, I followed suit in moral realist tradition by
comparing scientific and moral methodologies: I first draw attention to the importance of statistical
and probabilistic analysis of empirical data in the natural sciences and proceed by suggesting the
aptness of these methods for moral investigation. Turning to the argument from relativity, I claim that
agreement about even the most basic moral fact provides a starting point for cross-cultural moral
discourse, in which a shared system of secondary moral values can be derived this base fact. I draw a
distinction between ordinary moral thinking by individuals and idealist moral discourse by
collectives, arguing that the latter sufficiently neutralizes inconsistencies from individual subjective
biases; still, I contend that moral mechanisms are strengthened when social-collective and individualpsychological reasons for instating these mechanisms coincide. These arguments taken together
provide a pragmatic foundation for moral realism, one that not only assuages important metaphysical
and epistemological concerns but also sketches out a rough picture of how moral mechanisms can be
established.