On Richard Joyce's debunking argument

Debunking explanations of morality are receiving a lot of attention recently. In my senior seminar, we are reading Richard Joyce's The Evolution of Morality (2006). He thinks that if our current best explanation of our capacity for making moral judgments via evolution by natural selection is correct, then our moral beliefs are unjustified. The basic idea is that this current best explanation never appeals to the truth of our moral judgments in explaining why and how the moral faculties evolved.

Here's a nice summary of his argument:
We have an empirically confirmed theory about where our moral judgments come from (we are supposing). This theory [i] doesn't state or imply that they are true, [ii] it doesn't have has a background assumption that they are true, and, importantly, [iii] their truth is not surreptitiously buried in the theory by virtue of any form of moral naturalism. This amounts to the discovery that our moral beliefs are the product of a process that is entirely independent of their truth, which forces the recognition that we have no grounds one way or the other for maintaining those beliefs. (p.211; emphasis mine)
I have italicized the inference that I think is mistaken.

Consider the following belief-forming mechanism: If I read something Stephen Hawking writes about astrophysics, then I believe it. Suppose the correct explanation (corresponding to 'empirically confirmed theory' above) of why I believe that there was a big bang is that Hawking wrote 'There was a big bang,' I read it, and that I have this belief-forming mechanism.

This explanation (/'theory') of why I have this belief
(i) 'doesn't state or imply that 'There was a big bang' is true';
(ii) 'doesn't have as a background assumption that my various Hawking-derived astrophysical beliefs are true'; and
(iii) the truth of 'There was a big bang' is not 'surreptitiously buried' anywhere in the explanation of why I have this belief.

And yet, this does not 'amount to the discovery that my Hawking-derived astronomical beliefs are entirely independent of their truth.' (Of course, you can insert any other genuine expert and area in for 'Hawking' and 'astrophysics,' if you think Hawking's writings in the field aren't truth-tracking.)

So Joyce needs more than (i-iii) to demonstrate that moral judgments are unreliable.


Protagoras said...

What's involved in something being a debunking account, anyway? Is the connection with truth crucial? Hume thinks that if you understand where the moral feelings come from and how they work, you'll approve of those feelings. Perhaps that's different from showing anything about the truth of morality, but do our epistemological and metaphysical theories ever have more than some kind of similar reflective endorsement going for them? And even if Hume's account is taken as removing the truth from morality, I would have thought an account of morality should probably only be called "debunking" if it's something like the account of Thrasymachus or similar cynics, that it's all a scam; some sort of account that actively undermines moral motivation.

Vanitas said...

I don't think this is right. The point of Hawking being an expert is that the truth of the statement "there is a big bang" does figure in his writing "there was a big bang". That's just what expertise is: truth-tracking. Your belief-formation mechanism, therefore, involves truth in an essential way (you believe him because he's an expert, he's an expert because he tracks truth) Therefore, your example doesn't mirror Joyce's properly.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Hi Aaron --

Thanks for the thoughts. I think a decent form for a debunking argument is the following, taken from Paul Griffiths and John Wilkens, who got it from Guy Kahane:

P1. S's belief B is the result of belief-forming process P.
P2. Process P is not truth-tracking.
Thus, S is unjustified in believing B.

(The little argument in the quotation from the original post is an argument for P2.)

The recent self-proclaimed debunkers I am familiar with are all clear that they are NOT giving arguments that all our moral beliefs are false -- but rather that our moral beliefs are unjustified.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Hi Nick --

Thanks for stopping by!
It's certainly right that IF we want to explain WHY my belief-forming mechanism is truth-tracking, then we have to appeal to Hawking's expertise, i.e. the fact that his utterances are truth-tracking.

But for the counterexample to go through, we DON'T need need to explain why my belief-forming mechanism tracks the truth: we only need to specify the mechanism, and the 'inputs' that Hawking wrote 'There was a big bang' and I read it. That, I think, is a complete (causal) explanation for my believing that there was a big bang. If that's not a complete explanation, I'd like to hear why not.

Jonathan Livengood said...

Okay, I thought I knew what was going on, but now I'm confused. Greg, from your sketch of a generic debunking argument, it looks like your Hawking example doesn't count as a debunking argument, since the process does track the truth, as Nick points out. That a person using that mechanism might not know that or how the mechanism tracks the truth is irrelevant. So, are you saying (by parallel) that Joyce's argument isn't really a debunking argument?

As a side question, what work is Joyce's (ii) doing? Could he reply to your counter-example that it is part of our background theory that Hawking tracks the truth with respect to astrophysics?

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Hey --

The apposite bit is in my first comment:
"(The little argument in the quotation from the original post is an argument for P2.)"

That is, Joyce thinks (i)-(iii) suffice to show that a process does not track the truth.

My Hawking testimony example is supposed to show that even when (i)-(iii) are all met, the process can still track the truth. (So I am NOT intending the Hawking example as a debunking explanation of my belief in the big bang... I don't think that belief is debunkable.)

(In retrospect, this post probably would have been clearer if I had just omitted mention of debunking arguments.)

And re: the side question, I think the key point for Joyce is: the truth of 'Torturing puppies is wrong' plays absolutely no part whatsoever in the explanation of my belief that puppy torture is wrong. If the explanation appealed in any way shape or form to the truth of puppy torture's wrongness, then we would have (some) reason to believe that 'Puppy torture is wrong' is true.

Jonathan Birch said...

I think you're absolutely right that Joyce's conditions (i)-(iii) don't establish that a belief-forming process is unreliable.

Still, I wonder where the burden of proof lies here. Suppose natural selection is the process that explains our moral beliefs. On the face of it, natural selection really doesn't look like the sort of process that's going to be sensitive to moral facts. In this dialectical situation, it seems to me that the moral realist owes us an account of how natural selection can track moral facts.

Kevin Brosnan has a nice paper on this in Biology & Philosophy.

Protagoras said...

Plantinga argues that natural selection really doesn't look like the sort of process that's going to be sensitive to the facts period. He uses this as an argument that epistemology depends on divine creation, of course. It seems pretty clear that he is mistaken, probably as a result of misunderstanding and oversimplifying the elements of natural selection involved (and I suspect also misunderstanding and oversimplifying the nature of belief).

I think that an argument based on natural selection being on the face of it not the sort of process that would be sensitive to moral facts is no better than Plantinga's. Until we know in great detail what role natural selection plays in our moral beliefs (and it might help to know a bit more about what moral beliefs are, anyway), it is premature to judge what impact natural selection has on issues of justification.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Hi Jonathan --

Thanks for the comment. I am definitely sympathetic to your claim that the burden of proof is on the person who thinks our moral faculty/-ies can track moral facts. And perhaps that is all Joyce needs.

That said, either the burden of proof was already on the person who thinks our moral faculties track moral facts to begin with (in which case Joyce's bringing in this evolutionary story is irrelevant), or, if Joyce's argument is meant to shift the burden of proof onto such a person, then (i)--(iii) must make the conclusion more likely, i.e. the quotation from Joyce in the original post must be an ampliative argument of some sort. But if it's the latter, then I still wonder whether the Hawking-testimony-case casts doubt on whether Joyce has presented us with a good ampliative argument.

Aaron --

The reason Joyce requires (i)--(iii) is precisely for the reason you bring up: he thinks (i)--(iii) is what distinguishes the case of our moral faculty from e.g. our arithmetical faculty. Joyce's response to Plantiga (and Railton) is that in explaining how our faculty for forming arithmetical beliefs evolved, we have to use the fact that e.g. 1+2=3 in order to explain why the arithmetical faculty evolved. If 1+2 didn't equal 3, then there would not have been the same selective pressure for us to believe 1+2=3 as there was in the actual world. The Joyce (and Sharon Street, and Wilkins & Griffiths) claim is that e.g. infanticide need not be objectively wrong for the selective pressures against infanticidal tendencies to operate.

Protagoras said...

What kind of a thing is the fact that 1+2=3 anyway? I wasn't under the impression that there were any well-established, uncontroversial answers to that one. Nor does there seem to be much agreement as to what the fact that infanticide is wrong would be like if there were one. So, again, I think it's premature to say that the selection pressures against infanticide aren't responding to the fact that infanticide is wrong; that doesn't strike me as notably less obscure or more obviously absurd than the claim that the selection pressures for our arithmetic faculties are responding to the fact that 1+2=3.