Guest post by Dave Elder-Vass


[Dave Elder-Vass accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion of moral realism.  (link). Elder-Vass is Reader in sociology at Loughborough University and author of Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy, The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency and The Reality of Social Construction, discussed herehere and here. Dave has emerged as a leading voice in the philosophy of social science, especially in the context of continuing developments in the theory of critical realism. Thanks, Dave!]


Moral realism and explanatory critique
By Dave Elder-Vass

Daniel Little’s latest blog post “Moral progress and critical realism” raises some important issues for critical realists and indeed social scientists more generally. I’m sympathetic to the general orientation of his piece, and have made similar arguments elsewhere (summarised in this blog post). I thought it would be useful, though, to add some further discussion of how Daniel’s argument relates to critical realism itself.

While critical realists agree that there is a real world that exists independently of what we think about it, they need not – and do not – agree on exactly which classes of things exist within that world. Moral realism is a case in point. Roy Bhaskar explicitly identified himself as a moral realist, and offered several different justifications for this in the course of his work. Some critical realists accept all of those justifications, some are ambivalent or selective about which they accept, and others like Andrew Sayer and myself, for example, reject moral realism outright.

I’d like to focus here on one of Bhaskar’s arguments: the theory of explanatory critique. Technically this is an argument for ethical naturalism rather than moral realism (I’ll come back to that), although it is sometimes regarded as supporting both. The classic statement of the theory can be found in his book Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation:

Let a belief P, which has some object O, have a source (causal explanation) S. I am going to contend that if we possess: (i) adequate grounds for supposing P is false; and (ii) adequate grounds for supposing that S co-explains P, then we may, and must, pass immediately to (iii) a negative evaluation of S (CP); and (iv) a positive evaluation of action rationally directed at the removal of S (CP (SRHE, p. 177)

This argument can be read and/or employed in a number of different ways. Let me discuss three. First, it is a variation on the classic Marxist critique of ideology – it suggests that there are social institutions (S) which generate false beliefs (P) about other (or the same) social institutions (O) and that we ought to get rid of them. For example: if capitalist-controlled media sources mislead us about the nature of capitalism then we should replace those media sources (note that Bhaskar is careful to qualify the argument with a ceteris paribus clause (CP), and thus acknowledges that other factors must also be taken into consideration). As a critical ethical claim this seems reasonable and attractive, and it gains some of its appeal by being rather more direct than most versions of ideology critique.

But this is not the point of the theory of explanatory critique, which brings us to the second reading. On this reading, the purpose of Bhaskar’s statement is to support his advocacy of ethical naturalism: the claim that we can derive ethical conclusions from purely factual premises. Bhaskar maintains that the premises (i) and (ii) are purely factual, and lead logically (“we may, and must, pass immediately to…”) to the ethical conclusions (iii) and (iv). But as a number of people have pointed out, there is a flaw in this argument. The premises are indeed purely factual, and the conclusions are indeed ethical, but the premises are not sufficient to entail the conclusions. To arrive at these conclusions, we need a further premise: we must also believe that it is wrong to generate, advocate, or support false beliefs. Of course, most of us DO believe that, and if so we may well be happy to accept the conclusion in reading one. But that doesn’t mean that Bhaskar has shown us how to derive an ethical conclusion from purely factual premises: his argument for ethical naturalism is false.

One also finds critical realists who think that the theory of explanatory critique provides a justification for moral realism: the claim that there are moral facts that are objectively right, good, or true regardless of what people may think about them. As far as I am aware Bhaskar himself does not claim that the theory of explanatory critique entails moral realism, and when he does advocate moral realism explicitly in his later work he offers other arguments to support it. But most critical realists are uncomfortable with those later arguments, and so it is important to establish whether or not the theory of explanatory critique does support moral realism. Let me call this a third reading of the argument, although it also depends on the second. On this reading, the argument for ethical naturalism establishes that we can indeed derive ethical claims from non-ethical facts, and this further implies that those ethical claims must therefore be objectively true. The logic is pretty straightforward: if it is objectively true that there are social institutions (S) which generate false beliefs (P) about other (or the same) social institutions (O), and if we can logically derive an ethical claim from these objective facts, then it would seem to be objectively true that we ought to get rid of those social institutions, irrespective of what any person or social group might believe about the issues. But it is quite clear that this is not a tenable conclusion, because reading two is itself false: the ethical conclusions of Bhaskar’s explanatory critique depend on ethical as well as factual premises, so even if the factual premises are objectively true there is no basis to conclude that the ethical conclusions are also objectively true.

While this argument may have been a little technical for a blog post, I think it is important to clarify these distinctions. I regularly encounter (and read) fellow critical realists who cite Bhaskar’s theory of explanatory critique as support for ethical naturalism and moral realism. I suspect that some of them have been seduced by the attractiveness of the argument in the first reading discussed above into believing that this justifies the second and third readings as well. It does not!

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