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New Waves in MetaethicsReview - New Waves in Metaethics
by Michael Brady (Editor)
Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
Review by Dejan Simkovic
Sep 13th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 37)

In New Waves in Metaethics, Michael Brady presents us with a collection of papers in metaethics that is set to reach four main goals. First, Brady wants to introduce the reader into metaethics in its current state of play. Second, the collection is supposed to provide us with an indication of where metaethical research might be heading in the near future. The third aim is to enable the reader to get an insight into metaethics in general, rather than into any one of its areas of research in particular. Finally, Brady wants to portray metaethics from a holistic point of view - viz. as a discipline constituted by a rich mixture of distinct kinds of issues and questions, which still form an intricate web that is fully sensitive to changes and developments in any one of its individual threads.

Broadly speaking, the papers in New Waves in Metaethics fall into four main groups in terms of the kinds of issues and questions that their authors want to address. The first group of papers is by far the largest, which is only natural due to the fact that it is primarily focused on questions that were and still are the two foci of metaethical research: metaphysical questions about moral properties (e.g., Do moral facts exist? What is the nature of moral facts if they do exist?), and semantic questions about the nature of moral discourse (e.g., whether moral language is representational and descriptive or not; Do moral claims express beliefs or sentiments?). Each of the six papers in this group stands on its own in terms of the metaethical stance respectively discussed, defended, or criticized; yet reading them together creates a sense of unity that is surprising considering the fact that they represent a wide range of often conflicting metaethical positions: Non-Naturalism (William FitzPatrick), Naturalism (Joshua Gert), Error Theory (Jonas Olson), Fictionalism (Terence Cuneo and Sean Christy), Expressivism (Matthew Chrisman), and Non-Cognitivism (Mark Schroeder). It is hard to do justice to all of these authors individually in a review of this size, so it suffices to say that one could hardly go too far in praising this part of the New Waves in Metaethics for its richness and quality; the selection is enlightening and inspiring at the same time.

Brady then shifts the focus away from issues in moral ontology and moral language, first to that of the nature of the link between reasons and moral motivation, and then to the problem of relation between reason, agency, and value. In her excellent paper 'Internal Reasons and the Motivating Intuition', Julia Markovits suggests that an "Archimedean point" can be introduced in the debate about the nature of normative reasons – namely, a procedural internalist account of reasons, which avoids the pitfalls of internalism about reasons developed by Bernard Williams. Markovits claims that her version of internalism is capable of accommodating the intuition that there is a necessary link between one's reasons and one's action – hence, it is by default better than externalist substantive account of reasons – in spite of the fact that it does not rest in what is described as Williams' fundamental presupposition, i.e., the "Motivating Intuition". Contra Motivating Intuition, according to which the fact that is a reason for an agent to act must also be the reason that motivates an agent to act, Markovits offers a range of examples set to show that the actual motivational or explanatory power of reasons does not lie in reasons per se, but depends fundamentally on the link they establish with one's already existing ends. Hence, normative reasons depend on the existence of the shared standard of rationality, but instead of having the motivational force they have a kind of justifying force, the weight of which depends fundamentally on the link established to agent's existing ends.  

What the next two papers in the second group share is both their focus on theories offering an analysis of values in terms of reasons, and a skeptical attitude towards the success of such analyses. Ulrike Heuer focuses on the 'Buck-Passing Account of Value' (BPA), which aims to explain normative values (e.g., 'good'), in terms of properties that are distinct from values yet constitutive of reasons for exhibiting particular attitudinal or behavioral responses to certain things. Heuer reads BPA as a metaphysical thesis, and argues that it cannot be used to cash out values in terms of 'fitting attitudes', due to the existence of the 'wrong kind of reasons problem'; that is, because of the fact that it seems intuitively acceptable for us to have favoring attitudes towards things that have no value whatsoever. She then investigates whether there is a successful buck-passing account of values that is not reliant on fitting attitudes analysis of values, and remains cautiously skeptical about whether any such account, be it metaphysical or semantic, can be justified.

Pekka Vayrynen's paper raises more radical skeptical concerns about the nature of the project that aims to account for values and norms in terms of reasons in general. Vayrynen argues that skepticism arises from the fact that any attempt to explain values in terms of reasons fails due to the existence of the 'normative fundamentality constraint' or explanatory demand that any account of reasons must meet, if it is to take explanatory priority over values themselves. Reasons cannot have the fundamental role in our explanation of values, according to Vayrynen, unless a way is found to explain facts about these reasons consistently with the normative fundamentality constraint, while simultaneously avoiding an unwanted reduction of reasons to non-normative properties or relations which do not concern values. Vayrynen concludes that it is unclear how this project can succeed.

The third group of papers is concerned with questions about the nature of normativity. David Enoch discusses the problem of the nature of normativity in general, through the critical evaluation of the position known as Constitutivism. The main focus of Enoch's paper is to provide us with a criticism of Constitutivist's claim that normativity rests in norms or motives that are constitutive of agency, which is more detailed and better developed than the one he initially developed in 'Agency, Shmagency: Why Normativity Won't Come From What Is Constitutive of Action' in 2006. Even though Enoch focuses on criticism of Velleman's response to his original 'Shmagency' challenge, the reader will still find 'Shmagency Revisited' to be a valuable source on Constitutivism in general.

In 'The Authority of Social Norms', Nicholas Southwood wants to contribute to the broadening of the scope of metaethical research, by providing an account of social norms that argues against the reduction of social norms either to social practices only or to constellations of moral judgments. According to Southwood, what makes social norms distinct is the fact that they are simultaneously grounded in social practices and represent constellations of genuine normative requirements (possess normative authority). If it is accepted that social norms are dependent on social practices, Southwood's argument then hinges on the question whether he can establish grounds for making the distinction between what he claims to be distinctively social kind of authority and distinctively moral authority. Southwood is aware of how crucial this distinction is, hence makes an attempt to establish grounds on which it can be made, but the reader cannot but find Southwood's grounding to be too unconvincing. This, however, does not in any way diminish the true value of 'The Authority of Social Norms', which lies in its attempt to acknowledge the possibility that at least some norms might both be practice-dependent and impose a kind of authority, or place a demand on agents.

          Finally, the last two papers in this edition present us with two different perspectives on metaethical problems, neither of which is often taken as the primary or most useful (in itself) vantage point in metaethics. Allison Hill's 'Moral Epistemology', and Sean McKeever's and Michael Ridge's 'Aesthetics and Particularism', acknowledge the fact that these perspectives might have been unjustifiably neglected in the past. Indeed, one rarely finds works dedicated to moral epistemology only, but even more so to aesthetics (though I think there are good reasons for it in case of the latter). I do not necessarily agree with Hill's conclusion that 'moral understanding' and 'moral knowledge' are two incompatible aims of moral inquiry, but her paper is still welcomed due to the fact that it challenges the established and deeply entrenched views on what metaethical research is about. 

The natural question to ask in the end, of course, is whether this particular choice of papers enabled Michael Brady to succeed in reaching the four laudable aims outlined at the beginning? Let me start by saying that New Waves in Metaethics presents a collection of papers that requires a fair amount of knowledge and familiarity with complex terminology and research in metaethics. However, some papers, those in the first group in particular, present metaethical questions, issues, and theories, with such clarity that they make metaethics easily accessible to students of philosophy who want to become familiar with it, or just deepen their existing knowledge of it, and even to the general reader who might have some affinity towards analytical tradition in philosophy. This fact explains my reluctance to assert anything conclusive about the extent to which Brady managed to achieve all four aims. Someone involved in metaethics will without a doubt enjoy every paper in this edition, without necessarily considering it (as a whole) to be a representation of metaethics in its current state of play, or indicative of where metaethics might be heading. These aims just seem to be too ambitious to be fully achieved in the volume of this size. Yet, for a student of philosophy, this ambition need not be fully satisfied at all. As far as portraying the metaethics from a holistic point of view, and not being restricted to any one of its areas of research in particular, I consider New Waves in Metaethics to be more successful; though, again, latter parts of the book suffer from loss of consistency in the matter, which might just be due to the specificity of the issues address in them.

 

© 2011 Dejan Simkovic

 

Dejan Simkovic, PhD candidate at The University of Sydney.


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