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Tuesday
Oct142014

The argument David Friedman is still losing

I have just finished reading the third edition of David Friedman's excellent classic The Machinery Of Freedom. While in general I share almost all of Friedman's views, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed by his stance on the nature and status of normative claims. In a new chapter entitled "An Argument I Lost", Friedman describes how his thinking on this topic has developed over the years since the first edition of the book was published in 1971. The view he once held was a naive form of subjectivism:

 

My view at the time was that my belief that murdering people was bad had the same logical status as my belief that chocolate ice cream was better than vanilla, that both were statements of tastes rather than objective facts.

 

He describes how he once lost an argument with philosopher Isaiah Berlin on the subject and Friedman has now apparently swung all the way to an opposite extreme. He now endorses ethical intuitionism and moral realism:

 

The view that I eventually came to as a result of losing my argument with Berlin is what philosophers refer to as intuitionism, the claim that there are facts of moral reality that we perceive via moral intuition just as we perceive the facts of physical reality via our physical senses, and that the evidence for the reality of those facts is the considerable, although not perfect, agreement in how different people perceive them.

 

One very serious problem with this view is that while we have a very good, scientifically well-established story to tell about how ordinary sense perception works, we lack anything close to a corresponding story about how "moral perception" is supposed to work. It is clear that we have five senses in sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, but the claim that we in addition possess a sixth sense dedicated to moral perception is unfounded and wildly implausible. That our moral beliefs and convictions have their origin in emotional reactions is a much simpler and better explanation than that they would somehow be caused by any moral perceptions. Positing peculiarly moral facts as well as a special sense organ by which we could be aware of these facts fills no explanatory purpose but merely introduces more things that need to be explained.

 

The fact that there is close to universal agreement about some very basic normative claims is much better explained by appeal to common human nature and our shared evolutionary heritage than by positing a set of independent moral facts that we supposedly all have "intuited". Friedman is aware of this:

 

There is an alternative view of the status of normative beliefs to which I can offer no adequate rebuttal: moral nihilism. According to that position, nothing is good or bad, virtuous or wicked. Moral beliefs are neither true nor false. The consistency of those beliefs, at the level at which they are consistent, is due not to moral reality but evolutionary biology. Humans have evolved those hardwired moral beliefs whose possession led to reproductive success in the environment in which we evolved . . . Since we are all descended from ancestors who evolved under roughly similar circumstances we are all hardwired with about the same beliefs . . .  

 

What Friedman does not acknowledge is that evolution gives us good reason to think that ordinary sense perception is a reliable process. Natural selection could hardly have produced a being with factulties of percetion that led it to form systematically mistaken beliefs about everything around him. But evolution could very well have produced a being with systematically mistaken moral beliefs. Indeed, as argued by Richard Joyce, we have strong reasons to believe that we would have held whatever moral beliefs we do hold whether or not any of them were true. 

 

Friedman's commitment to intuitionism is particularly odd in light of the fact that it plays no necessary part of his overall argument for a free and stateless society, especially as he has admirably gone out of his way to avoid appeals to moral intuitions. In others of the new chapters he argues convincingly that it is possible for rational individuals to bargain themselves out of a Hobbesian state of nature and into an orderly and peaceful, stateless society; he provides a positive (as opposed to normative) account of rights; he argues that virtue pays in the sense that honesty gives you more opportunities for mutually beneficial interaction and the best way to appear honest is to actually be honest. Hypothetically, if Friedman changed his mind and came to accept moral nihilism and scepticism instead of realism and intuitionism very little if anything of the book would have to be changed. His moral intuitionism seems more like a dispensable afterthought in the context of an otherwise highly persuasive book.

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