Richard Carrier is a prolific writer on ancient history, atheism, and naturalistic philosophy. I started reading him in the 1990s when he wrote articles for the early Secular Web. I especially enjoy his works on the ahistoricity of Jesus. However, his case for the reduction of morality to a kind of instrumentalism, for morality’s being “natural” and “scientific” because it’s a matter merely of learning how to get what we most want, is frustrating because it combines confusion with hubris. Still, various interesting issues crop up in his discussion, so a critique is in order.
By way of providing some background, I should say that there are three paramount theories in moral philosophy: deontology (we ought to do our duty, because the form of action is most important), consequentialism (we ought to act in the way that has the best results), and virtue ethics (we ought to be the best kind of person). Carrier thinks that although philosophers have been debating these theories for centuries, all three views are the same. They reduce to each other and what emerges is instrumentalism, a reduction of moral imperatives to “hypothetical” or conditional ones. So the meaning of “Thou shalt not commit murder” is clarified when we translate it into a conditional imperative that makes reference to the means needed to achieve a desire, such as “If you want to stay out of jail or have self-respect or avoid being killed in return (or insert some other desire here; generally it’s ‘If you want to be happy…’), then you shouldn’t kill an innocent person.” For me, the question whether the three leading moral theories are in conflict is a tempest in a teapot, since I think naturalism has more radical implications for morality, which I’ll come to in the last section below.
But let’s look closer at Carrier’s argument as it’s formulated in his blog’s article on why moral imperatives are a posteriori and natural, meaning why they’re empirical like all other purely factual statements. Carrier’s opponents are two kinds of moral realists who both maintain that moral statements are true or false as opposed to being, say, nonrational expressions of feelings. There’s the theist who trusts that morality is supernatural in that it derives from God, and then there’s the atheist who thinks morality is non-natural in the same way that qualia or normativity in general are, in that their elucidation is beyond the purview of scientific methods, but not beyond philosophical ones. Carrier is aghast because his brand of atheism gives no quarter to theism, and his secular humanism is progressive so he’s opposed to defeatism with respect to the mission to solve all mysteries in the world. Contrary to Nietzsche, the sky isn’t falling just because God, the traditional guarantor of morality, is fictitious; liberal values are secured by reason, not faith. And instead of declaring that some parts of the world are incomprehensible, we should be methodical in our naturalism: we should assume that everything is naturally explainable until proven otherwise. In particular, morality is both real and natural, Carrier says, because it’s about the possibility that some actions are better or worse at achieving our best desires. Those desires are the ones we care about most and the ones we would have were we presented with all the relevant information bearing on ourselves and the world, and were we to think logically about what we most want out of life.
Carrier pontificates about how this or that is obviously “natural” in that it’s a part of the scientifically-explainable universe. For example, social properties are just as natural as quarks and sodium, he says, since sociology reduces to physics via psychology, neurology, and chemistry. The greater complexity of social systems is no matter, since sodium is likewise ‘more complex than “just quarks in motion,” which is why sodium is different from uranium, for example, even though both are just “quarks in motion.”’
There are at least two problems with this. First, although he grants that “brains interacting in social systems behave in ways that reflect the structure and behavior of the social system,” he doesn’t grasp that a scientific model has implicit meanings, or connotations, as well as explicit ones (denotations). It doesn’t matter if minds are nothing but brains, if the sets of symbols needed to explain the two orders are incommensurable. A social system may be metaphysically nothing but “atoms in motion,” but there is no sense of “motion” that explains both what atoms and societies do, without palpable equivocation. The word “motion” is defined differently in sociology and in physics. For example, a particle’s velocity is not like a political party’s motion to pass a bill. And reducibility applies to theories, not to the things to which the theories refer irrespective of how they may be understood using different languages or conceptual frameworks like sociology or physics. So denotatively or extensionally, that is with respect to the immediate reference of words, the meanings of “society” and “huge group of atoms” may be identical, but that doesn’t mean there’s a single, coherent set of concepts for explaining what societies and atoms do as seen from different orders of magnitude. Implicitly or intensionally, that is with respect to the words’ indirect meanings in virtue of their relation to background concepts, sociology isn’t reducible to physics, because the full meanings of the terms used to explain what happens in a society as such don’t translate into psychology or neurology or chemistry or physics. Only the extensions or the referents are assumed to be ultimately the same, regardless of our inability to explain without gaps how their identity manifests in the different levels of behaviour. The behaviours perceived from different vantage points, such as those of an appalled American voter witnessing her country’s cultural descent into madness, and of a blurry-eyed scientist staring at a computer screen at CERN, are not at all the same in that they’re not explainable by means of any single coherent set of symbols. You need at least two theoretical discourses to be able to predict what will happen at those levels of being.