Sharon Street on The Independent Normative Truth as such.

Sharon Street claims that quasi-realism is no better off epistemologically than something she calls realism.[1] This is not in itself surprising: for many years it has been a fine question whether quasi-realism would better be called queasy realism. But Street thinks it is no better off than a particularly traffic-stopping, extreme and sceptical version of realism, which I shall eventually call Cartesian realism. And this I deny. But I shall conclude by showing that her paper is not really about quasi-realism at all, but about constraints she would impose on any moral philosophy.[2]

            Her argument is as follows.  On p. 9  she has two protagonists, Ann and Ben, who have different moral or normative standards, but who both say “there are independent normative truths”. It is the fact that they agree on something that is the lynchpin of her assault. Once she has ‘independence as such’ as a piece of realism that quasi-realism must imitate she can then wheel up the Darwinian considerations, that, she has argued, tip other forms of realism into skepticism. Hence, she argues that epistemological scepticism affects quasi just as much as real realism. 

Street quotes and agrees with Gibbard’s account of what Benn and Ann agree upon. I shall put it not in the terms Gibbard uses  (of plans for contingencies in which one plans something) but in my own terms, which I regard as equivalent, although I find it easier to work with them in some respects. Consider then the schema ‘p would have been wrong even had I/my group not believed it to be wrong’. In spite of their different standards, each of Ann and Ben assents to there being instances of this schema. So each believes in what Street calls ‘independence as such’. If you want to know how they might each believe that there are instances of this schema, then we go back to what I have often said about examples like kicking dogs for fun. Maybe softie Ben thinks that it would have been wrong to kick dogs, even had we thought it was right, while flinty Ann, brought up in a less sentimental culture, thinks it would have been OK to kick dogs even if we had thought it was wrong. But that doesn’t prevent there being a commonality when we quantify, and in any event it is common to all such cases. Two deflationists can each believe that John said something true at breakfast, although having different substitutions in mind for ‘John said that p & p’ which is what the deflationist will offer as the fundamental schema enabling us to understand this use of the notion of truth. 

So far so good. Street then reminds us of our evolved natures. She is certainly right that any sensible theorist, quasi-realist or not, must recognize that evolutionary forces, perhaps alongside other local and cultural forces, will have shaped and directed our sentiments, including our moral sentiments. Hume himself said that:

All the sentiments of the human mind, gratitude, resentment, love, friendship, approbation, blame, pity, emulation, envy, have a plain reference to the state and situation of man, and are calculated for preserving the existence and promoting the activity of such a being in such circumstances. (Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), part 3, §13)

So it is not as if we are unfamiliar with the thought that various contingencies are responsible for our moral sentiments as well.

            But Street takes this combination to introduce a problem. She takes the account of the commonality between Ben and Ann to license what she calls ‘the independent normative truth as such’.  And, she continues:

The following possibilities are exhaustive: either the evolutionary influence tended to push our normative judgments toward the independent normative truth, or else it tended to push them away from or in ways that bear no relation to that truth 

This is the basis from which she argues that quasi-realism is no better off than realism full and proper when it comes to moral epistemology. For she thinks that without some story about how we ‘track’ independent normative truth as such, the quasi-realist, just like the genuine realist, will be left with no defenses against either the second or third alternative, and thence scepticism assails him: ‘the quasi-realist is thus forced to conclude that due to evolutionary influences, we are in all likelihood hopeless at recognizing the independent normative truth’

            The structure of this argument is certainly bold. It is boldly reminiscent of the more ambitious, and discredited, forms of the ‘argument from illusion’ in general epistemology. That argument, in its least likeable but most ambitious form, tried to derive the possibility of global, Cartesian error, from the fact of individual, local, cases of fallibility and illusion. It too would have anyone capable of thinking that they might be wrong, on an individual occasion, pulled willy-nilly into a conception of ‘the truth’ which, for all we can every know, might lie completely outside our purview. I mention this parallel not to dismiss Street’s argument as identical, but to warn us of the need to analyse it sufficiently to ensure that it is not.

            Like other arguments announced as applying to quasi-realism, this one also affects a rather wider class of theories—in fact I shall eventually show that it affects all moral theories. But to begin with any theory that insists that we have to work from within a framework of values as we discuss values, or in other words denies that the view of the exile from all values is either obtainable or represents any kind of ideal, seems equally in the target area. Nobody, it seems, could have an account of how our contingent natures line us up with ‘the independent moral truth as such’. So, for example, moral sense theories, or theories deploying an analogy with secondary qualities, will be equally vulnerable. For Street insists that a Neurath’s boat-inspired epistemology is no help against her argument. If we started our evolutionary journey badly off moral track then : ‘a process of holding some values up for examination in the light of others holds little hope of bringing those values into accord with independent normative truths. A badly mistaken set of ultimate values brought into greater coherence is still badly mistaken.’

            There is a question mark over some aspects of the way this is put: Neurath’s boat is an analogy that does away with a category of ‘ultimate’ values, if that means values that serve as an undiscussable foundation for all others, and I for one have denied that greater coherence is the only path towards moral improvement. There are other virtues than coherence. But these are incidental to the fundamental problem.

            For by this stage the ‘independent normative truth as such’ has become a strange object. Unique, apparently, to justify the definite description, and not to be found by creatures with contingently shaped psychologies (for details of evolutionary history do not matter to Street’s argument, which is entirely abstract in structure).[3] No such creatures can be confident that their histories have pushed them towards recognizing the ‘independent normative truth as such’. It is natural to say that this represents a kind of Platonism, but even Plato thought there was an epistemology of a kind for approaching the form of the good —many years studying mathematics, for a start. It is bettter descibed as a conception that puts the equivalent of Cartesian scepticism firmly on the moral map. So the malin genie of evolution and culture steers our little boat, and its compass would only accidentally be orientated towards the truth. The truth is inaccessible, unrecognizable, lying over the rainbow. Gibbard calls this vast realism; I shall call it Cartesian realism, to remind us that its job is to soften us up for global moral scepticism.

            Is Cartesian realism legitimately introduced on the back of the commonality which obtains between Ben and Ann? Each of Benn and Ann contemplates a hypothetical but possible scenario in which they feel differently about something, and each sticks with their actual sentiments as they do so. This is the quasi-realist parsing of the phenomenon on which the talk of ‘independence’ that he is prepared to justify is built. But is what is thereby built a Cartesian realism, bringing scepticism, and the inadequacy of a Neurath’s boat-inspired epistemology, with it?

            No. What one says about a scenario in which one feels differently about some specific subject, and what one legitimately admits by way of practical certainty are two different things. I am substantially certain, let us say, that happiness is better than misery (if we want a ‘normative’ proposition, that one ought to value happiness more than misery). I suppose that evolutionary forces or other contingencies made me such as to value happiness more than misery, and good for them, since at least in this instance they have pushed me towards a truth. If I contemplate a scenario in which I value misery more than happiness—an almost unimaginable reversal, but I suppose I can just about make sense of the degree of misanthropy involved—it’s pretty awful, and it is pretty painful even to imagine the deterioration or turning away from the good that it represents. What catastrophes there must be in a life to cause someone really, across the board, to be like that!

            Is ‘the normative truth as such’ a concept that somehow deprives me of the right to the last paragraph? Not if it came in as a phrase distilled from the commonality between Benn and Ann. For how did the fact that Ben and Ann, like me, could each stick by their current sentiments as they contemplated the scenarios in which they felt differently, possibly legitimize something only recognizable, if at all, from some cosmically exiled, Archimedean standpoint achievable by a non-evolved creature with no determinate sentiments of its own to deploy?

            In other words Street is trying to show that by accommodating everyday admissions of independence we are thereby pitched onto a road that can stop nowhere short of unadulterated Cartesian realism. And this is parallel to what I called the discredited version of the argument from illusion. And like ordinary epistemologists, the quasi-realist can perfectly well refuse to travel that road. Quasi realism was never proposed as a way of legitimately earning everything the most rabid Cartesian realist might say. It was only proposed as a way of legitimately earning everything we want to preserve in everyday thought, and that includes aspects that might, mistakenly, push people towards such an extravagance. ‘The independent normative truth as such’ conceived as a piece of metaphysical fact which we may or may not be aligned with in any way whatsoever, is just such a danger.

            Street recognizes the complaint that her argument is parallel to what I called the discredited version of the argument to illusion in non-normative contexts. But, she believes, there is a crucial asymmetry. She compares two people, one of whom tries to show that we are not hopeless at tracking truths about the presence of midsized objects in our immediate environments, while the other tries to show that we are not hopeless at tracking normative truths. The first offers an evolutionary story about how creatures that tended to run into and be injured by midsized objects in their environment come off worse. Asked how she knows that and the answer is that we can cite endless instances: ‘for starters think of that log I tripped over yesterday’. The second can only cite the way in which people who have some value (such as that of staying alive) do better and leave more descendants. And, she says, there is a crucial disanalogy between these two explanations. The first depends upon midsized objects in our environment being the kinds of thing it is useful to track, and it tells us why this is so: it is injurious to bump into them. The second does not depend upon survival being a true value: it only depends upon it being adaptive to hold that survival is a value, and this may be so whether or not survival is an actual value. It is independent, therefore of whether survival being a value belongs to ‘the independent moral truth as such’ —and therefore cannot be used to increase our confidence that evolution would have put us in touch with such a fact.

            Street admits that her story about the value of tracking middle sized dry goods ‘works from within’. It is not ‘offered from an Archimedean point outside everything’. In other words it is no use against the Cartesian sceptic (unless we play fast and loose with question begging as a category). But she thinks that does not affect the argument: she thinks it still remains that the one argument gives us good reason to think that we’re not hopeless at recognizing midsized objects in our immediate environment, whereas in the normative case ‘we have been given no such reason’.

            Indeed not, but then we were not looking in the right place, and Street’s argument is a testimony to the need to understand why this is so. For it does not recognize the power of the idea that we have to work from within.       

            Consider then the thought that evolution has pushed us towards moral truth. Again, I would prefer to say evolution together with other contingent cultural forces, since I do not see any reason to doubt the influence of other contingencies than those covered under the idea of biological adaptation. If I think that this has happened do I have to posit some unscientific, non-causal, shadowy ghost of a notion of ‘tracking’, as if these contingent forces are surreptitiously tracking The Good, or perhaps as a matter of Hegelian axiology inevitably pushing us towards alignment with ‘the independent normative truth as such’?

            Of course not. We see what to think about whether evolution has guided us towards ethics by judging individual truths, and seeing if we can get a story about how evolution might have adapted us to appreciate those truths. For the quasi-realist, this can be pursued , by seeing how evolution might have adapted us to have those sentiments of which we are reasonably proud: the ones that form the keel or fuselage (for we should avoid the metaphor of foundations) or structural skeleton of our more subtle practical stances. The skeleton might include altruism, a capacity for fairness, for prudence, and an ability to make and keep promises, make and keep laws, and so on. I stand by those—I might even say I am quite proud of them, especially when they are unusually fully developed. So suppose I say that sympathy with others is good, as I do. I am proud of such sympathy with others as I feel, deplore its absence in others, recommend it to my children or pupils. My pride and the rest are themselves sentiments, of course. But pride or self-esteem does not necessarily spring up when we think of other sentiments to which we are prone. One is not proud of one’s regrettable side, and most of us admit that we have one.  But other things stand fast, and if you do not value those on my list, you will value others. In other words, we stand within and think of cases that our substantial certainties allow us to discriminate. I already thanked evolution for one success, namely my valuing of happiness above misery. Here is sympathy joining it. There are many others.

            My sentiments are evolutionarily or culturally formed: let us say contingently formed. So contingency has brought me to appreciate a moral truth. Might I be wrong about one of these elements in my skeleton? Hard to imagine, but let’s try: Nietzsche seems to have thought that sympathy was a bad thing, so what do we make of that? Well, first of all did he really, or what is some idealized verson of ordinary sympathy which he disliked, and secondly if he did can I do anything other than regard him as a bit of a weirdo, a monster, or perhaps a poser? Not much. But I can walk around and worry about it for a while.

            If the equivalent of Cartesian skepticism is a trouble for someone it is not me—any more than ‘response-dependency’ theorists about colour are troubled by the “thought” that perhaps we are adapted to see colours wrongly, or that it is favouritism, as Russell once said, to think that what we see as blue really is blue.

 It is not clear what Street herself thinks of moral epistemology. She favours a kind of ‘constructivism’, reminiscent of John Marckie’s view that we ‘invent’ right and wrong. Our standards are our own constructions. So what is she to say about Ann and Ben? It seems that to be consistent she must deny that when I contemplate a world in which I or we enjoy cruelty to animals, I am contemplating a nasty world or a world in which I or we have deteriorated. For this is the single phenomenon that allegedly leads to Cartesian realism and consequent scepticism, and it would engulf her own position just as effectively as it engulfs any other. So her constructivism must have her say—what, exactly? That a world in which we enjoy cruelty to animals is as good as this? That there has been no moral progress since the days of bear-baiting and legal dog-fights? If this is constructivism, then heaven help us. In fact, it is worse than this. For in ‘A Darwinian Dilemma’ Street emphasizes that she takes her constructivism to be quite hospitable to the admission of processes of correcting error, by means of the Neurathian procedure of using some values to criticize others—a procedure of obtaining a reflective equilibrium.[4] This implies that on her own account Ann and Ben can each contemplate positions in which people hold opinions but are mistaken in doing so. But that in turn implies that they are open to the possibility of they or their group having believed, or coming to believe, or even currently believing that something is wrong although it is not. They would be in this state if they had not reflected sufficiently. So by her own lights, they each accept propositions of the crucial form: ‘such-and-such might have been wrong, even had I or we thought otherwise’. So each believes in ‘‘the independent normative truth as such’ and ought to be as squarely in her sights. So in fact her own moral theory is hanged on the same petard as others.  

In ‘A Darwinian Dilemma’ Street characterized the realism(s) she opposed in several ways. One was that they ‘understand evaluative truths as holding, in a fully robust way, independently of all our evaluations’ (p. 136). This suggests that they put truth outside the reach of any process of working from within. Another way of characterizing them is as holding that the evaluative truth explains the way we make evaluative judgments, since those judgments ‘track’ moral truth (e.g. p. 129). Quasi-realism holds neither of these things, as any part of its philosophical package. [5] But neither should we lurch away from these ideas to fall into the opposite trap of a relativism or constructivism that cannot even parse the agreement between Ann and Ben.

This brings us to the crux, and the reason why I say the argument is not really about quasi-realism, but about all moral theories. The structure of Street’s argument implies that all moral theorists—intuitionists, constructivists, quasi-realists, response dependency theorists, Aristotelians, Platonists, and any others face a choice:

            (1) Deny that our moral reactions and judgements are shaped by contingent factors, whether evolutionary or anything else.

            (2) Assert that a world in which we enjoy cruelty to animals—or put in any other example—is as good as this; that there has been no moral progress since the days of bear-baiting and legal dog fights.

            (3) Be a complete moral sceptic.

            I doubt whether many people are happy with that choice, and I hope they are not. But it is the choice she offers, because her argument hinges on supposing that the independence that Ann and Ben countenance leads straight to Cartesian realism, and that is simply the metaphysical face of global scepticism. In this it is one degree worse than other realisms, including those sublimated in religious traditions. In the Christian tradition, for instance, while, as in Platonism, we are mostly full of sin and ignorance, bent and misshapen, prisoners in the Cave or victims of the Fall, there is nevertheless a way to align ourselves with the Good. There is some inner spark left which did not get corrupted by the Fall—the one that illuminates the excellence of loving your neighbour and turning the other cheek, for example. Street’s progress to Cartesian Realism would devour that too: if the Christians are capable of thinking that there are possible scenarios in which they admire things that do not deserve admiration, which they surely do, then given their contingent natures, there will be no guarantee that loving your neighbour and turning the other cheek represents an improvement over doing your neighbour down and enthusiastically taking revenge for injuries received. Revelation is no help, for why should evolution have adapted us to listen only to the right revelations?

            In her earlier paper Street had one good target. What is sometimes called ‘reasons fundamentalism’ is a descendant of Moore’s anti-naturalism. It holds that there are distinct, irreducible normative facts, outside the causal order of nature, and that our moral opinions seek to respond to those facts and to describe their layout. Street is right that this view has no epistemological credentials, but leaves us with a picture in which for all we know our moral sentiments are quite orthogonal to the moral facts. Seeing our sentiments as Darwinian in origin is a vivid way of making this clear. But her attempt to widen her target to include moral theories in the sentimentalist tradition backfires spectacularly.

            Aristotle taught us that the right method for epistemology is not to wipe the slate clean, and then ask what we know in abstraction from anything that could count as a way of knowing. It is to trust the endoxa sufficiently to gain a picture of who and what we are that we have managed to achieve beliefs that have every chance of being true. That is how the quasi-realist works, and how anyone ought to work.  


[1] ‘Mind-Independence Without the Mystery: Why Quasi-Realists Can’t Have It Both Ways,’ Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 6, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2011)

[2] I shall talk indifferently of moral values, values, and normativity: nothing here hangs on fine differences between them.

[3] Street emphasizes this in her paper ‘A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value’, Philosophical Studies, V. 127, 1. (2006), p. 155.

[4] See ‘Darwinian Dilemmas’ e.g. pp. 123–4

[5] By that I mean that it need not remain resolutely hostile either to the idea of a progress of sentiments that eventually modifies all of them, one by one as it were. Nor to using evaluative terms in everyday explanations, of the kind that Nick Sturgeon emphasized.