Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Dialectical Necessity of Morality: Introduction

And so it begins.

Today marks the launch what will either be the longest or shortest series in the history of this blog: my attempt to go through Derek Beyleveld's book The Dialectical Necessity of Morality. It will be long-lived if I have the patience and perseverance to get to through all of it; it will be short-lived if, as is too often the case, I run out of interest after a few entries. Still, something will be learned no matter what the duration.

What's this About?
Beyleveld's book is a meticulous and pain-staking effort to defend the legitimacy of Alan Gewirth's Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC). The PGC is, supposedly, the supreme moral principle that must guide the actions of all potentially purposive agents (PPAs -- incidentally, there are a lot of acronyms to get to grips with).

The derivation of the PGC is perhaps the exemplar of the Kantian constructivist position in metaethics (a topic I have covered before). It is constructivist because it tries to construct moral values out of the attitudes of practically rational agents. It is metaethical because it does not presuppose the existence of any moral values but instead tries to show how moral values can come into being and how they can be known. Finally, it is Kantian (as opposed to Humean) because it argues that, when properly understood, practical rationality is consistent with the existence of one, absolute and universal, set of moral values.

If successful, the derivation of the PGC would be a major achievement. Indeed, it would be the Holy Grail of moral philosophy. This should make us suspicious: the PGC has been around since the 1970s and Beyleveld's book itself dates from 1991, surely it would be more widely known if it was actually successful? Interestingly, Beyleveld acknowledges this suspicion in his introduction. Nevertheless, he thinks the derivation of the PGC is ultimately successful and he wants to show us why.

I'm certainly willing to admire Beyleveld's efforts. Although I have only read about 100 pages so far, I can say with some surety that his book is nothing if not an extremely impressive exercise in analytical philosophy. It consists of two parts. In the first part, he presents what he thinks is the strongest argument to the PGC. In the second part, he proceeds to identify and rebut 66 objections to this argument. The objections having been collected from various scholarly articles written in the period 1971-1990.

I begin this series with no real preconceptions. I am neither committed nor closed to the possible success of the argument to the PGC. I am somewhat sceptical, and in what I have read so far I think I have managed to identify one major lacunae in the argument, but I am conscious of the fact that somewhere within the 66 objections and rebuttals there may be one directed at my concerns. I can only wait, read and see.

This post will serve as an index to the series.



  1. John,
    I'm writing (out of self-interest) to encourage you to stick with the project. Being attracted to non-naturalistic moral realism myself, I'm curious to see if this case for it holds up, but I'd rather that someone else read the 397 pages and the 90 pages of notes!

    Looking forward to much more,

  2. Thanks Steve, I will try my best. I'll certainly go through the first part of the book, whether I go through all 66 objections and rebuttals is more doubtful.

    I am somewhat curious about your comment. I stated in the post that I thought the argument to the PGC was an example of a constructivist metaethics, not a non-natural realist position. I am willing to admit that the difference between the two positions may not be great when all is said and done (indeed, I have a section in my thesis making this point).

    I guess my question to you would be: Why do you think it is an example of non-natural realism?

  3. John,
    Good question. Maybe I'm off-base. I regard Gewirth's position as non-naturalistic because its justification is logical or conceptual, rather than coming from anything studied by natural science (physics, biology, psychology, etc.). It's supposed to be something about the very concept of agency that implies the PGC. I regard it as realist because whether the concept of agency does indeed imply the PGC isn't up to anyone (including God) but is a fact of logic.

  4. I think that's fair.

    I take your point about justification. If you think a naturalistic moral theory is one that proposes a moral "science" (which is Russ Shafer Landau's definition, if I recall) then all constructivist theories are non-natural.

    If you take a naturalistic moral theory to be one in which moral facts can be reduced to natural facts then things might be different. For instance, I think the argument to the PGC suggests that morality is dependent on the existence of a certain type of agency. If one can have a naturalistic model of that type of agency, then the argument to the PGC could be viewed as a naturalistic moral theory (although see below on abstract concepts of agency).

    I also take it to be anti-realist because it sees moral rights as things that are constructed out of the agent's process of reasoning. But yeah, I see how you could take it that, since it depends on a logical deduction from an abstract concept of agency, it is realist. (Although maybe it would be worth considering Beyleveld's distinction between the dialectic and assertoric methods of argument that I discuss in the "Methodology and Terminology" post).

  5. I think we may agree in substance and differ only over terminology. You wrote, "I think the argument to the PGC suggests that morality is dependent on the existence of a certain type of agency. If one can have a naturalistic model of that type of agency, then the argument to the PGC could be viewed as a naturalistic moral theory." The existence of red things depends on the existence of colored things (if none of the latter, then none of the former), but the dependence is logical or conceptual rather than (say) causal or psychological, so I think of it as a non-naturalistic dependence -- even though the existence of colors themselves must be explained naturalistically.

    Even in a dialectic argument all of the implications are supposed to hold objectively, i.e., regardless of whether anyone believes or desires that they hold. To at least that extent it's realist.