Pluralistic Moral Reductionism

(Commentary to the post “Pluralistic Moral Reductionism”)


There are multiple useful definitions of sound, e.g. ‘acoustic vibrations’ or ‘auditory experiences’. Equally, there can be many useful definitions of moral terms.

Enter pluralistic moral reductionism. Some people think that an action is ‘wrong’ if it is against the will of God. Some people think an action is ‘wrong’ if it causes more suffering than happiness. Moral terms mean different things for different people. Replace the symbol with the substance. Taboo you words.

Let’s examine the standard problems of metaethics using the framework of pluralistic moral reductionism.

Cognitivism vs. Noncognitivism

The hidden assumption is  that all people use moral terms in the same way. But that’s wrong. There may be some people who use moral terms to just express their emotions. But other folks make factual claims, e.g. that the ‘wrong’ action in question causes suffering or violates someone’s rights, or whatever.

The next section is the important one, I’ll quote from Lukeprog:

Objective vs. Subjective Morality

Is morality objective or subjective? It depends which moral reductionism you have in mind, and what you mean by ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’.

Here are some common  uses [see Jacobs (2002): Dimensions of Moral Theory] of the objective/subjective distinction in ethics:

  • Moral facts are objective1 if they are made true or false by mind-independent facts, otherwise they are subjective1.
  • Moral facts are objective2 if they are made true or false by facts independent of the opinions of sentient beings, otherwise they are subjective2.
  • Moral facts are objective3 if they are made true or false by facts independent of the opinions of humans, otherwise they are subjective3.

Well, I’m sorry to interrupt, but these distinctions are stupid. If we use these distinctions even a God-based morality would only be objective in the third sense, whereas e.g. Yudkowsky’s metaethics would be probably be objective in all formulations, but defintitely in the last two.

This is obviously bizarre. It would be useful to introduce a fourth distinction e.g. morality is objective 4 if it is dictated by God or if the preferences of (nearly) all species converge to this morality as they become more intelligent and enlightened. You know, simply a morality that deserves to be called objective.

Ok, so PMR is “objective” in a weak sense and subjective if you are thinking clearly about it. Is it compatible with moral realism or moral anti-realism?

I’ll quote Luke again:

So, does all this mean that we can embrace moral realism, or does it doom us to moral anti-realism? Again, it depends on what you mean by ‘realism’ and ‘anti-realism’.

In a sense, pluralistic moral reductionism can be considered a robust form of moral ‘realism’, in the same way that pluralistic sound reductionism is a robust form of sound realism. “Yes, there really is sound, and we can locate it in reality — either as vibrations in the air or as mental auditory experiences, however you are using the term.” In the same way: “Yes, there really is morality, and we can locate it in reality — either as a set of facts about the well-being of conscious creatures, or as a set of facts about what an ideally rational and perfectly informed agent would prefer, or as some other set of natural facts.”

But in another sense, pluralistic moral reductionism is ‘anti-realist’. It suggests that there is no One True Theory of Morality. (We use moral terms in a variety of ways, and some of those ways refer to different sets of natural facts.) And as a reductionist approach to morality, it might also leave no room for moral theories which say there are universally binding moral rules for which the universe (e.g. via a God) will hold us accountable.


Well, that’s it. Lukeprog initially intended to do a long sequence that would essentially solve meta-ethics, but that was his last post. Not very persuasive at all, if you ask me.


This entry was posted in Lesswrong Zusammenfassungen, meta-ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

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