An Introduction to Metaethics
According to Humeans morality finds its roots in the passions in our souls. In fact we think this is true of the normative domain more generally. To many this seems incredible. Can we really, just by desiring things, bring reasons into being? Christine Korsgaard. in an influential essay, identifies a position she characterises as that of the ‘heroic existentialist’. For this character the authority of reason rests on a source ‘as thin and insubstantial as the agent’s arbitrary will, his raw and unmotivated decision that he will take a certain end to be normative for himself, for no other reason than that he wills it so.”1 Of this view Korsgaard writes that “it is hard to see how a self-conscious being who must talk to herself about her actions could live with that solution.”2
To see how Humeans can respond to such concerns there are few more valuable philosophical resources than the early work of Valerie Tiberius, most notably perhaps her paper “Humean Heroism: Value Commitments and the Source of Normativity”3 published in 2000. I now think the positions she defends here rather too individualistic in focus, preferring to develop a Humean approach to metaethics in a more communitarian direction but this paper, along with Tiberius’ other philosophical writings continue to be a rich source of inspiration and instruction.
Tiberius responds to critics like Korsgaard who deny that desires can shape and direct our normative lives. She does so by singling out a particular kind of desire, what she calls value commitments. These are distinguished from other desires in two important and related ways. The first is stability over time. Value commitments must be stable to allow them to play the important role of fixed points to shape and structure our deliberation. The second is that we take such commitments to be justified, supported by good reasons. This need not involve any appeal to some source of reason that is independent of our desires. What does the work in justifying value commitment is just other value commitments. So the justification requirement, for Tiberius, comes down to a requirement that one’s value commitments together form a coherent pattern where they support and sustain each other. These two distinguishing features, stability and putative justification are connected: justification can be understood as stability under reflective scrutiny. However the value of stability itself entails that we should not overdo such scrutiny. She writes: “we do not deliberate anew about these stable commitments every time: we intend to give this commitment weight in future deliberations. Having this intention means that we do not re-evaluate the commitment each time, and that which options we consider is determined, in part, by the fact that we take the value of this commitment to be given.”4 For value commitments to play their proper role in ordering and structuring our deliberative lives they need to be treated, at least much of the time, as effectively banked. Tiberius later went on to develop this important insight in other writings, notably her 2008 book The Reflective Life.5
This is not, Tiberius stresses, a story where anything goes. There are standards for value commitments. Reflective scrutiny can show them to be mistaken or vindicate them as correct. George Eliot’s character Silas Marner realises the folly of his miserly fixation on his hoarded coins when the latter is destabilized – as Tiberius nicely puts it – by the love and joy that enters his life with his adopted child Eppie. But still the standards come from us, our desires, our contingent natures. There is perhaps something heroic about this picture but it is a long way from the arbitrariness of Korsgaard’s heroic existentialist and it begins to look decidedly less mysterious how a Humean picture of practical reason might be a form of philosophical self-understanding we can live with.