Research on Moral Sand

Moral Sand  (short version of sample research project on Moral Sand)

David Slutsky

            One aspect of my current work applies ethics at a global level and addresses tensions between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. My approach to these and related matters begins with the following question. Do different kinds of moral conviction lead to different levels of tolerance, compromise, and cooperation? If the goal of moral inquiry is to win arguments (or to argue that our moral theories are closer to the moral truth than other moral theories), we may be more likely to dig our feet in the sand, try to prove that we are right, and win the arguments by sticking to our moral convictions. Many people believe some version of moral realism – the view that moral properties are real and that moral judgments are capable of truth/falsity. Some social science research, however, suggests that strong moral convictions grounded in moral realist assumptions can lead to stubbornness and violence in pursuit of moral goals.

            My dissertation What In The World Could Show Whether Moral Realism Is True? represents the first of a three part project on these topics. The dissertation defends moral anti-realism and calls into question the grounds for strong moral convictions. Many philosophers defend philosophical positions by analyzing the position discourse and studying whether people talk the way that the positions require. I question whether this method can help us learn what is real in the world. I employ a method that focuses more on empirical tests than conceptual analysis.

            The second part of the project defends a pragmatic, as opposed to an epistemological, approach to persistent moral/political disagreement. The pragmatic approach turns the goal of moral inquiry into a kind of social mediation and conflict resolution. If moral anti-realism is true, then the goal of winning moral arguments is doomed to failure and, for epistemological reasons, we should seek best to achieve our social goals through cooperation and compromise. Even if moral realism is true, moral/political disagreement will persist and, for pragmatic reasons, we should seek best to achieve our social goals through cooperation and compromise. The pragmatic approach to moral/political disagreement advocates forms of bargaining, cooperation, and compromise in the interests of tolerance, diversity, and peace. Of course, some moral convictions coincide and others conflict with these interests. The idea is to develop an approach to moral inquiry that takes moral differences seriously, but without excessively strong sentiments of righteousness and conviction. The trick is to find ways and grounds to negotiate conflicting social goals through peace and tolerance without relying on particularly liberal or conservative values, for instance.

            The practical importance of moral anti-realism and the pragmatic approach to disagreement apply to many moral issues. The third part of my current research project applies the approach to globalization. For instance, as the Global South and developing nations organize and perhaps form alliances with emerging world powers, there are many growing pressures and possibilities for social, governmental, and cultural change. These possibilities include the details of national labor laws, perceptions of which individuals belong to which groups, and attitudes about the moral importance of group membership.