Gary Francione’s Moral Realism

In the Introduction to his 2000 book Introduction to Animal Rights, Gary Francione says:

Moral judgments may not be certain in the same way that mathematical statements are, but moral judgments do not require such certainty in order to be persuasive and compelling. If one moral view is supported by better reasons than others, then that moral view is presumably the one we should adopt—until some other moral position with even better reasons in its support comes along. If an argument in favor of a moral position is valid—that is, the conclusion of the argument follows from the premises in such a way that if the premises were true, the conclusion must also be true—then any such argument should be accepted over an argument in which there is no such relationship between the premises and conclusion. If a moral position “fits” more comfortably with other considered moral positions that we hold, then we ought to accept that moral position over another that does not so fit.

While Gary is a believer in the idea of moral realism, he doesn’t specifically mention it, but talks instead about favouring positions that are consistent and congruent with other moral views.

Consistency is a general matter of logic, but is only valid if the premises it’s based on are correct. While Gary’s right to say that we should adopt views with “better reasons” (although he says we should “presumably” adopt them), he doesn’t provide any clear way to assess whether these reasons are valid.

Congruence is more in the way of  supporting evidence.

Humans have held congruent but seriously flawed positions for hundreds of years though, on a wide range of topics—eg slavery was congruent with the idea of a Great Chain of Being—so congruence is a helpful, but not compelling piece of evidence for a particular morality.

A little later, Gary says:

In this book, I will argue that the animal rights position, which maintains that we ought to abolish and not merely regulate animal use, is supported by sound reasons and valid arguments. And although I do not purport to be able to prove that the animal rights position is true in the same way that a mathematical proposition is true, I will argue that the position I defend fits comfortably with the two intuitions that reflect our conventional wisdom about the moral status of animals: that we may prefer humans over animals in situations of true emergency or necessity and that we ought not to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals. That is, the animal rights position can explain both of those intuitions and can unify them, thus achieving a “reflective equilibrium” between a theory about the moral status of animals and our common sense or conventional wisdom about the moral status of animals. That is the best that we can hope to achieve when we are talking about moral matters and not mathematics. [Internal footnote omitted.]

So although Gary has now introduced intuitions to further buttress his views (along with consistency and congruence), it makes the idea of moral realism more feasible, but still leaves it in a limbo without clearly explaining how at least some actions are moral facts.

Maybe this is the reason he didn’t mention the idea of moral realism in the book.

But as Gary says, “That is the best that we can hope to achieve when we are talking about moral matters and not mathematics.”

In his 2015 book, Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach, though, he explicitly talks about moral realism and what it means:

Moral realism is the position that moral facts and moral values exist as objective truths that are independent of our perception of them, or of our beliefs or attitudes about these facts and values. When we say, “There is a cup on the table,” in a situation in which there is, in fact, a cup on the table, we mean that statement to be true. It’s not a matter of beliefs or attitudes; it’s a matter of fact. A moral realist would say, for example, that statements like, “Genocide is bad,” or “It is wrong to torture a child,” are true in the way that the statement about the cup is true.

Here Gary explains that moral realism is true because “moral values exist as objective truths that are independent of our perception of them, or of our beliefs or attitudes about these facts and values.”

Yet, again, he doesn’t get to the core of how or why moral facts are true, a little later giving ‘circumstantial’ or ‘indirect’ support for his claim, similar to that given in the extract from Introduction to Animal Rights.

Ayn Rand would have described his views on this as a “floating abstraction.” Gary recognises there is something to his views, but doesn’t fully ‘pin it down.’ It’s an abstraction, but one that’s not clearly tied to its basis in reality. It’s unclear and unsettled—a floating abstraction.

Rewind to April 2012, and an article on Gary’s website, New Atheism, Moral Realism, and Animal Rights: Some Preliminary Reflections:

I am offering my preliminary thoughts here and will have much more to say at a later time in work that I am doing on moral realism and animal rights.

It’s now over 5 years after that remark, but as far as i’m aware—and i may not be—he hasn’t produced any work on moral realism (aside from brief passages like the one quoted earlier from from his book, Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach).

However Ayn Rand established a sound basis for moral realism decades ago.

As such, it provides a strong foundation for ethics in general—including animal rights.

That Ayn didn’t make the argument for animal rights herself, lends all the more strength to her framework, which stands independent of her.

What of Gary Francione’s 2000 statement that a reflective equilibrium between a moral theory about animals and our intuitions “is the best that we can hope to achieve when we are talking about moral matters and not mathematics”?

Ayn Rand had already done better than this “best” decades before.

What of the “objective truths” that Gary Francione says moral realism is based on? Ayn Rand first gave a lecture on The Objectivist Ethics in 1961.

While Gary Francione may have some interesting things to say about moral realism, it’s hard to conceive he’ll be able to do better than Ayn Rand did.

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