Christopher Hitchens is released after signalling for waterboarding to stop in a torture experiment he consented to.
Think of something really bad—a morally repugnant act. Let’s go with torture. Now ask: what, fundamentally, makes it bad? The question is not easy to answer completely. We require metaethics.
In metaethics philosophers what morality actually is. Typical questions include: ‘Can ethical claims become knowledge?’ And: ‘What is the rational scope of their reasoning?’
Ethically, torture feels like a bad thing (NB sentimentalism); ‘bad’ people do it (NB virtue ethics); people rationally don’t want to be tortured (NB deontology); and there are negative consequences to carrying it out (NB utilitarianism). Nonetheless, it could be justifiable in some settings.
Metaethically, we should ask how our theories relate to the real world (if at all).
Thus: Do we follow moral realism, according to which there are objective, mind-independent truths about torture? This approach is counterintuitive, though, because it cuts human response and our ability to construct claims out of the moral picture entirely. Then again, perhaps ethics is brute and irreducible, naturally or divinely; torture just is bad.
Alternatively, our moral claims (e.g. ‘Torture is bad’) supervene on basic explanations (‘because it causes pain’) in a naturalistic way (as per science). But does this make sense? It would be like equating our complex mental states (e.g. happiness) to things like dopamine and serotonin levels. Do such lower, basic facts really add meaning to higher, moral facts?
Maybe moral claims are separate from the world through the linguistic trappings of expressivist quasi-antirealism, by which moral truths are contingent on evaluative attitudes. That’s absurd, no? In what possible world could unprovoked and unjustified pain be permissible just because I have a positive attitude towards it?
Is torture wrong? Choose wisely and be prepared to defend yourself to the very end!