In his recent Moral Realism: A Defence, Russ Shafer-Landau argues that “moral facts are themselves intrinsically reason-giving, i.e. supply reasons for action regardless of the content of specific moral demands and their relation to other intrinsically or necessarily reason-giving kinds of considerations” (204). While he acknowledges that such intrinsically reasoning-giving facts may seem mysterious, Shafer-Landau attempts to show that we do, in fact, embrace such in other domains, particularly epistemology. I’m a bit suspicious of this move.
Here are a couple of representative passages from Shafer-Landau, defending brute epistemic normativity (which, if accepted, would make intrinsically reason-giving moral facts seem less unusual and improbable):
I think that intrinsic normativity is ineliminable. To see this, consider the parallels between conditions of epistemic and moral assessment. We say that agents, if they have reason to believe anything at all, have reasons to believe the truth, and to conform their reasoning to truth-preserving schemas, even if believing the truth is not conducive to the goals they set themselves (205).
I believe that there is intrinsic reason to think that two and two are four – the fact itself provides one with reason to believe it. […] The basic idea here is that certain things can be intrinsically normative – reason-giving independently of the value actually attached to them by agents (206, emphasis added).
Shafer-Landau’s example initially seems quite compelling – after all, don’t we have reason to believe the truth simply because it is the truth? (And this even if the epistemic can be overridden in some cases by pragmatic, moral, or other concerns…). Compare another case where we find intrinsic reasons. If you desire that p, then it seems that you have reason to promote p, other things being equal. That is, the very fact that you desire something gives you at least a prima facie reason to promote or pursue it; this is the nature of a desire. But now notice – there is an intrinsic reason here that arises out of the psychological state of desiring, not because of some external fact about the object of the desire. Simply insofar as you desire that p, you will have reason to promote p; we need not appeal to any additional, special normative properties of p itself. Similarly, in the case of belief, note that to believe that p is precisely to believe that p is true; it is inherent to the psychological state of belief that it aims at truth (Jonathan Adler and Ernest Sosa, among many others, argue for this claim). So while we have reason to believe the truth in general, and specifically that two plus two equals four, this is because the psychological state of believing by its very nature aims at truth (and it is true that two and two equal four). As in the case of desiring and its reasons, intrinsic reasons here arise out of the nature of the psychological state, and we need not posit any intrinsic reason-givingness that attaches to all true propositions as Shafer-Landau proposes. Thus, Shafer-Landau’s apparent appeal to epistemic normativity fails, I think, because he is actually focusing on the normativity of belief – and here the normativity is a matter of this psychological state, and not because of external reason-giving facts of the kind that Shafer-Landau is positing in the case of moral realism.
One could claim that just as beliefs aim at truth inherently, perhaps all actions must aim at moral rightness inherently. But this seems unlikely; there are many valid kinds of reasons for our actions, and morality does not play the same role for action as truth does for belief. We can properly perform actions for aesthetic, epistemic, pragmatic, and other non-moral reasons. For example, a musician can appropriately perform the action of tuning his guitar for purely aesthetic reasons. Again: to believe that p is to believe that it is true that p, and no such relation exists between acting and moral rightness. As such, I’m not sure that an appeal to our having reason to believe the truth provides support for Shafer-Landau’s proposed intrinsically reason-giving moral facts.