Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fundamentality and ungroundedness

I haven't been following the grounding literature, so this may be old hat, in which case I will be grateful for references.

The following seems pretty plausible:

1. p is fundamental if and only if p is ungrounded.
But I think (1) may be false. I will put the argument in tensed fashion, but it could also be done a bit more awkwardly in a four-dimensional setting.

Let's suppose that <I ought to respect other persons> is a fundamental moral truth. Call this truth R. But now I validly promise to respect other persons. Then R comes to be grounded in <I ought to keep my promises and I promised to respect other persons>. If (1) is true, then R continues to be true but ceases to be fundamental. That doesn't sound right. It seems to me that if R is ever a fundamental moral truth, then it is always a fundamental moral truth. After I have promised to respect other persons, R gained a ground but lost nothing of its fundamentality.

Maybe I can motivate my intuition a little more. It seems that R has a relevantly different status from the status had by S, the proposition <I ought to come to your house for dinner every night>, after I promise you to come to your house for dinner every night. Each of R and S is grounded by a proposition about promises, but intuitively the fundamentality-and-grounding statuses of R and S are different. A sign (but only a sign--we want to avoid the conditional fallacy) of the difference is that R would still be true were the proposition about promises false. Another sign of the difference is that <I ought to respect you> is overdeterminingly grounded in <I ought to respect all persons> and <I promised to respect all persons and I ought to keep my promises>, while it is false that <I ought to come for dinner tomorrow night> is overdeterminingly grounded in <I ought to come for dinner every night> and <I promised to come for dinner every night and I ought to keep my promises>. The latter is not a case of overdetermination.

The above example is controversial, and I can't think of any noncontroversial ones. But it seems plausible that we should be open to phenomena like the above. Such prima facie possibilities suggest to me that ungroundedness is a negative property, while fundamentality is something positive. Normally, fundamental truths are also ungrounded. But they don't lose their fundamentality if in some world they happen to be grounded as well.

A somewhat tempting way to keep the above intuition while maintaining the idea that fundamentality is to drop the irreflexivity of grounding and say that:

1. p is fundamental if and only if p grounds p.
Then we could say that R is overdeterminingly grounded by a proposition about promises as well as by R itself, while S is only grounded by a proposition about promises and not by S. And in ordinary language we do sometimes use expressions like "p because p" to express some kind of fundamentality of p. I am not that happy with this solution, but can't think of another one that keeps the idea that fundamentality is defined in terms of grounding. Of course, one could take fundamentality to be fundamental.

1. Interesting. I think you might be right, but as you point out this example is controversial. How would you respond to the objection that you can't validly promise to do something that you're obligated to do anyway, say because the promise seems morally defective (in the sense that your promise betrays the fact that you would otherwise give yourself the option of not doing what you're promising to do, even though you're *obligated* to do it)?

2. It seems clear to me that if I promise you to A, which I am anyway obligated to do, then typically I do more wrong if I fail to A than if I hadn't promised. So the promise adds to the degree of obligation.

But this observation may undercut my argument. For it may be that the fundamental moral truths are not of the form <I ought to A> but <Failure to A is wrong in such-and-such a respect>.

3. Hi Alexander. You say,

"It seems clear to me that if I promise you to A, which I am anyway obligated to do, then typically I do more wrong if I fail to A than if I hadn't promised. So the promise adds to the degree of obligation."

This assumes that it is possible to validly promise such a thing. But let's assume that it is possible. Even so, I don't see why that would add to the degree of obligation. If I promise to respect persons and then fail to do so, breaking my promise certainly adds to the *number* of wrong things that I've done, for now I've both violated a fundamental moral obligation *and* violated a promise, but the union of these two actions in a single state of affairs doesn't seem to me to add to the *intensity* of the wrongness (so to speak) of either action, nor to that of the resultant state of affairs--if we take the conjunction of the state of affairs of my breaking some other promise and the state of affairs of my violating some other fundamental moral obligation, without that promise being a promise not to violate that or any other fundamental moral obligation, the resultant conjunctive state of affairs doesn't seem any worse to me than the one we are considering, where two such violations are united.

4. Well, it's worse to wrong A and B than to wrong A, ceteris paribus, and if I fail to respect A after having promised B to respect all people, then I wrong A and B.