I'm back from the RoME Congress in Boulder, and got some helpful feedback on my paper "Moral Conviction and Character."
Julia Driver (my commentator at RoME) presented a case meant to question whether I am right to say that we stand up for our convictions in a way that we don't stand up for "lesser" beliefs: Samantha has always strongly believed that it's wrong to cause pain just for fun, but lately she's been reading some work that challenges this claim (using fantastic scenarios where the utility of the causing of pain outweighs the pain caused), and as a result is no longer utterly convinced that it's (always) wrong to cause pain just for fun. Nevertheless, Samantha still thinks it's more likely that it is always wrong. So, she no longer believes with full conviction, but would still, given the odds (as she sees them), still stand up against causings of pain just for fun.
This example got me thinking about the relationship between our practical convictions and moral theory (or theories), particularly the use of fantastic (and "desert-island") cases to motivate particular sorts of theories.
Samantha's uncertainty here doesn't plausibly seem to be uncertainty about whether it's wrong to cause pain just for fun, roughly, in the real world. Rather, she's unsure of some more theoretical principle, like, "it's wrong to cause pain just for fun in all possible worlds (or in all logically possible scenarios)." But one could hold both (1) that it's wrong to cause pain just for fun in the real world and (2) that it's not always wrong to cause pain just for fun in all possible worlds, etc. That's exactly what some utilitarians say. (Hare, for example, said similar things about slavery.) Now there are people--call them absolutists--who find this combination of beliefs odd. (I myself have often found it odd.) However, utilitarians often use these fantastic cases not so much to figure out what we ought to do in the real world, but to deflect certain kinds of criticisms--e.g. to show how strange the world would have to be for certain seemingly unsavory actions to be morally obligatory (or ok). It's a theoretical point that in some possible world, some causings of pain just for fun would have the highest utility. But at the practical level of life in this world, that point is of diminishing interest.
So my suggestion at RoME was that Samantha could--for practical purposes--put these theoretical questions aside and thereby stand by her conviction with full force: in the real world, it's (always) wrong to cause pain just for fun. Now, if she is a utilitarian, then she needs some kind of empirical support for that claim--that is, she needs to show why it's contingently true that the actual world is such that causing pain just for fun could never have a higher utility. That, if anything, would have to be the source of any reasonable doubt on Samantha's part. (An aside: I'm a bit concerned here, however, whether we can tidily disentangle the empirical and the conceptual here...)
So, I think the take-home point is that if our moral convictions are primarily practical--that is, concerned with value and action in the actual world--then Samantha shouldn't become doubtful about her prior conviction in the face of a fantastic scenario. As Williams might say, if she does doubt it, then she has had "one thought too many."
This relates to another point that came out in the discussion of the paper: that with respect to some convictions (perhaps including the one above), "maintaining a reflective stance" on the conviction is not a reasonable requirement (which is something I've got to tidy up in the paper). Some moral claims are basic to moral thinking, and to reflect on them--that is, to reflect on whether they really are correct--would be a perversion of moral reflection.