Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Are moral realists delusional?

John Locke and George Berkley both had perceptions of a world around them. The difference is that Locke thought his perceptions existed not only in his mind, but that they also corresponded to a real world outside of his mind; whereas, Berkley thought his perceptions existed only in his mind, and that there was no external world.

In the same way, moral realists and moral non-realists both percieve a difference between right and wrong. The difference between them is that moral realists think their perceptions correspond to the real world, whereas moral non-realists think their perceptions exist only in their minds, and that in reality, there is no difference between right and wrong.

If Berkley is right, then we're all perceiving a world around us that isn't really there. It seems to be there, but it's just an illusion. If the moral non-realists are right, then we're all perceiving a distinction between right and wrong that isn't really there. Some things seem right and others wrong, but that's just an illusion.

Of course it's possible that there is no external world. It's possible that it's all an illusion or a dream. It's possible that these perceptions are only in our minds. But be honest with yourself; does that seem reasonable to believe?

It's also possible that there is no real difference between right and wrong. It's possible that our perception is merely a social construction that exists only in our minds. Apparently, there's a lot of people who think that is quite reasonable to believe, but I want to tell you one reason why I think it is quite unreasonable to believe.

Sociopaths have no moral motions. They feel no moral incumbancy. Though they may be told that some things are right and others wrong, this is merely academic to them. Though they may assent to what they are told, their conscience tells them nothing. They perceive no difference between right and wrong.

If there really is no difference between right and wrong, then sociopaths are perceiving the world more accurately than the rest of us. While we look at the world and perceive a difference between right and wrong that isn't really there, sociopaths see the world as it truly is--completely devoid of any right or wrong. But we all think sociopaths are crazy. That's why we consider it a mental illness. Their minds aren't working right. If we consider sociopathy to be a mental illness, that shows that we think a correctly working mind is a mind that percieves a difference between right and wrong.

How odd would we be if we considered a correctly working mind to be a mind that perceives things that aren't really there, and an incorrectly working mind to be a mind that perceives things accurately? Everything would be backwards. Mentally healthy people would be people who suffer from delusion, and mentally ill people would be people who see things they way they really are.

But let's be honest with ourselves; that's just nuts. If a correctly working mind perceives something, then there really is something there to be perceived. That's what it means for the mind to be working correctly--it means it perceives things that are really there, and it doesn't perceive things that aren't there. If a correctly working mind perceives a difference between right and wrong, then the perception of morality is an accurate perception. That means there really is a difference between right and wrong. It's not just in our heads.


At 4/19/2005 9:42 AM , Blogger daleliop said...

One might argue that morality is an instinct developed through evolution because it was necessary, or most beneficial to the species, to ensure that humans could survive and work together in harmony.

However, I think you have a point in that if we begin to doubt morality as a real perception of our mind, then what else could we doubt if we are not truly perceiving reality correctly? For example, how can we trust logic itself, then, if it is merely an evolutionary construct?

At 4/19/2005 9:49 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

That's just the thing. If you doubt morality, then you must acknowledge that your cognitive faculties are faulty, and if your cognitive faculties are faulty, then you can't trust them about anything else they tell you. For example, you can't trust them about the external world either, which is the point I meant to drive home.

Arguing that the moral instinct developed through evolution doesn't really solve the problem; it only postpones it, because we still have to ask ourselves whether we should trust our cognitive faculties. If evolution casts doubt on our moral perceptions, then it should also cast doubt on our sensory perceptions, and also our memory perceptions. After all, whose to say our memories don't exist only in our minds without corresponding to a past that really happened?

Surely evolution would produce minds that see things they way they really are. If not, then people who believe in evolution have no justification for believing in evolution since they can't trust their reasoning abilities.

At 4/19/2005 5:09 PM , Blogger Mike - HotFudgeSunday.com said...

A great post! An argument I will keep in my back pocket.

One could argue the reasoning is circular: We know morality is more than an illusion because we consider psychopaths crazy. We consider psychopaths crazy because they believe morality is nothing more than an illusion.

The strength of the argument, though, is that it is pretty self evident that psychopathic thinking is neither normal nor desirable, and that to live life accordingly would go against strong natural instincts. This goes to the argument that moral relativism is merely a theoretical philosophy -- people never go beyond only selectively living their lives by it. Those that really lived it would be psychopathic.

At 4/20/2005 11:28 AM , Blogger daleliop said...


In a response to the point that we can not trust our other cognitive functions if we can not trust our 'moral instinct', someone may then say, "we can't trust our so-called 'moral instinct' for a different reason -- because if we look at all the different cultures in the world, each one disagrees with what is right and what is wrong. Other cognitive abilities are objective -- we all see the same colours, we all hear the same sounds, we all can tell a bird from a cow, but when it comes to morality, one peoples think eating their own children is justified while another finds it abominable. Therefore, this is evidence morality _is_ just a subjective perception, a matter of cultural opinion, not like our other objective perceptions, like sound or sight. Instead, morality is like a strong preference: one person living in Taiwan may love eating broccoli because he thinks it is tasty but a child in New York may find it extremely disgusting. In both cases, the emotions towards broccoli is very strong, but in reality, the taste of the broccoli is fundamentally the very same for both persons. Morality is no different."

What do you think?

At 4/20/2005 6:32 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I plan on going into that in a later blog, but I'll say a few things now.

I don't think people do differ on morality. There are several reasons for why it seems that people differ, and it would take a lot of writing to spell them all out, but I'll give you one example.

Take the abortion debate for example. On the one hand, you have pro-life people who think abortion is wrong. On the other hand, you have pro-choice people who think abortion is not wrong. On the surface that seems like they have opposite views about morality. But if you dig a little deep and find out why they hold these different views, you find that the difference isn't moral at all. Rather, the difference is in the facts informing their morals. Both agree that it's wrong to take the life of an innocent human being. Where they differ is in whether the unborn are examples of innocent human beings.

Moral dialogue between cultures is possible precisely because everybody is working from the same basic moral premises. When one culture criticizes another culture, the culture being criticized always tends to defend themselves, not by denying the standard by which they're being judged, but rather, by arguing that their practice doesn't really violate that standard.

All you have to do to see what I'm talking about is ask people why they think such & such is wrong (or right), and keep on asking. Eventually, you'll find that they base it on some moral premise you'll agree with. The disagreement comes in the process of reasoning from that moral premise to the position they hold.

There are a few other reasons for why people seem to differ on morality that does not entail having different moral perceptions. For the purposes of the argument I'm developing, we only need there to be one objective moral value to establish my case. There isn't a culture in the world who would approve of skinning your father alive just for the fun of watching him squirm, and it's no coincidence that this view is universally held. It's obvious to everybody.

At 4/21/2005 7:40 AM , Blogger daleliop said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 4/21/2005 7:46 AM , Blogger daleliop said...


That's a good point - if you keep asking people why they think something is right or why something is wrong they will end up with an agreed-upon moral premise. I also think that disagreements occur when different groups differ on how they _rank_ the importance of certain moral premises. For example, some say that in certain situations taking someone's life is okay if it serves a greater good while another group asserts that preserving a person's life is always a greater virtue than attempting to serve a greater good. When it comes to abortion, I think a good number say, in general, that they disapprove of the practice, but in certain situations it is a valid choice to make (e.g. to save the mother's life or after a rape) while others say it should never be justified to take an innocent life.

It is which moral value each group or individual perceives to be the most important (in general, or in specific situations) that is the divider.

This topic is pretty important I think because many of my friends don't believe in absolute morality. The argument I offered in my last post was developed from something a friend of mine said to me a couple of months ago when I was trying to make a moral argument for the existence of God. He got really upset with me, citing that certain extremist Muslim nations believe it is okay to mistreat women and kill others and this shows that absolute morality does not exist. But from your argument, it appears that this might be just superficially so.

At 4/21/2005 8:41 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


You hit on two other good points. First, different cultures may agree on the same values, but they may different on the emphasis they give them. Take our own culture for example. Our culture has always valued both courage and tolerance, and we still do. But whereas courage was once more esteemed than tolerance, tolerance is now more esteemed than courage.

Second, there is such a thing as a moral dilemma, which sometimes makes moral decision-making difficult. It's hard to tell which is the greater good or lesser evil when you're faced with a moral dilemma, and since moral decision-making can be difficult, different people arive at different conclusions.

I guess I would've answered your friend in one of two ways. I may have said, "Well, do you think those Muslims are wrong or just different?" More likely, I would point out that just because two people disagree, it doesn't follow that there is no answer. At best it only follows that one of them doesn't know the answer.

I think the way you phrased the argument was better than your friend. If people really did differ radically in their fundamental moral premises, then that would at least indicate that moral perceptions were not as clear as sensory perceptions. It wouldn't prove that there are no objective moral values. At best it would only prove that many of us (and possibly all of us) aren't perceiving them clearly.

At 4/22/2005 5:01 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I was just thinking about your argument, and I had something more to say. Your argument was that since everybody is basically percieving the same things with their sensory perceptions, but they are not perceiving the same things with their moral perceptions, then our sensory perceptions are more reliable than our moral perceptions.

Now that I think about it, the argument is question-begging. By claiming that everybody is perceiving the same thing with their sensory perception, you are assuming that your sensory perceptions are accurate. After all, it is only through your sensory perceptions that you can come to know anything at all about other people. Other people are part of the external world, which you can only know about with your senses. So the only way you can say everybody is perceiving the same things with their sensory perceptions is if you have already assumed that your sensory perceptions are accurate.

Not that I attribute this argument to you. I realize you got the idea for the argument from somebody else. But still, I thought I'd make this observation. I hope it's not too late. No telling how scrolls down this far on a blog.

At 4/22/2005 12:04 PM , Blogger daleliop said...


I think we can modify the argument to avoid that problem.

Instead of arguing that since many people disagree with each other about morality and this shows it is subjective (or at the very least unclear), we can show that within one person there is evidence morality is not objective.

Let's say that you are that one person. When you look at a picture of a zebra, for instance, you can't force yourself to see that zebra as a mushroom, unless you are on drugs or your cognitive faculties have been tampered with. Your sensory perceptions are always fixed: e.g. you can't hear the same sound differently. If someone blows in a trumpet you don't suddenly hear a cat meow. You can't even 'reinterpret' the trumpet noise to _sound like_ a cat meowing. The sound you hear is objective and always the same.

On the other hand, your moral perceptions are much more pliable. One day you may believe that stealing is wrong, but the next day you might change your mind and say that it is sometimes justified to feed a hungry family. You can always condition yourself to change your moral stance but you can never condition yourself to 'see' a SUV when you see a hamster.

Since within yourself sensory perceptions are always fixed (and self-evidently corresponding to reality), while moral perceptions are subject to change, this indicates that moral perceptions are at the very least not as reliable as sensory perceptions.

This gets us where the last argument left off.

Now, there are many things subject to change that may still have an objective grounding, like many people can believe, or be convinced to believe 2+2=5, but that's not true in reality.

So, how can this conclusion help the subjective moralist?

I guess, from here, someone may say that this implies that, within one person, the truth about morality can not be reached or that it is difficult to make out. Therefore, in the moral argument for God, we can not really say that there exist objective moral values. We can only say we're not sure. We'll have to stay agnostic on that one. And agnostic in general.

At 4/22/2005 11:09 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Dale, that's a good argument. It definitely avoids the problems I raised.

At 6/02/2005 6:58 PM , Blogger Richard W. Symonds said...

Without a moral instinct, humanity would be long dead - mankind would destroy itself very quickly without it.

If we indeed have a moral instinct, moral philosophy (as an academic discipline) will soon be followed by moral psychology and moral science - et al.

The Moral Instinct manifests itself in our human Values...

At 6/03/2005 6:28 PM , Blogger Richard W. Symonds said...

We must clarify in our minds what we mean by "the moral instinct" to avoid confusions.

Parallels with "the language instinct" is useful here.

Noam Chomsky makes a critical distinction between 'the language instinct" in the evolutionary Darwinian sense (eg a giraffe's neck), and 'the language instinct' in Chomsky sense (eg a snowflake).

I believe the Chomsky approach to language development can also be usefully applied to out moral development - our moral instinct. It is the least implausible explanation so far, in my view.

The 'Rainbow' Theory of Motivation attempts to develop this 'snowflake' idea a little more, by applying it to 'the moral instinct'.


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