Friday, March 03, 2006

The biases and motives of moral realists and non-realists

I was thinking of an example of how our biases affect how we attribute motives to others. Here are two opposing sides.

There are some people who say there are objective moral values. There are other people who say there are not objective moral values. It is interesting to notice how each side attributes motives to the other side.

[Since I brought it up, lemme make a detour here. It’s an informal logical fallacy to try to refute a position by pointing out sinister motives in the people who hold that position. That’s a form of the ad hominem fallacy, and it’s a fallacy because it suffers from irrelevance. Our motives for holding a belief have nothing to do with whether or not those beliefs are true.]

Moral non-realists will often say the reason people hold to objective standards of good and evil is because they have a sinister desire to control everybody. They figure since morals are relative, people shouldn’t impose their own personal values on other people. (Never mind the inconsistency in this position; it’s not my point.) They figure if people are trying to impose their values on everybody else, then they just have an unhealthy need to suppress, control, and manipulate other people.

Moral realists will often say the reason people deny morality is because they want to justify their own actions. Rather than submitting to objective standards of good and evil they know are true, they pretend they aren’t real. It allows them to indulge in their guilty pleasures without the guilt. A guilty pleasure without the guilt is just pleasure. (Never mind the inconsistency in this position, too; it's not my point either.) Moral realists figure since everybody knows deep down inside that there’s a difference between right and wrong, there must be some sinister motive for being in denial.

As I write the above, I must admit that my own bias is in full swing. I have heard both of the above accusations, and I find myself agreeing with the moral realists and disagreeing with the moral non-realists. And, surprise, I’m a moral realist!

What advantage is there in worrying about somebody's motives anyway? Shouldn't we be more concerned about whether or not their position is true than in whatever motivates them to embrace it? I guess that depends. If we're trying to discover the truth of the issue, then their motives are irrelevent. But if we're trying to reason with them, and reason has nothing to do with why they hold their position, then perhaps there is some advantage to exploring what their motives might be. By getting a person to be honest with themselves about their motives, maybe they will be more open to reason. It does no good, of course, to try to convince a person that they have motives when they really don't. Attributing motives falsely to people is a good way to discredit yourself with them. It also puts them on the defensive, and people never listen once they're on the defensive.

12 Comments:

At 3/15/2006 1:13 PM , Blogger delete said...

You’re just saying that because you’re mean! (Just kidding.) Thanks for the clarity.

—Shawn

 
At 3/20/2006 4:42 PM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

I don't think moral realists are out to control the world. Well, I do, but I don't think that's why they hold to their views on morality.

I think that they are moral absolutists because they fear what society would look like if morality were subjective. Yet, this fear is unwarranted. First, subjective morality explains the world we see quite well, including our apparent moral progress. Second, even if there was an absolute morality, it wouldn't make any difference.

I write about this here.

The fact I like to point out is that even debates between moral realists are settled on the personal (subjective) repugnance of extreme case studies. The difference is that moral realists shape reality to fit their personal moral views.

It usually goes like this. Peter proposes some absolute moral scheme, and Mary says that Bob's reality cannot be correct because otherwise the story about Paul, the baby and the blender has some repugnant ending.

Of course, the problem here is that the debate is won or lost on the subjective repugnance for the outcome of the thought experiment.

Yet, in a search for an absolute moral reality, no such subjectively-decided thought expriments should be admissible as evidence. If there is a moral truth (whatever that means), then it should stand independently of our personal subjective views. We should expect that an absolute morality would ask us to do things we find feel to be morally repugnant. If you counterargue that we are designed to be good moral agents (our subjective goods are guideposts), then morality is subjective anyway.

Stripped of such subjective thought experiments, there would be no way to decide which absolute morality was the correct one. Ergo, morality cannot be absolute.

 
At 3/22/2006 11:31 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

doctor logic,

I think that they are moral absolutists because they fear what society would look like if morality were subjective.

I'm a moral objectivist because I simply trust my moral intuitions.

All perceptions are subjective. Whether we're talking about sensory perceptions, moral perceptions, memory perceptions, rational perceptions, or whatever, they all go on in the mind. If you dismiss moral perceptions merely on the basis that they are subjective, then it seems to me you'd have to also dismiss these other perceptions for the same reason.

There's no objective way to verify that anything going on in our minds is also going on in the external world. You can't prove, for example, that your senses are giving you true information about the external world. We assume that they are because that's what our intuition tells us. My intuitions also tell me that my moral perceptions correspond to reality. These just seem like common sense assumptions that it's quite reasonable to make.

When you see something so subjectively repugnant as mother stabbing and father raping, it seems to me that common sense should tell you it's quite unreasonable to deny that these things are truely wrong. You can deny them, sure, but I don't think any sane person could deny them without having to constantly struggle against his moral common sense.

Sam

 
At 3/23/2006 6:45 PM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

Sam,

There's a huge difference between moral intuition and, say, our kinematic intuition. We can say that our intuitive sense of mechanics approximates something objectively described by physics. The principles of physics apply to everyone equally. It doesn't matter what I want the laws of physics to be, or whether I want to be able to leap over mountains. We cannot do so (unaided by technology, that is).

However, our moral intuition doesn't approximate anything objective. If you say that X is wrong, and I say it's right, there is no arbiter of morality save for our subjective intuitions on the subject. There is no objective basis for saying that we ought to do anything in particular. You cannot construct a "goodness meter" that we would both agree to adopt personally, any more than you could construct a "tasty meter" that detects tasty foods. If your tasty meter says that spinach is tasty, I'm still not eating the stuff.

It's easy to point to cases that almost no one disagrees with, but what about the cases where reasonable people disagree?

Here's an analogy. Very few people would enjoy eating pond scum. Yet, reasonable people differ in their desire for anchovies on pizza. Why couldn't your reasoning about morality be used to claim that anchovies are absolutely delicious (or disgusting) according to your intuition? Why should morality be any more absolute than taste in food?

Admitting that morality is subjective isn't going to cause people to approve of stabbing and rape any more than admitting that gastronomic taste is subjective is going to cause people to start eating pond scum.

 
At 3/29/2006 11:08 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Dr. Logic,

Sorry for not responding sooner. I'm not sure I totally understand your argument or that you understood mine. I was explaining to you why I believe in objective morality. I believe there's a difference between right and wrong simply because it seems obvious to me. I have a moral intuition. I don't see how my moral intuition differs from other intuitions I have such as "my senses correspond to an external world." All of these intuitions are just things our minds automatically tell us.

I don't see how your discussion of the laws of physics is relevent. But you bring up another point--that people disagree on morality. This seems to be another argument against the objectivity of morality.

But I think just from reading your post, it's obvious that disagreement is irrelevent to the question. As you rightly pointed out, even if everybody agreed that a certain food tasted good or bad, it wouldn't mean the food itself was objectively good or bad. Taste would still be purely subjective even if everybody agreed. Likewise, even if everybody agreed on morality, that wouldn't imply that morality is objective.

With that being the case, what good does it do to point out the fact that people disagree on morality? How should a moral objectivist respond? Should he counter that people do agree on morality? Certainly not, because as we've already shown, agreement wouldn't make a difference.

In fact, it doesn't matter whether people agree on morality or not. If people agree, that doesn't make something objective. And if they disagree, that doesn't make it subjective either. It's possible for people to be wrong about objective things. For example, if I think the earth is flat and you think it's round, we may disagree, but there's still an objective truth to the matter.

Comparing that to morality, we both agree the earth has some shape whether either of us knows what the shape is or not. Likewise, all mentally healthy people recognize there's a difference between right and wrong, even if we disagree on what is right or wrong.

There are some matters of morality, however, that are so obvious, they seem to be universally recognized. These are usually the ones we moral realists appeal to--those repugnant ones we expect everybody to recognize when they hear, like mother stabbing and father raping.

I see no reason to deny what seems obvious to me. Whether it's obvious to anybody else or not makes me no difference. There are people who seriously deny the existence of time, an enduring self, the external world, logic, and several other things that seem obvious to me. Why should their denial cause me doubts? It doesn't.

 
At 3/30/2006 12:50 PM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

I see no reason to deny what seems obvious to me. Whether it's obvious to anybody else or not makes me no difference.

Sam,

I'm not trying to convince you to act in a manner you find subjectively immoral, any more than I would ask that you stop eating the food you enjoy.

All I'm saying is that you haven't provided any grounds for the belief that morality is more objective than taste in food.

There are people who seriously deny the existence of time, an enduring self, the external world, logic, and several other things that seem obvious to me. Why should their denial cause me doubts? It doesn't.

As you point out, denial of shared facts should not be compelling in any debate. However, if I understand you, the examples you cite are not cases where people deny shared facts.

A person who denies the existence of time does not deny that there is some structure that appears to us as time. For example, if all events, past and future, already exist, then our perception of time as flowing is misleading. Yet, this is not to deny any measurable aspect of physics or experience. In my opinion, unless there are grounds to make a determination one way or the other, then competing claims about the "nature of reality" are totally arbitrary, and equally nonsensical.

If by denial of enduring self you refer to the claim that the unified psychological self is an illusion produced by neural networks, this would seem to be a perfectly reasonable scientific claim. However, this does not deny any shared facts, e.g., that we all (or almost all of us) appear to be able to tell what a self is.

By sitting at the debating table, we have already agreed that there exist certain shared experiences and have committed ourselves to logical argumentation. However, it is the nature of those shared experiences that we are here to debate.

In fact, it doesn't matter whether people agree on morality or not. If people agree, that doesn't make something objective. And if they disagree, that doesn't make it subjective either. It's possible for people to be wrong about objective things.

This is all fair. The question is, what is the arbiter of objectivity? If the word is to have any meaning, then we must agree on a recipe for when to apply the label.

We know what objective means in the sciences. It means that personal taste and observation are irrelevant to the facts. We do double blind experiments to eliminate personal bias. We repeat experiments to ensure that results have statistical significance. We replicate experiments to confirm that experiments get the same results for different researchers. This is done in mathematics and logic as much as in the sciences.

So what similar sorts of tests can you apply to morality? It seems that there are none because the final arbiter of morality is always personal opinion.

Let me put it another way. Suppose you come up with a recipe for determining what objective morality is (i.e., an objective way to say what one should do). On what grounds can you convince me I should live by your recipe? There's an inherent problem of self-reference. The only way we can come to agreement is if I already feel that I should aspire to X, and you can prove that your recipe implements X. However, this is only consensus, not objectivity in the scientific sense.

 
At 4/01/2006 9:48 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

I'm not trying to convince you to act in a manner you find subjectively immoral, any more than I would ask that you stop eating the food you enjoy.

I didn't think you were. I thought you were making an argument against objective morality first on the basis that it's subjectively apprehended, and second on the basis that people disagree about it. Neither argument seemed to me to be a good reason to deny that there are any objective morals.

All I'm saying is that you haven't provided any grounds for the belief that morality is more objective than taste in food.

I don't see that I need to provide any grounds. I simply affirm what seems obvious to me. It doesn't seem obvious to me that there's such a thing as "objectively good tasting food--food that would taste good whether anybody liked it or not." But it does seem obvious to me that there's such a thing as "objectively immoral acts--acts that would be wrong whether anybody approved of them or not."

unless there are grounds to make a determination one way or the other, then competing claims about the "nature of reality" are totally arbitrary, and equally nonsensical.

I think this is probably at the heart of our disagreement. I agree with you that everybody may share perceptions (like the perception of time passing), but whether there's anything in reality that corresponds to that perception is another question. The difference between you and me, I think, is in whether we can be justified in believing "this only exists in my mind" or "this also exists in reality" apart from any sort of proof, grounds, or demonstration. You seem to think our choice is arbitrary unless we have good grounds. I, however, think we should go with the obvious unless we have good grounds to deny the obvious.

By sitting at the debating table, we have already agreed that there exist certain shared experiences and have committed ourselves to logical argumentation.

Then you must recognize that before any kind of debate can take place, some assumptions have to be made without having to prove them. If we had to have grounds for absolutely everything before we were justified in believing it, we'd never be justified in believing anything, because we get ourselves into an infinite regress. I'd start with some assumption, you'd ask me to give my grounds for that assumptions, then I'd give grounds, then you'd ask for the grounds of that, and on and on it would go without end. If you debate at all, then, then you must accept at least some things for which you can't give grounds. I'm perfectly comfortable with that. There are some things that seem obvious enough that they don't need any sort of proof, grounds, or demonstration.

I think you are confusing ontology with epistemology. To say that something is objective is not the same as to say it is known. Science begins with the assumption that there are objective truths--truths that would hold whether anybody knew about them or believed them or not. With that assumption, it then sets out to find out what those objective truths are. They don't become objective just because they are discovered.

Morality isn't empirically known the way science empirically verifies things. In fact, none of the things I listed above are known empirically like the scientific method. To illustrate, how would you go about demonstrating that the external world exists rather than us being brains in vats, plugged into the matrix, decieved by an evil genius, etc. How do you know it isn't all a dream? Or how do you know there's really any past rather than us having been created five minutes ago complete with memories of a past that never actually happened? How do you know that anything you experience can tell you anything about the future? The whole scientific method and all knowledge by experiment is based on the assumption that nature behaves the same way when we're observing it as when we're not observing it. Otherwise, experience could tell us nothing about reality. But how do you demonstrate that truth of that assumption? You can't. You should read David Hume's book, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding to see where I'm coming from. Hume was a skeptic, and he basically demonstrated that most of our basic assumptions about reality can never be proved.

Suppose you come up with a recipe for determining what objective morality is (i.e., an objective way to say what one should do). On what grounds can you convince me I should live by your recipe?

The only way you can reason with anybody about anything is if you begin with some assumption the other person accepts. I think ever mentally healthy person knows that there's a difference between right and wrong. If we happen to disagree on some particular issue, then I try to find out why we disagree. The disagreement may stem from one of us being confused about the facts informing the case, or it may be that one of us has made a mistake in reasoning from some more basic moral premise. Usually, there are some moral assumptions we have in common, and we can reason from those. Moral discourse would not be possible if there weren't, but we see people arguing morality all the time.

Now if somebody comes along and doesn't think there's any right or wrong at all, I simply do what you objected to in the beginning--I start bringing up things like mother stabbing and father raping, and I just ask the person to be honest with him/herself. I try to show the person how very counter-intuitive their position is and that it's almost impossible to live consistently with it.

How would you go about convincing somebody that the external world exists if they thinks it's all an illusion? Or how would you go about convincing somebody that the past really happened if they think we were all just created a moment ago complete with memories of a past that didn't actually happen?

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that you don't know how to convince somebody or that you can't form an argument at all. Does it follow that you're not justified in believing in an external world and a real past that actually happened? If so, then most of the world is in trouble. Most people are not philosophers and can't form arguments to demonstrate such things. But do you honestly think these people are not justified in thinking there really is a world out there and that things really did happen in the past? On the face of it, aren't these pretty reasonable assumptions for ordinary people to make? Well, I think morality is the same way.

Sam

 
At 4/02/2006 2:38 PM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

Sam,

You suggested that the heart of our disagreement might in be in our different tolerance (i.e., my intolerance) for metaphysics. However, I think that the root of our disagreement lies elsewhere.

I have read Hume, and I think his work is brilliant. In fact, I consider myself a radical empiricist. So I agree that there is no way to determine whether we are brains in vats or whether the world was created 5 minutes ago etc. However, this makes no difference to our debate. I (and, I suspect, Hume) would say that we experience regularities in sensation whether we are brains in vats or not. The world behaves "as if" it were part of an external reality that is independent of us. Hume showed that it was a waste of time to ponder questions about the nature of reality beyond the empirical. You and I both agree that we have an empirical experience of morality. Where we differ is in our definition of objectivity.

I think you are confusing ontology with epistemology. To say that something is objective is not the same as to say it is known. Science begins with the assumption that there are objective truths--truths that would hold whether anybody knew about them or believed them or not.

I don't say that something is objective if it is known. It is not known whether there are certain forms of dark matter, yet we still regard the question as one that can be settled objectively.

A field is objective when anyone can verify a claim within it and get the same answer. This is not the case with morality because morality is always measured by personal feelings. There are no mechanical moral yardsticks that have been constructed that we would all agree to live by. The best we can do is to establish treaties in social contract, and almost everyone compromises when they live under such a contract. For example, it is far from unanimous that abortion should be in the contract or that gun ownership should be in the contract. It is liberalism that permits these two rights to exist under the law despite the fact that there are disagreements.

Contrast this with distance measurement. We can build machines that operate independently of humans that rely on objective measures of distance. Everyone agrees that distances can be measured in meters or feet. They might prefer one standard to the other, but they are flawlessly convertible.

Usually, there are some moral assumptions we have in common, and we can reason from those. Moral discourse would not be possible if there weren't, but we see people arguing morality all the time.

This is true, but it has nothing to do with objectivity. Rather, it is a question of persuasion. I am perfectly happy with persuasion.

Suppose you claim X and I claim NOT X. Is the question of X objective if I can be persuaded of X? I would say that it is not necessarily objective. If you somehow persuade me that pickles taste good, that doesn't make pickles objectively taste good.

For the claim X to be objective, we must be able to construct an experimental mechanism that confirms X independent of human sentiment. I think we agree that this is not the case where morality is concerned.

So, what does the claim that morality is objective buy you?

Suppose Rob the moral relativist and Abe the moral absolutist each engage in practices that the other finds morally wrong.

The Rob thinks Abe is committing immoral acts, perhaps due to Abe's personal nature, accidents of history and so on. That is, Rob finds Abe's actions to be distasteful. Rob will take action to change Abe's practices. He will try to persuade Abe not to commit the immoral acts, perhaps by describing the adverse consequences of those actions. Rob may agree to live under a treaty while reserving the right to trying to persuade Abe to change his ways. If the acts of Abe are sufficiently wrong in Rob's subjective view, he may use political measures or force to stop Abe.

How will Abe's actions be any different from Rob's? Even if morality is objective, Abe cannot be certain that he is correct - his must reserve some doubt because it has already been conceded that objective morality doesn't preclude people from being incorrect about it. So Abe will try to persuade Rob to act morally, but Abe may decide to make a treaty with Rob. If Abe has sufficiently strong objections to Rob's behavior, he will try to coerce Rob.

It could easily be argued that Rob and Abe will do the same thing independent of their views on the objectivity of morality.

However, it could also be argued that moral absolutists are less likely to enter treaties (i.e., be liberal). My sense is that holding to views of objective morality makes one less liberal (and more authoritarian), whether one's morality is right-wing or left-wing.

A moral absolutist is more likely to coerce on the issue of abortion or gun control than is a moral relativist. The relativist can be expected to do what he thinks is best, but feels a lesser commitment to abstract principle.

We can see this by analogy to physics and mathematics. There is a form of authoritarianism in science stemming from its objectivity. Repeated experiment trumps personal opinion every time. The principle is that if you can deny empirical fact in one place, then anything can be justified. That's why we don't tolerate flat-Earthers in the scientific community.

Likewise, the moral absolutist is committed to holding the line on every little moral issue, independent of import. If the principle of objectivity can be broken in one place, then what is to stop it being broken elsewhere?

The moral relativist sees morality like taste in food. Gastronomically, there is widespread (though not total) compromise and liberalism. We don't feel that if our friends eat foods we don't like, that it breaks some deep principle, and that if we don't nip it in the bud, people will start eating bicycle chains and pond scum.

Analogously, the moral relativist is more open to differences in moral behavior, as long as they aren't excessively offensive to his sensibilities. For example, the relativist may find abortion to be distasteful, but will not coerce a woman to come to term against her will. As long as his wife or daughter aren't forced to have abortions, the abortions of others do not represent a threat in the form of a challenge to an overarching principle. Similarly, a relativist who dislikes guns is willing to compromise with gun owners as long as his family isn't threatened by gun violence.

Sam, thanks for this discussion. I like it when I reach a deeper understanding of the issues. I've long been aware of the correlation between liberalism and relativism and between authoritarianism and absolutism, but I don't recall thinking formally about the possible mechanisms linking the two.

Cheers,

doctor(logic)

 
At 4/07/2006 9:44 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Dr. Logic, do I know you from somewhere? Your named, "Doctor Logic" just sounds really familiar to me, and I can't figure out where from.

Yeah, we definitely have been using "objective" differently. I think an "objective truth" is simply a truth that is true independently of anybody's thought. So whether it's knowable, discoverable, or empirically verifiable is irrelevent. It differs from "subjective truth" in that subjective truths depend on the perciever. "Ice cream tastes good" is a subjective truth, because it may be true for one person but not another. The truth of it depends on the preferences of the person eating the ice cream. There's no right or wrong with subjective statements, but objective statements are either right or wrong.

When I say there are objective moral values, I mean that statements like "Father raping is wrong," is either true or false, and whether it's true or false doesn't depend at all on whether I personally approve of father raping or not. If I were a moral subjectivist, I would say something like, "Well Father raping is wrong for me, because I don't approve of it, but it might be right for somebody else who approves of it." Morality would be like ice cream--it depends on the preferences of the individual.

But let's go with your definition of objective which is basically that it is empirically verifiable, right? Now you say that the issues Hume addressed (such as the external world) are not relevent, because even if there is no external world, we still live and breathe as if there were. But for the purposes of our discussion, I think it is relevent, especially given your understanding of what it means to be objective. If you define "objective" so that it means "anything that is empirically verifiable," and you also admit that the existence of the external world, the uniformity of nature, and causation (all issues Hume addresses) are not empirically verifiable, then it would follow from your two assertions that the existence of the external world, the uniformity of nature, and causation and not objective. It follows by logic, in fact.

1. All objective truths are empirically verifiable.
2. The uniformity of nature is not empirically verifiable.
3. Therefore, the uniformity of nature is not an objective truth.

But do you see the problem with your radical empiricism in this? The uniformity of nature is the basic assumption of the scientific method. It's why experiments must be repeated before "verification" can be asserted. The more the same thing in nature is observed, the more high the probability that that's just the way nature behaves whether we're observing it or not, and the more sure we are that that's the way nature will behave the next time we observe it. Without the assumption of the uniformity of nature, it wouldn't matter how many times we observed the same thing. It wouldn't make it a bit more probable that we'd observe the same thing next time. The scientific method could tell us nothing without the assumption of the uniformity of nature.

No conclusion can be more certain that the premises upon which it is based, right? If you have bad premises, then your conclusion is not proved. If you have shaky premises, then your conclusion is also shaky. If you admit that the uniformity of nature is not empirically verifiable, and by your definition of "objective" is therefore not objective, then how can you say that anything which follows from the uniformity of nature can reach the status of "objective." If the premises are not objective, how can the conclusion be objective?

All of our knowledge is based on unproven assumptions. Radical empiricism leads logically to radical and universal skepticism. If there is anything at all we know, then there must be some things we know that can't be verified.

In An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume refered to our perception of the uniformity of nature, causation, the external world, etc., as "habits of the mind." Morality fits percisely into this same category, because morality is every bit a habit of the mind for everybody except sociopaths that even people who reject the existence of morality continue to live as if they fully embraced it. They continue to feel the weight of obligation, they continue to judge others as if their morality actually applied to others, they continue to give praise and place blame, and they continue to give moral justifications for their actions and require moral justification because of the actions of others. Couldn't you at least say that even if there are no morals, it's "as if" there were?

I agree that Hume was brilliant. He is one of my favourite western philosophers. He's one of the few who had a lot of common sense and didn't write crazy stuff. But I think Hume was mistaken when he jumped from, "We can't verify X" to "We don't know X." If we can't know anything that we can't verify, then how do we verify this claim: "We can't know anything that we can't verify"? If we can't verify that, then we shouldn't be able to know it, and if we can't know it, then we're in no position to call anything objective or not objective according to your definition. The "verification principle" is self-refuting, because it fails to meet its own standard of acceptability.

Let me lay out, in syllogisms, why I keep harping on Hume's arguments about the external world, causation, and the uniformity of nature (as well as the past, which I don't think Hume addressed). I'm trying to disprove one of your premises--the one that causes you to deny morality. Your premise is basically that if something can't be empirically verified, then it's not objective. Your argument looks like this:

1. If something can't be empirically verified, then it's not objective.
2. Morality cannot be empirically verified.
3. Therefore, morality is not objective.

But we've already seen that there's lots of other things that can't be empirically verified. The uniformity of nature cannot be empirically verified. So, using your premise, we have the following:

1. If something can't be empirically verified, then it's not objective.
2. The uniformity of nature cannot be empirically verified.
3. Therefore, the uniformity of nature is not objective.

And likewise, the existence of the external world is not objective, nor is the past, nor is causation.

But if we say that these things are objective or can be known, or are at least "reasonable to believe," then that refutes your premise. And if your premise is refuted, then your argument against the objectivity of morality is unsound.

So, what does the claim that morality is objective buy you?

It buys us a common assumption upon which to reason with each other about morals. If morals are not objective, then arguing about "what's the right thing to do?" would be just as silly as arguing about whether a certain food tastes good or not. One person likes it and another doesn't; end of story. But if morality is objective, then there's something to argue about. If people disagree, they can't both be right. Rob and Abe have nothing to settle their differences other than a power struggle. The one who wins isn't the one who gives better arguments or makes the most pursuasive cause; it's the one who gains the upper hand and is able to impose his vision on the other person. If one has a gun, and the other a pea shooter, the guy with the gun wins. If they both happen to agree on the meaning of "civility" and that "civility" is a "good thing," then perhaps they can dispense with power and use pursuasion.

But what is to be the basis of their pursuasion? They can't very well pursuade each other that one way is more right or moral than the other's way. They'd have to appeal to self-interest. But what if their interests are in conflict? What are they going to appeal to then?

Likewise, the moral absolutist is committed to holding the line on every little moral issue, independent of import.

I have two things to say about this. First, I prefer to call myself a "moral objectivist" rather than a "moral absolutist." Usually they are used interchangeably, but the distinction I mean to make is that moral objectivists recognize the existence of moral dilemmas in which two moral imperatives give opposite results, and you have to choose the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils. Moral absolutists seem, as you say, to "hold the line on every moral issue independent of import" where as moral objectivists say that some moral imperatives are more important than others.

The other thing is that moral objectivism or absolutism doesn't mean a person can't change his mind. Even scientists change their minds regardless of their objectivity. Holding to objective truths, whether in morals or in science, doesn't mean you can't be wrong.

I'm curious now what your point is in talking about the practical differences between relativists and objectivists. I don't know whether to agree with you or not, but let's assume you're right. Let's say relativists are more tolerant of differences than objectivists. What is the point of bringing that up? The reason I ask is because I get the feeling that you're trying to give examples of how relativism is "better" than objectivism. But if so, what do you mean by "better" given your rejection of objective standards of good and evil? Is tolerance a good thing? Is it better to be forgiving and lenient than to be overbearing and pushy? Is it better to be a democracy than a dictatorship? Is it better that people live freely and happy than that they live oppressed and miserable?

I'm glad you're enjoying the discussion. I admit it's been a struggle for me to muster the enthusiasm. I used to love this sort of thing, but lately I have been uninspired. That's why I haven't written much for my blog in a long time. I am trying, though.

 
At 4/08/2006 10:49 AM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

Dr. Logic, do I know you from somewhere? Your named, "Doctor Logic" just sounds really familiar to me, and I can't figure out where from.

Alas, probably not. There are a lot of Doctor Logics out there! Of course, none have my unique sense of style and class. ;)

So far, I think what you have written is pretty sound. However, I have some points of contention.

I think your statement that we must make certain assumptions to get anywhere is an accurate one. I think we have both assumed that consistency (logic) and uniformity of nature apply in some local domain to at least some degree. Without these assumptions, we could not know anything at all. Indeed, the purpose of these assumptions is to permit knowledge, and science is the way to gain knowledge of nature's uniformity (natural laws).

We're both content up to this point. My claim from here is that we don't require any more axioms.

Axioms about morality don't serve any useful purpose. Even if morality were assumed to be external, Abe and Rob may still go to war or use force.

In the end, accidents of history will determine precisely what the law contains. Yet, social dynamics and technology have the ability to bring about a convergence in social contract. Of course, this view is largely descriptive. It is only prescriptive to the extent that it might recommend a faster convergence. Even then, we are talking about a convergence towards ethical best practices, not towards a particular morality or commonality of practices. In other words, I might be able to see ethics as objective, but not morality as objective.

Second, I agree that something is objective if it is independent of human thought. That's why instrumentation is vital to science - we can build machines that act as references. But in this case, we would have to be able to build a machine that can detect morality independent of human thought. If we can all agree on the plans for a morality machine, then the claim that morality was objective would be convincing. Needless to say, no one has any plausible design for such a machine.

Yet, even if they did, why should I do what the machine tells me I should do? I can see an objective is, but not an objective ought.

So, whether we had a machine or not, all moral agents can do is try to persuade each other of what they think is the right course of action. This turns out to be true for both realists and relativists.

If this were all there was to it, I should just go away and shut up because my discussion would have no practical impact.

I have two concerns about moral axioms.

The first is that the assumption of objective morality begs for an objective scheme for compliance. If there were an objective morality, the only way to convince people they should follow it in contradiction of their subjective moral views would be to demonstrate that there are infinite personal consequences to breaking the rules (Heaven and Hell). That is, no matter what you like and dislike, the consequences of breaking the law would be eternal life in a personal Hell.

The second concern is more political. In debates about philosophy, we positivists often get labeled as immoral for our rejection of objective morality. It's just a framing tactic, but an annoying one.

I admit it's been a struggle for me to muster the enthusiasm. I used to love this sort of thing, but lately I have been uninspired. That's why I haven't written much for my blog in a long time. I am trying, though.

Hey, the blogosphere is but one of many social circles that keep us engaged in life.

 
At 4/19/2006 5:14 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Dr. Logic, it has been interesting, but I think I'm going to let you have the last word on this one.

Sam

 
At 3/10/2013 11:10 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said.

 

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