Saturday, February 28, 2009

Morality debate, part 5 of 11

Ephphatha's closing statement

I said nothing about the motivations for being moral, because that's irrelevant to the question of whether objective moral values (OMV) exist. If asking, "Why be moral?" means, "What motivation is there to be moral?" then I misunderstood cheetah's question. Our motivation or lack thereof is irrelevant to this debate.

However, the fact that she demands a motivation shows the weakness in her position. In her position, a person should only be moral if they have motivation. But in my position, a person should be moral even if they're not motivated. My morality applies to everybody; hers doesn't apply to anybody who can avoid being caught.

I offered an argument against her view which she hasn't answered. In her view, morality is defined by society. If everybody is obligated to obey the morals of their society, then that's an OMV. If there is no such obligation, then her view reduces to individual subjectivism. She says, "There is no objective standard that following [society's ideals] is moral," which frees her from one horn of the dilemma while impaling her on the other. She may argue based on self-interest that we have motivation to obey society, but we have no obligation to obey society.

Cheetah agrees with me that it's possible to know something exists without knowing what its origins are, so she cannot base her rejection of OMV merely on her ignorance of it's origin. She must have some other reason.

The other reason she gives is that morality cannot be known by the senses. For this argument to work, she must assume our senses are the only way we can gain knowledge. However, we can only gain knowledge through our senses if we first know that our senses are giving us true information about the world. Cheetah begs the question by saying we know the external world by our senses. Even appealing to others who have the same experience begs the question since we only know that others share our experiences because of our perceptions of others. George Berkley argued that postulating an external world to explain our sensory perceptions is ad hoc (invoking the same law of parsimony cheetah uses to reject morality) since perceptions occur strictly in our minds. There are several things cheetah assumes which her senses didn't tell her-that her sensory perceptions correspond to an external world, that her memories correspond to a real past, that the law of parsimony is a valid thumb rule, and that the future will resemble the past (the fundamental assumption of the scientific method). In her view, if you believe something without tangible evidence, then you're believing on faith. By that standard, her entire system of thought is based on faith. Since cheetah obviously believes many things her senses cannot tell her, she cannot reject morality merely because morality cannot be known by the senses.

My analogy is not false because it illustrates the point that there are some things we know without requiring proof. We know different things in different ways. If you want to know the contents of the cookie jar, you look in the cookie jar. If you want to know whether there are any four-sided triangles, you need not search the universe. You need only turn your gaze inward and read what is written on your mind. You'll find, etched on your mind, the law of non-contradiction, which tells you that four-sided triangles cannot exist in reality since it's contradictory.

Likewise, morality is written on our minds. That is why I so strongly insisted that we must be honest with ourselves. Since cheetah and I both agree that answering the question of morality does not involve consulting our sensory perceptions, we must explore the question with our minds. I gave several arguments for why I think we all believe in morality.

One of the arguments I gave was that moral relativists are almost always inconsistent. Cheetah is no exception. She argues cultural relativism, which is the view that morality is defined by one's society. Therefore, whatever society values is, by definition, morally correct. However, on the "shameful secret-I love Newlyweds!!" thread, cheetah said, "I think our society has some really misplaced values." Society cannot have misplaced values if their values are properly placed by definition. Her statement here shows that she believes in some standard of morality which transcends society and by which she judges society. Many other examples can be cited from her posts.

Another argument I gave was that we all judge others. At the time, I was addressing individual subjectivism, but it also applies to cultural relativism. When we judge another society, we're saying that society has done something wrong. When we apply a standard to another society, we're saying there's something, according to that standard, that they ought or ought not to have done, which is inconsistent with relativism, because in relativism, each society sets its own standards, and those standards only apply internally. America's standards didn't apply to German society, so the Nazis had no obligation to obey American values. What's right within American society is different than Nazi society. The only way either society can be better than the other is if there is some standard which stands outside of both and is not a product of either. The fact that we apply standards to Nazi Germany shows that we believe they aren't just our subjective values; they're OMV. The Nazis didn't just do something our society found distasteful. They actually did something that was wrong-something they ought not to have done. But if morality is defined by culture, then what they did wasn't wrong at all. It was right for them, since it was consistent with their values.

Cheetah equivocated on "improve" when she said societies can improve. Sure, they can improve in the pragmatic sense. Air conditioning and civil rights both make America a happier place. But what I meant is that a society cannot improve in the moral sense. If morality is defined by society, then societies can change, but they can't improve. Moral improvement implies an objective standard.

Cheetah argues that moral dispute is meaningful even if there are no OMV because it's possible to reach agreement based on self-interest. This argument fails for several reasons. First, it commits the is/ought fallacy. It doesn't follow that we ought to do X just because X is in our self-interest. Scenarios exist where killing an innocent man may be in the interest of all, but it isn't moral. Second, it confuses the pragmatic ought for the moral ought. We ought, in the pragmatic sense, to change the oil in our car, because it's in our self-interest, but it isn't immoral for us to refrain. Third, there's no principled way of resolving conflicts of interest. Fourth, scenarios exist where being moral is against self-interest, like risking your life to save a drowning stranger. It may be in self-interest to be immoral provided you won't get caught. Fifth, we simply don't argue morality that way. When we argue morality, we don't talk about utility and interest. We talk about fairness and obligation. Not even Cheetah argues morality that way. In the "$87 billion request" thread, cheetah demonstrated that she believes in some sort of just war theory. She thinks it's wrong to go to war for oil money.

The moral logic cheetah uses is the same moral logic used in every society. All morality stems from the principle of justification. Every act raises the question, "On what grounds can that be justified?" You'd be just as likely to find a culture who demanded no such justification as you would to find a four-sided triangle. You cannot get an "ought" from an "is" so all moral discussion must begin with a first moral premise, not a pragmatic premise, and the principle of justification is universal, which makes it possible for different cultures to reason with one another. If there's a difference in morality between two cultures, they need only ask one another, "Why do you think X is permissible (or forbidden)?" until you reach some moral principle which the two have in common. More often than not we find the cultures to differ, not in moral principles, but in the facts informing those principles. For example, Hindus think it's wrong to eat beef, and Texans think it's okay. On the surface, it appears to be a moral difference, but it's really not. Both cultures agree that eating grandma is immoral. Hindus don't eat cows because they believe in reincarnation and that the cow may be grandma. This is a difference in opinion about the facts informing moral principles, not the morals principles themselves.

Only one example of an OMV-a moral that would be true whether anybody believes it or not-is necessary for my case to be sound. I submit to you that the holocaust was wrong, and it would be wrong even if everybody condoned it.

Thank you cheetah and Weirdbrake for the wonderful debate.


Part 6


At 2/28/2009 8:45 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Still interesting.

I'll comment again when the series is complete.


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