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

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Morality debate, part 4 of 11

Cheetah's first rebuttal

ephphatha says that objective morals refer to the thing (rape is wrong) while subjectivity refers to one's feelings about the thing. Actually, objective morality ostensibly refers to one's belief about the objective morality of the issue (rape is wrong according to an objective standard), whereas subjectivity refers to one's feelings or cultural perceptions (rape is wrong according to my feelings or according to how I was raised). The key difference is really where someone's feelings originate, not what they are judging. In both cases, they are judging the act of rape, but their judgment on it originated differently.

ephaphatha questions why an individual would be motivated to follow the subjective morals of the society. What ephphatha does not say is this presupposes that people would have motivation to follow an objective morality. Obviously, if an objective morality does exist, they don't have enough motivation to do so, because people are doing things various other people call immoral all the time. So, if this is a problem, it applies equally to both philosophies.

However, the claim that it's a problem for subjectivity isn't a problem at all. As I stated in my previous post, humans develop many ideals, including what is and is not moral, in order to facilitate society. There is no objective standard that following them is moral. It is simply in our best interests, as humans forming a society, to follow certain codes that have been developed. If people choose not to follow the agreed upon standard, we call them immoral, and really, we are labeling them as members that do not operate well in our civilization, and often will disincentivize that behavior for them (shunning, intimidation, etc.). Here's an analogy: Most people don't pee in their pants. This is not some transcendent moral philosophy, but our society has developed the idea that peeing in one's pants is not appropriate, for various reasons. But, this is totally subjective, so according to ephphatha's idea, why should anyone follow it? That's where the idea falls apart. As we can see here, and with morals, there are disincentives to act outside the cultural norm and morals. Some people still choose not to follow society's ideals, in which case they will probably suffer some sort of punishment.

ephphatha does not feel the need to know the origins of an objective moral code. As an example, we know the universe is there, but we do not know its origins. True, but with the universe, at least we know it is there. We have physical evidence, such as the observance of stars and the effect they have on other objects; we have replicated experiments so we know that different people are perceiving and discovering the same thing. With an objective morality, we have no proof it exists, no replication of experiences between people, so this is not a good analogy. It doesn't mean objective morality doesn't exist, it is just significantly different than observing the universe, which is physically present. In other words, ephphatha is using faith to argue for moral objectivity. Believing in something for which there is no evidence.

In fact, ephphatha's conclusion in the first post rests entirely on faith. ephphatha falsely equates the experience of moral objectivity to the experience of consciousness/external reality. Actually, the external world is something we can do experiments on. I can touch my computer and describe it and if you did the same, you would feel the same thing. We have physical, corroborated, independent evidence of the existence of our existence, but we do not have any such thing with objective morality. One person might tell you rape is not wrong, another person might tell you that they were raised to believe it is wrong. And there is no physical evidence to back any of this up. So, this is not an accurate analogy at all precisely because ephphatha is trying to compare something with physical properties to something that is not physical. And, as for the age-old idea of us all being created 2 minutes ago with intact memories, it's fun to think about, but will lead us nowhere in conversation. We have accepted scientific principles in this world (even if it was just created 2 minutes ago) with which the evidence of existence and the universe conform, but with which objective morality does not. Perhaps you can find a different analogy?

In addition, what use is an objective morality if we do not know the nature of it? We will never know if we are correctly implementing it. We will never know if we are drawing the line based on a false faith, or if our opponents are correct in drawing the line differently. We must just take on faith that what we are doing is “right.” And, if that's what we are doing, I don't think this discussion is of much use. Faith is fine for religion, but doesn't enter into science, skepticism or philosophical discussion. It just puts a stop to discussion when we get to the irreducible idea that it is our faith in it that makes it so.

ephphatha claims that engaging in moral dispute and dialogue betrays that we believe an objective line exists. Absolutely not. It means that we believe we can come to a rational agreement after careful thought and consideration. Why debate and dispute an objective morality, when no one knows where the line is, and there is no evidence to prove it is where one advocates it is? It would simply be a bunch of people saying, “I believe it is here.” “No, I believe it is two degrees to the left.” Whereas in a subjective morality, discussion and debate is critical to air the rational reasons for a line to be drawn, to identify all sides of the issue, and to (hopefully) come to a reasonable solution.

Again, ephphatha mischaracterizes subjectivism by claiming that there is no line at all. Although I addressed this in my first post, I will restate it: in subjectivism, there can be just as many lines drawn as in objectivism, but those lines are drawn as a result of agreement or compromise by the moral agents involved (family unit, society). Subjectivism does not deny that there can be established “rights and wrongs,” only that they come from other than human perception and will. If ephphatha continues to use that as an argument against subjectivism, I won't be able to respond, since it is a strawman.

By restating the abolitionist and Nazi arguments, ephphatha has also ignored more of my previous post. That there can be moral improvement (judged by the society), that one can use rational reasons to criticize other culture's morals, etc. Again, these are strawmen, and unless ephphatha has a disagreement with how I claim this operates under subjectivity, then this line of argument is useless.

subjectivity is superior to objectivity
It's perfectly logical for humans to evaluate what's in their best interest, to teach their children how society has developed and operates, etc. This doesn't preclude a person believing strongly in morality, and indeed, given what we know about sociology, anthropology and psychology, is a more reasonable assumption or more parsimonious, than acting as if there is something magical that guides us all in the general direction of right and wrong (though not quite perfectly, else we'd all agree).

The bottom line is, we know parents potty train their children, we know they teach them to share, we know they teach them that arbitrarily hurting an innocent person is wrong. We know that these kind of rules were developed to facilitate society. Why do we need, then, to explain morality through some magic objective code? That's superfluous.

The biggest problem with objectivity is that it is not parsimonious, while subjectivity is. Subjectivity uses behaviors and ideas we know exist in human society and that also are used for other purposes, to explain how our system of morality was developed and operates. That's parsimony. Objectivity ignores readily available explanations and chooses to instead claim that there is an objective code, for which there is no evidence but one's own perception, to explain it. Humans also used to think god was mad and set off volcanoes, or hurricanes, etc. Now that we know what causes volcanoes and hurricanes, we do not think god directly causes them because he is mad. Given the available evidence, we have a more parsimonious solution. Objectivity rests on similar faith, and the assumption that no behaviors and methods that we currently know about humans are sufficient to explain morality. In fact, I am claiming that the behaviors I have described here and above are sufficient, plausible, and supported to explain our moral behavior, and that that is a much more parsimonious explanation than objectivity. So, does ephphatha disagree that what I have proposed is a plausible explanation for moral behavior? If so, why? If not, how am I incorrectly characterizing subjectivity as more parsimonious than objectivity?

Part 5

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Morality debate, part 3 of 11

Ephphatha's first rebuttal

While writing my opening statement, I wasn't sure if cheetah was going to argue for individual moral subjectivism or cultural relativism. Though similar, there are some differences, as cheetah pointed out. In my explanation of the difference between a subjective claim and an objective claim, the point I was trying to get across was that subjective claims refer to the perceptions of the subject, and objective claims refer to objects that correspond to those perceptions. In cultural relativism, as cheetah said, a subjective claim refers to one's social construct, which is consistent with my explanation since cheetah also said that in her view, “Morality is a product of human consciousness.” That's my whole point. There are only two views. Either objective moral values exist or they don't. If, when you say, “Rape is wrong,” you're talking about your feelings, preferences, or socially constructed view of reality, then that's moral non-realism since morality only exists in your mind. But if you're talking about the act of rape itself, then that's moral realism.

Now I want to address some arguments cheetah made against objectivism. First, she argued that moral objectivism is question-begging by asking, “Why be moral?” The problem is not that moral objectivism is question-begging, but that the question is meaningless. As cheetah said, “Morality dictates what one should do,” so to ask, “Why should one be moral?” is to ask, “Why should one do what one should do?” which is tautological. Morality is by definition what one should do, so it's meaningless to ask why we should be moral.

Cheetah's observations are more troublesome for relativism than for objectivism. Why should an individual follow the dictates of his society? Is there some transcendent moral imperative that tells everybody, regardless of what culture they belong to, that they have a moral obligation to obey their society's standards? If so, then that's an objective moral value. If not, then cultural relativism reduces to individual subjectivism. Nobody would be obligated to obey their culture's standards.

The second argument cheetah makes against moral objectivism is not really an argument so much as a challenge. She asked two questions: “Where does objectivity originate?” and “How do we know the objective moral code?” Supposedly these questions must be answered before objective morality can be rationally affirmed.

Regarding the first question, I see no reason to think that before we can know objective moral values that we first have to know where they came from. Some people think moral values are just part of the furniture of the universe and have no origin. Others think they have their origin in a transcendent being. We need not answer this question before we can affirm objective moral values. There are many things we know about without having to know where they came from. Although there's controversy over the origin of the universe, for example, hardly anybody disputes its existence.

Regarding the second question, I see no reason to think that before we can know something, we first have to know how we know it. If for everything we knew, we had to know how we knew it, we wouldn't know anything at all, because for anything you claim to know, somebody can always ask, “How do you know that?” For whatever answer is given, that person can continue to ask, “How do you know that?” ad infinitum, in which case, we could have no knowledge. If knowledge were impossible, then this debate would be pointless. If we can know something, then it must be possible to know something without knowing how we know it. So I see no reason to think that we must know how we know morality before we can know it. If cheetah wants to insist that we must, then my question to her is this: How do you know that?

Besides, I haven't claimed that we can know objective moral values with absolute certainty. All I've argued is that it's more reasonable to affirm them than to deny them.

The third argument cheetah makes against objectivism is much like the first two. She argues that objectivism is circular, and she gives the dialogue to illustrate her point. But the dialogue breaks down in several places, beginning with the first question. To ask, “What is moral?” is different than asking, “Is anything moral?” It's possible to know there's a line between right and wrong without knowing where to draw that line. As I said in my opening statement, moral decision making is often difficult. But it's only difficult if we assume there's a correct answer. The fact that we engage in moral dispute and dialogue betrays that we believe there's a line.

The dialogue breaks down again when she asks, “How do you know?” because she assumes that before you can know any moral values that you have to first know how you know, and I've already explained why I think she's mistaken.

The dialogue breaks down yet again when she mischaracterizes my argument by answering, “Because I feel it in my mind.” Due to limited space, I'll refer the reader to the “conclusion” of my opening statement to discover what my real argument is.

Cheetah spends more time explaining cultural relativism than she does arguing for it. In fact, I'm not sure she gave any arguments for it at all, unless you count the arguments against objectivism as arguments for relativism. But one point she has tried to drive home is that cultures differ radically on morality. Assuming they do, what follows from that? Does it follow that if two people disagree on the answer to some question that there is no correct answer? Obviously not. Cheetah and I disagree on whether or not objective moral values exist, but it doesn't follow that neither of us is correct. So it isn't enough for cheetah to merely point to differences in moral opinions. She needs to further explain to us why we should believe that there is no correct answer at all. Cultures may differ on where to draw the line between right and wrong, but they all agree that there's a line. Relativists deny that there's any line at all.

In conclusion, I'll repeat two things I've said before. First, I gave several examples of why relativism is counter-intuitive, and why I think hardly any of us really believe in it. There's no objective basis with which to criticize other cultures, such as Nazi Germany, since morality is defined by a culture's particular values. There's no such thing as moral improvement. Moral reformers like the abolitionists and the civil rights advocates were immoral because they went against their culture's morality. There can be no immoral laws. There's nothing objectively wrong with rape and torture.

Second, I want to reiterate the need for us to be honest with ourselves. It isn't enough for us to say that it's possible objective moral values are illusory. It's possible that we were all created five seconds ago complete with memories of a past that never happened, but just because it's possible doesn't mean it's reasonable to believe. Our memories are incomplete, they're often inaccurate, and we often disagree with each other, but that is insufficient for us to claim that our memories don't refer to anything real.

Remember in June of 1998 when James Byrd was dragged to death behind a pick up in Jasper Texas? Be honest with yourself. When you object to that, do you mean you don't like it? Do you mean your culture has agreed to call that “bad”? Or do you mean the act itself was wrong regardless of what your culture may say?

If you take cultural relativism seriously, then all we can say about the holocaust is “different strokes for different folks,” because they were acting consistently with their own cultural values. Does the mere fact that some cultures think genocide is virtuous honestly cause you to doubt that it's a vice? Does the mere fact that some people think the external world is an illusion honestly cause you to doubt that it exists?

In reality, we all believe so strongly in morality that we don't just think dissenters are mistaken; we think they're insane. Think about it. If there are no objective moral values, then sociopaths (people with no conscience) perceive the world more accurately than we do. While we look at the world and see right and wrong, sociopaths look at the world as it truly is—completely devoid of right and wrong. But we all think such people are crazy. Their minds aren't working right. That shows that we think a correctly working mind is a mind that perceives a difference between right and wrong. If a correctly working mind perceives a difference between right and wrong, then the perception of morality is an accurate perception. All cultures everywhere perceive a difference between right and wrong. They may disagree on the particulars, but they all agree that there are correct answers, and that's why moral debate is meaningful.


Part 4

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Morality debate, part 2 of 11

Cheetah's opening statement

Thanks to WeirdBrake for offering to moderate and ephphatha for participation. This is a controversial subject and I hope and anticipate this that conversation will be valuable.

In this post, I hope to further outline the nature of subjectivity and ask some critical questions about objectivity.

Morality is subjective

Morality is a product of human consciousness and is open to be changed by human consciousness and will. Morality varies among people depending on their personal feelings, which are influenced by the peculiar situation in which morality is judged.

However, this doesn't mean that all actions are equally moral or allowable; it simply states that allowability and equivalency are not established outside of human perception, but within it. It does not value all actions as equally ok simply because there is not an objective standard of what is ok and what is not. Nor does it condemn anyone for judging others simply because there are “different strokes for different folks.”

What it does do is describe how the system of morality in human civilization works. I liken the human moral system to contracts. We contract with each other based on what we wish to accomplish for ourselves and society. This comes from our biological drive to preserve the organism (ourselves) and our species. Based on this self-interest, many civilizations (though not all) have concluded that establishing a proscription against killing others would facilitate a society. We give up killing others, but we gain some security for ourselves. As children are raised by parents and others, they learn by modeling and conditioning that killing is wrong, which does lead to an enduring idea in that culture that killing is wrong. Contracts in human civilization are sometimes based on agreement of a plurality or majority, sometimes by a powerful minority (or dictator) and sometimes are never agreed upon. Nevertheless, morals are always a product of human perception and judgment and typically evolve based on rational thought of humans in the furtherance of some goal for society.

Points of disagreement on subjectivity

Moral objectivists and subjectivists both make moral claims, but they each mean something different by them. When moral subjectivists say, “Rape is wrong,” they're not actually referring to rape. They're referring to their own feelings about rape.
Minor disagreement. They may be referring to their own feelings, but in common acts like these, they are often evaluating based on their own cultural construct. So similar to your example below, a moral subjectivist could find rape to be a good thing personally, but still think it is wrong and feel bad about it because their cultural construct is that rape is bad, and they have grown up being indoctrinated to that view. This is an idea I will return to several times in disagreeing with your assumptions, which I shall henceforward refer to as SC (social conditioning or social contract).

They find it objectionable. But there's nothing wrong about rape itself.

SC. In this way, there is still something wrong in rape, though only because humans have decided so in this situation. As I asserted above, moral subjectivism does not require that all views be evaluated as equal, it just states that all judgments of moral value stem from human perception.

When you say, “Rape is wrong,” are you reporting autobiography—that you don't like rape? Are you just describing your personal preferences? Or are you talking about the act of rape itself? If you're talking about the act itself, then you're a moral objectivist.
SC. Moral subjectivists can still evaluate moral actions outside of their own feelings, because their culture has decided to condemn that action.

Suppose somebody says, “Rape is virtuous.” Would you say, “Different stroke for different folks”? Or would you think that person was mistaken? If you think he's mistaken, then you're a moral objectivist. The only way to be mistaken is if there is some objective truth to the matter.
I strongly disagree. People can disagree with another's morals for purely rational reasons that still are not indicative of an objective morality.

In fact, in this sense, objectivism doesn't make sense. Morality dictates what one should do. But, saying something should be done begs the question, why should it be done? If the answer to the "why" question is "because you should" or "because it's the right thing to do," then it sounds a whole lot like moral subjectivism, because such answers are usually associated with personal preference and not opinion about facts. Other answers, like, "because if you believe human life has value, you shouldn't kill that guy," make morality conditional. If you want X, do Y. What if I don't want X? Am I immoral for not wanting X? If yes, WHY? In the case of "human life has value" we come to another "because."

I see that I am quickly running out of words, so I must for now skip over an individual response to your 5 theories. Suffice to say that I feel each of them, including your conclusion, can be adequately addressed with the social contract/conditioning theory and rejection of the idea that subjectivism does not allow the moral agents to make judgments on superiority of different moral ideas, both of which I have addressed above.


We come to this problem with objectivity: There are two questions, at least one of which must be fully answered, before there can be any evidence for objectivity:
1. Where does objectivity originate? What are the origins of this mysterious doctrine,that we may know that it is superior to our own varying thoughts and is a valid thing to apply? Or
2. How do we know the objective moral code? There is some agreement on some morals, but widespread disagreement on most. Even the most basic morals that we subscribe to have not been consistent over time or around cultures. The Aztecs killed innocent people frequently, because they felt it honored their gods, so they did not subscribe to a moral code against killing innocents. Throughout history, an invading army has raped women in the invaded civilization, and this was taken as a right of the invader. Even now, in some Muslim cultures, the rapist is not wrong, but the victim of the rape is immoral. Therefore, if there is a moral code, we must have a way of knowing what it is and that we are indeed subscribing to the correct one. Because a moral code is not a concrete thing, like a tree, we cannot just go check if it is there. But, it would be the worst kind of disingenuity to tell people, “I don't know who/what the moral authority is or where it comes from, nor can I show you what the moral code is in a satisfactory manner to prove that we are actually sticking to the letter of this moral code, I can only tell you that I know killing is wrong, and since most of the people on the planet agree with me, it must be so.

Secondarily, I would be interested in what we might call “second degree morals,” ones that are not widely agreed on. For instance, “pornography is wrong.” Some people ascribe to this and some people don't. How do we know the objective morality on this? Where do we go to get an answer? Who is our authority? Or are some morals subjective while only some more important ones are objective? And if that is the case, how can we know that we are correctly implementing objective morals while not missing any that we think are not objective? Humans have been wrong about a lot of things in the past (you pointed out the flat earth theory), so it is not acceptable to merely take certain people on authority that they have deduced what is objectively moral and immoral.

The crux of the problem with objectivity is its circularity:

Q: What is moral, objectively?

A: It is X

Q: How do you know?

A: We feel in our minds that some things are right and some are wrong.

Q: But, Culture #2 feels that X is immoral.

A: Humans can sometimes be wrong and it does not take universal agreement to know that something is objective.

Q: Well, how do you know YOUR view is right?

A: Because we feel in our minds that X is immoral.


This is why subjectivity is not only more rational, but more consistent. Subjectivity acknowledges that we may never be “right” in the morals that we implement in our particular society, but that we can commit resources to continue to refine and provide rationale for morals in order to achieve what we deem to be the greatest benefit to society or an improvement to society. It acknowledges that morals can be crafted using objective facts about the natural world (i.e. improved technology) and situational factors that may result in varying degrees of acceptability to the moral agents.

Part 3

Monday, February 16, 2009

Morality debate, part 1 of 11

Several years ago, I had a debate on a message board about morality. We had a moderator/judge and everything. I lost the debate, but I figured I'd post it anyway since I hardly ever post things, and you might find it interesting. I'll post my opening, wait a few days, then post Cheetah's opening, wait a few days, etc.

At the end of the debate, the moderator/judge made comments about each post before giving his results. Then Cheetah and I commented on his comments. I lost some of it because the thread was deleted before I could copy it all. But you should read Phil/Weirdbrake's comments at the end. Smart guy, even if he did say I was the loser! :-)

If it's seems choppy, it's because we had a short word limit. I don't remember what the word limit was, but every time I wrote one up, I ended up having to cut about half of it out to get within the word limit. Each time, the number of words I left were exactly at the limit.

Topic: Do objective moral values exist? Is morality subjective?

Weirdbrake: Moderator and judge <--Phil
Ephphatha: Arguing for moral objectivism <--Me..Sam
Cheetah: Arguing for cultural relativism <--I don't know her real name.

Ephphatha's openinng statement

It's fun to play devil's advocate by questioning our most fundamental assumptions about reality. We speculate with our friends on whether any of this is real. Maybe we're all dreaming. Maybe we're all parasites in a giant goat's stomach. We don't usually take these things seriously, though. They're just fun games we play.

Nothing is more practical than a debate over the nature of morality, because our sense of morality guides our daily lives. It determines whether we choose to live as a Hitler or a Gandhi, so we cannot afford to play games with ourselves when it comes to morality. We must be honest with ourselves in our search for truth.

In this debate, we want to know whether (1) objective moral values exist, or (2) Morality is subjective.

There are two kinds of statements. Objective statements refer to objects independent of the perceiver. The statement, “Carrots are vegetables,” is an objective claim because it's about the objects, carrots. An objective claim can be either true or false, but it has nothing to do with our beliefs about it. The earth was round even when everybody thought it was flat.

Subjective statements refer to the subject making the statement. The statement, “Carrots taste good,” is a subjective statement because the statement is about the tastes of the subject making the claim. It can be true for one person and false for another. One person thinks carrots taste good, and another thinks carrots taste bad. Neither is wrong because they're expressing their own subjective preferences.

Moral objectivists and subjectivists both make moral claims, but they each mean something different by them. When moral subjectivists say, “Rape is wrong,” they're not actually referring to rape. They're referring to their own feelings about rape. They find it objectionable. But there's nothing wrong about rape itself. One person approves of rape, and another condemns it, but there's no objective truth to the matter. Moral subjectivism is a form of moral non-realism because subjectivists believe that morality only exists in your mind.

When a moral objectivist says “Rape is wrong,” he's not talking about his personal preferences, but about the act of rape itself. He may like rape and still think it's wrong.

Most find rape objectionable. The question you should ask yourself is what you mean when you object to it. When you say, “Rape is wrong,” are you reporting autobiography—that you don't like rape? Are you just describing your personal preferences? Or are you talking about the act of rape itself? If you're talking about the act itself, then you're a moral objectivist.

Suppose somebody says, “Rape is virtuous.” Would you say, “Different stroke for different folks”? Or would you think that person was mistaken? If you think he's mistaken, then you're a moral objectivist. The only way to be mistaken is if there is some objective truth to the matter.

I aim to demonstrate that most of us believe in objective morality (even those who claim they don't), and then demonstrate that our belief is rational. Morality cannot be proved or disproved, so I'll argue that it's more reasonable to believe in morality than not to.

There are five reasons I think we all believe in morality:

First, we all judge others. Judging involves measuring others by some standard. If morals are merely subjective, then these standards don't actually apply to other people. The fact that we apply them to other people shows that we don't think our standards are merely subjective. We think they're objective, because they can only apply to other people if they're objective. We judge ourselves, too. Sometimes, we're proud of ourselves, and other times we're ashamed of ourselves.

Second, whenever we're accused of wrongdoing, we hardly ever defend ourselves by rejecting the reality of the standard we're being judged by. Instead, we make excuses. If our lying spared somebody pain, for example, we feel justified. That shows not only that we believe lying is wrong, but that we think it's right to avoid hurting others.

Third, moral reasoning is often difficult. It's hard to tell when avoiding grief in others justifies us in lying. Moral reasoning is only difficult if there's a correct answer, because then you have to go through the difficulty of discovering it. If there is no right answer, then decision making wouldn't be hard at all, because we can't go wrong.

Fourth, moral relativists are rarely consistent. They frequently assert moral values even while denying their existence. They say, “Everybody decides morality for themselves, so you shouldn't force your morality on others.” They're saying morality is relative to individuals while also saying it's wrong to push your morality on others. Within one sentence, they've contradicted themselves. Often the strong belief in the virtue of tolerance drives people to reject objective morality. They think it's wrong to judge other people and cultures. To avoid judging them, they say morality is relative, so nobody is better or worse than anybody else. They think tolerance is a real virtue that everybody ought to adopt. In Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch, Walsch records a supposed conversation between himself and God who continuously repeated that there is no right or wrong. However, as nihilistic as “God” seemed to be, she continuously made objective moral assertions. She had an impossible time being consistent with the view that there are no objective moral values. (See morality subheading.) Sociopaths are the only consistent moral relativists. The inconsistency of moral relativists doesn't show that they are wrong, but it does show that they don't actually believe what they claim.

Fifth, we find moral non-realism to be counter-intuitive. Here are some counter-intuitive implications of cultural relativism and individual subjectivism:

Cultural relativism:

No culture is better than any other culture. Nazi Germany was no worse or better than our own.

Laws cannot be immoral or unjust because the laws for any society would be moral by definition.

No society can improve morally. The abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement did not improve American society; it only changed it.

Moral reformers, such as Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and William Wilberforce, who led the abolitionist movement in the UK, were immoral because they went against the morals of their society and tried to change them. Contrary to being moral heroes, they were immoral villains because they went against the status quo.

Cultural relativism is self-refuting because it assumes a transcendent moral value that applies universally to all cultures—that you ought to act consistently with your culture's moral views.

Individual subjectivism:

You have no objective basis with which to criticize other people. Statements like, “Jim is a scoundrel,” reduce to “I don't like Jim.”

You can't accept praise or place blame. Since there's no good, bad, right or wrong, nobody deserves congratulations or criticism.

Nobody can improve their character since improvement implies an objective standard that one gets closer to as they improve.

Moral debate is meaningless since debating assumes that there's a right answer. Arguing over whose morality is correct is just as meaningless as arguing over whether or not broccoli tastes good.

Nobody is obligated to be tolerant of anybody else.

Some things seem so clearly wrong that to deny it seems crazy, yet that's what a moral non-realist must do. It's wrong to torture young children just for mere pleasure. But if we deny any objective moral values, then it isn't wrong at all.


We all perceive a world around us. There are two possible ways to understand our perceptions. Either they correspond to things that exist, or they're just illusions. Although both options are possible, our minds strongly prefer one option over the other. Our minds almost force us to believe the external world exists. If the external world doesn't exist, then our minds are deluding us.

It's the same with morality. We all perceive that there's a difference between right and wrong. There are two possible ways to understand our perceptions. Either they correspond to reality, or they're just illusions. Although both options are possible, our minds strongly prefer one option over the other. Our minds almost force us to believe in objective moral values. If there are no objective moral values, then our minds are deluding us.

Since the same cognitive faculties tell us both about the external world and about morality, if we doubt one, we must doubt the other. If objective moral values don't exist, then our cognitive faculties are faulty. And if they're faulty, then we can't trust them when they tell us that the external world exists. So doubting morality throws the external world into doubt.

Although it's possible that the external world is an illusion, it's not reasonable to believe. The only way it can be more reasonable to believe in the external world than not is if we assume our cognitive faculties aren't faulty. If we assume they aren't faulty, then it's also more reasonable to believe in objective moral values than to deny them.


Part 2