Sunday, March 08, 2009

Morality debate, part 7 of 11

Weirdbrake's assessment


First, I want to say that I think both of you did a spectacular job in this debate. I'm impressed by how rigorous your arguments were, how articulate and persuasive you both were in your writing, and most importantly, how you both managed to remain relatively civil to each other while debating opposite sides of an extraordinarily hot-button philosophical issue. This is all extremely difficult, and I applaud you both.


In evaluating the winner of this debate, I decided to judge it per round. I would judge a winner of Rounds 1, 2, and 3. And whoever won two out of three rounds would be the winner of the debate.

In judging who the winner of each round was, I looked only at your arguments. Eph (hope you won't mind if I refer to you as Eph throughout this post) set the stage for this debate in his first post in Round 1. He said he'd be arguing that OM (objective morality) was more reasonable than not to believe in. Therefore, in judging Eph, I only looked at all the substantive perspectives, insights, reasons, etc. that he provided in support of his main assertion that belief in OM is more reasonable than not (and also his counter-arguments against stuff that cheetah said). In judging cheetah, I did the same thing, only in the opposite direction-- stuff she said that would support the idea that belief in OM is LESS reasonable than not (or counter arguments against stuff that Eph said).

I deliberately ignored stuff like writing quality (because it wouldn't be fair; this debate is about the quality of the ideas and arguments, and I didn't want to get hung up on writing style; plus, you both write excellently). And I also deliberately ignored any insights or arguments-- however intelligent-- that were outside the scope of the debate.

Both of you seemed to have a bit of trouble with that. You both got hung up on things that I didn't think were relevant to the debate. In particular, both of you seemed to get hung up on the distinction between individual subjectivism and cultural relativism. I didn't care about that. I wanted to know what made OM more or less reasonable to believe in. If it's less reasonable, then the default belief is probably some form of subjectivism, either cultural or individual. But I didn't really think it needed the discussion that both of you gave to it.

Eph... my main criticism is that you spent way too much time overstating points that you already made. You had a tendency to "beat a dead horse" on certain things, particularly the Nazi references. I know Nazi references are the inevitable side dishes to the feasts of moral debate, but this was overkill. You spent too much time exploring every unwholesome permutation that moral subjectivism/relativism could lead to, and unfortunately, I couldn't give you credit for repetition.

Cheetah... my main criticism was similar but opposite. You also had a tendency to overstate your points, but for you, it was more the "But I'm a nice person!" syndrome. It was as though you wanted to defend yourself as still a nice person against Eph's assertion that rejection of OM belief leads to nihilistic evil. So you spent a fair amount of wordspace talking about how nice, sweet values can still be imposed under subjectivism. This isn't relevant to the issue of whether OM is more reasonable to believe in than not. Even if nice, sweet values CANNOT exist under subjectivism, OM could still be less reasonable to believe in. And even if nice, sweet values COULD exist under subjectivism, OM could still be more reasonable to believe in.

For the record, I think Cheetah is nice, I think Eph is nice, and I have no doubt that all three of us share the same sentiments toward the Holocaust.


Eph provided what are essentially four arguments that fit together logically to form one huge argument in support of his ultimate position that OM is more reasonable to believe in than not.

Arg. 1: Most of us believe in OM because we act in ways that imply a belief in OM. And also, most of us believe in OM because we intuitively DISAGREE with the logical implications of subjectivism.

Arg. 2: Therefore, because our minds implicitly accept the objective nature of morality and implicitly reject the subjective nature of morality, our belief in OM is thus analogous to our belief in the external world (whose existence we also implicitly accept).

Arg. 3: And therefore, if our belief in OM is analogous to our belief in the external world, then we must give equal credibility to our cognitive faculties which provide us with both beliefs.

Arg. 4: And therefore, given that it is more reasonable to believe in the external world than not, it is thus similarly more reasonable to believe in OM.

I thought this was a well-crafted, sophisticated, and highly rigorous argument. I liked your reasons in support of Arg. 1 (though you went on a little too long and beat it to death; notice how only your last four paragraphs under "Conclusion" dealt with Arg. 2, 3, and 4.). I LOVED your insight about how moral debate implies a correct answer. I think you made good points.

At the end, you seemed to mention something about "assuming our cognitive faculties aren't faculty"-- and I think you did this to argue that believing in the external world was more reasonable than not. I didn't think that was necessary. I grant that the external world is more reasonable to believe in than not, and since cheetah never contested the point, I take it she conceded it as well.

I was, however, troubled by a missing premise. Specifically, "If we can reasonably rely on our cognitive faculties for one thing, it's equally reasonable to rely on them for other things." Or, put more generally, "Something we can rely on for one thing is equally reliable for other things." Maybe you should have added some support for that idea-- maybe by talking in a little more depth about how our five senses, despite how different they each are, nonetheless act consistently to give us a coherent experience of reality. And then maybe drawing an analogy between the different-but-consistent reliable senses and the "moral sense" our mind has. Thus demonstrating that our minds' different functions were equally reliable (otherwise, I'm asking myself, "Why should we assume our cognitive faculties will be equally reliable when OM is such a different form of belief than is belief in the external world?").

I think you were on the right track, but I think you needed to explain that part of it a little more deeply.


Your main counter-argument was that there are more down-to-earth biological, psychological, and social explanations for our implicit agreement on certain moral norms. This attacks Eph's assertion that our belief in OM signals the actual existence of OM, comparable to the way our belief in the external world signals an actual external world. Obviously, if your alternative biopsychosocial explanation holds true, then belief in OM is a mere "social construction" and Eph is not correct in saying that belief in OM is more reasonable than not.

This is a decent argument against Eph's position. But my problem was that you didn't clearly distinguish between our belief in OM and our belief in the external world. Eph's main argument is his comparison of our belief in OM (which he's arguing is more reasonable than not) to our belief in the external world (which we already agree is more reasonable than not). I was waiting for you to attack this comparison. I wanted you to say that there were more down-to-earth bio/psycho/social explanations for our belief in OM... AND THIS IS WHY IT'S DIFFERENT THAN OUR BELIEF IN THE EXTERNAL WORLD. But you never did that.

I wanted you to perhaps say things like, "Unlike our belief in the external world-- which stems from raw sensory input-- there are REASONS (bio/psych/social) for the CONSTRUCTION of moral beliefs, independent of their actual, objective reality." I wanted you to say things like, "Unlike our implicit belief in the physical world-- which is almost totally consistent for everyone but a few psychotics-- there is widespread disagreement on moral norms." These would be possibly good ways to dis-analogize. Maybe you would have thought of your own ways. But I had a problem with the fact that you didn't dis-analogize at all. I thought it was an omission.

When you say, "But, saying something should be done begs the question, why should it be done?" in that second paragraph above your Objectivity heading, it's not a good counter-argument. In that paragraph, as Eph correctly points out in his Round 2 post, you are essentially saying, "Why should one be moral?" which is tantamount to asking the meaningless tautology, "What should one do what one should do?" It does nothing to advance your position that belief in OM is less reasonable than not.

As far as the points you made under your Objectivity heading were concerned, I was on the fence as to whether those were good arguments or not. On the one hand, the questions of where OM originates or how we know it (as Eph later points out) are irrelevant to whether it ACTUALLY exists or not and is more reasonable to believe in. On the other hand, you seemed to be making an underlying point which I felt did have some merit. That is, "Why should we believe in OM if we can't establish WHAT it is?" You made a good point about OM not being like a tree, whose existence you can check on and readily ascertain and describe.

This is a good point. I remember in my philosophy classes, this type of point came up regarding that mother of all philosophical entities: God. The problem was essentially this: Why is it reasonable to believe in God when you then go on to say that God is "totally beyond our understanding"? Isn't that like saying, "I believe in a geedonk. I can't tell you what it is, I can't describe it for you, but I expect you to believe in it nonetheless."

You also seemed to argue that widespread disagreement on moral norms raises the question, What does it even mean to say that "most people" believe in OM? I interpreted this as an attack on Eph's Arg. 1. This was also a decent point, though not as clearly articulated as it could be. You should have spelled it out more directly.

I had a major problem with your dialogue that attempted to show the circularity of the belief in OM. Again, the crux of Eph's argument is his comparison of belief in OM to the belief in the external world. So while I'm looking at your dialogue, I'm plugging in Eph's comparison to see how well it fits.

Q: What is the external world, objectively?

A: It is X.

Q: How do you know?

A: We experience it in our minds.

Q: But psychotics and schizophrenics experience it otherwise!

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 experience in our mind that X is the external world.

Does this now mean that our beliefs about the external world are circular, too? Doesn't seem so by the dialogue. And if plugging the external world idea into your dialogue doesn't show circularity, then the dialogue fails to show why belief in OM is similarly circular (given that Eph is comparing belief in OM to the belief in the external world).

In conclusion, and in judging only Round 1, I think that Eph made four fairly rigorous and creative arguments in support of his position that belief in OM is more reasonable than not. And they fit together logically. Cheetah, on the other hand, made some decent points but also some bad ones, and she did not sufficiently attack the main argument that Eph was making-- the analogy to the external world.

I therefore judge Eph to be the winner of Round 1.

Part 8

1 comment:

Psiomniac said...

Firm but fair....