Wednesday, November 28, 2012

my moral epistemology

STR Place used to have this deal where every Tuesday they'd post a challenge that Christians (mostly young Christians) could attempt to answer, then the following Thursday (ideally, but not actually in every case), Brett Kunkle would respond to the challenge and say what he thought of everybody else's responses.

One day, Amy Hall posted a challenge about how intuition can't prove objective moral values. The challenge came from a fellow named "Doubting Eric" who originally brought up the challenge on Twitter. Brett came along a few days later and posted his response to the challenge.

Doubting Eric and I discussed the topic in the comment section, and I just wanted to post one of my comments here because it explains some of my moral epistemology.


Doubting Eric,

Thanks for your response. In the interest of making this conversation manageable, I’m going to try to keep my response short.

First let me so that of course I don’t take your disagreement with my view as a personal attack on me. That goes without saying, and I’m sure you don’t take my challenges to you to be personal attacks either. We’re debating our disagreements on the nature of morality, and that’s it.

This is all not part of the objection I made that started this whole discussion, so I don’t want to argue about how inconsistent I might be living as an atheist.

The reason I asked you all those questions about your post on homosexuality is because I think the things you said there revealed that even though you deny the existence of objective morals, you still perceive them as if they were objective. They at least APPEAR objective to you. I think that in unguarded moments, when the subject is not the existence of objective morals, you do believe in them. Your statements make no sense unless you do. For example, you hold other people to them. You expect other people to know about them and to live by them, and when they don’t, you behave as if those people have done something they ought not to have done. You think the morals you perceive actually apply to other people. But if they are merely subjective, then they do NOT apply to other people. So even though you deny that morals are objective, they at least APPEAR objective to you.

I think you are just like a person who, although they perceive an external world that appears to be real, they nevertheless think it’s all in their head. A person who denies the existence of the external world does not stop perceiving it as if it were real. They just deny that what appears to be so really IS so.

“Why should I think our moral sense is a source of a priori knowledge?”

Yes, that is the central question in this discussion. Let me explain in a little more detail why I think our moral perceptions belong in our a priori foundation of knowledge.

All a priori knowledge is knowledge we have that isn’t derived from anything else. We don’t infer it from other knowledge we have. Rather, we know it simply by reflecting inward and grasping it or “seeing” it.

But there are three kinds of a priori knowledge…

1. Things we know because of our first person awareness.

If you think of a number between one and ten, you know immediately what number you’re thinking of just because you’re thinking of it. You don’t need evidence to tell you what number you’re thinking of because you know it directly. You know that you’re thinking, feeling, and perceiving, and you know what you’re thinking, feeling, and perceiving simply because you have first person private access to the content of your own mind.

2. Things we know because they are rationally grasped.

The previous category included things we know about the content of our own minds. But this category includes what we know about reality outside of our minds. These include math, geometry, and the laws of logic. We know that 2 + 2 = 4. We know that if straight lines intersect, the opposite angles must be equal. We know that if two propositions contradict each other, they can’t both be true at the same time and in the same sense. The laws of logic are the basis upon which everything else is proved, so the laws themselves can’t be proved. To attempt proving them would be to engage in circular reasoning. But to understand them is to believe them. Likewise, with geometry, you can simply reflect on something and know with certainty that it’s true. You don’t have to test anything to discover that opposite angles of intersecting lines are equal. You don’t have to get a bunch of examples, measure each one, and discover there’s a high probability that it’s true in every case. You can just “see” that it’s universally true merely by reflecting on it and rationally grasping it. The same is true with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

3. Things we know because that’s just the way a normally functioning mind works.

There are many things that go in this category, including the uniformity of nature, that our senses give us true information about the external world, that our memories give us true information about the past, that there are other minds, that ought implies can, that you have an enduring self, that Ockham’s razor is a valid thumb rule, that time exists, and that causation exists. None of these things can be proved. If you’re familiar with David Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, you’ll know why. Take the uniformity of nature, for example. The uniformity of nature is what tells you that the future will resemble the past or that experience can tell you what the world is like. It’s what allows you to engage in inductive reasoning. It’s what allows you to learn from experience. It’s what allows you to calculate probabilities. It’s what allows you to extrapolate from what you observe to what you don’t observe. The entire scientific method depends on this principle. It’s why testing things in the lab have relevance to the way the world works outside the lab. But it can’t be proved. If you appeal to past experience to say that since it’s always worked in the past that it must be the way things really are or that we should expect it to continue to work in the future, you are begging the question since you’re using the principle to justify the principle.

What all three of these categories have in common is that they are a priori. 1 differs from 2 and 3 in the fact that it’s knowledge about the self whereas 2 and 3 are knowledge about reality outside the self. 3 differs from 1 and 2 in that it’s possible to be wrong about the items in 3, but it’s not possible to be wrong about the items in 1 and 2.

I believe morality goes in the third category because it shares certain properties in common with the items in 3, which properties are the very reason they go in that category. Those properties include:

a. None of them can be proved.
b. It’s possible to be wrong about each of them.
c. Every normally functioning mind apprehends them.
d. It’s prima facie unreasonable to deny them.

All four of these things are true about morality. Morality cannot be proved. It’s possible that there are no objective morals, even though we perceive them. Every normal person perceives them (which is why we consider sociopathy to be a mental illness). It’s prima facie unreasonable to deny them, which is evident in the fact that we all find it counter-intuitive to deny them and none of us can live consistently with the belief that they aren’t real.

Now let me respond to some of your objections.

However, since we can’t test a priori knowledge against anything to see if it is true, it could actually be untrue.

If you’ve followed me so far, you can see that this statement is true in the case of the third category of a priori knowledge, but it’s not true in the case of the first two categories. For example, it is possible that I could be wrong in thinking I’ve got a computer on my lap (I could be dreaming or plugged into the Matrix), but it’s not possible for me to be wrong that I’m at least perceiving what I take to be a computer in my lap. It is possible that I just now came into existence and all the memories of what appears to be a past that actually happened were merely built in when I came into existence. But it is not possible for the law of non-contradiction to be true.

I’ve granted that it’s possible our belief in morality is wrong. But the mere possibility of being wrong doesn’t make it a reasonable thing to deny. After all, the mere possibility that my sensory perceptions are all in my head doesn’t make it reasonable to believe there’s no external world. The mere possibility of solipsism doesn’t make solipsism reasonable. Now, I think it’s unreasonable to deny the existence of objective morality. I think we should assume the world is just as it appears to be unless we have good reason to deny that it is. This is just common sense realism. If it looks like there’s a difference between right and wrong, then you should assume there is a difference between right and wrong unless you have good reason to think otherwise. Mere possibility isn’t sufficient reason for doubt.

I want to know why I should think that moral intuition is a sort of knowledge that cannot be questioned.

I’m not saying it’s knowledge that can’t be questioned. While we can be certain about the items in 1 and 2, it’s at least possible that we’re wrong about the items in 3. What I’m saying is that it’s more reasonable to affirm them than to deny them.

Is it a source of reliable knowledge?

Yes. All of the items in category 3 are known in the same way. If you doubt one, you bring the others into question since to doubt them is to doubt the reliability of that particular way of knowing. So if you doubt morality, you throw the external world into doubt. If it’s reasonable to believe in the external world, then it’s just as reasonable to believe in morality.

Concerning the external world, you said we can justify it because we have independent attestation from our various senses. Our sense of sight, smell, feel, hearing, and taste all tell us the same thing. But that won’t do because all of these perceptions are perceptions of one and the same mind. Your perceptions agree just as much when you’re asleep as they do when you’re awake. And they would agree just as much if you were plugged into the Matrix. The are not actually independent of each other since they are all products of the same mind. All that follows from the fact that they agree with each other is that your mind is consistent.

Can the law of non-contradiction be tested independently? No, it needs itself for the idea of “testing” to have any meaning.

I hope you don’t doubt the law of non-contradiction just because it can’t be tested. I think that you not only know the law of non-contradiction is true, but you know it with such absolute certainty that it’s not even possible for you to be wrong about it.

That’s about all I have to say.


Ben Wallis said...


Interesting post.

Recall that moral values are said to be objective when they exist independently of human opinion. But subjective morals need not be independent of collective human opinion. So for example, human beings collectively agree on the rules of chess, even though those rules are the product of the opinions of their human developers. When two people sit down to a game of chess, they naturally expect each other to follow those rules. When a rule is broken, they react negatively. However these expectations and reactions hardly imply that the rules appear to be objective in the sense of having independence from human opinion. We all understand that chess is a human creation, and that once upon a time its rules were decided by human preference. But we also understand that, in order for the game to work, we have to agree to play by the same rules.

Of course, morality is much more than just a game. But nevertheless I think the analogy is appropriate here. You correctly note that we expect (to some extent) others to behave morally. But such behavior we would expect regardless of whether morality was objective. All we need in order to have that expectation is the past experience of seeing people behave morally on a regular basis. In other words, if people tend to behave morally, then it follows via induction that people will continue to behave morally, quite apart from whether or not it has some kind of nonhuman origin. The inductive inference to future behavior doesn't depend on the ultimate origin of morality.

Nor is it the case that one who reacts negatively to immorality is behaving "as if" morality is objective. I don't need morality to be objective in order to want to stamp out immoral behavior. It could be that morality has its origin in human opinion, but that nevertheless I refuse to tolerate immorality.

You claim that, if morality really is subjective, then the morality perceived by some agent A won't apply to a different agent B. But how does that follow? Why shouldn't agent A hold agent B accountable to the moral code he prefers? If that's what agent A wants to do, and if it doesn't violate his own moral code, then what is to stop him from doing it?

Sam Harper said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree with most of what you said. Games like chess work by something similar to social contract. The players agree amongst themselves to operate by certain rules, and they hold each other to those rules. Morality can be relative in the same way if we consider life to be analogous to the game. But just as nobody is obligated to partipate in chess, and just as there are no transcendent rules that force a person to agree to the rules of chess, so also would there not be any transcendent rules that obligate people to keep their social contract or to play by society's rules at all. All of this is perfectly consistent with moral relativism.

I'm using "relativism" here instead of "subjectivism," since subjectivism is usually used in the context of individuals, whereas relativism is usually used in the context of groups.

Where I disagree is when you said, "Nor is it the case that one who reacts negatively to immorality is behaving 'as if' morality is objective." Holding somebody to the rules of a game is not the same thing as behaving as if those rules were objective. People often do talk and behave as if morality were not merely a social contract, but an obligation everybody has to abide by whether they've agreed to any social contract or not. In the discussion that gave rise to this blog post, I went through some of the things Doubting Eric had said in one of his blog posts that I thought showed he thought morality was objective, and not merely an implicitly agreed upon set of social conventions.

Also, I reviewed a book that also claimed morality was not objective, and I showed how the author contradicted himself throughout the book on that issue.

I also participated in a debate on morality in which I gave five reasons that I think show people believe in objective morality (or at least percieve it as if it were objective). Some of these you may be able to fit into a social contract theory, but I doubt that social contract explains why people think and behave in these ways. Like games, social contracts are only operative when people have agreed to play by them. Unless there is some obligation to play chess, there is no recourse for dealing with a person who says he just doesn't want to play. In the same way, if there are no transcendent moral obligations that stands outside of social contracts, there is no obligation to play by the rules of the social contract. But we all behave as if there were. We behave as if morality is an obligation that people cannot get out of simply by opting out.

You claim that, if morality really is subjective, then the morality perceived by some agent A won't apply to a different agent B. But how does that follow?

By the nature of being subjective, morality is only a perception. It's only something that goes on inside somebody's head. One person is not obligated to live consistently with what goes on in somebody else's head just because it's going on in that person's head. After all, two people may feel differently. Maybe you think we should help old people and another person thinks we should put them on ice bergs and float them out to sea. If another person's subjective feelings about morals carried with it an obligation that extended to other people, then you'd be obligated to float old people out to sea, and they'd be obligated to help them.

Sam Harper said...

The only way there can be a right answer to the question of whether we should help old people or float them out to sea on ice bergs is if there is some standard of behavior that exists independently of the subjective preferences of you and the other person.

Anon said...

For Sam or anyone interested, there was a recent segment on 60 minutes on a related topic on how babies seem to have morality hardwired at an early age: